The previous evening’s nightmare was still bouncing around in the freckled girl’s head, as clarity and wakefulness returned. Thoughts of her successful gallery showing in Atlanta and her meeting later in the day with Victoria Chase, her former nemesis from Blackwell who now ran her parents’ gallery in Seattle, helped to stifle the uneasy feelings that boiled up from her dream. At least once per week, Max Caulfield suffered from nightmares that only existed because of the horrors she had experienced firsthand.
She survived and escaped the darkroom, where a psychopath captured, drugged, and intended to murder her as he did countless other female victims in the past. She also survived an encounter with The Watcher, a powerful entity who existed outside of time and held her in a torturous trance. Max and Chloe’s love for each other was so pure and so strong, even The Watcher never stood a chance.
As distance from the dream helped to ease its burden, Max knew they needed to get up and get moving. “Good morning, babe,” the brunette whispered in her lover’s ear, only to be attacked with a surprise onslaught of kisses and lighthearted tickling. “I’ll never get tired of waking up next to you.”
“Hey, love,” the beautiful former bluenette responded with a luminous grin, “How are you feeling? It took you a while to get back to sleep after that bad dream.” Chloe tucked a strand of brown hair behind her fiancé’s ear, sweeping it out of her eyes.
“I’m fine, I think. They didn’t used to seem so real. That one last night was literally my worst nightmare. It was terrible.”
“None of the dream recognition exercises work anymore?” Chloe was propped on her side using her elbow for support. She never broke eye contact, paying attention to the only thing that mattered in her world. Two pairs of radiant sapphire eyes locked together with a powerful and tidal pull that even the universe would not dare disturb.
“They work most of the time, but this last one felt nothing like a dream. It doesn’t matter, though, it’s over now and I’m here with you.” Using the tips of her fingers, Max began lightly brushing her partner’s right arm where her blackened tattoo seemed more like a shadow as the dim light of dawn pushed its way through her upstairs bedroom window in her parents’ house.
“No matter how bad the nightmares get, just remember… well, you know… we’re Max and Chloe. Nothing will ever keep us from each other.”
“So goopy, Price… so damn goopy,” the dark-haired girl responded with a teasing smirk, beaming in her lover’s direction, who countered with another attack of tickles and playful groping. Max hated being tickled in general, but loved every second of it from this girl, who was not just any girl. She was THE girl… HER girl. Nothing in the universe could ever change how deep and pure their love was for one another.
“I’m goopy because of your beautiful heart, Maxi Max. Anyway, we need to start getting ready for our meeting with Victoria. Why the hell couldn’t we just meet her in the afternoon? This early morning shit is still tough. If I’m awake I want to spend my time alone with you.” Chloe never liked waking up too early. When she was a teen, it was rare to see her up before noon. Now that she was the manager, half-owner of M3, and eternally motivated by her soulmate, she got up closer to midmorning.
“Think we have time for a shower?” the younger girl taunted with one eyebrow raised a little higher than its companion.
“We?” she questioned, with a bouncing hopefulness in her voice. “I love the way you think. You’re so sexy, Max. Goddamn, I can’t get over how lucky I am.” Chloe leaned in for a gentle, yet electric kiss then moved back. “I don’t give a shit if we’re late. You. Me. Right now.” She helped her best friend up interlocking their fingers, then lead her to the restroom. On the way, she dragged her lips across the side of her partner’s neck, evoking several barely audible pleasured grunts. They stopped caring if Max’s parents noticed them a while back. Although the wedding wasn’t until the following month, Ryan and Vanessa already began referring to Chloe as their daughter-in-law.
After shower-time, the girls helped each other get ready as they typically did. Max wore her favorite grey high-waisted, tight-fitting trouser pants with black four-inched block suede heels and a dark green, short-sleeved button-up shirt. Part of her did not want to dress up since it was just Victoria they were meeting, but she was a bit nervous and felt she needed to maintain a professional appearance. They had several phone conversations and exchanged an email or two, so this would not be the first time they had spoken, but it would be the first time they had met since the week of the storm.
Chloe wore a white She-Ra graphic tee under a pale blue twill blazer with tight-cut, dark blue jeans and bright teal tennis shoes. It was the dressiest the girl ever got, and Max loved every second of it. They still owned the photographer’s silver Hyundai Accent but had added a blue Subaru Outback to their vehicle collection, and they took the Subaru on longer trips.
After a quick breakfast and coffee, the girls were on the road headed towards the Chase Space. It used to be rare that Max drove the pair, as Chloe felt an obligation to be her best friend’s life-long chauffeur. But Max recently insisted on driving more. She wanted her fiancé to feel like they were truly in a partnership and it wasn’t so one-sided. “Now, Chlo, Victoria called us, we didn’t call her, please remember. There’ll be no need for you to play hardball and push too much. I know your wit and tough pressure has gotten us into other galleries before, but let’s go easy on her. We’re basically locked in; their promotional material already features M3.”
“Ten-four, Sergeant Caulfield,” the girl in the passenger’s seat saluted. “Dude, I got this. I really don’t anticipate this meeting taking very long at all. Slam, bam, thank you muh bitches!” The inflection in Chloe’s tone and the way she delivered that last line, made Max cackle so hard she snorted, jerking the steering wheel. “Whoa, Maxter, are you okay? That snort was brutal, and you swerved two lanes. Good thing there’s not a lot of traffic yet.”
“Dammit, Chlo,” the freckled driver chortled. “It’s not my fault you’re hilarious.”
“Just don’t kill us in a head-on collision with a semi-truck, babe.” The girl in the passenger’s seat was merely joking, but after the words left her mouth, Max shuddered, thinking again about the previous evening’s nightmare. “Damn, Max, your expression just sank like a bag of bricks. Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry. I promised myself I’d never talk about my nightmares, Chlo, I don’t wanna drag you down, but I’d like to share this one. It was horrible, and I think it’d help me if I talk to you about it.”
“Then tell me, Maximus. Also, I never understood your rule about not sharing them with me. I mean, I get it. You think by telling me it will upset or hurt me, and you love me too much to do that. Is that about it?”
“Mhmm,” the driver confirmed. “Well, I’m just gonna say it. The dream started with my mom waking me up and telling me you had been in an accident. You went headfirst into an 18-wheeler. A good portion of the day crept by, and we awaited news or any word of your surgery. Everyone was there too, David and Karen, even my parents. It took so long! I left for the restroom and came back to see the doctor telling everyone you didn’t make it. He came up to me and said you had some final words.” Max stopped and sniffled for a moment before continuing. “You had called out for me and said, ‘Even when we’re not.’ That’s when I woke up. Chlo, it was so fucked up.”
“Fuck, Max. Geez! No wonder that shook you so much. Holy shit. I’m so sorry, love.” The older girl confidently latched onto her best friend’s hand, weaving their fingers tightly together between their seats. She reached over with her other arm and gingerly rubbed her companion’s right shoulder. Several seconds of silence fell between them until Chloe finally said, “But you do know, Max, if something that bad ever happened to me… we’re Max and Chloe, our love will always find a way. Death can’t even keep us apart, not for a goddamn second.”
The driver peacefully grinned at her lover’s words. She recalled what she learned from The Watcher about the yin and the yang and the atomic level stuff, and her heart was at ease. She knew moving forward, last evening’s nightmare wouldn’t bother her anymore. “Thank you, Chlo. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
The trip from Ryan and Vanessa’s house to Victoria’s gallery took nearly an hour and some change. As they approached the main highways, traffic began to bottleneck. Without rush hour traffic, the trip would probably take closer to half an hour. Max was a much more patient driver than her fiancé, as it had been instilled in her to obey laws and stay safe, for the most part. However, under the good-bad influence of the one and only Chloe Price, with whom she went everywhere, she had loosened up and hence routinely pushed the limit by ten miles per hour. Her future wife would have had a middle finger in the air at least twice by this point.
They pulled up to the front entrance of the gallery and made their exits from the silver sedan. “Damn, I need to stretch,” the strawberry blonde commented. “My legs are noodles after that drive. I guess when you’ve been on the road for years then you settle down a bit, it takes time to get back in the swing of things.” The girls joined hands in front of the car and crossed at the crosswalk that lead to the large glass doors.
Before entering, Max stopped Chloe and admitted, “I’m nervous, Chlo. Not sure why. We’ve done this dozens of times.”
“It’s because it’s Victoria. She was a total bitch when we were kids, and now you two are peers in the real world. But Max, if we’re being honest, your success has been self-made and you’re literally a living legend in the photography world. You have absolutely nothing to be nervous about. This residency will mean a lot to you, I know. But Maxine Caulfield having an exclusive long-term showing here, will mean even more to the Chase Space. Those fuckers are lucky as shit.” Chloe leaned over and pecked Max on the cheek causing the corners of the photographer’s mouth to curl upward.
“Thanks, babe. I love you.”
“Love you too, Maxi.”
Inside, the pair was immediately welcomed by the front desk attendant who paged Victoria’s business partner Jessica. Thirty seconds later, the middle-aged woman turned the corner and greeted the girls with a large smile on her face. “Welcome to the Chase Space, ladies. We are super-duper thrilled to have you with us.” Her excitement seemed a bit much, but Max and Chloe were getting used to folks being overly welcoming and friendly to them. “I know you guys are friends with Victoria, and that’s probably how we landed such an amazing talent as yourself, but just know, you’re in good hands here. We are all about sharing your art with the world. It’s all about you.”
“Well, thank you, Jessica. The honor is all ours, though.” She was much more confident now than in her younger days, but she never saw herself as above anyone else. Despite her massive success in the photography world, Max’s humility never changed. “This place is gorgeous. I love the hardwood mosaic floor designs. Your gallery is much bigger than I had imagined.”
“It’s huge,” her M3 partner added. “I would have guessed it would be much smaller. No offense. The pictures on your website leaves a ton to be imagined. What’s that up there?” She pointed to an upstairs area that overlooked the gallery lobby.
“When Victoria took the ownership role, she convinced me an expansion was necessary. We just opened our Chase Space Lounge restaurant upstairs – great food and full bar. With the addition of your artwork, we have lofty goals this year.”
“Speaking of Victoria,” Max questioned, “where is she?”
“Victoria offers her apologies; she’ll be in a little later. There was one final meeting with the lawyers to resolve her parents’ will, and she had to be present. She said you two would understand. She’d love to have lunch with you in our new restaurant when she arrives. Until then, can I walk you around and show you our vision for your work?” Jessica’s overly large smile seemed out of place, but Max did not doubt the woman’s sincerity.
The Chase Space partner lead them around, showing the girls the entire gallery. They planned to showcase Max’s INSTANT collection as the main pieces in their feature corner. Max wondered how Victoria really felt about the photos she made fun of being featured as the main attraction in her own gallery. The girl she knew in high school would be jealous, and it would be tough for her to be around Max’s photography like this. After the several phone conversations they had leading up to this day, Max felt she was genuinely glad to have her there and any past hostility would be nothing to worry about.
After the tour, Jessica brought them into the business office to go over contracts and other paperwork necessary for a six-month residency. Chloe excelled at the contractual stuff, and Max was glad she did not have to deal with most of it. When Chloe agreed, she would sign her name in the hundred spots where it was required.
Jessica became a very smart businessperson over the years. She wrote a section into the contract requiring Max to offer exclusive pieces to line their main hall. It wasn’t an uncommon request, but Chloe did not always allow it. It depended on how many pieces, type of shots requested, and the percent of net revenue the pair would get to keep.
“The numbers look really good, Jessica, but I have a question. What type of exclusives are you looking for? At that profit line, we shouldn’t have a problem with any request within Max’s style.”
“We have done our homework. Your top sellers online are the blog piece photos, but the ones that perform the best in the gallery setting are from your INSTANT collection. We would love to recapture those moments but with your updated style.”
“What does that mean specifically?” Max asked. “I don’t use the instant camera anymore.”
“Specifically,” Jessica responded, “we want to take shots from the INSTANT era, and recreate those images using your newer camera.”
“That collection features Chloe 75% of the time. Are you saying you want us to take photos of her, and you want us to have her look the same as she did then?”
“Precisely. Victoria and I have picked through the collection and decided on twenty pieces we want to line the main hall. All but one has Chloe in them. If that’s a problem, we can always work around it. This would just be our ideal preference.”
“I don’t know if it’s a problem. I mean, for me, I would love to take more pictures of Chloe. She’s my favorite thing to shoot; she’s my muse. But I’m sorta torn.”
“So,” Chloe voiced her opinion, “if you want me to go back to the blue hair, I’ll need to think about it. The tat has been mostly covered, but I might be fine going blue again for the shoot, only if Max is fine with it, she’s the boss after all.”
“I loved your blue hair,” Max vacillated. “I’m just concerned with the timing. Our wedding is in a month and I really want your hair natural when we say, ‘I do’. Let me think on it.”
“Victoria was afraid it would be a hard ‘no’ from you. The four of us know what you went through back in Arcadia Bay, and she didn’t think you would be open to revisiting the days leading up to the storm. Quite frankly, she has had it rough since then. I apologize for bringing it up, everyone seems unwilling to really discuss much about that time, but here we are. We want exclusives that recapture those moments, mainly from a business and artistic standpoint.”
“Let’s take that portion out of the main contract and add it as an addendum,” Chloe decided. “We’re ready to sign everything but that part right now. We’ll discuss it this evening and have an answer in the morning. Does that work for you?”
“That sounds great, ladies. It really is an honor having you here. Contractual items used to be handled by Victoria’s father. I picked up a lot of business sense from him along the way, but my main passion is the art.” Jessica’s cellphone chirped, and she checked her message. “Oh, that’s Victoria. She’ll be in shortly. Would you like to head upstairs for a bit of an early lunch after we sign these papers?”
“I’m starving,” Max declared. “Toast and coffee only go so far.”
The three women finalized the contracts, completed payment forms, and shook hands. The engaged couple headed up the escalator on the outer wall from the gallery lobby and were seated at a table in the restaurant. The server came over to take their drink order.
“What’s on draft?” the older girl asked, smirking in her partner’s direction.
“It’s not even noon yet,” the photographer complained.
“You didn’t used to care about that a while back. All this talk about blue hair is making me wanna have a damn beer.”
“You know what?” Max decided. “I’ll take what she’s having. We don’t have anywhere to be today. Why the hell not?” The server walked over to the point-of-sale terminal and entered their drink orders.
“Ooh la la, Max. You drinking beer is a huge turn on.” To the other four occupied tables and the serving staff, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. To Max, she felt her fiancé’s foot beneath the table and tablecloth grazing her inner thigh.
“Chlo, are you really gonna do this right now, right before Victoria shows up? I mean, we can get outta here if you want. We’ll run into her at some point during the residency, I’m sure.”
“Nah, I’m looking forward to our beers. We can hold out a little longer.” She withdrew her foot and slipped it back in her shoe, raising both eyebrows in the process. “What are you getting, Max.”
“I’m getting ready to attack you,” she relied with a tilt of her head and a bite of her bottom lip. “Actually, I haven’t even looked at the menu.”
“Down girl. You can wait. I’m thinking chicken and waffles. It sounds hella good right about now.”
“Chicken and waffles plus beer? Yuck. I’ll probably just get a burger and fries. Can’t go wrong.”
“Max, Chloe.” A familiar voice interrupted their banter. “What do you think about the place?” They hadn’t noticed Victoria Chase walk up to the side of the table, and, per usual, the rest of the world had been blocked out as the pair was focused on one another.
“Victoria,” the brunette stood up and responded. “It’s an amazing space.” Victoria leaned in and kissed the girl on one cheek then moved around to kiss the other. Max wasn’t accustomed to greeting in this manner, but just went with it. The gallery owner went around to the other side of the table and greeted Chloe the same way. Chloe squinted her face and wrinkled her nose to dramatically look disgusted, which made Max giggle a bit into her hands.
“We have an amazing chicken and waffle dish here at…”
“BOOYAH, MAX! IN YO FACE!” Chloe cut Victoria off to mock her fiancé, who started laughing even harder. The gallery owner looked confused, standing there peering back and forth between the two goofballs.
After a moment of laughter, Max gathered herself. “I’m sorry, Victoria. Why don’t you sit down? Jessica walked us through the gallery, and we’re all set on the residency in six weeks. Thank you again for thinking of me. I’m honored to be here.”
“I wasn’t sure if you’d want to come after our pasts, and now you’re the hottest name in photography. You’ve done quite well for yourselfie… I’m sorry, I had to. We have to be able to joke now, right?”
Max giggled a little and nodded, as Chloe rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you’re right. That was pretty funny. By the way, how are you? Not to dive right into our shared baggage, but I know it’s been rough for you.”
“It’s getting better. I know Chloe understands as much as I do, but losing your parents is really hard. I guess everyone eventually has to go through it, but I’ve kept busy. My life goal is to grow the Chase Space into the best gallery and entertainment venue in Seattle. With the restaurant and now your residency, we think it’ll be a great year.”
“Again, I’m honored, Victoria.”
The beers arrived and the three girls chatted about their lives. Most of the business talk was taken care of earlier with Jessica, which opened the door for more reminiscing and light chat.
“Chloe please don’t kick my ass, but Max, you’re so beautiful now. Not that you weren’t in high school, but you radiate confidence and just look great. You do too, Chloe. You’re perfect for each other. Maybe one day I’ll meet my perfect person. I just hope I haven’t met them already and missed my opportunity.”
“Take it from me,” the taller girl commented, “when you find that person, the opportunity will make itselfie available.” She smiled then leaned over and kissed her fiancé dominantly on the lips. Max was not sure if Chloe was feeling emotional or just wanted to mark her territory.
“Okay, okay,” Victoria joked. “I know you’ve had a couple of beers, but don’t make out in front of me, it’s uncouth.” They finished their meals and ordered coffees.
“This is on me by the way. I want to thank you for being so cool about everything. When I called you the first time, I was very nervous. I figured you hated my guts for my childish behavior when we were younger. You’ve always been such a strong woman; I knew you would be able to forgive me one day, and it looks like you have. Thank you for that. Worst case scenario, at least I hoped you would see the opportunity to help each other grow our businesses.”
“We’re glad to see you, Victoria. Personally, this residency means more to me than dollar signs. It was a chance to reconnect with you. In a different timeline, we could have been friends, even in high school. And being part of the Arcadia Bay survivor’s club, I think we have a bigger reason to at least try.” Max always cared about everyone around her. Even when Victoria was cruel and hurtful, she saw the best in her. She realized the girl had even lower self-esteem than she did back then, if that was possible.
When the coffee mugs were empty, the girls decided to part ways. After a stop in the Chase Space’s pristine restroom, Max and Chloe returned to the car and started for home. It was a couple of hours still before rush hour, so the trip back would be smooth, barring any wrecks or other issues. During the drive, Chloe asked, “What do you think about the blue hair, Maximus?”
“To be honest, it feels like a step backwards, Chlo. That time in our lives is behind us. I love where we are now and don’t want to feel like we’re moving in the wrong direction. But even more than that, I want our wedding to be perfect. I want to see you with your gorgeous natural hair standing next to me when we tie the knot.”
“Say no more, love. You’re the boss. I just wanted to let you know it wouldn’t bother me if you wanted me to go blue again, even just short-term. I think I’m over all that shit that happened. But the wedding has to be perfect for you. All I want to do is make everything feel special. We wouldn’t want to ruin your special day because of a photo stunt.”
“It’s OUR special day,” Max interjected. “I also want every moment to feel special for you too. We’re in this together for the rest of our lives. Nothing can change that. It’s just you and me against the world, as it has always been. Nothing else matters but us.”
“Max, you know the goopy shit turns me on now, right? As soon as we get back home, I’m gonna…”
“Everything turns you on, perv,” the brunette joked, as she playfully pushed her partner’s shoulder.
“Everything about you, yeah. You’re totally amazeballs, and I can’t get enough. We don’t have to wait until we get home if you wanna… you know…”
“What do you want me to do, just pull over on the side of the road?” Max asked the question in jest, but she knew her partner well enough to know she might just say ‘yes’.
“Yeah, you’re right, it’s probably a bad idea,” the strawberry blonde responded with an ear to ear grin. “Pull over there, behind that building.” She pointed towards an upcoming strip mall with a wooded area behind it.
“Are you cereal, Chlo? Aren’t you worried about getting caught?”
“Fuck no. I want you right now. You’re the only thing that exists in my world. I don’t care if we get caught, makes it more fun, and I sure could use some Max Caulfield tongue in my mouth.”
“So romantic…” the younger girl quipped.
“Nah, you don’t have to. It’s not a big deal. We can wait until we’re…”
Before the former punk could finish her thought, Max abruptly cut the steering wheel, jerking the car to the sideroad easement and parked behind the building. “Okay, coward, show me what ya got?”
“Goddamn, Max. You’re insane in the brain.”
“Yep, now kiss me.”
The blonde slid towards her lover, slung her leg over her lap, and straddled the beautiful freckled girl in the driver’s seat. They shared several clumsy yet passionate moments not caring about anything besides each other. They were Max and Chloe; nothing could change that, and it was all that mattered. As the rush and excitement dulled down to just pecks and tender touches, the girls got back on the road and headed home.