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The Listening

Chapter Text

A tattered journal lay open on an old, wooden desk. The fresh ink on the paper bled and dried in the still air. Inches away, a man stared into a mirror, inhaling until his chest ached and burned. He’d grown skinnier in the past year, less muscular, more reclusive. He let out a long breath and raked a hand through his hair, his calloused fingers getting lost in the wavy wisps.

Shadows fell on and in between the numerous shelved books of the study, containing pieces of history hidden among fictional sentences of far-away fantasies. They fled from the dim, yellow bulb of an ornate lamp, an action he wished he could follow. To hide away in the shadows and disappear from the world…

He could only imagine such ease.

Out the spotless arched window he turned his gaze, a longing within. A serene snow fell with the setting sun, flakes floating gently to the ground and joining the masses. Milky light slipped through and mixed with the sky’s oranges, pinks, and purples. It was the majesty of his home, the majesty of Arcadia Bay.

In the circular drive below, a blemish in the interminable white caught his attention, a figure. He smiled as the young girl jumped into thick piles of snow by the giant, barren oak. Looking like a swollen grape, she was covered in layer upon layer of various purple clothes, including a new pair of snow pants from him as a birthday present. He gifted them to her early, loving the smile they brought to her face. It reminded him of his own childhood, when he would laugh and play in the same manner, all before the shadow of his family’s name blocked out that frivolous sun. All too soon.

The room was warm, but he suddenly felt frigid. The looming presence of the Prescott Estate always had that effect. Cold marble, cold metal, cold glass—all encasing and cryogenic. Winter had nothing to do with it. The study was once a welcoming sanctuary for him. Not anymore.

He sighed and turned back to the desk, allowing his eye to capture his haphazard handwriting. Numerous spirals glazed the corners of the paper. And that was just the paper. The canvas had their own bloodshed of insanity. And those left within? He lost count with how many overlapped in his aching head, lost count of the nights he woke up screaming and covered in sweat. He closed his eyes and swallowed, the hairs on his neck at attention.

With his adverse thoughts, his hands and knees began to shake, and his heart thumped in his chest. There was too much to take in, too much to handle in one lifetime. Everything was fragile. The slightest fumble from a wrongful sleight of hand, and the foundation of his family—perhaps this entire world—would shatter.

Then again, maybe this was how it was supposed to be. Maybe this was how he was supposed to bring about real change. He stood there, still, with naught a pulse of true feeling within his unrest. There was a time when he wondered where his spark was going, where it had gone.

Now, for Joseph Prescott, it didn’t matter anymore.

Now, he just accepted the darkness.

A few knocks at the door interrupted his train of thought. It was followed by a muffled, soft voice, “Joseph? Are you still in here? It’s been hours now. Your grandfather’s been looking for you.”

Squeezing his eyes shut, the Prescott murmured, “He usually is.” He then added louder, “Thanks, Susan.”

The woman opened the heavy wooden door. It let out a groan with the slowness of her entry, and her voice became clearer. “Mm. Sean and Lorraine have something to announce to everyone as well. And Kristine’s been biting at the bit to spend some time with you,” she paused to chuckle, “saying you’re going to give her some tips on coloring with her new pencil set.” Another pause was followed by light sigh. “I won’t be surprised if she heads straight to bed after romping around in the snow all afternoon!”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, he could hear the mirth in her voice, and for a moment, it made him feel the same. “I’ll make sure to be down soon.”

Her hopeful smile began to wane. “Okay. See you in a bit?”

Joseph continued to face the window that framed his frail, flinching silhouette. Dust particles floated toward the open space, carried across the smooth wooded floor. It swirled and gathered around their shoes in the light.

When he didn’t answer right away, she whispered, “I love you.”

There was a long, tiring silence between them. A rope going slack by the second.

“I love you, too.”

He didn’t turn around.

Her lips rounded out and her smile dulled. Without another word, the door latched shut, and Joseph returned to the desk. The yellow light flickered and hummed as he took his pen and scribbled out a few more sentences. The scratching was like the crack of thunder forever echoing in his nightmares.

He took in a long, strained breath, closed his eyes, and switched off the lamp as the foyer’s grandfather clock struck its hourly chord.

Like always, he just accepted the darkness.

This time, for good.



Vmm! Vmm! Vmm!

Max Caulfield lay in her small bed, slowly slipping out of a clouded, distant dream. Her body stretched across the pink sheets, and her pale, thin figure followed. She bent her knees to make her feet flat reaching over to stop her cell phone’s vibrating alarm. The lack of a good night’s sleep initiated the start of a migraine to make its way across her freckled cheeks to her temples.

The girl sighed and brought her arms over her eyes. It was a poor attempt at blocking the blazing sun that lashed through her dorm windows. Max moved her limbs little by little to adjust her pupils to the natural light. Her vision sorted itself out after a few blinks, and she rolled her blue eyes to the blanched ceiling, marveling the golden glow that got trapped in some of its poor caulking. They flowed down the walls like shimmering droplets of water.

Max sat up and cleared her throat. She then threw her legs over the bed to meet the cold, thin carpet below. The chill pricked at her toes and she shivered. She rolled her shoulders and scratched an itch through her short, brown bob. Looking past her pallid legs, her vision fell to the carpet below. It, too, shimmered with golden flecks from the sun. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, it said beneath her feet.

Her shoulder pack sat slumped against her boxy, green side stand. Max opened it, threw her pencil case on the bed, rummaged past dozens of stray papers and books—including her prized journal—and took out her instant camera.

She beamed, fiddling with the instrument for a moment before standing up on shaky legs. After a light stretch, Max took position in a stream of morning light, allowing the warmth to wash over the goosebumps forming on her exposed limbs. The glittering cracks seemed to perfectly frame the numerous photos posted on her wall. The autumn backdrop was impeccable for another ‘selfie’ to add to her collection. With composition intact and with the click of a button, her camera spit out a new picture, the familiar procession whirr a sound of comfort to the teen.

Satisfied, Max put the camera on the bed and shook the little Polaroid before setting it next to her phone to fully develop. A glance in the mirror on her wall confirmed that she looked more than tousled. Hopefully, when the picture cleared up, she wouldn’t look too horrific. Max exhaled sharply with another smile before sauntering over to her hi-fi and switching on some soothing acoustic music. That gave her a small reminder to practice on her guitar sometime that century, giving the lonely instrument a glance as it leaned against her futon.

Her mind retreated to meditate over her freckled reflection and more of her mirrored décor. Numerous Polaroids, posters, and other knick-knacks were pinned up and strewn about along with a couple potted plants—one of which she was most fond christened ‘Lisa.’ It was a mix of vintage and modern. It was also now her home away from home.

She couldn’t believe how the past month had flown by. She had made it into Blackwell Academy! The Blackwell Academy! It was heralded as one of the most prestigious and private high schools for the arts and sciences on the west coast. This was the place to be if one was to leave an impression on future college applications. To make things even better, it was in Max’s hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. She smiled, reminiscing on past times spent in the bustling fishing town. Times with her mother and father, times on her own little adventures, and times with…

Max paused, a guilt-ridden breath hitching in her throat. Time had stopped, then sped up and gave her a harsh blow to the stomach.

“Chloe,” she sighed, placing a hand on her head. She leaned forward in a halfhearted attempt to hide herself from the sunlight, like it was suddenly judging her under its fiery glow.

Chloe Price.

The best friend she left behind when she moved to Seattle five years ago.
The best friend she hadn’t contacted whatsoever in those five years she was away.
The best friend she wasn’t even sure was her best friend anymore.

And she had only herself to blame.

There were no good excuses on her part, especially since she had already been in Arcadia Bay, at Blackwell, for a full month. It wasn’t like she didn’t care about Chloe anymore, or that they had a horrible falling out when she left. No. Max purely felt like she had lost touch with her for so long that she wasn’t sure how to bridge the gap between them.

That is, if Chloe even wanted anything to do with her after all that lost time.

Max cradled her head and rubbed her eyes with her fingertips, stretching parts of her face with different octaves of groans. Self-doubt and frustration overtook her for the umpteenth time. It certainly wasn’t the first time she thought about Chloe, but every time memories of her former best friend slunk their way into her mind, she hated herself more and more. Should she call her? Shoot a text? Hell, was her phone number even the same? Max let out a disgusted grunt and let her arms hang to her sides.

An angry cry of frustration from the hall derailed the teen’s train of thought. The familiar and unwelcoming voice was unceremonious, so much that it seeped through Max’s door with ease. Another disgusted groan left her. On top of personal problems hunting her positivity to extinction, there was the everyday drama that came with high school. Homework and tough teachers were only a couple things, but then there was…

“I specifically told you I needed that paper today! Do you have it or not?”

Victoria Chase.

‘’Nuff said,’ Max smugly thought to herself.

“N-not yet, Victoria, but no worries! It’s almost done! Swear!” Another stuttering, muffled voice made its way to Max’s ears. Courtney Wagner’s to be precise. One of Victoria’s friends. Max hummed to herself at the thought; maybe ‘friends’ was putting it too nicely.

“Fucking Christ.” Victoria cursed. Then came a pause and an exhale teemed with exhaustion. “Get it to me before class this afternoon, or you can forget about borrowing one of my skirts for Thursday!” With that, Victoria slammed her door, the girls’ set of footsteps marching toward the dorm’s stairwell, Courtney’s frantic voice in tow. Their bickering continued and faded down the hall.

Max pursed her lips. She couldn’t believe Victoria. Friends? More like her personal slaves. There was certainly a lot she could say about Victoria Chase—the majority negative.

She waved that drama to the side for a moment and thought about Chloe again. She wondered if Chloe had made any other friends in Arcadia Bay while she was away. The very idea caused a pang of sadness to surface, but Max thought she didn’t have the right to feel bad. She was the one who left the bay in the first place. And then to not stay in contact? It was her own fault she was in her current situation.

As for Max, she had gotten to know a small number of classmates with her recent transfer to Blackwell. Unfortunately, some of them weren’t willing to be friends. And, unfortunately, she had become a target for just about every bully at Blackwell. Like bullet points on a fancy presentation, the list went on: ‘Waif hipster.’ ‘Selfie whore.’ ‘Too shy to be relevant.’ ‘Woe is Max.’ And then some. She chose to ignore it the best she could, but it was difficult. It was Victoria who pinned most of the targets on her, and her minions followed suit with their jeers and sneers.

Though, deep down, Max thought she deserved a portion of the hate. She was accepted on a photography scholarship to Blackwell Academy with a portfolio mostly filled with old-fashioned, instamatic photographs and her own headshots. The worst part of it all was that the other students in the photography program, Victoria included, had incredibly impressive work. Work that made her second-guess herself on numerous occasions in the short time frame she had been at the acclaimed academy.

She also felt her personal image was lacking, and her fashion sense had been long abandoned, if it was ever discovered in the first place. With her skull-print canvas shoes, simple and faded jeans, graphic print tees, and bland zip-up hoodies, she always felt underdressed to un-impress. Next to Victoria’s posh Gucci, Viton, Prada, etcetera wardrobe, luxurious jewelry, perfect porcelain skin, and impeccable golden blonde pixie cut, Max felt like a hot mess…or a cold, boring mess.

She shook herself out of that mind set. She couldn’t let it overtake her. Though, the more Max told herself that, the more it all forced itself to the front of her brain, like a vicious circle.

Standing up once again, she began to rummage through her closet with fleeting thoughts of the ‘Queen Bee of Blackwell.’ Courtney Wagner and Taylor Christensen, Victoria’s right and left hand girls, were beauty queens in their own right—Courtney with her symmetrical, dark brown bob and passion for style, and Taylor with wavy, bleach-blonde locks rocking her take-no-shit attitude for miles in her denim shorts and jacket. It was too bad Victoria treated them like dirt. At least what she’d seen and heard most of the time.

Max continued her search for some decent clothes. ‘No…no…not happening…ugh! Why do I still have this stupid shirt?’ Max inquired to herself with disdain. ‘Maybe I should have burned all my stuff and started over.’

She recalled writing the idea down in her journal before moving to the dorms. However, logic had dictated over intuition that day. She certainly wasn’t bathing in enough Benjamins to afford a whole new wardrobe. Max finally settled on her gray zip-up sweater, light blue jeans, and a pink shirt with the print of ‘JANE’ on the front. A graphic of a doe accompanied the lettering.

‘So clever,’ she thought with a long sigh. She didn’t even need Victoria and her posse to pass judgment; she could destroy her self-esteem all on her own.

Max took in a breath. “Fuck it. Welcome to Black-Hell Academy! All aboard the Nerd Express!”

In a rather lethargic action, Max pulled her hand down to imitate an old train whistle with a light ‘choo-choo’ to herself. Her phone buzzed again, drawing her attention back to the device and the Polaroid she took earlier. She checked on the picture in one hand while pecking on her cell’s touch screen in the other. The photo—not quite developed, and the phone—a new message.

Max couldn’t help but smile. Speaking of the Nerd Express, she just got a text from the conductor.

WARREN: 
Yo, Mad Max! Ms. Grant mentioned something about partners for tomorrow’s labs! You ready to get an Easy A?

Warren Graham. She couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. Max was happy she made at least one real friend at Blackwell, and Warren was cool. He was like the geeky brother she never had in a way. Her fingers began to tap at the touch screen in quick response. Warren tended to fill up her phone with a wall of messages if she didn’t answer right away. Hell, he did it even when she was on the ball. It didn’t bother her for the most part; sometimes she needed an excuse to delay herself from reality.

MAX:
I don’t know. Are you prepared to fall below your proverbial genius line in that case?

Max glanced up at her photo memorial as she awaited Warren’s response. Plopping herself down next to her camera, she took note of the light reflecting off the spectrum of captured colors within the shots. All those memories. All those moments. She couldn’t help but feel a comforting warmth grow within her. She caught glimpses of Chloe, her friend’s long, honey-blonde hair and bright smile echoing from the past.

Vmm!

WARREN:
Come on, Max! Quit selling yourself short! So how about it? Max Caulfield, *gets on one knee* will you be my lab partner?

Another laugh bubbled up from her depths. The text also struck her with a sense of embarrassment. On top of being somewhat impatient, Warren could also be a bit overwhelming…and awkward. Still, she admitted his straightforwardness was refreshing amid all the chaos of high school.

MAX:
Keep the ring and vows, lover boy. I’ll help you total the science lab tomorrow.

WARREN:
Epic! But what about that lovely organ music? I can set up the speakers to let loose when you enter the class. Caulfield consummation supreme!

MAX:
Very funny. More like Graham gratification supreme.

WARREN:
Graham-ification? Bazinga!

MAX:
Your puns have serious Graham-ifications.

WARREN:
Ouuuuch. Okay, okay, I surrender!
So, did you get to check out the movies on the flash drive I let you borrow?

MAX:
I’ve only had it for a week! I barely scratched the surface of all that movie madness!

Max checked her phone’s clock. If she wanted to get a seat in the back of the class—the norm for the introverted girl—she would have to leave soon. Otherwise, Warren could, and would, keep her talking all day. He was already waiting in class, no doubt, or in the science lab cooking up some new experiment. Warren was an early bird.

Max added before sending:

I’ll make sure to watch more when I’m not swamped with homework. I gotta get going, though! History class calls!

WARREN:
You’re so slooooooooow! I’m gonna need that drive back soon! Contact me later if you can! I got something I want to show you!

MAX:
I’ll try. Professor’s have been slamming us with shit tons of work right now. I doubt today will be any different. TTYL.

WARREN:
Let me know if you need any help or a study partner. I’m always around! Cya!

She looked herself over in the mirror once more. With a short exhale, Max grabbed her camera, slid her bag over her shoulder, and opened the door to leave behind her sanctuary.

Bypassing everyone and everything the best she could, Max made her way out of the dorms and to the main campus of Blackwell Academy. The sunlight was still strong and passed through the tree’s leaves, reflecting a mosaic of fall colors on the vibrant grass.

‘Mm. October. My favorite month and time of the year,’ she mused to herself.

Students moseyed to and fro. Some Max recognized, some still complete strangers. The skaters hung out by the main stairs near the street. The artists sat by the trees or at picnic tables, some all alone or only with one or two people. The science and history buffs coagulated in little blobs near the academy’s entrance. Then there were the mixed breeds, genres of teens blended together in a rare harmony.

Max observed them in silence, keeping to herself and making her way toward the school’s entrance. Her arms swayed, abruptly becoming stiff at the shoulders when some loud whoops and squeals made themselves known. The noise struck a nerve. She began to tread lightly as she made her way past the unruly crowd.

The Vortex Club.

Max exhaled slowly, trying to keep her composure. Where did one begin with The Vortex Club? Technically, any student could join the illustrious faction, but one was more likely to be accepted if one was popular, archetypal, or wealthy. Bonus points if all of the above. The wealthiest family in Oregon, the Prescotts, also personally funded their activities—i.e. extravagant parties that wouldn’t be out of place for a nightclub or rave.

Max quickened her pace to avoid them.

“If it isn’t Max Caulfield.”

Too late.

Max screamed internally. ‘GreatJaunt and flaunt, take a bow, the Bitch of Blackwell’s comin’ ‘round!’

Victoria strutted toward Max, her pursed red lips situated with a sneer. As always, Courtney and Taylor followed, ready to back up her bullshit. Max’s vision fell to the sidewalk as they surrounded her.

“So, how’s the selfie slut’s Everyday Heroes pic coming along?” Victoria’s tone was airy but filled with scorn. The makeup she wore shadowed her forest-green eyes as she gave Max a stare down. She crossed her arms. Courtney and Taylor did the same.

Max sighed. It was an irritated and tired sound. Victoria picked up on her annoyance and scoffed.

“Let me guess. Due to only having those pathetic head shots of yours, sorting out a submission is a bit…difficult. What a joke. It’s unbelievable how Blackwell’s standards have dropped in the past century,” Victoria said, circling around her like a vulture. Again, Courtney and Taylor followed suit.

Max wanted to retort. She bit her lip instead.

“Don’t worry, Vic,” said another approaching voice from behind, “Caulfield’s not even in the same league as us.”

Victoria’s expression, if possible, lit up with even more conceit. Max tilted her head to see the person in her peripherals. She didn’t have to guess who it was by their complacent tone.

Nathan Prescott—the son of the very family that funded Blackwell Academy and The Vortex Club. His slouched form made a B-line for the group of girls while taking a last drag off a cigarette. He tossed it to the ground, shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, and glowered at Max with his piercing blue eyes. His presence created a new, tangible tension.

Max observed his outfit as a distraction from his glare. It was an alarming red ensemble complete with a white cardigan and black shirt underneath to combat the cool weather. The bright red radiated against the morning sunlight, now fully out from the horizon. His reserved brown jeans almost looked black in his forming silhouette. He topped off the look with light brown, formal leather shoes. Max thought he was akin to autumn itself in a way. He stood out.

‘And why shouldn’t he?’ she said to herself. ‘He’s only the son of the richest family in Arcadia Bay!’

If Victoria was considered the queen of Blackwell, there was no doubt Nathan was the king. The spoiled, pompous, asshole king. Max ran her tongue over her bottom row of teeth.

Like Victoria, his complexion was as peachy and perfect as possible, if a bit more ashen. Accompanying that was his light, side-slicked, champagne hair. Darkened circles underlined his eyes, making his consistent scowl even more intimidating.

Victoria brushed away Courtney and Taylor. The two girls dispersed, leaving Max alone with her and Nathan.

“True,” Victoria agreed, adding to his statement. “Like Mr. Jefferson would even consider giving your portfolio the time of day.”

“Even if she did put in effort, I doubt it’d make any difference at this point,” Nathan chided, continuing their chain of insults and acting as if Max wasn’t standing right there.

A grumble came from Max’s throat. She couldn’t hold back her annoyance much longer. Her headache began to resurface as she dug her shoes into the pavement. She swallowed.

Victoria chuckled. “Hm. Looks like we hit a nerve. Anyway, we should get going. I hear too much time around hipster shits can be fatal.”

Nathan huffed, rolling on his heel to face toward the main stairway with a sarcastic, “Oh, for sure.”

Victoria brushed by Max with a small shove, their shoulders connecting. Nathan did the same on her opposite side. Max almost stumbled, but she held her ground and clenched her jaw.

“See you in class, Maxine,” Victoria added before the two bounced up the entrance steps.



“Max? Is that short for something?”

She froze. It was bad enough they had these ridiculous ‘introduce yourself’ speeches for every class. Now someone was asking about her name, and that someone had already introduced herself as classy, confident, Victoria Chase.

The remainder of the class stayed quiet. Their history professor, Mrs. Paxton, stood by the white board. She gave Max an encouraging look through her round spectacles.

“Um…” Max struggled to find words.

“Mostly because it seems like it’s short for something,” Victoria added, crossing her legs.

“M-Maxine. But I prefer Max.”

Victoria leaned back in a relaxed position, her vision never leaving the other’s. “Maxine. Cute,” Victoria said with a smile, a faux gesture, and fixated her body toward the front of the class once more.

Eyes barreled down on Max. She was still in the spotlight. The light giggles and scoffs that made their way around the room were like atomic bombs going off in her ears. They mingled with her pounding heartbeat and heat began to creep up her neck and to her ears and cheeks. Max sat down and scooted her chair up to her waist, her eyes scanning the room one last time. They were met with glances that quickly darted away.

Except for one that held. Nathan Prescott. He was sitting next to Victoria, peering past the chic girl to get a good look at the new student in his domain. She met his deprecate squint.

Deadlock.

A freezing sensation overtook her body. Now she was the one to break the connection. Her eyes met the desk and she slid down in her seat. Her hands were trembling.

The girl next to her proceeded to stand and make her introduction. Max tried to steady herself and slid further down, no longer paying attention to the class intros. She wished there was a wormhole to seep into.



“Assholes,” Max spat and wriggled her feet from their roots. She felt the sweat and tension lessening within the soles and began to step forward, the humiliation from the first day of classes fading back into memory.

She looked up, her mien set with a deepening frown. To her surprise, Nathan was still there. Max’s face softened against her will when she saw that his expression wasn’t one of malice or conceit. He looked...sad? Exhausted? Out of it? For a moment, he was an enigma.

The exchange was quick, and Max didn’t falter. She glided past him and continued into the school.

After walking a few more feet, Max stopped and looked back. His line of sight met hers again. Unlike the first day of school, she held the look this time, a defiant action against Arcadia Bay’s poster child.

Nathan’s expression hardened, and he smirked, the enigma broken and filled with pride once again.

Max’s lips parted, and she took a sharp breath. Another cold feeling shot through her. In her head, she cursed. Her face fell, and she continued towards class, merging with the sea of other students.

Chapter Text

Max made her way into World History. She was still reeling from her encounter with Victoria and Nathan. It didn’t help that the two heads of the Vortex Club would be in the same class with her that morning. Max checked behind her to make sure they weren’t hot on her heels, shots of adrenaline coursing through her limbs.

She took a deep breath. ‘Calm down, Max. You’re already stressed enough as it is. You don’t need to worry about school bullies and their petty bullshit.’

With another deep breath, she continued into the room. The atmosphere was light and serene. Particles of dust floated through the sun’s beams, coming and going like flecks of pixie dust.

Mrs. Paxton sat hunched over her desk, her head cradled in her hands. Her glasses sat to the side next to a mug of warm, fruity-smelling liquid. Max’s nose was filled with its scent. It mixed with the smell of the numerous old books decorating the antique shelves around the room. The professor didn’t stir as Max approached.

“Uh…good morning, Mrs. Paxton.”

The academic jumped and looked up. She squinted to get a profile of the person she was addressing, her glasses still to the side. Her straight, deep brown hair hung across her shoulders in a disheveled manner and her bangs covered her young, dark complexion. Even her makeup looked unkempt. Her frail frame looked exhausted, a feature augmented by her simple button-up blouse and formal black pants. She had her legs tucked under her chair, her shoes removed underneath the desk. The woman leaned forward with a groan and took a sip of the warm liquid.

“And to you, Miss Caulfield,” she croaked.

“Whoa. Are you okay?” Max asked with concern.

Mrs. Paxton puffed her cheeks and exhaled a deep breath. She shook her head. “Not in the slightest. I’m thinking I might be coming down with something. Hopefully it’s not the flu.”

“Oh, no,” Max said, sullen, “that’s awful!”

“I tell ya, It’s this damn weather. Hot, cold, hot, cold. —it never ends. Especially the autumns here in Oregon.”

“I hear you,” Max said while taking a step back. “The climate just gets more and more erratic every year. But are you sure you should be here if you’re feeling that terrible?”

“Goodness, Max, you sounded just like my mother,” she replied with a breathy laugh and a smile. “Worrywart of a woman, she is.” She paused before adding, “But you’d be right. This escalated quickly before class and I already commuted my hourly drive to Blackwell. I got some of this citrus mix from the nurse.”

Max frowned, feeling bad for the quick onset of her illness. “At least they gave you a little something to hold it back for now.”

Mrs. Paxton nodded, cleared her throat, and sniffled before taking another sip. She closed her eyes and basked in the relief. “You’re not kidding. Thank goodness for small miracles. Still, I’m switching the syllabus for today. Next week’s video will be shown in place of today’s lecture. The latter right now would kill me.”

Max glanced around the room before Mrs. Paxton finished her statement. There were a few students already in their seats. She focused back on her professor and nodded with a serious expression. Inside, she was giddy about it being a movie day, like a little kid back in elementary school.

“Sounds like a plan,” said Max. “I hope you feel better, Mrs. Paxton. The flu is nothing to mess with.”

“Indeed.” She took another sip of the fruity drink. “Alrighty. Take your seat and we’ll start in a few. Gonna let the stragglers make their way in.”

Max agreed and turned to see if her normal seat was still available. Only a few students had come in while she was visiting with Mrs. Paxton, one of which had taken the companion seat beside Max’s.

The girl looked up at Max and beamed. Max returned the gesture as the girl pressed her gray skirt, making sure it wasn’t in a revealing status, sat up, and placed her petite purse underneath the desk. Her ensemble was completed with a navy sweater and a prim, white blouse underneath. Her gold crucifix necklace glistened in the light.

“Kate! Good morning!” Max exclaimed.

Max was glad to have made another friend like Kate Marsh at Blackwell. She was the student who gave an introduction after Max on the first day of classes. After everyone finished formalities and had their noses in their textbooks, Kate introduced herself to Max in a similar shy form. Max’s anxiety washed away as they began talking, finding various things in common with one another. From artwork to aesthetics, the two hit it off and continued to share small talks from time to time. Even if they didn’t chat often, Max enjoyed the time they spent together.

Kate and Warren were without a doubt two people she could feel comfortable around, even amongst all the drama. She wondered if Chloe would get along with them. Maybe Warren more then Kate, the two sharing an affinity for science.

“Morning, Max!” Kate let a little grin sweep across her face as a sunbeam allowed her peach-red lipstick to sparkle. She then placed her hands together and laid them delicately on the desk.

Normally, Kate preferred to sit in the middle or the front of the room. She wouldn’t doubt some form of divine intervention lead Kate to her like a guardian angel to her lonely soul that morning.

“How’s everything been with classes?” Kate asked.

Max sighed and scratched the back of her neck. “Crazy as all hell. Way too much homework! That and Victoria being her catty self again.”

“Yeah. I understand. Victoria gives me grief, too.” The corner of Kate’s mouth briefly turned upward.

Max grimaced. “You’d think they’d have something better to do than bully us and other students. It’s ridiculous!”

Kate nodded. She then changed the subject. “If you’re having trouble with homework, you’re welcome to join our study group on the weekends. It’s just Alyssa, Brooke, Warren, and me. Stella’s around sometimes, too.

Max was a little thrown by Kate’s sudden switch, but she followed, happy to discuss something less upsetting. “Sounds interesting, and fun! I’ll definitely think about it and let you know. I need to sit down and actually study once in a while.”

“I know Warren would love you to be part of it.”

Max blinked. “Really?”

Kate smiled, as if she knew something Max didn’t behind that statement. “Really.” She crossed her legs and added, “We help each other out, so I thought it’d be cool to invite you, too.”

Max nodded, took her seat, and retrieved her camera from her bag. “Sounds cool.” The light was in a straight stream that created a contrast on Kate’s profile. She didn’t want to miss the chance to get a great shot. “Mind if I took a photo of you?” Max inquired.

Kate started. “Oh, sheesh. Right now? I look like a mess.” She began to fix the bun filled with her voluminous, wheat-colored hair.

“Not at all! I think you look mystic and mysterious.” Max turned and angled the shot through the viewfinder.

Kate couldn’t help but smile at that, a small blush dusting her cheeks. The camera flashed and rolled out another completed Polaroid.

“Perfect!” Max sat it on her journal to develop with a proud grin.

“Let me know how it turns out.” Kate absentmindedly began playing with the strands of hair at the sides of her face.

Max held Kate’s photo in place with the bottom of her thumb and opened her journal, revealing a second, well-kept photograph of hers. It was another self-portrait, but a special one. A very special one. This brought Max to the main reason she and many other students came to Blackwell Academy: the photography program…and the head professor of the program, Mark Jefferson.

Now it was Max’s turn to blush. She couldn’t hide it if she wanted to. She was ‘hot for teacher.’ Well, maybe not burning inferno hot, but she did admire him and his work with a passion. The renowned, middle-aged photographer had recently returned to his roots in Arcadia Bay and taken a teaching offer at Blackwell. Max couldn’t have been more ecstatic that one of her heroes from her hometown had returned to share his knowledge and experiences with developing students like her.

She looked over her picture. The piece was shot from the back, framing her small figure in front of her photo memorial. The lighting was bright, the colors smooth, almost pastel. Max’s paper lanterns lit up the portrait and her collection of Polaroids in the background, putting the focus on them instead of her. Not to toot her own horn, but Max thought the overall quality of the shot was pretty good, especially being framed from the back on her rinky-dink tripod.

But the real question was: would it be good enough as an entry in the ‘Everyday Heroes Contest?’ The winner of the contest would take a trip to San Francisco, California, and have their work featured and promoted in the Zeitgeist Gallery there. Above all that, Mr. Jefferson would accompany the winner to San Francisco as the representative for Blackwell Academy! A personal spot in a gallery and time with her favorite professor? Max’s adrenaline spiked at the thought, excitement and anxiousness an uneven mixture within.

Though, first, she would have to pluck up the courage to actually enter the contest, enter her prized photograph.

“I hope Mrs. Paxton gets better. She looks really sick,” Kate said as she doodled in her notes.

Snapping back to the present with Kate’s voice, Max cleared her throat and replied, “Me, too. I don’t want her to end up like Ms. Hoida. Though I heard she’s been gone so long because of depression. How sad.”

“Yeah. I have Ms. Hoida for Intro to Literature. Before she left she always looked so down. I hope things look up for her, too.”

“Mm.”

Idle chatter glided through the room. Time ticked down and the other students made their way to vacant seats. The ringing of the school bell signified class’s start.

Victoria and Nathan were the last to enter. They took their places front and center. Right before, Nathan notably let his paper-stuffed notebook fall to the desk. The loud clap resonated all around. Mrs. Paxton clasped her head at the noise, and Max cringed. She felt awful for her. Hell, she felt awful for anyone who had to deal with Nathan. What it must feel like to know one’s father had Blackwell Academy, and the entirety of the bay in the palm of his hand.

Mrs. Paxton revealed the agenda for the day. Max sighed with relief once more, happy to just relax and jot down tidbits from the movie in a semi-lit classroom. No doubt, most of the students were going to use the time to catch some extra Z’s. It was Monday, after all. She let slip a yawn of her own. Good ol’ Mondays. Max’s sweep of the room confirmed the students’ indolence. Everyone looked like zombies with their heads down on desks or blearily in their phones texting away.

A jolt from one of the front desks caught her attention. Victoria was placing a hand on Nathan’s shoulder and whispering to him. He looked like a turtle partially in its shell, his form hugging the table. Nathan shot her a look and an under-the-breath hiss. Victoria relented, shaking her head, until she persisted to try and converse with him again.

‘What the hell?’

Every now and then, Mrs. Paxton had to irritably clear her throat as she spoke about the film they were about to watch. Max saw her shoot glares at Victoria and Nathan and felt the pressure build in the room with their continued interruption. Mrs. Paxton eventually pulled down the projector cloth above the white board. She then wheeled the machine itself to the middle aisle.

All the while, Victoria and Nathan were still whispering.

‘Wow, really? Rude much?’

Still, Victoria and Nathan went on. Their tones went up an octave. Now other students were beginning to stare.

Mrs. Paxton cleared her throat, louder this time, and tapped Victoria’s shoulder. Caught off guard, Victoria started and met Mrs. Paxton’s look of irritation.

“Ms. Chase, I assume you and Mr. Prescott have something vitally important to share with the class?” Mrs. Paxton still had to clear her throat to speak, the rattle of the frog within ever-present.

“I…” Victoria was at a loss for words, something Max thought to be almost impossible. Victoria’s face reflected an unfamiliar equipoise.

The room fell silent. Max glanced at Kate, and Kate glanced back with shared concern.

Nathan threw the professor daggers with the glare he was giving. Even from where she and Kate were sitting, Max could see their sharp glint.

Victoria’s brows furrowed as she tried to find some answer to give while Mrs. Paxton licked her lips and inhaled, a nip of annoyance at the end of the breath. She looked around the room and stopped on…

“Ms. Caulfield?”

The callout made Max’s heart leap and stomach tighten. Some of the students turned to look at her, making the situation all the more uncomfortable for her.

“Just for today, please switch seats with Victoria.” As soon as she said it, Victoria was opening her mouth to protest. “AND I don’t want to hear any complaining! Just…do it. Please.” She held her head again and cleared her throat.

Max and Kate looked at each other. There was a new fear in both their eyes. Max sat dumbfounded, her brain still catching up with what was happening. She felt a hand on her arm.

“Max?” Kate was trying to keep her from freaking out, steadying her own nerves in the process.

There was no time for real words. Max gave Kate a light nod and reassuring look. Kate took it as a positive sign and settled back into her seat. However, her face was still scrunched in worry.

“Mrs. Paxton. I just…” Victoria was crossed between desperation and anger as she stood.

The professor wasn’t having any excuses as she pointed back to Max’s position.

Gathering her things, Max began her approach to the front and Victoria to the back. It felt like she sported a pair of lead shoes and someone was cutting off her air supply. She kept her eyes to the floor to make sure she wasn’t going to trip. She could only imagine how pissed Victoria was as their heated auras passed each other.

Max hesitated at the front desk for a moment, hearing Nathan mutter something under his breath as he regained his turtle form once again. Mrs. Paxton shot him a look as she stayed to make sure Max settled into her new seat.

‘Breathe, Max. It’s okay. It’s just for now. One hour. That’s it,’ she told herself. It was with as much persuasion as trying to get someone to chew razorblades and drink a cup of lemonade.

Mrs. Paxton tapped the table gaining Max’s attention. The academic mouthed a ‘thank you’ with a look of gratitude. All Max could do was smile back, an unconvincing expression, she was sure. What a way to start the week.

The class’s whispers went into a crescendo, but died down just as fast. It got Max to think about the various rumors that telephoned around the school about Nathan. And, boy, were there a number. Throwing a desk in class, lighting firecrackers in the restrooms, going off on various students and faculty—the list went on. And, of course, being the town’s designated ‘rich kid’ meant that he got away with it all without any serious consequences. His father, Sean Prescott, no doubt made sure of that. On that never-ending list were things that downright scared Max the more she thought about them. Plus, after their earlier stare-off…

She stopped herself. Thinking about that would just make things worse.

‘Mrs. Paxton…why?’ Internally, she dramatically hung her head and wept. A heavenly meeting with Kate overshadowed by a hellish seating with Nathan.

Max made sure to check behind her before truly settling down. Victoria had begun to text on her phone with a sour expression. At least she wasn’t hassling Kate, and she prayed she wouldn’t. Max’s body anchored to the chair like stone, heart thudding beneath her rib cage.

Now, the question of Nathan’s reaction to all this remained, and she got her answer. If she could somehow have better control over her level of curiosity, she would. Max cursed it almost every day of her life. It got the better of her. The daggers were now aimed at her, thoroughly sharpened and in deadly form as Max’s expression widened. Nathan was clenching his jaw and his eyes were ice storms. She inwardly braced herself for an explosion, thinking back to the things she heard about 'Crazy Nathan Prescott.'

Instead, Nathan leaned forward on the desk, rested his head on his arms, and exhaled. Some of the anger in his face dropped. She saw his inscrutable expression from that morning return.

Max relaxed when he did. Her body ached for a moment; she didn’t realize how stiff she was until then. Her nerves were brimming with electricity. She crossed her legs and scooted as far to the side of the table as she could. She suddenly felt her stomach grumble and blushed, wishing she bought a granola bar or something out of one of vending machines.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Paxton began the film and dimmed the lights. The orange sunlight settled on different parts of the room like little flames. Max began picking at the edge of the table. The wood underneath the finish was chipped and exposed and an easy target for her unease. Her stomach growled again, and she swallowed hard, her throat dry.

‘Hungry and now thirsty. This stress really doesn’t help.’

She leaned down, opened her bag, and began searching for her pencil case to take some notes. No matter what, this little misfortune wasn’t going to affect her grades. She caught a glimpse of movement under the table. Nathan’s leg was bouncing in a jittery fashion. She wondered what he and Victoria were talking about earlier, why he was wound up and irritable. Was he ever not?

Max grumbled, her hand flittering past the same stray papers from earlier. It was taking her a while to find that case. Her face upturned, and she brought her bag to her lap to look inside. The realization hit her, and she bit her lip in frustration.

She left the case on her bed.

‘Today is officially the worst.’ Her head fell in her hands, elbows on the desk.

Max then looked at her journal on the corner of the table. Kate’s developing photo was within along with her Everyday Heroes portrait. She was a statue, moving her blank eyes to her notepad. Her mind was elsewhere, and her body tensed again at her situation when she decided to steal a glance at Nathan.

The daggers were sheathed, or rather, pointed elsewhere. In fact, he was texting on his phone and had gone from leaning on the desk to sitting back in his chair. Mrs. Paxton was checking some papers, so his actions went unnoticed. Though, Max imagined Mrs. Paxton just didn’t have the energy to care. Most students in the class were doing the same anyway. Max contemplated texting Warren, but she didn’t want to get him in trouble. He was currently in mathematics with Mrs. Grant, and she was extremely strict about cell phones in her classes. She once threatened any confiscated phones would be used in future experiments in the name of science.

Max once again zoned and chewed on her bottom lip. Her train of thought was derailed with a sudden plink! Something had landed on her pad and caused her to jump.

“There, you spazz.”

Max turned and saw that Nathan had addressed her in a whisper. She looked back at the notepad. On it laid a pen. A fancy pen at that. It was reddish brown in color and fashioned to look like wood—cherry wood, maybe?— while the nib, clip, and tip looked like they were made from real gold. There was a carved monogram on the side in scripture lettering: S.P.—followed by ‘Pan Estates.’

“What?” She was utterly confused.

Between the time Nathan threw her the utensil and spoke, he had gone back to texting. His irate look when she questioned him made her reel back and clamp her mouth shut.

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” he sneered and returned to his phone.

Max was at a loss for words. Not that she wanted to start a conversation with Nathan Prescott in the first place, but…

‘What just happened?’

Max frowned and picked up the pen. She gave Nathan another side glance. He didn’t stir. She swallowed her pride, an assortment of questions knocking around in her brain, and began writing.

Time ticked by and the rest of the class went smoothly. Victoria didn’t bother Kate and Nathan didn’t bother her, much to both of their surprise. It was an unusual calm within Blackwell’s storm.

The film was longer than anticipated and Mrs. Paxton paused it to address the class, flicking on the overhead lights. A unified groan made its way across the room as the students’ retinas burned.

“Okay, everyone,” she said, her voice sounding somewhat clearer, “we’ll finish the last parts next class, but hopefully you all took some info from this as it will be on the next test! Dismissed!”

The school bell rang shortly afterward. Before Max could even attempt to return Nathan’s pen, he was sliding out of his seat and flying out the door. Victoria followed with equal haste.

Max fell back into her chair, defeated. She slipped the pen in her bag and retrieved Kate’s picture. Everything came out perfect, and she smiled. There was still plenty of time left for things to go wrong, so she was happy at least one thing came out right that morning.

“Max? Are you okay?” Kate placed a hand on her shoulder, the girl coming up from behind.

Max breathed in and out and relaxed. “Yeah.” She couldn’t think of much else to say about it all. “What about you?”

“Victoria didn’t even look at me. She was texting the entire time. She actually looked a little worried about something.”

“I noticed that, too,” said Max as she and Kate made their way into the crowded halls. “I wonder what was up.”

Kate shrugged. “I guess even Victoria’s allowed to have her own issues.”

Max nodded and shook it off. “Hey, do you want to head to the Bean Hip Café and grab some tea soon? My treat! By the way, here’s the photo I took. I think it came out great!”

Kate’s face lit up at the shot. “You have an amazing eye, Max! Keep it for your portfolio. And sure! I’ll let you know when I can. See you in Mr. Jefferson’s class!”

“And I’ll let you know about the whole study group thing!”

Kate waved an affirmation and merged with the other students. Max was alone once again. She continued the other way, heading back to the dorms.

First things first, she was going to get her pencil case.

Her stomach gurgled again.

And something to eat.



Photography class had come faster than Max anticipated. While Nathan wasn’t in this period with her, Victoria was. Max just hoped things would go well, and that Victoria wouldn’t be angry at her for what had happened that morning and be up her ass about it.


Max looked down at her phone messages. Warren had texted her again, offering to take her to the Two Whales Diner that afternoon.

MAX:
Sorry. I’m gonna stay on campus for now. Gonna try to slam some of this algebra homework before tonight. Rain check?

WARREN:
Sure thing! But you gotta get at me after Jefferson’s class. PLEASE. It’ll be great, I promise!

She agreed to the latter and settled into her niche for the evening lesson. While a meal from the Two Whales sounded more than appealing, there was a bigger reason she wanted to avoid the establishment. Joyce, Chloe’s mother, was a waitress there. Sure, she hadn’t been to Arcadia Bay in five years, but if there was a chance Max would run into her before even seeing her daughter, she wasn’t going to take it.

Max zoned out in her seat as Mr. Jefferson’s lecture droned on. Balance this, chiaroscuro that. Max knew a good number of the things he was preaching already. It didn’t completely bore her, though. She loved to listen to his clear and attentive voice share his experiences from the art world. However, there were times when he sounded pretentious and aloof, making Max feel smaller and more irrelevant than ever before. It was irritating at times, if also a tad depressing.

Mr. Jefferson’s thick-rimmed glasses reflected some light as he paced the room in his black suit. There were times when she thought he was staring right at her, almost through her. She shivered, looking down at the setting sunlight on the table’s surface.

Meanwhile, Kate took notes at the table next to her. Every once in a while, she would glance up at Max and give her a smile.

Max also caught Victoria staring at her a few times. She couldn’t read into her intermittent expression, but an unsettling feeling took hold. It was like when she and Victoria were forced to switch seats. Their auras clashed and sparked like invisible blades against one another. She was still irritated. Of course.

One long sermon later, the final bell rang. Max stood up and stretched. Everyone began filing out of the room as Mr. Jefferson tagged those who hadn’t turned in their Everyday Heroes photograph, including her.

“I assume Max Caulfield has her photograph ready for the contest?” he mused, sitting on one of the desks and meeting her blue eyes with his deep, dark browns.

“Uh…” Blood rushed to her cheeks.

She looked away, unable to hold his gaze, thinking about the photo she wanted to turn in. The photo that was just inches away from her, from Jefferson. The contest. She could do it! But…

“N-no. Not yet. But I’m working on it!”

“Better get on it, Max. I’m looking forward to your submission.” Jefferson answered with a frown. “I know it’s a pain, but you’re young, you’ve got the world in your hands, that whole spiel. Now’s the time to take action.”

Max shook her head up and down in an awkward and embarrassed nod. Her shoulders sunk. Mr. Jefferson held back momentarily, as if he knew she was hiding her picture, but soon headed back to his desk to sort through papers. Max internally breathed a sigh of relief.

Shouldering her bag, Max made way for the exit. She looked up to see Victoria standing in the door’s alcove. She had that unreadable expression again, electricity brewing behind her shadowed irises. Max began to bypass her, a new spring in her step telling her to leave as quick as possible.

“Hey, Max.”

Max nearly tripped over her own two feet. “H-Huh?”

Victoria hesitated for a moment, exhaling sharply before asking, “Did Nathan say anything to you this morning?”

The girl didn’t know how to answer. She had no idea how to have a normal conversation with Victoria in the slightest. She shook her head and gave her a squinted look of suspicion. What trap was she laying for her?

Victoria then crossed her arms. “Was he acting weird or anything like that?”

Max didn’t like her interrogating tone. She bowed to one of her own with a hard frown when she decided to answer. “How should I know? Why would you assume Nathan would talk to me about anything, anyway?”

A moment of tension hung between them before Victoria’s brow creased. “Forget it, Caulfield. Just…never mind.” She pushed past Max and headed for Mr. Jefferson’s desk, her form solidified. She was back to her poised self.

Max was struck with confusion yet again. She let her body flow out the door and through the halls. She didn’t want to dwell on what just happened. It was none of her business anyway, and she wasn’t going to get wrapped up in some stupid Vortex Club drama.

Outside, Max strolled down the main stairs and took in the natural sunlight. Freedom!

“Okay,” she told herself, “Drop off some work in my room, then text Warren and see what’s up.”

She once again took the familiar path to the dorms. The newly-filtered light cast different shadows than the morning. It was Max’s favorite time of the day. The golden hour. She stopped and let her eyes wander over the dorm’s yard, everything lit up with a reddish-orange aura from the setting sun. Her eyes settled on a totem pole overlooking the perimeter. Warren said it was called the ‘Tobanga’ for reasons unknown.

Max had heard about Arcadia Bay’s Native American origins, but she never really gave them much thought. Disappointed, she said to herself, ‘I should learn more!’

She strode up to wooden piece. It was nestled between some grassy knolls with rows of pine trees in the distance. The sun cast its large shadow on the ground and smaller ones in the numerous notches of the wooden carvings. She fetched her camera and took another photograph.

As Max turned around, she began shaking the Polaroid and almost jumped out of her skin.

Nathan was there on a nearby bench. He didn’t seem to notice her, his focus on the digital camera in his hands. A couple cigarette butts lay at his feet along with his shoulder pack. How did she not notice him before? It’s not like he was trying to hide. And how did he not notice her? Maybe he was just ignoring her. That was more than likely the case, she figured.

Max looked around. They were alone on the dorm grounds. She gulped, wanting to attempt to rush past him, but his pen came to mind again. Her legs tingled with that sensation between wanting to leave or confront him about it.

She made the brave decision to walk into the lion’s den, approaching him and digging in her bag to look for the utensil. Her fingers easily recognized it, and she began to pull it out, but the clip hooked on the side of her journal. It flipped out and onto the ground, spilling some of the papers within. They floated to the ground while the journal ka-plapped! on the pavement.

“Shit!” she cursed and dropped to the ground with the pen in hand, frantically palming whatever loose papers were fluttering away.

Some of her journal’s debris skidded past Nathan’s feet, catching his eye. Of course, Max’s outburst would have gotten his attention regardless.

“What the fuck, Caulfield?”

“Um,” Max started, catching the last of her papers and stuffing them back in her journal. “H-Hey, Nathan.”

What a great way to start things off. Max brushed some of her hair to the side and froze in place when Nathan’s icy stare met hers. She was starting to hate how he had that effect on her.

“H-hey, Nathan,” he mocked with a baby-like voice, “Yeah, what?”

“Um. Here.” Max forced her hand out toward him in a robotic fashion.

Nathan raised an eyebrow but didn’t say or do anything. The silence between then was becoming awkward. Nathan looked at the instrument in her hand and parted his lips. He brought his vision back to Max’s.

“Uhh…Why the hell would I want that?” His hand began to fidget with the zoom gear on top of his camera.

“Because it’s yours…?”

Nathan grunted. “It’s a pen.”

“Yeah, a pen that’s yours.” Max retorted with annoyance. She couldn’t believe she was having this asinine argument.

“It’s just a fuckin’—Look, just keep the damn thing. I don’t give a shit!”

“But, it’s like…really important…looking,” she said, her voice faltering at how silly she must have sounded.

“Whatever. My dad has, like, a million of the fucking things lying around. I don’t need another one.”

Ah. Of course. That must have been where the initials came from. S.P.—Sean Prescott. She wasn’t surprised. However, the other engraving on the piece made her wonder.

“So, what’s Pan Estates?”

Honestly, Max didn’t know why she asked, didn’t know why she was still standing there talking to Nathan Prescott. She, once again, wanted to kick herself and slap a leash on her curiosity.

Apparently, so did Nathan. He snapped, “Is this Twenty Questions or something? Why do you give a shit?”

Max’s silence answered for her.

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m kind of busy. So, why don’t you fuck off!” Nathan’s voice dropped to a throaty growl, as if her mere presence offended him.

Max scowled and stomped past him, temped to throw the damn pen into a nearby garbage bin. She was fed up with the whole ordeal.

“Yo, Caulfield!”

As she approached the dorm’s main entrance, Nathan called out to her, cutting off her angered state of mind. She turned to address him, against her inner judgment.

“Next time, eat something before you drag your pixie ass to class! I couldn’t hear myself think with your stomach growling every ten seconds!”

Max's mouth dropped and her face burst into ruby embarrassment. She about-faced and ran into the dorms, heart thumping and ears ringing. She bolted up the flight of stairs, down the hall, and into her room, avoiding anyone and anything along the way.

‘Jesus! He’s such an ass!’

Remembering her mishap before talking to Nathan, she pulled her journal out of its confines and rearranged the loose contents in a separate pile. She fixed a bent label and smoothed out a page or two before finding Kate’s photo. She took it and the selfie from that morning—which turned out well—and pinned them to her wall.

“Wait.” She stopped. Something wasn’t right.

Max lifted and shook her journal over the bed. Nothing else came out.

Inside her, a sudden panic erupted. She went for her bag and took out whatever was left inside, going so far as to shake it like the journal. Nothing.

Her Everyday Heroes photo was gone.

Chapter Text

Max’s phone buzzed and buzzed. She wasn’t listening. Her mind had gone blank. She was so careful with that photograph, wanted to give it to Jefferson for the contest. She felt a sudden disconnection with herself and the item—that awful feeling when something precious had been left behind and out of reach. It was the same feeling she had when thinking about Chloe.

Her stomach churned, and she squeezed her eyes shut. There was only one place she could think it to be.

Back outside. On the ground. With Nathan ‘It’s-Just-A-Fuckin’-Pen’  Prescott.

Max bit her lip so hard she thought she drew blood. Her phone continued to buzz in her pocket. She ignored it and spied out one of her windows, having lost track of how many minutes had passed after running into the dorms. A huge weight lifted from her chest when she saw Nathan was no longer there.

Vmm! Vmm! Vmm!

Max paused, pulled out her phone, and looked at the number of text messages. She knew who it was, and she was relieved she could see him after all the crap that was going on.

WARREN:
Max! Waiting in the parking lot! Hit me up ASAP!

Also, we’re going to wreck tomorrow’s lab. Talked to Ms. Grant about it and she says it’s nothing I can’t handle.

Nothing WE* can’t handle! Of course this time I’m going to have Maximum Overdrive with me!

Maaaaaaaax? You there?

Did Jefferson keep you overtime? Let me know!

Just checked in with Jefferson. He said you left already. You okay? If you’re not up to talking today, we can catch up tomorrow. Text me. Please.

‘Oh, Warren…’

MAX:
Hey. I’m so sorry. Having a mini meltdown at the moment. I’ll be down in a few. Promise.

Not even a minute passed.

WARREN:
What’s going on? Need me for anything?

Max had to think for a moment. She definitely owed Warren an explanation after making him worry, but…

MAX:
No, it’s cool. On my way. Give me about 5 minutes.

WARREN:
Alrighty! Take your time and shoot me a text if you need help! I’ve got nowhere else to be!

Max let a small smile sneak through her unease. Doing another quick search around her room resulted in nothing once again. She really had lost the photograph. Max gathered the necessities into her shoulder pack, donned it once more, and lingered in the doorway. Her eyes scanned the room. It was bursting with golden light. She thought about that once scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now if only she had a scepter to show her the location of her photo.

She shook her head and closed the door, back in the dim hallway of the dormitory. There was no one in sight. How lonely. And sad. Though the colors were beautiful and surreal, today seemed to feel more of the former, slow and lackluster. She shook off her emotions and continued outside.

Behind her, the double doors clamped shut. Another figure emerged from a door down the building to her right. It was Samuel, one of Blackwell Academy’s janitors. He had a broom and began sweeping the sidewalk in an almost robotic manner, humming a little tune to himself.

Max noticed some raked piles of leaves near the edges of the grounds. A thought struck her, and she headed up to the custodian, a hopeful little jog in her step.

“Hey, Samuel,” she greeted with a warm smile.

The middle-aged man slowly turned to meet the girl behind the voice. Max admitted that he was a bit of an oddball compared to the rest of the staff at Blackwell. Quiet, yet she always felt like he had some aura of wisdom, of knowing the unknowable. His weirdness was endearing in a way.

“Why hello, young Max.” His voice was soft and breathy. Some might say a bit creepy, but Max thought it was just who he was.

A welcoming smile through his graying goatee relieved her nerves. Behind his old, square glasses, his dark eyes thinned with the gesture, forming crow’s feet at their sides.

“Busy?” she asked, placing one of her hands on the opposite arm.

Samuel looked back at the ground and began to sweep more dirt from the sidewalk. He continued their conversation. “Everyday. But Samuel likes his work. It gives him peace of mind, peace of soul.”

“Sounds like you’ve found a groove, Samuel.” She smiled. The latter soon faded with a gulp. Time to ask the million-dollar question, “Um, I was actually wondering if you came across a Polaroid of mine I lost a little while ago. I may have dropped it right around that bench.”

Samuel stopped and checked in the direction she pointed. His eyes were dazed, far away. He hummed and cocked his head to the side in thought.

“I don’t recall any lost photographs of late.” He stopped and hummed again. “All I recall is Nathan Prescott leaving before I took care of the fallen leaves.”

She bit her lip again. This time it did draw blood. ‘Why me?’

The custodian could see the look of disappointment hit her like a heavy brick. “Oh…Samuel’s sorry for the bad news. If I find anything, I’ll let you know and get it back to you.”

Max sighed. “It’s okay. Thanks anyway, Samuel. I do appreciate you keeping an eye out, even if it doesn’t turn up.”

Samuel nodded, and they said their goodbyes. It didn’t hurt to ask about it, but where the hell could she have dropped it if not there? She was always so careful with her photographs, especially that one. Yet, somehow, Max felt sadness and relief at the same time. Mr. Jefferson was still going to bug her about the contest, but what could she do if she didn’t have an entry?

A bad taste filled Max’s mouth. ‘Jeeze. When did I become so damn pathetic? Get a hold of yourself, Max! You need that photo!’

She found herself on the main campus again. What the dorm grounds lacked in students, the main grounds made up for tenfold. It felt like that morning again as she carefully stepped around any unwanted parties in her wake. As she walked, she admired a few of Mr. Jefferson’s large, monochrome prints situated across the yard.

‘One day,’ she said to herself with hope, following the sidewalk path into the parking lot.

Across the small sea of cars and migrating students, Max spotted Warren. She felt a smile reach her ears as he waved. He had a goofy grin of his own, his bright brown eyes aglow with elation. He was leaning his body against the hood of an old, dark blue car. Max also spotted a rather out-of-place trailer against the far corner of the lot. She cautiously kept her eyes on it as she made her way down the steps.

“Max! Over here! Check it!”

Max was brought to his attention once more. She gave back a meek wave and headed toward him, growing a little timid. She brushed it off and held her head high. Warren was her friend! She was officially entering the ‘no-judge’ zone. Sure, she might not be considered a scientific and mathematical genius like him, but they shared a kindred love of many things sci-fi and old school.

Somehow, just the excited sight of him he made her hectic day all the better. His comical t-shirts also cheered her up. He had quite the variety. Today’s shirt was a gray piece accompanied by the phrase: ‘Never trust an atom, they make up everything.’ Underneath, he wore a forest green sweater that was pushed up to his elbows.

“Hey, Warren!” She paused before adding, “Nice shirt. Very punny.”

Warren smiled and scratched his head through his wild, dark hair. “You know me. Always on top of the latest fashions."

Max giggled.

“And you think that’s nice? Check out my new wheels! Whaddya think?” he announced, holding out his hand at the car.

“Wowsers! Way retro!”

“1978 retro, to be exact! After all the craziness of getting it, we should head out to the drive-in near Newberg. I hear there's a Planet of the Apes marathon that's going to be showing soon! So, how about it?”

Max was taken aback. That was Warren. Always forward and to the point. But…

Her thought process was:
Firstly—‘Cool! A Planet of the Apes marathon!’
Secondly—‘Did he just ask me…on a date?’

Max’s face began to flush, but she held her composure. She had only known Warren for a little over a month. Was that enough time to qualify to ask a person on a date? She had no idea. She’d honestly never dated. She had a few crushes back in Seattle, but never once asked anyone out for fear of rejection. Now the ball was in her court. This day was still testing her. She stopped herself before her thoughts ran too wild.

They were just going as friends. Just as friends. Right?

Warren fidgeted with his hands as he patiently waited for her answer. A little smile was plastered on his face and his cheeks were pink. His eyes couldn’t seem to find hers.

Max laughed, nervousness behind the action. “You and I are definitely in the wrong time, Warren. Still, a movie marathon sounds just like something I could get behind right about now.”

His smile grew wider and his eyes lit up again. “Really? I mean…if you want, you can think about it and get back to me.” He must have sounded too eager to himself, trying to play it cool as he went on.

Max tried to ease the tension. “No, it’s cool! Sounds like fun! Today has just been really stressful.” Max then joined him in leaning against the car.

Warren’s face relaxed and became neutral. “Yeah, you had me worried when you didn’t text back. What happened? Anything you want to talk about?”

Max thought about it for a moment. Warren was one of her good friends at Blackwell. If anyone would understand some of the shit she was going through, it would be him—him and Kate. She began her daily tale of misery.

Time passed, and Warren listened, his expression changing from surprise to worry whenever she mentioned her mishaps with Nathan and Victoria. Still, he listened and was there for her. However, she left out the part about losing her photograph. Some things she just didn’t want to admit to anyone, not even to herself.

When her tale came to an end, he let out a small laugh. “Well, your day has mine beat. Just a run-in with a stubborn Bunsen burner. You should have texted me in class! I know how to be a ninja with my cell, even around Ms. Grant.”

Max laughed. “Well, thanks to Nathan,” she paused for a fraction of a second, thinking how strange that statement was, “I got to take notes, so my grades wouldn’t take a beat down.”

Warren read her mind and joked, “You realize you just thanked Nathan Prescott, right?”

They shared another laugh.

“I know! So fucking strange. It really has been one of those days. Still, thanks for listening. I really needed it. I think I’m gonna head back, though. Heh. I still have a shitload of homework to get through.”

“Hey, no problem! How about I walk you back to the dorms?”

“Sure. I could use the company.”

The two began making their way back up the steps to the main campus. Max took one more glance around the parking lot, her eyes scanning over the random graffiti phrases on the walls. Her eyes landed on the trailer again. She could have sworn she caught a glimpse of a girl entering the shifty abode, spied some skinny-jeaned legs and flowing strands of long, blonde hair as the door closed. A dog’s bark and light laugh. Her imagination?

Max stopped. Her body suddenly felt cold. She looked up to the sunset sky. The orange and pink stained clouds rolled by like the ocean’s waves.

‘What am I waiting for?’ she asked herself with an inner confusion. Her legs were weighted stones.

Warren had taken a few steps past her, chattering away about various movies and television shows. He finally saw that Max wasn’t walking with him.

“Max?”

She continued to stare into the sky, her blue eyes swirling into the image of the clouds.

“Hey.” Warren went back to her, his face contorted. He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Max?”

Max blinked. Her cheeks then felt wet. The sickening weight lifted.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay? You’re crying.”

She blinked a few more times, her eyes blurry and watered. Her reflexes snapped, and she wiped away the streams with haste with a gasp, the breath she had been holding she finally let out. It was akin to a sob.

“Whoa, Max!”

She wiped the last of her tears and cleared her throat. “S-Sorry. I guess today took a lot more out of me than I thought.”

His joking side had gone. “You sure you’re going to be okay?”

“Yeah. I think so.” Her response was flat.

“Max.” His brows creased.

“Really!” She picked up a false mood with a sniffle. “I think I just need to sleep it off after getting some homework done for once. Today was…way too stressful.” She was clawing at the bottom of the barrel for some excuse make him feel better. It was also to reassure her confused self.

Warren still looked unconvinced, but he respected her privacy. “All right. But you call me if you need anything, got it? Anything at all. I’m always here, Max. Don’t worry about the movie. Right now, it looks like you need some serious time in your chill zone.”

He was gripping her shoulder with a protective intensity. She placed her hand on his and slowly removed it with a reassuring smile. “You worrywart.”

Warren blushed and brought both his arms to his sides. His eyes wandered elsewhere again.

He and Max continued back to the dormitories in silence.

Even after Warren and she parted ways for the evening, Max still felt uneasy. Everything seemed to be falling apart rather than falling into place. Wasn’t coming back to Arcadia Bay supposed to be a good thing? Perhaps this was her karma for never getting back with Chloe when she had the chance. She still had the chance, but would she take it? Max shook her head, answering her own thoughts. She kept staring at her ceiling, the white now tinted to a darkening blue. Her textbooks were strewed about the floor, several assignments still incomplete, and the stereo was on low with more acoustics.

Max, again, thought about Victoria and Nathan’s conversation that morning. What could have been going on between them? She’d never seen Victoria look so…helpless. She’d always seemed so confident and proficient in everything she did, much to Max’s secret envy. And then when Victoria addressed her personally after Jefferson’s class? That was unexpected to say the least.

Then there was Nathan and his melancholic expressions. And him giving her that pen? To help her? Or…what? And what the hell was with that sudden tearjerker moment in the parking lot? Where did that come from?

Max shivered. Summing events up, everything about that day felt…off.

She curled into a fetal position and covered herself with her comforter. The small t-shirt and shorts she sported weren’t very warm. Her cocoon began to feed off her body heat and she sighed, content. Her paper lanterns lit up her photo wall and she let herself fall into their memories, fall into slumber.



“Get in this picture, you dork!”

“Chloe! I look silly! I don’t want a pic!”

“Said the girl who wants to be a photographer! Come on!”

“Oh…okay. But just one!”

“There! See! We’ll be the scourges of the seven seas, together! Forever!”

“Forever!”

“Unless you let me die.”

“…What?”

“You’re going to let me die. You're going to let me rot. You're going to let me fade from your memory altogether. But what’s new?”

“Chloe? What are you talking about?

“You always do this. You pretend to care. Just like everyone else. Who the fuck do you think you’re fooling?”

“C-Chloe…Wait! Chloe!”

“You’re so selfish. So full of it. Your selfies won’t get you anywhere. Your photography is nothing but shit! Yet you still hide in it, hide away from the world, Maxine Caulfield! Hide away from it forever!”

“Chloe!”

“Nobody would ever even miss your punk ass, would they?”



Max shot up, the comforters creating an air current that messed some of her papers on the floor. Her breathing was hard, and she was covered in a layer of sweat. Her stereo was still on.

Something good…
Oh, something good…

“What the hell?!”

Her heartbeat resonated in her ears. She remembered the dream and threw her legs over the bedside. Her body still had to catch up, so she stumbled when forcing herself to stand. Max swayed her arms for a moment and cleared her head. When things were balanced, she went over to her stereo dresser and opened the top drawer.

There, a picture of her and Chloe rested. It was taken the year before Max left for Seattle. Halloween, 2007. They had dressed up as pirates. Her experimental hairstyle now a permanent for her, and Chloe, a smiling ghost from the past. She was positive this was the scene in her head. But it had warped, distorted. And then…

“W-What the…?” Her voice sounded echoed and far away, the sudden wake still banishing sleep.

Max could believe the entire conversation with Chloe, even down to the disturbing nature of the nightmare. But that final line. Neither she nor Chloe said it. That unmistakable voice.

Outside, the cool gray of morning began to filter in the windows.

“Nathan?”

Ohh, something good…
Oh, something good tonight will make me forget about you for now.

Chapter Text

Max’s stereo droned on and on as she sat on her bed. Her breathing steadied and she was trying to take in everything from that abrupt and crazy nightmare. Her mouth salivated, and she was positive she was going to puke any second. She managed to keep it down and swallowed the tart bile forming in her throat with a groan of disgust.

In her hand, she held her cell on Chloe’s number.

‘Call her. Just fucking call her, you idiot!’

Minutes passed, and Max did nothing but stare at her phone, stuck in that moment of do or die. The smiling face of Chloe Price in the contacts just stared back, ever-still and happy.

“Damn it!” She put her phone to the side and threw her body on the bed with a frustrated cry. Her mind was a blur.

Guilt kept stabbing her in the stomach, but dread had driven that knife deeper. Besides her fear of Chloe’s response to her absence, she wondered where that final line from her dream came from. It was Nathan’s voice, for sure, but she had never heard him say anything like that. She’d never even had a proper conversation with him! If anybody could have a proper conversation with him.

Regardless, it scared the shit out of her.

She looked at her phone’s clock—8:43 am. There was a lot of time she could kill before Mr. Jefferson’s class. Due to Ms. Hoida being out, her first period was cancelled indefinitely. Therefore, her morning didn’t start until 11. She was wound, but also somewhat relieved. She needed the time to relax and think.

‘Crap. I have to pee.’ She cursed and sat up, her bladder having that all-too-familiar ache with the sudden intrusion of nature’s call.

She exhaled, picked herself up, and peeked out her dorm’s door. The hall was silent save for the muffled and somber whine of a violin.

‘Kate must be awake,’ she thought. ‘She’s another early bird, and she always practices her violin in the morning.’

Max listened. Nothing and no one else stirred. Good. She could complete her mini mission in peace.

‘Right. After this I need to rest. Then I need a morning walk. Gotta get the blood flowing and clear my head.’

Max began to tiptoe across the cold carpeted floor. The heat from her room and comforter cocoon had disappeared. She shivered when she reached the door and silently cursed herself for not at least putting on some socks.

‘Cold, cold, cold, cold, cold!’ The mantra she adapted along the way.

Pushing open the restroom door, the silence was abruptly cut with a loud BOP! The telltale sound of someone falling to the floor followed.

“OW! What the fuck?! Shit…!”

Max jumped, backed up, and covered her mouth with both hands. She pressed the door once again, lighter this time, to see who had been the victim of her morning blunder.

On the tiled floor sat Victoria. She was gritting her teeth and holding one side of her head in pain. One part of Max wished she had her camera to take a photograph of her less than glamorous moment. The other, more prominent part of her felt awful…and fearful. She just hit Victoria Chase with a door. Accidentally, sure, but there was going to be hell to pay.

“Oh, crap! Victoria! I’m so sorry!” Max kneeled down to the girl to check on her.

Victoria glared at her with odium, a bruise beginning to blossom on her forehead. “Ugh! What the hell are you doing, Max?!”

Max was caught off guard. If she didn’t know that blonde pixie cut and pissed off cry, she wouldn’t have thought she was looking at the Victoria Chase, Queen of Blackwell. She was wearing a simplistic, dark navy tee with baggy, blue and white zebra-stripe pajama pants. On the shirt was, she couldn’t believe, the Van Goh TARDIS print from Doctor Who! She would recognize it anywhere. The lack of makeup on the young woman was also quite jarring, like an unpainted canvas.

“I-I just had to use the bathroom and…” She stuttered, trying to keep her self-loathing tone down. She couldn’t believe her shitty luck!

Victoria interrupted in a bark, “You did that on purpose!”

Max shook her head and scowled. “Why would I do something like that on purpose?”

‘Even if you do deserve it sometimes,’ she added in thought.

Standing up, Victoria turned her head to one of the mirrors. She then shoved past Max with enough force to make her stumble.

“Get out of my way, Caulfield! Now I have to spend extra time covering up this fucking bruise!”

Victoria marched to her room, entered, and slammed her door. Max still couldn’t get over her appearance. Victoria Chase, a fan of Doctor Who? She couldn’t help but let out a small laugh. For now, she wasn’t going to be able to give her a suitable apology. She made a mental note to try again in Jefferson’s class that afternoon. With a sigh, she continued her business and headed back to her own room as fast as she could.

Max then stayed on her bed for the next hour whilst doing her best impression of a two-by-four, flittering in and out of consciousness.

She never called Chloe.

It took her another hour to shower, organize the mess in her room, check her computer for emails and the like, and get ready for class. She really needed this morning walk.

Her body shuddered, a good feeling, and she smiled confidently at herself in her mirror, looking over another simplistic outfit of the day. Today’s ensemble: the same gray, hooded jacket—‘It’s not dirty!’—a white tee with a simplistic print of a doe, a slightly darker pair of blue jeans, and her canvas shoes. She shrugged and accepted her simplistic style for once, throwing her messenger bag over her shoulder, making sure to have all her essentials before leaving. She didn’t want a repeat of yesterday.

She hadn’t yet heard from Warren. She figured he was giving her some space to breathe, which was a relief. She thought about texting him before the start of classes, but ultimately decided against it. After all, she knew he was worried about her, but how could she begin to explain what happened when even she didn’t truly know? She made it a point to talk more with him during their science class that day.

Max began her ritualistic exit of the dorms. The chill of the October air enveloped her, and she shivered. The trees shared their secrets with the wind and various birds twittered songs of the unknown. Max wondered if Samuel ever came across her photograph. As she stood at the top of the steps in thought, a figure made their way towards her.

It was a girl. She was strutting with bouts of grace and confidence Max only dreamed of having, like she was on a mission.

Max’s stomach tightened as she met the female’s entrancing gaze. This girl was beyond beautiful. She was like a wisp floating through the misty air, fog revolving around her glowing aura. Something struck Max about her. Like she was familiar somehow, but she knew she’d never seen this girl before. Her long, blonde hair flipped back and forth with her stride, a swish to the side revealing a blue feather earring. Everything about this girl screamed perfection—glistening hair, sun-touched skin, wide eyes, plush lips, slim and fit physique—everything. She looked like she belonged on the cover of magazines, not at this school mingling with the ‘precious twee artists,’ as Victoria would put it.

Her clothes were also rather unique. Punk rock mixed with a vintage zing. She wore a couple thin shirts under a threadbare, red flannelette. A pair of light, tattered jeans, cut at the thighs to make them look like shorts, followed suit. Black stockings covered the rest of her legs with runs in different spots. Knee-high, army green Converse adorned her feet.

The girl looked up and locked eyes with Max. Her lips parted to show off a straight-toothed smile. Max froze.

“Morning!” she chimed without hesitation. She even gave Max a little wave.

“Uh…” Max was speechless.

“Hang on a sec.” The girl stopped and gave Max a long look over. She placed a hand on her hip and shifted her weight to one foot with an inquisitive expression.

Shuffling her feet in nervousness, Max’s eyes widened.

“Do I know you? I mean, besides you being a student here and all,” she laughed between sentences, “I feel like I’ve seen you before.”

All Max could muster was a shake of her head, keeping what cool she had at the moment. She didn’t know her, she was sure of it. So, why did she feel like, somehow, she did?

The girl clicked her tongue and the corner of her mouth turned into a half-smile. “That’s strange. I could have sworn…ah, well! Anyway, hope you have a good day!” She proceeded to skip up the steps and into the dorms.

Max was left dumbstruck.

The doors suddenly cracked open again, and the girl’s head poked out. “And, hey! Don’t be so shy! Not all of us bite! Well, not unless you ask nicely.” With that ‘encouraging’ statement, and a wink, she was gone.

Max blushed briefly, and then looked at the ground, still trying to process things. She blinked and began to go forward, confusion littering her mind all over again. As if things couldn’t get stranger. She tilted her head at the Tobanga in passing, the wide, painted eyes of the pillar ever-watching the perimeter of the dorms.

Max snapped another quick picture. “I don’t suppose you have anything to say to that?” she asked it while shaking her new Polaroid.

The piece could only stare ahead in its wooden silence.

Max continued to the main campus. There were only a few clumps of students stationed around. Most of them were already in class, waiting around for their next periods, or skipping out. The sun was slightly hidden behind some thick, overcast clouds. Morning dew and fog clung to the ground, and the mist rolled over the football field across the street. Max hugged her arms. It was a little chillier than she thought, and it looked like rain was on its way.

“Max! I thought that was you!”

That voice made her nerves zap to life and posture straighten. She inertly brushed some hair behind her ear with a blush and turned to face Mr. Jefferson.

“Everything okay? You look little lost.” the middle-aged man asked, one hand in his topcoat pocket, the other holding a briefcase.

“M-morning, Mr. Jefferson! And I’m doing okay. Just admiring some of your work while I take a walk. How’s your morning been so far?”

Her heart beat fast. Being alone with her favorite professor was more than a bit nerve-wracking. Sure, he was an attractive man and one of her biggest heroes, but she was more anxious that he would bring up the contest.

Of which, she predicted, he wasted no time in doing. “Well, it’s been pretty good so far. It’ll be even better when you submit your photograph today, right?”

The teasing, yet condescending, air of the question rounded up and punched Max right in the gut. Her stress was back within seconds and she inwardly cursed.

“Um, y-yeah! Of course!” she lied. “I’ve been sorting through some of my pictures, a-and found a few good ones that I was going to go through after classes today!”

Mr. Jefferson’s eyes slanted, an eerie sort of look when Max thought about it. His glasses reflected some of the morning’s blue-tinted light. His expression picked up and he smiled, shrugging off the cold and continuing towards the school’s entrance. Max followed.

“Okay, I’ll pretend you didn’t lie to me just now, smile, and say I look forward to your entry…once again.”

Of course he would see through her. Lying was not her strong suit. She sighed, her breath visible in the cool air. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Jefferson. To be honest,” she hesitated and continued with a defeated sigh, “I lost my photograph.”

“Lost it?” he feigned bafflement. “Max Caulfield, one of my most talented and responsible students?”

His words flattered her, even if they were played to bring up her mood and boost his own ego. “I know. I’m really sorry. I was going to try and find another photo to enter, but…” She stopped her sentence and momentarily let her arms come up in a shrug.

“That’s too bad. Be that as it may, tomorrow’s the deadline.” His voice dropped a few octaves in seriousness, “So choose fast if you still want a shot in the contest. I trust in your judgment, Max.”

The two had begun walking down the corridor to Jefferson’s classroom, their footsteps echoing in the rather empty hall.

“So, you really think I have a shot?”

“Of course!” He said with a bright smile, as if it was a silly question for her to even ask. “You do have a gift, Max. You have that fever to take images and frame the world as you see fit.”

Mr. Jefferson tarried, a sudden faraway look in his eyes. Max was silent. The moment was suspended long enough for Max to feel a shiver of unexpected apprehension run up her spine.

The elder photographer’s mouth upturned for the briefest of seconds before he unlocked the classroom door, continuing his speech as they walked in, “You’ve just got to get out there and share your gifts with the world. San Francisco’s gallery would certainly be a great place to start.” In the meantime, Jefferson flicked on the overhead lights, placed the briefcase on his desk, and opened it.

Max nodded, intently listening. She thought about his slight pause earlier. Before she could ask him anything further, his attention turned to his now noisy pocket. Jefferson pulled out his cell phone and held up a finger to her.

“Hang on, Max. I have to take this. If you like, you can take a seat and we can talk in a moment.” Jefferson kept his sentences short and glided out the door in a few, long steps.

Max hovered above his desk for a while, wondering what she should do. She couldn’t sit down, her nerves were too fluttery! She just had a somewhat full and optimal conversation with Mark Jefferson, her biggest contemporary source of inspiration since…forever! She felt a pleasing warmth spread across her cheeks. Victoria never gave anyone else time to get a word in edgewise with Jefferson. She smiled, smug with her small victory.

As the air stilled, and she grew calmer, she took note of his briefcase. Max decided to take a peek inside, her curiosity getting the better of her once again. There were different files and pamphlets neatly organized with staples or paper clips alongside a stack of photographs. One said paperclip held them all together with a small, square note on top. It read: ‘EHC Photos.’

‘Ooh, jackpot!’ she thought to herself with glee. Then, she stopped. ‘Well, I really shouldn’t. That way I won’t be discouraged with my own entry. If I enter that is. What would I even submit now that my photo’s gone?’  She shook her head; there she went again.

Ultimately, she decided to pick up the stack, glancing to the door to make sure Jefferson wasn’t coming. She removed the clip and began shuffling through the entries.

‘There’s no harm in looking, right? It might even give me some extra inspiration!’

The names of the students were posted on the back of the photos using Post-Its. There was Hayden’s, Daniel’s, and…Kate’s! She smiled at the heroic and warm gathering of people in her photo—a firefighter helping citizens in need.

For Max, the lighting cast a scene that felt like home, felt very safe. Almost like Chloe’s living room where they pretended to be pirates, using the floral-patterned sofa as their trusty ship. Almost like the dining room where they sat at the table with Chloe’s father, William, drawing superhero comics and reading manga and tween magazines.

Max smiled, though her heart ached. She slipped the photo underneath the others and squeezed her eyes shut, the familiar burning in her nose coming to the surface. She shut it down with a hard gulp.

She then continued her probing. Victoria’s picture was, of course, a well-lit, professional shot that stood out amongst them all. She didn’t linger long on it, feeling her lack of confidence resurface along with that unwanted twang of jealousy. Max ended up going past various photos of peers she didn’t know from Mr. Jefferson’s other classes as well. All of them were mosaics reflecting their own beauty and style.

More self-doubt. More twangs of jealousy. More pushing it to the side. Max sighed.

It was then that she came across a photograph with a whole different atmosphere. She stopped on it, letting a finger follow the highly contrasted shadows of the monochrome piece. It was of a cemetery. A disheveled older man was digging near one of the many graves with a shovel, his intentions up for interpretation. The sunlight knifed past the tombstones, the sharp juxtaposition igniting admiration and unease in Max. It then faded into a shimmery bokeh blur with a landscape of pine trees in the background.

It was one of the only black and white pieces Max had come across. She stared at the photo, the irony of the macabre image representing ‘Everyday Heroes’ in full effect. The shadow of a laugh escaped through her lips. She wondered who submitted this gem, relatively appreciating the piece’s darker wit and talent, even if unintended.

She flipped the photograph over, a heavy sensation creeping to overshadow her. In all-caps, an unsteady hand wrote their name on the Post-It.

NATHAN PRESCOTT.

Her lips parted, and her eyes widened. ‘Whoa! This is Nathan’s picture? I guess the guy has his own style. It is a bit morbid, but…this is actually a really pro shot. Damn.’

The rising sun broke through the clouds, filtered through the windows, and glinted off something in the case. It caught Max’s attention. Underneath the Everyday Heroes photographs were a few similar documents with watermarked logos. They read: The Prescott Foundation.’

Then there was a familiar gleam. Next to the watermarked papers, another cherry wood, gold plated pen with ‘S.P.’ and ‘Pan Estates’ embossed on it. The sunlight continued to glisten on the clip, the mystery lost in the sheen.

Max’s brows furrowed. “What the…?”

“I wonder how Jefferson feels about your nosey ass all up in his business.”

The voice, all too recognizable, was a dangerous whisper near her ear. She gasped and nearly dropped the stack of photographs in her one hand. Her heart became a jackhammer against her ribs as she spun around.

Nathan backed up, his hands making their way inside his signature jacket pockets, a smug grin on his face.

‘Jesus! When the fuck did he sneak in here?!’

She also wondered what he was doing there so early. He should have been in class, right? Then it hit her. Nathan Prescott did what he wanted, when he wanted. Now, he was there, and he succeeded in one-upping her again. Her face flushed in growing ire.

His pack was slung over his shoulder. Some papers, a notebook, and a three-ring binder poked out from underneath the flap. His camera was situated in the front appendage. She could tell he was trying to hold back a snort, no doubt due to the success in getting a rise out of her. She wanted to punch him.

“Chill out, freak,” he said, “I’m not gonna fuckin’ tattle on you.”

Her face reddened even more out of frustration. She put his photo back in the pile, and returned them to the case posthaste. Her limbs shook from the adrenaline rush. She tried her best to avoid his scrutinizing gaze, a silence beginning to permeate the room.

His expression became a glower and his head tilted to the side. He made an annoyed sound while flipping his pack on the table.

‘Wait, what? Why is he unpacking? He’s not in this class.’ 

Her mind was crowded with thoughts and her nightmare resurfaced. She tried to quiet it the best she could. That was something she didn’t need right now. Her heart continued to pound.

Nathan removed his binder and spread it open on the table. He turned past several pages, all with various monochrome photographs, with a quickening pace. His hands were shakym and his knuckles were red and dry. She could even see his bone structure beneath the skin.

He stopped and snapped his head up, feeling her eyes. “Fuck’s sake…WHAT?”

Max realized she was staring and backed off, embarrassed. She rubbed her arm with a frown, already growing tired of his curt attitude. He huffed and went back to the binder. He landed on an almost-empty page. Through all the black and white, one photograph shone through in full color. Max couldn’t hold back her sharp breath.

“That’s—!”

There it was. Her Everyday Heroes photograph. In Nathan Prescott’s binder, no less. She instinctively went to reach for it, but he was faster, pulling it out and holding it above his head. He stretched his body, knowing she couldn’t quite reach that high.

“Hey, that’s my picture!” she cried with a stumble. “Give it back!”

He grinned with pride. She really wanted to punch him.

“Really? After leaving it on the ground yesterday, I assumed you didn’t want it anymore.”

‘So, I did drop it out there. And he found it. Of-fucking-course.’

She crossed her arms and scowled. “Well, I do.”

His eyes narrowed, and he looked at the photo. “Hmph. I don’t see why. It’s a piece of shit.”

A pause. “So then why didn’t you throw it away if it’s so bad?” Her skin began to prickle with irritated goosebumps.

His blue eyes met hers in that discordant deadlock. “Because the look on your face right now is priceless.”

The answer was blunt and stabbed her through the chest. She wanted to say she wasn’t surprised, but she honestly was. Her mouth came ajar, she was sure, and her knees slightly buckled. Her anger was reaching a boiling point.

He let out a short, shrill laugh. “Man, Victoria was right. You look like a little kid when you’re really pissed off,” he said, still holding the photo out of reach.

Her ears grew warm and she shot out her palm. “Just give it back, Prescott.” She spat his surname in disdain.

His countenance changed into a livid scowl within a millisecond. “Don’t tell me what to do, Caulfield. Otherwise…” His voice dropped to one low and rough, dangerous. The threat was solidified when he put her photo between his thumbs and forefingers.

Her fear cranked up to its highest level. ‘Shit! Don’t piss him off, Max! If he tears it you’re screwed!’

Max swallowed, her eyes meeting the floor. Another round of silence ran between them. She didn’t know what to say or do that wouldn’t anger him further, stuck between a rock and a hard place. She breathed in slowly to regain posture and begrudgingly pushed her own pride to the side.

“Nathan. Can I please have my photo?” Her words were sincere, surprising even herself. She didn’t look up.

The pause in the air was becoming weird. She hated this silence and wished Mr. Jefferson would come back, or some other students would start filing into the room, something to break this tension! She regained bravado and looked up at Nathan.

His had calmed, yet his expression was still somewhat annoyed. His hands were no longer in tearing position. Max’s nerves simmered.

He looked over her picture. “Huh. You’re making a big deal out of one lousy selfie.” Max noticed the hint of confusion in his voice and just how delicately his slender fingers held her personal magnum opus.

“It’s important,” she answered, and then added bravely, “I’m entering it in the Everyday Heroes contest.”

Nathan’s eyes widened. “This? Ha, ha! Really? Holy shit, are you trying to lose?”

There was the jerk she knew all too well. Max rolled her eyes in response. She resolved not to show that his words struck a nerve. Now she wondered if she’d see her previous declaration through. She wished she’d never opened her mouth.

“Look, m-maybe it’s not the best,” she paused, trying to find some kind of answer, “especially when I’m up against pieces like Victoria’s…and yours.”

‘Wait. No. That’s not what I wanted to say! Was it? Jesus, Max, you’re fucking this all up! His shot was really good, though. Creepy, but good. Still, great job on bringing yourself down just to boost his ego. It’s not like he needed it.’

“But I still want to try,” she finished, all in one quick breath.

He seemed to stare right past her, the morning light now bursting through the clouds and invading the room. His jacket glowed like it did the other day, but only for a moment before the clouds once again left them in a muted gray. Max found it mirroring her fleeting lapse of courage and shivered after it faded.

Painful, silent seconds dragged on. Max was beyond uncomfortable by this point. She had taken her palm back and was now tapping one of her feet against the tiled floor. How long could Jefferson’s phone call possibly be?

“You saw my photo?”

The question came suddenly. What caught Max most off guard was Nathan’s tone—soft, and laced with what sounded like…esteem?

“Uh…Y-Yeah…” She didn’t know how else to put it. She avoided eye contact, placing a hand on the back of her neck. “It was actually a really good shot.”

“Okay, sorry about that, Max. Now we can—” Mr. Jefferson stopped himself as he walked into the room and noticed Nathan.

‘Finally!’ Max’s body shifted and relaxed.

Jefferson saw the two students and squinted, mainly toward the new addition to the room. “Nathan. Good morning. Did you need something?”

Nathan said nothing. He was still focused on Max, much to her dismay. His stare encompassed a chill that unwillingly transferred to her. It ran all the way down her spine into her toes.

A few seconds later, Nathan finally broke their connection and answered, “Just chatting and waiting until you got here.”

Mr. Jefferson’s voice became business-like and formal. “I see. I assume you have more pieces for me look at, then?”

Nathan glanced at Max, then back to Jefferson. “Actually, Caulfield’s got something for ya.”

Max’s stomach dropped, like the initial hill on a roller coaster ride. Her eyes widened. ‘He wouldn’t dare.’

“Her ‘Everyday Heroes’ picture.”

‘He would! Asshole!’

With that, Nathan held out the photo for her to take. Due to her mind being put on a panicked pause, it took her a moment, but she eventually reached out and grabbed it with her thumb and forefinger.

She gave it a tug.

Nathan didn’t let go.

Max’s vision shot up to meet his once more. His electric eyes squinted with his trademark smirk. Max's whole body became a wet noodle, holding onto the table for balance with one hand while dueling with Nathan’s grip with the other.

“Oh? I thought you had lost it, Max?” inquired Mr. Jefferson.

Breathing was becoming hard for Max as she gave her photo another tug. Nathan relented and let her take it, that insufferable, smug look still painting his visage.

“I-I-Um…Uh…” She stuttered, tripping over every single sentence she tried to start.

In the meantime, the bell rang, signaling the end of first period. Alyssa and Stella entered the room and took their seats—Stella nose-deep in her textbook, Alyssa nose-deep in her novel. Other students were sure to follow, the hallways becoming muddled with the growing noise of various students.

“I found it and gave it back to her. She said she wanted to enter it, so…” Nathan shrugged for a closer to his statement. If it were possible, his pretense became even more self-satisfied.

“Really now? I guess you got a lucky break, right, Max?” said Mr. Jefferson.

“Y-Yeah. A lucky break.” Max’s throat was tight.

“So, how about it? Care to share?” The academic opened his palm to her.

Max’s feet thawed, and she brushed past Nathan and over to Jefferson. She shot a blazing glare at the boy as their shoulders connected. He got the message loud and clear and pursed his lips, trying not to bust out in hysterics. He was enjoying this, way too much she might add.

Her hands shook as she passed the photograph into the eager possession of Mr. Jefferson. He immediately began judging it, his eyes analyzing every corner of her piece. Max’s nerves were off the charts as the seconds ticked by at a snail’s pace.

“All right, Max! It looks great! That was relatively painless, wasn't it?” Mr. Jefferson praised her in an attempt to ease her obvious anxiety. “You should thank Nath—”

He was cut off by Victoria’s playful voice, “Morning Mr. Jefferson!”

‘Just in time to ruin my 15 minutes of fame…or infamy,’ Max thought, relieved to be out of the compulsory spotlight. She also didn’t want Jefferson to finish that second sentence. The last thing she wanted to do was thank Nathan, her own pride taking over with resentment.

Mr. Jefferson sighed and placed Max’s photo in the case with the others. “Morning, Victoria.”

Victoria gave Max a dirty look when she reached Jefferson’s desk, leaning over the side with a rather provocative posture.

Max noticed the lack of a bruise on Victoria’s forehead, her makeup doing its job. She backed away and turned to head toward her desk, wanting to dig a hole and hide. Still, she felt a glimmer of excitement and hope when she thought about possibly winning the contest. Jefferson liked her photo, so there was a chance!

‘Hm. Maybe I should thank Nathan, even if he clearly did it to spite me. The joke would be on him if I won.’

He proved too quick to give her the chance. He’d stowed away his binder, slung his pack over his shoulder, and sauntered through the others. He sidestepped Victoria as if she were invisible and slipped out the door.

“We’ll discuss your work later then, Nathan?” Jefferson called to him, catching him before he left.

Nathan stopped, turned back, and nodded once. “Yeah. Later. See ya.”

Max looked at Victoria and noticed the hurt in her eyes. Nathan had completely ignored her. She wanted to step forward to ask what was going on, but for multiple reasons, she didn’t, pushing down her compulsive concern.

Taylor entered the room followed by Daniel and Kate. The latter two were conversing about something, smiles on their faces. Max doubted Hayden would be arriving any time soon. He was normally late, probably ‘getting his chemical on’ as he would put it.

Max moored to her seat, feeling a mixture of emotions.

She entered the contest. She had a shot at winning.

‘…Thanks to Nathan. Damn it.’

All her thoughts were conjoining. Why did he even keep her photograph if he thought it was a piece of shit? The photo was in pristine condition, and he kept it in his personal binder, too. That was just…weird. Why go through all that trouble just to screw with her? And his disturbing voice in her nightmare. What did it mean?

Max clutched her head as it strained. She wiped her eyes and smiled at Kate who returned the gesture. Other thoughts for other times; class was starting.



Another long day with another long lecture. Max couldn’t focus through Jefferson’s whole lesson. He didn’t seem to notice or care. When the bell rang signaling lunch, she sat in a daze for a while longer. It took a worrying Kate to bring her out of it.

“Max? Are you feeling okay?” she asked, placing a light hand on Max’s shoulder once again.

“Oh. Yeah, I’m okay. Just a lot on my mind.” Max laughed and tried to play it off.

“I know the feeling.” Kate smiled and clasped her hands together. “Did you think about joining our study group for the weekend? I still think you’d enjoy it if you gave it a try.”

Right. Max hadn’t really thought about it, as much as she didn’t want to admit, but decided to throw caution to the wind. She was still riding her high from the debacle with Nathan earlier.

“Why not? I think I will join you guys. Is it this Saturday?”

Kate nodded. “Yep! In the library from nine to eleven in the morning. We planned on having lunch at the Two Whales or Bean Hip afterwards.”

She hoped they would go with latter, answering with hesitance, “Count me in.”

Kate smiled wide and gathered her belongings. “Okay! Text me later! I hope you have a good afternoon!” With a wave, she was gone.

‘I’ll try, Kate. I’ll try.’

When Max finally got around to leaving, she noticed Victoria was hunched over her desk. Max felt bad for her. It was no secret that Nathan and Victoria were close friends, and with the way things were yesterday and today, it was like Nathan had totally written her off.

Max approached her and bravely gave her shoulder a small tap. “Victoria?”

Victoria's tired eyes met hers, the frown on her lips further turning down. “Oh, God. What do you want, Max?”

She hesitated and thought about walking away after her snip, but instead upturned her mouth in a little smile and continued. “I just wanted to apologize again for this morning,” she said, “I was just in a hurry.”

Victoria blinked, her brows slowly knitting together. She cradled her head in one of her hands and sighed. “Whatever. I have makeup to cover it, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Still. I am sorry.”

Max was met with silence. Victoria then sat up and exhaled, plapping her hands on her thighs and rubbing them. “Shit happens.”

Max thought about leaving then, noticing Victoria’s body language and stunted speech. But, before doing so, she added, “About Nathan. He didn’t say anything to me yesterday. He didn’t talk at all, actually.”

In the next beat of silence, Victoria’s eyes glided to hers, her body unmoving. Max could tell by them alone that she had caught her attention.

Max continued. “He seemed…sad.”

Victoria’s expression neutralized. After a bit, the chic girl stood up and brushed her cashmere sweater downwards, her bangles jingling with the action, and looked at Max dead on. The atmosphere of the room changed on a dime.

“Look, Max. There’s just been a lot of shit going down with Nathan and his family. I worry about him, okay? Right now, we have to work some shit out. I forgive you for this morning, but don’t even try to pretend that you actually give a shit about me…or him.”

Max doubled back. She was at a loss for words, and even when some choice phrases made their way to her tongue, she stayed their desire to come out. Victoria then grabbed her things and pushed past Max, leaving her in yet another stupor for the day. She stood rooted to the spot for a while.

“Max?”

Mr. Jefferson wanted her attention now, and she made her way toward him in a robot-like fashion. She wondered what Victoria implied. All she wanted to do was apologize. Did she seem that concerned about her ‘mortal enemies?’ Hell, Victoria was the one who asked about Nathan the other day. Why was she so upset that she told her the truth? Good lord, her head hurt.

“I wanted to apologize for this morning’s delay. Principle Wells wanted to speak with me about a few things, so I had to head to his office when he called. I also wanted to thank you for your entry. It’s truly a fantastic piece.”

Max relaxed, and her gloom began to wane. She gave him a small smile and a nod. “Thanks, Mr. Jefferson.”



Lunch was quiet. Warren texted her after Jefferson’s class while she was in the cafeteria line. She grabbed a small sub sandwich and a bag of potato chips, and then headed back to the main campus. The picnic table at which she sat was empty. Students passed to and fro as she ate in silence, looking over Warren’s spurts of texts.

WARREN:
Hey, Max! You ready to bust up the science lab? We’re gonna kill this assignment! I’ve got a good feeling!

You want to eat lunch together? It’s pretty lonely in this ol’ school.

Max?

Okay. I’m guessing you still want to be alone? I’ll see you in class. We can talk then. I hope you’re okay.

‘Sorry, Warren.’

He was right. She wanted to be alone for a while. A lot was on her mind. Her nightmare, the contest, Blackwell drama, the works of teen life and high school in general. She began to zone out until someone playfully tapped at her shoulder. There was just no chill for her that day.

“Hey, you!”

Max swallowed a bite of her sandwich and faced the entrancing girl from earlier that morning. She was beaming and promptly took a seat next to Max.

“Um…Hi.” It came out a bit hostile, but Max really didn’t want company at the moment. She hoped their meeting would be brief.

“You look pretty lonesome out here all by yourself.” The girl crossed her legs and flipped back some of her long, blonde hair.

Silence ran between the two. Max wasn’t sure what to do or say, feeling more than out of place next to the beautiful girl.

“Oh, jeeze!” She lightly slapped her forehead. “Duh! I didn’t even introduce myself this morning! I’m Rachel. Rachel Amber.”

‘Even her name is beautiful,’ Max mused to herself.

“Max Caulfield,” she reciprocated with a smile.

Rachel began staring at her for the longest time. Max thought there might have been some mustard or mayonnaise on her face from her meal. She wiped her mouth just in case.

Finally, Rachel let out an enthusiastic gasp. “You’re kidding.”

Max looked to her left and right. What was there to be kidding about? It was her name! She tightened her lips and shook her head.

“No wonder you looked familiar to me! Oh, my God!” she lightly slapped Max’s arm. “This has got to be destiny or something! It’s too perfect!”

By now, Max was feeling really uncomfortable. ‘What the hell is she talking about?’

“Hang on a sec.”

Max blinked, clearly confused as all hell, and Rachel stood up, proceeding to wave her arms and call to another across the schoolyard.

“Chloe! Over here!”

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Max…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“H-Hi.”

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

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

‘Exactly. Shit.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, let’s bail!” Chloe hissed.

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

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

‘Man, how did I get into this now?!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAX:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[PICTURE ATTACHMENT]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pan Estates…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what’s it all about?” Max asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, yeah.” Chloe marched forward.

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

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

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

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

“So? The usual?” Chloe asked Rachel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no! Please, not her!”

Max’s chest pounded, her vision losing clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

Chloe and Rachel exchanged looks of confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh…B-But…”

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

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

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

“Are too.”

“Are not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nathan Prescott…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Max’s turn to freeze with Chloe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel and Chloe began to sing.

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

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

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

So she did.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then looked up and spotted her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

She also had a new text message.

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

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

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

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

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

MAX:
Dude. Gross.

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

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

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

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

CHLOE:
NO EMOJI


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

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

Nathan. Yesterday. She waved at him…

And he waved back.

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

‘Okay.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did—”

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

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

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

Courtney dejectedly nodded. “Got it, Victoria.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s the Prescotts…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa! Oh…” Her tongue knotted itself.

Before her was Nathan.

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

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

She was trapped, and her energy dispersed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Holy…shit…’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm? Oh, Kate!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you find out anything?” Max asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Likewise,” Kate answered with a fragile smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wave of anticipation passed through the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria.

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

Nathan.

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

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

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

Silence.

“Nathan.”

More silence.

“Nate. You—”

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

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

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

“I know, Nathan.” A sigh. “I know.”

“Victoria…”

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

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

Chapter Text

He’s running.

He doesn’t know for how long, or how far, or where to, but he’s running.

Running through dirt. Running through debris. Running through rippling puddles of rainwater and blood. His feet slosh in their wake and they soak his socks, freezing his feet. He notices, but he doesn’t notice at the same time. There is no time to dwell on the sensation.

There are bodies everywhere. It doesn’t matter. He just keeps running. They are dead—he can’t save them. He wants to, but it doesn’t matter what he wants.

He just keeps running.

Some are still alive. He wishes they weren’t. It’s a terrible thought, but then he wouldn’t have to hear them screaming, crying out for help when he knows all he can do is run.

The wind rips cars from the streets, tosses them left and right with its ferocity. He narrowly dodges being crushed. His adrenaline spikes, almost makes him vomit, as he falls backwards onto the cracked, bloody, wet asphalt. He can feel it stick in his throat.

He screams. His lungs are on fire, but nothing comes out. Before he knows it, he’s up and running again.

There’s a glimmer in the distance. The cliff. A beacon.

The lighthouse.

Maybe he could make it. If he could just make it there he could be…

Safe…?

He could hear himself laugh in another plane of reality. That word wasn’t even in his vocabulary.

How stupid. How foolish. How idiotic.

Another scream with a crumbling building. A skyscraper.

This was…Arcadia Bay? It couldn’t be. Too many buildings. Too little trees.

Too much chaos.

His breathing is shallow. He’s going to collapse.

There are more bodies. This time, his scream breaks through the howling wind, conjoins with it in a cry of sorrow. He’s seen these bodies. He’s seen them alive and well. He sees their faces everyday.

Logan.
Zachary.
Juliet…Dana…
Taylor, Courtney, Hayden…
lukeevanstellatrevorjustinalyssabrookekatewarrenohgodwhatshappening…!!

Victoria.

Time slows. His eyes widen as a flying piece of metal slices through her stomach. Blood laces the wind and he swears he feels some hit his face. He can’t stop, but oh, God, he wants to.

‘Why is this happening?’ he wants to ask, but his voice is nonexistent, and there are no answers in this madness.

Everything’s too much. He has to make it to the lighthouse. That is his only goal, the only sane thing in his head.

He passes a muddy hole in the ground. There is someone in it, cockeyed in the pit—a girl. He knows this girl. Her blue feather earring rustles with the wind. He can’t even look at her. Not her. He just can’t…because he swears he sees him with her, a blotch of bright red. It couldn’t be.
He was him…not that thing in the ground. Blood?

There is always more blood.

No. He can’t dwell. He can’t think. He has to run.

He’s getting closer. The ground feels like it’s falling beneath him, his steps crushing the concrete and slowing him further. The rain becomes a curtain of pellets lowering visibility to nearly naught.

And then there’s another person emerging through the insanity. They’re somehow alive, a bright blue landmark. He doesn’t see their face. It’s too dark and the rain is washing them out. The person calls to him, but their cry is lost in the bedlam. It’s too loud—the rushing water, the roaring wind. The person pushes him toward the lighthouse path, stating something with hazy movements of their mouth. All he can remember of them is blue until they, too, fall to the aggressive winds.

The muddy path is wracked with trenches and rocks—from small pebbles to giant boulders—and numerous fallen trees. He climbs over them with strange ease, as if he weighed nothing.

So close. Just a little further.

As he climbs, there’s a shift in the weather. Things become calm. The rain still beats down on the earth, but the wind has settled to a hefty breeze, carrying the electricity through the air and through his veins.

He approaches the sturdy, steel cylinder, debris clanging off it and flying to the sides. There’s a hollow grumble from within, the caged light at the top rotating its beam across Arcadia Bay. The pine trees sway and hiss, an ominous, yet relieving sight. Things haven’t changed here, like this place remained untouched by whatever force swept the town into its current state.

Stillness overtakes him. There is another person nearby. They stand at the edge of the rocky cliff. He glances past them toward the distant town. This was not his home. High-rises, more skyscrapers, houses that all looked the same. A city that was not familiar. A city being destroyed by the cyclone hovering in the center of the ocean. The one before him and the other figure.

And then they turn, their silhouette revealed. A girl.

He knows her. Her short, brown bob flitters with the wind. It’s hazy, but he can see her rain-spattered, speckled face. The droplets look like tears falling from her oceanic eyes. Her frown becomes a smile, and she picks up her arm and waves.

He stares. And stares. He can’t stop staring. She’s a confusing variable in this equation.

Then, he doesn’t know why, but he waves back, as if there was no vortex dragging Arcadia to its doom.

As if things were…normal—another word lost within his vocabulary.

His fears vanish, but only for a second. Because when their arms drop and he steps toward her, the wind picks up.

He watches in horror as its cruel hands wrench her over the side of the cliff.



Nathan nearly launched out of his bed. For a moment, he hovered between dream and reality, his sound-blocking earphones dangling off one side of his head. The long, drawn-out cries of the ocean’s depths were abruptly replaced with another song’s jarring vocals and shattered rhythms. He’d almost dragged the music player off his dresser with the force of his wake.

Inside - there's someone inside!
Inside - there's someone inside!
Inside - I cannot hide!
Inside - from the one inside of me!

He gritted his teeth and hit the ‘Off’ button harder than he should have to silence it. The player didn’t break, but it was flipped on its side and to the corner of his dresser from the force.

“Fuck…me…” The disjointed and aggravated whisper left his lips. Adjusting the alarm function with music from his handheld might not have been his brightest idea.

And that nightmare…

He shuddered as his head fell into his hands, pulling his knees up to his chest. Dr. Jacoby had said his prescriptions might give him messed up dreams, but that was absolutely insane. Though it was a recurring nightmare he’d been having for several months now, but that felt too close to his reality. He was relieved, for once, to wake in the dark and dismal prison that was his dorm.

‘Calm. Stay calm. Stay. Calm. Nathan. Everything’s cool. Everything’s…just…fine. It was just a dream. A really FUCKED UP dream.’

He pulled himself into a tighter ball and trembled, both out of cold and fear. His comforter was cast to the side of the bed. It never kept him warm anyway. He closed his eyes and exhaled a shaky and hoarse breath, raking his hands through his mussed hair.

Nathan only then realized how hard his head was throbbing. Last night’s alcoholic excursion was catching up with him. His dry mouth was soon filled with a sharp tang and thick bile, and he frantically grasped for his trash bin to heave. He coughed and sputtered after dispelling the disgusting mixture, wiping his mouth with the back of his calloused hand.

After several more minutes of expunging his stomach, his whole body became heavy. He leaned back against the wall, hurling his pillows across the way to his black, leather sofa. He then reached for a bottle of water under his bed and slowly drank it down to rehydrate. His throat burned and his eyes watered, gagging and coughing again after taking a few more sips.

‘Christ…’

The sunlight was trying to invade through his closed blinds with little success. What brightness that was there reflected off the shiny surfaces of his glass-top desk and back of his sleek desktop computer. Otherwise, his room was encased in darkness, his high-tech projector and artist display lights off.

And that’s just the way he liked it. His eyes were sensitive enough as they were, the hellish hangover already punishing his skull. And the sun was a constant reminder that it was just another day in Arcadia Bay, the shithole town that his family…that he owned. He half smiled at himself and creased his brows, counting in his mind to put himself at ease. That’s right. Why worry? Everything was fine.

He noticed how quiet it was, something Nathan hated. He reached over to straighten his music player, turned it back on, flipped to another song that wasn’t so heavy, and unplugged his earphones to let the music flow freely. There he sat, staring off into space for a good while, losing himself in the melodic drone while his stomach settled and his head eased to a light pounding.

When he finally roused his heavy lids, the world around him coming back into focus, he glanced over to a new invasion of light from his phone.

1 Missed Call: DAD.

“Fuck.”

He picked up the phone and slowly brought it to his ear, the action feeling like he was lifting a thousand pounds.

“Nathan. I’ll assume you’re awake and just ignoring my calls. Again.”

He winced with annoyance at the patronizing tone of Sean Prescott.

“Of course. Nathan,” Sean punctuates and lets out a quick huff, the receiver crackling, “Katherine and I are coming to Blackwell for a morning announcement. I expect you to be presentable and ready in the gym.”

An audible click signaled the end of the message. Nathan’s eyes went wide.

‘What…the hell…is he coming here for? Couldn’t have elaborated on anything, could you, old man? Fuckfuckfuckfuck…FUCK!’

Nathan pulled back his arm to throw the phone across the room, but stopped himself. No. The last thing he needed was to ask for another phone from that bastard, or to meet the back of his rage-filled hand. Then again, a busted phone could be his excuse for why he didn’t answer. Tempting.

No. Not this time. He put the phone back on his dresser and forcibly sighed into his hands, crossing his legs and hunching over. Then he inhaled and growled, taking the bottle of water and wetting his hands. He raked them through his bedhead and let stray droplets fall to the floor. They bloomed outwards in darkened navy splotches. Nathan then rested a wet, cold hand on the back of his neck and eyed several medication ampoules on his other wooden desk. Next to them, amongst a grating amount of binders and papers, sat his digital camera.

His eyes dropped and he swallowed hard, holding back a sudden onset of tears. It was time to take another dose of meds, but the haze it put him in was sickening. He felt like a goddamn robot—a frazzled, stiff, colorless machine. The barrage of self-doubts and self-hate began to sweep him under…again. He shook as he curled himself into a ball…again.

Again and again and again. Trapped and suffocating under his own weight. He’d lost track of the music, like time, breathing in and out, trying to compose himself to face the normalcy of everyone else. His wrist itched, and he absentmindedly scratched it, feeling what was left of the water on his hands cool the spot. Afterward, he looked at the tips of his fingers. They were tinged with black. He wiped them on his pants and glanced at the slightly-smeared shape at the base of his hand, his face pinching in frustration.

"Again…? God dammit."

And then…

With the new, invasive thought, he rounded his hand into a fist, raised it, and let it fall to the bed. Hard. The reverberation of springs sounded off and a wave of pain shot through his arm, cancelling out any other sensation he had previous. He didn’t even flinch.

His mind had wandered, and he recalled only her on the wet, shimmery lawn. Her small form, her bobbed hair, her speckled face, and blue, watery eyes—like the dream. That crazy, chaotic dream.

Then her stupid wave. Her stupid wave and his dumb-ass response. He didn’t even mean to counter, it just…happened. Much to his frustration and hidden embarrassment.

He frowned. Did she even know who was sitting there, who she was actually waving to?

‘Fucking moron.’


The real question he ignored with that thought was: did he mean her…or himself?

Nathan scoffed, remembering yesterday’s beams of the sun. It blanched her out until a cloud covered the brightness, leaving room for the contrast he strived to capture—sharp blacks, bright whites, and those muted shades of gray that calmed the intensity of the world around him.

Monochrome reflections made the topic in his mind suddenly shift, and he thought of Blackwell’s feted photography connoisseur. Once a famous fashion and deco-style photographer of the early 90’s, Mark Jefferson had made his mark on the world with poise and tact through his black and white images. He also hailed from Arcadia Bay. That, along with his impeccable work, had caught his father’s attention.

With that, Nathan’s train of thought swerved to his own work and about how Jefferson actually seemed to care about his ‘unique’ imagery. It was still a strange feeling. Then again, Sean hired Jefferson for a teaching position two years ago; of course he’d care. That was his job, to actually give a fuck about the well-being and future careers of his students. Though, Jefferson had made it clear that Nathan had a greater passion than others on more than one occasion.

The boy’s shoulders slackened, thinking of the elder's unaccustomed, profound words. Nathan never paid him much mind for the first year he taught at Blackwell, couldn’t have cared less about him, in fact. Nathan just did what he did best. Alone. Hoping to rise to his father’s aspirations of art and photography, always to no avail. Not until his junior and senior years were upon him did his vies lead him to the venerated photographer. By then, the future’s fog he thought would look a little less bleak had only thickened. It was like their meeting was an unavoidable collision within that blanket of mist, guided by the eavesdropped opinion of his peers, his own father, and Victoria—one of Jefferson’s biggest admirers, much to his annoyance at times.

“You’ll eventually have to take some of his classes for graduation. He knows a lot, Nate. You might find you’ll actually like his lessons,” she had said with utmost confidence.

At the time, he highly doubted it.



The topic of Nathan’s photographs came up after an in-class critique in his junior year. Once the students had dispersed, their fearful, inhibited opinions continuously fluttered about in his head. It was the first time he had to publicly show his work to his classmates, none of who were “fans” of his. Especially with him being who he was and his actions towards peer and professor alike. Naturally, they were nervous, uncomfortable, and disturbed. Nathan already knew it was going to be that way. Somewhere inside he was…disappointed? He quickly drowned whatever emotion he was feeling and replaced it with the familiar: anger. Before he could leave, the seeds of ire watered and blooming, Jefferson stopped him.

“So, first crit blues getting you down?” Jefferson joked and sat on one of the desks in the room.

Nathan didn’t look at him as he packed his bag, his form hunched and closed off.

The professor sighed, seeing that a lighthearted start didn’t make any dent in the boy’s mood. “I wouldn’t take what they all said to heart. Your work definitely needs some improvement, but I’d say nothing too drastic. The shadows are damn near perfect, in my opinion. Of course, I know a thing or two about shadows and the balance of black and white.”

A twinge of annoyance was strummed within the adolescent. Nathan hated the way Jefferson spoke, with a certain consciousness, like an arrogant prophet, but also with an aspiring lilt that struck a chord of curious admiration. Nevertheless, who gave a shit if he was older and more experienced? What the fuck did he really know?

“Is that the reason you’re now a measly teacher in this backwater town?” The sarcasm dripped off his words as he gathered his belongings, slamming shut the portfolio his professor nosily eyed.

Jefferson’s brows rose, but he was unfazed by Nathan’s jab, arms crossed and body still.

“This ‘backwater town’ happens to be where I was born and raised. Just like you.”

Nathan shot him a glare and slung his bag over his shoulder. He was pining for a cigarette. “I wasn’t born here, I was born in Florida. We had to move back here because of my family’s bullshit business.”

“Something your father’s more bitter about than he’d like to admit, I’m sure.”

That caught him off guard. Nathan observed him with a skeptical look in his eye, as if there was more to that statement. Like he could add at any time, ‘It’s another reason why he takes everything out on you.’ Somewhere inside, it felt like Jefferson already knew that, and Nathan was relieved he didn’t say anything; the silence at the end of his sentence spoke for itself.

“Your father’s quite an infamous philanthropist and businessman, and a good number of us in the bay know what a hard ass he can be. You would know more than anyone, I imagine.”

More hidden implications. His tone made Nathan feel like he knew more than he was letting on. It unnerved him, but he didn’t move from his spot.

Jefferson continued after the pause, “Anyway. Your work has a certain…aspect about it. It’s something your father can’t see, maybe even refuses to see. And it’s not just him. A good majority of your peers don’t quite get it, either.”

Nathan anxiously fiddled with his bag’s strap. He wanted to leave, but something kept him in the room, in the dimming sunlight of the bay. It shone past Jefferson, casting the man in an portentous, dark silhouette.

“What do you mean?” he asked, his throat hesitant and strangling the question. Knowing, yet not knowing the answer, and feeling weak because of it. Why did he even bother to ask?

“I mean there are those that take pictures, and those that…capture moments. Moments in time, moments in life, moments in one’s mind, in one’s own little world. And it looks like you’ve got quite a world of your own, Nathan Prescott.”

The boy’s insides uncomfortably squirmed with Jefferson’s words. In that moment, he wished his father was the one saying them, and he was overwhelmed. He didn’t let it show, couldn’t let it show. That was the highest taboo. He could, and would, never. It quickly manifested into more anger.

“Bull. Shit. Because everyone was
riveted by the crow eating the innards of that field mouse. You’re full of it.’

“Why did you take that picture, Nathan?”

There was another second take for the boy. It was something he never truly asked even himself. And nobody else bothered to question him of it, for that thought. Not even Victoria, who admired his work from a noticeable, almost discouraging, distance.

“What?”

“Why did you take that picture?”

Silence.

The static-like drones of distant students slowly filled the silent spaces between them.

“I…It was just…rrgh. I don’t—!” His irritability at the question grew, and the fact that he was vulnerably stuck with an answer he couldn’t find pissed him off even more. He grumbled and shifted his feet, scuffing the floor with the underside of his formal shoes. They left black marks on the pale tile.

“Think about all your classmates’ photographs,” he began, placing his folded hands in his lap, his posture lax. “Happy little people or animals doing what they do. Landscapes that portray the ‘natural beauty’ of the world. No offense to them, but…boring. And, of course, this is what my classes are for—to broaden your horizons as growing students.”

Nathan squinted with a frown, still not completely following the man’s vague words.

Jefferson sighed. “With your work, you’re already experimenting with some themes that the majority of the world won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Not unless they’re forced to.”

Nathan’s eyes glued to the black marks on the floor, but he continued to listen.

“The crow eating the mouse. A scavenger scrounging to survive. A disgusting display, but in truth, nothing out of the ordinary. The strong and the weak. Predator and prey. Natural selection.”

His orbs widened, now meeting Jefferson’s.

“Death, Nathan, isn’t always…pleasant, not always pretty. Your images tell us a story, a truth we’d rather push to the back of our minds until it rears its ugly head. They create a disturbance in society’s balance, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing, hm?”

Jefferson had found some semblance of the words in his jumbled mess of a mind, and Nathan couldn’t feel any more uplifted…and terrified. Nathan didn’t say anything, just began backing up towards the door. He had to get the hell out of there. Otherwise he was going to lose it.

“In other words: good work, Nathan. My number one rule: Always take the shot. And you did. You
do.”

Nathan’s chest clenched tight and he gulped, swerving quickly to the door. Jefferson’s voice echoed behind him, causing him to pause in its frame.

“I’ll be here if you need to talk. Until next time.”


A glance and a nod, and the boy was gone.



And what the fuck did she know? How did she even get into Blackwell Academy? His school? On what merits? With what talent? All she had was that shitty Polaroid instamatic and the ‘fever to take images,’ as Jefferson would put it. What a fucking joke.

Nathan pushed his memories and indignation aside, head pulsing and limbs feeling limp. The image of his father’s ever-disappointed face made the sour taste in his mouth return, and invisible claws began scratching at the walls behind his eyes. Nathan groaned. The though of Sean’s pending arrival returned and burned in his blood.

His mind wandered momentarily before a soft sound intruded. It became louder. He realized it was knocking at his door.

“Nate? I know you’re in there. Open up.”

Victoria.

His father was always investing in new people and places of importance. Blackwell Academy, with the construction of the dorms in 1998, and Jefferson’s recent hiring, were just two out of innumerable cases. Another? The Chase Space in Seattle, one of the most renowned art galleries on the west coast. It was right before he started high school, before he began attending and representing Blackwell Academy, when he first met Victoria Chase and her parents.

He bit back the terrifying memory of her in his nightmare, his eyes peeking at the slit of light underneath his dorm door. He could see the shadows of her feet blocking out the rays, blotchy black masses.

He didn’t have time to further reminisce; there was another loud knock.

“Nathan.”

He exhaled sharply, yet quietly, trying not to tip her off, but she wasn’t an idiot. He felt her presence grow on the other side of the door, instinctively shutting off his music player.

“I got you some coffee and a bagel from the Bean Hip. French Vanilla. Cinnamon swirl,” she chimed in a persuasive, maternal manner. “Something to munch on with your medicine?”

Nathan scratched at one of his arms, a wormy sensation assaulting it as she reminded him about his daily doses. The skin reddened under the grind of his chipped nails.

Minutes passed before a sad hum reverberated through the wood. “You know, as much as I love chatting with your door,” she jokingly said, “you’ve gotta come out sometime. At least for classes.” She became more serious. “Unless you’re skipping again. Which…” she sighed, trying to find the words, but they failed her in that moment. She wanted to let her head fall against the door, but kept her composure. Now was not the time.

Nathan’s eyes shut and he slung his long legs over the side of his bed with a large effort. They touched the cold floor. The temperature matched that of his toes. Pushing himself up, the bed gave a small creak, and he stepped to his door in two long strides.

They shared a moment between that barrier, a long and quiet understanding between the two that only they could comprehend. Nathan could feel Victoria smile on the other side, a gesture that cracked his outer shell, if even a little. His face relaxed, the muscles in his brows releasing their strain. The unsettling images and atmosphere of his room closed around him in a welcoming way as the distance between them hovered in a perpetual silence.

“My dad’s coming to Blackwell. This morning. Soon,” he said after a long while. His voice didn’t sound like himself. The cold cut through his loose t-shirt and baggy, tartan pants. He was still thirsty, and that coffee sounded more and more like a blessing as the seconds ticked by.

“What? This morning? Why?” Her dominance shone through in demand, the quiet disrupted.

Another pass between them widened the gap.

“Fuck if I know.”

Victoria pursed her red lips and crinkled her nose, her grip tightening on the cup and bag in her hands. “Nathan, open the door.”

His fingers twitched.

“Nate…”

He wasn’t hearing her. His hands began to shake and his legs felt like giving out. Just that small movement to the door and acknowledgment of Sean’s arrival caused a great deal of strain—body and mind. He fell back to the bed, his vision meeting the pockmarked ceiling. The shaking grew more violent and his chest, becoming hot, rose and fell with heavy breaths.

‘Shit…'

Not now. Not good.

Not good. Not good. Not good. Not—

Victoria’s voice faded and the room became a tiny box, closing in and strangling the air from him. He curled into a ball, gritting his teeth and pulling his arms inward, sweating with his own closeness. The ceiling’s creases became darkened veins of tar that spread into the shadows. He turned his head away from it, the throbbing coming back full force. If he didn’t calm down, he was sure to puke again.

Besides Victoria, he heard other voices outside. It was like they were speaking into a funnel right next to his ear, in one and out the other, echoing through his brain. Nathan caught Logan’s and Zachary’s obnoxious idioms and Victoria snapping back, Hayden saying hello, probably wanting a fix from his truly, and some other washed-out sentences that blurred together in a babbling mess. He bit his tongue and tasted iron, drifting to another plane.

There, he didn’t know how long he was. It must have been for a while, because when he returned, things were quiet again. Unsettlingly so.

Logan, Zachary, and Hayden were gone. Victoria was gone. Everyone was gone. And he had to get his ass around, even if he felt like shit. Otherwise…it was something he didn’t want to think about it.

He decided to peek outside his door. A rush of lonely, cool air greeted him. The halls were completely empty. To his left, at his feet, was the coffee cup and bagged bagel. When he picked them up, he noticed the caffeinated beverage was still lukewarm. His dorm slate caught his attention, Victoria’s handwriting replacing his own.

Nate, Dana needed me, T, and Courtney for something. Take care of yourself, okay? Please eat! I’ll call in a few to check on you. ~ Vic.

It was signed with a little heart at the end as well. He sighed, the little symbol and her efforts making him feel like a complete dick. He took a sip of the drink. It wasn’t hot anymore, but it was still just the way he liked it, and it went down smooth. Hopefully, he wouldn’t get sick again. That would not be a pleasant purge. He rubbed the crust from his eyes after reentering the room and placed the bagel off to the side, not yet ready to fill his stomach with solids.

Looking at the prescriptions on the desk, he glared at them with disdain. Today he needed something else. A pick-me-up. Not that mechanizing shit. With that thought, he cursed the lack of cannabis in his possession, and then almost laughed. Hayden wouldn’t have been able to get anything from him even if he wanted. The party favors were waiting with his supplier. He made a mental note to pick them up that evening. Everybody’s gotta have their fix…including him.

‘Until then,’ Nathan opened the bottom drawer of his black dresser and rummaged underneath some formal pants, ‘this’ll have to do. Not that I’m complaining. After all, it’s a special occasion. Right, Dad?’

The baggie of sugary-white powder illumined itself in his hands. The sunlight shifted with the passing time, shining through the blinds and casting linear bars on his form.

Nathan switched back on the MP3 player and changed it to an upbeat rap song, one that was played at one of the past Vortex Club parties. Something to prepare him for the imminent uplifting the drug would soon bring.

It’s all wrong, it’s all wrong
I can see it in your eyes that you’re livin’ off the ride
It’s all wrong, it’s all wrong
Gonna take it in your step, is this really for what you strive?
Your head’s rash, it’s hard to keep quiet
If I had to guess you’re ‘bout to start a riot
Light a match and just burn it away, thinkin’ of ways to start a new day
It’s all wrong

He bobbed his head, drowning his demons in the pulsating beats, not caring if it was too loud for whatever neighbors were left in the dorms. Fuck them. He owned Blackwell, owned those assholes. They could just deal with it.

“It was actually a really good shot…”

Nathan’s lips parted with the recollection. A mixture of unwanted emotions pushed their way to the surface. What the fuck did that even mean? Was she just making fun of him? More than likely. Or she was just trying to weasel her picture back from him. He sneered with a half grin, remembering that moment of control he had over her with that ridiculous selfie. After all, she was the dumbass who left it on the ground.

‘But you’re the one who picked it up and kept it, dipshit,’ an invasive, unknown voice chided in his ear.

He scowled with the imposition, shaking his head and disregarding it.

She snooped through Jefferson’s contest entries. She saw his photograph.

And she said it was good.

Liar.

Now wasn’t the time for this bullshit. Now was the time to take it all away—the anger, worry, the pain, the nightmares. Everything.

His phone rang and buzzed with an incoming call. He ignored it in favor of the music.

Fuck everyone and everything.

Vmm! Vmm! Vmm!

Ignored.

And especially fuck that nosy little bitch, Max Caulfield.



All her other classes crawled by at a slow and gnawing pace. Max scarcely paid any attention in any of them.

She thought about the conversation between Nathan and Victoria. It kept going over and over in her mind on repeat.

She thought about her dreams and the ghostly voices. That feeling of being absent, yet still there. It slunk through her arms and legs, slunk through every part of her.

She thought about the ominous presence of the Prescotts—Sean, Katherine, even Nathan— their polished outer shell and their mysterious inner cores.

All of those thoughts on top of being in the now-postponed contest, and classes, and homework, and food, and sleep, and hygene, and…and…and.

Her eyes strained and she bit back the pain surfacing in her head. She thought she maybe should talk to Warren, but felt embarrassed for some silly reason. Kate was mainly busy assisting Mr. Jefferson that afternoon in Photography Lab, and she wasn’t going to see her in any other classes for the day. She didn’t want to interrupt. Lunch was her time to eat and be away from everyone, so not then. Maybe she should call her father? No. He worried enough about her going to Blackwell alone as it was. Expressing doubts would only shoulder more weight for the both of them. Her mother? No. She would be the same, even in a more harried fashion.

When the final bell rang in her life drawing class, she shoveled everything into her bag, unorganized, and immediately retrieved her phone to text Rachel. She had an unknown need for her to fill the spaces of gloom with her cheer.

MAX:
Hey! You ready to get going soon?

A minute or two passed and her phone began vibrating with a call. Confused, she answered. “Hello?”

On the other end, an out-of-breath Rachel said, “Hey! Sorry…Whew! Stairs. Had to run and get some extra credit stuff.”

Max let out a light laugh. “It’s okay.”

A silence ran between them with only Rachel’s heavy breathing to break it.

“Listen. Max.” Another inhale, another exhale. “I actually have to run home right now. My parents wanted to talk to me about a few things. You think you can meet Chloe by yourself for the night?”

Oh.

The world fell away and Max became nervously numb. Up until now it had been her, Chloe, and Rachel. And this would only be the second time Max would be with Chloe since her return to Arcadia. She had a weird feeling.

“Um…okay…yeah. Sure. I mean…”

She could almost hear Rachel grin on the other end of the receiver. “Don’t worry, Max. Personally, I think Chloe needs this. Y’know, some time with you. Alone.”

Max began to suspect Rachel was arranging things this way on purpose. A prick of irritation played at the back of her neck, but she quickly leveled, trying not to let it show.

“Right.”

“Really! I’ve got some shit I have to sort out with my mom and dad. It’s complicated.” A long pause followed. “Do you hate me?”

An odd question, one that snapped her back to reality. One that was delivered to her as a joke, but somehow had a heavy weight to it.

“Of course not…why?” Max held her breath before letting it loose with a nervous chuckle.

“I just…I’ll make it up to you two. Promise. Say hi to Chloe for me.” Her voice was a happy and breathy whisper into the receiver. Before Max got to respond, she hung up.

Max didn’t make an attempt to call back, feeling a bit incredulous about the whole situation. Instead, she texted Warren and soon found herself trudging through the emptying halls of the school to meet him at his locker.

“Hey, Max! How are you feeling?” he asked while digging through his belongings. It was quite an organized space, though there were a few granola bar wrappers and an empty energy drink can peeking out.

“A little better, I think. It’s been kind of a weird day. Slow, but…not…at the same time.” Nathan’s dilated eyes came to mind, and she had to force the surfacing fear back into her depths.

“Yeah, especially with the Prescotts coming here,” he said, giving her a side glance before returning it to his locker. “So, uh, you and Rachel. I didn’t know you two were friends.”

He sounded curious more than anything, and it made Max’s mouth curl up on one side. “Yeah. Just recently. We just started talking and…” She shrugged, not knowing how else to complete the thought without further lying to him.

“It’s cool! She’s looks hardcore, but seems pretty chill. I see her around all the time. She’s really popular around campus, I’ve noticed, but I never actually talked to her. I thought she was part of The Vortex Club’s asshole regime.” He chuckled with that last bit before adding, “She’s nice.”

“Mm,” Max agreed, holding the strap of her bag tighter. His words sort of glided over her head as she focused on her other encumbering thoughts.

Warren’s cheerful expression became neutral. “Anyway, here’s your work,” he said, finding and holding up a manila file folder. He even had the kindness to organize them into the latter and mark it “MAX.” She was reminded of a similar ritual he took with his flash drive.

“Warren…” A light flush coated her cheeks with a smile. “You didn’t have to go through all this trouble.”

“What are you talking about?” He grinned sheepishly. “It was no trouble at all!”

“Thank you. I really appreciate this.”

“So,” he paused for a second, shifting his weight to his other foot, “you still pumped about going to the drive-in? I’m thinking about reserving tickets for next weekend before they sell out. But…” His voice wavered with hesitation at the end.

Max gave him a look that told him to continue.

“You seem pretty distracted lately.”

Her gaze dropped from his to the floor. A mixture of emotions came at her in waves. Guilt was the most prominent.

“I’m sorry, Warren.”

His smile faded and he tilted his head down so his terracotta browns could meet her cerulean blues. “Max.”

The sincerity in his voice was almost staggering. She couldn’t look him in the eye, and she suddenly wished Chloe or Rachel was there with her. An awkward silence wedged itself between them. Max rubbed her arm, aware of every fiber in her sleeve, every skin cell beneath the sifting fabric.

“How about we talk more about it on Saturday?” His air grew jovial, trying to pierce through her defenses.

All she could do was muster a nod.

“Talk to you later then?”

She finally lifted her head and forced a smile. “Yeah. Talk to you later.”

Warren patted her on the shoulder and saw her off. Max placed the folder in her bag and waved goodbye, exiting the school and feeling the distance grow between them.

Striding down the spidery paths of the sidewalks, she passed where the concrete web met at the center. The fountain’s statue of Jeremiah Blackwell stared past all of Arcadia, its secrets held within his meticulously-carved, bronze eyes.

Max waited for Blackwell’s transportation bus near the street’s edge. The sign jiggled with the mounting winds, the lowering sun catching a glare off the painted metal. She huddled together, tapping her feet with impatience, and gazed at the spot where the Prescotts' vehicle once sat. Her feelings blended together, unknown. Broken from her trance, the bus pulled up and came to a halt with a screech and ksssh from its brakes.

Boarding the yellow beast, she took a lonely seat by herself, inserting her earphones once more. The sights returned to her as her music shut the world out, the lyrics rising and falling in a mesh. She wasn’t paying much attention. Conversant yet strange the sights were on the bumpy and slow ride down to the seaside shops. She was too afraid to text Chloe, praying that she wouldn’t be too upset with Rachel’s absence.

She exited the bus and stared up at the sign of the Two Whales. The backdrop of orange-kissed clouds framed the blue in complimentary tones. She sniffed; the smell of grease and fat permeated the air outside and Max’s stomach gurgled. She didn’t have much for lunch that day, and she was ready to chow down.

Max spied Chloe’s beat-up, beige truck in the parking lot, shocked that she was actually on time. She remembered her having a habit for being late. A wave of discomfort came over her. Chloe must have been excited for her and Rachel to show. Bravery pushed through her unease and she opened one of the diner doors to enter. A bell chimed twice with its opening and closing, signaling her arrival.

She abruptly stopped with a light gasp.

Everything looked exactly the same, as if she’d stepped back in time. Pamphlets and postcards stood dusty and still in their slots near the restroom entrance. Custom neon signs and old décor plastered the walls and advertised Arcadia’s highlights in fishing and tourism. The ‘high fashion’ t-shirts for the Two Whales still hung above the ventilation and cookery. Even the old gumball machine looked like it contained the same colorful, sugary, round spheres from years ago. She was in a silent awe.

Truckers of the road and fishermen of the bay stooped over the main bar, grumbling with complaints at the lack of alcohol or lack of a good catch respectively. Max remembered her father ‘shooting the breeze,’ as he called it, with them whenever he would stop in for a bite. The other customers had taken seats in the number of 50’s-style, red, leather booths to the left and right, and Chloe stood out amongst them. Her blue hair lit up with the low lights of the eatery and the setting sun of the bay. She recognized another figure standing beside her and smiled wide—Chloe’s mother, Joyce.

Meticulous yet lenient, tender yet tough, and saddled with a quick wit and tongue to boot, Joyce Price certainly wasn’t a woman of complementation to cross. That being said, she was also one of the sweetest people on earth, and was like a second mother to Max. If she wasn’t at her own home, she was at the Price’s, listening to some of Joyce’s words of wisdom or begging for her delicious cooking. The latter came to mind as her stomach sent her another signal of its emptiness. Missing warmth spread throughout her body and the bay’s cold was taken out to sea. The older woman caught her eye and her elongated face pulled into a broken smile. Max met hers with one of respect and joy.

“Max Caulfield,” Joyce said in greeting, the drawl in her voice glazing the surface of her words.

The sun caught Joyce’s blue hair clamp. It held up her blonde locks as she turned to greet the young girl. Her bangs were off to the side and held there, no doubt, by some hair spray to keep out of her eyes. The navy and black Two Whales uniform—a shirt and skirt—held tight to her body. Max thought about Warren’s previous invite to the diner and was glad she didn’t take it. Guilty as she felt about it, seeing Joyce before her daughter would have definitely been a bad move on her part.

“Joyce…” Max’s smile began to wane when she caught Chloe’s rather petulant look.

“Look at you,” Joyce continued. “When Chloe told me you were back in town, I could scarcely believe it. You haven’t changed a bit! Well, maybe you’re a bit taller. Just a bit. Your hair’s cute, too.”

Max straightened a part of her bob and swallowed, shy from the compliment. She let her grin fade naturally as she took a seat across from Chloe. The leather made a low squeak underneath her weight. “You haven’t changed, either, Joyce.”

“Ha! Meaning I’m still the same ol’ diner cook and waitress after all these years?”

Max countered, “Meaning you still look as young and as lively as I remember.”

Joyce’s mouth curved into a smirk and she nodded slowly, hands on her aproned hips. “Nice save, kid.”

Chloe exhaled with force, interrupting the conversation, and brought one of her legs up on the leather seat. She wore her black jacket, Joyce’s old boots, and another signature tank top with graphic print. Her blue hair purpled near the center of her scalp, the beanie that once concealed it now on the corner of the table. The bracketed sunlight coming through the skewed blinds glinted off something Max hadn’t noticed the other day—three bullets on a string around her neck. Once again, she admitted, the accessory suited her new look.

“Right. Yes. Hi, hi. Love all around. Max, where’s Rachel?” Chloe didn’t waste any time getting to the point. Max’s stomach tightened.

Joyce cast an exasperated look at her daughter and pulled out her pad of order tickets. With a sigh she asked, “I see y’all want me out of your hair already. What would the both of you like? You need a menu, Max?”

“Uh…” Max was caught between two different conversations. The fact Chloe didn’t even say hello to her sort of hurt inside, and she thought the Rachel topic would be harder to approach. She turned to Joyce and rubbed her hands together. “No menu. I got this. I’m thinking one of your bacon cheeseburgers!”

She nodded. “Fries?”

“Of course!”

Joyce dotted her pen after some fancy swipes and turned to her daughter. “And you, Ms. Cantankerous Chloe? Also, feet off the booth, I just wiped them down.”

Chloe rolled her eyes and sat up straight, throwing her leg under the table and accidentally catching the corner of Max’s shoe. The momentary look of fault came and went and she gave Joyce a faux angelic smile. Max stifled a giggle at the contrast of her face compared to her grungy look.

“I’m feelin’ a chilidog with mustard on top, Momma!”

Joyce scribbled it down whilst mumbling something about fries and no onions. She knew the fine details. She was her mother, after all.

“All right. And is Rachel on her way? Or…” She addressed the girls with her pen pointing between the two.

“Well,” Max began, Chloe’s attention directly on her, “Rachel said her parents needed to talk to her after classes. Did she text or call you at all?” Max asked Chloe, trying not to falter.

Chloe’s face scrunched and she leaned back in the booth. Her mouth straightened into a thin line. She silently mouthed a profanity.

Joyce caught her little slip and frowned. “Relax, Chloe. Besides, you’ve got Max here now. You two can catch up. It has been a long five years. Rachel’s got her own life, too, you know.” Joyce then departed behind the counter to make their food.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Chloe said, crossing her arms.

Max clasped her hands together in her lap and twiddled her thumbs, sudden discomfort playing at her insides. She knew Chloe would be upset. She had a rather juvenile side that Max didn’t always get along with, even when they were younger. Her eyes broke from Chloe’s and she looked out the next booth’s window.

In the distance was another sight of the bay she had missed sorely. The truck ride with Chloe and Rachel hadn’t given her much time to really look at it before, but now that she was sitting still, she gazed out across the ocean to the familiar landmark.

The lighthouse. Smack on the tip of Arcadia Bay’s peninsula was where it stood, guiding all manner of boats to safety. A sight no one could escape, even if they were just passing through. Chloe and she used to go up there all the time when they were kids. Quite a few times was with William. He would take them during the golden hour, and the two would clamber up the spiraled steps until they reached the top. They all leaned over the metal railing and admired the bay, listening to the cries of seagulls and whispers of the wind as the ocean swallowed the sun.

“Max? Helo-o-o-o-o…” The young girl’s eyes shot back to Chloe. She was snapping fingers in front of Max’s face, trying to get her attention.

Max blinked. “Uh…sorry. Zoned out for a second.”

“The Max Caulfield mini-coma,” said Chloe, her mouth twirling up for a second. “So, Rachel texted you that she was going to head home and talk to her mom and dad?”

Joyce, in the meantime, brought the girls some sodas. Max opened her straw, inserted it in the cup, and took a sip. “Yeah. I wondered if she was going to tell you, but I guess not? I guess she figured I’d give you the message.”

Chloe’s mouth thinned again. She rested her head in one of her hands and pulled out a piece of ice from her cup with the other. Promptly, she tossed the cube in her mouth and crunched down, sitting with a thoughtful expression on her face while flicking away drops of the soft drink from her fingers.

The two sat in silence while Joyce cooked. The smell of the bacon burger got Max’s stomach to grumble again. She decided to try and talk to Chloe, though she looked less than interested in waxing vernacular. “So…you and Rachel been friends long?”

Chloe’s eyes met hers before returning to her soda cup. She focused on the carbonated bubbles and didn’t answer right away. When she did it was short. “Going on a few years.”

Max nodded, trying not to be weird as her blue eyes caught some mathematical graffiti etched in the table. It reminded her of Warren. Silverware clattered, and the corner jukebox layered a cloud of cheesy country music around them, making the atmosphere not as awkward as it could be. Still, Max felt that distance, that canyon of uncertainty. It had closed a little with their previous excursion, but not enough, Max knew, to be complete. The thought made her chest tighten.

“Um. I…” She cleared her throat. “I’m glad you found a friend after…you know.”

“After my dad died and you moved? Yeah.”

Oh. Ouch. Chloe’s bluntness was guard-breaking. Max literally winced. She had no idea how to counter that.

Before long, Joyce’s heels clicked against the floor. Both her hands held their dinners. “Order up, girls!”

The two were momentarily thrown from beneath their cloud of tension. The steaming plates of food were set down, and Chloe thusly dug in. Joyce retrieved a bottle of vinegar from behind the bar and sat it down on their table as well. Chloe sprinkled some drops of it over her fries and shoveled a handful into her mouth.

Max’s appetite had suddenly gone, but she made a small attempt for Joyce with a bite of her cheeseburger.

“How’s it tasting, Max? Just like you remember?”

Max forced a smile. “Better than I remember.”

Joyce nodded once again with that smirk. “Very nice save.”

After that bite, Max’s stomach growled, demanding more, but fearing sick. She ate a single fry and fell back against the seat, sighing and rubbing her forehead.

Chloe took a large bite out of her chilidog and gave Max a stare with a hint of concern. She knew that she and Max hadn’t talked in years, and the other day was more of a fluke than a proper meeting. She rolled her eyes and placed her hands on the table.

“Come on, Max. You can at least pretend you’re glad to be back in Bigfootville with me.”

Max looked up and her eyes widened, elated that Chloe was talking somewhat normally to her. “I am happy to be back in Arcadia Bay, happy to see you! I mean…I know when my family and I moved…it wasn’t at the best time. William was…”

What smile Chloe had faded into a frown. She broke eye contact and rolled a fry in a small pool of vinegar. “Can we not talk about that?” Her voice was low.

Max’s mouth shut and she tried to think of something else to say. She wasn’t going to lie and say Chloe’s expulsion from Blackwell didn’t make her curious, but she wasn’t going to bring it up, either. Bad topic. She felt stuck.

Chloe suddenly interrupted, “Max, can I ask you something?”

Her question made Max sit up straight with attention, relieved that she could be on the receiving end of the conversation for the moment. “Hm?”

Chloe hesitated and took another bite of her dog, washing it down with a long drink of soda. “Did,” She paused to smack her lips. “Did Rachel seem a bit off over the phone? Like, was she…fuck, I don’t know…did she sound weird?”

Creasing her brows, Max absentmindedly ate another few fries. She didn’t know how to answer. She had only just met the girl. Chloe would know more about her than anyone. For her to be concerned enough to ask Max ‘left-you-for-five-years-without-a-call-or-a-text’ Caulfield, something had to be wrong.

“What do you mean?”

Chloe tapped her foot against the floor. “Lately, she’s just been really ‘out there’. She’s been distant, and she keeps flaking on me. Yesterday was the first time I’d hung out with her for longer than five minutes in, like, two weeks.”

Max’s look urged her to continue.

“And it’s always some excuse with her parents or school. She’s got good grades and practically everyone at Blackwell likes her, but she’s not that dedicated. I mean, she loves school, but doesn't love school, you know? And her parents are kind of…oblivious.”

“Oblivious of what?”

She breathed in and just let it go. “They keep pressuring her to get more involved with law and shit and just…! Like, she acts like it doesn’t bother her, but I know it fucking does. She doesn’t want to be a goddamn lawyer or whatever the hell they’re expecting her to do! She wants to be a model and get the hell out of here, do what she wants!”

Chloe’s words were heated and sharp, but controlled so no one would overhear. She clearly didn’t have anyone else to talk to about the subject. Max felt a little staggered, and a realization hit her.

“Is that why you were taking about leaving for Los Angeles? To go with Rachel?”

Chloe’s expression turned to that of a child with their hand caught in the cookie jar. It quickly spread into a furrowed brow and vexed frown. She took another bite of her dog and said through a mouthful, “That’s none of your business.”

Another punch to the gut for Max. The worst one yet. “Have you told Joyce about any of this?”

“Why does that matter?” They both shot Joyce a glance to make sure she wasn’t listening too hard as Chloe spoke. “She’s got everything she needs here, anyway. The bay, the diner, and my fucking step-dick. So, who cares?”

Max’s body went numb. Step-dick? Stepfather? “Wait. Joyce remarried? What?!”

Chloe squinted at her before realizing they had never mentioned her stepfather. She made a disgusted noise and a silence wedged between them. Chloe crossed her arms and flicked her head to the side. “Yeah. To a fucking Nazi. Of course you’d already know, seeing as how you’re attending your precious Blackwell Academy.”

Max didn’t like her tone. “Hey! I came back to attend Blackwell, but I never forgot about you! You’re my best friend, Chloe!”

“Bullsh—” Chloe began, but was cut off by one of the diner doors opening. The air pressure around them changed, and the bell gave a ring as it slapped against the knob.

Max and Chloe turned to see the new patron. Chloe’s face contorted. Max’s eyes widened.

“Speak of the fucking devil,” Chloe hissed.

In walked David Madsen. He spotted the girls at their table and Joyce behind the counter, promptly striding up to them.

Joyce’s smile grew wide and exuberant. David greeted her and leaned over the bar to peck her on the lips. Max hadn’t seen her smile like that since…

Her stomach dropped to the floor. Max leaned in to Chloe’s hunched form and whispered in a panic, “David Madsen is your stepdad?!”

On cue, David turned to the girls, his face becoming stern and etched in seriousness. He was still in his security uniform, but his hat was now off. It revealed his dark, flat top haircut. He turned to Max and his eyes glazed over in anger, lips locked tight.

“Figures I’d find you here.” He looked at Max. “Just another one of your ‘friends’ that love to cause trouble, right? You need to stay off the campus, Chloe. That little stunt yesterday…” he trailed off. “Don’t pull shit like that again, do you hear me?” David’s tone was then gravelly, lofty, and directed right at the blue-haired girl.

Chloe’s response was nothing short of sarcastic, “What? Peeling out? Oooh, I scuffed up Blackwell’s prized parking lot! Big fucking deal.” She pointed a finger up and twirled it in the air.

Joyce stepped up to the table, catching the last part of Chloe’s sentence. “Chloe Elizabeth Price! Language!” She placed a hand on David’s shoulder in an attempt to pacify the man. “David. You’ve already grilled Chloe on the situation yesterday. Don’t make a fuss in the diner.”

David’s eyes smoldered and his lids grew heavy. He suddenly looked more than exhausted with everyone and everything around him, and let out an uncharacteristic sigh. He scratched his short, bristly hair and took a seat on one of the stools, twirling to hunker over a mug of coffee Joyce poured for him.

Max was dumbstruck. This was a lot to take in, and she was still in the middle of an argument with Chloe. She hoped that the situation would have shifted, but with Chloe’s expression, which was sourer than ever, that was certainly an amusing delusion. She couldn’t find any words to placate her…friend? Was she still?

The saddened sound of Chloe’s voice brought her out of confusion. “Max?”

Resting her head on tented arms, she looked up. Chloe was angry, but the desperation behind that emotion was unmistakable.

“Can you…can you do something for me?”

Max’s heart leapt. Through her anger, she was asking her for a favor, and Max gave her full attention in hopes of rebuilding their burned bridges. “O-okay. What do you need?”

Chloe’s eyes jerked from David to Joyce and back to Max before she exhaled. A piece of her blue hair was caught in the draft and flipped upwards. “Can you—” She sighed again, cutting herself off. “Can you keep a close eye on Rachel?”

Max sat back, uncomfortable. “You mean, like, spy on her? Chloe that’s…”

“Please! Max, this is important. Something weird’s going on with her, and I’m really worried. Please…”

She looked down at her uneaten cheeseburger. Chloe sounded anxious and paranoid, and the more she stewed in thought, the more uncomfortable she got. She wanted to help, do anything to make her feel better, to become the friend she was five years ago again. It was the least she could do after…everything. But this might be taking things too far.

“I just…I don’t think we should just pry into her business. Like Joyce said, she has her own life. I’ll talk to her if you want and—”

Chloe placed her hands on the table and stood up. She sucked in and blew out a harsh blast of air. “Of-fucking-course. You just don’t get it!”

Joyce and David turned to them, overhearing her exclamation.

“Chloe!” Max murmured, pushing her palms into the tabletop. Her heart began to pound in embarrassment and fear.

“I honestly don’t know what I expected. You didn’t come back to Arcadia for anybody but yourself!”

“Chloe!” David stepped up. “Sit down!”

“Stay out of this and get off my ass!”

By now, a few patrons were whispering amongst themselves, staring at the intensifying scene.

Joyce came between them. “Chloe, you need to settle down! What in the world is this all about?”

After inching out of the booth, Chloe stomped toward the door. “Forget it. Do whatever, Max. I’m out.”

The diner’s door opened and closed again. The bell sounded. Max’s head swarmed. She felt like a knife was stabbed deep into her chest. Chloe’s truck could be heard starting up and screeching out of the lot. Joyce sighed and David returned to his coffee and fresh order of food, both of them looking tired. David was stiffer than Joyce in his movements and rubbed his temples, shaking his head.

Joyce came over to Max and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Max. Chloe’s been flying off the handle like that quite a bit lately. I’ve tried talkin’ to her, but…well…maybe you can help, be a better influence on her now that you’re here. She’ll come around.”

‘Right. I’m nothing short of the shittiest friend in the world.’

She wanted to help Chloe, but spying on Rachel? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? Then again, Chloe and Rachel were close. She would know if something were amiss, right? Maybe she should keep an eye on her. Max scrunched her face and sniffled, trying to digest everything that happened and was happening.

Time crawled by, and she never did eat her cheeseburger. Max felt even more awful because of it. She already let Chloe down…again. Now she let Joyce down. When the maternal figure checked on her once more, she offered Max a to-go box for her food, not upset in the slightest. Max still felt like shit and decided to take just the burger. She was exhausted and most certainly not hungry, but didn’t want to disappoint anyone further.

“I’m sorry you had deal with Chloe like that,” Joyce said as David helped put on her coat. “You want a ride back to Blackwell, sweetheart? David was just picking me up since my shift's over. It’s just a small detour.”

The offer wasn’t lost on her, but while Joyce was talking, she had another thought while taking another look out one of the diner’s windows.

“Actually,” Max opened her bag and retrieved her wallet, readying a payment for the food. “There’s somewhere else I’d like to go, if that’s okay?”

Joyce gave her a smile and a wink, pushing her wallet back into her bag. “Don’t worry about it, Max. Not the ride or the dinner.”

Max’s chest tightened, both from happiness and sadness. She missed little times like this, and a lot more about the bay. She made a reminder to herself to text Chloe after giving her some more time to cool down. She swallowed, not wanting to show her tears in front of Joyce.



Beat-up cars must have been the norm for the Price household. Or, should she call it the Madsen household now? That whole thing was still a shock to her, something she still had to process properly. She sat in the back of the old vehicle, her body shifting on the leather seats as they hit some bumps and potholes. The beacon she longed to visit was getting closer as the car jerked onwards.

Joyce sat in the passenger’s seat and David was at the wheel. The sputtering of the vehicle and whizzing of other cars as they drove broke the awkward, lingering tension. They reached the entrance to the beach parking lot. David swerved in a U-turn in order to ready the car to head back once Max departed.

“You’re sure you want to head up to the lighthouse, hon? It’s getting pretty late and we’ve got some storm clouds heading in for the evening.”

Max paused, her hand already pushing the door open, “No worries. I don’t plan on being too long.”

Joyce sighed and nodded. “All right. You stay safe, you hear?”

Max nodded and her eyes glided to David. He was giving her a brusque look, like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t in Joyce's presence. She ignored it and closed the door, adjusting her bag to sit behind her once more. She was careful not to have her boxed burger flip around too much within. Joyce gave her a little wave and they pulled away, their exhaust grumbling and tires kicking up some sand around the cracked asphalt.

The beach and boardwalk were stretched out across the shoreline. There were only a few parked cars around the area, some abandoned and rusting away in their spots. There was also a trailer she swore she had seen before. Neverminding it, Max looked towards the ocean’s horizon as a breeze ruffled her clothes and hair. She inhaled the salty air and turned around to look at the looming cliffs. Eroded and layered sediments formed the rocky sides and the innumerable trees seemed to be opening their arms to guide her forward, forging an accustomed path for her to follow. She began the climb up, wanting to clear her head and relax now more than ever—from Blackwell, from the contest, from Chloe…everything.

As Max pushed her way up the steepening hill, a strange sight caught her eye. It was a large, sporty, red truck. It was parked in front of the gate that split the hiking trail and lighthouse paths. Illegally, Max might add. It almost completely blocked the entrance.

“What the hell? Who would park all the way up here? Who could? Bastards.” Max grumbled.

She heard a coo and cocked her head. On the truck’s hood was another confusing sight: A lone mourning dove. It’s head darted up and down, eyes this way and that. Its chest rose and fell with its signature, sad cry. Its contrast to the bright vehicle prompted her to reach for her camera and take a shot. With the flash, the bird flapped its wings and took flight. Max watched it go in silence and put the photo in her bag. Her expression softened as she reflected on the small moment of peace. She then squeezed past the truck with what little room was left between it and the gate’s opening.

After, she straightened her gray jacket and looked up. Amazing. The path was still the same. Today really did feel like she stepped back in time. Downtown, the diner, and now the lighthouse. Of course, the trees and rocks had grown and eroded, but everything else still felt unchanged. She could hear the waves lapping against the shore below. The orange and pink clouds were moving quickly through the skies, gray ones beginning to blanket them. That rain Joyce mentioned was coming in. Hopefully not too soon. She wanted to stay for at least a little while.

She used some round, wood pieces, fashioned in the ground as makeshift steps, to keep up her stride. A sign with an arrow indicated the lighthouse was near. And, boy, was it. She could already see the large, metal cylinder poking out above the treetops. Her pace quickened.

“Get that…from…psy…”

Max stopped, goosebumps forming on the back of her neck. The whisper was carried on the wind, and she was suddenly alert to all the sounds and things around her. Turning around, she was met with the return path. Some squirrels darted back and forth between trash receptacles, and large balls of pollen danced in the air. Other than that, nothing. She gulped and slowly turned back, continuing to the flat cliff where the lighthouse stood.

And there it was. A bit rustier, but it was still the same. Everything was. The lighthouse and its rotating signal, the old shack with the rickety roof clanging away in the wind, the map pedestal where she and Chloe marked their tree fort with a skull and crossbones…all of it. In a patch of unkempt grass was a rotted tree truck with another sight that almost brought Max to tears of nostalgia. Carved into it was: Max + Chloe, BFF Pirates, 2008. The tumult of Max’s fears was whisked away with her memories.

She took out her camera again and snapped a picture of the trunk’s etching. Turning, she angled herself by the lone bench overlooking the water and snapped another worm’s-eye view of the lighthouse. The dissipating orange glow reflected off the white metal, trees, and shrubbery. She shook the pictures and put them in her pack, which she shortly removed from her shoulder and placed on the ground.

Max brushed some leaves off the bench and sat down, the cold wood seeping into her butt and legs. She shivered, pulling her limbs in closer. Her lidded eyes gazed past the rocky cliff, noticing the barrier fence broken and rotting away. She thought someone would have fixed it by now, remembering it being already old and breaking when she and Chloe were kids. She shook her head and sat there for a while, losing herself to the memories of the past.

“I guess not everything stays the same…” she said aloud, hoping that somehow her words of regret would be carried to her friend.

Another long moment to herself passed. The clouds were getting darker and the sun was setting past its golden horizon. Max stretched and yawned, picking up her bag and looking at her newly-developed photographs. They came out perfect with the lighting Arcadia Bay provided. Max smiled, satisfied, and returned them to her bag. She thought about the cheeseburger within and the prospect of a late-night snack as well, her smile growing larger.

And then, a color flittered past her eyes.

Bright blue and riding the little currents of the breeze, a butterfly hovered and dipped in an irregular pattern. Max’s eyes widened at its beauty and how it stood out amidst the earthly palette of their surroundings. As if in a trance, Max stood with her camera and began to follow it to the edges of the cliff. It landed on one of the protruding boulders near the broken poles of the wire fence. Carefully, Max made her way to it, her stomach jumping with adrenaline at the sight of water-sloshed rocks below. She angled her camera, making sure to get every part of the butterfly in the viewfinder.

That’s when she noticed something odd. The ocean was reflected through its wings. The butterfly was completely transparent! See-through, like a ghost. Still, Max held her ground and snapped the photo. The flash surrounded her, and when she stood up, she was no longer met with the sight of Arcadia’s beach and waves.

Instead, she was met with the shining, silver surface of a bucket and the cold, blue hues of tile and dry wall.

‘What the…?’ Max looked all around. Behind here was a row of sinks, and she quickly pieced together that the wall beside her was a cubicle, one for a toilet. A public restroom…?

Again she glanced around, the butterfly waving away to perch on one of the sinks. Max was utterly confused, and didn’t feel in total control of her body. She put her camera away as well as the photo of the blue-winged creature. Wait. When did she grab her bag? What the hell was going on? Where was she?

The sound of a door opening quieted her thoughts. Unbalanced footsteps came close and then backed off. Max peered past the corner and her heart crept into her throat.

“It’s cool, Nathan… D-don’t stress… You’re okay, bro. Just count to three…”

The red jacket of his clashed with the unflattering fluorescent lighting. He held his head and then placed his hands on either side of one of the sinks, sounding more than anxious.

“Don’t be scared… You own this school… If I wanted, I could blow it up…! You’re the boss…”

‘What? What the hell is going on?’

And then…

“So what do you want?” Nathan spat as the bathroom door opened.

Chloe. It was Chloe. She was there, and she started talking to Nathan.

“I hope you checked the perimeter, as my step-ass would say. Now, let’s talk ‘bidness.’”

“I got nothin’ for you.”

“Wrong. You’ve got hella cash.”

Their conversation blurred together in a mixture of anger—drugs, money, Nathan’s family and reputation. Chloe then pushed him once with a threat.

“I can tell everybody that Nathan Prescott is a punk ass who begs like a little girl and talks to himself—!”

And then, a gleam came from Nathan’s pocket as Chloe pushed him one last time. He pointed the now-unsheathed gun at her best friend.

“You don’t know who the fuck I am, or who you’re messin’ around with!”

‘Shit! Max, do something!’ She willed her body to move, but it didn’t obey. She just stood and watched in terror. ‘Go! Now!’

She didn’t stir.

“Where’d you get that?” Chloe panicked and put up her hands, her guard shattered. “What are you doing?! Come on, put that thing down!”

Nathan now had her pressed against the cold wall. “Don’t EVER tell me what to do! I’m so SICK of people trying to CONTROL ME!” His voice rose several times in an incoherent rage.

‘No…Max! Do something! ANYTHING!’

“You are gonna get in hella more trouble for this than drugs!”

Max’s throat tightened. His next sentence was like taking a hammer to a nail, made her want to scream. But she didn’t. She couldn’t.

“Nobody would ever even miss your punk ass would they?”

Oh, God. ‘MAX! DO SOMETHING!’

“Get that gun away from me, psycho!”

Chloe pushed him away. Nathan stumbled back with her action, pulling the trigger. The gunshot rang out and Chloe’s stomach seeped with blood.

“NO!” she finally cried, stepping out of the corner and holding her hand up.

The world around them swirled, layering them in visual slow motion. Nathan dropped the gun, the clatter of steel and tile adding another stab to the sickening, hollow thud of Chloe’s body hitting the floor. A painful screech penetrated the air, like nails on a chalkboard.

Max felt the beat of a bass drum in her chest, and her body grew heavy. The room around her warped and the bathroom faded from existence. The ocean’s waves crashed against the rock wall once again. Her arm reached for nothing and sliced through the air.

She lost balance, loose rocks and soil crumbling from beneath her feet. Max fell backwards. Her backside met the ground and her camera clattered over the edge, smacking the cliff’s sides as it made a silent splash in the deadly depths below. She, too, began to slide, the dirt betraying her and seemingly pushing her off the edge. Her breath caught and she twisted her body before going over, hands grappling one of the giant rocks while her dangling feet barely scraped another for a foothold. She couldn’t hang on and was slipping with the passing seconds.

“Oh, shit! Fuck! No!” Desperate cries heard only on deaf ears.

Max’s heart squeezed in her chest, pounded in her temples, and there was another noise that began mingling with it. She couldn’t place it, didn’t have the conscious to do so. Frantically, she reached for solid ground, her feet still trying to find a proper hold on the rocks underneath. She only managed to further drain what energy she had, the muscles in her arms quickly giving out.

What the hell was happening to her?! She didn’t want to die! She couldn’t die! Not now! What about Chloe? Her family? Her future?!

Max’s throat opened and she let out a strangled scream as the adrenaline shot through her veins, through her fingertips and toes, through her strained chest, her tight stomach, her racing mind.

The unknown noise grew louder, quicker, clearer. Footsteps? A harsh raking sound followed, and stray dirt rolled by her head as red-jacketed arms slammed down to grapple her own. Her vision shot up.

Max gasped, his name silently leaving her lips as he hung on, their eyes wide and forever blue.

A familiar face. A terrifying face. A terrified face.

“Nathan…”

Chapter Text

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

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

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

Good.

He didn’t need her goddamn pity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He really didn’t want to dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Shit.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always take the shot.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow night?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Caulfield?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When was he going to wake up this time?

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

A mixture of emotions stared back. “Nathan…”

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

This was no dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, God. Chloe!’ she cried inside.

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

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

She was wide awake. They both were.

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

But they were silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, shit.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

“‘Bout fucking time you woke up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not until you start talking, camera girl.”

“I said let me out, Prescott!”

“And I said not until you start talking!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, my God.’

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

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

Her face said otherwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

Nathan gave her a look. “Excuse me?”

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

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

“I don’t know, Nathan!”

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

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

“What?”

“Why did you help me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For reals. Why did you help me?”

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

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

“Maxine.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” She was unrelenting.

“Because!”

“Because why?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I win.”

Max cocked her head and squinted. “Huh?”

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

“You blinked, loser.”

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

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

Chapter Text

Max reached for her seat belt. Now would be a good time to put it on. She assumed Nathan to be an 'eccentric' driver—much like Chloe, now that she thought about it. She wasn’t wrong. She tried to subtly cling to the armrests, eyes wide and body sunken into the leather seat, hoping she wasn’t showing too much emotion with which to further enhance his armory.

They pulled into the parking lot—‘Thank God’—and Max’s eye caught the bus stop Nathan mentioned. Again, her thoughts became like clothes in a washing machine—crowded, heavy, and spinning.

On one hand, there was this Nathan. This insolent, hot-tempered, and overall dangerous guy who was practically holding her hostage until he got the answers he wanted.

And then, there was this other person, this other Nathan. Someone who threw her a bone—in the form of a pen—during history class, someone who returned her photograph in pristine condition, someone who randomly brought up an arbitrary staring contest…

Someone who actually saved her life.

‘So fucked up,’ she thought, her stomach dropping.

She rubbed her dry eyes. The rain continued to fall and beat down on Nathan’s truck, other cars in the parking lot, and the numerous buildings along the seaside stretch. Their symphony of raps and pings fused together in an odd harmony. It was followed by the splashes of water in the structure's gutters. The streams met down the curbside and flowed into the street drains, a constant movement.

Nathan parked as close as possible to the entrance to avoid the sky’s vengeance. His face fell and he disgustingly spat, “Rain.”

Max didn’t say anything, but she internally agreed with him for once, a hinge of bother in sharing the mutual feeling. In the meantime, Nathan reached into the back seat to grab his cardigan and jacket.

In that moment, Max thought she spied something on his wrist. At the base was an indistinct, black shape. Her curiosity piqued, but Nathan slid on the semi-dry cardigan before she could get a better look. He then held up his coat like a makeshift umbrella, feeling her stares and trying to ignore the irritation it sparked whilst opening the truck door. The promise of food was a sweet, sweet goal he was more than ready to head toward.

Bringing herself back to the present, Max realized she only had her thin hoodie to block the downpour, and Nathan clearly wasn’t offering anything more. Joyce’s warnings about the rain regretfully echoed in her mind. Of course, she never expected to nearly die by falling off the bay’s peninsula, or to go back to the Two Whales with Nathan Prescott. She just wanted to take some photos, reminisce, and head back to Blackwell. After that, call Chloe and try to make up. Anything but this! Max groaned and made due, zipping her sweater all the way and throwing up her hood, trying her best to smuggle along warmth from the truck.

‘Why?’ She wanted nothing more than to hear the voice of her friend, whom she hoped was safe.

Nathan and Max jumped out, their feet splashing in puddles and soaking the bottoms of their pants. Max then circled around to match his pace as they entered the well-lit diner. More thunder rumbled and the metallic shell of the building swallowed the noise. They shared hidden relief to be out of the inclement weather.

There were only a couple disgruntled patrons at the counter. Truckers. They smelled like woodchips and sweat, a scent mixing with the heavy grease of the cookery. Max’s nose wrinkled and her innards squeezed, reality coming down on her hard. She hesitated, but then followed Nathan toward a far-away booth—the same one she and Chloe shared a while ago. He even sat in the same seat.

‘Oh, cruel irony. You are not lost on me,’ she bitterly thought to herself.

Nathan shook his coat and tossed it in the booth, water droplets flying this way and that. The loss of bright red from his person was, again, a jarring sight, even more so in the fluorescent lights of the diner. He looked monochrome, like his photography, she noted. Also…a bit like Mr. Jefferson’s work. The only color reflected from him was his peach-pale skin and rain-stained, dirty blonde hair. He pushed back some loose strands, aggravated at the reluctance of one tenacious piece in particular, and crossed his ankles and arms.

Stupidly enough, Max felt the beginnings of a laugh in her chest when the stubborn strand bounced back. She stopped it in time by biting her lip, wanting to smack herself. Now really wasn’t the time. At least someone—well, something—could oppose him and be successful, for once.

Max removed her drenched sweater, placing it and her bag on the opposite seat, and reluctantly sank down across from him. She felt more than exposed, stewing in her mixture of emotions, wondering what to say to him, wondering what would get him off her back. She knew, of course: The truth. But not even she knew the whole truth.

“Do you always have to fuckin’ stare like that? You look like a goddamn fish with your mouth hanging half open.”

She had zoned out, and he was the target…again. Now discomfited, Max snapped back, “Do you always have to be such an insulting jerk?”

Bad start. He glared and twisted his mouth, his eyes flashing like they had fluorescent bulbs of their own. “You’re pushin’ your luck with me, Caulfield. You’re damn lucky I’m the one who didn’t call the police on your ass for that bullshit earlier. Of course, I could always change my mind. I already have a personal lawyer, and I could line ‘em up just for you.”

‘Oh, God.’ The thought was both angry and fearful. There was always that possibility. It was true—she was the one who attacked him, and as far as he knew it was unprovoked. She wouldn’t put it past him, either. The thought of the Prescotts pressing charges on her, and possibly her family, made her blood boil and simmer in her veins.

Before Max could make a comeback, the waitress ambled toward them. Her uniform, unlike Joyce, deprecated her stout form. Max was then hit with a giant wave of relief; at least Joyce wasn’t here to see this insanity. The fewer questions she had to answer, the better.

The woman stopped, her short, dark perm bouncing, notepad out with a look of impatience. Her overly-shadowed eyes lingered on Nathan before gliding to Max, and then back to him.

“Mr. Prescott,” she greeted. There was more than a hint of displeasure in it, making it less of a greeting and more of a confrontation. “What can I get you two?” Her sharp tone only added to the tension.

“Cherry soda. Keep it in the can,” Nathan said, short and to the point, “and a grilled chicken club sandwich. Replace the chips with fries.”

Max stayed silent. Both the waitress and Nathan looked at her, Nathan like he was going to cut off her tongue if she put anything on the same bill as him.

“Um. Just a separate order of coffee, please. French Vanilla.” She still had her burger in her bag. Hopefully it hadn’t been tossed around too much. For now, she just wanted something to warm her up, something to let her fall into a fantasy and pretend this situation was okay.

“All right.” The woman, whose nametag read ‘Teresa,’ finished writing and left the two alone.

While Max felt safer in the public place, Nathan’s presence was now more prominent than ever. He still looked like he hadn’t slept in a while and like he’d been rubbing his eyes. They were lined with redness. When he laid his hands on the edge of the table, his slouch getting worse, she saw his cracked knuckles. Her mind wandered back to the dark mark on his wrist, and her whole abdomen grew tight as she tried to push the thought away.

‘Not the time, Max.’

A muffled hum cut through the air. Nathan reached into one of his pant’s pockets and pulled out his buzzing phone, a curious, if irritable, expression on his face.

Max saw it quickly relax, the creases in his brows settling to a neutral state. She took note of his high cheekbones and slightly aquiline nose, of the way it crinkled whenever he wore his trademark scowl. It suddenly came to mind that his features weren’t really like that of his father or mother. Sean was more rounded with semi-sharp qualities, ever-enhancing his intimidating stature in all the right ways. Katherine was smoother with piercing angles, complimenting her husband, but also had a certain ‘fakeness’ about her complexion. In their presence, he was like a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit, or a piece that fit, but from a totally different puzzle altogether. She imagined him as a flagrant, red spot in the ocean, his jacket reflecting its innumerable blue hues, blending and purpling at the edges.

Max shivered, pushing that thought away as well. She couldn’t settle on a proper one, and the diner’s air conditioning was getting to her; the thought of the Prescotts was a bitter, sowed seed in her brain.

Nathan’s lips separated in another sigh. He licked them and let his eyes wander out the window and then back to Max. He put his phone down, immediate displeasure returning to his countenance.

“WHAT?” It wasn’t loud, but firm, getting his point across.

Shit. She was staring again. This time, however, she hadn’t been zoning out, but purposefully focusing on him. She frantically tried to think of a way to cover her tracks.

“Nothing! Would you chill?” Avoiding his glower, she squeezed her hands together in her lap.

“Maybe when you stop fucking gawking at me like a mindless zombie.”

Max exhaled, a rather biting action. Her head ached. “Nathan, seriously. I’m sorry for freaking out on you, but this is…ridiculous!” There wasn’t any other word coming to mind.

He scoffed. “Right. Come on, Caulfield. I’m not a fucking idiot. I’m sure you can fake a better apology than that.”

Teresa returned with their drinks and Max brought the hot, white mug to her face, trying to hide her humiliation with the steam. On the cup, the diner’s logo stared back, the one cartoony whale’s mouth upturned as if it were laughing at her. She looked into the milky liquid and watched the overhead lights’ reflections shimmy on the surface.

The sudden kssh of Nathan opening his soda made her start. Her jolt made him snicker as a drop of hot liquid ran down her mug and met her hand. “Jumpy much?”

“How is any of this funny?” Max sat the drink down and sucked on her now-burned digit.

“Who said it was?” he replied flatly.

He began drumming the tabletop in an offbeat rhythm. This whole meeting wasn’t coordinated with a lick of cogence. Yet, he somehow found himself relaxed, if a bit edgy. Relaxed. With Max Caulfield, no less. Still, he wanted some answers, and he had to make sure she wouldn’t go blabbing about what transpired at the lighthouse. There were enough rumors about him and his family to last a lifetime in Arcadia Bay. He’d have to focus and keep her under his thumb, but also try and be somewhat cooperative. Especially with what went down in the truck. Right now, they were on less than good terms. Then again, when were they ever? He had some leverage with her mindless assault, but everything else seemed to be heading down an endless road. He sat his head atop his hands, his elbows bending and shifting the fabric of his cardigan.

He glanced at his phone again. Victoria’s text glared back, reminding him to take his evening dose, and reiterated stopping by her dorm. His tired eyes then shifted to his jacket. Where Frank's roll of bills used to be also held his medication. As much as he hated taking them, it was out of habit that they stayed with him, like they were worry stones of sorts. He despised the dependence, that they could never be too far away, but still held tight with clenched hands. Chalky, flaking capsules to moderate every fucked-up cell in his head, circles of chemicals that dissolved on his tongue or in his throat just to walk the societal line of normalcy. Nathan’s eyes began to betray him, tears on the verge of shining in their corners. Heavily sniffing, he cleared his throat and pushed them back down.

He reached inside the pocket, retrieving the bottles. Opening them, he took out the needed amount, chucked them back in his mouth, and downed them with a large gulp of soda so they wouldn’t leave their sordid aftertaste. He grimaced and put the containers back, glad to be rid of them for the time. Out of sight, out of mind, and one less thing to worry about.

Max thought she saw that sad gleam in his eyes, but ignored it and grabbed a napkin. She wiped away the drops of coffee from the cup’s lip, inquisitive about what he just took, but knowing better not to ask, especially not now. Max brought the mug back to her mouth, blew away some heat, and took a long drink. It warmed her core and she hummed with a small smile. For a second, she wasn’t being interrogated by Nathan Prescott. For a second, she was safe.

His attention went back to her with the sound. It broke through the hiss and bubble of the grill and deep fryer, through the mindless chatter of the local news channel, and through the random song on the jukebox. He felt fleeting tranquility sweep over him right along with her, as if he’d taken a sip of the coffee as well. She continued to avoid him and stare into her cup, no doubt due to his earlier remarks. Nathan, once again, smothered the uninvited tinge of regret that surfaced with his anger.

He saw that she, too, looked exhausted. Shades of bluish-blacks were dusted beneath her blue eyes. Combined with her light application of eye shadow, they stood out all the more. The diner’s bright lighting enhanced her natural flush and allowed her freckles to darken. Fluorescents never seemed to do justice for anyone or anything, but somehow they, combined with her damp bob, framed her narrowing face with contoured shadows and level highlights. She was soft, but angular at the same time.

Then there was everything else. As strange a sight it was for Max to see Nathan without his jacket, it was just as foreign a sight for him to see Max without hers. That stupid, gray zip-up that had Victoria ranting about her fashion sense any chance she got. Her turquoise short sleeve tee—complete with a white graphic design of flower-decorated deer antlers—opened around the curve of her shoulders, leaving space to show off her collarbone and more smatters of dark speckles.

“Now who’s staring like a mindless zombie?” Max said with hesitance, feeling his tentative gaze, hoping not to ignite his ire by treading harsh water. Her heated innards twisted with more anxiety.

Nathan’s eyes widened. He brought his hands down and grit his teeth. “Shut the hell up.”

‘Caught you on that one.’ Max victoriously triumphed in her head, if a bit flustered at his roaming gaze. She couldn’t help but let a Nathan-esque smirk coat her features. She took another sip of coffee.

It was something that didn’t go unnoticed, and Nathan squinted, the humiliation changing into rising annoyance. His gears were turning, and he found something with which to retort.

“Wipe that shit-eating grin off your face, Caulfield. You couldn’t take your eyes off me a second ago.”

Nathan saw the next sip of her drink stick in her throat. The way he said it was so blatantly lascivious that he knew it would catch her off guard. He knew someone like her wasn’t prepared for that kind of comeback, especially from him. His shoulders began to shake from hidden laughter, and he brought a hand to his mouth to lightly bite one of his fingers—something to stop the upsurge. He covered it up by gnawing on some of the loose skin on his thumb afterward.

Max covered her cough with a napkin as Teresa returned with Nathan’s food. The smell only managed to make her feel sicker after that remark. The nature of his voice buffeted her, and that only managed to piss her off even more. The moment of success she had was shadowed out by one of his own. Her freckles became darker and a bright red streak stretched over her cheeks and nose.

“So. Ever gonna tell me why you decided to try and knock my ass flat?” He smirked, and again, the question sounded more like a demand.

He was good at that, and the self-satisfied humor from his previous statement had gone, ignored like it was never uttered. Now, a business-like tone took over. It unnervingly carried a lilt, from what she had heard thus far, almost like his father’s.

“I…” She couldn’t find the words, shifting to the tabletop with a blank stare. Max was still recovering from before.

Not wanting to wait any longer, Nathan unwrapped his silverware. He discarded the toothpick holding together the sandwich and began cutting it triangular style. The way he did it was so delicate and formal that Max’s mind repeated, unconsciously, the comparison of his different sides. Even his elbows were below the table at a designated ‘proper’ spot when he began to eat; the austere blueblood in him was showing.

There was a long pause that was only interrupted by the crunch of his toasted bread. All other sounds became a jumbled mess of nothing. Everything felt too bizarre, and her head hurt. Bad. Things were beginning to spin again, and even the graffiti on the edge of the table was no longer a comforting sight to her strained eyes. Max clung to her mug as if it could protect her, fingering the handle and looking into the half-empty space within.

That’s when headlights pierced through the darkened gray outdoors. The public bus rolled up and somewhat slowed toward the stop. There was a surge of energy through her chest and limbs. She could just go now. She could bail out. She could run the hell away from this. Run back to Blackwell. She sharply inhaled, the dull echo of the rain on the roof filling the corners of her consciousness.

Max slowly exhaled, closing her eyes. The question branded itself in her brain: How far would she get?

It’s not like Nathan was going to just disappear off the face of the planet. He was the backbone of Blackwell, his family the supporting skeleton of Arcadia Bay. He was going to hound her until he got what he wanted, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. And by the look on his face, that was exactly what he was thinking, what he already knew. On top of all that, he and Victoria messed with her any chance they got. Surely, this wasn’t going to change on a dime. She would see him again and again and again until she graduated, until she left Arcadia Bay. Her face fell and she felt utterly hopeless.

Both she and Nathan looked outside as a drop of tension dangled in the air. He was daring her. Daring her to rush out to the bus and try to escape. There was no escape. He knew. She knew. He knew that she knew. She knew that he knew. It was an endless loop of despair for Max Caulfield.

‘Fuck,’ she cursed internally, squeezing tears back into her eyes as the bus pulled away. Her fingers clenched around the cup.

She swallowed hard, the remnants of warm vanilla on her tongue, her temples thrumming anew. “Chloe is…” She hesitated, her mouth feeling that cottony sensation again. “Chloe is one of my friends.”

‘God, my head hurts. Baby steps, Max. Baby steps. He doesn’t have to know everything about everything. Not that I know everything about everything, either. God, why is this so complicated?’

After another beat of silence, Nathan’s mien visibly softened, much to Max’s surprise. He didn’t say anything, but reached for the ketchup bottle and squeezed it over his fries.

He ate some, leaving Max hanging with his partially-complacent success, and said, “Now, was that really so hard?”

She scowled, a furious shade of red spreading from ear to ear. “Oh, please,” she started, “I know that doesn’t answer your other question.”

“True,” he said with a swig of his soda. “So, you better keep talking if you know what’s good for you.”

Max watched his Adam’s apple bob with the action, brows furrowed and body stiff. She quickly looked to the inside of her cup, trying to piece together a coherent lie he would believe, when…plok! A sudden blot of crimson invaded the milky white liquid. It created more ripples, now imbued with spreading red, smoky veins. She blinked in confusion.

It became too quiet, and Nathan began, “Huh. They must be pretty fucked up to want you as a friend in the first place.”

Max was deadly still. Nathan, disappointed his jab didn’t affect her, frowned with a small hmph. She remained quiet and unmoving. Her head was tilted down, and her bangs covered her eyes.

“Hey.”

Nothing.

“Yo, Caulfield,” he said a little louder.

Nathan’s voice echoed and the diner whirled in tunnel vision. The lights were suddenly too bright, the noises too loud. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to separate the clamor, desperately trying not to succumb to the shocking sensations in her skull. There was a vibration in her throat, a groan of pain. It, too, was swallowed by the void.

“You can rew…ax. Tha…fu…ne! We…play!”

‘Chloe?’
She took it in, barely able to hear her friend’s voice from the nothingness.

An abrupt, rough texture under her nose brought her back to solid ground. Her eyes flittered open. With one hand, Nathan held a wad of napkins above her lip. They were dotted with bloodstains. His other hand pulled more out of the dispenser. He let her take the bunch and then sat back, eyes wide and mouth contorted.

“Holy hell. Are you sure you didn’t do some cheap blow?” Nathan tried to play off his concern with the inappropriate joke. His body had, once again, acted before his brain, and he, once again, ended up feeling like an idiot. He let out a halfhearted, short laugh before adding, “I could have hooked your ass up with something better if that’s the case.”

Max swallowed some draining blood with a disgusted gag and wiped her lips. “Jesus, Nathan! Would you stop!”

“Well, what the hell is wrong with you?! You’re like a goddamn blood faucet over there!” His hands dramatically gestured to her and fell on the table with an audible clap. They were now outstretched, reaching over to her side, and they were trembling.

“I just…” She stopped, unable to bring a coherent thought to her mouth. The thought of Chloe’s ghostly voice made her undeniably anxious.

Teresa returned to check on them, overhearing their commotion and for the routine checkup. Observing Max and the bloody wipes, she shot Nathan an accusing glare. “Everything okay, you two?” Her tone was calm, but determined. She didn’t take her eyes off Nathan, her crow’s feet becoming more prominent with her deprecate squint.

Nathan’s irritability capped. God, he hated the way she was looking at him. Like so many others. Like the entire sickening population of Arcadia Bay. He desperately resisted the urge to throw her over the counter and pummel her face, to press his fingers into her eyes and rid himself of their judgmental imprisonment.

Short and uneven breaths came out of him, the air tightening around the three. “Everything’s…just…FINE. So, why don’t YOU—!”

Max’s nerves shot to their peak in a panic. Her stray hand came down on one of his in an attempt to stop his outburst. She immediately noticed the temperature difference between them; he was freezing, his hand a bit calloused and rough, and his chapped knuckles were tensed.

The crazy thing was, it worked. Somehow. Someway. Nathan’s mouth clamped shut and his eyes widened into saucers. His mind became a blank slate. Max waved at the woman whilst shaking her head, trying to keep her poise and not faint.

‘Focus, Max! Focus!’ She breathed in and out, her grip on Nathan tightening out of reflex.

Teresa’s eyes darted between them. “Girl, are you all right?” she asked, the silence becoming intensely palpable.

Nodding furiously, Max cleared her throat. “Yes. I’m sorry. We’re fine. Thank you.” She delivered each statement in short, breathy notes.

Max squeezed Nathan once more. She felt the bones shift in his fingers and her worried balm seep into the joints. Nathan’s chest tightened. The violent need to scream and hit something burrowed its way back into his depths, replaced by complete vacuity.

Teresa hesitated before pointing to Max’s mug. “More coffee, then?” She then turned back to Nathan, her voice taut with notion. “And more soda for you, Mr. Prescott?”

Teresa’s eyes squinted in suspicion again, but Nathan didn’t notice. All he could see and feel was Max’s hand on his, light and warm and soft, all combined with a firm grip of desperation and fear. Nathan heard the older woman, of course, but all he could muster was a slow shake of his head. Teresa combined an exhale and an irritable chord, still waiting for Max’s confirmation.

“N-no, thank you,” she finally said.

Teresa gave them both a look before strutting away. Nathan flicked his eyes to the waitress, every manner of negativity sealed in his mouth, and then back to Max.

She wiped away the last bits of blood from her nose and looked back. Nothing stirred. Max was captured in another awkward net with him, wanting to remove her hand, but lacking the ability, afraid to even breathe lest he explode.

By now, Nathan’s felt scalding and sweaty, his heart palpitating as fast as the seconds passed. His other palm, currently balled into a fist, slackened, reached across to the one on top of his, and gripped it tight. He slowly removed it from him, the pads of her fingers leaving trails of heat on his skin. Coolness immediately enveloped him with the familiar, all while magnetized to her cerulean blues.

“Don’t ever touch me again, bitch,” he said, hurried and without much threat, tightly grinding his teeth.

Nathan released her arm on the table and pulled his beneath his side. The animosity between them brewed like the thundering rainstorm. The sky rumbled and the vibrations could be felt throughout the diner, their booths, and their bodies. A flash of lightning almost made the both of them jump.

Max was uneasy, but there was something in his cold grip and harsh words that made her wince with sadness more than anger. She still felt the pinpricks of cold from his hands, like shards of ice burrowing into her flesh. It was unexpected and confusing, and her head and heart continued to thump as she searched for something, anything to say to him to break the growing silence. Always with the silence.

Meanwhile, Nathan returned to vacancy, staring at the remains of his meal, wishing he were anywhere but there. Wishing he could down the hidden bottle of whiskey in his room and just sleep the rest of this shitty night away. Wishing he was at the end of a fresh joint, smoking himself into oblivion. Hell, even wishing he were at the mercy of that Ambien Rachel gave him right about now. He was tired, unbelievably so.

“Nathan…”

His eyes snapped to hers for a second. It was like she said everything she wanted to say in just his name, and it made him all the more angry that his steeled heart fluttered with it. He brought a hand to the bridge of his nose and squeezed.

She continued to cautiously watch him, her guard visibly strengthening. Her hand traveled to her upper lip, checking to see if she had bled some more. When it was all clear, she clasped them together and spoke, soft and tentative in his intimidating presence.

“We had a fight. Chloe and me.”

He stilled as he reached for his drink. His finger slid up the can, catching a drop of condensation.

Max continued as he flashed her a look to keep going, “I went to the lighthouse to cool off. And I just…I don’t know. I went to take a picture and lost my balance. If—”

“That doesn’t explain shit about why you fucking hit me.”

She sighed, irritated at his interruption. It was hard enough for her to admit some things, and coming up with this other version of the truth wasn’t helping her waning confidence in the face of all things Prescott.

“I was fucking terrified, Nathan! I almost died!”

His eyes lowered to her hands. They were squished together. Her knuckles were white from the pressure. The light shone on her face, and visible beads of sweat were forming at her temples. He could feel her frustration and hatred for him, growing and growing, pushing him further away from any other prospect in her view. There was a second where he felt an intense tightness in his stomach, the mere thought of the latter a painful jab to his chest.

She became more uncomfortable with his eerie hush and resumed talking to break through it, “But…I took it out on you. Which…wasn’t cool. If you hadn’t been there…” she trailed off and her stomach lurched. She couldn’t finish.

Nathan blinked and shook his head with another scoff. “I seem to remember you looking me dead in the eyes and saying I hurt your friend. Like I had something to do with whatever-the-fuck your problem was.”

“Not you. Me. I was mad at myself and just…babbling, I guess. I don’t remember much. I freaked,” she lied, secretly satisfied with how well her composure was holding up.

Nathan closed his eyes and sighed, shuffling his jaw, an action she noticed he seemed to do when he was pensive. “What the ever-loving fuck, Caulfield.”

Max shifted in her seat, the leather squeaking from her damp pants. Goosebumps formed on her arms. “I’m sorry.”

‘UGH. Stop with the sympathetic melodrama,’ he ranted to himself, annoyance creasing the contours of his mouth.

“So, what? Do you just like to take the piss out on random people?” he asked in his combusting thought’s place.

One of Max’s brows lifted. She couldn’t help but smile from the ironic and absurd question. “Are you sure we’re not talking about you now?”

Offense coated his features. He rolled his bright, blue eyes and shifted his mouth to one side with her snark. “Fuck you, Max.”

There he went, using her first name again. It was weird. She felt weird. Everything was weird. She just wanted to go back to Blackwell. At least Nathan seemed somewhat appeased with her skewed truth. Right? God, she hoped.

“So, what’s with the nosebleeds?” he suddenly asked, taking the second half of his sandwich and biting into it.

Oh, shit. That was something Max was wondering about as well. She had only one nosebleed in her life, and that was when one of her classmates hit her in the face with a softball during recess in the second grade. Her lip lifted in anguish just thinking about the pain from that time.

“The weather. I get them when the seasons change.”

He stopped mid chew and then raised his brow. “That’s…kinda gross.”

Max clicked her tongue and sighed. “Always one for tact, aren’t you, Prescott?”

“Hey, I thought you were having, like, an aneurism or something! It was fuckin’ freaky! Figured you were okay since you eventually woke up.”

“And if I didn’t wake up?”

Nathan huffed. “Just drop it, Caulfield. You’re here and you’re alive, aren’t you? Quit whining.”

He had a small point, but what would have happened if she didn’t wake up? What would he have done then? What were these nosebleeds? And what about that otherworldly vision? It felt like her mind was collapsing in on itself, swirling into the unknowns of a black hole.

“And what was your dumb ass doing at the edge of the cliff in the first place?”

She shrugged, slight shame behind her eyes, ignoring his titular insult. “Taking ‘shitty pictures,’ what else?”

The way she performed the small action was like a little kid, innocent and honest. Nathan felt a smile tug at his lips for her nature. It was kind of…humorous? No. That wasn’t the right word. Was it? He paused and swallowed, the thought settling heavily on his chest, a foreign heat rising in his abdomen. His mind was in the middle of a miniscule war.

“Though I guess I can’t do that anymore. At least not for a while, since my camera fell over the side.” Her whole form sulked, her voice dropping to a sad whisper.

Nathan cleared his throat and his thoughts. He had to, lest he be consumed with the unfamiliar. He made a face that coldly said, ‘Oh, well’ and simply stated, “Boo-hoo. No more ‘shitty pics’ for you.”

“Truly a waste,” she said back in an almost playful way. “I mean, I’ve had that camera since I was old enough to properly pronounce Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

He couldn’t help but cough out a small, one-chord laugh at that. He was slightly impressed she could pronounce it, though Victoria might have given her a straight-browed look with some suggestions on further French names and vernacular.

“What were you even taking a picture of?” he proceeded to ask.

She paused and thought about the mysterious blue, winged creature. Part of her blamed it for everything, but another part of her remembered its ghostly appearance and the spiritual aura it gave off, it’s enticing allure. It reminded her of Chloe in many ways.

She smiled. “A butterfly.”

“A butterfly.” Nathan repeated, becoming stoic. He brought an elbow up to the table, let it settle, and pinched the bridge of his nose again. “You almost died…for a fucking picture…of a butterfly.”

She nodded with another little shrug, strangely calm. “Yep.”

“That’s some dedication, Caulfield.” His voice was brimming with sarcasm.

Max thought she’d be more irritable at his jests, but she found herself unwinding further. “Hey, I didn’t come to Blackwell to mess around. I put my all into my work!”

“Into your selfies?” He said the modern word with disdain.

“Self portraits,” she corrected, raising a finger.

He rolled his eyes again. “Same fucking thing.”

“Every artist has one.”

“Or one thousand.” And it was directed right at her.

“How do you know?”

“‘Cause that’s all you fucking take!”

“I take plenty of other kinds of pictures!”

“Oooh, like squirrels and landscapes and the totem pole at school? Fuck off.”

Max paused, her eyes widened and her lips parted.

“Yeah. I saw you take a picture of it Monday. Right before you took that spill. Graceful, by the way.” He snorted. “Dumbass.”

Max’s expression grew and she felt her ears burn. “All because I wanted to give back your stupid pen.”

He squinted. “Pfft! You didn’t need to give it back. I already told you my dad’s got hundreds of ‘em.”

“Does he always keep a large supply of gold-plated pens? Dude, this thing looks expensive!” She reached into her bag and pulled out the instrument of topic.

“Maybe to y—” Nathan’s face contorted as he spied it in her hand. “Wait. You still have it…?”

She stopped, her eyes flashing to it and then to him. “Well, yeah. It’s not mine, so…” Max proceeded to try giving it to him, the gold glinting in the bright lights.

He lifted his palms upwards. “Really? What did I just say?”

She tsked and grabbed one of his hands without thinking, placing the pen inside and letting go. “I don’t care what you said. Take it back.”

Her hand was still warm, and his previous threat about touching him came to mind. He thought about reiterating it, but the anger never came. Nathan’s face settled and he closed his cold fingers around the writing utensil. He put it in his pocket. The Pan Estates engraving left a sour taste in his mouth.

“Jesus. You feel better now? Why’d you keep it if you didn’t want it anyway?”

“Why’d you give it to me in the first place?”

He froze, not expecting a question like that to ricochet his. Nathan placed a hand on the back of his neck, breaking eye contact, and mumbled, “You didn’t have…rrgh…it was just a…just…whatever!”

“Not that I didn’t appreciate it,” she quickly said, interrupting his stammer.

Max remembered her conversation with Warren in Blackwell’s parking lot. She was thankful; the gesture just came from someone she never thought she’d have to thank.

Nathan’s head popped up, the turtle-esque form he took breaking its stance. For once, he was speechless. He focused on his distorted reflection in the stainless steel napkin dispenser to escape her burrowing blue orbs.

“And, even though you were a jackass about it, you keeping my Everyday Heroes photo from getting messed up was…”

His vision flickered. He then crossed his arms and waited, catching her name call.

“It was…actually…” Her voice wavered near the end, and Nathan took notice right away, further furrowing his brow. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word “nice.” Nathan and Nice—it didn’t quite fit.

He sneered, trying to get some of his original self back, and interrupted her further stuttering, “I didn’t do it out of the kindness of my heart, Crackfield.”

“No, you did it to be your dickish self,” she retorted with a scowl, a little more than irked with his new nickname for her, “and humiliate me in front of Mr. Jefferson. I know your game, Prescott.”

His hands became fists again and he snapped, “Shut the fuck up! You think you know all about me, huh? Don’t sit there and size me up like a goddamn psych ward—you don’t know jack! And I can’t believe you think a piece of shit selfie has a chance in the Everyday Heroes Contest. You’re such a walking cliché!”

Slight panic budded itself in her veins as his voice began to rise. “I wasn’t sizing you up! Calm down!”

“Don’t tell me what to do! And keep that mouth of yours to your-fuckin’-self! You’re no better than anyone else at Blackwell, so quit pretending you are!”

“What are you talking about? I’m not pretending that I’m anything!”

“Bull. Fucking. Shit. You think Jefferson gives a fuck about your prehistoric Polaroids? You’re work’s a joke—you’re a joke! And you don’t belong at Blackwell Academy.” His final sentence was said with a wavering menace, his hands sweaty and shaky within their tight pretzel twist over his chest.

His words hit her harder than she thought, and a dormant fear crawled up her spine. The booth was too cold, and her blood was too hot. The table was too small, and his presence too large. Max’s arms tingled and her fingers picked at a loose strand of denim on her jeans. It was like someone gave him a box of her secrets and insecurities, and he picked the perfect ones to throw in her face. She swallowed. There was a lump in her throat, and her bottom lip quivered when she finally got the courage to talk again.

“You’re not the one judging. Mr. Jefferson is, and he says I have talent and was looking forward to my entry.”

Nathan was seeing red, a plethora of things crowding his thoughts and inhibitions. He couldn’t stop the lash of his tongue. After everything was said, he bit it, not sure if he was proud or pissed off at his outburst, teetering on remorse’s edge.

“And you think that makes you special? That’s his job, dumbass. He’s supposed to sell one-liners like that to losers like you.”

“Really? Is that, like, the cardinal rule?” she asked rhetorically, her chest feeling too full of air.

“Even you admitted your work is shit. ‘Maybe it’s not the best, especially when I’m up against pieces like Victoria’s…and yours.’ Quote, unquote.”

His voice became high and baby-like, mocking her Tuesday’s honesty with an expression so smug it drilled odium through her anew. Nathan tried to think straight, tried to find a grounding point. Everything seemed fuzzy and far away, and a nagging guilt gnawed at the back of his skull the more he opened his mouth. Fuck.

Fuck him. Fuck her. Fuck everything.

He continued, his filter lost. “Your nosy ass sifted through the competition, and then you acted like you gave a shit about my work in a pathetic attempt to get your picture back in one piece. I know your game, Caulfield.”

A spark of defense erupted in her. “Yeah, I wanted my photograph back, but I wasn’t lying about yours! It really was a great shot!”

“How stupid do you think I am? Just shut up,” he spat with venom, sitting back in the booth and looking away from her.

Max held her head and let out a shuddered sigh. “This isn’t even about what happened at the lighthouse anymore, is it?”

He twisted his tongue in his mouth. “You didn’t really give me any answers there, either, so what-the-fuck-ever.”

The two fell silent again, their clash unseen and unheard in the now-empty diner. Max spied Teresa in the back room through the kitchen’s order window, cleaning some of the stoves and washing a few mugs afterward. She was secretly glad the waitress hadn’t come back to investigate, feeling Nathan would have…told her off, for lack of a better description.

“Nathan, I don’t know what else you want from me. I told you everything and apologized.”

“Which I still haven’t accepted.”

“And I wasn’t lying about your picture.”

“There you go again, using that to get you on better terms. Nice try.”

“Jesus, you’re so cynical! And you’re being completely unreasonable!”

“Said the bitch who nearly pummeled me to death.”

“Quit exaggerating.”

“Fuck you.”

They kept ping-ponging back and forth, and Max was mentally exhausted. She was eating her words, regretting ever being sincere around someone like him. Unfortunately, honesty seemed to be the only thing making its way from her mouth. Maybe it made up for the lack of truth she could give him about her vision. However, childishly fighting and throwing around rebuffs like this would be like constantly throwing gasoline on a wildfire, and it wasn’t going to solve anything. Yet, his insults to her work and her position at Blackwell…they dug under her skin, like he carved into it with a dull knife. It hurt. Undeniably.

“Think whatever you want about my picture, but what I said about yours is true. Mr. Jefferson says ‘don’t confuse art with the artist.’ Just because I don’t see eye to eye with someone—”

“Meaning me.”

She sighed, tiresomely ignoring his interruption. “Just because I don’t see eye to eye with someone doesn’t mean I can’t see the effort and talent they put into their art—your work included. And everything at the lighthouse…I’m just…

He gave her one of his default, angry looks.

Her head dropped and she felt sick. “I’m sorry.”

When she brought her head back up, she stared at him with tired eyes. Nathan stopped to delve her features for any hints of a lie. The sudden intrusion of his glare made her shudder and fall still, but she didn’t waver.

There they stayed until he came up empty. His eyes widened as her open pools spawned watery tendrils that reached out and struck through his chest. They squeezed his heart and lungs, broke his ribcage and began strangling the life from him. His eyes widened in fear as the scene broke. She was there, her expression still set in its severe state. Nathan’s heart pounded at the strange and sudden sensation in his gut, relieved at the illusion’s departure.

He unwillingly flashed back to when he was sitting on the bench that Monday. A breeze took hold of the Polaroid, sweeping it under his foot as he stood to leave. Picking it up, he gave it a lookover, his visage calming with the composition and warm colors of the piece. They were pastel-like, invaded by harsher tidbits of color from the various focal points of other photographs in the background. The paper lanterns offset the symmetry with an introductory, linear path for the eye to follow. He’d been studying some passages of interest under guidelines from Mr. Jefferson, seeing some of the lessons reflected within the photograph. It was…admirable, he thought. For a self—!!

His mind put itself on pause. Nathan’s eyes only got wider with the abrupt self-realization, if that were even possible.

“Yeah, right. You’re an idiot. All that shit, including leaning over a cliff edge just to get a picture of a fucking butterfly, proves it.”

Denial was the only way he was getting out of that one. Denial and an abundance of slights. No problem. That was his specialty. There was a moment where he couldn’t help but be disgusted with himself. He frowned and slid down in his seat, worsening his posture, ignoring his condemnatory thoughts, and hating the way his voice cracked at the cover-up.

Max didn’t miss the diverging mixture of emotions in his face and tone. How could she? Nathan looked like a sad, petulant child with that frown, more akin to a pout now that she thought about it, and his slouch. She paused to think closely on what she would say next.

‘Tread carefully, Max,’ she said to herself, her head beginning to throb anew. She suppressed it the best she could, trying not to let the pain show and hoping another mysterious nosebleed wasn’t on its way.

“Well, isn’t there also a cardinal rule that requires every artist to have an obligatory eye-opening and/or near-death experience? I decided to get a head start on that one.”

He stopped. The joke caught him off guard, but he was determined not to show it. Nathan leaned forward on both arms, meeting her resolute gaze with a mock smile. “Well, next time you feel like having a ‘twee artist moment,’ go right ahead! Fall off the next cliff you lean over! See if I’m around to save your ungrateful ass then! You really are an idiot!”

The uplifted tone in his voice got a small smile to bloom on her lips. “Next time? And here I thought you didn’t want me dead.”

Nathan and Max shared a look. He didn’t answer her, only watched. Like a hawk. Max began to feel warmth rise to her ears and cheeks with his unreadable expression. His eyes really were piercing and powerful, like a cold winter’s storm.

Nathan thought hers were akin to Arcadia’s ocean, calm and fluid, but with a hidden undertow. He reprimanded himself with the notion. The meds, on top of his current exhaustion, were making him extremely tired. At least that’s what he figured with such an idea.

Before anything else could be said, Teresa returned, handing the both of them separate receipts. The waitress said nothing at first, only flashed Nathan another look, before finally conveying her thanks for their patronage. Everything felt a little too surreal. Both of them were surprised by their sudden ease, but stayed silent.

Max was struggling with conflict. The facts stared her in the face: Nathan was still Nathan—a rich, entitled, spoiled asshole, and literal heir of Arcadia Bay. This little venture, no matter how crazy it was, didn’t change anything. His threat was still present, and always would be. She inhaled slowly, insides tightening again, eyes locked on him. She thought she had chiseled away at that mysterious outer shell a little, but at present, the rocky place in the conversation said otherwise. A disenchanted frown made its way to her lips. By tomorrow, they will have gone their separate ways, and Nathan would fully return to that one and only side of him she knew. Hell, it was already showing.

Yet, this event…it would linger with them for who knew how long? A day, a month, a year? Forever…? What even dictated their meeting? Mere coincidence? Divine intervention? Destiny?

‘Whoa, Max. Slow down. Destiny…? No. Just…give yourself a minute to do nothing. Relax.’

As for Nathan, he was crossly wondering when he became lenient enough to ever let her talk to him like this. He blamed his growing exhaustion again, and heated frustration ignited in his core. Angry at herself? Babbling? Her lying skills really were shit. Those suspicious nosebleeds of hers weren’t adding up, either. The weather? Yeah, right. Everything else was just piling onto the stress he already carried. This was getting him nowhere. He shuddered, feeling a vicious circle begin to wrap around them, a snake biting its own tail.

He gave an internal sigh. Her apology, as much as he hated to concede, sounded genuine. However, there was something else that sounded just as genuine: Her confusion. It was the forefront of everything. Something out of the ordinary happened at the lighthouse, and for once, he wondered if she even knew for sure. Would she be grasping at so many straws if she did? Everyone knew who he was, who his family was, and he threatened her with legal ramifications for her actions. Yet, here she sat, swatting away a number of his invectives like pesky flies buzzing around her head. It was as if she were focusing on something inside herself, something she had to sort out. He gave a small growl, annoyed at her defiance, but slightly intrigued with their bitter position.

Headlights from random vehicles passed by, reflected through the rainy glass, and left trace elements of a watery shine in her eyes. While she spoke with resolve and had a firm stature, they couldn’t hide the truth. She looked…lost. His fists clenched and his feet uncomfortably wriggled in his shoes.

It was like looking in a mirror.

Sharply exhaling, he protested, “Christ, you’re doing it again. Why don’t you zone out the window or something?” He then focused on a patterned speckle in the tabletop’s makeup as a distraction.

Max’s chest ached from holding a breath and she surrendered his gaze. She knew what he meant. Staring. Max recalled Chloe’s mini-coma comment as her vision shifted out the rain-spattered window, meeting his demand as he muttered, “Fuckin’ weirdo.”

Drops slid down the spotless glass. Joyce must have cleaned them as well as the booths that afternoon. She was always a stickler for clean windows. Max smiled. It was almost as if she were in a dream, watching the raindrops leave behind lanes of water that would disappear as soon as they were created. She wondered what time it was. The sun was now behind the horizon, the streetlights were on, and the dark gray clouds crowded the seams of remaining sunlight in the sky. They blocked out the transcendence of twinkling stars. The curved shores in the distance led back to the sight of the lighthouse. The domed light rotated and flashed across her eyes, ‘round and ‘round the bay, guiding boats and the like to safety. The days were getting shorter and shorter as the seasons changed.

Max closed her eyes and thought about Chloe, about the day they carved their names into that dead tree trunk, about the day they marked their tree fort on the map guide, and about the time the two watched the sunset with William. She cursed losing her camera over the edge, letting her lip become bruised between her teeth again. After all, what’s a photographer without a camera?

As Nathan audibly sighed and scratched at one of his arms, Max couldn’t help but think of him as well. His family also came to mind. What of the Prescotts, the formidable force controlling Arcadia Bay where all those memoirs were made? What of Sean and Katherine? What of Nathan? Max continued to chew her lip in thought, her head resting on her hand as she lost herself in contemplation.

Nathan decided to finish off his food. After downing the rest of his soda, he couldn’t help but look at Max, couldn’t help but watch her as she stared out the watery window. She was almost like a statue, the yearning in her eyes stony, but unmistakable. Nostalgia. There was a moment where he wanted to ask what she was thinking about, but then he remembered who he was and where they stood, and irately hated himself for considering it. Still, he couldn’t help but observe the way her fingertips shifted on the tabletop, the way her other hand cradled her head, the way her freckles decorated her cheeks and nose. Green and red fought for dominance as envy and intrigue rose to the surface. He broke away from her delicate features to glance out the window, wondering what she saw in the darkness; all he could see was rain and black.

‘So, now what are you going to do,’ chimed a voice in his head, ‘now that you’ve officially cemented her hatred of you?’

“That shit’s not clearing up anytime soon,” he said, mingling with the voice and shoving it to the side. After a little while, he began fishing for his wallet in his back pocket. He laid down the money and sat back.

“No. Doesn’t look like it,” she replied reflexively, her mouth crimping at the sides. She had snapped out of her trance when his voice cut in, quiet and calm. She was surprised he said anything at all, especially in that tone.

Max then retrieved the small amount needed for her coffee, as well as her phone, adding a tip for Teresa. She wasn’t sure Nathan was going to give her one after all the looks and attitude she gave him. She wondered if everyone always assumed the worst of Nathan. Not that he didn’t have the paralleling reputation to back up people’s assumptions, but Rachel’s defensive words from the other day left an imprint in her brain. She couldn’t help but feel a bit sad about some things.

That feeling flew out the window as she opened her messenger box. Max almost choked on air. There was at least 15 new texts from Warren.

‘GOOD. LORD. WARREN.’

And then, another separate message came up. Max gasped and checked the time it was sent—not that long ago. She opened it.

CHLOE:
hey max. call me when you can. please.

‘Chloe! Oh, Chloe, you’re okay. You’re…alive.’ It felt like her entire being just ascended to the skies. Not even Nathan could bring her down now. She made a promise to call her as soon as she got back to Blackwell.

Nathan stood up, grabbing his phone as well and pocketing it soon after. He stretched and took in a long breath before donning his red jacket once again. Adjusting the cuffs, he noticed the dried and crusted smear of blood left behind from wiping Max’s face. After a tinge of irritation came and went, and another inner fight with himself passed, he sighed and turned to her.

“Hey.”

Max looked up with a curious expression. It made Nathan stress his hands that were now in his pockets and drop his eyes to the floor.

“Do you…” he trailed off, bringing out one of his hands and wringing it through his hair. “Do…you want…”

It really looked like he was struggling. Max couldn’t help but think his frustration was comical to watch. It was so unlike him. She tried to keep a straight face.

“Do you want a ride?” It was rushed and muddled with indecision.

‘Really? After all that? You think she wants a ride from you? Really, Nathan?’ said the voice.

Max blinked, trying to take in what he said as if he’d uttered it in a different language. Her eyes shifted from the window and back to him a few times. “What?”

He exhaled sharply. “A ride, Caulfield! Back to Blackwell! Do you want one or not?”

“Uh…” She was at a loss. The thought of another car ride with Nathan didn’t exactly make her shoot out of her seat in excitement, especially after everything that just happened, everything that he said and the way he acted. She could practically hear Admiral Ackbar’s meme-worthy phrase being screamed at her.

“Yes or no! I don’t have all night!”

‘She’s going to say no, you asshole, so what the fuck are you playing at?’

“Do you still want to sue me for everything I’ve got?”

He brought the same hand to his face and rubbed his eyes with a growl, struggling once more to say, “I wouldn’t be asking if I did.” As an afterthought, he added, “Moron.”

She couldn’t put it all together. “Don’t you—Are you—I mean,” she said, starting several confused sentences, but never let them go anywhere. “Why?”

“We’re going to the same damn place, so why the fuck not? Or, do you wanna sit here with the bitchy waitress for another hour or more waiting for the bus?”

“Um…” She acted like the choice had any real weight.

“Or, y’know, you could always pass out from blood loss thanks to those disgusting nosebleeds of yours,” he said as-a-matter-of-factly.

She sat there for another few seconds, trying to take him in, trying to take in the way he was structuring his words. She held back a smile. “Does this mean you accept my ‘shitty little apology?’”

Nathan’s face visibly reddened this time, the pink flaring to a bright crimson. “NO! You just look so goddamn pathetic, it isn’t even funny anymore. So…fuck it.”

“I thought I didn’t belong at Blackwell,” she said, trying to get one more dig in for sweet revenge. Max held back as hard as she could to not let the smug grin working on her facial muscles push through.

Nathan pursed his lips and looked at the floor, his face still burning with humiliation and now annoyance. He needed a smoke. “Rrgh! Never-fucking-mind!” Twisting on his heels, he headed for the door.

‘Wow. Well done,’ the voice chided. ‘And you say she’s an idiot.’

“Just…shut up,” he hissed at himself, stuffing his hand back into his pocket and shuffling forward with a heavy weight. The lights were too bright and he squeezed his eyes shut.

“Nathan! W-wait.”

He stopped, not knowing why, but he did. His head slightly turned to look over his shoulder.

Max sat in the booth, twisting her fingers together and having trouble looking up, wondering why she beckoned him to stay herself. She wanted to get back with Chloe as soon as possible, and a ride back would be cutting the wait in half, but his attitude kept her at a discernible distance. Still, the offer stood, and somewhere inside she couldn’t help but be influenced by Rachel’s positivity and good nature. Max wished she could tell him the truth and smooth out this situation, and the fact she couldn’t made her cringe and question what was happening in her little world over and over. She could tell him, but where would that put them then?

The perpetual silence between them was making him itch. He turned to leave once again. When he reached one of the exits, arm on the door and ready to push, he felt a presence approaching.

“Okay,” she said, her steps stopping and her voice almost a delicate whisper. Hesitant, but with hidden resolution.

Nathan didn’t turn this time, but his eyes followed the contours of his shoulder. He brought up his jacket again, ready to block the rain. He assumed she did the same with her gray zip-up. Jutting his chin forward, he let her exit first, their footsteps soon changing to a steady run to the truck, and for another second, he thought of his nightmare. Running through the puddles, soaking his socks, like now, alone and watching everyone around him die. But here, Max was running with him, stupid gray hoodie over her head, failing to dodge the drops, and the memory was broken and replaced with that unfamiliar calm.

“Is this shit ever gonna stop?” he mumbled to himself as the two shut their respective doors. He started the vehicle soon after.

Nathan flicked some of his loosening hair from water and threw his coat in the backseat like before, keeping his cardigan on. He then turned back on the heat, the October chill seeping through their clothes with each rainy stain. Max also removed her soaked jacket and hugged herself for extra warmth.

‘Welp. Here I am. Back in this over-sized SUV pickup. With Nathan. This is probably the worst idea you’ve ever had, Maxine.’ She used her full name, chastising herself with the utmost self-loathing.

However, the sooner she could get back to Blackwell and call Chloe, the sooner she would feel better. And, hey, he offered, right? It was simple. Drive back to Blackwell, call Chloe and work things out, have an existential meltdown, and finally go to bed. Then wake up, survive, repeat. What could possibly go wrong? Well…more wrong. At this point, she’d been through the wringer. She took a breath. Trying to convince herself that this was a good idea in the first place was already difficult enough. There was no need to freak herself out more. She tried to stay still, calm, and quiet.

Grabbing his cigarettes before throwing his jacket back, Nathan decided to silence one of his escalating cravings by lighting up. He cracked the window to ventilate the truck. Max was secretly grateful, not being a fan of the habit.

She stayed quiet, and with it, Nathan started becoming uncomfortable with her awkward company. They hadn’t even started moving, the vehicle’s headlights piercing through the outside’s darkness, flashes of the pelting rain flickering past. The odd harmony returned, more pings and raps. He crossed his calves and sat back, one hand on the wheel while the other brought the cigarette back to his lips for another intake. His vision glided to Max as she sat stiff as a board in the passenger’s seat.

After another beat he growled and said, “I don’t know whether you’re more irritating when you’re mouth’s running or when you’re quiet,” he took in another dose and then exhaled it with force.

Max closed her eyes and pretended he didn’t say anything, letting the distance between them grow, her focus out the window. The sooner this was over, the better.

Nathan felt his pocket buzz again as he pushed the cigarette butt out the small crack of the window. With the last exhalation of smoke, he pulled out his phone, expecting another message from Victoria. Unfortunately, when the phone kept buzzing, it became clear he was getting an actual call. He looked at the ID and froze. It was late, and he undoubtedly missed the time frame when Sean demanded he be home for whatever “talk” he wanted to give him. Nathan hesitated answering, seeing Max spy curiously over her hunched shoulder, but ultimately glided a shaky finger over the touch screen.

“Yeah?” No emotion, to the point.

“We had an appointment, Nathan.” The cold and calculated articulation of Sean Prescott swept through the receiver.

“Yeah.” Another emotionless reply. His whole being felt emptied, like the wind coursed through hollow bone and left him immobile.

“I expect you here within the next ten minutes. Do you understand?”

Nathan went down further in his seat and sniffed, taking the dare. “Or what?”

A long pause held between Nathan and Sean. Max felt the hair on her arms bristle, still unsure of who was on the other line, but could take a pretty accurate, wild guess with the way Nathan was acting. It was just like the assembly that morning.

“Or you can say goodbye to your little studio venture you so desperately begged me for.”

Nathan’s eyes shot open, and his body jolted. “You can’t—!”

“I think you’ll find that I can, Nathan. Rather easily,” Sean cut off. “Ten. Minutes.”

The line went dead. So did Nathan’s limbs. His heavy head fell back against the headrest. He willed his body into lethargy, remembering for a brief second that Max was still in the truck with him. This one time, his being obeyed, and he closed his eyes with a long, drawn-out sigh.

Now Max, used to things being quiet and serene, felt this heavy silence strangling her. An air of uncertainty ran between the seams of their presences. She was about to say something to him when he quickly sat up, put the vehicle in drive, and began to speed off. She closed her mouth and clicked in her seat belt, pulled into the plush leather once again by his erratic driving.

They came to an intersection. To the left was the way to Blackwell. Nathan turned right.

Max couldn’t help but have the beginnings of the panicked question fall from her lips. “Wait. Blackwell’s back that way, so what—”

“I know.”

She peered out the window and her hands got tighter on her lap. “Then what are we—”

“I have to stop by my place,” he said, disdain dripping from the words and desperation crowding the syllables.

“So…what the hell am I supposed to do?”

“What do you think? Sit your ass in here and shut the fuck up! It’s not gonna take long, so just deal with it!”

‘Yep. Definitely the worst idea you’ve ever had, Maxine.’

Max curled further in on herself and shrank against the door, seriously considering a tuck and roll as opposed to dealing with Nathan any further. She was once again trapped in the lion’s cage with the lion. And now they were on their way to the den. The trees grew denser, blocking out what little sun was left and leaving them in a tunnel of rain, foliage, and darkness.

She tried to stay collected and turned to Nathan. His gaze was intense as he focused on the road. Max saw the double yellow lines blur past with each curve of the wet asphalt. The metal barrier followed suit with its washed out focus. To their right, past that barrier and through the innumerable tree trunks, Max saw slivers of the beach. They were following a cliff side around to an upper area of the bay. The lighthouse’s beacon rotated and flashed across her eyes once again, as if telling her to prepare. Though the heat from the truck swarmed all around her, she shivered, the warning heavily settling within.

The way began to clear and Nathan slowed to make another turn, nothing around them in terms of other homes or life whatsoever. Just the trees and their whispers with the rain. The immaculate, paved driveway stood out with an intimidating red-bricked wall. The address numbers, shiny and gold above a mail slot, dripped with the sky’s downpour and were lit by some lantern lights on top of either side of the entrance. The curved path, lined with an array of wildflowers and shrubbery, all bobbing with the rain’s assault, opened wider as it went and took them up to another perimeter gate. Each end stretched into the wooded darkness and looked like it went on forever.

Nathan stopped the truck, and Max gazed beyond the black-barred fence, wide-eyed and mouth gaping. It wasn’t easy to see past some trees and their overhanging branches, but it was clearly a mansion. That much she could deduce. Of course, what else would a family like the Prescotts have? Her eyes kept roaming the perimeter. More foliage and trees, including meticulously potted plants, decorated the entrance as well as the yard, making the stark white manor look like it was trying to camouflage itself amongst Arcadia Bay’s green. Some spotlights lit up the perfectly trimmed hedges, and lantern lights, similar to those at the driveway’s entrance atop some poles, added extra illumination to the columned front steps. Those columns led up to an oval-shaped balcony with a small, arched window. The other windows ranged from more arched to large and rectangular, and a few of the interior lights were on. Unfortunately, the distance they had on the place made it hard for her to see much else on the inside. The driveway itself went past the gate and created a circle with a couple branching paths. Each went around one side of the manor, narrowing into the unknown. An Oregon white oak tree was rooted in the middle of said circle, tall and formidable, casting ominous shadows on the ground with the unnatural lighting surrounding the building.

Max also noticed that the manor home was near a cliff’s edge, the one they had been following all this time on the drive, one that was basically opposite of the lighthouse. Across from the manor was another separate structure situated smack on the precipice, but again, it was difficult to see, even more than the main mansion. She could only crane her neck so far before hitting the truck’s window. Max shook her head at the overwhelming sight of it all. Something like this really didn’t fit here, not in Arcadia Bay.

On another note, the rain was beginning to let up, transforming into a light drizzle, and the both of them inwardly sighed with relief. The two continued to hold their positions before Nathan noticed her reaction to the manor. Typical. He smirked. Not for long, though. With the rain’s slow dissipation, Nathan’s mettle went with it. Whatever his father wanted to see him for, he really didn’t want to know. And now, he’d invoked the senior’s ire with being late. Max’s presence also made him more nervous.

“You’re not pulling up further?” she asked, her concern not being masked. The rain may have let up, but it wasn’t stopping. He was going to get soaked. Max could see his hesitation and a bad feeling began to heavily weigh on her chest.

Her tone made Nathan even more uncomfortable. “Just stay here,” he curtly replied and left the vehicle. He kept it running and slowly made his way to the embellished gate.

Max saw his form silhouette against the headlights and look up at the bars. They must have had a motion sensor of some sort, because the gate began to slide open, a grinding mechanism piercing through the night. Nathan then began the small trek to the manor, and the further he got from the truck, the more twisted and tight Max’s insides became. It suddenly dawned on her, as the bars slowly closed behind him, that this place looked more like a dolled-up prison than a home.



Max barely moved, barely breathed as she waited for him. This awful feeling wasn’t leaving, and it made her ill. She wondered if she shouldn’t have just waited for the bus, the foolishness claiming her every sense. No matter what she did to distract herself—whether it was checking her photographs from the day, making sure her leftovers weren’t complete mulch, or checking Warren’s plethora of messages he’d left her—she couldn’t shake this perturbing feeling.

She looked back at her messages. Warren had been excited about a new series he downloaded, and he couldn’t wait to share some of the tidbits with her. She appreciated his enthusiasm, but it also did nothing to make her feel better. So she sat, unmoving with a menacing, vivacious energy within.

Movement caught her eye and she looked up at one of the gate’s curved décor pieces. Atop it was an unmistakable security camera. The red light was like a laser point in the dark atmosphere and the barrel looked like it zoomed in on her. Max gasped and sat back, as if it cornered her and was going to execute her for having her plebeian existence on their ground. She then felt foolish. Of course Nathan’s family was going to have security at their place. They would be crazy not to. That didn’t mean they were watching her specifically…she hoped.

Max also contemplated calling Chloe, but her current position made the decision for her. It was already going to be difficult enough keeping this event from her.

‘And the lies just keep racking up…’ Max’s head fell back against the seat and she blew a small raspberry in defeat, if only to distract from the invisible rope tightened around her innards.

Not paying much mind to how much time was passing, she finally saw Nathan’s figure emerge from the estate. Well, “emerge” was a more proper word for the way he stumbled down the stairs and back to the gate. Max wasn’t laughing, however. Something was wrong. As he reentered the vehicle, she absentmindedly scooted more toward her door. It was as if she wanted to make room for him in the already-roomy truck, as if the cup holder/armrest combo in the middle didn’t already separate them to a large degree, as if she wanted him to be…comfortable.

The boy just sat there, hair a bit unruly and dripping with rainwater, cardigan soaked to the point where his black t-shirt was showing through, and his face emotionless—almost catatonic—with a vacant stare. Max knew there were words between them that weren’t being said, knew they weren’t on terms good enough to consider the option, knew the way he had acted thus far was terrible, but she couldn’t stop herself. She couldn’t stop the worry from showing, from being said.

“Nathan? Are you okay?”

He shuffled his feet on the wet mats below, catching some gravel and dirt that made a crude scraping noise. Without replying, he put the truck in reverse and did another y-turn to leave. They reached the end of the drive and turned back on the route toward Blackwell.

There was no respite, no warning. That pressure invaded Max’s chest and burst forth the moment they returned to the regular road as Nathan slammed on the gas. She was violently thrust into her seat with a gasp, the diesel engine escalating its loud hum as the speedometer climbed—50, 70, 85…!

“Holy shit! Nathan, slow down!” she exclaimed, out of breath at the unforeseen action.

He didn’t seem to hear her, didn’t even seem to acknowledge her existence anymore.

‘Oh, my God!’ she sucked in air and looked all around, only to be met with the grueling realization that she truly was trapped, and by her own naivety.

She tried to break through once more, her voice raising. “Nathan!”

“SHUT UP!” he screamed. “JUST. SHUT. UP!”

“Nathan, what the hell happened?!” They sped through a giant puddle and the resulting spray hit the windshield as the truck lurched forward momentarily. “Shit! You have to stop! Seriously!”

Her eyes widened, fear overtaking all her senses. She pulled the seat belt, tightening it around her torso and chest. Shaking her head, she kept her wide orbs on him as he began to babble in short, sporadic fits.

“He thinks he can just—! I was doing fine! Everything…everything was going to be okay…FUCK! And that plastic Barbie whore—she isn’t even my real—! Where the fuck does she get off…?! Fuck you and your fucking doctor…meds…BULLSHIT! AHH!” he cried, his voice cracking in several places, the final scream more akin to a sob.

The crazy chunks of incoherent information made its way through her, but now obviously wasn’t the time to mention them. “Nathan, this is insane! You’re going way too fast! Slow down!”

It was like a switch was flipped, like he finally recognized that she was sitting in the passenger’s seat as they sped towards Blackwell Academy. He turned his head, and suddenly Max wished he hadn’t. His eyes were glossed over in rage, tears at their corners ready to overflow. The most terrifying thing was the sinister-looking smile that spread across his face.

“Fast? This isn’t fast. You want to see fast?”

Her stomach hit the floor. This couldn’t be happening. “Nathan…NO!”

Nathan pressed harder on the pedal as she pleaded for him to cease. Trees, street lamps, and other cars blurred past them as they neared their destination.

A shadow came into view on her side of the road.

“NATHAN!”

He would never have been able to stop in time for the deer.

They gasped and Max held up her arms as Nathan hit the brakes. The wheels locked as they caught on the layer of water coating the street, the slosh and eventual screech they left behind ringing in their ears. The inevitable and sickening collision caused that shrill, nails-on-chalkboard sound to cut through it all. Max had squeezed her eyes shut, but they quickly shot open with the hit. Her arms were still in front of her in a defensive position, but the air around the two teens began to feel like there was no gravity, like everything was in slow motion. She had this sensation before.

Her vision. The bathroom. When she held up her hand and…

And now, before her eyes, the truck was moving—not forwards, but backwards. The defenseless deer’s body rose back up, its blood returning to closing wounds, its neck twisting back into proper position, and Nathan’s truck continuing to move further away. There were a variety of strange noises she could hear—a sort of crackling, almost an automated whirring, and something that sounded like a banshee’s scream being muffled underwater. Her arm reached out reflexively, and the scene continued to go back, back, back.

Amongst all the noise, she heard many different voices—Chloe’s, this time, clear as day. “You can rewind time, Max. That’s fucking insane! We have to play!”

An abrupt pain caused her to double over and clutch her head with a harsh groan. All she could see was red and black blotches, like burning paper. She forced herself to reopen her eyes and look up. Her hand was still outstretched, but there was no deer, only the speeding truck and black, wet mass of the road.

And then, déjà vu. “Fast? This isn’t fast. You want to see fast?”

Max’s eyes bulked out and her mouth was agape. Her chest squeezed so tight she could have sworn she was going to implode.

‘What the fuck?! What just happened?!’

“Nathan, slow down,” she calmly said, unable to really breathe. Inside, she was freaking out, bolted to the seat.

He didn’t comply, foot still hammered to the gas.

“Nathan, seriously, you’re going to—!”

The scene played out just as it did before. Shadow, deer, gasp, brakes, screech, WHAM! The animal’s neck cracked and blood splattered up the windshield, already beginning to dribble down with the rain’s wash. The creature itself was thrown to the shoulder of the road, dead, as they came to a halt.

The two were completely shocked into submission, a lack of life around them and naught a sound but the ticks of the shower against their surroundings. Nathan’s hands were tightly wound at ten and two on the wheel, and Max’s covered her mouth in disbelief, her belt digging into her neck, a red mark sure to be left behind.

‘What could possibly go more wrong? This, Max! THIS! What the hell were you thinking?!’

They slowly turned to look at each other. She stared into his blue eyes, the rage no longer there. Now there was only fear. He could see the same in hers. It perfectly mirrored their encounter at the lighthouse, mirrored the dread in both of them as she dangled over the edge and he clung to her.

Before she could speak, not wanting to hear her any nuance of her voice, Nathan hastily unbuckled himself. Opening the door and jumping out, he went to the front of the car and immediately covered his nose and mouth with his arm. The blood of the animal was spread over the fender, parts of its innards on the pavement. The stench was magnified by the weather. The deer itself, a doe, was on its side, halfway in a ditch, with its neck cockeyed and its dead and black pupils wide to the flooded skies.

Max joined him outside, not bothering to put on her jacket, the headlights of the vehicle spreading their glow over the ghastly display. The cold immediately hit her bare arms, but she ignored it. She couldn’t really feel anything at the moment. Her hands never left her mouth and she groaned, closing her eyes and shaking her head. Her legs almost gave out, not being able to believe what just happened. She was ready to yell, scream, and strike him again for his stupidity, for his ignorance and lack of insight leading to this result. It was there, but never released, for if she were to do so, she felt she would have to turn right around and strike herself. For now, she was too shocked at the sight and what had transpired mere moments ago.

She wasn’t dreaming. She couldn’t have been. Max saw him hit the deer before it ever happened. Was it yet another cryptic vision of sorts? Or…did she really rewind time? It’s what the spectral Chloe said she could do. She saw it all come back, saw it all fix itself. Was it true? Or was she going batshit insane? Right about now, she was sure it was the latter. Whatever the reason, she was now here, with Nathan, standing over a doe’s wet corpse, wondering how this day could plunge any further into lunacy.

Another car sped by, disregarding their accident, as Max began to focus on the other side of the scale. What happened to make Nathan go off the deep end like that? One moment he seemed like his “normal” self heading into the estate, and the next he’s careening down Arcadia’s streets, her in tow, muttering in variant pitches about events unseen and unheard to her. Overcrowding her thoughts were the rumors that telephoned their way through Blackwell, the same ones she thought about that fateful Monday when Mrs. Paxton assigned them seats. Combined with his ascribed reputation, she should have foreseen something like this…right?

Max had a moment of self-disgust. ‘This isn’t…I shouldn’t think…oh, man. What now? What do I do?’ She had given him the benefit of the doubt, and it boomeranged her right in the teeth.

Nathan finally brought his arm down and swallowed. His face showed the same blankness when she grabbed his hand in the diner, but more so, like he was far, far away from this place.

“Is…is it…?” asked Max, her throat tight and dry. She hugged her arms and fidgeted in place, knowing the answer, but hating the truth. Hating herself.

Nathan didn’t answer, only glided past her like a specter and opened the back passenger door. He fumbled around inside for a bit, Max turning to see what he was doing, but not being able to see past his person. He came back out with his camera, and Max was stricken with confusion anew. The boy stepped past her again as another car passed, sloshing water that gathered and pooled at their feet. The trees whisked with the passing wind. Did no one notice? Did no one care? She pushed the grievances aside, focusing on Nathan as he stepped over some purplish-red guts of the creature. She felt like vomiting as she heard his immaculate shoes squish in some stray bits.

‘What are you doing?’ she wanted to ask, but the words wouldn’t form, her mouth opening and closing once, twice, a number of times she forgot to count. It was a surprise to her that she found her voice enough to utter her previous question.

Nathan cocked his head and sniffled, feeling the cold cut through his cardigan and t-shirt. He then came down on one knee, angling the camera’s lens at the creature, focusing on the hollow, black eyes in which he was reflected. The vehicle’s headlights made for a perfect contrast, and Jefferson’s phrase reverberated as a clear message through the static.

“Always take the shot.”

As the camera flashed, Max dribbled back and forth between being inspired and disturbed. The very fact that she felt an ounce of the former made her question her sanity all over again. Her mouth upturned, and she found herself backing up toward the truck. Max’s back hit the cold, wet metal, and she trembled. Nathan was acting like nothing was amiss, like this was an everyday occurrence in his world. Max wondered if that was why—because it was normal for him. It was a truly frightening thought. She clumsily climbed back in the warm truck, mind and heart racing in terror. Nathan soon followed suit, replacing the camera in his bag and pensively sitting in his seat as if they didn’t just crash into a bulky animal, as if everything was peachy keen. Another car passed, ignoring the scene once again. It was like they existed in some sort of separate bubble, and Max just wanted to go home. Not even to Blackwell, but back to Seattle. She’d do anything to see her mom and dad’s faces, almost laughing at the intense emotion.

And so they sat, Max not knowing what in all the heavens to say to this clearly-unstable guy, and Nathan lost amongst his own unmanageable thoughts.

“Nathan…?” Her fear kept her quiet and cautious. Max felt the heat seep into her cold clothes and try to comfort her, to no avail, but she felt like she had to say something. The entire day’s events were taking their toll.

She saw his eyes move from the floor to out front. He then turned towards her, slowly and with almost a mechanical precision. Her throat began to close again, and her mind screamed to open the door and just run, but she was glued in place, a prisoner of her own fear.

“…What?” Nathan’s voice was low and scratchy.

It really was as if nothing had happened. Max gulped, searching through the files in her mind what to say or do that would make anything better, that would actually matter. She was coming up empty, so very empty.

“S-should we…c-call someone? O-or…?”

The pauses between their sentences were some of the most uncomfortable Max had ever felt in her life. She waited, head hurting and racing, pounding and hot.

He seethed. “Why?”

“Because…it’s…we could…”

In the next second, Nathan climbed over the middle armrest and clutched at the sides of her face with cold, moist hands. Max didn’t even have time to take any air into her lungs and her entire body tensed as his face hovered millimeters away from hers. His hot breath ghosted over her chapped lips as her hands instinctively came up to grapple his wrists. She already knew her eyes were wide, and they were staring right into his, his that were so vacant that they were like black holes pulling her into that unknown to join her confused mind.

His breathing was uneven and short, his words void. “It’s. Dead.”

Max mouth opened ever so slightly, her chest hiccuping with its intake of oxygen. She regretted everything, every decision she made that led her here, and wished that she could rewind time. But could she? She didn’t know, and right now it didn’t matter with Nathan’s face in hers. Her eyes closed as his rain-washed cologne lightly made its way to her nose, the scent igniting more fear inside. It was like that morning when he had her cornered, his control relinquished from him.

He continued, slow and steady, “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.”

She slowly reopened her tear-spotted eyes. Their blues blended together, bright and hopeful, dim and hopeless. The words he said were haunting, but also held a reflective weight, and the way he said them was filled with not anger or hate, but an unrelenting sadness. As a moment of weakness passed through her, the side of her bottom lip entered her mouth to become bruised with bites of lament. Nathan had the smallest light of life return to him as his gaze situated itself on her mouth—on her rosy, plush lips. He stared them down with an intensity that only resulted in her nerves surging with more overwhelming energy. Fiery heat crept up her neck and into her face, and she was sure he could feel it. Her hands tightened around him. Nathan’s did the same to her head in response, his thumbs digging into the sides of her cheeks, nails through her hair and into her skull. She winced, but didn’t waver despite her distress. She had to stay strong. Otherwise she would crumble beneath the Prescott’s weight.

Suddenly, his grip loosened, and his right thumb pressed onto her upper lip, its pad dragging to the side and spreading wet, warm moisture with it. She flinched, her lips clamping shut with the action before reopening with a sharp gasp afterward.

Nathan backed some centimeters away to glance at his thumb and her face. His vision flickered between the two for a couple seconds before settling on her blue orbs. Max broke away to looked at his digit, seeing a smear of red on it. Blood. Another nosebleed. The sleeves of his cardigan had also been pushed ever so slightly up his arm. The indiscernible black blotch on his right wrist came into view. It was a crudely-drawn shape—a star.

Her eyes met his again as his hands released her fully. They hovered in the air by her head, joints taut and trembling as strands of her hair fell back into place from between his fingers. Max liberated hers as well, her slim digits numb like they had frostbite.

The countenance Nathan wore now was nothing short of anguish. His eyes flooded over, hot tears daubing the cold droplets from the rain. Nathan’s upper lip lifted, his jaw clenched and teeth chattering.

“Kuh—!”

The sob burst out of him with such force that Max flinched, his breath a heavy gust against her face. His hands went to her shoulders, clutching them tight, and feeling like heavy weights. Nathan’s head bobbed as if it were full of water, no lucidity within the broken utterances he was making.

Max shuffled back until she hit the door. There wasn’t a lot of space to work with in the first place, but Nathan didn’t relent and only held onto her tighter.

Anger bubbled in her chest and rose to her chords. “S-stop it! Let go! Let me g—”

“I’m sorry…”

She froze, and Nathan pulled her closer, his hands shifting to her upper back. Nathan’s head landed in the crook of her neck, causing the hairs on Max’s body to stand on end. It was suddenly too hot in the vehicle—much, much too hot—and it felt like a claustrophobic crawlspace.

“I’m sorry…so sorry…s-sorry…” He kept repeating his anguish like a mantra, choking back more sobs as he hiccuped and cried.

Max was speechless. There was nothing she could think of to say, nothing that made sense in this moment. Instead, she kept still, Nathan’s chilled body pressed into hers, a natural warmth blooming within the desperate embrace. Her arms were still out like a fool, and her fear had been put on an illogical pause. Too many thoughts swarmed her head.

“Look, Max. There’s just been a lot of shit going down with Nathan and his family. I worry about him, okay?”

“Boo-fucking-hoo, I’m so rich I can’t see straight. Fuck him and his Vortex Club.”

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

“You realize you just thanked Nathan Prescott, right?”

“He looked…weird. Like he was going to explode. He sort of always looks like that, but…"

Too much. It was all too much. Reuniting with a completely changed Chloe, this insanity with Nathan, rewinding time...? The entirety of this week, especially today was just too much to handle all at once. She was so angry, but so confused, and her contradiction emotions clashed over and over. That outer shell of his had cracked, and Max questioned if what was on the inside was the truth, and whether or not it was worth the curiosity.

‘You dickhead,’ she thought with contempt, wanting so badly to just yell and strike him, ‘I’m the one who feels like crying. You didn’t even accept my apology, so why should I accept yours?’

But, again, the anger never came.

Instead, she brought her hands down to him, closing the remaining distance between them. Gently and silently she gave in to the desperate, yet diffident embrace.

For a moment, they weren’t on opposite ends of a spectrum. For a moment, they could pretend everything was okay. For a moment, they were safe.

For a moment…if only for a moment.

Chapter Text

“So, ‘Maxine.’ What kind of a name is that, really?”

Pause.

“Hello?”

Pause. Pause…Pause……

“Nate, are you listening? Like, hey, hi, hello-o-o?”

Victoria waved her hand in front of his face. Nathan didn’t respond, letting his reddening eyes shut and open with the pace of a snail. Listening? He was, but he wasn’t. Right now he didn’t really care much about anything, only the relaxing fill of cannabis clinging to his lungs and coursing through his blood.

He squeezed the paper between his thumb and forefinger and took another long hit. Nathan’s chest rose, keeping the dose within for several seconds before expelling it. The cloud of smoke rose and spread out amongst his ceiling, creating silver, river-like streams that twisted and swirled toward the cracked window. A fresh, autumn breeze was rolling in, shuffling the semi-raised blinds. The only strong sources of light came from his DVD display and projector.

Fuck the sun. It was too bright, too hot, even with the slight wind. The lingering, transitional summer weather from August to September was always the worst. Always too claustrophobic and sweltering to think or even breathe properly. That and Blackwell’s student body with its constant, annoying chittering got on his nerves. The school’s patrons nearly leapt off the walls from excitement at the year’s beginning. Old connections, new connections, he didn’t really give a shit.

All he knew now was this: Senior year. This was it. The make-it-or-break-it year. The last year he’d be at Blackwell, at his school. The last year he could enjoy this personal playground filled with lowly peons. The later generations would surely celebrate his leave, if they even remembered who he was. Plenty knew his name, his family, his father, and that would be all that remained when the arrant thief christened Time came around. Nathan raised his brows and then furrowed them again, deep crevices settling in the corners of his lips. To hell with this place.

He was honestly just glad the first few weeks of classes were over. Those first awkward stumbles back into the halls of education. He spent many vacation days and nights in the school’s photography lab—shooting, developing, printing. All in all, working more on his portfolio. But those first official weeks back? What a pain. At least during the summer he had the lab to himself.

That wasn’t going to be a problem anymore, anyway.

Nathan let a small smile coat his features. There was a lot going on in his mind, and he pushed it aside. It was whatever. He didn’t have long to stay in his thoughts as they would soon be interrupted once more.

“Well, if you’re not gonna be a potential partner for conversation, the least you can do is pass me another hit,” she said with a pout, though her brows seemed to deem her more annoyed that she sounded. Victoria always had an intimidating look about her, even when she was enjoying herself.

The two teens lay opposite on Nathan’s narrow, double bed, their legs bent and feet touching the floor below. Victoria twisted herself so she lay on her side, propping herself up with her elbow. Her face was lazily squished in the palm of her hand, a sigh pushing through her cherry-red lips.

Nathan clicked his tongue and handed the joint to Victoria who proceeded to take in her own dose. Her silver streams mixed with his as she sighed and twisted once more onto her back.

As they relaxed, Victoria’s phone, which was hooked into Nathan’s MP3 player, played a lax hip-hop song. The beats hung between them and a surreal silence.

After another several minutes, the paper burned low between them, Victoria sat up with a quick breath, her tone slack and tired. “Where the hell is Hayden? It’s been way more than an hour.”

Nathan scoffed with a small, silly smile. “Who knows? He probably went and got a head start on us.” He sat up and stretched, his loose, light sweater lifting with the action. He then shrugged. “Which is why we started a piece ahead of him.”

She gave him a sly smile. “Well, yeah. It
is Hayden. Still, he’s the one doing the snack run.” She reached over Nathan to grab a stray, plastic film canister on his side dresser, and proceeded to put the spent joint inside. “Where did you get this shit? ‘Cause it’s already starting to do wonders for me.”

“Leftovers from last month. Happy birthday to me.”

Victoria let out a light laugh and waved her hands as a sign for him to scoot over. She then lay back down, turning her head to face him as he stared blankly at the cracks in the ceiling. “That was one hell of a party.”

“Fuck yes, it was.” His steel blues met her forest greens.

There they stayed for a while in each other’s presence, Victoria’s smile a threaded needle for Nathan’s simple stare back. Minutes passed in a thickening fog. No thoughts, just existence, until the quiet persuaded him to close his eyes with a long sigh.

Victoria then noodled her body back up and shook her arms, freeing them from the tingling sensations of sleep. She exhaled sharply and smoothed out her black satin skirt as she fully stood up.

“You okay?” asked Nathan, his voice rather monotone as he began to lose himself in the high.

“Fucking stressed out.”

“Be-cause?” He divided the syllables as he sat up a little too fast, arms aching. His head swam for a moment.

“Uh, the contest? Everyday Heroes? That whole thing, remember?” Victoria said with a lofty 'duh' factor.

Nathan turned up a corner of his mouth. As if he didn’t know. Ever since his father announced a position for Blackwell Academy in the competition, Victoria hadn’t let up on the issue. She was especially ecstatic that Jefferson was elected head chaperone for the winning trip to San Francisco. Aside from those facts, however, he knew why she was so focused, why she was so wrapped up in the heat of it all.

“Relax, Vic. You’re already in a good position to win.”

She gave him a look of disquiet, something that was uncharacteristic for Victoria. Even through their building high, she wore it like an unfitting masquerade. “Not after today.”

Nathan leaned forward and cocked his head. “And why’s that?”

“Because of that fucking attention whore, Max Caulfield!” she snapped, a chord of gloom amongst the irritation.

“And we’re back to the new chick again. What about her?” he asked, intuitively patting the bed in an offer to get her to stop pacing and sit back down.

She refused by ignoring it, not seeing it really, and kept going back and forth, an annoyed sound hitched in her throat. “She just started and she’s already a pain in the ass! Her and that fucking goody-two-shoes, Kate Marsh!”

Nathan closed his eyes and clenched his fingers, withdrawing his awkward action from her view. He could feel a Victoria rant coming on. “I thought that Bible-thumping bitch was in the…the…” He paused, the words leaving him, snapping his fingers before making a scribbling motion with his hand.

“The illustration program…”

“Tha-a-at’s the one.” He grinned, air shooting out his nose in an awkward laugh.

“Hmm.” Victoria couldn’t help but smile for a second before returning to her thoughts. “Still, along with me, and a couple other nobodies, little miss Marsh signed up to be Mr. Jefferson’s assistant for Photography Lab.”

“Yeah?” The drug was settling into his system. He laid back down, listening to his quickening heartbeat in his ears, feeling the increased pulsing in his neck and arms.

She irritably sighed. “The look on his face basically reassured her the position! And she only just got here, too!”

“She won’t. Don’t’ worry about her.” He looked over to his projector screen. The slideshow of his photographs silently changed, varying shadows casted across the both of them.

“No, I think she will.” Exasperation. “Damn it.”

Nathan ran his tongue along the razor’s edge of his top teeth. The sharp feeling kept him focused. “And Caulfield?”

Victoria hissed through her teeth, making a growling sound akin to a wild cat. “Don’t even get me started…”

He snorted. “It’s a little late, Vic.”

“I don’t know, Nate. The way Mark looks at her and everything and, like, she doesn’t even seem to notice! She just plays it cool! Just like that other bitch, Rach—” She cut herself off at the start of the girl’s name. “It’s just…what the fuck…”

“Mark?” Nathan’s brow rose, but he didn’t think much of her lack of honorifics.

He wasn’t thinking much of anything, really. Everything was becoming blurred together. Though, he knew whose name was to roll off her tongue, and he frowned. Victoria tended to pour it all out when she was razzed, so he tried to go along with it, make her feel better about shit, like she had with him over the years. Though, sometimes, even with her, he couldn’t help but feel congested and, stupidly enough, trapped.

Victoria’s vision flicked to him and then to the floor. She placed one hand on her hip, the other on her forehead. “Mr. Jefferson, I mean.” Again, she sighed, this time with a groan, a feeling of indignity coiling in her stomach and burning in her cheeks. “Mr. Jefferson. Not…”

“Victoria.” Nathan stopped her before she could feel worse about the situation. “It’s cool. Just…relax. C’mon.”

The girl crossed her arms and looked at her periwinkle, leather shoes. The laces were perfectly tied and she zeroed in on them, then on her lacy yellow socks, her black stockings.

She finally relinquished herself to the open space beside him. Nathan lifted one of his arms to rest around her shoulder.

“There. Better?”

“Honestly? No.”

“Give it another few minutes.”

“Is that a threat or a promise?”

“Whichever you prefer.”

The girl began laughing, something that she seemed to do less and less of as the years passed at Blackwell. And whether it was from the drug or his quip, Nathan smiled regardless, light elation adding to his departure from the present. Another several minutes passed, the world leaving them both in a cloud of haze and temporary comfort. Outside, the coo of a mourning dove reached their ears.

“Nathan?” Victoria asked, her voice a hesitant and hushed whisper.

“Hm?”

“If I win the contest…” She trailed off and huffed.
“When I win,” she corrected, “do you think my parents will finally take me seriously and display my work?”

The straightforwardness of Victoria’s questions never ceased to stagger him in some way or another. While Nathan’s outward appearance showed little to nothing, his innards squirmed like a sea of insects.

He squeezed her shoulder in reassurance; the silence spoke more than what his twisted tongue could give in that moment.

And they waited, disappointment coating the low hum in his chords.

He wished he had all the right answers.



Like now. Like this moment. The uncertainty. The silence. The fear creeping its way up his vertebrae, all the way into his skull, blocking all his inhibitions. No answers to be had.

Her scent. That cheap coconut aroma. He wanted to hate it, wanted to hate everything about her and it, but it reminded him too much of home, of the days back in Florida. Before things changed and went to shit. Before his father ever raised his hand, before his sister became possessed with wanderlust, before his mother—

Nathan felt the lightweight pressure of her palms on his back, and his thoughts were abandoned. Her warmth began seeping into him like that time in the diner, and his constricted muscles were relieved of tension. Through the fabric of her shirt, his hands gripped her tight. A few strands of Max’s hair brushed past one of his reddening cheeks. The sensation made him take in a sharp breath as his nails pushed through the turquoise fabric and harshly met her skin. Something was building inside, but the urge to fight it had long gone. Instead, he relished in the clumsy gesture.

Nathan then realized he was talking, muttering—on and on, apology after apology, trying to adjust to the aura of death that now invaded his space. He willed himself to stop, but his mouth ignored the command. Expiation for his foolishness, if ever there was.

The doe. It was dead. It was dead because of him. It was dead because he was careless, because he was such a fucking idiot, because he was an absolute train wreck walking the streets of Arcadia that everyone despised. And when he looked in a mirror, it was no different. Oh, he knew. Then when he aligned that viewfinder with the creature’s black eyes, his empty carapace filled with its betrayal and departure of this realm.

So why, after all this shit, wasn’t she pushing him away?

Nathan sobbed once more, the exhalation a warm breath against her bare neck. Max could distinguish his warm tears from the cold rain. She shivered, the heat smudging together with her own, pulsating upwards and crowding her being. Though the weather had stolen that warmth, it was like Nathan gave it back in waves, and a bead of sweat formed on her brow. She still held onto him, not knowing if the trembling she now felt was coming from him or herself.

His breathing steadied as he lifted his head, eyes swollen and lids heavy. It was like the weight of it all pushed him into her in a fraught attempt to hang onto this reality. The heavy drops of rain atop the truck created a hollow noise that slowly brought him back. He realized just what he was doing, whom he was using as an anchor and swallowed hard, his throat dry and cold. Dehydrated.

Max was so still she could no longer feel her limbs, like Medusa herself had petrified them. When Nathan lifted away from her, she still didn’t move, her body keeping the shape of his. Nathan’s hands went back to her shoulders, dragging from her back to their previous place. It made her skin crawl, and she finally jolted upright, allowing herself to push a little further away from him.

When his reddened eyes met hers, her stomach flew into her chest, constricting any form of words to be said. She couldn’t think of anything worth saying. Nathan’s expression made her arms ache with sadness, so much that they fell to her sides, thousand-pound weights attached at the shoulder.

A final tear pushed its way out of him and he blinked rapidly to dispel it, breaking their shared gaze. Without a doubt, he didn’t want to cry any more than he had in front of her. The streetlight revealed stream traces on his flushed cheeks, uneven, vertical traces chasing down his neck. Her eyes followed them until the light cast a strange shadow on one of his clavicles.

Max tried to talk, eyes widening at the discovery. Her lips moved, forming his name, but nothing came out.

It wasn’t a shadow. It was a bruise.

And there were more past his shoulder. Inky, black and blue fingerprints blossoming outwards, yellowing at the edges. They were barely blocked by his wet clothes. She couldn’t stop even the tamest of gasps from leaving her.

“Oh, my God…Nathan…” She breathed, still shocked, her fingers gently reaching out to his collarbone.

Without warning, Nathan violently shoved her, and Max’s back met the door with a small yelp of pain. Like she was a deadly contagion that had long since infected him, he pushed her away, rocking himself backwards to the driver’s seat. His breathing was constrained.

A surge pulsed through Max with the impact, and her lungs untightened with another gasp. Meanwhile, Nathan looked back to his thumb. Her blood. On his hand, on his jacket…everywhere. He wiped it away on his pants in haste, back and forth until that part of his hand felt raw. It was her that he hit. It was her on the side of the road, innards spilled about the wet asphalt. She was the doe. Those eyes were never going to leave. He hunched over and cradled his head in his hands, steadying his breaths and trembling arms.

She was immobilized, not knowing what to think let alone say.

He didn’t have those marks in the diner. She would have noticed them. She would have.

Nathan kept his head down and tried not to cough. His throat was parched and tight. It didn’t help that something like this happened in front of her, of all people. And that he’d suddenly become like a magnet to metal was so unexpected. He’d clung to her like an idiot, and was positive she had a plethora of unknowns spinning in her head; he did, too.

But he was sorry. He’d fucked up. Again. Like he always did. He could already feel the invisible daggers of concealed eyes. Not muted pools of colored anger, but sharp and vivid glares of disappointment. That was always the worst. Worse than anger. He wanted to scream. Everything was so fucked.

“Nath—”

“Don’t!” He countered, his voice cracking. ‘God,’ he immediately thought with the exclamation. He sounded so pathetic. He placed his hands on the wheel and ground them into the leather. There was a moment he was sure to tear it off. “Just don’t!”

“Then what?!” she cried. Tears were forming in her eyes. She willed them away and hugged herself, the last traces of his warmth leaving her in the cold.

“Just…just!” There was nothing he could come up with. He was so angry with himself that he bit the inside of his cheek.

Max looked out the window again to the dead creature. The thing’s form outlined itself with the rain, making its death well-known.

Yet another car passed them by, hitting a puddle and spraying the truck with more water. It made them both jump. Max couldn’t believe anyone wasn’t stopping to check out the situation. She wondered now if she even wanted anyone to stop. It might only make matters worse.

When neither of them said anything else, both unmoving from the awkward sensation of before, Nathan’s hand laid upon the gearshift. He switched the truck into drive in a trance-like state, following upon the need to get the hell out of there.

“Nathan!”

His foot hit the brake and jerked the two of them. He twisted his head to meet her fearful gaze.

“What are you doing?” Her bravery waned with his vacant eyes.

‘Does he really not care about what just happened?’ she frantically thought. ‘And those bruises! And what about that…hug? And—shit, I don’t know!’

Nathan drew in a long breath in a sniffle, clearing his stinging sinuses, pushing his moment of weakness aside. He attempted to diffuse the situation and chose his words carefully. “Going back to Blackwell. What the fuck else?” They sounded hollow, not a success.

Max’s eyes widened. She didn’t know how else to say it. If he wasn’t going to address things, then she sure as hell was. “Nathan. We just hit a deer. It’s…dead. And you…” She was about to address their embrace, but decided against it for a number of reasons, “you’re not okay.”

‘Nope. Thanks for noticing, though!’ is what his sarcasm wanted to say, but he lacked any fight to snap back.

A couple beats passed before he muttered, “Neither are you.” There was no spark behind the statement, just the blunt truth.

“Then…” She was at another loss, feeling brave enough to lean over and lift her hand to his shoulder. This whole situation felt like she was tiptoeing on cracking glass. “Then why don’t we just chill for a second? Okay?”

That tone. It sounded like a number of his past therapists. Parental. Borderline patronizing. He rolled his appendage, releasing her grip. “Yeah. Let’s chill for a second. How about you get the hell out of my truck and walk your ass back? Okay?” He stifled a cough and growled again.

As much as she wanted to do just that, she feared he’d be worse off if he were by himself, especially if he attempted to drive. She had to get her bearings, too. This entire day had been an otherworldly experience, and it still wasn’t over. Not yet.

At the very least she got Nathan to stop speeding off with her in tow. They weren’t ready to go anywhere, especially not now. Her concern grew with the thought of his blue-blotted shoulder. And things only got more confusing with the bewildering scribble of that star. But those bruises…they were severely dark and prominent. They were fresh.

The atmosphere grew heavy.

And before…everything she had seen, heard, felt. Her stomach gave a leap.

‘Can I really reverse time?’

Secretively holding out her hand, she attempted to repeat the sensations from before. She squinted, focused, breathed normally. It was right…no. She breathed again and focused more, and then…there! The world tinged red and the air around her felt light. However, it didn’t last. Before she knew it, she felt more wet warmth under her nose. Nothing had changed and her fingers wiped away the blood once more. Her neck and head pulsed with the fleeting rush. She decided against another try, fearing her death from blood loss before she figured anything out.

‘What the hell is happening to me?’

After glancing out the rain-spattered window, lost amidst a sea of fears and questions, she turned back to Nathan. He was giving her a strange look, and his eyes felt like they were groping her. She uncomfortably looked to the floor.

Nathan was honestly waiting for her to leave, for her to run as far away from him as she could. His reflection in the rain-stained glass cackled at the scene. It said, ‘Correction. Now you’ve cemented her hatred of you. Well done, Nathan. Well-fucking-done.’

When she didn’t go, he couldn’t help but give her the traditional 'what the fuck' leer. He exhaled and put the truck back in park, leaned back, and crossed his arms. Droplets of water dripped from his hair down his temple, and he wiped them away in frustration. He swallowed again and groaned, letting his head fall on the window.

“Shit.” The word left Max in a quiet,, breathy state, her own head falling against the seat. It felt like it could snap her neck under its weight.

“What the fuck are you still doing here? Why don’t you just bail and leave me the fuck alone!”

Max’s eyes shifted to his still form. He was looking out the window to…nothing. He looked so far away that, for a moment, Max wondered if he was addressing her at all.

She wasn’t sure how to answer him. So, she said the only logical things coming to mind. “Because I can’t trust you to not drive off like a maniac and hit another deer, or worse, an actual person!” She hesitated before adding, “Or somehow end up hurting yourself.”

“Ha!” The sound was shrill and cracked. He couldn’t stop it, sharply inhaling before speaking further, feeling as though that chiding voice molded with himself for a split second. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were worried about me, Caulfield.”

His attempts to prolix the situation only fed her flames of annoyance. How could he just ignore what happened? Not only the deer, but also what happened between them. What the hell was that? That wasn’t him, not now. That was someone else entirely. Someone who was, to her, reaching out for something. For someone.

“And what if I am?”

His head turned in a snap and his eyes slanted, voice growing an edge as he curled further in on himself. “Uh. Don’t be.”

“Jesus, how can I not worry? After all that? Nathan, what—”

“Easy! You just don’t!”

“Not easy, and I do!”

“Like hell you do!”

In that moment, Victoria’s words began to creep across her thoughts. “Don’t even try to pretend you actually give a shit about me…or him.”

But…she wasn’t pretending. She really was worried about him. She was worried about a lot of things. Terrified. Nothing made sense.

“What happened at your house?” she asked, trying to push through his deflective animosity.

“Nothing,” he answered, short and sweet, like it was the truth.

Max closed her eyes and then opened them wide, chest rising and falling slow with her timid breaths. “Nathan…”

His brows furrowed, and he put the car back into drive, jerking them again with the brakes. “Just knock it the fuck off and shut up! Once we’re back at Blackwell, you’re gonna fuck off and forget any of this shit ever happened anyway!”

Her eyes widened more.

He frowned and his voice dropped, unable to meet her darkened, blue depths. “And so will I.”

“Wha—”

“So deal!” His tune changed again, an abrupt sting to her ears.

Max was too appalled to try and form another answer.

Just forget? About all this? That was fucking impossible!

But before she could say anything more, they were already driving away from the scene, abandoning the creature on the side of the road, leaving it to rot in the rain and its own diluted blood. Max grimaced and swallowed, holding back her nausea while looking in the side mirror.

She froze at the new and alarming sight, and Nathan hit the brakes for the third time as if he were in sync with her mind. She turned her head to him. He, too, was looking back, in the rearview mirror, eyes open and shimmering, mouth parted. Max stilled and looked back to her side.

The autumn sky was almost black by this point, the rain clouds covering what light the rising moon could reflect, but there it stood. Still. Upright. Alive.

The doe.

“Holy shit…” Max said, her voice shaking. She turned to Nathan fully. He was still staring in the mirror with disbelief. He swallowed hard, and she saw his throat bob with the strain.

It kept staring at them through darkened eyes in the street lamp’s dull, yellowed spotlight—a fractured and blurred vision just like the butterfly. A phantom that faded as quick as it came, its guided black orbs disappearing from existence, a soul leaving its mangled body for a new plane.

Nathan suddenly took in a needed breath, his shoulders tightening like his hands on the wheel, head snapping to hers with a mask of confused terror.

“You…saw it…?!” Hurried and afraid, she didn’t mean to say it aloud. She went to bring a hand up to stop herself, shaking. Too late.

Nathan was unable to answer. That wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been real. It was just his mind fucking with him again, like it always did.

But her voice, her timid question reaching out to him, made it real, and he wished she kept that trap of hers shut.

No. It wasn’t real. She was messing with him, making fun of him, like everyone else. That was it, and the sooner he was rid of her, the better.

“Saw what?” Cold and unfeeling, Nathan’s response hung in the air.

The two sat in silence for the longest time, and he let denial become truth.

Max, defeated, had given up all manner of emotion, positive and negative. They coursed through her body too fast to settle on any of them. She fell back against the seat, feeling her chest release its tension and her limbs become weak. Nathan gingerly pressed the gas, distancing them further and further from the lifeless animal.

The remainder of the ride was slow and perfunctory. Blackwell wasn’t too far away, maybe a few minutes, even driving as slow as they were. It was a thankful change of pace for Max, who had lost all energy to stop Nathan from driving anywhere anyway. He could have sped and hit 100 more deer, and she probably wouldn’t have noticed or cared.

When they pulled into Blackwell’s lot and parked, Nathan shot her a look. Max didn’t meet it, and he purposefully 'ahem-ed.'

When she finally let her head lull his way, the weight of this day layered her with ton upon ton. Her body squished into the leather, unwilling to move.

So, this was it. She was expected to leave, walk back to her dorm, and forget everything about today?

“Get out.”

She continued to look at him, almost through him, silent.

Her expression reached into his chest and squeezed it tight. “Jesus Christ, Caulfield, I don’t have time for this shit! Get the fuck out!”

Max shivered. Her clothes were almost dry, but the aura of cold around her was as heavy as ever.

When she didn’t comply, he reached over, arm grazing her legs, and forcefully opened the passenger door. His impatience and mitigated scent invaded her space for the umpteenth time, causing an unexpected jolt in her stomach.

He gave her a wild glare with a gravelly, “GO.”

Max slowly willed her limbs out of paralysis, remembering to pick up her bag in the process. When her feet met the wet pavement with a splash, she almost collapsed right there in the parking lot, legs shaking like a leaf.

By the time she got herself together, Nathan was already rushing past her, duffle bag and camera satchel over his shoulder along with his red jacket. Max felt a shot of adrenaline in her legs, and acted on it, following him all the way to the fountain. She grabbed his arm in a tight lock, stopping him mid stride.

He spun around so fast that Max didn’t have time to properly slow down. She ran smack into him as he pushed back on his feet to distance himself from her.

“WHAT?!” His rage echoed through the school’s courtyard. “What the fuck else do you want from me?!”

What, indeed. Max had no idea what to say to him. There was so much she wanted to say that it all blurred together in a maddening mess in her mind.

“You…” she began, her tongue swelling up like a sponge.

Nathan barred his teeth with a quick glimpse of her person. The voltage in his eyes brimmed with Blackwell’s bright lights. He just wanted to get to Victoria’s room and forget about this entire damning venture. His vision wandered down her arm to where her fingers locked on his. The droplets sounded in the fountain’s water, drips and drops drowning out the empty space between them. He eventually wormed his way out of her grasp and continued onward.

Max had a hard time keeping up, and her thoughts bounced about until they formed a sentence. “You saw it.”

He stopped short and turned to look behind him. Right into her lit-up blues. He saw the watery tendrils come for him again, but forced them away.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” He tried to play it off, but his voice cracked towards the end.

Max grit her teeth, having enough of his bullshit. “The doe! You saw it! That…ghost!” She could scarcely believe herself.

“I didn’t see shit, you crazy bitch! Now piss off!”

She nodded, a sarcastic action. “Now who’s the one pretending? Nathan—” She re-grabbed his arm, cutting herself short.

“Fuck you, Caulfield! Get off me!” He jerked away from her timorous fingers. The panic he desperately tried to tie down was starting to break through.

“Hey! What’s going on over here?” a stern and rough voice caught their attention.

Both kids looked over to the pathway toward the dorms. David Madsen addressed them with a scrunched face, flashlight in hand. He shined it in their faces, causing them to squint against the brightness.

“Shit,” Nathan spat under his breath, jostling his shoes on the smooth, wet concrete.

David’s stony face further hardened, something Max didn’t think possible. “Of course,” he started, a sanctimonious peal to his tone, “Nathan Prescott and one of his little flunkies. Causing problems out and about at this hour, huh?”

Both Max and Nathan glowered at his quip, unable to come up with anything with which to retort.

As David came closer, he immediately recognized Max. He shook his head, and scoffed. “You. I should’ve known. You’re just the type to hang around with him, aren’t you? Hang around with The Vortex Club.”

The way he said the group’s name made Max’s face burn. He was starting to piss her off. She could only imagine how Chloe dealt with him, knowing she never took any shit from anyone, even when she was younger. Max really didn’t need this right now, not when she was so close to getting an answer—or something—from Nathan.

“And you,” he said, focusing his intense gaze on the Prescott, “Positive I don’t have to tell you that if you’re caught out after curfew again—”

“Finish that sentence, Madsen, and you’ll be walking out of Blackwell with your tail between your legs.”

The air went still, Nathan’s expression becoming one of such intensity that it caused Max to take a step back. David stood his ground, a rumble emitting from his throat.

“You know what I mean, Prescott. Now I suggest you take your lover’s quarrel back to the dorms and leave it there. And you, missy,” he quickly addressed Max, whose cheeks tinged pink at his last comment, “can stay the hell away from Chloe if this is the company you’re gonna keep. Rachel’s bad enough as it is.”

Nathan’s vision flicked to Max when David mentioned the girls’ names. Of course, he knew Rachel, but this Chloe was starting to pique his interest, or rather, his annoyance.

“Do you two understand?” he affirmed in a commanding fashion with his flashlight up, shining it in their eyes and making them squint against the rays once again.

“Go fuck yourself, Madsen,” Nathan stated with a set frown, swatting the light in the man’s hand and taking his shoes back to the grind, shuffling past the two with great haste.

‘Damn it!’ Max cursed in her head as she watched him get further and further away. David wasn’t letting her off that easy; he grabbed her arm before she could follow. Max pulled away with a scowl.

“Let ‘em go. I swear to Christ, that kid…” he trailed off before turning back to Max. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay as far away from him as possible. That family’s full of nothin’ but a bunch of money-grubbin’ scumbags.”

“But I…” She tried to find some excuse to get past David, but was coming up short.

‘But he saw the doe. He even stopped the truck when he saw it! Damn it!'

David continued issuing unheard ultimatums as Max mulled over the chaos of that day in silent antipathy. When the security guard finally let her go, she cursed multiple times under her breath whilst making her way to the dorms, losing track of Nathan entirely. The rain had transitioned to a light drizzle, coating her with a shiny gloss anew. She had to get out of her clothes, otherwise she was going to catch a cold.

“And call Chloe. Chloe, Chloe, Chloe,” she chanted, pushing up the steps with a newfound burst of energy, already pulling her phone from her pack.

Max checked the screen. More messages from Warren. She couldn’t help but smile, even though he was, for sure, worried sick about her. But! She was still here to be worried about, and as selfish as that sounded, she was happy.

“And Warren. Warren, Warren, Warren. I’m going to message you ASAP. Right after calling Chloe. Holy shit.”

She was alive. She was here. It really started to hit her. Max entered the building and started up the stairs to the second floor, skipping one or two along the way.

When she entered the second floor, the noiseless hall engulfed her. There may have been a few muffled sounds from students’ televisions or music, but otherwise there was nothing. Every footstep she made caused the floor to shuffle and lightly give way to a creak. She prayed no one would come out and try to converse. She felt less than able to even breathe at the moment.

Outiside, the rain hissed. The precipitation only made the musty smell of the dorms stronger, a scent that Max couldn’t quite get used to. It reminded her of her great aunt’s home, a stodgy little shack she and her mother would often visit during the summer months in Idaho. She reminded herself to call her mom and dad as well, something to let them know she didn’t die at the hands of her visions that day, or at the hands of Nathan Prescott.

‘Oh, God. What the fuck.’ She cursed to herself, hating this anxious tumble in her gut.

She had to get to her room. Her feet squished in her shoes, damp socks clinging to her toes. Uncomfortable was putting it mildly. As she swung her door open, the familiar cocoon greeted her, and her body began elating itself to the heavens. She immediately began to strip, tilting her shoes against the far, bricked wall next to her plant, Lisa. She tossed her jeans and shirt in a pile of dirty clothes, reminding herself to do laundry sometime soon, and spread out her jacket on her futon to dry. After discarding her undergarments and redressing in fresh ones, she slipped into a pajama shirt and shorts, patting herself to make sure she was still a member of this earth.

Max then looked at her bed, and opened her arms to it with a self-chorus of hallelujah. She let herself fall into its plushness, her small form bouncing back with the force before coming back down. The springs groaned in protest. She audibly shushed them as she cuddled with her square-patterned comforter, bunching it around her arms and chest while looking up at her one-eyed teddy bear. It sat slumped against her pillows.

“Ahoy, Captain. You’re never going to believe how my day went.”

The bear just stared back with its one button eye, its stitched smile a bigger comfort to her than she’d like to admit. She really was here. She really was okay. Right? She should be happier.

Max felt her smile fading as she reached for the stuffed animal. She just couldn’t give the little guy up, no matter how many times her mother offered to keep him safe in her Hope Chest. That beautifully-decorated, leather-topped chest where her other childhood toys and memoirs rested, some she remembered sharing with Chloe when they were kids. Max let out an airy laugh, hugging the bear close to her. She subconsciously lifted her pillows to let them be a mediator between her back and the wall. Only the moon’s light reflected tints of bluish grays through her windows. Her laptop’s colorful screensaver swirled primary colors across her desk and the foot of her bed. It was unnervingly quiet, even with the light ticks and tacks of the rain against the glass.

She had dressed in the dark, she finally realized, not even bothering to turn on her paper lanterns. Random tidbits of her life kept flittering across her consciousness. Now, of all times. She felt so…stupid.

Max curled her legs and hugged them with her arms as her bear lay nestled on her thighs. She was trembling.

Just forget.

She almost died. She almost died. She almost DIED.

But because of Nathan she was alive.

Then there was the doe—her imagination? But he saw it, too! Right? It was like the butterfly at the lighthouse. See through, a ghost, an apparition. Why?

And her nosebleeds, and those visions, and…rewinding time? Impossible. There was no way.

Max held out her hand again, summoning the will to prove herself wrong, but the sensations she once felt weren’t coming. She wasn’t going back. No shades of red broke through the blues of her small space.

‘What’s happening? Am I going completely insane?’

“Just forget.”

Moments later, her body turned to lead, and she began to heave sob after sob. Hot, unwelcomed tears coursed down her cheeks. She tried to stay quiet. Her emotions were too high, and the walls were too thin. Who was she trying to kid? She was a terrible liar, especially to herself. Everything that had happened made her physically sick, drained.

And she was pissed off at herself, pissed off at the fact she was still worried about Nathan fucking Prescott.

In the darkness, Max cried.



Nathan threw open his door and slammed it. The force got some of his knick-knacks on his dressers to rattle. He ignored them and let gravity do its thing if it so willed, dropped the duffle bag, and tossed his camera pack on the bed. Afterwards, he emptied his jacket pockets in order to switch their contents to his new set of clothes he laid out. Finally, he took a moment to breathe.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck…” He kept repeating the expletive to himself, trying to calm his electrified nerves. His hair had since fallen out of the product’s hold, wet and slightly curled, clinging to the sides of his face and forehead.

For once, he was glad David was an overreacting prick. He got Max off his back, at least for the time. Who knew if she’d be in his face tomorrow…or the next day? She was certainly tenacious enough.

“Fuck’s sake.” He couldn’t deal right now, and desperately wanted to chuck back the pills Rachel gave him and forget about going to see Victoria.

A spark of anger crossed him. And how dare she fuck with him? After everything he did for her? Things he didn’t even think to ever do for himself let alone another person, practically a stranger! She saw his reaction and preyed on it. Bitch. Nothing was there. There was no doe. He killed it. It was dead.

Or was it?

‘You’re just crazy, Nathan. Always have been. Always will be.'

“Jesus. Shut the fuck up,” he commanded himself.

With the thought of the creature’s ghostly figure, Nathan released a shaky breath and covered his eyes with his arms. He clenched his jaw, fighting off tears. He didn’t mean for that to happen. It was bad enough he’d reached out for Max. It could have been anybody at that point, but it was fucking Max Caulfield. He felt like such an idiot.

Nathan checked his phone, stretching his shoulder that ached from his father’s heated grip.

VICTORIA:
Nate? U ok?


The text had been sent about 30 minutes ago. Nathan just lay there, answering the text aloud with a low and solid, “No.”

Tak, tak, tak… went the keys of the app, his shaky fingers hovering over the letters.

NATHAN:
yeah y?

A few minutes passed before he got another.

VICTORIA:
Hey! It’s been a while since u answered. We still gonna chill 2nite?


Minutes ticked by in apathy. He had to play it cool, had to forget about everything with Caulfield. Otherwise it would consume him alive.

NATHAN:
sure thing babe. give me a few. i might be a bit late.

VICTORIA:
lol all right, sweet talker. Enough of that. C u in a while :P And bring some movies with the good shit! I got a bag of popcorn with ur name on it!

Nathan threw up his legs and let the momentum lift the rest of him. His arms then rested on them as his head dipped low. He allowed one of his hands to press against the back of his head. There were remnants of rain that coated the inked star, and when he brought it back down to eye level, he smeared it with a quick wipe of his shirt.

He then stripped and dressed in his new set of clothes—some simple, black jeans and a thin, navy sweater. A white t-shirt was underneath for an extra layer, and he switched his wet and grimed-up Oxfords for some boat shoes. He figured it would do.

Before pulling his sleeves down, he took one last look at his smudged wrist, a sad frown making its way across his face.



He could hear them talking. Whispering. Chortling. He knew it was about him. After what happened the past week, how could they not be talking about him? He hated this. If they had something to say, they should just come up and say it to his fucking face, and perhaps he could break all of theirs to prove a point.

Nathan stared down at his bloodied knuckles, now bandaged all the way past his thumb. The school’s nurse had a hell of a job on her hands then. He let a disturbing smile form on his lips.

“You should see the other guy,” he’d said, words dripping with a satisfaction that scared even him.

What the fuck was that guy’s name now? Goddamn jock motherfucker. One of Zach and Logan’s new friends. A transfer student who became a member of the football team that year. His name…it started with a J…? Joel? Jack? Jake? He couldn’t even remember, let alone truly care. There were too many names in his memory banks as it were. All he knew was that he walked away from the fight the victor. That’s all that mattered.

But as he stared in the lavatory mirror, waiting for that inevitable summon to the principal’s office in his wake, he focused on several cuts down his temple and a fresh, black eye. And somewhere inside, Nathan knew that the guy was right.

“You’re a pussified, little daddy’s boy! And a mental case! Everyone in Arcadia Bay knows it!” the guy had jeered—amongst other things, he minded, but those words took the cake.

He must have heard rumors about him and his family, and was stupid enough to push his luck. Nathan couldn’t recall what had led to their verbal confrontation in the first place—something about the Vortex Club, he mused. No one ever had anything good to say about them, especially now that he was its christened leader. Plus, this guy carried that persona of someone who would start shit just for the hell of it. Whatever. The guy had gotten in his face, and Nathan finally had enough of if. The Prescott’s fist connected, a solid crack accompanying the action for a resulting broken nose. And when he kept hitting him over and over, the crowd of people screaming with cheers and fears, Nathan’s lanky form situated over the guy’s toned chest, it’d felt like the ultimate therapeutic session.

“What the hell am I going to do with you?” his father censured as they were chaperoned home for the evening, a police car in tow. Air crowded his words, making him sound like he was scolding a pet rather than his son.

“Have me committed?” Nathan answered, hints of sarcasm piercing the seriousness.

His arms crossed and figure slouched while his feet reached under the driver’s seat. He repeatedly kicked the underside with his pointed toe. The chauffer didn’t make a peep, leaving him wondering if he felt it at all.

Sean grabbed Nathan’s arm, his long, creased fingers wrapping around the entire circumference, and yanked him with great force into a better, upright position. “Cut the attitude and sit up straight! With the way you’ve been behaving these past few months, I honestly think that may be an option to consider.”

The young heir’s eyes widened. The words sank into him like a bite from a venomous snake. “Heh. Right. Then where would the Prescott Foundation be?”

The way the elder glared at him, with eyes so deep and dark past his tinted frames, promised a future swift smack across the face. In the light of the public sun, he’d never raise his hand, but Nathan could already feel the blow and visibly flinched.

Curt and with hidden fire, the man reprimanded him, “Just stick to your old prescriptions for now, Nathan. We’ll have this discussion later after we’ve sorted this mess out and talked with your doctor. Christ, you should be thankful we convinced that kid’s family to drop their charges.”

Convinced them? Nathan snorted. Paid them off was the likelier route. “Fucker had it coming anyway,” he muttered, knowing how their legalities operated, how well-off they were in that department. When words didn’t suffice, crisp, green bills did. He shifted towards the door and tightened his body, his father’s words still digging into his skin like sharp nails.

Sean slowly turned his head, layering one leg over the other, slightly wrinkling his dark suit. His hands joined together. “And thus you have missed the point entirely. That’s something I’d expect from your grandfather. One big child—he never took anything seriously,” he began to ramble.

“No, I get it, Dad,” he snapped before his father could go off on a tangent. “Time is money and we have none of it to spare,” Nathan said, like a slogan. Robotic and precise. Everything his father wanted to hear.

Sean’s raised a brow. “And yet you still try to garner attention with these ridiculous games, these acts of aggression! Nathan, we cannot keep doing this! You need to accept your responsibilities to this family! Kristine was never like this at your age, and—”

But now, the young man was tuning him out, his face dropping with a sigh. This was just another day with another lecture. He got it. He fucked up. He always fucked up. He wasn’t like his perfect fucking sister. What else was new? And yet, she was the one that left, the one that took everyone by surprise by giving their family the middle finger. He was the one that stayed, was forced to stay, forever stuck in the eye of this shit storm.

And his grandfather was dead, so why the fuck did that matter? Can’t cause any trouble if you’re dead. Nathan never even got to meet him. Hell, he never got to meet a good chunk of his immediate family, and all the rest were basically estranged as its branches sectioned off. All in all, they were quite the mystery, but one he could easily solve—all revolving around the green prints of Benjamin Franklin.

Nathan sighed again, feeling a strange need to apologize to his father, but never finding the structure. Surely, there would be more coming out than that if he were to open his mouth. Besides, there was no point in saying how he really felt. It would never get through. His father wouldn’t listen. He never listened.

And now, several days later, Nathan sat by himself on the bench outside Blackwell’s dorms, doctoring his new bandages, consumed in his own thoughts and guilt. The new medications he’d been prescribed made him somewhat calmer, but dizzy and tired as all hell. He still had to get used to them.

His fingers ticked away on his phone, answering a message from Victoria. She was checking in on him while she was away in Seattle to visit her family, mainly her parents and the Chase Space, in an early leave before Blackwell’s official spring break. After they were done, his shoulders slumped, and he was alone.

All except for several small groups of students out and about before curfew. And, of course, some saw him and started talking.

2011’s spring seemed colder than the previous years, and Blackwell still didn’t feel like a home away from home. He questioned why he was even there. To represent his family, yes, but why else? It’s not like what he did there was going to matter in the larger scheme of things. Even his sister knew her role until she decided to bail out and leave him. The thought of her made him sick with fury, but also made his lip quiver. He hated Kristine for leaving, but he missed her more than he’d ever admit.

The full moon cast a watery whiteness over the field, blackening the trees’ canopies and all the tall grass. Even the Tobanga’s colors were muted and browning, contrasted further by the hovering teens’ shadows. They kept shooting him glances and more whispers. He hated their voices, but was too weak to even move let alone shout. He looked over. The eyes of the totem were almost paralyzing, and he lost the will to head back into the dorms, rather enjoying the cold air.

“Dude, didn’t you hear? He beat the crap out of Jason the other day!”

‘Ah. Right. That was his name.’

“No way! That scrawny runt?”

‘Come over here and I’ll show you how scrawny I really am, asshole!’

“SSH! He’s right there! Just shut up!”

‘You shut up. Just shut. The fuck. Up. And go. The fuck. AWAY.’

The bench suddenly gave way to an extra weight. Nathan swiveled his head, and his blue eyes met the wide, lined hazel ones of a girl. His mouth parted in automatic awe, his thoughts becoming frozen in ice.

“Hey there!” she greeted, her chords melodic and easy on his ears. It completely erased the virulent whispers of the other students, who had fallen into as much silent shock as him, it seemed.

Nathan tried to say something, but nothing came out. He felt his face grow warm.

To say this girl was pretty was an understatement. She was also carrying a distinct aura about her. Even
he felt small and inferior around her overwhelming atmosphere. He flicked his eyes around before landing on her again, scooting further away, part of his leg dangling off the bench.

She giggled. “Sorry, did I scare you?”

“No!” he defensively snapped in response, feeling unwanted shame wash over his abrupt terseness. Still, he rolled with the decision of attitude. “The fuck do you want?” He pulled down the long sleeves of his shirt, trying to hide his bandaged hand.

“You're Nathan Prescott, right?”

“What’s it to you?”

The girl pressed her lips together with a shrug and a slow shake of her head. “Nothing, really.”

That was a first. “So…what the fuck do you want then?”

His brusqueness didn’t faze her. “Well. Honestly? Those guys over there dared me to talk to you. So, I said, ‘Fuck it. Why not?’ and here I am!”

Nathan’s eyes squinted in suspicion at her blunt boldness and lack of propriety. He also couldn’t help but be confused…and uncomfortable. “O-o-o-kay? And who the hell are you?”

Her smile only widened. “Rachel Amber.”

He knew that name, but never had a face to go with it. It suited her; a beautiful name to go with a beautiful face. He wanted to be angrier, but her lightheartedness only made him more tired. “Right…Amber…”

“Rachel Amber,” she said, like she was James Bond. She even went so far as to hold up her hands, bend her fingers in the shape of a gun, and take on a fake English accent. “Shaken, not stirred!” She chuckled.

Nathan cocked a brow, and unexpectedly the corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. He stopped himself before she could see. “The fuck are you, five?”

“At heart. Plus I might be a li-i-i-tle buzzed.” She replaced her grin with more of a serious expression. “So did you really knock the quarterback on his ass the other day?”

Ah. There it was. The real reason she was there. Annoyance began to bud within him. “Is that what you came over here to ask me?” He glanced over to the group of teens by the totem. They were trying to cover up their curiosity with conversation. “Is that what
they wanna know?”

“Hey, no judging from my end. Jason can be a jerk sometimes. But—”

“But I shouldn’t have fucked him up,” he cut her off in a mocking tone. “I get it. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.” His answers became short and distant. He wanted her to leave.

Rachel’s face fell and she noticed him trying to hide his hand. Nathan could feel her eyes, placing them in his pockets and turning himself away from her.

“Battle wounds?” she tenderly asked, trying to restart the conversation.

“Look, if you’re done with your little social experiment, you can piss off.” Nathan hunched over and pulled a limb out to rub his forehead. He could feel a headache coming on. “Damn it.”

He heard her stand up, but she didn’t go. Instead, she circled around and squatted down in front of him, hands together, an unreadable look in her eyes.

“More like social experience. If I didn’t want to talk to you, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Nathan scowled, trying to comprehend what she just divulged. “What about your friends and their bullshit dare?”

She upturned her mouth. “I don’t have to prove anything to those guys, especially with something so petty.”

The Prescott shot her another sour look. “Because I’m supposed to believe you actually
wanted to talk to me? Right.”

Her eyes hooded in a half-blink, a dull shine to them. “You can believe whatever you want to believe.” She suddenly opened one of her palms to him.

They awkwardly sat for a second, Nathan inwardly fuming at her pitiful stare, before he realized what she was asking with her silence. She wanted to see his hand. “What the fuck? No!”

The girl didn’t move, her gaze intensifying in the moonlight. Undeterred.

Her hazel orbs caused him to force another frown. He exhaled sharply, taking his hand out and slightly pulling up his sleeve for a reveal. “There! Happy? Fuck!”

With a featherlike touch, she wrapped her fingers around his wrist and brought it closer to her, eyes sliding surgically over the reddened blotches seeping through. Nathan’s heart flew into his throat and he started to shake. From the meds or from her, he couldn’t discern.

“Definitely some wicked battle wounds,” she said with a sad smile.

“Hey, Rachel!” One of the other stray students called over to them, a slur to his words, “You gonna suck his dick while you’re at it? Come on, let’s go!”

A flash of anger glazed her features as the teens laughed in unison. It came and went so fast, it made Nathan’s head swim with more dizziness. He didn’t feel well, and a desperate desire to run away mixed with another to lie down came over him. Jerking back, Nathan covered himself and looked away.

Rachel stood up, hands on her hips, and called back, “I don’t know. I thought giving the best BJ’s at Blackwell was
your department, Charles!”

A chorus of 'ooh’s' and snickers could be heard from the kids now. Even Nathan couldn’t help but have a small smile form on his face.

“You’re such a bitch sometimes, you know that?” The boy named Charles shot back, then added with a hiss to the rest of the group, “C’mon.”

“You say that like it’s front page news!” she replied with a solid shake of her head. Nathan saw her feathered earring bob with the action, her long, blonde hair ripple.

The students followed their leader, filing out of the area in fragmented noises of protest and annoyance. The two were now alone in the dorm’s courtyard. The sounds of the night emitted from the unknown places of the forest around them—chirrups of frogs, buzzing of insects, silent waves of fireflies. Rachel took a seat next to Nathan once again, and the boy turned back to face her.

“Wow. Savage.” He snorted with a shake of his head.

“Whatever. They can be a bunch of assholes when they’re drunk.”

“Can’t we all,” he deadpanned.

Her shoulders shake with a muted laugh. “Sometimes.”

There they sat for several minutes in a quiet silence, one that Nathan didn’t seem to notice as he felt nausea pinch away at his gut. He groaned and leaned forward, giving into the ill sensations.

“Whoa there, kiddo. You on that lean tonight, too?” She laughed again, her cheerfulness almost an antidote for how shitty he felt.

“Fuck off.” His own laugh snuck through, and Rachel grinned.

She saw his hands now hanging down between his legs and took the bandaged one between hers once again. He didn’t pull away this time, much to his own surprise.

“Hey, it’s all good.” She said as he looked up at her next action. She pushed her denim jacket down around her wrist, revealing a star tattoo over faded white lines. With her long sleeves and plethora of bracelets, he’d have never seen otherwise.

Nathan just stared in silence and confusion with the divulgence. A covered past of a choice in which he’d often think of taking, and a full choice this young woman had clearly left behind. He was quiet, feeling a pinch of jealousy toward her resolve.

Rachel’s eyes closed as a small, stray breeze lifted some leaves into a dance on the sidewalk. She then reached into her pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. She lit up, offering him one if he wanted. He took it, sharing another long, quiet moment with her while they smoked.

He didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t say he was completely enjoying her company, but he also couldn’t say he completely hated it, either. He barely knew her, barely knew this Rachel Amber. Yet, here she was, sharing a cigarette and talking with him like she was an old friend—him of all people. The nicotine began leveling him out, but his mind still felt flooded, like he was looking through lenses coated in water.

“You know, my grandma once told me that the smallest difference can change hopelessness into hopefulness.”

Nathan blinked. “Really now.”

“Mm-hm. She passed away a couple years ago. Muscular dystrophy. I got this in her memory.” She proceeded to show him the star tattoo again. “Because she always believed I could get past my scars to reach for the stars.”

Mouth parting for less than a second, Nathan’s blue eyes met hers. His face became stony, the light fading. He couldn’t stop his cynicism from leaking out. “That is the cheesiest motherfucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

She shrugged, bobbing her head. Her body followed. It was like she was bouncing to her own rhythm, one Nathan couldn’t hear or comprehend. It unnerved him a bit. It was like Rachel could see his comfort level plummet and decided against saying anything more for the time. She simply smiled.

Snuffing out her cigarette, she stood up and stretched, her halter-top exposing some of her midriff. Nathan felt his face heat up again and turned away, both out of embarrassment and more discomfort. His stomach did a flip.

Clearing his throat and finishing his own cigarette, he feigned confidence and continued the conversation to get away from his own damning thoughts. “Lucky you, I guess. Both my grandmothers were sort of just…there. What I can remember, at least.”

She gave him a curious look that urged him to continue. And for whatever reason, he did.

“I mean, one was always sick and the other was a fuckin’ spazz. But…whatever. They’re both dead, too.”

She laughed. Nathan raised a brow again. How was that funny?

“I see,” she said between more light giggles. “What about the rest of your family?”

“Um…” He frowned. She knew him, or rather, the Prescott name. Everyone did. So, that automatically meant she knew his family. Right? Why did she bother to ask such a weird question?

“What about your dad? Your mom? I mean, your dad’s…well…Sean Prescott.” She saw him flinch at his name and quickly added, “You don’t have to talk about him.”

His thoughts paused and a strong, sinking feeling settled deep within. Yes, everyone knew his family, his father. And everyone hated them, hated him. Why did she bother to talk to him at all?

“Yeah, Dad’s Dad. Whatever.” His vision dropped, along with his expression, his stomach churning again. “My mom’s d—”

Before he could finish, another voice called out to the girl. Female and with a sense of excited urgency, it caused the two to crane their torsos and see another small group of students approaching. A few of them had skateboards, including the girl at the front who addressed them. Her short, honey-blonde hair hung in her eyes, shaggy, and a section of it shone blue in the lamp light, almost illuminated.

“Yo, Rachel! We’re here! Ready to head out to the lighthouse?” she called, waving a braceleted hand. Nathan noticed some bands similar to Rachel’s, homemade and as colorfully bright at the blue streak in her hair.

She gave a large grin to them. “You know it! Gimme a sec!”

“Well, hurry up, before my step-prick makes his rounds!”

Nathan gave Rachel a quick glance as she fumbled about in one of the back pockets of her jeans, mumbling to herself.

“Ah!” she exclaimed, a Sharpie marker in her hand. “Gotcha!”

She pulled Nathan’s hand toward her once more and, with precision, drew a black star on his wrist.

“Hey! What the hell?” He pulled back and looked at the shape with both interest and puzzlement.

“Scars to stars, Nathan! Keep your head up!”

And, like a bird, Rachel Amber had come and gone, flying away as quick as she landed. Nathan was left in nothing short of a stupor afterwards, a sea of questions stretching before him like the ocean of the bay.

He closed his eyes in meditation, and then kicked a rock he had been toeing beneath the bench. It scared away some squirrels in a patch of grass. After sitting for a while longer, in the distance between some trees, he caught sight of some larger shadows.

A group of deer, cautiously munching on some grass, perked their heads up to observe the young boy. Nathan stared back, then picked up another rock and chucked it at them. The beasts scattered, the tall grass flipping this way and that with their fearful bounds.

Now, he was alone, and the listless sounds of nature made that fact all the worse.



“Stupid…fucking…urgh!” he cursed, that night a taunting brand seared into his memory.

Nathan had made his way to the men’s lavatory to run a wet comb through his hair. Now, looking more presentable, he stood at one of the sinks, rubbing away at the mark with a soapy, coarse paper towel. The white, tiled room smelled like stale urine mixed with the slimy, pink goo. He seethed through his teeth. Disgusting.

At least the ink easily washed away, unlike that first time. Sharpie was a bitch to get off skin. He was glad it was now only ballpoint ink done in his own unsteady hand.

He had drawn it several times since their first meeting—when he was drunk, when he was high, when he was at his lowest—all in a futile attempt to hang onto a ledge that was collapsing at his fingertips. When did he even draw this one? He couldn’t recall. It didn’t matter. It was nothing but a childish foresight, and he had to leave it behind. One way or another.

“You’re an adult, Nathan, and I imagine that’s how you expect to be treated, yes? Then you’re going to have to learn to control this petulance of yours and take a little criticism once in a while! Try to be a little more open-minded. People care, you just have to listen to the right ones. Remember, I’m on your side.”

The boy stopped, and a cold bead of sweat rolled down his temple. The lights of the bathroom buzzed with electricity, and if a pin dropped at that moment, it might just cause an earthquake. It was like that man was right behind him, an encouraging hand on his shoulder, a liquescent smile on his fixated expression.

Nathan slowly brought his head up to the mirror. Beyond some black, phallic imagery and choice phrases of graffiti, he stared back. The darkness under his eyes looked worse than ever. He saw the blackened fingerprints on his chest and shoulder, pulling his collar up to hide them, feeling his father’s anger all over again. That meeting hadn’t gone well, to say the least. He pushed it out of his mind, swallowing hard when looked up and met not his own blue eyes, but the empty, black eyes of the doe.

It stared back.

Max stared back.

His legs suddenly buckled, and more tears threatened to pour out. He bit his tongue to stifle the sob working its way up to his mouth, holding on to the side of the sink and breaking away from his reflection.

Nathan pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose when there was a sudden and invisible pressure on his back. Light and comforting. Her hands. She was just as confused and scared as him. She had no plausible reason to embrace him like she had in her growing aggravation for him.

But she did.

“Fuck.” He wiped his brow and returned to his room. Packing up his necessities, he headed out.

His thoughts kept hovering over him like a dark, ominous cloud as he made his way down the quiet dormitory halls. He reached the girls section, pushing the door carefully. The latch made an incriminatory squeak and he cringed, holding it until it shut without slamming.

His duffle was slung over his shoulder once again, holding a few different things, including: his meds and personal order from Frank, the bottle of whiskey he kept in his room, and some DVDs from his vast collection as Victoria requested. He also packed an emergency set of PJs. With everything in mind, he had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before sleep would make its decent upon him. His exhaustion had hit a whole new level after today, and he wasn’t sure he was going to make it back to the boy’s dorms. It wouldn’t be the first time he passed out in Victoria’s room. She never seemed to mind, though the resulting rumors about the two often got on her nerves. His, too, at times.

‘Taylor, Stella, Dana, Kate…’ He announced the names of each girl’s room to himself as he passed them to get to Victoria’s. Something to distract himself. It wasn’t working.

He stopped in the middle of the hall between Victoria’s door and another. His head turned to Room 219. The slate hanging on the wall was blank, but he knew whose room it was. A sense of apprehension raised the hairs on his neck.

“Scars to stars! Keep your head up!” It was so easy for her to say shit like that. Over the years, he came to realize that was always like Rachel. Constantly rising and falling like a bird in flight, never staying long enough to nest. Forever distant and untouchable.

The moonlight shone through the hall’s window, casting a shadow on his turning body.

“People care. You just have to listen to the right ones.”

Jefferson. There was an edge to those words. He always sounded like he knew more than he should, the pretentious bastard. Everyday he would ask himself just who those right people were, and if Jefferson was truly one of them. It was easier just to make everyone out to be the wrong ones.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were worried about me, Caulfield.”

“And what if I am?”

He soon found himself fully facing her door, raising a hesitant hand, curling his fingers with an uncharacteristic delicacy to knock. He pulled back, a breath releasing from his chest he didn’t know he was holding. His mouth tightened, teeth clenched.

“Just forget,” he said aloud, losing himself in his own lie.

That’s when the barrier before him opened, the smallest of creaks penetrating the dark hall like a sharp knife. The girl nearly ran right into him and jumped back with a gasp. It looked like she’d been crying as she wiped her cheeks with haste. Nathan was completely still. He felt his heart skip in his own surprise, rooted to the spot.

Max’s eyes grew wide as she stared up at him, still processing his presence, looking like a lost puppy in her discomfiture. One of her hands grappled the door frame while the other was diffidently pulling down her thin shirt over her shorts.

Nathan followed her latter action, face unexpectedly growing hot at the sight of her. He hoped the darkness masked it, as his body became a statue.

An unseen cat had snatched away his tongue. “Uhhmm…”

Max shivered, pink washing over her cheeks in the muted moonlight as she further tugged down her shirt with his gaze. She shifted her eyes, unable to meet his any longer.

He could hear his pulse in his ears. He was caught, like the doe in his headlights, and he couldn’t stop staring at her. From her wide eyes to her small toes, the smatterings of freckles down her arms and legs, and her messy hair framing her flushed face, he couldn’t break away.

Max took a step back behind the door, her pink face becoming redder, freckles darkening by the second.

“I—” he began, his throat closing. He had to say something to cover up his idiotic gawking, but there was a vacant hole in his brain where appropriate responses should be.

Max, embarrassed and steadfast, began to shut herself behind the door with a frantic breath. Nathan brought his hand up, pushing against it to stop her.

“I saw it.”

Max met his stern eyes, further widening her own, her mouth falling partially open.

“I…I saw it,” he repeated, feeling the weight of his words begin to crush him as they fell from his lips, his vision dragging to the floor in heated shame.

Max had lost the ability to speak, the desire to say anything and everything rendering her speechless. She opted for another option instead, reopening the door and coming forward in a moment of courage. She let a hand settle on one of his slumping shoulders as his bag fell to the floor. He trembled beneath her touch.

“Nathan,” she addressed, gentle and calm.

He didn’t look at her. He couldn’t. There was no going back now. He knew he couldn’t just avoid her. He knew he couldn’t just forget.

And he knew that neither could she.

Max grew braver and let her hand slide down to his, gliding her fingers over his calloused knuckles, and pausing for a second for him to react. When he didn’t withdraw, she stepped further toward him, arms wrapping around his slim torso with the same placidity as before. Her hands fell on his back, and Nathan allowed her to step into him. His breathing became tight with her small and scantily-clad form pressing into his, but the unexpected comfort it brought erased all other sensations.

She could feel his rapid heartbeat, and it only served to increase hers as well. Especially when he gave in and brought his arms around her. Unlike the time in the truck, this was tender and hesitant, filled with an indecision she could understand. She felt a wave of relief, accomplishment, like she had finally broken through to some form of solid ground with him. A mutual understanding that what they experienced couldn’t be explained in conventional ways, something she sensed Nathan had dealt with a lot longer than she had, and they were sharing a new balance. Though the open hallway was larger than a confined car seat, she still felt closed off and searing, her temperature at a constant climb with a warm energy passing through his fingertips into her back. An involuntary shudder bloomed up her spine when his breath hit her neck.

“I saw it.” He was a broken record, feeling an inexplicable need to fall in her arms again, right in the dormitory hall. His hands tightened through her shirt like before. “I killed it.”

Max shook her head and went to reply, brows furrowed in concentration and determination, when the creak of another door interrupted. She immediately pulled back, glancing over Nathan’s shoulder to the source.

Victoria stood in the frame, her expression molding from neutral to concerned to confused.

“Nathan?” Her voice expressed her array of sentiments.

She stepped across the hall in a few short strides, bending down to match his hunch. Nathan met her gaze with hesitance. In the meantime, Max backed away, giving them room, pulling in her arms with the returning cold.

“Uh,” Victoria nervously laughed, holding back due to Max’s presence. “Wrong room, Nate.” She shot Max a glance, one that was filled with more concern than anger. Still, her eyes glistened in the refracting light.

Max looked to the side, silent. Nathan wasn’t saying anything, either, making the situation all the more awkward.

Victoria picked up Nathan’s bag and turned him around, leading him into her room for the night. She encouraged him to sit on her white, plush loveseat. He sank in, still saying nothing. When her door closed, she placed his bag off to the side and returned to him.

“Okay,” Victoria began, lips transforming into thin line after licking them, hands fixated on her hips. “What the hell was that about?”

The sinking feeling in his stomach returned, an adrenaline rush that threatened to push him through the fabric of the world itself.

He really wished he had all the right answers.

Chapter Text

The grandfather clock chimed. Through the years, gathering dust, being cleaned to gather more, it stood and rang its dreary tone throughout the estate.

Nathan’s eyes grazed over his father’s desk in an attempt to distract himself from Sean’s resounding vocals. They captured the stray pages of a leather-bound book. It was open, and a flash of red stuck out under a pile of disorganized documents. A map of Arcadia Bay, scribbled with several heavy dark marks and phrases, lay at the very top of the mound. His brows creased as he tried to look closer, his accursed curiosity coming to a head.

His father, however, grew more impatient by the second, and finally grabbed his shoulder with a viselike pressure. The boy emitted a sharp and painful cry as the callous man pulled him back, opened a folded piece of paper, and flashed it in his face. It was a letter from his psychiatrist. He recognized the sloppy signature at the bottom, but couldn’t focus on much else. It was like he was watching the scene from above them, floating away from the turbulent situation in a haze.

Outside, the giant oak’s leaves shook and fell, assaulted by the intensifying rain. He remembered the one that fell in front of him that day, remembered how smooth the stem felt between his fingertips, remembered the girl that slowly raised her hand to gift him with an unexpected, demure wave. He remembered that she was waiting for him. It would be over soon, and he could get out of there. He descended and met his father’s ignited stare.

A woman with loose, dark curls watched in the background through the doorframe, arms crossed and mouth set. She stayed quiet, unmoving. She had already said her piece. Fucking bitch. She had no right. She never did. The boy shot her a look of pure hatred. Their gazes met and smoldered with invisible embers. Her eyes broke away, looking to the floor with a shameful indifference he was sadly used to at this point.

The open, yet suffocating, gouge of the room swallowed the clumsy rhythm of the drops like the greedy place that it was, and the boy became lost in the sounds of them and his father’s enmity. Both became like cymbals being clashed next to his ears. Inside, he was screaming. Outside, his throat sewed itself shut. He remained silent, his teeth ground tight. The grip on his shoulder became less and less painful as it numbed. It was a never-ending cycle.

The scene abruptly changed. He now stood in a sterile, white room. A studio with bright lights. A place where he could create his own greatness. He’d still have control, and he’d prove himself. He would. He’d make sure of it. Everything was going to work out. Everything was going to be fine.

…Right?

An odd smell began permeating the air. His breath hitched as black and vacant eyes met the blue of his. He saw red smeared on glass, a bright flash, a saddened cry. Following the fear and cold was a warm embrace. Blue wings flickered across his vision, flooded by deeper shades until he was falling. Down, down, down beneath the ocean's waves, to the place where the songs of the deep overtook all his senses.

But now, he was drowning. The water filled every branch of his lungs, up his throat, out his mouth, his nose, even his eyes. His hands flailed, grasping for anything and everything, but settling on nothing.

Until he felt her soft tresses between his fingers. How harsh he was to her, it disgusted even himself. But…no. She deserved it. She, with her ocean-like eyes filled with innocence. Or was it ignorance? Either way, it resulted in his growth into every shade of green. She deserved to be brought down from her self-righteous pedestal. She, with her timid smile, speaking lies through pink lips like everyone else, deserved to be grounded and silenced.

Yes. She fucking deserved it.

He dug his nails into her skull, the memory alive and vivid on repeat, knowing what came next. The blood. It trickled into her fear right on cue, down her nose, mixing into that pink to become a shade of rose red. He wiped it away, like before, her skin soft and pliable beneath his fingertip.

This time, however, he didn’t stop to look at his thumb. Instead, he focused on her bewildered face, her little gasp that burrowed its way into the corners of his mind. It ignited a different sort of flame inside him, one he wasn’t unfamiliar to. Except when it came to someone like her.

When her eyes widened and she bit her lip, it became perfectly clear that he was dreaming, locked in a moment he wanted to forget. With her small, insignificant action, his heart pulsed with a violent jump on another plane. With it, he pulled her toward him. Hands loosening to cup around her jaw and neck, he brought her closer…and closer. Close enough to feel the heat of her quickening breath mingle with his as everything smeared together in gray and red.



Nathan’s eyes shot open. Blotches of color reflected behind their blue hue, fading in on themselves until they were no more.

One of his hands instantly went to his dry mouth, wiping away the imaginary, lingering sensation the dream left with him. It then migrated to his chest. His heart felt like it was trying to exorcise itself from his body.

‘The fuck…?!’ he almost burst aloud. He gnawed his tongue to stop himself when he realized he would wake the entirety of the girls’ dorms if he had. In the choice word’s place, an exasperated breath left his lungs.

He shivered and glanced at the new sun lighting up Victoria’s blinds. The rest of her room was encased in a muted darkness. Nothing stirred. The boy squeezed his eyes shut and licked his lips, his vision fuzzy and his stomach aching as he regained reality’s footing.

Nathan looked over to Victoria’s comforted, fetal form and heard soft breathing, an indication of her deep sleep. She would, no doubt, still be irritated with him when she woke. His half-assed excuse of, “I just got the wrong room,” as to why he was at Max’s door had done nothing to appease her.

“I’ve seen you make your way here in worse states than that, and you were just fine, Nathan,” she said, her voice prickly and acidic.

He sighed, tilting his head to the side with a bony crack, knowing he was in for a full-blown interrogation later. They barely even spoke for the remainder of last night. He was used to the ‘Victoria silent treatment,’ but the guilt that sank into him from it all made it worse. He was more pissed at himself than anyone. How could he even begin to explain the shit that happened with Caulfield? The lighthouse, the diner, the doe?

Her arms around him. Warm and inviting. Even after all they went through, everything he did, the way he just…was…

He felt that foreign heat form across his face in an honest blush. He couldn’t stop it. If it were possible, his heart beat faster.

‘It’s too fucking early for this shit!’ he screamed at himself.

He scrubbed his itchy, red eyes. Everything else from last night was a bit of a blur. Putting in a DVD to watch with Victoria along with popping the pills Rachel gave him—plus a few shots of alcohol and half a joint later—and he was well on his way to a blissful, dreamless sleep on the girl’s sofa. At least for a little while.

Nathan scooted himself further into the couch’s crook, sinking his toes into its opposite arm. It created a temporary imprint. He seethed, feeling the bruises that were now in their full, dulling pain. Victoria had agreed to help conceal them with her makeup; a scowl situated upon her glossed lips when she caught sight of them. Whether she was upset at him and his current secrecy or at his father for being the bastard that he was, he couldn’t say for sure. Knowing Victoria, it was a bit of both, accompanied by a dash of her own frustrations mixed into the shit cocktail called life.

A semi-filled glass of liquor sat on the nearby table. A stray beam of sunlight lit up the amber liquid within. He snatched it, drank it back in one gulp, and felt the scorching sensation flow down and settle in his stomach. It drowned the annoying fluttering and fed a craving of warmth. Yet, the tension in his chest tightened, forcing him to sit up and slump over. Yesterday’s events kept worming their way to the surface to chip away at his sanity. His body demanded he get up and move around, do something.

Gathering what belongings he could, doing his best not to disturb Victoria, Nathan carefully made his way into the dormitory hall. He paused only for a second to glare at Max’s door, as if he were directly giving her his acerbic expression, wanting to break it down and…and…

And then what?

His sleeve fell down a bit as his grip tightened around his duffle’s shoulder strap. He glanced at the stubborn, light remains of ink and jammed his hand into his pocket, making his way to the boy’s dorms in contempt.

“Way too fuckin’ early for this shit,” he muttered, rounding the corner toward his room.

He slammed his door, harder than he should have in retrospect, immediately proceeding to pour out the contents of his bag and reorganize. He put things back in their proper places with immaculate precision, anything to distract himself from the long day ahead. And long night.

No contest, no winner, no party. That’s how it should have been, but no. Everything was already set and it was time to pay his dues. Normally, Nathan wouldn’t have minded; another day, another party, another night to get fucked up and forget everything…until the next day when he’d regret everything. But his exhaustion currently spoke for him. All he wanted to do was shut himself in and vegetate.

‘Of course, that’d be too fucking easy.’

Retrieving his digital camera, Nathan plopped down on his bed, flicking on the side lamp. He lay flat on the dark comforter, not bothering to go underneath, and switched on his MP3 player. He followed by putting on his headphones, cycling through his photographs as he listened to the soothing songs of the ocean. He just wanted a moment to himself before he was forced to face the day ahead, before he was forced to face Victoria and the other members of The Vortex Club.

Before he was forced to face Max Caulfield.

The pressure of his thumb increased as he clicked through his collection, the monochrome images flowing together in a blur like that of his projector. Quickening. He was no longer truly focused on the images, until the one of the boy at the beach came up.

Nathan stopped, strangely admiring it. Rachel was right. This wasn’t like his usual pieces, and he felt a pleasant bud of warmth in his chest at her compliments. It was disappointing that he didn’t know, or rather, didn’t want to acknowledge why he took this photo in particular. He swallowed and continued forward to the next, his eyes widening at the final shot from that night.

The doe’s hollow eyes stared back. Her blood was jet black, and the rain’s highlights glistened off her fur in white glares. It all meshed together with the wet soil and grass, like she was becoming one with the earth, beautiful even in death. A harsh ache gripped his innards. This was more like it. This was what he was used to shooting—these macabre images of dark expressionism. So why now, more than any other time before, did his chest hurt when looking at the familiar and swell with the non?

He turned off and sat the camera to the side, laying back and staring at the pockmarks in the ceiling, feeling his heavy head sink into his pillow. His muscles relaxed and his eyes began to close as the selection of whale songs allowed him that moment of solitude he desired. It didn’t last long enough. It never did; the need for productivity took over once again. Begrudgingly, he sat up, feeling all aspects of gravity increase upon him. Faint, invisible whispers crept into his cognizance as he took off his headphones. It only urged him forward, to run without hesitation away from them and this place.

Within the next twenty minutes, Nathan changed clothes, primped himself, and was back in his truck and on the road. He’d grabbed what was necessary, skipped out on his meds that he felt would only further congest his crowded skull, and was on his way. He knew where he was going, what he was doing, though he scarcely believed it himself.

The bright orange glow of the morning sun was blinding as the scenery zipped by, rising over the horizon and into view. The vehicle’s stereo was cranked almost to its fullest so the loud music flooded out any other invasive sounds. A cigarette burned between his fingers. His hands and legs jittered, respectively tightening around the steering wheel or pressing too hard on the pedals below.

Everything came to a head when the bloodied asphalt came into view. Zaps of nauseating adrenaline made its way from Nathan’s arms and into his stomach.

The mangled corpse of the doe was still there, now rotting away with its red and purple innards seeping into the dew-moistened dirt and concrete.

He swerved the truck and did a disjointed y-turn to park on the same side as the dead animal, a heavy, held breath leaving his lungs. He exited the truck, letting his feet fully connect with the ground before approaching it. Below the layer of mist in the multi-colored autumn light, gatherings of ants and flies swarmed. Tangible. Real. The smell alone would confirm its true existence. That ‘cocktail of life’ began churning in his stomach as he turned away, a sleeve to his nose to block the pungent stench.

“Oh, God…ugh…”

Nathan turned to lean against the vehicle. He tried not to puke, hurrying back inside and holding his now-throbbing head. Everything came rushing back in a flurry as he wiped away a new layer of sweat from his brow. He glanced into the rearview mirror, holding on to some estranged hope that he would see the creature’s ghostly form once more. Something that would show it was still alive. Something to prove the dent in his fender was a trick of the sunlight. Something to reassure him that he wasn’t the one that killed it. Anything.

Yet, another part of him battled back his prayer with logic. What would it prove? That he was as crazy as everyone made him out to be?

‘Chasing ghosts. It’s no wonder why you need to eat those fuckin’ pills like candy.’ A voice slipped through. Derisiveness mixed with a sickening jubilance.

Nathan slammed his fist on the armrest. Some loose change jangled in one of the cup holders as his other hand pulled at the roots of his hair. The only one that had somewhat of a straight answer for him was someone he was vehemently trying not to think about. Not her. Not now. Not like this.

Feeling defeated, Nathan leaned back in his seat. A cheery announcer on the radio interrupted the song flow with the weather forecast. He cursed and turned it off, instantly regretting it when the eerie silence grew within the stuffy vehicle. Even the voices had abandoned him for now; the different sounds of Arcadia substituted themselves for them—small breezes through changing leaves, chirrups of frogs and lingering crickets, and the resonating waves of the ocean in the distance were just a few to name. The constants. The ones that drove him insane the further they droned.

And so he sat, lost within himself and the humming of the bay, flickering in and out of consciousness as the noises fused to became a suffocating roar all around him.

His head snapped up when a sound chimed through it all. The ringtone was one that made him shudder. It wasn’t from his regular phone, but from another he had with him, one he secretly kept on hand when he deemed necessary. It had been silent for quite a while, but now it had his full attention.



“Shit.”

Nathan’s mouth flattened into a line as he glanced at the expensive modern frame. A part of the top had gotten chipped on its haphazard journey across uneven ground. The drive to this place really wasn’t the smoothest, and it didn’t help that he had to carry so much stuff down into this underground mess. Couldn’t it have been in a more convenient location? So what if the Prescotts owned this piece of land? They owned practically all of Arcadia! Why all the way out here? He cursed again, feeling like an idiot with his rush of thoughts.

“Problem?” an articulate voice asked from behind. The man finished dusting off the glass desk and proceeded to open a nearby box. Parts to a new, state-of-the-art computer lied within.

“No.” The boy’s answer was short as he lined up the picture with the nail. He firmly hooked it into place, hoping the man wouldn’t notice the eyesore.

“It certainly sounds like there is.” Emerging from the shadowed corner, Mark Jefferson’s brows rose in surprise at the sight. It was a rather graphic illustration of a girl tearing open her throat. Wormy parasites burst forth from the gore as well as from the corners of her lips and eyes.

“No,” Nathan repeated. Picking loose skin from his thumbs, he tried to rid himself of his latter sensations. Now wasn’t the time.

“Well, that’s…interesting,” Jefferson commented, his vision narrowing to observant slits.

Nathan smirked. “You mean fucked up?”

“I never said that.” He didn’t take his eyes off the picture as he drank it in with a fixed expression.

“Right.” Nathan’s grin faded.

He noticed his abrupt defensiveness. “Well, Nathan, if it inspires you, I don’t see an issue.” Jefferson placed his hands on his hips. “Use these walls to your liking. After all, I’m just a guest here.”

Nathan scratched one of his arms through the thick material of his jacket. His anticipation was transforming into impatience. Still, he stayed quiet, looking around at the blank canvas of a room to which they were currently adding.

“Hm. At least this way I can focus on getting some actual work accomplished. The school’s facilities can only go so far, and sharing with Blackwell students isn’t easy. It’s times like this where I miss having my own studio, like when I lived in New York.” Jefferson paused and sighed, tracing his beard with his thumb and forefinger. “So really, Nathan, thank you.” With that, he stepped forward and placed a light hand on Nathan’s shoulder.

The boy’s stomach tightened. He awkwardly shrugged off the elder man. “Right. Whatever. I mean…” his sentence trailed as he stepped further away.

Jefferson let him go and turned back toward the desk, allowing Nathan space.

“You don’t have to, like, pretend and shit, you know,” said Nathan, speaking up.

The man casually spun around and composed himself. “Pretend?”

Nathan’s face was set like stone. He headed over and sat on the laminated, black couch in the center of the room. Staring at the bright, white backdrop in front of him, he answered with a bite to his words, “I know my dad’s got a fat check with your name on it after all this. So, yeah. You can quit acting like you actually care about shit. I’m not stupid.”

There was a long pause between them. Nathan assumed he had Jefferson against a wall, had him all figured out, and felt his ego swell and wane with that presumed truth. The boy then felt himself jump as the furniture dipped down with a new weight. Nathan snapped his head up to see that Jefferson had taken a seat on the opposite end of the sofa. The plastic released an uncomfortable whine.

Jefferson sighed. “No, Nathan, you’re not stupid. I believe Sean saw an alternative opportunity with my employment, and quickly seized it. He’s a ‘two-birds, one-stone’ kind of man, after all. And I’m not one to deny a little extra work on the side, especially when it comes from Blackwell’s—hell, Arcadia Bay’s—prime endower.”

Nathan winced, his brows rising and falling as he spoke, and his lips pursed with several small nods as he scooted further into the corner of the furniture. Of course the truth would have been thrown out there sooner or later. Jefferson, thus far, had been quite practical. He was downright blunt when he wanted to be. It was almost refreshing to Nathan, who was used to a whole different spectrum of jargon from his own kin. But Jefferson’s lofty tenor vexed him, and that annoyance came to a head with his increased fidgeting and expressions of boredom.

Jefferson continued, his voice smoother, “But, obviously, you’ve already put the pieces together on that one. Be that as it may, I’m not ‘pretending’ when I say I’m looking forward to personally working with you.”

Nathan grunted an affirmation to at least let the man know he heard him, and then averted his gaze to the white backdrop once more. It was blinding. Everything was blinding. He was tired, and wanted to go home.

“Like I’ve said before, your photos have something to them, a spark that so many others at Blackwell have yet to find at this point in their work. With my help, I can get you off your feet. Even the stubborn Sean Prescott will be impressed by his son’s improvement in photography.” Jefferson let out a rather contemptuous chuckle, pleased with that placed confidence.

Nathan tried not to show any hints of hope with the man’s statement, but despite himself, he couldn’t help it. His blue eyes met the other’s darkened browns, shadowed black by a trick of the fluorescents. They were open and reflective, mollifying. Jefferson had a small and promising smile hiding within his facial hair, one that unwillingly began to transfer to Nathan. It was strange, but even Nathan could tell that the academic was attempting to send him positivity, trying to cheer him up somehow.

“Stubborn Sean Prescott isn’t easily impressed with anything.” Nathan said, his cynicism barreling through as he stood up. His hands found their way into his jacket pockets, feeling colder than usual.

“Ha. True. Very true.” Jefferson crossed his legs and let them rest on the glass table before him. He rubbed at his temple with one hand while the other lay across the tight plastic on the sofa’s arm. “But we’ll change that.”

That lilt of his the boy detested ever-grew by the second. Nathan snapped in response, “Whatever. As long as you follow your end of this deal, you don’t have to invest otherwise.”

Jefferson’s gaze lowered, and Nathan could have sworn it was with a glare. “It’s true that I’m working for Sean on the side, mainly on photography for the Pan Estates project, but you’re a whole different matter. This is more of a favor to you than anyone. I know Sean is a harsh magnate, and he, no doubt, has a ‘plan’ set up for your future. Am I right?”

Nathan stopped—eyes thin, feet rooted, and mouth shut.

Exchanging small and meaningful conversations with the man for almost half a year now, Nathan thought he would be used to Jefferson’s enigmatic moments. Not so much; they still put him in a state of unease. It was always like he knew more than what he was letting on, but the boy could never find the courage to ask him outright. In reality, he didn’t want to in fear of a truth he’d rather not find.

Though, Nathan had to admit, getting his father to create this studio was a giant, surprising step forward for him. He never thought he’d get that discussion past its initial inquiry to the businessman. In the end, Nathan figured it was only temporary, so why not? He was sure that was the case. Humor his fucked-up kid one more time before he was to surrender to the tides that was The Prescott Foundation. Nathan’s stomach pulled taut as his thoughts further spiraled away from him, his hope draining. Why did Sean even bother? What was the point again? Of all this? Why?

“Nathan?”

His breathing became slower, more deliberate. He could only muster a cracked and throaty noise for an answer. He felt Jefferson’s familiar hand on his shoulder once more. For whatever reason, this time, he let it stay.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he answered brusquely, cutting into Jefferson’s last syllable.

There were times when those three little words infuriated him. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Are you okay?’ ‘ARE YOU OKAY?’ More often than not, they were followed by, ‘Did you take your meds?’ or ‘Are you sure?’ or a sickening silence that cut through him like a sharp knife, making him feel all the more dead inside. The latter was a specialty of his father.

All were just an assortment of add-ons that didn’t fucking matter in the end. Nobody really gave a shit past that. Nobody.

Jefferson gave his shoulder a light squeeze. “Hey. It’ll be all right. I know this is a lot to take in. It’s stressful. I can only imagine what’s going on in that head of yours, but, please,
try to control your temper.”

He didn’t like the way that came out. He then jerked away, this time with more force. He sucked in a quick, angry breath.

“Nathan.” Jefferson stayed calm, even though he could see the teen was ready for an outburst.

Nathan grit his teeth and growled. “What?”

Scrunching his brows together and tucking in his bottom lip, Jefferson came around and stood in front of the angered Prescott, placing firm hands on his arms to steady the start of his intemperate shakes. His professor was nearly a foot taller than him; it made Nathan feel all the more small. Small and inferior and…worthless. Nathan grimaced and flinched, not making eye contact.

“It’s not a crime to be angry, especially when it concerns your father and his…agenda. And far be it from me to tell you how to feel, but—”

A nasty smile spread across Nathan’s face. “Hmph. You know, you talk a lot of shit for being an expendable asset. What the fuck do you really know about him anyway?” Nathan pulled away. It was, again, without resistance from Jefferson.

Adjusting his glasses and crossing his arms, the elder closed his eyes as if in meditative thought. Until his voice became dark. “I know enough.”

Nathan met Jefferson’s gaze. He stilled, feeling a strange sensation at the back of his neck, raising the small hairs there. It pinpricked its way down his spine.

“And I can at least recognize that his son has his own emotions and desires, and should be allowed to express them.” His voice changed into something that sounded poetically pretentious.

And yet, Nathan’s heart still skipped a beat, and his hands tightened in his pockets; they were now too hot. He brought them out and began toying with the hem of his pants, entwining his fingers in his belt loops. His focus was null.

“You’re an adult, Nathan, and I imagine that’s how you expect to be treated, yes? Then you’re going to have to learn to control this petulance of yours and take a little criticism once in a while! Try to be a little more open-minded. People care, you just have to listen to the right ones. Remember, I’m on your side.”

It was then that Nathan’s attention was suddenly brought to Jefferson’s opposite hand. In it was a cell phone. He took it, and Jefferson turned back to the desk to continue with his computer ministrations.

“What’s this for?”

Blowing some foam peanuts off the new keyboard, Jefferson placed it on the desk and proceeded to reach into his pocket. He pulled out an identical model to the one he handed Nathan. “Personal prepaid phones. It’ll be easier to get hold of each other that way. What do you think?”

“And we can’t use our regular phones because…?”

“Well, I’ve got work, you’ve got leisure. I figure this way when I contact you it’s easier to filter.”

Nathan’s mouth upturned, and he stepped over to another framed photograph. “I guess.”

The piece was leaning next to an industrial-sized printer. It was turned backwards. Nathan fingered the frame—not a chip in sight. He then turned the picture around. Jefferson hummed, the two of them now standing side-by-side to observe the piece.

“This place keeps getting more interesting by the minute,” Jefferson admired.

Nathan remembered this picture from his father’s extensive monochrome collection. A kneeled woman, bound exclusively in rope and turned away from the camera in a defenseless gesture, was the subject. It was one he admired for many a year, but could never find a suitable place for its décor. Its sister piece hung in his dorm at Blackwell, but this seemed like it would work better in a larger space. He wasn’t wrong.

Something else caught his eye for a moment. Next to the row of frames was a stack of boxes. The top one was opened and a blemish of color burst forth. It was filled with three-ring binders, all of them a bright red. He thought they were akin to fresh blood.

A chilling sensation crawled up Nathan’s spin, and eyes narrowed. He forcibly ignored it to turn his attention back to the frame in hand. “Guess I’ll hang this up next.”

“Your call.”

A small smile pushed through his apprehension. In the beginning, Nathan revered these pieces for their contrasting tones that converged into complimentary and cohesive compositions. Also, he admitted only to himself, with a personal fixation on their presented content, one with which he was still gaining a paradoxical comfort as time passed. Though now, he began to realize just how much he empathized with the foci within the blacks and whites. How vulnerable and literally tied down they were. An allegory for his life if ever there was one. Yet, behind the lens, it was like he held the key to their freedom. And perhaps behind theirs, they held his.

Perhaps after all was said and done, he
could impress his father. At the very least, he could impress his mouthy new mentor.

Nathan proceeded to hold the frame above the printer. “This spot looks good.”

Jefferson nodded. “Agreed.”

“Well,” Nathan sighed, leaned the frame back for later, and pocketed the new phone, “guess it’s time to get this deal going then.”

A frown situated itself on Jefferson’s lips. “First of all, why don’t you head on home and relax? Things are going to take a bit longer here, and I’m going to head home myself once I set up this computer. There’ll be plenty of time to spruce up once the contractors refurbish a bit more, especially with the water pipes. We can actually have a working dark room once that’s done and the safelights are installed.”

Nathan furrowed his brows in confusion. “But—”

“Second, despite what your father thinks is best, you still have a choice with your future. Let’s make it a good one.” He flashed a smile.

Nathan’s eyes widened and a tinge of embarrassment coated his cheeks. For once, his words didn’t sound forced or fake. He was rendered into a silent awe.

“You’re not a business deal, Nathan. You’re a human being.” Jefferson gave him a final pat on the back, light and reassuring, to fill the space the boy left behind with his silence.

“Mr. Jefferson…?” The teen was at a loss.

The elder placed the monitor on the desk to accompany the keyboard, blowing away more foam bits. “And while we’re outside of Blackwell, you don’t have to be so formal. We’re both professionals here. Call me Mark.”



“Hello?”

“Oh? Good morning, Nathan. I expected to get your voicemail with it being so early.”

Was that supposed to be funny? “Uh. No. Busy day. Party’s still happening, so…yeah.” Nathan felt his exhaustion betray his words.

Jefferson chuckled. “Don’t get too excited, or the world might really end.”

Nathan returned the sarcastic gesture with a hummy, low sneer.

“Well? Isn’t that the theme of this party? The ‘End of the World’?”

“Is there a reason you called? Or did you just feel like getting a head start on irking me?”

“All right, all right. Relax. I just wanted to apologize for not being able to catch up with you and your new photos this week.”

“Whatever. It’s not a big deal. I’ll just talk to you about them some other time.”

“That’s a lie if I’ve ever heard one.”

Nathan bit the inside of his cheek. “I’ll leave you the negatives sometime tomorrow then.”

“Great. Also, about those still lifes we’ve been working on. Let’s talk more about them, say, next week? Give you the weekend to rest.”

“Uh…sure.” Nathan was beginning to zone out, his thoughts crowding out Jefferson’s voice.

“Jesus Christ, do you ever pay attention?” the mentor suddenly snapped.

Nathan’s stomach plummeted as he came out of his trance. “W-What? I—!”

“Everything going okay otherwise?” Jefferson asked between Nathan’s sudden panic, pausing to let out a confused sound. “Sorry? Did you want to say something else?”

“N-no. Did you?”

“No.” Another pause. “Nathan? Is everything okay?”

It was then that Nathan realized Jefferson hadn’t snapped at him. The illusion sank into his cluttered head, and he ground his teeth. ‘Shit. Fuck! Not now! Just…fucking…shut the hell up!’ He pushed a knuckle into one of his temples to keep himself on track.

“Did Sean give you any problems on Wednesday?”

Nathan shrugged, his eyes shut tight. “Not really. Same old bullshit.”

“Mm. Another lie if I’ve ever heard one.”

‘Fuck you-u-u-u-u-uuuugh!’ — “I don’t want to talk about it.” The battle between what he wanted to say and what he actually said passed by.

Jefferson sighed, a wind of static flowing through the receiver. “All right. I’ll leave you to it then. And, Nathan?”

He was about to take the phone away from his ear. “Yeah?”

“Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Just because I’m still chaperoning the party tonight doesn’t mean I can keep an eye on you twenty-four/seven.”

“The fu—I don’t need you to!” he exclaimed, a little more than irritated, still trying to keep himself together.

“Just be responsible and don’t overdo it. You know what I mean.”

The older man’s dark tone returned and made Nathan’s skin rise with goosebumps. He hung up and slammed the phone down, instantly regretful and checking if he’d broken it. He didn’t.

Fine. Good. Fuck.

His feet began to tap against the floor mats of the truck, crunching pieces of dead leaves here and there. The sun glared through the tree canopies and made him squint. He needed a shower. And another joint. That’d be nice. Seconds later, he put the truck in drive and peeled away, leaving the remnants of the doe behind.

When he pulled past the retracting gate and into the grounds of his family’s estate, he wanted to repeatedly punch himself. This was the last place he wanted to be, yesterday’s chaos still fresh in mind, but he knew that today his father wouldn’t be there. He remembered pieces of Sean’s business schedule that was rattled off between conversations after the assembly, standing off to the side in his diminishing high.

Plus it was technically his home, too. So, fuck it. Nevertheless, he was relieved to have the place to himself. Well, almost to himself, though he never counted the hired help as much company. They kept to themselves, as they should, he thought. All in all, it was better than having to share the dorm showers with the rest of Blackwell this early.

Nathan entered through the heavy door and made a B-line upstairs, down the carpeted hall, and into his old room. He didn’t take time to revisit his numerous dust-covered, familiar surroundings, didn’t even bother turning on the light. He simply migrated to the opposite wall next to a large, curtained window, pulled open a set of dresser drawers, and dug out a change of temporary clothes from within. The less time he had to spend here, the better. He retreated into the hall, clothes in hand, and backtracked to the bathroom past his sister’s room. He didn’t hesitate to think about her, either.

The sun’s glow came through the round window within the shower. It got caught in the frosted glass of its doors, reminiscent of wax crayon scribbles on textured paper—oranges and yellows creating trails through the panes.

Nathan threw his clothes on the marble sink countertop, snatched a towel from the built-in shelves, and hung it on a nearby rack. He then proceeded to turn on the water and let it become warm, stripped, and took a moment to look at himself in the large, rectangular mirror. It covered the wall above the double sinks. He frowned. The bruises on his chest and shoulder were a gray-blue. He carefully traced them, applying some pressure. They were tender.

“Motherfucking prick. God dammit…”

He stood in front of the mirror for a while yet. The steam began to fog over the glass, his tired image fading, before he snapped out of it and got in the shower. The warmth washed over him, peeled away the layers of contempt he was holding for the time being. Nathan opened his eyes, slowly took a hand to the steamed window, and wiped away the buildup. The action resulted in several squeaks that cut through the hiss of the water. Outside, the clouds were becoming thick, puffy, and a light gray. Another mediocre October morning.

Nathan scoffed, pensively dragging his tongue along the inside of his bottom teeth. “Scars…to stars…” One stray thought had made its way to his lips.

He shut himself down, harshly dragging his nails through his scalp with every scrub, and finished showering in a disgruntled silence.

After dressing and heading back downstairs, towel around his shoulders, he took a seat on a chair next to his father’s office to properly tie his shoes. Through the open doorframe, Sean’s disorganized desk caught his attention, just like it had last night. Papers were still strewn about, the map of Arcadia Bay remaining on top. Even from this distance, with the help of the light flooding through the room’s open windows, the black marks on the map were prominent.

Nathan finished tightening his laces, wriggled his feet into place, and, against his better judgment, sauntered inside and over to the mess. The sight struck him just as confused as yesterday; this wasn’t like his father, to be so unsystematic. The boy huffed, lifting some of the documents with one hand while the other focused on drying his wet hair. The multitude of business words blurred together. He ignored them in lieu of the leather book he recognized from before, frowning when he thought about what happened afterward. His head snapped up, expecting to see Sean’s figure in the doorway, but there was no one. In fact, the house was unusually quiet.

The book was still open. His eyes wandered over the exposed pages. The scrawl was a hard-to-read chicken scratch on the cream-colored surface. One corner of the page was a rusty brown. Nathan delicately moved some papers out of the way and leafed over to the next page. The crumple and resistance of the material gave away that it was once wet.

Nathan’s mouth parted at the sight of the large, dark-red stain that met him on the following page. The ink had been smeared into it, amalgamating into a brown, red, and black mess.

Paint? No. It looked too much like…

“Jesus, what the fuck?” Nathan’s heart skipped. He flipped to the front pages of the journal in hopes of finding the name of its owner.

Instead, an envelope was there, taped to the opening cover. A photograph poked out the top. He took it out and examined it. In it was a man and a woman in semi-formal summer wear. They looked happy, yet a bit bothered, as they seemed to be trying to stop a heavy wind from catching them off balance. The woman was holding her sun hat down with a big, sideways grin while the man held her up. The shot had been taken at Arcadia’s beach. It was unmistakable with the peninsula’s landmark lighthouse in the background. Nathan flipped the photo over. J & S ~ 1989 was written in a curvy, feminine script.

Nathan thought he recognized the man, but didn’t dwell on it. He slipped the picture back in the envelope and turned back to the ruined page. It was almost entirely undecipherable between the smeared words and the unkempt handwriting. Nathan could only make out a few letters and phrases:

‘…Tired.’
‘…I’m…ward.’
‘Da…wasn’t as…’
‘Sea…ease…’
‘Lorraine…iv…istine…lov…’
‘Sus…I…o…rry.’

‘Lorraine?’
Nathan repeated in his head, his skin feeling electric. ‘The hell is…?!’

He tried to even out his breathing, letting his eye scan the rest of the page with a new and quickening energy. There was one other, full sentence that wasn’t totally smudged away. It was next to, what looked like, a mess of redacted starts to sentences and…spirals?

‘Listen to Arcadia Bay.’

Nathan’s brows scrunched together. This time, he flipped to the back, trying to find some other clue toward the journal’s proprietor. Instead, he found an abundance of drawings. They could be considered professional for how laudable they were. Some had flecks of color, possibly from acrylic paint or colored pencils, while others were only done in graphite or ink. Maybe the red from before was paint? The tight feeling in his chest confirmed that he still wasn’t convinced.

Nevertheless, past his unease, he respected the illustrator’s attention to detail. The color, the shadows, the compositions, he could almost lose himself within them. There was a charcoal-esque sketch of some railroad tracks, a graphite drawing of a broken-down boat on a beach—complete with a pink and purple sunset, even some gestural pieces of flowers, birds, and other flora and fauna. Many stunning, naturesque pieces.

Nathan turned another page. He froze, his breath further sticking in his throat.

There was a near-perfect illustration of Arcadia Bay’s lighthouse and cliffs. A figure, unidentifiable as either man or woman, stood at its rocky crag. In the background, a storm raged. The violent scratches of a pen created a rainy effect, and thicker strokes outlined a gigantic tornado forming over the blackened ocean.

This feeling. It was like someone had strapped a ball and chain to his ankles and was about to throw him into those untamable waves, like he was the figure standing at the edge of those very cliffs, looking down into the blue abyss, waiting for gravity’s force to act like he had before.

The foyer’s grandfather clock rang, startling Nathan. With that warning, the estate became a void-like presence as he cast the thing aside with an abrupt gasp. He backed away, heart pounding, and took a few long strides out the door for his escape. He threw his towel in the downstairs bathroom hamper, grabbed his belongings, and finally exited the house. He’d take care of the rest of himself back at Blackwell. Right then, he had to get out of there.

Nathan’s regular phone began vibrating over and over as he reentered his truck. He let it go to voicemail as he sat in a daze. Still catching his breath, he tried to rid himself of this sensation of pure dread. He had to calm down, otherwise his heart was liable to stop from how much it was overworking itself.

“Lorraine,” he repeated aloud in disbelief. It wasn’t just that drawing that was causing him grief. In his family home, on his father’s desk, in that book—it couldn’t have been a coincidence.

That name. He knew that name. Of course, he would. He should. It was just that he knew her by another.

“Mom.”



Missed the last train home
Birds pass by to tell me that I’m not alone
Well, I’m pushin’ myself to finish this part
Can handle a lot
But one thing I’m missing
Is in your eyes
In your eyes…


Max tapped her foot against the sidewalk. The air was a stinging cold as she listened to some music while sitting on the edge of Blackwell’s fountain. Some students passed to and fro, none acknowledging her existence past a wave or a smile.

She checked her phone. 7:53 AM. Though she didn’t have class until 11, once again due to Ms. Hoida’s absence, she couldn’t enjoy the extra time because of her ever-present anxiety. She hadn’t gotten a solid wink of sleep because of it, as she expected. She removed her earbuds only after a couple songs, the melodies blurring together in a musical mess.

Her stomach growled. How she could be hungry, she didn’t know. Her tired mind was still muddled with yesterday’s craziness. During her mini meltdown, after giving Warren some reassuring texts that she was alive and a solid goodnight, she finally worked up the courage to dial her best friend like she promised.



Brrrrr…
Brrrrr…

Max’s heart assaulted her ribs, pumping dose after dose of heated blood in her veins. Surely, it was to explode any moment. She was trying to stop crying. She needed to know.

Brrrrr…
Brrrrr…

Her form slid down the wall, scrunching her pillows as she pressed her ear to the phone’s receiver. The noise of each ring felt like they were leaking through the white plaster. She shook with every one.

But she needed to know. She needed to know that Chloe was truly okay.

Brrrrr…
Brr—pa-click!

Her heartbeat thrummed all the way to her fingertips.

“…Max?”

Her lungs twisted into a knot until she released a gasp. Max’s eyes filled with tears once again.

“Chloe?”

A wisp of breath came through the receiver followed by a pause. Eventually, Chloe spoke. “Y-yeah, it’s me. Um, hey.” She sounded nervous. “You okay?”

‘That’s supposed to be my line,’ Max thought to herself, feeling more watery warmth slide down her cheeks. She held back her sobs.

“I’m okay,” she replied with a small smile. “Better than okay.”

“Ha. Why?” A small pause made itself apparent before she cut back in, “Are you getting high without me? ‘Cause that’s just rude.”

Chloe was still getting her bearings with conversation; it was little awkward and totally off-point. That was Chloe. And Max loved it. She began to laugh, and through the tears she smiled from ear to ear. Chloe was alive.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Chloe chuckled, and the slight buzz of static gave a small, crowded comfort between them. She must have been thinking of something else to say. Max just sat there, knees to her chest and hugging her teddy bear with one arm, smiling and feeling as elated as Chloe made her out to be.

“Max?”

“Yeah?”

“About today…I’m sorry. I’m just—I’m just fucking stressed out right now.”

“It’s okay.”

Max added in her mind,
‘I can relate.’

Chloe huffed. “It’s just…with all this shit going on with Rachel, David
being the cock-a-dildo that he is, and you popping up after years of not being around…”

Max winced as Chloe trailed off. “I-I know. I’m the one who should be sorry. About…everything.” She sighed and sniffled.

Another small bout of silence ran between the two before Chloe said, “You sound hella tired.”

Max’s body shook with the fleeting thought of dangling over Arcadia’s cliffs. She hugged herself tighter and pushed it to the back of her mind. Now wasn’t the time. “It’s just been a really long day.”

“I hear that.”

Max debated on telling her about what happened at the lighthouse, but ultimately decided against it. She wasn’t ready for that whole mess, and was worried Chloe might think she was completely off her rocker if she had told her, without proof of some kind, that she could…rewind time. Hell, she didn’t fully believe it as she hesitated repeating it to herself.

As she and Chloe began talking, Max decided to try and eat half of her leftover cheeseburger. Miraculously, it still tasted like heaven—cheesy, bacon-y heaven. Her stomach grumbled with approval. She was surprised it was accepting food at all, but didn’t argue it. It was better than going to bed on an empty stomach.

“Joyce’s food is still the best,” Max said with her mouth full of the half’s last bite. After, she licked some ketchup off her thumb and sat back to digest.

“Oh, don’t I know it? In that department, I’m still as blessed as ever,” Chloe replied with a hint of sarcasm.

“I’d say you are,” Max teased with a light laugh.

Chloe continued, “Yeah. I guess I’m lucky she still cooks at home at all. Mom’s been working her ass off with random shifts for extra cash. Sometimes really late at night. My step-prick's been taking more night shifts, too. So, it’s been pretty quiet over here.” There was a clear sadness coating her last words.

A large lump formed in Max’s throat. Chloe was lonely. Obviously. And with Rachel’s odd behavior, as Chloe put it, she must have been feeling even more so. Rachel and Chloe had clearly formed a strong bond while Max was out of the picture, and to have concern weighing her down wasn’t like her. Then again, what did she really know anymore? She was the one who had been gone for so long without an ounce of contact. The guilt returned with a vengeance.

Before Max could answer, Chloe gave a long sigh and cut in, “Anyway, it’s getting late. Do you think we could talk more at Blackwell tomorrow? I’m stopping by to see Rachel at the Vortex thing. I need to talk to her.”

“You mean the decoration committee?”

“Yeah,” Chloe scoffed, “that.”

Max let out a suppressed chuckle. Chloe really didn’t like the group any more than she did. “Sure. We can talk then. My classes start later, so I’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. Cool. Sounds good.” She sounded like she wanted to say more, but Max didn’t press her; she was getting tired, too.

“Though, that’s pretty early. You sure you’re up for it?” Max commented whilst sliding down to lie flat on her bed. She flicked on her paper lanterns beforehand, the warm glow lighting up the dismal atmosphere.

“Ugh. Don’t remind me. I’ve already got six alarms set on my phone. It sucks, but it’s gonna be the only time I can avoid David giving me shit and talk to Rachel.”

“Right…” She remembered her recent run-in with Blackwell’s head of security. “I can understand that.” Another silence ran between them before Max decided to speak up again. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

“Mm. Totally. Tomorrow.” There was a windy scratch on the other end of the line.

“Chloe?”

“Sorry, just getting a bit blazed before I hit the hay. Helps me sleep.”

Max shook her head with an unseen smirk. “Now who’s the one being rude?”

“Please, girl. You avoid anything remotely fun, so why stand on ceremony?”

“Hey!”

The two shared a light laugh. After they said their goodbyes, a large and warm feeling welled up and spread through Max’s veins. There were more tears, this time of a happier caliber, and more sniffling. She had to clean up and use the restroom before heading to bed herself. She decided to put off the consequences of that day and try to get some semblance of sleep.

Opening her door, she nearly ran into someone. It was such a surprise, she actually gasped aloud.

She wiped her eyes and looked up, meeting the wide gaze of a rather-stupefied Nathan Prescott.



Max’s smile faded. It suddenly wasn’t cold anymore as a giant burst of heat rushed up her neck. It went straight into her ears and cheeks.

Right. That. Crap.

That was something she didn’t expect. ‘Putting off the consequences’ hadn’t turned out like she planned. Her face only got warmer with the thought of Nathan at her door.

Her hands fiddled with the hem of her shirt, thinking of how she looked less than presentable in his presence. There he was, looking like he hadn’t just been through the same hell as her, with restyled hair and a new set of designer clothes. And there she was—messy bob, reddened face, swollen eyes—clad only in her scant, gray pajama shorts and thin, yellow tee with…a happy-go-lucky sunflower on the front.

‘Good one, Max. For fuck’s sake.’ Her hand came to her forehead as she thought of her ‘loser-like’ image.

And the way he ogled her, how his gaze just lingered, was intense to say the least. It felt like he was burying her six feet under with his eyes alone.

Max shook the intrusive thought away, feeling hotter and trying to get her bearings. Aside from that and above all else, he admitted to seeing the ghostly doe. That was the important thing.

But that truth only served to scare her more. What did it all mean? And after all that she…

Her body felt heavy, and she sank her teeth into her lower lip, dragging it back and forth in deliberation. Max couldn’t help but let her mind wander, wondering if she did the right thing in that moment. He didn’t object to her embrace, but was that okay? Why did she even decide to do that? He did hug her back, but…

She forced a swallow. Nathan Prescott hugged her back.

Her breath caught. ‘No! That’s not the point, Maxine, you moron!’

But the way he looked was so…lost. Lost and alone. She felt like it was the only right thing to do in that moment, especially after what they went through. Was that bad? Shit, she didn’t know anymore, and it was too late to do anything about it. If she had the ability to rewind time, she sure as hell wasn’t using it right.

Max took a moment to calm down and re-rationalize things. She remembered the comforting phone call with Chloe again, trying to stop the bombardment of questions in her head. So many open-ended, hanging threads. She wanted nothing more than to take and retie them all, make everything normal. What the hell was normal anymore?

“Hey!”

The chipper voice snapped her out of her current train of thought. She looked up to meet Dana’s wide grin. Her head poked out of some faux fur around the hood of her puffy, hot-pink coat.

“Oh! Morning, Dana.”

Dana had a coffee in one hand and a large bag over her opposite shoulder. She took a seat next to Max, setting the latter on the ground and crossing her legs. “Mornin’, Max! What brings you out here at the crack of dawn?”

“Um, well…” Max played with her bangs in hesitation. “I’m waiting for a friend.”

Dana hummed. “Why so secretive? You don’t have to worry about me being a gossip-gab. I’m not Stella.”

Max looked around. She was just hoping David wasn’t in earshot, or around at all for that matter. He was the last person—next to Nathan—that she wanted to see or have overhear her conversation. “Chloe Price? She used to go to Blackwell. I’m waiting for her and Rachel.”

“Chloe? Blue hair, tattoos, kind of rough-and-tumble?”

Max nodded, though she hardly believed she was; the image Dana spoke of was the new Chloe she was still getting used to. Max was just happy she had the time to get used to it, knowing her friend was still alive.

She forced a swallow. ‘Don’t think about it, Max. You’ve already got enough to worry about.’

“Yeah, I remember her. I only got to talk with her a couple times when we all hung out with Rachel, but she was cool. Angry-looking, but cool.”

That got Max to chuckle. “Yeah. She’s kind of got a lot going on.”

“Mm. Don’t we all? Anyway, Rachel will probably be here soon. She texted me earlier. But, I’m up and at it to be ready for Miss Icky Vicky whenever her crab-ass comes around.”

Max let out a small giggle. “Yeah. She has been uptight lately. Though, she always seems that way. And we’re not exactly friends, so…”

Dana’s mouth contorted. “I’m not exactly her friend, either. Just because I’m in The Vortex Club doesn’t mean we’re all buddy-buddy. Right now, I’ve got enough of my own drama to even remotely care about hers.” She sighed and wiped her brow.

Max became concerned, if curious. “What’s going on?”

Dana gave her a small, sad smile. “Oh. It’s nothing. Just the standard high school bullshit, you know? It’s just been piling up this semester.”

“I hear that. But…I’m no gossip-gab, either. You can talk to me if you want.”

Pulling out her phone and checking it after a vibration, Dana replied, “Thanks, Max. Maybe later. I gotta get going. The Queen Bee’s on her way.” She paused for a moment, standing up to brush off the back of her jeans. “You know, Max, I’m envious of you at times.”

Max shot her a look of confusion, her brows lifting.

“Sometimes, I think you’re smart to be a loner here.”

Max was about to respond when a vehicle’s sputtering and whining hit her ears. A familiar beige truck swerved around the corner and promptly into Blackwell’s parking lot.

‘Captain Cantankerous Chloe, scourge of the seven seas has arrived,’ Max said to herself with a nervous half smile.

“I’ll see you around.” Dana proceeded to give Max a small wave whilst bringing her cup to her lips.

“Actually,” Max tarried with a shiver, “Chloe just got here, and we were headed the same way. So, we’ll walk with you?”

“Mm! Sure! It is a bit chilly, anyway. Better to get in where it’s warm.” Dana stopped to eye Max’s signature gray zip-up. “You should invest in something warmer, too, you goof!”

Dana’s cheeriness got Max to genuinely smile. Right now, she needed all the uplifting she could get, especially after what had happened so far that week. Everything felt like it had spanned an eternity by this point. Dusting off her own jeans, Max shouldered her camera bag and lagged behind Dana, observing the parking lot’s entrance for her blue-haired friend. Soon enough, Chloe strutted up the steps, hands in her jacket pockets and beanie pulled over her ears.

Dana held the pool’s entrance open for Max, who held it after her as Chloe began a little jog to meet them. Even though the two had somewhat reconciled over the phone, there was still a present barrier between the girls. Max felt it and looked down with weighted shoulders.

Chloe didn’t even cast her a look of recognition as she muttered, “Fuck, it’s cold!”

All of them entered the main area, passing the vending machines and locker rooms. As the smell of fresh chlorine invaded their noses, Max’s eyes widened at the place’s in-progress transformation. The only thing that could distinguish that this was the school’s pool…was the pool. Otherwise, it looked like the beginnings of some new modern nightclub.

There were strings of round lights between the metal rafters and fluorescents, decorative banners and streamers connected interlaced with wires from multicolored floodlights, posters and other papers covering some of the windows and walls, and gymnasium mats set up around the pool’s perimeter. Past the pool, in the center, a risen platform had several large speakers set up beside a DJ’s turntable. There was even an area being constructed past the stage and to the left that looked like a mini bar. Max recognized Taylor and Courtney moving around some new chairs and couches, talking over a clipboard every now and then like they were in a professional business.

“Holy…” Max was in awe.

On the upper level of the bleachers, Hayden, another Vortex Club member, was detangling some wires for more of the colorful lights. They were on tripods that looked like miniature versions of the ones used for football stadiums. He spotted the girls below and let out a ‘Hey!’ getting their attention.

“Da-na! What up?” He separated the cheerleader’s name into emphasized parts, waving his spare arm to them. “And is that…Max Caulfield? Wha-a-a-at? It’s a Blackwell miracle!”

Max had to admit, she actually liked Hayden. He had a carefree attitude. Despite him being in the Vortex Club, she didn’t think he was completely a judgmental asshole like the majority. Though, she might also chalk that up to his stoner lifestyle. He was another brighter outlook on the organization alongside Dana. The photographer shook her head and gave him a small wave as Dana acknowledged him with a greeting of her own.

Chloe, in the meantime, rocked on her heels with her arms crossed and eyes everywhere. Max could tell, though she wouldn’t say it out loud, she was also in a state of surprise at the place.

“Looks like things are coming along swimmingly,” Chloe said, almost out of nowhere. “Get it? ‘Cause…it’s a pool.”

Max stifled a laugh. The first Chloe-ism of the day. “Insert groan here.”

Dana agreed with a chuckle, turning to Max with a determined expression. She was ready to get shit done. “The floor plans Courtney gave me should work for what I need to do. Still, that means I have to leave you lovely ladies. Get warm, mingle, chillax—do whatever!”

“I think we’ll just stand off to the side and avoid ‘Icky Vicky,’ as it were,” answered Max with a sideways smile.

Dana laughed. “I’d do the same if I could. Maybe I’ll see you two around.”

As Dana departed, Max and Chloe migrated to a corner of the room to await Rachel’s arrival. Max grew brave and cast Chloe a smile. The punk girl returned it, though it was heavier and looked like it took effort.

Chloe’s eyes continued to wander this way and that, avoiding Max’s. “That heated water sounds like heaven right about now. Too bad these Vortex pricks’ll have run over it tonight.”

“Oh, well. We’ll just have to find some other way to warm you up,” Max teased.

“I dunno. Getting to hang out with my best friend again seems like a decent tradeoff.” Chloe placed an arm around Max’s shoulder and flashed her a cutesy grin.

Max blushed. Though her current appearance betrayed her, Chloe still had some of her babyish charm that Max remembered. She felt a sense of ease begin to grow. It was still a little awkward between them, but for Max, she had already let everything go from the past day. Chloe may have been trying to do the same, so Max tried to keep the good vibes going with another smile.

A sigh left the blue-haired girl as she adjusted her beanie. “So. You okay after I pulled a rage quit yesterday?”

There was a million ways Max could say she wasn’t. Yesterday wasn’t exactly her finest hour, either. But now wasn’t the time to bring up that drama. Now was the time for something a little more lighthearted. The less she had to think about yesterday—and Nathan—the better.

“Well, I was…”

Chloe looked like she was nibbling on the side of her mouth, awaiting Max’s continuation with bated breath.

“…until you made that awful joke. You and your puns. Some things never change.” Max crossed her arms in an ersatz irritation.

Chloe snorted and pulled Max closer. “What can I say? It’s a gift.”

Max wriggled herself free with a hum. “Or a curse. It’s way too early to face that kind of cringe without caffeine.”

“Ha, ha, smart ass.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Of course it is.”

Slowly, but surely, things were looking up. At least, Max hoped, especially after Chloe’s expression proceeded to drop. Hers went along with it, trying to keep on Chloe’s wavelength.

“I went to the junkyard after I left the Two Whales.”

Max fingered her messenger bag’s strap, feeling something begin to creep up the back of her neck. “I…don’t blame you for not going straight home.”

Chloe swallowed. “Yeah, I—I thought maybe I’d find Rachel there, and…Max, I know she didn’t go home to talk to her parents. Like I said, she’s been doing this for a while. And now…I found this.”

Max concentrated as Chloe reached into her pocket. She brought out a crumpled piece of graph paper. On it was the start of some loopy writing. A letter. The bottom half was all scribbled out, looking like a massacre of blue ink. Max’s head cocked and she became more focused on it, beginning to read the legible parts to herself:

C.
You can tell how much I want you to read this letter since I’ve been dragging my ass to give it to you. Maybe I just want you to find it when I’m not around so we never have to talk about it. And I don’t want you to hate me. Where to start?

I met somebody recently who’s so different from the lame Vortex Club snobs. I know you’ll have a meltdown when I tell you and think he’s gross, but I SWEAR he’s wise and unconventional. Kind of scary, not in a “bad boy” way. He’s just experienced some serious shit. Yes, I’m kinda obsessed. I won’t blame you for
[illegible] freaking.

Maybe I know you’re right and this just has to be my secret
[illegible].

The letter became more hastily-written.

I hate not sharing this with you except I know you’d give me that stink-eye and grill me for every stupid detail. If I even told you that ^last^ night we hooked up [illegible] near campus…


The rest of the letter was a mess of crossed-out sentences and was completely unreadable. Chloe’s eyes looked like they were glazed over with tears. Max was speechless.

“I was pissed off and ended up kicking a few things around in our hangout. I found this after accidentally knocking over the garbage can.” Her voice cracked.

Max was more than anxious at this point. The letter was disconcerting, and she could only imagine the turmoil going on within Chloe. Also, to find this on her own when she was already feeling like shit? Not good.

“Have you talked to her about it?” Max asked, her throat feeling constrained.

“I haven’t…yet.” Clearly frustrated, Chloe re-crumpled the letter and shoved it back in her pocket, shuffling her feet on the tile below. “But she’s about to get an earful, and my ‘stink-eye’ as she says.”

“Chloe…” She could see her rage bubbling beneath the surface. “Just try not to blow up on her. If she’s this nervous to tell you about a possible boyfriend then—”

Chloe grumbled and looked at the floor, cutting off Max, “I just want to know what the fuck’s been going on. We don’t keep secrets. Especially about shit like…this.” She turned away, flushed.

“I…yeah. But maybe there’s a better way instead of cornering her like this.”

“Well if you have a better plan, please, share!” Chloe snapped in her laconic fashion.

And that’s where Max fell short. She still considered herself a stranger when it came to Chloe and Rachel’s matters. If anything, she felt like a forced and unwanted wedge between the two. She wasn’t sure what to say, and was afraid of advising the wrong thing.

Max never got the chance to reply as Hayden strutted up to the two, a toothy grin greeting them after coming down from the seats above. “It really is the retro-selfie master! It’s about time you caved in and decided to check out a Vortex party!”

“Um…I’m not…Well…” Max was caught between him and Chloe.

“Gonna take some photos of my handiwork for your collection?” He joked in a lax tone, grabbing a stack of posters to the side of the girls and continuing his interruption between them, much to Chloe’s visible vexation.

“Not…at the moment.” she answered with a hand to the back of her neck, remembering the state of the instrument—‘Rest in peace, my friend.’

“Aww. Well, I tried. Anyway, sorry to rush off, but I gotta put up some more of these in the halls while the day’s young. Just thought I’d say hi. Maybe I’ll see you tonight?”

Max never got to properly answer him past a head shake before Hayden was off and running, leaving her feeling dizzy with the commotion.

“Wow. For not being in The Vortex Club, you sure have a lot of fans.” Chloe snubbed, her face fixated into a scowl anew.

“I didn’t—that’s not—wowser…” Max took a breath. “That’s not it.”

“Sure. And you didn’t say Nathan ‘Pres-hot’s’ name the other day, either.”

“That was a joke! I—”

“Or you could go hang out with your actual new boy toy, Warren. I’m sure you two have better things to discuss. Or whatever other friends you’ve made at Blackwell in the month you’ve been back to Arcadia.”

“Chloe, it’s not like that!” Max rubbed her forehead, the skin tightening with nervous tension. “And we’re getting sidetracked! What about Rachel? What should we do?”

“I don’t know Max! Why don’t you ask some of your Vortex friends for advice? I’m sure they’d be willing to give it to you.”

Max sighed. “Chloe. Please. Right now, you’re what’s important. I’m trying my best to think of something here…”

Chloe blew out a gust of air and turned on her heel. Both the girls were once again at a loss, the barrier Max sensed growing anew. As Vortex members came and went, Max and Chloe thought in silence until they heard the telltale sounds of Rachel’s cheeriness from the entrance.

‘Shit. Out of time on this one.’ Max thought about testing her supposed rewind ability, but the ridiculousness of it all stopped her once more. She doubted she would come up with anything anyway, even if she had more time.

Rachel spotted the two after a moment, and a confused expression, quickly replaced with one of joy, went across her visage.

“Chloe! Max! What’s going on?” She called, jogging over to them. The holes in her black denim jeans stretched with every movement of her legs, and her long hair bobbed back and forth.

Max cursed in her head. How were they going to explain themselves? They didn’t have a solid reason to be there except to confront Rachel about the letter. Well, that was Chloe’s initial plan, but Max didn’t know about the letter until just now! She fought with herself, trying to find some way to remedy the situation without making Rachel suspicious.

“We…just wanted to see if you were okay. After yesterday, I mean. We were worried.” Max tried her best to keep herself in line, forging a lie from the dimmed fires in her brain.

Chloe immediately picked up on the trail. “Yeah, Rach. Your parents have been nagging the shit out of you lately. What’s going on?”

‘And Chloe saves it!’

Rachel smiled, more of a sad gesture than happy, and tucked some of her hair behind her ears. Her feather earring glistened in the reflecting light from the pool. “They’re just trying to do what’s best for me. But, you know how parents can get. Laying it on thick with this being senior year and all. Being pains in the ass.”

Max nodded, trying to go along with everything, one arm caressing the other. She stole a glance at Chloe whose mouth pursed together; she was trying not to burst.

“Don’t you think you should be helping instead of chit-chatting?” snapped another familiar, approaching voice.

Rachel, who didn’t have to turn around to know who it was, rolled her eyes and answered, “Typical. Barely in the door, and you’re already bossing people around.”

Max and Chloe both scrunched their brows as Victoria strutted her way towards the group, hands across her chest, and with that sour expression that made her crimson lips look smaller than they already were. From behind her, hands in his pants pockets and hunched over in what looked to be utter dejection, Nathan emerged.

The boy looked up and stopped mid-stride as his eyes met Max’s. She did the same, unconsciously moving closer to Chloe in the process. She became aware of Victoria and Rachel spitting an insult or two at one another, but they only registered as vocal static. Nathan and Chloe in the same vicinity, within feet of one another—Max felt ill.

His gaze held. Time slowed. More wordy white noise. A heartbeat in her ears. Trembling.

Nathan then dipped his head to look at the floor and made his way past them. Max realized Victoria was done with her little jabs, and he was following her away from the scene. She was still lost within herself, adjusting to the passing change in atmosphere.

Chloe and Rachel were talking. Their voices were starting to become clearer.

“…out that, Max?” Rachel’s melodic musings flowed.

“Max?” Chloe waved a hand in front of her face.

“H-huh?” Max blinked and swallowed. Her throat was dry. “Sorry. I was just…just…”

“Just…staring at Nathan?” Rachel teased. “Subtle, Max.”

Max blushed bright red. “That’s not—!”

Chloe frowned, and Max felt even worse.

“You’re too adorable, Max,” Rachel continued, nudging Chloe who gave her a side-glance with growing annoyance.

“No! Just…stop!” The photographer exclaimed, surprising both girls.

An awkward silence began to form. Max’s fists were clenched at her sides. Seeing Nathan again…it was too soon. She was remembering everything. Her legs felt weak.

“Max, are you okay?” Rachel asked, a hand coming out to pat her on the shoulder. “I was just kidding around.”

Max didn’t answer, counting the tiles on the floor to stay calm, feeling like an idiot for nearly shouting.

“Max?”

“Just the Max Caulfield mini-coma again,” Chloe said with a nervous laugh.

“I’m just…stressed. Sorry.” It was a pathetic excuse, but, Max thought, at least she regained the strength to give one.

“Hm. Maybe she should come to the party with me. You need to unwind, girl!” Rachel first addressed Chloe, and then Max with a poke to her arm.

“…What?” That got Max to look up at the girls.

Rachel gave Max a smile. “Well, we were joking, but I said since this loser,” she stopped to flex a thumb at Chloe who promptly answered with a middle finger, “can’t go with me—or won’t, I should say—that maybe you would like to be my date for the night!”

Max stilled further. “Uh…what?”

“Hmm. Maybe she should,” Chloe said, placing an arm around Rachel’s shoulder. The other girl reciprocated, and they gave Max earnest, if somewhat creepy, smiles.

Chloe’s expression changed to one only Max could see, and one only Max would recognize.

Captain Cantankerous Chloe had a plan.

And Max was in it for the long haul.

‘Crap.’

Chapter Text

A heavy summer rain began casting itself against the sliding glass door. The ticks and tacks transitioned into a static-like noise that drowned out the sounds of the nearby television. Around it, an old video game system sat on pause. Two controllers were left abandoned by an assortment of bags and boxes, all of the junk food variety. The sugary and salty crumbs sprinkled the carpet alongside discarded wrappers and soda cans.

“Now the rain decides to fall! Dude, we could have been outside working on our mural before now!” exclaimed Chloe in a huff. She slouched in the dining room chair and dug her heels into the carpet with a pout. “Or playing in the leaves. ‘Oh, honey, you and Max should stay indoors for the afternoon! It’s going to be raining all day!’” She mimicked Joyce’s drawl in a sarcastic manner. “Ch-yeah! I knew we shouldn’t have listened to my mom.”

Max, who was coloring a comic page she and Chloe had drawn, looked up at her friend and gave her a soothing smile. “At least we got to watch that anime marathon! I’m totally in love with
Fullmetal Alchemist now!”

Chloe smirked. “You would be. Tell me, was it the gripping and tragic storyline of the two brothers, the epic opening theme song, or…was it Edward’s fabulous abs after he stripped off his coat?”

Max laughed so hard she snorted. She spread her arms and brought her head down to the table to muffle herself. Her ponytail splayed across the back of her neck as her limbs scattered their art supplies this way and that. Some even rolled to the floor.

“Ha! I totally called it!”

“Shut up!” Max choked, leaning down and cutting off her diaphragm to pick up one of the pencils she was using. She sat up and continued coloring, a new blush adorning her cheekbones. “You’re such a dork.”

“Mega Max speaks the truth. And I liked the show, too! Rose’s bangs were pretty sweet in that first episode. Well, maybe not the color, but yeah.”

“Pi-i-i-ink,” Max teased. The girl waggled her fingers in a mock menacing manner and dropped her voice to a ghoulish octave. “Anything but the dreaded pink!”

“I don’t
hate pink, it’s just not really my color. It’s just…blah.”

Max grinned. “So is all this code for: ‘I wanna dye my hair’?”

Chloe scoffed. “Like my parents would let me. My dad would flip his shit if I did.” She leaned forward on her hand and twirled a lock of her long hair around her index finger. “But a girl can dream.”

“What color would you change it to if you could?”

The thirteen-year-old stuck out her lower lip in thought. “I dunno. What do you think would be good?”

“Magenta.” Max smiled, smug.

Chloe threw a marker at her shoulder. “You’re a brat!”

Max flinched with another grin as it bounced off her, and the two fell into fits of laughter.

The younger girl proceeded to ask, wiping away tears in the corners of her eyes, “So, what’s the new plan now, Captain Chloe?”

“Hm,” Chloe stood up and paused, dramatically placing a hand on her chin in thought. “Well, First Mate Max, let’s check out…the kitchen! Maybe there be some ways to make sweet ship’s biscuits!” Her tone changed to one low and gravelly as she took on her pirate’s persona.

“And I hope
that’s code for cookies.” Max joined her, tightening her ponytail and then crossing her arms.

Chloe began rummaging through some cupboards. “And as long as I have my first mate to help, they’ll
stay cookies. You know me and baking.” She gave Max a sheepish grin.

Max giggled, more color rising to her cheeks. “No worries, Captain. I’ll keep us on track with measuring ingredients.”

“All right!”

As Max stood on her tip-toes to reach for a mixing bowl, Chloe’s humming went an octave higher mixed with an, “Oooh!”

Max brought down the piece and turned around with the inquiry, “Find the chocolate chips?”

Chloe had a grin on her face that perfectly spelled out mischief. “Something better! Way better!”

Whatever it was, she had it hidden behind her back. Max gave her a confused look before Chloe brought out a bottle filled with a blood-red liquid. Behind the green glass, its contents looked black.

“Whoa! Is that wine?” Max sat the bowl on the counter and approached Chloe, her curiosity at a new and excited high. Still, a bit of panic ran up her spine.

“Just what we needed, right? Something for us corsairs to whet our whistles on the high seas!” she exclaimed, the lilt in her voice becoming efficacious. Her eyes took in the label with a roguish and avid stare.

Max was hesitant. Her smile dropped as Chloe’s widened, and she brought a hand to the back of her head to scratch away surfacing anxiety. “But…won’t your parents notice? It’s never been opened. And we’re not allowed anyway…”

Chloe rolled her eyes again and shifted her weight to one foot, the bottle falling slack in the grip of her hand. “Oh, come on, Max! This is, like,
the optimal chance of all chances right here!”

“But they’ll be home any time!” Max’s voice faltered between words as Chloe began sifting through a nearby drawer, ignoring her warning.

Soon enough, the older girl had found what she was searching for: a corkscrew. “Perfect!”

“Dude, not perfect. If you thought your mom and dad would be pissed about you dyeing your hair—”

“Max, relax! We’ll only take a small sip, and then we’ll put it back! Good as new!”

Max bit her lip and continued to rub the back of her neck. She groaned, “Chloe-e-e-e…”

The other slumped her shoulders, stopping her opening of the bottle to give Max puppy-dog eyes. “Ma-a-a-ax…”

‘Ugh,’ the younger girl thought with a long sigh, ‘I hate it when you do that.’

“Okay, okay. One sip. But that’s it! I don’t want you getting grounded.”

“Pfft. Yeah, you’d be right there with me, and it’s not like I want you to be, either. Your mom would be so pissed. Your dad would probably laugh.”

Max giggled, trying to get past her apprehension. “Probably.”

Chloe smiled and handed the bottle to her, the corkscrew fashioned in the top and ready to go. “All right then, First Mate! Will you do the honors?”

“Me? Why?”

“Come on! Open it, chicken!”

Chloe hopped away from Max with little clucking noises as the younger girl tried pawning bottle back to her overconfident friend. It was in vain.

With a sharp exhale of defeat, Max tiptoed, following, heading closer toward the couch out of instinct.
‘Fine…’

“Hold on! And I’m
not chicken!” She held the bottle under her arm, twisted the top, and pulled. The cork squeaked, giving way a bit.

With another sharp pull, the top popped, a hollow plonking sound that, once again, brought forth Max’s dread.
‘This is such a bad idea…’

“Prove it! You drink first, Max!”

Max shoved the bottle into her friend’s hands, careful not to slosh any of the liquid out of the container’s neck. “No way! It was your idea, Chloe!”

Chloe shook her head. “Whateva. Give me that bottle.”

With a quick swipe, Chloe took it, putting the opening up to her nose to take a sniff. Her face crinkled; it was clearly potent, but Max knew she wouldn’t back down. The girl gingerly tilted the bottle to her lips. Max watched Chloe’s range of expressions at the new palate, listening for any sounds of the Prices’ return.

When she felt more at ease with the silence, she meekly asked as she shuffled her feet, “Well?”

Nodding with approval, Chloe took another sip. “Tasty. Very tasty.”

‘Okay,’ Max thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t so bad. As long as Joyce and William don’t find out…’

“Here, I want a sip.” It came out with stutter, but Max held out her hands, ready to accept the honor of sharing a small drink with her best friend.

With another haughty grin, Chloe turned away and got some distance before replying, “Sorry. This is not for kids.”

‘Wha—?! After all that!’ Max’s inner tongue snapped with irritation.

“Don’t be greedy! Gimme some!” Her childishness began to pierce the sophistication of the moment, unable to be fully held back.

Chloe dodged Max’s lunge with a laugh. And another. And then another. Max let out a sound of frustration. One last time, she tried, and succeeded in grasping at the bottom of the bottle.

That was when the container was pushed upwards in Chloe’s hand. It fell to the floor with a loud crash as Chloe lost her balance and grip. The red immediately began to seep into the thin, blue carpet, creating a gigantic purple stain.

Both girls inhaled sharply. Max even covered her mouth in horror.

“Oh, shit! The carpet!” Chloe cried, running into the kitchen to retrieve a string of paper towels to try and soak it up.

Max momentarily bobbed on her feet in terror, and shortly after joined Chloe in their hasty cleanup session. She grabbed some carpet cleaner and a scrub brush from under the kitchen sink and proceeded to spray the darkened floor. Chloe went to get more paper towels, throwing away the bottle and excess broken glass.

“There’s wine all over! What do we do now?” Max asked, her heart beating a hundred miles a minute.

Chloe didn’t have an answer. There wasn’t enough time. The two could hear footsteps outside the front door, and the doorknob turning with the insertion of a key. They looked at each other, eyes wide with fear.

“My parents are coming! Cover it up!”



That stain never did come out.

Joyce was so upset. William, disappointed. And as Chloe predicted, Max’s mother was livid, and Max’s father laughed. Nevertheless, all of them followed through with punishments for their daughters.

Now, here Chloe stood, that mischievous look on her face that only Max would know. Then again, did Rachel know? Could she see? If she did, did she even care?

“What do you say, Max?” Rachel asked. “You up for ‘The End of the World?’ I’ll even give you a makeover if you head to my place before!”

The way she said the party’s theme was nothing short of sinister. It was in ribbing fashion, of course, as Max was learning about her. But still. Also, a makeover? What would that consist of?

Max flicked her vision back to Chloe, the girl’s pleading, puppy-dog eyes subtle, but there. She was stuck.

“I…um…” Her tongue was twisted like licorice. “It’s at night, right? I’ve got homework. And…I don’t know where you live…or what I’d wear. Or…” She began to falter, avoiding their gaze.

“I can give you a ride. If you actually want to go,” Chloe said, voice firm, but with a fake laugh, just playful enough not to give herself away.

Rachel bobbed her head to the side in brief verification to Chloe. “So, you won’t have to worry your pretty little head about a thing.”

‘Shit! Chloe, what the hell are you doing?!’

“I—but—” Max let out a light sigh followed by a moment of silence. “I-I guess I can…” She brought her hand to the familiar place at the back of her neck, reliving that childhood memory—that feeling of dismay, the inevitable wine spill that she was sure to come from this.

“Hm. You seem cool with all this. A little too cool, Ms. Price.” Rachel pulled away from Chloe with a coy smile.

Chloe scoffed and shoved her hands into her jacket’s pockets. “Psh. Like you said, she needs to loosen up a bit.”

Max mumbled to herself, eyes dipping to the floor. ‘I’m right here, you know…’

The tile was suddenly too bright, like that time in the bathroom after the assembly. Her stomach tightened. Predictably, the whole situation made her think more about Nathan. If she went to the party, he would be there. He was the main host. It was his party. And as much as she wanted to find out more about the ghostly doe—of which she was positive they had both seen—she knew a Vortex Club gathering wasn’t the place to ask. Was there a good place to ask, a good time?

“Mm-hmm. Just don’t be jealous if Max and I bond over a couple drinks and a dance or two!”

“Ha! Good on ya if you can get her to do either!”

“After this long, would you be surprised? You know how convincing I can be. Plus, she already danced with us once, she can do it again!”

“Yeah. With us. It’s gonna be just you two. In public. With classmates. Not gonna happen.”

Max began to feel dizzy. The warmth in her cheeks displayed her disposition. She turned on her heel and rushed out the pool doors into the open. Blackwell’s campus swallowed her figure as she gulped down air. Chloe and Rachel soon followed.

“Max? Hey, you know we’re just messing with you, right? You don’t have to go.” Rachel’s tone filled with concern as one of her hands rested on Max’s shoulder like before.

Chloe, on the other hand, didn’t say anything. Max’s eyes met her friend’s. They held with that delicate, pleading look, one Max irretrievably understood.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Max put on a smile and replied, “I can go with you. Could be fun.”

Rachel’s brows rose. “You sure?”

She paused, not believing what she was saying as she stumbled over her words. “Yeah. I think as long as you’re with me, I’ll be fine. I mean, I’m at Blackwell to discover myself, too, right?”

“Taking Dana’s and my advice, then?” She chuckled after her dismissive inquiry, putting more pressure on Max’s shoulder. “Seriously though. You did say parties weren’t really your scene, so—”

“No, it’s cool!” Max exclaimed in a hitched breath. She was trying to latch on to whatever courage she could muster. “They’re not really, but I think I could give it a shot. YOLO and all that, y’know?”

“Wow, Max. For real?” Chloe played along, and Max felt a burning in her chest. “You’re actually gonna go to a Vortex Club party? Max ‘The Wallflower’ Caulfield?”

Max was less than amused at the nickname, but still nodded, her eyes unable to meet either of the girls’. She could already see that blood red seeping into the carpet all over again.

A wide smile spread across Rachel’s faultless glossed lips. “Epic! So, I’ll see you tonight?”

“If you’re actually cool with going to one of those assholes’ get-togethers. Don’t let me stop you.” More fake conversation from Chloe, the lie growing all the more as she interjected.

Rachel stood behind the other and flapped her hand in a ‘blah, blah, blah’ mocking motion.

Max swallowed again, the burning sensation moving down to her gut. She wanted to demand an explanation from Chloe right then and there. She didn’t know whether the fake guilt was galling or reassuring.

“It’s good. I’ll go.”

“Hey, don’t worry! I’ll be right there with you! Dana will be there, too! We’ve got your back. Unlike this diva. She’s just gonna stay at home and get high all on her own.” Rachel gave Chloe a fake glare.

“What-ever.” Chloe looked anything but amused, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. Max sent her a nervous smile. Chloe didn’t reciprocate as another silence fell over them.

The wind gave a hiss through the trees as Rachel looked over her shoulder. Her long hair looked like a rolling wave before she shifted it out of her face. “Well, I’d better get back in there before Victoria has a conniption. If you change your mind, Max, let me know, okay?”

Max nodded, her hands tightening around her bag strap, like it was going to keep her balanced from the world shifting beneath her feet.

“You want to text me later, C? I gotta get going.” Rachel asked.

“Yeah. Text you later.”

As soon as Rachel nodded, turned, and was out of sight, Chloe began making her way towards her truck. Max was right on her tail.

Before the photographer could get out a word, Chloe intercepted, “I know, I know. I totally owe you on this one.”

Max still complained, her emotions at a critical high. “What the hell, Chloe?!”

“Look, don’t worry about it, all right? It’s going to be fine. You can blend in and just keep an eye on Rachel. Maybe get some kind of clue as to who she’s seeing on the side. Anything!”

“The letter said they weren’t in the Vortex Club! What good will this do?”

“It said she hooked up with them near campus. They can’t be that far off!”

“But what if I don’t find out anything?”

“Then you don’t!”

“Then I’ll have gone for nothing!”

“It’s at least worth a shot!”

“Chloe!”

“Max!” The older girl grasped her arms, stopping Max in her tracks, who was shocked speechless. “I know you’re pissed at me for this, but…please. Please do this for me. I can’t be here or else I’d go myself.”

“Why not?”

“Uh, hello? David! That asshole’s always on the prowl at Blackwell!”

“I thought the Vortex Club made sure there isn’t any security or police at these things?”

“You think that stops him? Yeah, right. He still comes out here. Trust me, I’ve been caught before thinking he wasn’t around. Fucker’s always got his nose up somebody’s ass, especially mine.” Chloe’s face scrunched and she crossed her arms. She looked at the ground and scuffed her toe against the concrete.

“Isn’t there anyone else at Blackwell you can ask to do this?”

“Oh, right. Like who? Justin? Trevor? Can you imagine them trying to be stealthy? One’s constantly stoned off his ass and the other sometimes forgets how to tie his own shoes. Not happening.”

“But…why me? Why can’t you be the one to lay low on this whole thing?”

“Dude, you’ve always been, like, a total ninja! You can blend in! I know I won’t learn anything anyway. I mean, you read the letter! She’s trying to keep me out of the loop!”

“What loop?”

“Our loop!”

“And you don’t think she’ll suspect me? The one who just joined the loop? Especially after I babbled like an idiot back there! Obvious much? She’s gonna find out!

“Not if you play it cool!”

Max shook her head, a palm to its surface. “Chloe…this…I can’t do this.” The way this argument was going—back and forth, back and forth—Max unexpectedly pictured him in her head again. She shoved the thought away. “Why can’t you just talk to her about all this?”

Another long bout of silence went around before Chloe replied, saddened and serious, “Because you don’t know her like I do. And sometimes it feels like even I don’t know her! And it sucks!” On her final note, her hand balled into a fist and slammed into the creaky door of her beige pickup. It caused Max to jump with a tiny gasp. When she didn’t answer, Chloe continued, sounding like she was going to cry, “I thought you’d understand, but…Damn it! I can’t trust anyone anymore!”

Again, Max’s chest flared. That hurt more than she wanted to admit, and she hated seeing that heartbroken look on Chloe’s face. “You can trust me, Chloe, but there’s—” Max’s throat swelled, the words caught. If she were to say there was more to why she didn’t want to be at the Vortex party, she knew that would open doors to questions she wasn’t ready to answer. “There’s…no reason to just throw me to the wolves like that. You could have at least talked to me. I haven’t changed. Not that much. I know I left you hanging. For five years. Like an asshole. But, you know me.”

“I really can’t say I do anymore, Max.” Chloe peered at her through sad, slitted eyes.

Max’s face fell. She could feel her body start to go with it. “But, you do. Not everything changes. And, it’s obvious Rachel means a lot to you. When you needed someone, she was there. This is important. So…I’ll help.”

Chloe paused for a length of time before letting out a shuddered breath. Her angry fist loosened. Crunchy leaves rolled across the parking lot with scraping noises with a small breeze. An awkward aura began to wedge itself between them. Before Max could fish for something just as awkward to add to the conversation, she felt warmth envelop her. Max’s eyes widened and her cheeks began to flush. Chloe had pulled her into a hug. Max let her arms wrap around the taller girl, a calm smile coming to her lips.

“Max…thanks.” The hug got tighter for a moment. “I really do owe you for this.”

They separated and Max let her smile linger. “Like, a thousand Two Whales breakfasts,” she replied with cheek.

Chloe’s mouth upturned in response. “So, how about we play a little hooky today? Head over to my place and hang out for a bit?”

Max shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Jeeze. You and Rachel are a bad influence on me. I’ve already bailed on classes once this week.”

“But we’re a good bad influence on you. Amirite or amirite?”

“She says as she makes me go to a Vortex party to spy on her new best friend,” Max said with a hand on her hip. Still, there was a sad truth behind the statement. One Max didn’t want to fully admit.

But after five long years of nothing, she was the one who owed Chloe. Whether it was a thousand Two Whales breakfasts, or one evening with the Vortex Club.

“Seriously, if I could just talk to Rachel, I would. And if David weren’t being such a—Shit, speaking of,” she cut herself off and slid into the driver’s seat of her truck, “if we don’t get the fuck out of Dodge right now, he’s bound to show up. It’s a good thing he hasn’t got the cameras he’s wanted all ‘round the school yet, or I’d be toast. So sick of his shit.”

“David’s trying to get cameras installed at Blackwell?” Max’s head perked up in a cautionary curiosity. The thought reminded her of the Prescotts’ home, of the camera situated on top of the entrance gate, zeroing in on her like she were a target to be eliminated.

“Petitioning that drunkard of a principal, yeah. I hear he’s having a hell of a time.” Chloe revved the engine and opened her window, leaning her arm out the side and cradling her head with a tired sigh. “Whatever. He’s such a freak.”

Max pursed her lips in contemplation, ignoring the quip she made about Principal Wells. “I don’t know. It sounds like a good idea, at least for Blackwell’s safety, but David’s a bit…”

“Of a controlling jackass.”

“Yeah. That’s one way of putting it.”

Chloe raised her shoulders in a dramatic shrug, her mouth setting into a hard line.

“Hard to believe Joyce married him…”

“Yeah. I know.” Chloe replied, looking towards the horizon. The sun was just beginning to find its place over Arcadia’s tree line. “Can we change the subject? I already feel like I’m gonna purge.”

Max continued to hover outside of Chloe’s passenger side, communicating only through the open window. The truck was so old that Chloe had to lean over and use the designated lever to roll it down. Max looked up at Blackwell, feeling each of her breaths swell and wane.

“So, what’s the verdict?”

Max snapped to attention. “Hm?”

“Comin’ or goin’?”

“Oh. Yeah. I…kinda have photography class today. And I’d at least like to make up skipping out on Warren from the other day.”

Chloe let a little smile slip through her hardened expression as she reached for a pack of cigarettes on her dash. “So, Warren. Is he someone I should keep an eye on?” She lit up and took a long drag.

Max couldn’t help but chuckle. “No, Warren’s cool. And really nice.”

Chloe raised her brows as if to say, ‘That all?’

So, Max added, “Okay, I admit, he’s cute. But…”

“But…” She rolled her palm.

Max didn’t know where to go with that sentence as Chloe waited in her unconcealed interest. She also couldn’t help but look at Chloe when she uttered the ‘but,’ her friend’s stern, silvery-blue eyes reverting to a younger state. Worse yet was the fleeting image of a certain someone that went though her head…again. She internally frowned. And, as if it couldn’t get worse, it was like Chloe had surgically opened her skull and picked out the one thing she didn’t want to hear.

“I see. Saving yourself for Nathan the Prescock, then?”

Chloe’s cruel teasing made her stomach drop like she had swallowed a cinderblock. And she said it in such a serious tone that it made Max shiver.

Max did her best to not show the proclamation had gotten to her, covering it up with a thick layer of sarcasm. “Game over. You got me.”

“Well, you are going to one of his lame-ass parties.”

“Huh. Now, I wonder how that happened?” Max tried to hold back a laugh with little success.

Chloe exhaled a stream of smoke with a sly, yet manic, grin. “Or maybe, you’re going to enjoy this little date with Rachel tonight?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Whoa-ho! Going for a little girl-on-girl action? Guess I had you pegged wrong all these years, Caulfield.”

“Chloe!” A spark of embarrassment coated her cheeks.

Her friend finally let loose a guttural laugh followed by a light cough. “All right, all right. I’m going. I’ll be here tonight to take you to Rachel’s. Be ready!”

“Do I have any other choice?”

“Mmm…not really,” She hummed before deadpanning.

Max crossed her arms and closed her eyes, furrowing her brows with a nod. ‘Didn’t think so.’

As Chloe drove away and the sun got higher in the skies of Arcadia Bay, Max turned back and headed into Blackwell Academy. Every footstep she took felt like weights had been attached to her ankles.

She dug in her pack and put in her earbuds. Music drowned the world around her as she slipped into a temporary cocoon of comfort with a sigh of cede.

“It’s going to be a long night.”



“DJ, drinks, décor…the three important D’s…blah, blah, blah. Ugh.”

Victoria chittered to herself, regaining stature from her and Rachel’s spat. She grabbed a clipboard with a checklist on a pile of recreation mats. She tapped her pen against it every now and again as they circled the pool.

Nathan’s thoughts were like an aggravated swarm of bees, and her tack, tack, tack-ing just added fuel to the fire. He tried to focus on something else. His thoughts would slip back to that morning in his father’s office. That out-of-place journal among all those documents, the illustrations and his mother’s name within, the bloodstains…

He felt prickles up his back and tried not to shudder. As much as he wanted to deny it, there was no way that was ink or paint. No way in hell. And when he wasn’t thinking about that, he was thinking about…

He came to a halt, his muscles relaxing for a second.

Everything had stopped when he and Victoria entered the pool. The fresh chlorine stung at his tired eyes, of which immediately locked with Max’s once he gained focus. Time itself seemed to slow, their secret kept behind a nervous tension.

She had looked scared, defensive in a way, and rightfully so after what had gone down between them. However, it didn’t look like it was for herself, but for Rachel and the other girl with them, the wannabe punk he recognized as Rachel’s clingy friend. Max had moved toward the latter, keeping him in her sights at all times, like she was daring him to make a move, to even breathe in her vicintiy. When the hell did she even become acquainted with Rachel and that blue-haired freak?

There were multiple static voices surrounding him, growing in a haze, until a voice brought him out of his trance.

“You sure left in a hurry this morning.” It was Victoria, still staring at the clipboard as her tone threatened him with a frosty bite.

‘Here we go.’ Nathan closed his eyes, wishing he were anywhere but there.

“I had a lot of shit to do.”

“Like, what? Hanging around Max’s door again?”

“Seriously? Give it a rest, Vic.” Nathan roughly sat down on one of the rental sofas as a few more hands for hire brought in other pieces of furniture for the night.

“I’m not giving it a rest until you start telling me what’s up.”

“Is it really that hard to believe I fucked up the room number?”

“It looked like you were hugging her.”

“Huggi—Caulfield? Hell no! What the fuck, Victoria!” The swarm got worse and his heart began to race. Beads of sweat were forming on his brow.

She glared at him. “I’m just telling you what I saw!”

“Well you saw wrong.” Nathan placed his arms on top of the sofa and looked away from her. He decided to focus on some Vortex members setting up speakers on the DJ’s stage.

Victoria sat down beside him. She used as much force as he had. “Nate,” she began, her voice changing into a serious tone, “is this because you’re pissed about me going to Seattle on New Years?”

Nathan’s jaw tightened.

“Come on, Nathan.” She crinkled her features, unable to meet his agitated stare. “I didn’t do it on purpose. You know my parents. Plus, this is my chance. My one chance to really show them I’m serious about my work.”

“I know,” he retorted, barely letting her get through her explanation.

“So, why are you being like this? I thought we were cool, but on Monday I tried to talk to you and, ugh, then that bullshit with Mrs. Paxton happened. But you’ve been totally blowing me off or avoiding me completely! I’m surprised I got you to even show up last night! And then you accidentally end up at Max’s door? What’s with you?”

“I just—!,” he started, almost losing his composure, “There’s a lot of shit going on for me, too! And you know my parents. At least my fucking dad…” Nathan threw the pretext back in her face and stood up. He headed over to the impermanent bar and fingered a stack of plastic cups, staring at his warped reflection in the black countertop.

Victoria soon followed. “I know.” She paused to adjust the pearls underneath her collar. “Your dad’s dead set on New Years, then? Pan Estates’ official green light.”

He nodded, remembering jumbled jigsaw pieces of Sean’s ravings as he held Nathan in his vise-grip, the rain pummeling the Prescott manor:

“And come hell or high water, you will be at that reception, therapist or not! Waste of goddamn time and money if this is the result of your sessions! I give and give and GIVE to you, Nathan! And what the fuck do I get for it? What the hell do I pay for?!”

He immediately had to shut it out, feeling unwanted tears begin to sting his eyes. He dare not cry now, not in front of all those who balanced his reputation on their shoulders, who counted on him to provide a good time at this godforsaken school.

“Okay. Okay, maybe I could…no. Fuck. Or maybe…mm, not that, either. Damn it! It figures they’d book me a gallery when it’s of least convenience,” Victoria said with a growl.

Her polished nails tapped the marble surface, a sign of her rapidly thinking. She was attempting to come up with an impossible remedy to the situation, and it secretly killed Nathan to see her try. And, damn, she would try. He leaned over and flicked her forehead, and she let out a small exclamation.

He gave her a bored look to hide his own inner turmoil. “Vic, it’s important. I get it. I’m not an idiot. Especially with it being at the Chase Space. All this fucking family business bullshit is just…It’s fucked. Like I told you yesterday.”

“Yeah. I know. But still.” She sharply huffed mixed with a groan. “It seems like everything’s fucked anymore.”

“Basically,” he said in a whisper.

Nathan then adjusted his jacket with a shrug, seething from the pain still present on his shoulder. He twitched, angry at his weakness. That was normal. He should be used to it, used to multiple aches and blemishes and sudden uncontrollable jolts clogging his joints.

“I can still cover those bruises tonight if you want.” Her face calmed, eyes widening to a look not many have had the privilege of seeing. She had noticed his wincing.

He shook his head, rolling his arm and momentarily focusing on the rippling light reflecting in the pool’s surface.

“Are you sure? They were really dark, Nathan.” Her brows furrowed in concern.

“Forget about it. I’m fine.”

There was a quiet moment between them as she stared him down, her rare look changing to something more familiar, more Victoria.

Nathan interjected, “What?”

She frowned. “Well, besides everything that’s been going on, you’ve been…kind of out there, Nate.” Her vision fell from his and she stepped forward to adjust his jacket lapel, her cheeks colored with frustration, unable to put it more delicately.

He waited for her to add more, but when she didn’t, he moved away from her touch. “Yeah? Try being on meds like mine sometime. Or dealing with my fucking family.” He barely breathed the second statement.

“You took them this morning, right?”

“Yes.” He grit his teeth and let his frame fall slack, head tilting to the ceiling as his answer came out with an exhale.

She crossed her arms, her crimson lips pressing outward. “Then why don’t I believe you?”

“I dunno. Lately, that seems to be a thing with you. Not believing anything I fucking say,” he snapped.

The hurt expression on her face, he didn’t have to look at her to feel it. Instant regret for all his mendacities. He wanted to bite off his tongue and shove it down his throat.

Her demeanor quickly turned sour and she rubbed her temples, picking up her clipboard once again. “Fine. Forgive me for worrying so much about you.”

The guilt in her purposeful shot perfectly pierced through him like an arrow. There was a long list forming in his head. It was filled with suitable things with which he could have replied. Instead, he said nothing.

Victoria clutched the clipboard close and slowly walked away, her ‘checklist mode’ re-engaging, if only to not show tears of her own. He knew. And he let her go.

He leaned on his hands and squeezed his eyes shut to the glaring world around him.

“Goddamn it. Tonight’s going to go on for-fucking-ever.”



Too soon had the sun arched across the sky, and Max was on the receiving end of another long Jefferson lecture. A stream of drool threatened to dribble down the side of her lip as she tried to keep up and focus on taking notes.

“Max?” Kate’s soft voice reached her ears after the dreaded ring of the final bell. “How are you feeling today?”

Another concerned friend she would have to lie to. How she wished she could tell her the truth. She already had to make something up for Warren that morning so he wouldn’t worry. The more she thought about how much this false verity would stretch, the more ill she felt. It gradually ate away at her.

What if someone found out she was going to the party with Rachel? What if they got pissed at her? What if they stopped being her friends? What if someone recognized her there and everyone at Blackwell began spreading rumors about her because of it?

What if…

“I’m doing better. Tired, but better.” Max swallowed, her throat turning dry. She had to breath or she was going to overwhelm herself.

“You look like you’ve got some color back. Maybe a little flushed, but infinitely better than yesterday, especially after the assembly.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think you’ll still want to join us for Saturday?”

She paused. “Saturday?”

Kate’s face fell a little. “The study group. You sure you want to join?”

“Oh, yeah! Totally! I’ll be there!” She felt like an idiot. How could she have forgotten?

“Mm. Warren said you’ve been a little distracted lately. Now that he mentions it…”

“I know. It’s not any of you guys. I’m just a little stressed.” That was putting it mildly. “Homework, Blackwell drama, the Everyday Heroes Contest. There’s a lot going on.”

Kate made a sound of agreement and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. Before their conversation could continue, Mr. Jefferson interrupted them.

“Kate? Can I speak with you a moment?” their professor asked as Victoria strutted out the door. No doubt her session with Jefferson was shorter today due to tending to the Vortex Club. “I wanted to go over our next scheduled meeting.”

“Oh, sure! No problem, Mr. Jefferson. I’ll be right there. Catch up with you later, Max?”

“Yeah. I’ll text you.”

“Mmkay. Be seeing you. Take it easy and get some rest.” With a smile and a nod, Kate headed up to Jefferson’s desk and began talking assistant duties and vernacular that did nothing but soar over Max’s head, just like everything else that day.

Before she exited the room, outside the classroom window, she noticed something. Past the bronze statue and its fountain, past the spidery paths, parked on the edge of the road, was the white RV from before. She held back, fixated on it, feeling a sense of apprehension.

In the driver’s window, she saw a dog’s head bounce up and stare at the sky. A surprised Max followed the creature’s gaze.

In the sky, the moon was already becoming visible.



After heading to the dormitories for a few hours, spending what little time she had left in her cocoon of comfort, watching shadows like a sundial, Max too-soon found herself back in Chloe’s beat-up truck, well on their way to Rachel’s. It was an odd, yet enchanting sensation. A scary one, even. At least for Max. Who knew how many times Chloe had already been out this way? That only served to make her feel more out of ‘the loop’ they had argued about. Max stared at the bobblehead on Chloe’s dash again, thinking she could probably mimic its wiggle with how jumbled her head felt.

“Ground Control to Major Caulfield?”

“Huh?”

“Sheesh, you really do become a space case sometimes. How you holdin’ up?”

Chloe’s nonchalance about it all made Max feel, if possible, even more alone in her position. She frowned and clenched her knees. Her palms were covered in sweat, and the denim felt rough against her skin.

“I’m…good.”

“You’re freaking.”

They hit a bump and she was launched forward with a guttural noise. After clearing her throat and adjusting her safety belt, Max said, “Wouldn’t you be? This just feels…wrong. All of it.”

Chloe’s lips pursed. In the dimming sunlight, her blue hair radiated. “Yeah.” She paused, her eyes far away. “This is…yeah.”

“When did life become this complicated?”

Chloe laughed. “It wasn’t always like this? Shit, why didn’t you tell me?”

Max couldn’t help but smile at that. “I’m starting to wonder.”

After several intersections, all of which lead toward less and less surrounding civilization, they turned down a rough road with a washboard surface. A number of potholes were filled with fresh asphalt, the contrast between them and the old, gray road a blatant eyesore. They were getting further and further away from the familiar, and Max couldn’t remember a time when she had gone out this far from home. It was no wonder Rachel wanted a vehicle of her own. The bus ride here and back must have been a pain.

The two then pulled into a gravel drive leading to a two-story house. It was cream colored. Not too big, not too small. Average.

Maybe too average. At least for someone seemingly as lively as Rachel Amber.

In the front, fading red mulch covered the roots of browning hedges. It also contained small patches of wilting flowers, the chilled air taking its toll. Dark green shutters decorated each of the lit-up windows, and a columned porch with a glass table and wicker chairs were in front of a large window. Further up the drive was a detached garage with a broken down fishing boat leaning against the side. Behind that stood a push mower that looked like it had recently gotten a workout. As the lawn receded toward the back, weeds and dandelions could be seen poking up from the taller grass around an old swing set and around the base of the garage. The home was definitely more in the boondocks of Arcadia Bay with few neighbors to one side of the house and a dirt road to the other. Beyond everything else, the deep, winding forests of Arcadia Bay.

“Hey,” Chloe’s tone became staid, “I’ll be on standby, all right? I’ll text you, and you let me know if you’re all right, how things are going.”

“Okay.”

“And, be careful with drinks. I mean, not that you would, but…I’m sure those jackasses spike the Kool-Aid with some crazy shit.”

“Good lord. Okay.”

“And avoid the weirdos, ‘cause there’s sure to be a lot of ‘em, and—”

“Jesus! Okay!”

Chloe clenched the steering wheel and turned back to Max, hesitation in her voice. “Again, I’ll check on you to make sure everything’s okay. Or, you text me. Or both. Both is good.”

Now Chloe was the one freaking, and Max was the one to gain determination. She unbuckled herself and felt her will go along with the zipping of the retracting cloth, but she kept in good spirits for her friend.

“I’ll do my best, Chloe. I’m a ninja, remember? I’ll blend in.”

“Now that you say it, it doesn’t sound so convincing.”

Max rolled her eyes. “Great. Thanks for the pep talk, Captain.”

Chloe’s smile shone in the twilight. “Wow. Haven’t heard that one in a while…First Mate.”

Hearing her say that made a silly grin appear on Max face, even if it made her think of their inelegant wine spill all over again.

The girls lingered for a little longer before their attention was brought to the front door swinging open. On it, the flower wreath ornament flapped with the quick motion. Rachel poked her head out, her long hair held up in a loose bun. She lazily waved, leaning against the door frame momentarily before strutting to the truck. It looked like she was in her pajamas and ready for bed—short shorts with green, leafy vines printed on them and a thin tank top to match. The driveway’s rocks crunched under her sandaled feet, her hips popping under her thin attire.

“Hay, girl, ha-a-a-y,” she said when Chloe rolled down her window.

“Oh, my God, Rach. Spare me. Please.”

She leaned on the window frame. “Who said I was talking to you, anyway? I only talk to awesome party-goers like Ms. Maxine over there.”

Max cringed. Chloe must have told Rachel her full name at some point, and it coming out of her perfect lips was weird. As weird as this situation, she figured.

Chloe made a mock expression of offense. “Well, exc-u-u-u-use me, Princess!”

That only made Max cringe more. “Spare me, you two!”

They all laughed, even if Max’s felt more hollowed than it sounded. She was anxious, that much was for sure, as she stepped out of the truck. The ankle weights were still there as her feet met the gravel. Her knees almost buckled.

“We didn’t even have to knock. How about that?” Chloe leaned back in her seat and adjusted her beanie.

Rachel patted Max on the back as she came around. “Yeah, ‘cause your truck could be heard halfway down the street, Chloe. When are you gonna fix up that junker?”

“Uh, when I can get the cash? You try shelling out three grand for the overhauls!”

“Well you better get on it if we’re ever going to make it to L.A.!”

“I can’t hear you over your bullshit babble! Something, something, I’m a to-o-o-l!”

Despite the three of them being present, it suddenly felt like Chloe and Rachel were in their own little world, especially when, once again, they brought up Los Angeles. There was an ache that swam through Max’s veins. It refused to leave.

“So, you’re sure about this, Max?” Rachel cast her a look of reassurance when she inquired. “Not gettin’ cold feet on me, are ya?”

Max agreed, forcing a smile. “Nope. No cold feet here. Pretty hot feet, actually.”

Rachel grinned. “That’s what I like to hear.”

Chloe and Max exchanged a hidden nod as they said their goodbyes and the former pulled out of the drive. The weights got heavier as Chloe got further and further out of sight.

A small breeze moved in as they watched her pickup round the corner. After a couple more minutes of them enjoying the darkened multicolored scenery, Rachel clapped her hands together. The action made Max jump, and she remember where she was, feeling more than empty without Chloe’s presence.

“Alright! We’ve got another hour or so before Dana gets here, so let’s get ourselves ready! Oh, before I forget, my mom’s taking some classes online right now, so we have to keep it kinda quiet.”

“Oh, okay.” Max’s voice was already hushed as they stepped inside. “She takes online classes?”

“Yeah. College courses for business administration. Boring. As. Shit.”

‘Business administration?’ It sounded boring as shit, Max thought.

As of then, Max never gave Rachel’s parents much thought. Why, she didn’t know. After all, it was them that were apparently holding their daughter back from following her true desires, from escaping to L.A. with Chloe. Max would never say it aloud, but somewhere inside, she was thankful for their delays.

She then felt ashamed. Things had changed. Many things. Yet, she felt stuck in time.

After entering and taking off her shoes on a scratchy welcome mat, Max got a glimpse of Rachel’s mother within the home’s many shades of beige. In an office to the girls’ left, crowded with many boxes filled with binders and papers, the woman hunkered down over a computer screen looking disheveled with a hairstyle not unlike her daughter’s. It was complete with a plain headband to further push the dirty blonde bangs out of her eyes. Despite her unkempt appearance, she seemed rather young and petite. Adorning the end of her nose were some old-fashioned, round glasses. She stared through their bifocals with slanted eyes, her hands wrapped around a steaming cup of strong-smelling coffee, black and bitter. Several bracelets, similar to the ones Rachel wore, dangled off one of her wrists. Only a gold wedding band could be seen on her left hand. Baggy sweatpants and an equally baggy sweatshirt hung off her tiny frame. The white socks she wore could barely be seen underneath the former.

Hearing the door shut, she turned to face the teenagers with a neutral expression. Rachel’s mother had more prominent age lines, but otherwise Max could already see the family resemblance in the woman’s full cheekbones and structure. In a way, it was like she was a preservation of youth that Rachel now boasted in full.

“Hey, sweetheart. This Max?”

“Yep. This be Max Caulfield.” Rachel’s demeanor became calmer, more formal, even if her speech was still casual.

Rachel’s mother stood up with a yawn and came over to wrap an arm around Max in a lazy hug. “Mind the mess, hon. Though I’m sure Rachel’s informed you about our overcrowded home by now.”

“Only a little,” Max said with a light smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Mm.” She took a drink with a nod, smacking her lips after. “You can call me Patricia. Or Mom if you prefer.” She chuckled and headed past them and the staircase into the kitchen to refill her cup. “Lord knows all of Rachel’s friends are like my own kids.”

Patricia Amber. She seemed friendly enough despite Chloe’s negative portrait of Rachel’s parents. Max still kept on her personal guard. Chloe knew more about them than she did.

“How’s the class?” Rachel asked.

“Slow. Right now we’re in the middle of an independent session with a couple extra videos I need to catch up on. Otherwise: writing, tests, writing, lectures…oh, and more writing!”

Rachel gave a laugh to humor her mother. “‘Kay. We’ll keep things quiet until we head to town with Dana and her boyfriend.”

“Town?” Max asked in a whisper.

Already predicting her reaction, Rachel held a hidden finger up to her lips with stern eyes. Max’s stomach tightened, but she kept her mouth shut.

“Thanks, hon. You head on up, then. And be extra careful when you come home tonight! There’s been a lot of deer around lately, and I don’t want the lot of you getting in an accident.”

“Will do!” she exclaimed, waving for Max, who had frozen stiff with the warning, to follow Rachel up the carpeted stairs.

Of all the things her mother could have said. That had to have been a sign, a bad one at that. Max found herself breathing harder than usual.

“You okay?”

“Nervous.” A fragment of the truth came out.

Rachel led her to a sticker-covered door, a splash of color in a rather mundane home. “Thought so. No worries, Max. I promise, tonight we’ll have some fun, mmkay? You just have to promise me something.”

“Uh…what’s that?”

“A dance.”

Max’s features opened, the muscles in her face slack with utter surprise. Rachel didn’t give her time to deny the request, opening her door and jumping inside the room with an excited grin.

“I, um, can’t really da—”

She cut off in a state of veneration. If Max thought Rachel’s door was a splash of color, her room was an explosion. From cream and beige to a sudden burst of velvet burgundy. Her carpet brimmed with the lush color’s life while her walls were more subtle, but still a mesmeric and calming shade. The half-opened windows were decorated with strings of rainbow beads combined with cloudy, silk curtains. The pinks and oranges coming through cast a twilight fire on the surroundings.

“Wowsers.”

Clothes were strewn about here and there, and the furniture was filled with various knick knacks, but the room wasn’t what Max considered messy, but moreso cluttered. Colorful, crowded, and chic.

She had a full-size bed, complete with brass headboard. Another old-fashioned piece met with modern, a detail Max noticed Rachel was fond of. It was semi-made, and had a few stuffed animals strewn about its surface. Next to it was a side table with a lamp and a couple family portraits.

Rachel’s mother and who Max assumed to be her father were in one. Rachel was in the middle, her smile restrained. The remaining family resemblance was uncanny in the man’s features. While his hair was darker and his face was squarer, his height and a few facial features were clearly gifted to his daughter. The clean-shaven look he sported made him out to be kinder than he looked, his stern countenance contrasting the latter.

In the other photo was a younger Rachel with her hair in braided pigtails and wearing a summer dress. Her wide grin was missing a front tooth. She was with an elderly woman who had a short graying perm and an affable round face interleaved with laugh lines and crow’s feet.

“Who’s this?” Max inquired about the latter.

Rachel turned and her expression abruptly dropped. “Oh. That’s my grandma. Back when she was healthier.” Max saw her bite her lip.

“Ohh. Um. And, is this your dad?” Max turned to the other, idly fingering a clip on the shade of Rachel’s lamp. Her answer was so short, and her face…she felt it best to change the subject.

Rachel breathed and proceeded to take her hair down and let it fall over her shoulders. “Yep. That’s my padre. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, I guess you could say. He’s helping out at the fishing docks tonight. Though lately it’s been pretty shitty down there. They haven’t had a good catch in months.”

She continued to jump between desired matters with different octaves, leaving Max in a state of growing sympathetic confusion. She and Chloe were already pressing their luck with this venture. The last thing Max wanted to do was piss Rachel off, if that were possible for as lighthearted as she had been up to this point. Max could only assume that Rachel was as human as herself, and would, of course, harbor other emotions within. So, instead of prying further, like she wanted, Max decided to go with the flow of the conversation.

“Why not?”

Rachel’s face dropped further. “I guess the ecosystem is just…dying. Arcadia Bay in general is dying.”

Max remembered the state of downtown when they were driving to the junkyard. Everything seemed abandoned. Rundown. Lonely.

Dead.

“Yeah…I guess so.” Max wondered if that was another reason why she wanted to leave with Chloe. She didn’t want to think about it and fell silent, unsure of where to further take the conversation.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to worry long. Rachel had her covered. “But let’s not think about that right now.” She forced a smile. “Too depressing. Just make yourself at home, Max.”

“R-right. Yeah. Thanks.” Max said. She let her eyes further wander the girl’s room, her hands closed around her bag’s strap.

Photographs, drawings, posters, and scrapbook-like collages made up more color along the walls. The light also shone on a number of glued-together CDs on one wall, a rainbow contained within each clear circle. There were embedded shelves above her bed that contained ornaments and books, all organized in her own way. It all lead around to two white dressers that were decorated with more stickers and hand-painted murals. One even sported a hi-fi stereo similar to hers. Lastly, there was a vanity with a corkboard frame. Atop were mini floodlights. They were switched on as opposed to the ones on the ceiling fan above, providing just the right amount of light.

Tacked to the cork was an assortment pressed flowers, leaves, more handmade bracelets and key chains, and there was even a dream catcher with feathers resembling the one from Rachel’s earring. Other than that, the frame was lined with pictures, all of herself, and all done in different styles of photography.

Max stopped, spotting the one she took of Rachel in the junkyard. Her lips parted with a genuine smile of surprise

“You hung it up,” she said in awe, feeling a swell of pride within.

“Definitely! I told you, Max. You’ve got talent. You deserved a spot on my frame of fame!” Rachel had opened her closet door and pushed her head into a sea of clothing. Her voice was enthusiastic, but humorously muffled.

Max hummed a laugh, looking over the photographs with her curious eye as she set her bag on the floor. She recognized a number of styles from Blackwell, all of them from students in the photography program. One’s was a student named Evan Harris. The meticulous style of the framing and linear angles were a dead giveaway. She recalled not only his Everyday Heroes entry, but also many of his other pieces in his personal portfolio. Her nosey side caught glimpses of it when she could in her other classes, admiring his work from afar. Another picture wasn’t a photograph at all, but an illustration, a perfect portrait of Rachel. It was so lifelike. Max felt a hint of jealousy at this person’s forte. She looked at the artist’s signature: Daniel DaCosta. He was a Spanish student who was part of the foreign exchange program, also one of her classmates in Mr. Jefferson’s lessons. Max never thought his pictures were very noteworthy, but his illustrations were amazing.

Another black and white photograph she focused on was different than the others, yet the style was somehow familiar. Rachel wasn’t even looking at the camera, caught by surprise in a candid shot. Max wasn’t bold enough to admit it out loud, but she thought it made her look even more beautiful. The framing and contrast were done very well, and while Rachel wasn’t posed, she was in perfect view while everything else faded into the background. The focus of the piece was clear.

“Who took this one?” Max asked.

Rachel, who was tossing different pieces of clothing onto her bed, glanced up with a gleam in her eye. “Who do you think took that one?”

She turned back to the photo, intrigued by the game Rachel had started. Her brows cinched in concentration. Max could have gone through the list of people in her head multiple times, most she didn’t personally know, but whose work she knew in her short time back in the bay. And she knew that none of them would have fit the bill more than a certain someone.

“Nathan?”

Rachel wriggled her way out of the mass of hanging clothes, throwing the remaining pieces on her bed and giving her a smile of affirmation.

“Nathan took this?” Max had a hard time masking the disbelief in her tone.

Rachel let out a small, silly laugh. “You seem so surprised. He is in the photography program, too, you know.”

Max, embarrassed, rubbed the back of her head. “Oh. Right. It’s just…”

‘Not like his other pictures,’ she thought about adding, but stilled her tongue.

When and why was what Max really wanted to ask. How many people did Rachel affiliate herself with exactly? How popular was she? Did Chloe know who took the picture? What did Chloe even think of this selfie collage of hers? Did she even know it existed? Surely, she did. Max had a similar collection, but all were done by her own hand. Her head buzzed with the large intake of information.

Rachel brought her back to the present, blocking her vision with a shirt she playfully threw on Max’s head. She responded in a spirited manner, “No need to be so jealous, Max. We’re just friends. If that, even. So, he’s all yours.”

“Whu—! That’s not what I meant!”

Rachel laughed again. “Just try that on! Chloe mentioned that we’re about the same size. I’m thinkin’ she was right.”

“I—But—A-all right.”

There was a hint of relief that came to Max as she cleared her throat. Rachel was messing around again. She hoped. One thing Max was learning about her for sure was that it was difficult to differentiate when it came to her sense of humor. The lie she told her mother earlier didn’t make it any easier. The thought of her discarded letter to Chloe made it even worse.

Right now, Chloe was counting on her to follow through with this plan. So, Max ignored her apprehension and turned her attention to the new garment in hand. It was a thin, royal purple top with a sewn-in tank top. One side of the shirt drooped down the shoulder to show off one of the tank’s straps. Rachel then approached with some black, semi-torn jeans and zip-up ankle boots to match.

“These jeans go well with that, and I figured you didn’t do heels, so!” She held up the ensemble.

“What about you?” Max asked in confusion.

Rachel’s lips formed that perfect smile of hers. “I had my outfit picked, like, ages ago. Tonight, it’s all about you.”

Max blushed. The way her voice dropped as she said it was so…seductive.

“Um. Okay.” She took the clothes, feeling their weight and unfamiliarity. Everything felt like it was on fast-forward. She could certainly use a rewinding power right about now. “Where’s your bathroom?”

Rachel cocked her brow. “Who cares? Just change in here. It’s not like we have anything to hide.”

Max paused before physically feeling her body ignite. “What?!”

Rachel rolled her head and her eyes, placing a hand on her hip. Right after, she stripped off her top and slipped out of her shorts, leaving her clad only in dark satin undergarments. Max didn’t get much info otherwise; she spun around so fast, her head swam.

“Rachel!” Max cried, desperately trying to keep her voice down. “What are you doing?!”

“Relax! We’re cool! Chloe’s told me so much about you that I feel like I know you already. Like a cute little sister I never had.”

Obviously, Rachel wasn’t ashamed of anything, especially herself. Her confidence made Max more self-conscious than she already was, and like she was invading Rachel and Chloe’s personal bubble again. If she were this open with a girl she just met a few days ago, how open was she with Chloe? What about with everyone else? She had to stop thinking about it or she was bound to have an anxiety attack before she even got to the Vortex party.

Though it took her a while, Max eventually changed her clothes after getting Rachel to look in the other direction. It was true; she and Rachel were almost the exact same size. Though, the jeans felt a little tighter than her normal ones, and her shoulder felt too bare. The need to pull up the nonexistent fabric made her itch. And, although she hated to admit it, Rachel was a little bit…chestier. The shirt fit her well nonetheless.

Rachel also got dressed. Classic blue jeans, complete with a trendy belt, along with some canvas shoes she wore for her lower half. A red tank top showing off her midriff and dark denim jacket she donned for her upper.

After sorting through one of her dresser drawers, she handed Max some nail polish and eye shadow to match Max’s palette. She also handed her a tube of light, glittery lip gloss. They applied their makeup with a bit of small talk, Max less generously than the beautiful girl next to her. She didn’t think she would be able to pull off anything like Rachel, especially not the winged eyeliner look. Another blow to her self esteem from which she’d have to recover.

After their polish dried, Rachel began to decorate herself with necklaces and bracelets. When she slipped in her signature feather earring was when Max took full notice of her star tattoo. It was a simple black shape, but in the light, the ink glistened to more of a blue. The connection to Nathan jumped out at her once again, and Rachel’s statement of the two being just friends was in question.

Max’s heart skipped in a moment of fear, thinking of that rainy night with his arms around her in a definite terror. She decided against mentioning it, and gave Rachel a smile instead as the other came over to lay a comforting hand on her back. They stared at themselves in the vanity mirror.

“Look. At. You.”

Max almost wanted to laugh. She could do nothing but. She scarcely believed it was herself in the mirror. She tugged at the hem of her shirt, feeling a strange sense of certainty emerge. Before she could truly relish in the new sensation, Rachel hummed low, and went behind her, running her hands through Max’s hair.

“Ah! W-what are you doing now?”

Rachel giggled. “You’re so jumpy. Here, hand me that scrunchie.” She pointed to a brown hair tie on the vanity’s surface.

Max did as she was told, and Rachel began to pull back what hair she could from Max’s short bob. The rest hung by her ears while the majority was pulled back in a small, puffy ponytail.

“There. Perfect. Gotta show off that adorable face, otherwise no one will notice that Max Caulfield’s come to par-tay!”

‘Good God, I hope not.’ It was almost said halfheartedly. Though Max didn’t want to admit it, this was…sort of fun. Exciting, this feeling.

With another look in the mirror, her eyes widened. Now she really didn’t look like herself. The last time Max had worn a ponytail was before she left Arcadia, before her Seattle restyling, when she was going to tackle the city head-on. Her gaze left the mirror and went to the floor. She tucked that thought away, padlocking it to ponder for another time. If ever.

“So, how do I look?” Rachel asked, posing like a model, and did she ever fit the part.

“You have to ask?” Honestly, Max didn’t know how to respond. She was drop-dead gorgeous. Period. “What about me? You’re sure I’m not a weird-looking eyesore?”

Rachel shook her head with a laugh. “Hush! You, my dear, look fabulous! I think purple is definitely your color.”

“Really?” She wanted to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, but found there was little left to work with. She turned her eyes to the new layer of color on her nails, her mouth setting into a crooked, embarrassed line.

“Really, really. Now, smile!”

The click came quick, and she was unprepared. Rachel had taken a photo of Max with her phone.

“Hey! Dude, not cool! Delete that!”

Rachel gave her a pout. “We have to commemorate your first party somehow!”

She proceeded to show Max the snapshot. Surprisingly, Max found that the picture wasn’t that bad. She still couldn’t get used to herself looking like, well, that.

She still couldn’t believe it was her.

“I’m gonna send it to Chloe.”

“What? Why?”

“Just because.” She gave Max an impish grin that could give Chloe a run for her money.

“Uh…okay. Just as long as you don’t put it on Facebook or something.”

“Aww. You don’t wanna show your beautiful self off to the world?”

“Not—no. I—not really…?” Max rubbed her arm and looked down. She didn’t want to offend Rachel, but she really didn’t want her ‘Vortex persona’ on the Internet. Maybe this wasn’t as exciting as she thought.

Rachel gave her a smile of understanding. She let her hands go at the keypad of her phone. “You’re fine, Max. I’ll just send it to Chloe. I’m bound to get jealous if I had to share you with more people, anyway.”

Max blushed again, Rachel’s sense of humor never ceasing to catch her off guard. She actually found herself anticipating her friend’s reaction to Rachel’s makeover, but the rest of Blackwell? Not so much. The less people knew about tonight, the better.

CHLOE:
holy shit what did you do to her?

Max winced and Rachel bust out laughing.

RACHEL:
What’s wrong now, Ms. Grump?

CHLOE:
you’ve created a monster!


RACHEL:
That bad huh?

CHLOE:
u made her hot. now how are we supposed to keep her to ourselves?

Rachel laughed some more. She and Chloe were on the same wavelength, and even though it pained Max to think about it, she began to laugh right along with them, reddened cheeks anew. Maybe it was a good thing Rachel had been there for Chloe. Unlike her. Despite her sadness, there was a sense of relief that came with everything so far. A sense of welcoming, of belonging.

After a few more minutes of banter with Chloe, the two relaxed. At least Max tried. The sun dipped beneath the horizon, and the beginnings of stars twinkled in Arcadia’s skies. It wasn’t too long afterward that Rachel got a phone call. It was Dana. She was in the driveway with Trevor, ready to head back to Blackwell.

Just as Max was getting comfortable in this new place, this new her, she would have to surround herself with a multitude of daunting unknowns.

The two headed downstairs and gave Patricia a short goodbye. Rachel nearly leapt out the door and to the four-door hatchback Dana was driving.

Trevor gave her a simple nod as if to say, ‘S’up,’ while Dana greeted and asked, “Hey, hey! Looks like you’re ready to rock!”

“I am! And so is my date.”

Dana and Trevor exchanged looks of confusion.

By that time, Max had made it to the car right on cue. She gave a demure wave. “Hey, guys.”

Dana’s mouth came ajar. Even the coolheaded Trevor couldn’t hide the shock on his face.

“No way! Max?! You’re coming with us? Ohmigod!” Dana’s face lit up, her makeup going along with it. “You look amazing!”

“Dang, Caulfield. You look like a totally different person.” Trevor said.

Max chuckled with a semi shrug. “Thanks?”

“You’re welcome,” Rachel responded with a proud smile.

They all laughed and Max gave Rachel a genuine thanks. Her confidence once again felt boosted as she entered the vehicle.



Trees passed by in their shadowy silhouetted shapes, blurring into a giant, dark mass. Max played with a piece of loose leather on her seat. Rachel just stared out the window with a look unreadable to the young photographer. Lights from the outside glimmered on Max’s newly-polished nails. She wondered the last time she had done them. Perhaps even longer than when she last did up her hair. Max pressed the back of her neck, squeezed to verify this wasn’t a dream.

The closer they got to Blackwell, the lower her self-assurance sank. It floundered once they pulled into Blackwell’s packed parking lot. She could see the lights and hear the pounding beats, all before they even rounded the block to the building.

Familiar turf, Max thought, but everything was different. Normally, she would be in her room minding her own business, oblivious to the Vortex Club and their activities save for the thumping of the music that carried on the secretive winds of Arcadia.

Now, Max faced it head on, and she couldn’t feel smaller.

The group exited the car. Max decided against taking her bag, leaving it in the vehicle as she slipped her phone into her pocket, patting it safe for travel. She turned to join the others. They were already meters ahead of her as they carved a path through plastic cups, toilet paper, and other random pieces of garbage that had leaked out of the party. Also littering the grounds were numerous drunken students and others she didn’t recognize, slurring their sentences, laughing or shouting a little too loud with acts of indiscretion, or being completely silent as they made various inappropriate public displays.

‘Oh, my God!’ Max tried to stay calm as someone smashed a beer bottle on the ground with a loud and proud, ‘BIGFOOTS!’

She took a few breaths and texted Chloe the exact phrase she proceeded to say to herself. “Okay, Captain. Showtime.”

CHLOE:
u ok?

MAX:
As much as I can be.

CHLOE:
I know. gl max. stay in touch.

MAX:
Will try.


The orange-bricked building loomed in the darkness. Flashing white and colored lights were breaking through the high windows, like prisoners from their confines. They were already causing Max to have a headache. She looked up at the darkened sky to clear her mind.

She paused with a light gasp. The uncertainty, she figured, must have gotten to her. She had to squint to adjust her vision through a glowing haze.

Staring back at her, like a wide eye judging her every move, was the full moon.

For the faintest second, however, it looked like there were two.

A sort of floating enveloped her, made her light on her feet. Max continued to stare at the sky, the second moon seemingly fading in and out of existence. It overlapped with itself, as if in a dizzying waltz.

“The Prescotts have had this coming for a hundred years…” A warped and arcane-like voice entered and exited her ears. In small bits, it sounded normal, familiar.

It sounded like Chloe.

Chapter Text

An icy chill spread through her veins. A strong wind slithered through her legs. They grounded her there in the lamplight.

Max held her breath, squeezed her eyes open and shut several times before looking back up to the star-speckled sky. Only one moon. No illusory mirage. Just her.

She breathed, focused, and heaved herself forward through the parking lot and to the pool’s double doors. Entering the vending lobby, the cold was immediately replaced with a stagnant, uncomfortable heat. Meanwhile, her chest began to buzz with the invasion of the bass. She felt nauseated.

Rachel and the others were in a line of people awaiting entry. It was like a legitimate nightclub. Guests were dropping off their coats and bags behind a series of linked tables. It was watched over by…Stella?

‘Crap!’

Dana’s quip about her being a ‘gossip-gab’ wasn’t an exaggeration. Stella was considered head of the rumor mill at Blackwell, always in for a juicy story that had been thoroughly warped by the telephone game. There was always a puckish glint behind her thin-rimmed glasses, one she didn’t want to catch that night. Max stuck close to Rachel, hurrying her way through the black curtains as to not be recognized. That was, perhaps, not her most graceful idea as she stumbled forward into the larger open space.

Max caught her balance and was hit with a bombardment of the senses. The bass carried through her chest, down to her fingers and feet. All manner of smells, foreign and familiar invaded her nose. The lights were fire, blinding, one a swirling spiral that shimmied off the walls this way and that.

Max Caulfield was standing in the middle of a Vortex Club party. She gulped. Her shoulder was too cold, her neck too bare. In that moment, she was most vulnerable, freezing as if all eyes were on her.

Poppin’ bottles in the ice, like a blizzard
When we drink we do it right, gettin’ slizzard
Sippin’ sizzurp in my ride, like Three 6
Now I’m feelin’ so fly, like a G6

Like a G6, like a G6
Now, n-n-n-now, now I’m feelin’ so fly, like a G6
Like a G6, like a G6
Now, n-n-n-now, now I’m feelin’ so fly, like a G6


Someone bumped shoulders with her with an irritated, ‘Watch it!’

It brought her back to the present. Max then let the music level out. Everything became clearer, her eyes darting this way and that to watch for more that wanted to pass by.

There were hundreds of people, some in regular clothing, others in swimwear. Hoots and hollers echoed all around as the music thrummed while people celebrated the night in their own way—drinking, dancing, going for a swim, or an illogical combination of all three. Some were even playing games of ‘Chicken’ in the pool, girls’ screams combining with guys’ laughter at their antics. Some were having foam noodle fights. Some just lounged about on the recreation mats. More make-out sessions like outside. The DJ’s voice in surround sound on the speakers. Clinking glasses in the distance. Smoke streams. Laughter. Clapping.

Flash, flash, flash.

Bass.

It was both mesmerizing and terrifying. If Max had only one word to sum it up, it would be: Chaos.

Max spotted Rachel already getting into the groove as she greeted a number of people. This just became Mission Impossible. She would have to almost be handcuffed to Rachel to keep any sort of watch on her in this crowd. Lucky for her, Rachel came back and began dragging her along. It was like Max watched her body reluctantly go, detached in a submersed panic.

“Let’s head to the VIP section! It’s little less crowded! Plus, that’s where all the good shit is!”

“Good shit?” she asked, trying to match Rachel’s volume.

Either Rachel didn’t hear her, or she was ignoring her as they squeezed through a sea of warm, sweaty bodies toward another curtained area beside a stand. A buff and surly man watched over the entrance. Max shook her head, her mouth opening slightly.

‘This can’t be real. A VIP section with an actual bouncer? Pretentious much?’

There was another girl at the stand. She sat in a state of boredom, leaning forward in her chair, head in one of her hands, looking disinterested in everyone and everything around her, twisting a strand of her red hair until it looked like it was going to sever. She acted like there wasn’t a literal rave happening all around her.

She sighed as Rachel approached. “Name?”

Rachel gave her a look. “Sarah. We’ve been through this how many times now?”

“Whatever, Rachel. I’m just doing my job while Courtney’s off…somewhere. What about her?” She pointed the end of her pen at Max after checking her list.

“She’s with me tonight.”

Sarah curtly exhaled. “Name?”

‘Oh, shit.’

Rachel paused to give Max a glance. In that glance, behind smirk anew, she saw something.

A dare.

Max caught herself. Her determination pushed through as she looked right into Sarah’s eyes, her hands catching on the table.

“Max Caulfield.”

With a cock of her head and a risen eyebrow, the moment became anticlimactic with a few swipes of Sarah’s pen on her pad. “O-o-okay then.” She then reached behind her and grabbed some neon bracelets. “Here. Compliments of the club. Have fun.”

‘Oh. Well. That was easier than I thought it was going to be,’ Max said to herself, ignoring the stroppy feeling of the moment. She slipped on the glowing pink and blue bands over her other rubber ones.

They entered. The music droned, but the heavy black curtains blocked some of its intensity. Around the area, there were a number of fancier pieces of plush furniture and glass tabletops. Also, plastic cups and other familiar pieces of litter like in the parking lot and entrance, but among them were whiskey and martini glasses. There were even some people dancing on the tables, the laser light show creating a strobe effect like multiple flashes from a camera.

She caught a group of people near the back making a toast, Hayden in the middle of two girls sharing a bong. Logan and Zach were also spotted near the bar—Zach with his girlfriend, Juliet, and Logan looking drunk and desperate and flirting with anything that wore a skirt. Meanwhile, she located Courtney conversing with a few other members by the restrooms while Taylor danced her little heart out with some other girls Max didn’t know, her wrists all decked out with the club’s colorful bracelets.

‘The usual suspects, of course.’ Max spurned in her head. ‘No Victoria, though.’ Maybe that was for the best, though her absence created the sense that she was now walking through a field of impeccably-hidden land mines.

Dana and Trevor positioned themselves near the stage with the DJ, who Max recognized—DJ Doom. She couldn’t believe it. Just how much money was thrown into each of these things? She turned back to mention it to Rachel, start a conversation of some sort, but the beauty was already strutting her way toward the bar.

She deflated. “So much for having my back…”

Max decided to move next to one of the many light poles in the vicinity. She scuffled her feet, avoiding tripping on a handful of wires, making sure to keep Rachel ever in sight as the time slowly egged by. She went to pull up her shoulder again and groaned. Right. No fabric. She ignored the itchy feeling the best she could. So far, there was nothing too suspicious.

‘Except the underage drinking. And the drugs. And the possible bouts of sex people are having behind the scenes. Ew, Max! Just…stop.’ A wry laugh joined her wry smile as she flinched at her own inner monologue.

At least everyone was leaving her alone, too busy amongst themselves and their vices. She was blending in, just like she planned, and she texted Chloe an update thusly.

CHLOE:
thnx max. stay safe.

Max put away her phone and glimpsed through the large windows. The spiral light passed by them once again, and Max’s head began to throb. The flashing lights were getting to be too much, already. And then…

She thought she had spied the two moons again, outside through the panes’ reflections. Her vision corrected itself, and for a second, she felt her fingers twitch. It was like her hands were in their own little world, and she wanted to have someone put them together and give them a right smack.

Though this place was absolutely not where she wanted to be, she had to admit that the temporary, colorful blot on Arcadia Bay, this social that came and went like its ocean waves, was rather interesting. The sights, the sounds, the smells—all her senses pushed to their high.

Through it all, she wanted to take a photo.

Her heart sank as she then pictured that muddy cliff, the jagged rocks, the harsh ocean below and how it had swallowed her camera like a black hole. She was lucky it wasn’t her as well and felt a pang of guilt, thinking of him again. Although, this time, she didn’t shoo the thought away. She let it linger in contemplation. Biting her lip, she found herself hoping he was all right, wherever he may be in this ocean of insanity.

A strange whirring noise began raiding the area, it mixed with television-like static but much more potent, building and building until Max thought she was going to double over. She winced. Nobody else seemed to notice.

Oh, the beat's gonna bash gonna break it up
This car's goin' fast gonna speed it up
The night's not gonna last so let's keep it up
We were born to be wasted

The song had changed, and she regained a bit of poise with one or two more breaths. The world around her tinged red, and her body felt like it was being chained down, being crushed. She kept to herself, slowly moving past more partygoers and toward Rachel. There was a need to keep close to her, not caring if she was going to be the stilted bore to her gracefulness. Her head and eyes began to sting.

“R-Rachel…?”

This feeling was just like then.

Like at the lighthouse.

“Lead, follow, or get the hell outta the way!” Someone shouted as they gave her a hefty shove.

Of course, Max wasn’t prepared, and was nearly launched off her feet with a yelp toward one of the occupied sofas to the side. Her body twisted and she landed partially on someone’s leg. The person grunted, and Max was utterly mortified with her humiliating position. Others near them fell into fits of giggles or ‘oohs.’ She looked down at the person’s knee. It was right between…

“Well, well. Someone’s eager to sit on Santa’s lap tonight.”

Max’s face reddened with an intense heat as she attempted to stand up. A rough hand grabbed onto her arm, forcing her back down. She gasped, the sensation speeding up her heart to a hum.

“Hold up! What’s the rush? Stay a while and…enjoy yourself.”

She felt a shudder go up her spine, like someone had dragged ice over her bare skin. For a moment, she stopped breathing altogether. It was somewhat dark, but she didn’t have to see the person’s face to finally recognize the voice cooing into her ear.

Taking her chance, Max shot up, spun around, and backed away. Others, annoyed with her path of escape, bumped and pushed into her to get past with various muttered obscenities. Max, however, was unable to look away from the King of Blackwell himself as he sat in his infamy.

While his peons laughed with a sea of snarky remarks, making the situation all the more embarrassing for Max, Nathan’s cocky grin dispersed into an expression of disbelief when he got a good look at the victim of their plight. His eyes joined hers in width.

Her ears were ringing, body swaying. There was suddenly no loud music, no flashing lights, no air.

Just them.

“Caulfield?!”

With that, she tore away from the scene. At this point, she didn’t care where she was going. Toward Rachel, toward the door, toward death itself—as long as it got her away from Nathan.

‘Best. Ninja. EVER. Max, you idiot!’

It was his club, his party, his school! What did she think was going to happen? Why did she think otherwise? Why did she think of him before? Why did she think of him at all?

Echoing laughter, the tunnel vision, distorted voices.

Flash, flash, flash.

Bass.

‘What the hell? My head feels like it’s going to split in half!”
Her vision was blurring into another smear of red, her mess of thoughts joining the disorganized fray of her surroundings.

Getting stuck between people didn’t help. It just slowed her down, and she soon felt the same rough fingers enclose around her wrist. Nathan pulled her back to face him in the light before doubling back. The confirmation of her presence was a clear shock to his system.

“Whu—What the hell are you doing here?!” He cried, eyeing her up and down. His cheeks were rosy. Whether it was from his evident alcohol consumption or what embarrassing event just transpired between them, Max didn’t know.

Tongue-tied was putting it mildly. Her appendage could have been the shape of a pretzel at this point. She could do nothing but silently stutter while she, too, gave him a lookover.

He sported his coiffure in all its gelled glory. A blue and white baseball cap, now held in his free hand, had been concealing it until now. He wore a dark gray sweater-vest complete with a white collared shirt and red tie underneath. It was untucked and peeking out the base of the vest. His undershirt’s sleeves were pushed up to his elbows, showing off an expensive-looking gold watch and an assortment of the party’s neon bracelets. Jet-black pants and matching boat shoes were worn for his lower half, looking seamless and form fitting.

Her gaze, she grasped, may have been lingering longer than he would have liked, longer than what she considered reasonable. Judging by his expression and her insight, both were true. She abruptly dropped her eyes to the floor, her face growing even hotter at her asininity.

He also let her arm go, realizing he was still gripping it with an unneeded intensity. His head spun. One, from the various drinks and ‘remedies’ he’d taken thus far that night, and two, from getting up as fast as he had. There was a third reason, but he wouldn’t admit it even to himself: Max looked…good. And he was drunk…ish. He took a much-needed breath. He’d realized, maybe, why she had looked appealing in the moment.

“Are those Rachel’s clothes?” His face contorted at the familiar ensemble.

Max snapped her head up and looked at herself, suddenly uncomfortable in her own skin. She hated it, suddenly hated all of it. Why did this have to happen?

“And if they are?”

His brows rose at her impudence. “You…You don’t even know Rachel! So, how the fuck—!”

“For your information, she’s the one who invited me here tonight!” Max interrupted with a scowl, matching his attempted intimidation. She really didn’t want to deal with this attitude of his, and definitely not when he was inebriated. It only made her more frustrated when she thought about him last night—vulnerable and…different.

Nathan stopped, took a moment to recall that morning. Why else would she have been there with Rachel and the other girl? The more he thought about it, the bigger and droller the smile got on his face. He then started to snicker. With Max’s babyish, squished, pissed-off face, he only laughed harder, holding his stomach and hunching over for balance. He couldn’t stop himself.

“What the hell’s so funny?” she retorted, the current song doing another change as people kept pushing past them left and right. No lyrics, just a steady beat. Max tried to focus her strength with that of the music.

Nathan wiped his eyes. Pieces of him were saying he looked ridiculous, but the rest of him didn’t care, or that he was clogging traffic. His mind was on another plane. And her face. Her face…

“Holy shit. Ho-o-o-oly shit. ‘Max Amber.’ That’s fuckin’ hilarious! You don’t even know.” He was having a hard time catching his breath.

“What?”

Nathan straightened, clenched his hands, and shook his head. “So, if she invited you, where is she?”

Max creased her brows and looked to where she had last seen the girl. Rachel was gone.

‘Dammit!’ She was supposed to be keeping an eye on her!

When Max tried to leave, Nathan held her back again. She glared and exclaimed, “Let go!”

Nathan gave her a smirk. “Why are you really here, Caulfield?”

Max didn’t want to ask what he was implying, and Nathan didn’t know exactly why he implied it. Yes, she had come for Chloe’s sake, but the both of them already knew somewhere that they were going to meet again, sooner than later, one way or another.

She held his stare, forcing her hand from his. “You crashed into that doe. It was dead. We both saw that it was.”

He squinted, wishing he’d kept his loose liquor lips shut.

“For God’s sake, Nathan! You even took a fucking picture of it! I watched you take a picture of it!” she emphasized.

Nathan looked away. He didn’t want to think about that. Or this. His nightmares. The journal. His mother. Max.

Anything.

He was working on blocking it out. At least for the time. His nose crinkled and he glared at her.

“Nice, Cockfield. You seriously came here to crash my party and bitch at me about some mediocre horseshit. That’s just like your desperate, twee ass. Why don’t you just drop it and leave?”

“We both saw that ghost, and you know it. And who’s the one that showed up at my door last night? What was that all about?” She once again tried to match his expression, stay on his level, pulling the memory out of hiding as a shield.

Still, she wanted to know. Wanted to know why she gave in so easily to him in an embrace. So many questions to answers she was beginning to think didn’t exist.

“Jesus Christ, you’re even worse than Victoria sometimes! ” Nathan gave her a middle-finger salute and turned to walk away.

‘And what the hell does that mean?’ Max went to snap back in further confusion, but was interrupted.

“Well it’s about time! Thought you two’d never find each other!”

It was Rachel. In one hand she held a semi-full glass of unknown, light-brown liquid. In the other, a full glass. Both had a fancy citrus garnish. She held it out to Max with a silly smile, her cheeks almost matching the intensity of Nathan’s.

‘Oh, God. Is she drunk? Already?’ Max’s expression contorted, and she felt a sense of isolation root her to the spot.

“Thought I’d grab my date here a drink. Bit rude of me not to, you think?” She giggled, handing Max the mixture without the option to refuse.

“Umm, is this…iced tea?” she questioned with an innocent smile.

She wondered why she bothered to ask. Max knew there was no way it was non-alcoholic with its strong odor. Rachel sipped from her glass with an exaggerated ‘ahh.’ Max wasn’t about to do much else except stare at it, feeling a sense of coercion and pressure bear down on her.

Nathan’s eyes widened anew, still processing the previous proclamation Rachel had announced. “Date?”

“Mm-m!” Rachel sipped again, catching herself before fully answering. “Don’t give me that jealous look, Nathan Prescott. You had all the time in the world, but tonight, Maxine is all mine.”

Nathan’s face further reddened as he rolled his eyes and shifted his weight, stuffing a hand into one of his pockets and mumbling something to himself. Max didn’t catch it, but Rachel substantiating them being there together, no matter how embarrassingly she did it, resulted in a surge of triumph and relief.

“Oh, come on, Nate. No pouting allowed!” Rachel gave Max a nudge. “And Ma-a-a-ax? You promised me a dance, remember?”

The surge of triumph was replaced with one of terror. “I—wha? But—!”

Nathan flicked his eyes to Max’s, a low chuckle making its way to the surface. “Did she now?”

‘Bastard.’ Now he was celebrating. It was plain to see on his smug face.

Rachel quickly finished off her drink and sat the empty glass on a nearby table. With an annoyed breath, she grabbed one of Max’s hands and one of Nathan’s. “Yes! And you should join us!”

Now Nathan had his own look of alarm, albeit more subtle than Max’s. “Uh. What?”

She began pulling them toward a more open area, both of them reluctant and resisting while she added, “All you do is sit back and watch the fun from your dark and broody throne.”

“I…do not!” he exclaimed, pulling back and releasing himself from her grasp.

She swerved around, laughed, and stripped off her jacket, tossing it onto an arm of a sofa. “Come on, you two!”

Max and Nathan exchanged glances, a connection forming within their uncertainty. Max thought everything was turning into one giant mess. Nathan just wanted to get the hell out of there, a dizziness making the room sway and his head feel like it was full of water. Max felt the same, the redness returning, the buzzing growing louder and louder from its unknown source.

As Rachel began to move her body to the music, egging them to join as another new song played, Nathan made his way through the crowd toward the bar. Max was torn. Only he could give her answers she wanted, but the loads on her legs grew heavier as if Chloe herself were pulling them to the ground, making sure she didn’t stray from the plan.

I don't wanna be turned away again
‘Cause you didn't wanna dance
You know I know you wanna take my hand
So gimme another chance

You wanna kick it with me
Better start moving your feet
‘Cause you've been stuck on the wall like a wallflower
I don't wanna be turned away again
‘Cause you didn't wanna dance

Max’s mouth formed a solid, annoyed line at the lyrics. It really was like Chloe was there, yanking on the chains around her legs, calling her out in some form. She clenched her hands, letting Rachel do her thing, hopeful she would work off the amalgamation of alcohol in her system she put there so quickly.

Then, against her better nature, Max followed Nathan, taking the drink Rachel had given her. Nathan had already begun to down a few shots when Max placed the mixture in front of him, the clank of the glass giving him a bit of a start.

“What kind of drink is this?”

Nathan sighed, slurring his cynicism as he answered with another smirk, “Iced tea.”

She rolled her eyes at his mockery of her earlier inquiry. “Cut the crap, Prescott.”

He was already upset with her accusatory tone. “A Long Island Ice Tea. Now go fuck yourself.”

“What’s in it?”

He downed another shot. “Excuse me?”

“What’s in it?” she enunciated with a glare.

Nathan shuffled his jaw, fingering the shot glass with irritation. “The fuck’re you on about?”

“We’ve been here for maybe an hour and Rachel’s already buzzed!”

“Oh, wow. You’re shitting me. It’s a Long Island Ice Tea, genius. There’s a novel’s worth of ingredients in that hurricane you’re holding. You’d know that if you weren’t such a fuckin’ virgin.”

She stopped, smelled the drink again, and let out a long sigh with a bothered frown.

He added, “And haven’t you gotten the hint? Rachel loves to drink. Rachel loves to dance. Rachel loves to party. Begs the question why she invited your lame ass in the first place.” Another shot seared its way down his throat.

Max felt that blow. Besides the plan with Chloe, she honestly wondered the same. Gathering herself and clearing her head the best she could, given the incessant buzzing still in her ears, she glanced again in Rachel’s direction. She hated to admit, as the girl lost herself in her own world, that he was right. From the moment she officially met Rachel, she knew. They were complete opposites.

Max’s stomach lurched the more she sat on those thoughts, thoughts that were crashing together like a wreck from which one couldn’t look away. Back to Rachel she glimpsed, still dancing, still living it up. Max knew she shouldn’t be here. It should be Chloe. Chloe would know what to do. She’d have the gall to dance like no one was watching. She wouldn’t give a rat’s ass.

Yes, Rachel was the complete opposite of her in every way…as was Chloe. Now more than ever.

Five years had done its work, indeed.

Even so, when they were younger, Chloe was always more upfront, more daring, more courageous, more…not her. It was why she was the ‘Captain’ of their adventures, drawing the maps, plotting the course, staying the winds. Now the mast was at Max’s command, and she felt like was utterly failing at charting these unknown waters, watching her ship rapidly sink, lost in Arcadia’s vast sea.

‘God damn this headache…’

Max’s legs began to feel wobbly. She slowly descended on the stool next to a surprised Nathan, turning her attention to the amber liquid in the glass once again.

Amber.

Rachel Amber.

Max observed the glass’s shifting ice through streaming water droplets. She gave the beverage another sniff, and then, with a second’s reluctance, put the glass to her lips. A harsh, tart blast of flavors hit her tongue, made her wince before she swallowed, the sweetness coming only afterward.

The mixture encompassed its procurer to a T.

What was she doing? She never drank. Never had the desire to. But, anything past a cheap beer she could get at a backyard bonfire with Kristin and Fernando back in Seattle was nonexistent. And for her, the taste of beer was abysmal. Stuff like this she never thought she’d get her hands on until she turned twenty-one. Of course, she had her chance with Chloe and that damn wine, but again, she ruined the moment with her hesitance, her fear. Always waiting behind a safe line.

But, on the other hand, was it worth the risk to cross?

She fought with herself as Chloe’s voice repeated, “After five years you’re still Max Caulfield.”

The words burrowed into her bones. With a scowl, Max took another drink, letting it swish over all her taste buds before swallowing. This time, a tingly sensation intruded, followed by a sudden sense of stepping over that line of safety to which she couldn’t retreat.

The strangest thing about it was…Max didn’t care.

With the shot glass stopped halfway to his mouth, Nathan watched her in a state of stupefaction and awe. “Either I’m more fucked up than I think I am, or I’m witnessing Maxine Caulfield actually drink at a Vortex Club party.”

She pushed out a mini snort. “Maybe it’s both.”

Nathan actually let out an unhinged cackle at that. He let a hand cover his mouth, trying to be casual in his hidden embarrassment and turning away. His heartbeat was heavy in his ears and cheeks, could be felt over the intensity of the music with the rush. He swiveled back, slowly as to not become dizzier, and gave her another glance. There was a second where he wanted to burst out again, but covered it up by clearing his throat. Even if he was somewhat intoxicated, it was Max Caulfield who made him laugh. That was most certainly going against the status quo.

Max took a larger nip of the drink, the blend catching and going down the wrong pipe. She coughed, a hand to her chest.

“Jesus, Caulfield. Don’t choke.”

Her blue eyes, looking more watery than usual, gave him another glare. “Like you’d care if I did.”

His brows and mouth scrunched, trying not to laugh once more at her poor attempt to throw him sass. “Someone’s having a rough night.”

She didn’t answer, just stared ahead with a look of despondency.

Nathan huffed and flagged down the bartender, letting the guy pour him yet another shot. He drank it back with ease, his stomach gurgling with a warning. He took a deep breath and the feeling passed. He wanted to ignore her look. It reminded him too much of himself.

“You seem to be having a rougher night than me,” she said, allowing her finger to trace the rim of her glass.

“And what, pray tell, makes you say that?” he asked, eyes half-lidded, observing her purple nail polish with a sardonic smile on his face.

Max gave him another lookover. He could pass for Quasimodo considering the hunch he was sporting over the bar. “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it just a bit?”

“Lemme think.” He paused for effect. “Nah.”

He was about to put another round to his lips when Max’s hand pushed the glass back down. Nathan’s head snapped in her direction, his incensed expression softening only when he saw her look of concern. She dropped her vision to the floor again, his icy glower too extreme. She was just as confused with her own bravery, wondering why she kept going down this rabbit hole. She blamed the alcohol. She could use that excuse now, right?

He grimaced. “You’re doing it again.”

She pulled back. “Huh?”

“Worrying. About me. ”

Her eyes widened. “I—”

“I already told you to knock it the fuck off. It’s annoying.” He tried scooting away from her without much success, chugging the next bit of liquor.

Max doubled back in humiliation. Why was it that, even getting trashed, he could point out her folly? Was it really such a bad thing to worry? Here was the King of Blackwell, sitting on his ‘broody throne’ as Rachel had said, letting the kingdom around him become anarchy while he became the embodiment of apathy. It made her wonder…

“Where’s Victoria?” For what was a king without his queen?

“I ‘unno.” He slumped forward on his arms, but not before scanning the area, as if looking for someone.

Maybe the very person she mentioned? She couldn’t read him at the moment as she, too, came forward on her arms to match him.

Nathan then pulled out his phone, putting it away after checking it with a frown. “Sick of me already, are ya?” he added out of the blue with a strangely calm expression.

“No, I—wait, what? Um…” She shook her head, perplexed. It was like he didn’t want her to leave. Though, to be fair, she refused to go in the first place. “No. I was just wondering.”

“Why? You hate her.” He literally had to bite his tongue in order to not say more. To not say that she hated him, too, so what was her point?

“Uh, more like she hates me.”

Max sat up and tilted her glass back and forth. The drink was only half-empty, but she’d had enough and proceeded to push it to the side. Her body tingled, feeling its effects. It even dulled the loudness in her head to a light hum. She didn’t want to find out how duller it would get if she drank the whole thing, stopping while she had some sense still intact.

“No, she doesn’t.”

“What?” She could barely hear him. He was mumbling.

Nathan turned his head toward her again. Eyes dilating, they wandered over her profile, her exposed neck and her freckled shoulder, all angles reflecting with different shadows and focuses as the multicolored lights flashed. Down to Rachel’s torn jeans, a style he wouldn’t admit she was actually pulling off, to her boots resting on the stool’s steel footrest. His gaze went back to her eyes. They still looked watery. Tear-filled.

He lost sense of himself. He had to focus on something else. The problem? He couldn’t. All of his thoughts were bobbing free in a sea of spirits.

“D’you…” he started, squinting and leaning slightly closer to her. He clamped shut. Somewhere inside there was a final padlock being carelessly left open.

Max looked right and left, wondering if maybe he’d meant to get someone else’s attention. “Y-Yeah?”

He slid his tongue over his teeth, his eyes fixated on her face. “Y’ever found the Big Dipper?”

Mouthing the beginnings of words, but never having them form, Max stared. She was utterly confused. And uncomfortable. “The…Big Dipper?”

His body began to shake in a silent laugh. “Yeah.” He brought a finger to her nose, moving it in a haphazard fashion.

Max started, nearly going cross-eyed at his abrupt action. She brought a hand up to his arm and grabbed it. “What are you doing?”

His concentration went slack, his posture falling. “Whaddoes does it look like? Hold still.”

Her face twisted and corner of her mouth lifted up. “You’re being weird. And you’re totally wasted.”

It took all he had to not unleash another uncontrolled laugh. “Pfft. Not quite. And being weird’s your job.”

Her expression changed to one of doubt and offense.

He sighed when she began to fidget in her silence, bringing down his hand, away from hers in reluctance. “Whatever. Nevermind.”

Max took a moment to mull over his previous action. Her eyes then widened, her cheeks brightened. ‘Oh, my God. The Big Dipper…For the love of—’

The dejected look he had reminded her of a child. Almost like Chloe’s petulance in a way. Max rolled her eyes, remembering similar expressions from the both of them in a certain diner.

She replied in a sarcastic manner, “Well, I don’t know about the Big Dipper, but I’ve found Orion’s Belt a few times.”

“Wha-a-a-at? Bullshit.”

“No, really.”

“Hmph. Where? Show me.” He demanded, coming forth and slipping one of his hands around her jaw and neck to get a better look.

He was now way too close for comfort. She jerked back, but Nathan didn’t relent, his gaze in a deep concentration on her freckled face.

“N-Nathan…! I was kidding! B-Back off!”

But he still wasn’t letting go. In fact, he was recalling his dream from that morning, vision dropping to the sparkly gloss on her lips. A steep contrast to the crimson blood that once coated them, coated his thumb. His eyes met hers, and, like the bathroom mirror, the doe’s eyes stared back.

Nathan could almost taste the salt from the ocean’s gales. The nightmare was too close, too real.

He gasped, it grounding him, and his hand loosened. The strands of hair by her ear grazed his fingers. They dared him to repeat himself, push them to the side, reverse his hold and just…

Nathan swiveled around, hands folding themselves on his lap. He swallowed a large lump that had formed at the base of his esophagus. It nearly choked him. There was hidden shame, but he couldn’t yet feel its full effects, too numb thanks to the whiskey. Instead, he lost his thoughts within the multitude of glass bottles behind the bar, stilled on their shelves, merging colors with the lights.

Max finally caught her own breath, heart not only racing in fear, but also with a mixture of other sensations. What the hell was wrong with him?

On that thought, she asked herself, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’

They sat in an awkward silence for quite some time before the song changed once again.

Flash, flash, flash.

Bass.

Has anything like this ever struck you?
If ever a likeness had you scraping at pockets of air
Whatever you’re like when you came in
Whatever you use, whatever you choose
Whatever your acronym

Someone in the distance shouted, “MORTAL KOMBA-A-A-T!”

Max remembered where she was, breathing in the sights and sounds once more. She stifled a laugh. The beat did sort of sound like the famous video game theme. It broke the tense atmosphere Nathan had suddenly pushed on her. It also, however, got her to realize that she was within chaos once again. Too loud, too bright.

Too ‘not her.’

DJ Doom’s voice announced over the speakers, “All right Blackwell Academy! Show me what you’ve got! Get on that dance floor!” Applause and whoops followed as the lights began another epileptic laser show.

“Nathan! Max!”

The two looked through a parting of people to Rachel. She waved her arms, begging them to come join her, even so much as placing her hands together in a prayer gesture with a pouty lip.

Max couldn’t help but smile. She looked so cute. ‘What was that about no pouting allowed, Rachel?’

“Ahh…” Nathan stretched, pushed his cap and glass to the side, and raked his hands though his hair. He stood up and exhaled. “Fuck it.”

“What are you doing?” The words had left her mouth before she could stop herself.

Nathan scoffed and gave her a look. “Something you and your Orion’s Belt are shit at. It’s called having fun.”

She hummed low, qualm taking over her façade. “I think our ideas of fun slightly differ, Nathan.”

He stood there, staring her down again, rattling his brain before throwing all caution to the wind. He lifted his palm out to her. “You willing to bet on that?”

Rachel had already begun to dance anew. Nearby were Dana and Trevor, enjoying their time together, even though it looked like Trevor wasn’t getting into the groove like his date. Nevertheless, he danced. Everyone raved. Everyone was enjoying his or her evening. Everyone was having fun.

And here was Nathan Prescott, offering his hand to her to do the same.

“Come on…Chicken!”

She could hear Chloe’s voice from the past. Beads of sweat formed on her brow, like Nathan’s, shining in the spiral light that passed over them once more. Heat re-rose into her cheeks. She tried to tuck some hair behind her ears, but caught herself in her unfamiliar form—‘Right. Hair up, dummy.’

He regarded her rather submissively. If she didn’t know better, she would say he actually looked attractive, what with his posh clothes and hair, holding out his hand to her in the guise of a gentleman. A wolf in sheep’s clothes, she was certain. Still, her heart kicked up, battling against the bass of the room, her limbs shivering with, she couldn’t believe, anticipation.

However, she couldn’t help but say aloud, “I…I can’t dance. I don’t dance.”

He produced a sly grin. “And you don’t drink.”

She hesitated, feeling more heat push its way into her cheeks. She stared at his hand as if it were some foreign object giving off an aura of death. Then again, maybe it was. She saw him pull a gun on Chloe after all. At least she thought.

And she saw a ghost doe. No, they saw a ghost doe.

And she rewound time.

Right?

Her thoughts fell into another blur. A clock ticked in her head. She was still here for Chloe, still keeping an eye on Rachel. Maybe not as a ninja anymore, but…as a cunning spy! Undercover Max. Sure. She could go with that. Whether it was her thinking straight through the alcohol, or not thinking at all because of it, she lifted her hand to hover over his, feeling the warmth he was giving off before it fully enveloped her.

A soft hand. He remembered it in the diner. It was comforting. He led her through the crowd without delay, his shrewd smile lessening, changing into something more genuine.

And to Max’s amazement, Nathan eased himself into dancing right along with Rachel. Another bombshell? Despite the number of shots she’d seen him down in the time she was there, plus the addition of whatever else he’d put in himself beforehand, he was actually coordinated, actually…good.

And did he ever look good.

And she felt good.

It was all…good!

But she still couldn’t dance. There was no way. So, she stood there, watching Rachel and Nathan groove and semi-sing to the song, lyrics to which she was catching onto. The cadence just wouldn’t accompany her.

You started what would sound
A speech on how you moved around
You told them all so well
I had them memorized
You bored us all to tears
But here’s the ground and there’s your feet
And never the two shall meet

“Look at this! What finally motivated you, Nate?” Rachel asked, bumping her hip with his with a laugh.

“Friend of mine. His name’s Jack Daniels. Maybe you’ve met him?”

“Many a time. Many. A. Time.”

Max looked all around, bobbed on her feet. The Awkward Penguin Dance at its finest. Okay, so maybe she did mind looking this dumb. Why did she take his hand again?

‘Shit.’

Nathan shook his head at her, cupping his mouth and crying over the noise, “Move your hips, Caulfield! Or lack thereof!”

“Arms in the air!” exclaimed Rachel.

Even Dana was giving her gestures of encouragement. “Just let loose!” Max finally heard.

“Shake that bony, white ass!”

Max heard it in her ear. ‘Chloe?’

She turned, but Chloe was nowhere to be seen in the out-of-control horde. She swerved back, on guard, trying to process the things her peers had said.

‘Hips. Or lack thereof…? He’s such an ass! And arms in the air…like I just don’t care…? Jesus, Max, you’re such a loser.’ She started to sway and dip, her movements gradually blending with the song, much to her own surprise.

What have we started, what became?
Don’t get found out again
What have we started, what remained?
You saved our lives again

‘Just let loose!’

She pictured Rachel and Chloe at the junkyard, high with the rain falling on their concrete sanctuary, Chloe’s smiling face as she teased with that sharp tongue of hers—“Can’t dance hippie, come on!”

Nathan and she were pushed closer in the mob as the song intensified. There was a second where she caught the scent of his cologne mixed with the heat and sweat surrounding them. It somehow increased her thrill. She did her best to meet his rhythm, mouthing along with him after getting a few of the words down, their voices lost within the bedlam, giving life to the libretti.

“They say that either you’re out or you’re in, or you’re o-o-on!”

Low to the ground, lower and back up!

“They say that either you’re out or you’ll swim, on your o-o-own!”

Repeat the moves again, and…

“Don’t get found out again!” They both ended, and, together, they laughed.

Max wouldn’t have believed it, but she was there. In the midst of this insane mosh pit, Max was having honest-to-God fun with Rachel Amber, and, dare she confess, Nathan Prescott.

The latter, who was shaking his head in utter disbelief, couldn’t help conceding himself to the happenings. He gave Max a brief round of applause. Max blushed and accepted it with a firm nod and a rather cute look of triumph, if he were to say.

She turned away, feeling awkward and elated at the same time with his silly, inebriated sincerity. She figured she’d take it while she could; outside this moment, she was sure it wouldn’t last long.

The DJ applauded, thanking Blackwell and the Prescotts for allowing him the privilege to be there, and wishing the football team luck with their game tomorrow. As the song ended, unifying with another new one, a chorus of cheers erupted.

“B-I-G-F-O-O-T!” chanted some of the all stars.

Dana joined in, reciting a part of her field routine with other members of Blackwell’s cheerleaders. “Blackwell doesn’t know defeat! Bigfoots, stomp ‘em with your feet! Bigfoots STOMP!” She high-fived Trevor afterward, who gave her a big smile and a hug in the excitement.

Max chuckled, perused the crowd, hoping to talk some of her high out with Rachel, ask her how she did as a ‘Vortex Virgin.’ The rush she was experiencing died down in a terrified haste. She couldn’t locate the party girl. Not behind, not to the sides, not at the entrance or the bar.

Rachel was nowhere to be seen.

She was suddenly pushed by another group of wild partygoers. Letting out a yelp, she stumbled right into Nathan. He caught her before she fell to the floor. Her head lay on his chest, a mixture of scents that reminded her of the Long Island Ice Tea coming to a head. The soft material of his vest and his warmth was a consolation to the cold, damp tile. She brought her reddened face up to his. Nathan’s blue eyes pierced through the purple and red haze of the large room.

And she was caught again. In the net he continuously cast with that icy stare of his. A look that was changing as the seconds passed.

Changing into the one she had only recently become accustomed with.

Last night. In the dormitory hall.

As for Nathan, he wasn’t masking his incredulity. He couldn’t. He gave her a sideways smile, trying to cover for himself. “Just, uh, can’t get enough of me tonight, can you, Max?”

He didn’t sound like himself, especially not when he used her given name. Her mouth opened. Closed. Stayed shut. She couldn’t find the words to retaliate as her head swam and blood pulsed.

The crowd erupted again, and the crowd squished them further. The two fell to their knees, having to use each other for balance. Their vision met at the low level. Both froze within their proximity, a sea of celebratory people surrounding them, encasing them in a world of their own.

Nathan began falling back into his memory, his dream, the music and screams fading into nothingness. The tendrils were coming back for him, releasing from her depths to pull him under. He couldn’t stop them.

Maybe this time he didn’t want to.

Who cared about what happened to that doe, if what they saw was real? Their fateful meeting at the lighthouse? Last night’s embraces? Who gave a shit?

Oh. Right. She did.

And maybe he did, too.

Nathan grit his teeth in secret, pushing the thoughts aside. That’s not what tonight was about. Tonight was about…He struggled to find the reason. Without the Everyday Heroes winner, by all accounts, this party shouldn’t have even been happening. Not that he was complaining…much.

To stop the swarm inside, he squeezed her limbs. She was real. This was real. It had to be. His hand then went from her arm, up her neck, and back to its position from before while at the bar. More softness. He even dared to do what he hadn’t before, and moved some of her hair with his fingertip, wading into waters he knew he shouldn’t.

Max stopped breathing. She held her ground, didn’t flinch, not even when his hungry gaze dropped back to her glossed lips. Her hands tightened on his shoulders.

Closer he leaned. His lips parted, as did hers. Nathan flicked his eyes to hers for a second. They were lax, closing like his. Heart skipping, he leaned closer still. A screaming in his head tried to penetrate his actions, telling him to stop before he crossed his own line of safety. He ignored it. It wouldn’t be the first time.

She smelled the alcohol on his breath as it mixed with hers, potent yet smooth. “N-Nathan…” Her own mind was screaming for them to halt whatever this was, but she was too lightheaded, too caught up in the unversed high in which she found herself. “I-I—We—”

“Max…” That didn’t help—whispering her name like that to hush her, his voice low and husky. It was accompanied with the smallest shake of his head.

“Listen to Arcadia Bay…” Nathan heard. It caused him to stop dead.

Her nails were now burrowing through his clothes, a tight gasp leaving her lungs and bringing the both of them fully out of their spell. The music blared and the lights became too bright. They separated and stood apart.

Max’s chest then squeezed along with her stomach. Everyone began to move slower in her peripherals, slowing to a crawl outside her cone of vision. Slowing down, speeding up, rippling, layered, red.

‘No! Not again! Not now!’

As if things weren’t bad enough, Max held her head and spied through a parting of people, Victoria. She was standing on her tiptoes over some taller members, a vexed, if troubled expression painting her visage. Her stomach did a flip. She shouldn’t have drank. She shouldn’t have danced. She shouldn’t have taken her eyes off Rachel!

She simply shouldn’t have been there.

She let Chloe down…

Victoria made it to them, slapping Nathan on his shoulder. “Where the hell have you been?”

Nathan rolled his eyes and exhaled. “Where does it look like?”

The chic girl widened hers and pointed to Nathan’s initial location, the sofa. She looked more than frazzled, her stylized pink cashmere riddled with a few wrinkles, some split ends standing up in her normally-immaculate pixie cut. “Do you know how many people I’ve had to take care of in that cool-down corner? There’s a dozen or more that—”

“Victoria, relax!” Nathan took her hands as she resisted with purse crimson lips. “They’ll be fine. It’s all good.”

Like a slow-motion effect from a movie, Nathan’s mouth formed syllables. Max felt like those words were going to haunt her for the rest of her life. It was most definitely not all good. How could she let this happen? Frozen to the spot, a bubbling panic seized her once more. Her upper lip felt wet, and she brought the back of her hand to wipe away the moisture. It came away with another smudge of red.

Blood. Another nosebleed.

“Nathan, you’re supposed to be—” Victoria was cut off again, but of her own volition this time. When her bulging orbs met those of Max’s, her mouth came ajar in stunned silence.

There was nothing for Max to drag out of her word banks, no excuse. No way she could focus on the now. There was too much that had happened too fast, too much currently happening that not even she could explain. And she was tired of having more questions than answers.

“What. The fuck.” Her livid vision flicked between Nathan and Max before settling on the former, hard, looking like a puppy he had just kicked. “You…”

Nathan must have finally realized the situation, closing his eyes in a restrained scowl, a hand to his dipped-down head. He muttered a curse.

“Are you fucking kidding me right now?! What is she doing here?!”

“Hold on, Victoria.” Max began, her body on fire from pain. Victoria was quicker, putting up a hand to Max’s face before she could further explain.

“What is going on?” Victoria’s voice had softened, but still carried that hurt-filled lilt.

“Vic. I…” Nathan trailed off. He let a hand rest on his neck, looking up from the ground, his jaw visibly tightening. When he didn’t continue, Victoria sharply turned on her heel.

There was a new commotion rising a few yards away. A deep roar from the crowd sent a group of people flying toward them. Someone had tried a stage dive off one of the tables! Like dominoes they fell with the failed attempt, various screeches and cries from boy and girl alike penetrating the music’s pulse.

Max clenched her jaw. It was like the sound was magnified tenfold. Someone elbowed her in the back and she stumbled forward again with a grunt. When she regained balance, she saw the line of collapsing people spread into something much larger in front of her, all leading toward the pool.

Victoria was headed straight for the fray. Nathan was trying to follow, but the horde of people got worse. “Fuck! Wait! Victoria!”

Several had tumbled into the water, more cries sounding off. Victora wriggled her way right into the path of mayhem, and someone instinctively reached out to catch their balance. In doing so, they grabbed a chunk of Victoria’s clothes, and pulled her straight in with them. Her scream echoed all around above everyone.

A hand came to Max’s mouth, and then, she held it out, as if she could somehow reach the girl from where she was standing, and it began to happen again. The whirring and buzzing, the garbled voices from nowhere, and then…

With her scream drawing back into her lungs as a reversed demonic shriek, Victoria rose from the pool. Droplets made their way back into the water. The spiral light came ‘round and passed over the opposite way. The music droned into a creepy inverse melody of slow synthesizers and moans.

Everything around her moved backwards.

‘Oh, my God.’

Max continued to hold out her hand, backing up the scene even further. She fell into a state of incredulity, letting herself go only when Victoria was re-talking with Nathan. Like pressing play after rewinding an old tape, the scene restarted, and it was playing out exactly like it had before.

Victoria turned to leave, Nathan tried to follow, and the girl ended up underwater once again.

So, Max held out her hand another time. Sweat formed on her brow and a dry stickiness, like syrup, coated the walls of her throat. She focused on her environment through the distortion. Again, the world around her spun, was going back, back, back. Back to the same scene.

‘Holy. Shit.’

She did it again and again and again, unable to believe it was true, unable to believe she was the only one witnessing this phenomenon, unable to believe she had control of this power, unable to believe that she wasn’t crazy.

Unable to believe she was rewinding time.

Until the black and red blotches took over her peripherals, caused gravity to converge on her skull until it felt like it was going to burst. She held her head with another groan. Victoria turned to leave, but this time, Max stuck close and followed, just missing the chance to pull her back by the arm.

“Vic…t-toria! Hey! Victoria!” Max called out, the other’s shoulders stiffening until she wheeled around with an annoyed sound.

“Ugh! Fuck off, Max! Just leave me alone!”

There was no time left to explain, not that Victoria would let her even if she tried. The crowd was falling toward them. Max held out her hand. It was the only way. However, the pain was too much, her head too full. She couldn’t go back any further.

‘Oh, no…’ A vacant horror spread across her face.

Within seconds of Max’s realization, both she and Victoria became victims of the blunder. Victoria’s scream muffled itself as chlorinated water filled Max’s nose. It burned, choked her as air left her lungs in a surfacing bubble. As she performed a somersault against her buoyancy, more water collected in her ears, pushing out the last sounds of the bass.

She opened her eyes, numb as the milky water teemed with hundreds of squirming legs. As she floated there, the imaginary weights she thought she had cast off returned in retaliation. When she needed to breathe, her limbs zapped to life and she surfaced, drinking down oxygen and flailing for the edge of the pool. She grasped it in relief, coughing up last bits of water lodged in her air canals. Vomiting sounded good right about then; Lord knew what was in this disgusting dunk tank from hell.

Max turned her head to see Victoria grabbing the side as well, looking like a drowned rat, her makeup running, her hair as flat and lifeless as her eyes. It would have been funny if it weren’t so sad…and if she weren’t in the same predicament.

Other members caught in the catastrophe were already making their way out of the water. Max just didn’t have the energy, her fingers wiping away another spot of blood from under her nose.

Then, there was laughter, a familiar kind. A harrying kind. Max looked up to see a number of people with their phones out, recording the incident with snickers and crude motions. The rest of the club couldn’t have cared less, like nothing had happened as they further indulged in their various vices. To them, it was just another hilarious haphazard to be catalogued or mediocre misfortune to be ignored.

Max wasn’t going to deny she was mortified, but she also wasn’t going to deny she felt sorry for Victoria. If only she could have stopped her…could have rewound. ‘Talk about getting a taste of your own medicine. But still, how cruel can you be?’

Nathan appeared, violently shoving the mob to the side, panting and wide-eyed. He mouthed another curse and leaned down to the both of them, focusing on Victoria.

“Check it! You’re bitch is gettin’ wet without you, Prescott!”

The look on his face made Max shiver in fear. The sudden turn from silly and inebriated to enraged and coordinated was so fast and so sudden, she didn’t have long for the feeling to settle. He was back to…normal? What was normal for him?

Nathan doubled back against the guy, pulling him up the collar. “You wanna run that by me again, dickwad?” he growled, his eyes piercing and dark.

“Nathan.” Victoria got his attention, utter defeat in her tone. “Don’t. Just…help me out. Please.”

The two boys stared each other down for another minute before Nathan let go. “Consider yourself lucky. Now get the fuck out of my face.” He then addressed the rest of the onlookers. “That goes for all of you assholes! Fuck off!”

Max, at a complete loss for words, pushed herself up and out of the pool. Her sopping clothes and hair weighed her down, but it actually gave her some form of comfort. It let her know she was still there, that she was still alive, that this was all for real. She rang out her shirt and listened to her feet squish in her boots. The jeans she wore were now really itchy. Irked, she wondered where the hell the girl who had lent her the ensemble had gone.

Rachel had pulled a Houdini, and she couldn’t be more angry at herself. She then looked down at her hands, lightly bending her fingers to her palms.

‘This can’t be real. I really am like a human time machine…”

Before anything else, Max pulled out her cell phone that had been stuck in her pocket. She was grateful this model was waterproof, but just how much? She didn’t exactly take a graceful dip. She clicked it on and swiped the screen. It looked like it was going to be fine and she sighed with relief.

Nathan leaned down and entwined his arm with Victoria’s. Much to his surprise, Max shuffled between some of the voyeurs and offered her hand. With a look of confusion mixing with dejection, Victoria allowed it. They pulled her out, and the girl let out a cry of pain. They caught her and helped her stand up straight.

“Ah! Shit!” She sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “I think—oh—I think I twisted my ankle.”

Nathan was already on it, leaning down and motioning for her to ride piggy-back. Victoria looked like she swallowed a giant gulp of pride as she agreed to the offer. Max watched them start to leave, knowing that she was now by herself, all eyes on her.

“You comin’ or not, Caulfield?”

Or…not? Max blinked as Nathan motioned for her to follow with his head. Victoria stayed quiet, looking nothing short of exhausted. Max’s empathy was on overdrive for Blackwell’s Queen Bee.

“Max! Oh, my God I saw what happened! Are you okay?” Dana and Trevor had finally pushed their way through to their position.

“I’m okay. Did you happen to see where Rachel went?” Max rang out her drooping ponytail, walking and talking between Nathan, Victoria, and the other two.

Dana shook her head. “No. I didn’t see her sneak out.” She raised her head, taking another look. “Maybe she needed some air or something. You going to change?”

Max sighed. “Yeah.”

“You thinkin’ about coming back?” Trevor asked, hands in his hoodie pockets.

“No.” And it was firm.

Dana nodded in understanding. “In that case, I’ll drop off your bag when we turn in for the night,” said Dana. “It won’t be too long from now. I gotta get some rest for the game tomorrow.”

Max thanked her and gave them a final wave, jogging lightly to at least keep up with Nathan and Victoria, but not fall on her ass from slipping. She was embarrassed enough as it were.

They made their way through the VIP curtains and through those of the entrance. Nathan snapped his fingers, signaling Stella to hand him their jackets. The girl did so with an irritated scoff. Max was just glad the darkness concealed her identity as she slipped by. Not that it mattered; she was already on camera from some of those jerks from before. Just wonderful.

She tried not to think about it and went ahead, pushing the bars on the doors to the outside. She held them open for the two. It was almost ironic, holding the doors for the king and queen. She shook her head. Humor was the only way she was going to feel any better about her situation. Soaking wet, a tiny bit buzzed, and feeling like a true fool of the court, Max ambled behind.

And Nathan…he and she almost…

‘No. No. NO. Do NOT think about that right now, Max!’

The music had died down once they were out, and all that was left was the annoying feedback screech in her ears from its overbearing absence. It mixed with the naturesque nightlife of Arcadia Bay, fluctuating between unbearable and soothing. Max’s ‘duck feet’ weren’t doing her any favors—squek, swack, squelch, skreet. Every step she took had something to say, and every one made her wince and her face burn.

Nathan, in the meantime, handed over Victoria’s coat. She wrapped it around her shoulders with chattering teeth. Nathan threw his jacket at Max with a, “Head’s up.”

She caught it and gave him a look of wonder. Both he and Victoria were silent. In Blackwell’s lamp lights, they looked different. Tired and sickly. Especially Nathan, who was sporting bluish rings under his eyes. On Victoria’s forehead she spotted the blue mark from their previous encounter, her makeup washed away. Max remembered slamming into her with the restroom door. What she thought was a humorous and just moment at the time now made her feel like an asshole.

And on the subject of bruises, Nathan’s were in view. Victoria’s mass dragged down his clothes, and Max could see the beginning of them on his clavicle. Now she felt worse, wiping her eyes with her sleeve before tentatively draping Nathan’s jacket over herself. She immediately caught the scent of his cologne and hints of nicotine, but then there was something else that was just Nathan, she guessed. That was the scent that had overwhelmed her before when they… Max cleared her throat, and her face grew warmer. She already scolded herself once, but it looked like she was going to be doing so for a while yet.

The wind whistled in their stead. As they took up course to the dormitories, Max spied the mysterious white RV once again. It hadn’t moved from that morning. Strange.

Then, Max’s heart stopped, and she right along with it. ‘Wait a minute…’

There was a man in its doorway. He looked scraggly with greasy blonde hair and goatee, was clearly older than the students from Blackwell. Next to him on the ground was a sleeping dog. The guy drank back a bottle of beer with one hand, his other wrapped around someone else’s shoulder—someone whose long blonde hair and blue feather earring shone in the full moon’s light.

Max swiftly turned away in shock. She hid it and continued on, wanting to call her out, find out what the hell was going on for herself. But she knew she had a promise to keep to Chloe. Her heart suddenly felt like breaking. Chloe was right...and Max was going to have to deliver the bad news. If anything, for the time, she at least knew that Rachel was okay, trusting that man enough to keep her warm and safe. God, she hoped that was the case. Max’s stomach squirmed, uncomfortable. All this drama was bound to kill her.

For someone who had rewind powers, something she still couldn’t quite grasp, time seemed to be constantly moving on fast-forward. Her face scrunched. She surprised herself how angry she was and pulled Nathan’s jacket tighter, hurrying along.

They walked to the dorms in silence, Victoria breaking it only when they reached the entry doors.

“Thanks, Nathan. I think I can take it from here.” She gingerly stepped down, still cringing at some pain, but working it out with a few stretches of her foot. “I’m going to shower and change. If you want to head back, I’ll be there in a bit.”

He shook his head with a long sigh, stuffing his hands into his pockets and stretching. He stayed quiet with a faraway look. Victoria nodded, an understanding between the two that Max couldn’t cognize, or rather, didn’t want to interrupt. She already felt like a third wheel…again. Whether she was wanted or not, she was always the dangling observer.

Max swallowed and handed Nathan his jacket. “Um…thank you. Sorry it’s a little damp now.”

“S’fine.” He shook it out and threw it on in a flash. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. “Not like I’m worried.” He dug in the coat pocket and pulled out his packet of cigarettes and lighter. With one stuck between his lips, he cocked his head to Max, a brow raised. “Go change, dumbass.”

“Oh. Right.” She had been standing there like an idiot. Though, she wasn’t sure where to go or what to do in that moment. This whole plan, Rachel’s affair, the Vortex Club’s spell casted upon her to commit acts of debauchery under its various floodlights…

Rewinding time.

‘Just breathe, Max. Stay calm.’ She told herself as she followed Victoria up the stairs to their floor.

The girls stayed quiet through the whole ordeal—through entering their rooms, grabbing their shower supplies, and the entire time through their showers. The gurgle of the drains hung over them in place of words.

Max finished first, dressing in some PJs and hovering in front of one of the sinks. Her mundane self was reflected in its respective mirror. She was back to normal. Looking back at the wet pile of borrowed clothes, she knew it was for the better. She had even thrown away the neon bracelets; her own had been washed out from the chlorinated water.

Whatever had happened to her in that building, she didn’t want to repeat.

Her head still felt like there was a taut rubber band strapped around it. Just how many ingredients were in that drink? She figured if she had to ask, she was better off not knowing. Never again. Max rubbed her forehead and sighed.

Victoria exited her stall. Her outfit, consisting of a white blouse and blue jeans, looked as pristine and chic as could be. Max internally shook her head. She was still as dazzling as ever, even in temporary clothes, even if Victoria herself didn’t think so. The girl then joined Max at the sinks, a headband holding back her wet hair as she reapplied makeup to the bruise on her forehead.

In the meantime, Max brought out her phone, let her fingers hover over the keys to compose a new message for Chloe. However, she decided against it. Not right now. She needed more time. Max almost laughed out loud. With this power, she had all the time in the world. Literally.

“So,” Victoria started in her typical catty fashion, “did you have fun crashing our party tonight?”

Max stared down at the sink drain. The remains of water droplets edged their way toward the plug. “Not in particular, Victoria.”

She rubbed her lips together, spreading the color of her lipstick before closing and returning it to her makeup bag. “Then how about filling me in on why you were there in the first place?”

If there was one thing Max was tired of, it was lying. And right now she imagined doing so wouldn’t save her anyway. “Rachel invited me.”

Victoria’s face stayed neutral, but her brows furrowed as she gave Max a look. “Rachel Amber.” Not a question, but a statement.

Max nodded, shuffling her bare feet on the tile below.

Victoria glanced at her from the corner of her eye as she adjusted her headband. “Great. It figures you’d be friends with that—” she cut herself off with a sigh. “Nevermind. Just…whatever.”

If there was another thing Max was tired of, it was everyone being in on the secret of Rachel…everyone but her. It seemed like everyone at Blackwell had a different opinion of her, seemed to know her in different lights. Max wondered which one was the ultimate truth, and was annoyed that she had to play these games to find out. Why was everything so damn complicated? Just…

“Why?”

Ignoring her inquiry, Victoria asked, “If Rachel invited you, then why were you with Nathan?”

She hadn’t thought that far ahead. Still, she would try to stick with the truth as much as possible. “He was—We—Rachel was there, but she disappeared. She wanted to dance with the both of us. Then I don’t know where she went.”

“Sounds like a typical Rachel thing to do. And you, dance? Uh-huh. You’re just all over the map, aren’t you, Max?”

She sighed. This wasn’t something she wanted to hear. She already felt bad enough about it all.

Victoria looked to the ground, her hands falling to the sides of the sink to hold her up as her tone took a sudden change. “How drunk was he?”

“What?”

“Nathan. How drunk was he?”

What did that have to do with anything? “He—Well…very. I think. He downed a lot of shots.”

“And he’s bound to down more once we get back,” she sadly said. “He’s such an idiot sometimes. And before you say anything, Caulfield, I get it. It’s a party. Everyone’s wasted. But…fuck me.” She finished off with a sigh.

Max did the same, feeling the night’s wear on her. She stared at her hands. For an interrogation, Victoria didn’t seem too daunting in the process. Of course, Max could only imagine the things she’d been through up to this point. Nathan’s attitude for the past several days, her ‘friends’ in the club recording the instance in which she needed help, and of course the drama in Blackwell.

“I’m sorry.” It was all she could think to say. “About all the shit that’s happened…been happening.”

Victoria paused, looking at her reflection and then to Max. “Answer me something else.”

“Um…okay?”

“Why did Nathan come to your room last night?”

‘Uh, oh.’

Max’s stomach clenched for the umpteenth time that night. She was going to have to lie after all. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to rewind this mess. She wasn’t sure she had it in her after their mishap at the pool.

“I…was hoping you could tell me, actually.”

“Huh?” Victoria turned to her, the confusion on her face clear as day.

“I mean, I think he meant to go to your room and got confused? Well, he looked confused, at least. He stumbled a bit and I had to catch him and hold him up. Was he drunk then, too?”

Victoria turned away, a look of guilt taking over the bewilderment. She muttered something under her breath Max didn’t catch.

As for Max, her own guilt was beginning to overtake her. “Sorry. I know. It’s none of my business.”

“No! It’s just—” She cupped her forehead. “I wanted to say thanks.”

Max’s eyes widened in silent surprise.

“Look. I know I can be a bitch. It’s no secret around here.”

‘That’s putting it mildly.’

“It’s just…you’re you. You know? You don’t give a shit what people think about you around here. And honestly, it pisses me off.”

“I…I’m sorry?” Victoria, she thought, was dead wrong, but it was a gallant confession for her nonetheless. It seemed nowadays Max’s list of things to worry about was growing by the second.

“Don’t be. I’m the one who’s sorry.” She frowned. “Damn it.”

Max thought about all the times she’d been given grief from the very girl she was talking to. How many times she’d done the same to Kate, to Warren, to…so many others. She grew a sense of bravery.

“So, why do you act the way you do, Victoria? It’s not like you have anything to lose here with your talent.” Max crossed her arms in defense.

“That’s just it. I have everything to lose, Max.” There were many things not said, but conveyed in that sentence. The way she said it—her latter words carrying an uncharacteristic self-doubt, the way she held herself—as if the planet itself was strapped to her back.

Victoria had a lot on her mind. For once, Max stood on an equal ground with her. She understood.

“I’m a teenager at an art school. I’m not perfect. Neither are you.”

“True. But, I’ve seen your photos. You have a great eye. They remind me of Richard Avedon’s work.”

Victoria gave her a small smile. “He’s one of my heroes. Thanks, Max.”

Max laughed in her throat. “Maybe if we weren’t so busy throwing each other shade, we could have actually traded photo tips. I do take more than selfies, you know.”

“That,” she began, her smile becoming hopeful, “sounds pretty cool, actually. Honestly, there was too much clique action at my old school. Sometimes, I just get caught up in all the bullshit. You know?”

“I know exactly what you mean, Victoria.”

“And…I meant it. Thank you. For the compliment. And for helping me out at the party. And for helping Nathan. No one else I know would have.”

That struck her. “What about Taylor and Courtney?”

“You serious? You saw how they came to my rescue in there. Plus, they both stay as far away from Nathan as possible. They don’t have to say anything to show how they feel about him.” Bitterness coated her words and a more familiar expression took over her façade.

“Hayden?”

“Yeah, right. He was probably so far off the grid thanks to his ‘dank OG bud,’” she used air quotes to dramatize with a deep mocking voice, “that we’d have to put out an APB to get his brain back to his head.”

“But…Nathan’s the one that throws the Vortex Club parties. He pays for them, right? He’s the one that basically gives everyone what they want. He,” she hated to even say it, “‘owns Blackwell,’ as he puts it.” Max used her own air quotes, lightly and without sarcasm as to not further invoke Victoria’s indignation.

“And?”

Something sank inside of Max’s heart with that one, simple word. There was a heavy weight to it that said nothing at all, yet far too much.

“Plus, his father pays for the parties, and holds it over Nathan’s head constantly. Sean’s a bastard like that. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person in Arcadia who actually cares about Nathan. And—” She stopped herself from fostering further outbursts. “Sorry. Nathan’s just…Nathan. He’s got his own shit to deal with. And it’s not all sunshine and roses being a Prescott. Or me. I can tell you that much.”

Victoria gave her a glance that said she wanted to talk, but didn’t trust her enough to disclose anything more. Further and further Max felt pulled down. Both at the lack of information Victoria would give, and how much substance was already within what she divulged. Max had trouble finding something else to say.

“He didn’t look happy at that assembly, that’s for sure,” Max replied, hoping she was still on the same wavelength with the distressed girl.

“No. His father and stepmother are quite the charmers.”

Max stopped and snapped her head up in shock. “Stepmother?”

“Yeah. Nathan’s real mom passed away when he was just a kid.”

‘Oh.’ Max pursed her lips, quiet.

Victoria shook her head. “Shit. Anyway, I’m prattling. I gotta get back.”

“Right. Um. Well…maybe we can exchange those photography tips and tricks sometime, yeah?”

“Sounds good. Hm.” She paused to think. “I planned to ask Nathan about going around the bay for some photos on Saturday. Lighting practice. Maybe the three of us could get together then.”

“I thought hanging around hipster shits like me was fatal?” Max gave her a final tease, opening herself a bit more to ease the tension.

“Touché. But we all die some day. Might as well spend it in better company.”

“For you or for me?”

And then something happened Max never thought she would see: A true laugh from Victoria Chase. “Who are you kidding? You obviously need a lesson in class and sass. And who better to give it to you? Better than anything Rachel Amber can give. I can promise you that.”

“Oh, for sure.”

Max didn’t know whether to be offended or laugh right along with her. Deadpan snark seemed like the best middle road. Plus, she was angry with Rachel, and was inclined to agree with Victoria for the moment. For hers and Chloe’s sake.

And for the fact that Rachel had told her to talk to Victoria in hopes that they would connect in some way. The beauty was right. Petty, but Max didn’t give a shit. She was upset, and she would stay that way for a while yet.

Victoria reached into her satchel and brought out an eyeliner pencil. On a dry makeup cloth, she wrote something and gave it to Max. It was her phone number. “Text me and maybe we can work something out.”

“Thanks, Victoria. I’ll…see you around?”

The other gathered up her belongings, her strut regaining confidence. “Mm. Au revoir.” And, with a lazy wave, away she went.

‘Wowser. That went a lot better than expected. So, Saturday…with Victoria. And possibly Nathan. That’s a bit short notice. Can I even trust her? I don’t know if…’ Max took a sharp breath of realization. ‘Oh, shit! The study group!’

She face-palmed. As if she didn’t have enough dilemmas to deal with.

Vmm! Vmm!

CHLOE:
hey. just checking in. it’s been a while. how are things?

And the leg weights were back. Pulling her down, down, down.



Nathan snuffed out his cigarette on the sidewalk. It was quiet. He was missing the loudness of the party. At least there his thoughts weren’t running amok. Though, all he could think of was that he’d lost it, lost his mind in the moment and fucked up.

He fucked up hard.

“Hurry up, Victoria-a-a-a…” he growled through clenched teeth, hands in his pockets, legs rocking back and forth as he sat on the bench near the Tobanga.

The totem’s eyes watched him, reprimanded him. His body tightened and he looked away. Back in the spot where he threw a rock at that group of deer, sparks of fireflies had taken refuge. Everywhere he looked seemed to hold some sort of memory he didn’t want to think about.

Victoria emerged from the doors, prompt and primped in a new outfit. Alone.

“Where’s Caulfield?”

Victoria shook her head. “She’s staying in. I think one party was too much for her.”

“Ha. Right.” Despite his deflection, Nathan felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was better that Max hadn’t come back. He could at least comprehend that in his current state he wouldn’t be able to handle any more awkwardness around her.

“But, I gotta give it to her. She had some guts to show up to begin with,” Victoria continued.

“I guess.”

The two began the trek back to the recreation building.

“Also, Max set the record straight about last night.”

Nathan’s eyes widened, the fear clutching his every fiber. Victoria should be angrier if that were the case. “What?”

“I’m sorry.”

Nathan stopped. “Wait. What for? What did she say?”

“You got the wrong room. Like you said. I mean, even she was concerned about you when you pulled that stunt. And I know your dad’s been a hard ass on you lately.” She eyed the place where his bruises would be. “And I haven’t been the best of friends, so…yeah…I’m sorry.”

Nathan closed his eyes and took in a long breath. He didn’t know whether to be angry or thankful. One way or another, he owed Max big time. “It’s fine. Let’s just head back. Our people await.” He finished dramatically.

She lightly punched his shoulder. “Just take it easy, all right?”

“All right.” In his head he said, ‘Not happening.’

He let Victoria get ahead of him. She entered before him, but Nathan didn’t follow. Instead, he was focused on someone else coming from the parking lot. His blood began to boil.

Mark Jefferson was on his way up the path. At his side, a young girl leaned on him, hunched over and looking nauseated.

“Where the fuck have you been?!” Nathan spat.

Jefferson glanced up from under his spectacles, a look of disgust coming to the surface. “Now, is that any way to talk to your superiors, Mr. Prescott?”

“I haven’t seen you around all fucking night! We could have used your help a few times in there!”

“Keep your voice down. This young lady’s had quite a night. And I have been here, Nathan. Making sure none of your guests make the wrong decision to endanger theirs or others’ lives by driving off this campus completely intoxicated.” His words bit into him, sharp and foreboding.

“Whatever. Not my problem.”

The girl by Jefferson’s side mumbled something about sleep. Her fiery red hair actually hurt Nathan’s eyes to the point where he had to look away.

Jefferson sighed, holding her up. “And that’s the kind of attitude that’s going to get you into some deep trouble one day. Now, I’m going to escort Deanna here back to the dorms. We’ll talk more tomorrow when we go over your negatives. And when you’re sober.”

Nathan watched him go, glaring at him the entire way. “So much for extra supervision of his hellhole.”

He then roughly rubbed his face. Jefferson had already warned him he wasn’t going to be around 24/7. So why was he this aggravated? He aimed to think about their meeting tomorrow. Something to look forward to. Someone who would actually be interested in his photos.

“Listen…to…”

“SHUT. UP.”

And the bay answered with naught but the sounds of nature.

He nodded to himself, turned, and reentered the party, ready for whatever round he left off on.

Chapter Text

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.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

“Thank you.”

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.”

“Shit. Really?”

“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.

“Chloe?”

“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.

RACHEL:
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.

MAX:
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.

RACHEL:
Don’t worry about them. It’s only clothes. I’m more worried about you. I’m sorry you got pushed in the pool. :(

MAX:
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.

RACHEL:
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…

For Chloe.

Another spark. ‘Chloe…’

Whatever the case, Max didn’t give a shit.

MAX:
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.”

‘Oh, yeah.’

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.

“Thanks, Dana.”

“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.

Then silence.



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?
— Vic

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.

“Shit…”

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.

‘Just…stop…’

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.

No journal.

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?”

“No.”

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.

Title: “Catalyst”
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.’
‘Something BAD.’
‘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.’
‘Joseph knew.’
‘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.

‘Nathan…’

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.

“Y-yeah.”

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.”

“Yeah.”

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.”

“E-yuck.”

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.

Flash!

“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.

Alive.

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.

No one.

‘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.

“The hell?”

[UNKNOWN]
caulfield
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.

“Please.”

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…”

“Chloe.”

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.”

 

Chapter Text

Nathan sat on the smooth, cold concrete of the upper level of the recreation building. One arm and both his legs hung through the bars to the lower level while his other hand was busy drinking back a packet of Skittles. It was something to chew on while he tetchily awaited Max’s arrival.

If she showed up, that is.

Several pieces of sound equipment and rental furniture were shoved into corners of the lower level along with streamers, cups, and other forms of garbage. The smell of overloaded wires, spilled liquor, and other party favors hung in the air, mixing with the pool’s fresh chlorine and strong cleaning supplies of the janitor, Samuel.

The enigmatic, spectacled man was below, mopping and scrubbing away at the tiled floors and walls. He tried his best to free them of crude messages and doodles students had made the night before. In the meantime, he swept or picked up said garbage, throwing it into a bin he dragged behind him with an unseen resolve.

Pushing a mop and dragging a bin. Nathan sniffed with a sideways smile. “C’est la vie,” he said under his breath, dipping his head back to pour more candy bits into his mouth. His legs wriggled back and forth. Waiting on other people was not his forte.

Earlier, Nathan finished the layout of his portfolio, printing the final pieces in the school’s computer lab to show Jefferson. The results awaited his return to the dorms. With that completed, and Max beleaguered to the point of agreement—or so he hoped in a rather hypocritical reluctance—he slipped on his jacket to head out.

He immediately felt a horrible heaviness under the red material. He stripped off the coat with a panicked breath and threw it on his bed. From Pompidou’s paw prints to that smear of blood from Max’s nose, to the amount of times Nathan wore it in general, he inferred it was in need of a wash. Those were his biggest excuses—legitimate ones, he might add—to shed it for now. It wasn’t because he had sudden feelings of strangulation by relation to the events he’d witnessed in it this week. Not at all. That would be silly. He wasn’t that weak.

He knew he was lying to himself. Sean would be disgusted. He tried not to think about it as he opened his closet in search of a replacement jacket. He owned one that was similar, but it was a deep blue. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn it, but he needed something to battle the evening’s cold.

“Fuck it.” It would have to do. He pulled the coat out of his closet, fluffed it, and slipped it on. A perfect fit, and it actually went better with his black jeans and white sweater.

He roughly slid shut his closet door, proceeding to move the contents of his old coat into the new one. He gazed again at the photograph from the envelope before jamming it into his pocket. Out of sight, out of mind.

He had a couple more hours to kill. Futzing about his room, he organized his desks, his DVDs, and the other clothes in his drawers. That didn’t take long; they were already organized as they were. He always made sure of that. He then dug under his bed, bypassing some magazines and other junk to discover a hacky sack. Dr. Jacoby had given it to him to help him focus or calm down, but he barely used it. In fact, it was quite dusty. He guessed now was as good a time as any to try it out. Nathan lay down and tossed it up and down for several more minutes, the beans interrupting the quiet with a jarring psh every time the toy landed back in his palm. Up to the ceiling, from hand to hand, even from foot to foot upon a whim to stand, but that got old fast. He then decided to have some ‘private time’ to himself, and though it helped with some of the stress, it didn’t relieve his boredom. In fact, it may have made things worse with the mixture of everything—especially Max—on his mind. He closed the libidinous website he was browsing, headed over, and fell back on his bed, burying his reddened face in his pillows.

‘It’s pretty sad when a guy can’t even crank one out properly. Goddamn it.’

When he calmed and returned to his computer, he figured he would check his emails. A few from Blackwell he skipped over, one from Dr. Jacoby he made note of to read later, and one that made his lip rise in annoyance.

Subject: Just checking in
To: Nathan Prescott
From: Kristine Prescott

“Fuck you.” He said to the screen with a hefty sigh.

About a month ago, Kristine had sent him another email. She was living it up in Brazil with her Peace Corps comrades, of whom she bragged him up to all the time. Or so she said. How she missed his pictures, she also said, and hoped he was well. Then, of course, she had a nice little lecture in that email about how their ‘mother’ said he’d been in trouble and how their father has been on his ass. About how Sean was a bully who inherited power and not wisdom and not to change who he was to fit the family legacy and blah-blah-blah. Nathan had heard it all before. Now, after current events, he wondered if his anger should be directed at himself rather than her.

Do I have to send that jaguar to your dorm like I promised?

Oh, yeah. There was some kind of juvenile threat like that in her previous email. It was ridiculous, but it made him genuinely laugh when he first read it. He could feel tears begin to well in his eyes, and he wiped them away before they could fall.

Just kidding, Nate. Didn’t mean to get so preachy in my last message. Just wanted to check in on you again. You doing okay? Keeping on track with your medicine and your therapy visits? I can only imagine how much of a pain it is trying to keep focused on all that plus the stress of Blackwell.

“Yeah,” he said.

Are you making any new friends at school by the way?

Of course Victoria crossed his mind. Jefferson, too, much to his own surprise. But not many others. Then, he let Max’s pissed-off, freckled, baby face come to mind. He couldn’t help but snicker, shaking his head at his own reaction. The humor soon faded, replaced with a stiffening sadness.

“No. Not really,” he answered his invisible sibling.

You’ll have to send me some pics of you and them, too! I haven’t seen you in so long. It was four years this July, wasn’t it? I mean you’re an adult now! It’s so hard to believe you’re already eighteen. I owe you some cake for all those missed birthdays! Or an ice cream cake instead. I know how you love those. Well, you used to. Maybe your taste buds have changed.

“I could totally go for an ice cream cake right about now.”

Anywho, now I’m rambling. You know how I can get. I just wanted to check on you again. We had a pretty bad rainstorm the other day. Thunder and lightning and crazy winds! Had to help keep things in order, and for some reason I couldn’t help but think of you. I hope you’re safe.

Back to the grind. Love you.

~ Kristine

“Love you, too…” he trailed off, his words garroted at the end.

In his shadowy, soundless room, Nathan was alone, having a one-sided conversation with his computer screen like an idiot. The email had ended. It couldn’t answer back. He sniffled and cleared his throat. It was mysterious how his sister always had an uncanny ability to be there, even when she wasn’t physically. Most of the time, anyway. But he didn’t write back. Or call. And he no longer took pictures for her. It wouldn’t make a difference. It didn’t matter. She was the one who left in the first place.

Still, there was so much he wanted to ask her. Especially now.

But he wouldn’t. Instead, he continued to reread her emails in silence. Over and over, feeding off her words of encouragement, despite them often making him upset with their truth. Time passed quickly then.

Now, as the clock clicked over to six, Nathan sat in a false hope under the pool’s dimmed lights. The reflections of water bounced and flickered across the walls and windows as white snakelike streams of unpredictability. Samuel never noticed him. Or he was purposefully avoiding him. That was the likelier route. It wouldn’t have gotten the man anywhere if he tried to kick him out of the vicinity anyway. All Nathan would have to do is threaten him with his father’s presence, or tell that drunkard Principal Wells that the Prescotts would cut off Blackwell’s flow of money, and he’d get his way. A dickish ploy, and one Nathan would use constantly, but Nathan didn’t give a damn. Not anymore. Not after all the shit this town put him through. Fuck them. Not that Samuel was the kind of person to report him in the first place. He was weird, cryptic, and more of an observer than a talker. A lot like Max, now that he thought about it.

He rolled his shoulders. Scratch that. An observer, yes, but she wasn’t that weird or cryptic. She was just different. He hummed, swallowing the mass of sugar he built on his tongue. Not a bad different. Just…different.

His mind had then slipped to the night prior, and, against himself, he let the memories in. Though it was Rachel’s clothes she was wearing, the ensemble somehow fit her, showed another side to her. Hell, the whole night showed another side to her. Or maybe he was assuming the least about her. After all, he may have been tipsy, but they willingly danced together. And they had fun. At least, he did. She looked like she was having fun. That was sure…something. Though she probably found that courage after she downed half the glass of that Long Island. Regardless of everything else, it was obvious she wasn’t a drinker. Admittedly, not even he could get past one of those without feeling the effects straight afterward.

Nathan groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. He hated second-guessing himself, and tried to keep his thoughts in order. He then glanced at his fingertips as he brought them down. He flexed his digits, recalling the moments afterward, when the crowd pushed them together. It was fuzzy, but there were some things he would never forget.

A rush of blood went to his head, straight up his neck, and played at his ears. His inner conscious scolded, ‘Yeah. Maybe she did have fun, but you also took her on a damn joyride, slaughtering a fucking deer, and you made yourself look like an ass in front of her friend. Plus everything else that you’ve said and done to her. Wake the fuck up!’

Right. Back to Earth he crashed. That rainy drive back to Blackwell. That was the whole point of this, as much as he wished it wasn’t. They both saw the doe. They were both in that painting. This itch had to be scratched once and for all.

It came back to earlier. He would have had the chance to talk if not for her frie—if not for Chloe. His legs twitched and he began chewing at the corner of his nail. He still couldn’t believe that blue-haired girl was Chloe. The girl that apparently he hurt, according to the babbling Max Caulfield. Her backwards explanations and actions at the lighthouse still perplexed him. Pissed him off, more like.

Nathan exhaled, the end tipped with another frustrated growl. He had enough on his mind, and he needed to think straight if he was going to have any semblance of a normal conversation with the girl he almost—Nathan swallowed hard—kissed.

But with a nebula of constellations peppering her soft skin, the alluring dark depths of her eyes catching him once again in their undertow, and her inviting, magnetic glow of tranquility and peace…

A harsh jolt spread through his body, left a bad taste in his mouth. He had an amount of intoxicated idiocies behind him, but this one was pretty high on the list. For one, he had been sober enough to remember it. His head fell against the bars with that final embarrassing divulgence of self.

‘Jesus. Just…don’t think about it. Don’t. Think. About it. Christ, you really fucked up this time, Nate.’

Nathan groaned. He really couldn’t blame her if she didn’t show up after everything that happened between them thus far. But at the same time, the fire within him would dictate his directed fury if she dare not. He gasped at the violent thought, slightly crumpling and releasing the bag in his palm, telling himself to stay in control.

Would it have been unreasonable to say he was sometimes afraid of himself?

‘It’s not her fault. She was even nice enough to bail you out with Victoria. If she doesn’t come, she doesn’t. Quit being a damn pissbaby.’

Nathan cleared his throat again and looked at the ceiling. Only a few of the fluorescent lights were lit, the pool shut down and the vicinity emptied for the day. It was rightfully so that the school needed an extra day to clean the building. It was a hell of a party. They all were. All the same. Always. It was exhausting, trying to keep up and make each one more elaborate and fun than the last. He dare not mention that, though. That’d be taboo, especially if he said anything like that around Victoria. They had to represent, after all. Whatever that truly meant anymore.

His logjam of thoughts were beginning to physically hurt, and he could only distract himself with chewy, sugary candies raking back and forth across his teeth and tongue.

As the minutes continued to tick by after six, Nathan began to lose what little hope he had left. Samuel finally exited the area, lingering in the outer hall for a few moments from what Nathan could spy from above.

In was then that another figure entered in exchange, and Nathan’s stomach plummeted. All his assurance collapsed in seconds like a game of Jenga. He had prepared for disappointment, as always, and the opposite had just come through the door.

Stepping forth in a remote state of caution, Max Caulfield’s whispered echo reached his thrumming ears.

“Nathan?”



“You, uh, r-really hit your head, didn’t you? Come on, Max. Seriously. Let’s go sit down.”

“Chloe. Please. Listen. I know I sound like a lunatic, but it’s true. I can reverse time.” She continued to talk while letting Chloe guide her to the sofa. They sat down and sank in. “I don’t know how or why o-o-or where I got this power, but I can.”

“Okay. No. This isn’t anime or a video game, Max. People can’t have those powers! Just…relax for a second. I’m going to—”

“No!” Max grappled her wrist. She wanted to tell her about the lighthouse, about Nathan, but was still afraid. “I can’t explain it. But please. Trust me. There was a photo of you and me. William took it before he—he—! But now it’s gone! I went through it, like, inside it, a-and went back to that time andthereweresomanyofmeand—”

“MAX!” Chloe pulled herself away to grab hold of her arms. “Calm. Down. Your nose is bleeding again.”

With a grumble, Max wiped the cloth across her upper lip and sat back. She stared ahead, not at anyone or anything in particular. She could see that she was worrying Chloe, but she didn’t know what to say or how to say it. Not without revealing what happened with Nathan. And with Chloe’s current disbelief and position, especially with Rachel’s ambiguity as of late, she dare not let any of that information slip. She didn’t want Chloe to think she had betrayed her in some way. She closed her eyes and laid back to let her headache ease.

Chloe said, a hidden fear in her tone, “That time in the junkyard, your constant zoning out. Like, worse than you’ve ever been before. And now rewinding time? Max, what the hell’s going on?”

She felt the flow of blood heat and cool her every move, and shook her head. It was like it was full of water. “I don’t know where to start with everything. I know I’m not crazy. I’m not.”

Chloe scooted over and nudge Max’s leg with hers. She made a hesitant sound, an indication that she was afraid to indulge in her friend’s otherworldly story. “I guess…start from the beginning?”

“It’s difficult to explain. I don’t know if I can.”

“Just try. I’m here.” Chloe’s warm hand fell on her shoulder. It was soothing, if a reluctant action.

And so, Max told her friend of the toils of that week. She omitted everything with Nathan to the best of her ability, especially the vision she had at the lighthouse. The butterfly, the bathroom, her getting shot—she didn’t know where to start with that one, let alone everything else. Though, afterward, she began to see just how much her position relied on Nathan’s presence. After all, she presumably rewound for the first time on their rainy drive from the diner. But the visions had started even before that. It all truly seemed to start with that illusionary blue butterfly.

Max felt too much conflict swirling in her head. It was like a hurricane.

“Holy shit, Max.” Chloe’s mouth fell ajar, and she was speechless. It still wasn’t any less weird to see her as such.

“I know. I sound completely…” She trailed with a long sigh.

“Insane.” Short, sweet, and to the point. It couldn’t be said any other way.

Max let out yet another shorter sigh mixed with a, “Yeah.”

Another moment of contemplated silence blossomed between them. It wasn’t an uncomfortable moment, but rather one of necessity. It felt like everything was starting to come to an over-boiling head, but she felt relief with her confiding.

“But…a cool kind of insane?” Chloe added. “I mean, if you’re not just fuckin’ with me.”

“No! Never!”

Chloe’s squinted. Not out of suspicion, but out of that childish curiosity Max recognized a mile away. Eventually accompanying it was a slow-spreading smile and the crossing of her legs and arms as she squished backwards into the old sofa.

“Hm. Okay, Long Max Silver, my frantic first mate. Let’s experiment!”

Max’s blinked, her eyes widening after. “Doing what, exactly?”

“Well, if you can rewind time, impress me! Do something…rewind-y!”

‘Oh-kay,’ she enunciated in her head. ‘But what?’

Max gave the room another lookabout, wondering how she could prove her prowess when Chloe piped up with an idea.

“Oh! I hella got this! If you can rewind time, what number am I thinking of right now?”

Max’s mouth twisted, “I can rewind time, not read minds, Chloe.”

“So?”

“So, I guess you gotta tell me what the number is first.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “La-a-a-ame.”

“It might be like I read minds when you tell me and I go back, though?” Max tried to hold her cool factor.

“Yeah, yeah. It was sixty-nine, by the way.”

Now it was Max’s turn to roll her eyes. “Dude. Seriously? Too…”

“Too…?”

“Too you.”

“Ah-ha. All right then. Fair enough. Now I’ll be thinking of…fifty-three! That’s random enough, right? Show me what you’ve got, Max!”

Max paused, preparing. This was really happening. Time to go big or go home for Chloe Price. She took in a long breath and held out her hand, summoning the force of gods to her will. The world slowed and blurred into a mixed vision of reds and oranges, like a developing photograph. She was getting used to it now. Chloe’s movements unnaturally contorted in reverse. Outside, a bird on the fence that had flown away unwillingly returned to its perch. The leaves in the wind redid their dance.

And then, she was back.

“Ah-ha,” Chloe began just as before. “All right then. Fair enough. Now I’ll be thinking of—”

“Fifty-three.”

Chloe literally took a step back. Her head tilted as she stared Max down, her expression widening. “W-what?”

“Fifty-three. Right?” Max smiled, her chest puffing outward with her somewhat-hidden smug façade.

As intimidating as Chloe appeared with her newfound look, she suddenly reverted back to her younger self, completely out of her element. “What the fuck? O-okay. No. You had a lucky guess! Fine then. Uh, now I’m going to think of eighty-one!”

So, Max rewound once again.

“…now I’m going to think of—”

“Eighty-one.”

Holding Max’s gaze, Chloe’s eyes widened once again, and then she squinted. Her mouth formed words of surprise, but no sound came out.

Max gave her a sheepish, if proud, grin. The giddiness she felt with her friend’s expressions was a new kind of high, and she wasn’t going to deny she liked it.

“No. Fucking. Way.”

And it continued like that for a while. More number guessing, messing with the TV guide and giving an entire day’s worth of shows that would be on that afternoon, even guessing what was in Chloe’s pockets after she emptied them on the dining table. Max rewound and gave her what she wanted every time. However, now Max was feeling the effects, and she had to stop. She held her head with a groan, the feeling of blood beginning to loosen in her nose.

“Hang on. Oh, shit! Sorry.”

“What are you sorry for? You can rewind time, Max! That’s fucking insane! We have to play!”

A chord was struck within her. What Chloe just said, she had heard it in the voices before. Her body tensed before stuttering, “I-I mean. This isn’t a-a toy, Chloe. It sort of,” she wiped her upper lip, “takes a lot out of me.” Max held up her bloodied finger, blinking away the pain.

“So you get a little nosebleed! Big deal! Of course this is a toy! Like, hello? Rewinding time? You know how much you can fuck with people?! Then BOOM!” she exclaimed and smacked the coffee table to drive her point home. “Go back like nothing ever happened! And we could—” Chloe let out a little gasp. It was filled with relief and excitement. “We could find out what’s been going on with Rachel.”

Max deeply frowned. “Yeah. Nosebleeds, headaches, and literal blackouts. Plus the visions and my crazy ghost clones? Have you been listening to anything I’ve said?”

“You scared?” Chloe gave her a sideways stare.

“Scared? I’m fucking terrified! Wouldn’t you be?”

“Aww,” Chloe’s tone dropped to a cooing babble with a pout to her lip, “that’s so cute. Max is afwaid of a widdle nightmawre.”

Max scowled. “Seriously, Chloe. I don’t want to overdo this. Whatever this really is. I mean, what if something happens? I don’t want to fuck myself up or…” she trailed off, fearing the worst if she even uttered it.

So, Chloe did it for her. “Die?”

Physically wincing, Max tilted her head to the side as her palm met the back of her neck. She could feel the muddy earth slip beneath her feet, the lighthouse’s metal clang, and the salty air try to snatch her away. “Yeah. Die.”

Chloe’s went through a multitude of facades: boredom, annoyance, and finally to one of utter penitence. With her reflective break, Max let out an internal breath of relief. At least Chloe had the mind to think of her wellbeing, but there was still a deep unnerving current coursing through her veins.

Or…was there a fate worse than death with this power?

Chloe regained her stance, if with a softer edge. “Don’t worry, Max. You’re totally strong. Stronger than you think you are. You’ve got this. We’ve got this. I know you’ve got my back. And I’ve got yours.”

“But,” Max started with another fear surfacing, “These powers,” she stopped again, another short breath leaving her lips. “They might not last.”

Chloe gave her a small smile with bright eyes. “That’s okay.” She slung a light arm around her shoulder. “We will. Forever.”

Max couldn’t suppress the large smile that came with those calm and reassuring words. Even though it felt like the world was against her, she was glad that she still had her best friend on her side.

As the hours passed, and the girls experimented more with Max’s ability—making sure to take ample breaks for Max to recharge, they did things they hadn’t done together in years. Drew pictures, played video games, even dug out some old-school board games and more photo albums, reminiscing over days gone by. It sort of made Max feel like an old woman, but it was a good feeling, and the best kind of reintegration. Arcadia Bay, Chloe Price, and an afternoon for only the two of them…

Max was home.

Despite it all, Nathan hung over the moment like a spider in its web, waiting for its prey. Waiting for her. And when Chloe finally drove Max back to Blackwell Academy, the darkening skies aglow with the bruising sunset, Max felt the weight of her descent into the web’s sticky depths.

And yet, she thought in secret, if it weren’t for Nathan, she may never have discovered her powers.

Max gave Chloe a wave and a secret snapshot with her new camera as she pulled out of the lot. Chloe called back, demanding to see the picture later. Max, of course, agreed with a wave and another smile, one that quickly faded once the blue-haired girl was out of sight.

She fingered William’s camera with nervousness. ‘Who am I kidding?’ she said to herself. ‘If it wasn’t for Nathan, I’d be a washed-up corpse on the sands of Arcadia. But, what do I say to him this time? What do I do?’

Tp…tp…tp…


Slowly, in rhythm, Max’s feet fell on the sidewalk up to the school. The sun had almost set by now. Max was brought back to the present with a sudden blast of cold wind. She held her ground and looked up at Blackwell’s courtyard. Small bunches of students and professors were in their associated cliques as they awaited the start of the football game. Across the street, at the field, the floodlights lit up the stadium. Faint cheering and the school’s marching band could be heard. Max took out her new camera and snapped another photo.

“Ahh. That feels good,” she said, shaking the Polaroid in familiar fashion. At this point, she needed something to take off the edge. She wondered if Nathan had done the same with his drug of choice. There was another second of hesitation on her end. Another evening with an inebriated Nathan was something she definitely didn’t want. Still, she pushed forward.

The pool doors were still as intimidating as ever, even more so now that the Vortex Club’s harsh, rhythmic beats weren’t mixing with her pounding heart. The cold, an acquainted friend to Max by now, accompanied her as she took a deep breath and entered the first hall.

As she did, Samuel met her halfway, wheeling an overflowing garbage bin from behind with one hand and pushing a mop bucket by its handle with the other. He looked both uncomfortable, yet in control with his own balance. Max felt for him. It had to be hell to have his job with the club’s parties.

“Hey, Samuel. Uh, need some help?” She reached out and pulled the handle of the mop.

“Ah. How do you do, young Max? Samuel thanks you, but I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?” She wheeled it to the side and wiped some moisture from the handle on her sweater with hidden, mild disgust.

The elder man nodded with a light smile before looking as though he had a thought. “Oh. Did you ever find your picture?”

“Oh, yeah! I, um, well…I found it. All in one piece. Thanks for keeping an eye out for me. Sorry I didn’t let you know sooner.” She gave an uneasy laugh. ‘Found’ was one way to put it.

Samuel shook his head. “No worries. I’m glad. I am also glad you seem to have found some relief your way.”

“Hm?”

“You seem less…chained down. More confident, if I may say so.”

The muscles in her lips gave a tug. She couldn’t hold back a tiny smile, even if Samuel’s manner was giving off mysterious vibes.

“I feel a little more confident.”

“That’s good.”

Samuel’s expression waned, as if he were holding something back. He pulled the garbage can and set it against the wall, looking through the set of doors he’d already come through. His face was alight from the vending machine’s colorful backlit logos.

Max gripped the strap of her bag, a cold sweat breaking out at the base of her neck. “Um. Was there something else you wanted to say?”

Samuel re-gripped the garbage bin and pushed the bucket forward once again. “There’s a different kind of chill in the air tonight.”

Silence pierced the hall. Max shivered. “W-What kind of chill?” She was afraid to ask. The atmosphere tightened.

“One of change. For better or worse, Samuel doesn’t know. It’s too…muddled. The squirrels have been more fidgety. Restless. As have I.”

Max didn’t know whether to laugh or shudder. She was stuck at an odd interval between. Samuel often spoke of the fauna of Arcadia Bay, having an affinity for it. The squirrels in particular, she noted. But that statement sounded nothing short of alien.

“I guess the animals have a way of sensing things. Unlike us.” Max admitted.

“Indeed.”

“What do you think they’re trying to say?”

“To get our shit together, if I may be frank,” Samuel responded whilst staring ahead, right through Max and to the outdoors. “But that’s another conversation for a later time.”

She half-nodded, forced a smile. She was getting more uncomfortable by the second.

“And Max? Be careful.”

She froze. “Wh-What?”

“I feel as though—”

He abruptly cut off. So, Max waited, the shudder violently drowning her urge to laugh by then.

“Your aura,” he continued, staring past her still. “Though its stronger, somehow it feels as though it’s…fading. Anyway, you should finish your business here and head back. The pool is closing for the night.”

She never thought to make an excuse for her being there that late, never thought about the pool’s official hours, or running into Samuel. Now she couldn’t think of anything let alone a concise excuse. Her mind was a terrified blank.

She had to snap out of it. “Uh! I—right! Just gonna…um…gonna grab a c-couple things. And maybe a-an application for the swim team, too.” She sounded and felt like she was fumbling a well-thought play.

“Tread carefully, young Max.”

Her heart skipped. More sweat pooled at the back of her legs and under her arms. The shudder had turned into full-blown goosebumps. Samuel only nodded a goodbye before stepping forward, pushing his way through the exit doors and leaving Max alone in an isolated disquiet. She squeezed her bag strap harder, the moisture now moving into her palms. She shook her head, breathed out, and heaved forward in her own direction into the room.

‘Okay. Officially freaked out now. Let’s just get this over with and get the hell out of here.’

As the space opened up, she immediately realized the difference in comparison to the morning hours, especially compared to last night. Now a calm, enveloping warmth hung in the air from the heated water. New chlorine made the place smell fresh. The stream-like reflections of water bounced on the tiles. Hypnotizing. Sedative. It was so serene that she actually jumped when her shoes gave a squeak on the clean floor. She looked around. From the unmoving remains of the party, to the listless ripples of the pool’s surface, everything was quiet.

Afraid of her own echo, she whispered in urgency, “Nathan?”

It then hit her that this might be the setup to a horrible joke. That possibly Nathan, Victoria, and the rest of the club were waiting to ambush her, to push her back in the pool, to make an even bigger fool of her on their recording device of choice. But then, would Nathan have tried to stop her in the lot earlier? Would he have sounded so desperate in that message? Max pushed away her conflicting thoughts. Confidence. She had to remember that she had that about her right now, and to own it. So what if that was fading? If that’s what Samuel meant. She hoped that’s what he meant.

She moved to the opposite side, underneath the upper level’s overhang. “Come on, Prescott, enough screwing around! I’m here, so what do you want?”

That felt better, even if it ground against her withdrawn tendencies. When only her reverberating voice answered, again she called, “Nathan!”

She then felt something small bop the top of her head. Max felt where it hit with a sound of exclamation and proceeded to watch its haphazard pattern turn into a roll off to her side. It fell to the floor with a tak! Her brows scrunched and she leaned down to pick it up. It was a purple, oblong thing, smaller than a marble, complete with a white imprinted S.

‘The hell?’

Max felt another bop to the head, and another similar piece fell to the floor. She snapped up to a figure sitting behind the guardrail above. A small grin greeted her, the boy’s body reflecting boredom, but his face reflecting familiar complacency.

“Taste the rainbow.” Nathan greeted, flicking another piece that Max promptly dodged. It rebounded into the pool.

She placed a hand on her hip, feeling her nerves twitch at the very sight of him. Of which gave her quite a shock. He blended into the darkness of the upper level, almost to a creepy degree. The blue jacket he now sported in place of his red one helped him with the camouflage. The rest of his darker ensemble further pushed him out of existence. She wondered if the red one was still wet from when he let her borrow it. Or maybe, because she had worn it for a moment, it was no longer worthy of him. She cringed at her hidden nihilism, but she wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.

“Very funny.” She had to clear her throat and balance on false courage. It took all she had to choke out those two words. She’d have to do better than that. She couldn’t think of last night. She couldn’t. Not now.

“I thought so,” he answered, his voice almost as shaky.

“Of course you thought so,” she muttered.

Nathan was having his own troubles. He thought seeing her now, in her normal attire and in a normal setting, he would be able to keep his cool. That wasn’t the case. That actually worried him. ‘Motherfucker…’

He kept his inner voice under lock and key. “Though, I just noticed I wasted a few cherry pieces on your ass.” Nathan stuck his legs through the bars and let them dangle with an uneven chuckle.

Envious of his assumed fortitude, Max adjusted her arms to a cross with a scoff. “Throw a grape one then, why don’t you?”

He put another in his mouth. “Fuck off. Grape’s good, too.”

Max stopped herself before she could snap back. She wasn’t about to have an asinine argument about candy flavors. She just wasn’t. She switched subjects. “Okay, how you get my number? Because, seriously, not cool.”

He let out a short chord of a conceited laugh. “Your dumb ass really doesn’t get the concept of ‘The Prescotts own Arcadia Bay,’ does it?”

And again, she was on the receiving end of an insult. All this just to have another bicker session with him? Not today. She wanted to put all this behind her and move on.

“Yeah, I get it, Nathan. But, despite what you said the other day, you don’t own me.”

“With the right price, I’m sure I could change your mind for a night or two.” He said, the side of his mouth crudely twisting upward with the lewd joke.

Max shot him a disgusted look. “Ugh! Can you not? I’m so done with all this shit! First with Chloe in the parking lot, and now blowing up my phone? You’ve made it pretty clear that you don’t want to talk, or have anything to do with me. So, what the hell do you want?”

Nathan’s brows rose and the sneer he had dissipated for a look of guilt. The situation was a cruel, karma-filled irony. He expected her to be fed up as much as he was, and he was tired. So tired. After everything that had happened between them with the addition of the events at the estate, he wanted to cut to the chase as much as she did. He stood up and leaned over the bars, resting his head on his arms.

“Look,” he huffed, “I want to talk. I do. All right?”

She wasn’t letting her guard down that easily, and she became nervous with his sudden calm. “Really. After all that, why now?” She paused, waiting for a punch line, waiting for club members to pop out of designated hiding spots, waiting for…something. “What’s the catch?”

Nathan straightened and ground his jaw, his voice growing in a crecendo. “Catch? For the love of—Would you chill the fuck out for two seconds? Jesus! Give me a minute.”

He figured this ordeal wasn’t going to go well, but his own impatience was getting the better of him. Nathan swung around and headed down the set of stairs to meet her on the ground floor, hovering in the stairwell’s doorframe before edging himself forward in an adrenaline-filled rush. His body tensed with every step.

Max’s vision fell to the floor, right along with her nerve. His approach was fast and with purpose. She couldn’t meet his intense, ice-like stare, her conviction at a rapid decline, and her blood at a rapid increase. She continued to curse herself out as his footsteps mimicked booming thunder in the room’s acoustics, all becoming a muffled drum in her ears. He came to a halt mere inches in front of her with another squeak from the freshly-mopped floor. Again, she jumped, feeling pathetic.

And Max would be damned if he wasn’t wearing that same scent of his again, taking her right back to last night—lights flashing, a barrier of people’s legs enclosing them, the uncertainty in his eyes as they leaned into one another. She wished she could shut off all her senses as her hands fidgeted with a button on her bag. With her voice stuck in her throat, her earlier fumble with Samuel continued, twisting into a tumultuous nosedive. She contemplated rewinding, but it quickly passed.

Nathan plunged his hands in his pockets and grimaced. “Look, Caulfield, I…I just…” He brought out and ran one of his clammy palms through his hair, struggling to find words himself.

Max was still messing with the button on her bag, her chest pounding so hard she was afraid he could hear it. She thought, like this, maybe she could get through the meeting without becoming a babbling train wreck. That is, until Nathan’s stiffened fingers pressed into her shoulder, followed by an irritated growl.

“Ow! Hey!”

“Look at me so you know I’m being serious!”

There it was again. The same desperation in his voice like in the message he left. She slowly looked up to meet his softened blues, the ice melted once again. While she counted in her mind, trying not to look like the doe in his headlights all over again, Nathan began to play a familiar game of connect-the-dots with her speckled face.

Nathan started, breaking out of their accustomed awkwardness, “About—” he pulled in his lower lip for a second, “About last night…”

‘Oh, hell.’ All of Max’s joints locked, and she knew the blood dam she tried to create had failed her, and a blush began to surface.

He felt her shift and tried not to follow, tried to keep talking to keep himself on track. “And not just the party. Also with what happened at the diner. The lighthouse. The drive back to—” He stammered as he gained a faraway look, not unlike Samuel moments before. “When I hit the—” It went back to determination with a breath. “The doe.”

She stayed still and patient, becoming lax with his opening.

“I—” He shifted his feet, looking down and locking his knees.

He just couldn’t seem to finish his sentence. Max’s face dropped before Nathan eventually completed the impossible.

“I’m sorry.”

Max took a literal step backwards, her whole expression widening. The week’s events rushed by like a blur in her mind. She didn’t know how to respond. She must have clearly been exhibiting her disbelief, as Nathan now looked like the one stuck in the high beams.

“What?”

He rolled his widened, nervous eyes and shifted his feet, looking like jittery toddler, visibly trying to keep his frustration at bay. “I’m sorry! I—” he caught himself mid-sentence and returned to a more serious tenor. “I’m sorry, Max. For…everything.”

The silent seconds ticked by. He let them as the ‘everything’ he mentioned began to drive the knife of guilt deep in his chest. However, much to his—and her—surprise, Max had a slow, genuine smile start to spread from ear to ear. One of her brows rose when she spied Nathan’s face beginning to shimmer a rosy pink like hers in the dim, blue light. It could only be magnified with the lack of his red jacket. Now, he was having trouble regaining eye contact with her.

Max felt like giggling. He looked so flustered. She had to get in a last dig. But she would remember to keep herself in line with the candidness he expressed. For her, it was a miracle he apologized in the first place. Even more of a miracle that he actually sounded like he meant it.

“Wow. Nathan Prescott, the King of Blackwell, apologizing to a lowly peon like me? That’s one for the papers.”

Nathan turned more away with a scoff. He hated that given title, and it made him squirm. “Ha-fuckity-ha. Like I haven’t heard that one before. If you actually knew me, you wouldn’t be saying stupid shit like that.”

Unexpectedly, to herself once again, Max stepped forward to lay a calming hand on his arm and shook her head. “Relax, Nathan. If you knew me, you’d know I was just kidding.”

She let go after her statement, realizing her unnecessary action wasn’t helping matters. His strained expression was also telling her to step back. Her hand then retreated to her neck, and she cleared her throat.

When he stayed quiet, scratching at the spot where she touched, she couldn’t help but continue to ask, “So, does that mean you did accept my ‘shitty apology’ from that time?”

His eyes snapped back to hers. “Whu—? Uh. Yeah. I guess.” His hands returned to his pockets and his jaw did its trademark slide. He wasn’t expecting that response. “Whatever.”

Max emphasized with her own lazy eye roll. “Jeeze. Then, I accept yours. I guess,”

He lowered his vision to slits and locked his steely blues with hers. Their stances bolstered their own inner strengths as the rapids around them evened to a serenity that could mimic that of the pool. There was a fresh harmony between the two, but they wouldn’t admit their relief.

Before long Nathan closed his tired eyes with a sigh. “Barbs and sarcasm as always, aren’t you, Caulfield?” he said in a drone, hiding his emotions.

“As much as you are broody and hotheaded, Prescott. Also…I win.”

“Don’t call me broo—wait, what?”

Her lips curled, smug. “You blinked.” She wavered, but then sprinkled the addition she wanted with bravado. “Loser.”

Nathan should have been annoyed, should have snapped back at her without delay. It was in his nature. But he didn’t. In fact, like Max, he felt a smile begin to form. It was a strange, but welcoming feeling. And though it was played up as half-assed with a dash of derision—something he figured he deserved—Max’s acceptance to his apology helped.

“What-the-fuck-ever.” He dragged, his tone betraying his hard words, the smile broken through.

Max let out a breath of laughter. “So, um…besides that, you wanted to talk?” she asked mildly, a new blush forming over her nose. She didn’t want to egg him back into a state of anger; the rare sight was a victory she wanted to bask in a little while longer.

Right. That. With his mildly-wounded pride, Nathan straightened and edged himself into the next step of the conversation. The image of the painting hung in the back of his mind, haunting him. He felt the photograph in his pocket.

“We both saw that…thing.” He gulped, his throat feeling like sandpaper. “But I don’t know how, or where it came from. I mean, it was—” He stopped abruptly this time, furrowing his brows before continuing. “It was dead.”

He wanted to say, ‘I killed it,’ like before, but this time the words got stuck. It hurt.

Max nodded, her weight shifting, her hand squeezing her opposite arm. There were a lot of things that she thought were impossible. Like seeing that specter. Like Nathan apologizing. Like rewinding time. If anything, she was getting used to impossible. She didn’t think she should be this comfortable with impossible, but fuck it. Here she was.

“What about you?” he asked, his voice rushed, obviously looking for answers as well. Answers she didn’t have any more than he did.

Though, maybe she did know something, but didn’t know it herself. Maybe it had something to do with her power. But how could she even begin to explain that to him?

She shook her head. “I have no idea. And I’m telling the truth. I thought maybe you would have known…I dunno. Something.” Now she was trailing.

Nathan bit the inside of his cheek. “How the hell could I? It fucked me up as much as you!”

Max’s face fell. “Then…how…?” She was at a new loss for words.

A swarm of curses ran through Nathan’s head. She was with him in Joseph’s painting. So was that apparition. There had to have been some kind of connection. He had an overwhelming urge to tell her about it all—the journal, the painting, even his nightmares—but the immediate fear of castigation stopped him. He wasn’t about to sound any crazier than what everyone already thought he was, especially not to her. Not after he’d done so well to get this far. Yet the urge hung, and he could only splutter.

Nathan dragged his cold hands to he back of his hot neck. His body twisted, and he retreated slightly with a sharp exhale. “Shit!” He bent his head up and closed his eyes, repeating himself. “Shit.”

Max stepped toward him in response. Her stomach flipped. Something about all this didn’t feel right. “Nathan?”

“So, you don’t know anything? Nothing?”

She frowned and shook her head again, gnawing at her lower lip. She, too, wanted to tell him everything. Hiding the truth from him hurt more now than she wanted to admit, especially seeing him like this, so gallingly open and honest.

“Me either.” He repeated, his voice tighter, “Me either…”

Max suddenly felt completely useless, unable to help, unable to find something to say. So absorbed into the moment, she realized she was still in the recreation building, alone, with Nathan Prescott. But…there was no cruel prank waiting for her, Nathan had legitimately apologized, and now all she could do was stand there as she saw him struggle to find logic in madness. She knew how he felt. There was an invisible weight bearing down on him that was transferring to her, and hers to him, creating a distorted balance in the chaos. Nevertheless, she knew no more than he. And it began to dawn on them both that they were equally lost.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her gaze dropping back to her shoes. Her hands squeezed her bag strap. They were clammy again.

“What the hell for? You didn’t do shit.”

“I know, but…”

“All of this is just—” He couldn’t find a word to finish.

“Fucked.”

Tilting his head up, he shook his head, nodded, and rubbed his face with a whine all at the same time. Max’s brows knitted, wanting to do the same. As his hands came up from being once more placed in his jacket, something fluttered out of his pocket. Max stopped and leaned down to pick up the piece. Nathan continued to pace, his form now at a constant shift, unaware.

‘A photo?’

The composition consisted of a couple on a beach. They looked happy. Max’s skin felt electrified with the energy that filled the picture’s edges. Nathan was still muttering to himself as Max looked it over. The echo of the room seemed to grow.

“Um, Nathan? You dropped th—” Her eyes never left the picture, studying it and taking it in. She couldn’t tear away. And then she realized the echo wasn’t just growing. The photograph was moving, blurring.

Just like the one of her and Chloe.

There was a flash before Max could fully realize what was happening. She then heard the voices in full. Their laughter mixed with the cry of seagulls and the whitecaps against the shore. The salty air, the bright sun, the whisper of the trees. It was like she had been sectioned off from Nathan. It was like she had been whisked away to…

Max looked up. “Oh.” Max said aloud. Her voice sounded far away. She swallowed, paralyzed in fear. “Oh, no.”

She wasn’t in the recreation building anymore. She was on the warm beach from the picture—Arcadia Bay’s beach—staring down the couple in the photograph who were coming to life with their jubilance. The lighthouse winked at her in the distance with the sun’s evening glow. But the sky…

‘Fuck! What’s happening now?! Where am I?’ She gasped. ‘WHEN am I?’

While the lighting reflected dusk, the sky itself was a mass of red, bloody wisps. A boundary containing the unknown. They resembled the streams of the pool, only inverted. Haunting and mystical in their own way. Was the flashback with William like this? She couldn’t remember, couldn’t think at all in her panic.

The woman from the photograph leaned forward, holding the top of her sun hat with a loud laugh. Some of her thin, shoulder-length locks whipped into her mouth as she dramatically spat it out and put it behind her ear after the gust.

“Whoa! That was a big one!”

The man holding her up ran his hand through his wavy hair after he helped catch her balance. An airy chuckle left his peachy lips. “Better tie some weights to your ankles, Susan, or you’re bound to blow away!”

“Well, if I hang on to you, Arcadia will have to reconsider its weather forecast, won’t it?” the woman named Susan replied, a tentative smile behind her words.

“I…won’t always be around to be your anchor.” The man sounded like he forced his lack of empathy, a despondent look in his eye rather than firm.

Susan pursed her lips. “Oh, of course. Excuse me while I,” she picked up some of the sand beneath their feet, “stuff some of this in my pockets. Hold on.”

“No! Don’t—Susan!” The man broke down into a fit of laughter as she did. It was a warm, pleasant sound. A better fit for him.

Grainy bits leaked out and down her dress. She didn’t seem to care her ensemble was getting ruined. “There! No worries, Joseph. At least now your grandfather can say I’m weighed down enough to keep my head out of the clouds, right?”

“Ha! Very true.” Joseph wrapped an arm around Susan’s waist and kissed her cheek. In turn, she dragged a sandy hand against his with another upsurge of her own.

Max didn’t move. She dare not even breathe as another flash came and went. She then heard a familiar procession whirr. ‘A camera…?’

“Are those for your client as well, Lorraine?” Max heard a harrowing voice from behind. The person sounded derogatory and cross, even though there was lark at the end of their quip.

Another answered, their speech honeyed and sanguine, sounding like it came from the very spot in which Max stood. “Don’t worry, Sean. I’ll get my work done when I can. Let’s just relax for the day, okay?”

‘Sean?’ With the thought of the photograph she held and its current proprietor, Max found a correlation. ‘Sean Prescott?’

Her fear became her strength as she peeked through her peripherals. There was another man, more robust and paler than the other, clean-shaven with a tamer, slicker hairstyle. He wore a pair of square glasses that he pressed up on the bridge of his hawk-like nose. The khaki pants and crimson vest he wore fluttered in the wind. He looked displeased, crossing his arms with a frown. It was indeed Sean Prescott. There was no mistaking him. But he was much younger than the tyrant she glimpsed on the day of the assembly. A rather meek-looking young adult he was, very different than the intimidating powerhouse that had Arcadia Bay under his thumb present day.

Finding her courage, Max finally took a second to look down at her hands. She was transparent once again. Now she understood why they were paying her no mind. Her suspicious were true. She had gone back in time. This time through Nathan’s photograph. But how far? Surely before she was ever conceived, a fact made more apparent when there were no other phantom Maxes in sight. She felt zaps across her skin that turned into dreadful weights.

She was alone.

Sean gave a grunt of disapproval. “Susan needs to be at home, in bed. And you need to focus on your work. And Kristine—”

“—is fine with Dad and Grandad,” the smooth voice that was Lorraine finished for him. She swerved around and held him by the shoulders. “Everything’s fine.” She dropped to a whisper, leaning into Sean’s ear. “Susan needs this. Joseph, too.”

Lorraine, the one whose voice seemed to overlay Max’s presence for the longest time, had stepped forth and out of Max’s position to get to Sean. Her long, sandy hair fluttered with another building breeze, its natural wave bouncing with her step. When she turned, her features more prominent for Max’s gaze, they struck her. Max felt her mouth slightly come ajar. The woman had a softer jawline, but her eyes, her nose, her lips…

Everything about her resembled Nathan.

“Look! Look, there’s one! There! See? Lorraine, get the camera ready!” Susan waved one of her arms and pointed at the water.

There was a loud fizzing blast on the horizon. Breaking the surface of the waves was a whale. It sang out an evocative cry. Another followed with a cry of its own. They melded together as their dorsal fins grazed the world above only to revert below within seconds. Lorraine stood a ground, readying the instrument in her hands. It gave off several more flashes before she let it droop around her neck once again.

“Those are going to be awesome! Can’t wait to see them developed! Good eye, Susan!” Lorraine complimented with a large grin.

“More like good timing. Joseph said they’d be around right about now.” Susan fondly gazed at him. “He was right. Though, you were always good at predicting things,” she said to the motionless man.

Joseph gave off a strange expression before pushing through it with a light smile. “Well, when you’ve lived here all your life, you start to see patterns. Right, Sean?”

Sean responded not with words, but a rather threatening glare. Max felt another imaginary icicle slide down her back.

Susan chuckled, a nervous tick behind it. She then relieved her pockets of sand, brushing her palms together and any remaining grains away from her dress. “Let’s go up to the lighthouse then! I’d love to see it at sundown. I felt like we haven’t been there since we were in high school.”

Joseph bobbed his head with an expression of agreement. “That’s more than likely the case. We’ve been so busy that…” He stopped. “I’ve been so busy that…” Joseph then cleared his throat with a hand to his mouth. He was having troubles articulating himself. “Anyway, you sure you’re up for the climb?”

“Always.” Susan skipped over to Lorraine and took her hand, an attractive blush adorning her contours. “We can all go. Right?”

Lorraine cast Sean a look of compromise to which Sean sighed and firmly nodded. Sean lagged behind as the two girls went ahead. He glanced back to Joseph. They shared looks of disparity.

“If Grandfather finds out we’ve been mucking about on the beach—”

“Dad can keep him quiet for now.”

“Dad can’t keep anyone quiet! Not anymore! You have responsibilities, Joseph. So do I. But here I am again, cleaning up your mess! Covering your ass! All for the sake of—”

Joseph’s jaw locked before he bit back, “All for the sake of what, Sean? The Prescott legacy? For fuck’s sake! Missing one goddamn conference at the library changes nothing! All we’re asking for is a little time.

“It’s not just about today’s conference! And you know that! And there is no time!” Sean hissed, his final exclamation carrying a melancholic heft.

Brows rising before placing his hands in his pockets, Joseph scoffed. “Wow. You sound just like Grandad anymore, you know that?”

“And anymore, you sound just like our father.” He said it through his teeth.

Sean then whirled around. He was done talking. He left the sand and met the boardwalk as he and the girls faded into the veiny distance. Joseph stayed behind, watching them go, his kind, soft features becoming hard as stone. It was like he gained ten years within ten seconds. Max felt a deep sense of emptiness wash over her as Joseph rubbed his temples.

When he did so, it was as if he was soothing Max’s headache as well, of which was starting to affect her ability to see straight. She was beginning to lose her hold on the memory. Groaning, she squeezed her eyes shut to recoup.

‘Siblings…Brothers…’

However, when she opened them, they widened, bulged.

Joseph was looking right at her.

The wind whistled and the trees’ leaves hissed like a thousand snakes. A flock of seagulls fluttered above, some heading down to land nearby and pick at the trash in the sand. Their gazes held.

His powerful stare tore through her every fiber, not unlike the boy’s she left behind. With it, she turned to ice.

There was another cry from the ocean, more melancholic than the others. A lone whale, so much louder than the others. It was deafening. It filled her ears until they felt like they were going to burst.

“Caulfield!”

She was bathed in blue light and awoke to impatient fingers snapping in her face. She yelped and jumped back. Her eyes adjusted, pupils dilating to the darkness as she looked up to a bewildered Nathan.

“The fuck is wrong with you?” he asked, masking his breathless concern with one of his trademark pissed-off expressions.

All Max could do was stare ahead in utter confusion. The light of the water bounced across the room, across their persons. She was back again. Dumbfounded, she held up the photograph.

“Y-you dropped this,” she said, her voice a weak croak. She felt as foolish as she sounded, but her position was stacked against her. What could she possibly say to defend herself now?

The corners of Nathan’s mouth lifted, his brows knitting tight, confirming her exposure. He stepped up and snatched the photo, glancing at it and then back to Max after thumbing its edge. Something more about her got his immediate attention.

“The, uh, weather getting to you again?”

“W-what?” She was still in space.

Nathan pivoted, leaning in close. He hesitated for a split second, but then took his thumb and ran it under her nose. She gasped, reminded of that rainy night in his truck, and snapped back to reality as he held u