Like the gap between a yawn and regular breathing, the world was muffled to near nothingness. Everything felt distant and deeply tucked in the recesses of her mind, causing dulled senses and tangibility to dim as if in a bubble of her own existence. A garbled voice called out to her from beyond reality, but she couldn’t decipher the foggy cloud of sounds that enveloped her hearing. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to. A tranquil false sense of security cascaded throughout her body – suddenly feeling safe like a kid hiding from a monster under the covers.
“Max?! Max, are you okay?”
The secure shroud of emptiness was pulled back and clarity crashed in on the photographer with a jarring abruptness. Regaining her senses, the photojournalist realized she was staring into a set of the most radiant azure irises she’d ever seen, a million words and pleas traveling from her innermost thoughts towards her lips…
“It was approved for medical use, even though still considered experimental by some,” the mostly white-attired woman plainly spoke. “It’s yielded amazing results. When taken daily, individuals can recover from severe dissociative states. They can live full, normal lives. Some block out the entire series of events leading up to the experience that caused their breakdown in the first place; like I expect in her case.”
She wasn’t sure how or when she arrived, but Max shifted her weight and realized she was seated on a cold, paper-lined checkup table with nothing on but a breezy hospital gown. Three other people were in the small room with her; two seated, one standing. The speaking woman adjusted her scrubs at the shoulder with one hand while holding a clipboard thick with folders and papers with the other. “See, the medication kicks in quickly. She’s about to reconnect now.”
The bearded man shot to his feet and approached the woman. “Does this mean she’ll have to take a fucking pill the rest of her life? Dammit!” He slammed a balled fist onto the small counter causing the single sink and double cabinets to rattle and shake.
“Calm down,” Max’s mom responded, also standing to her feet and wriggling her way past her husband, creating a larger gap between the two. “If all she has to do is take medication… and… and we get our little girl back; this is a good thing. We talked about this, Ryan. We signed the agreement.”
“I’m sorry, Vanessa… sorry, Doc. She’s still our baby, you know? We want what’s best.” Max’s father turned around and sulked back down into his seat. The features on his face were scrunched together towards the middle, and Max recognized his demeanor shift from irrational and furious to calm yet irritated as she’d seen many times before.
“I, too, have children,” the medical professional confessed, placing her hand below her neck on her chest. “It’s completely understandable. Your feelings are not uncommon, but we need to be ready to support your daughter when she gains control.”
Having been aware and witness to the conversation, Max felt it was a good time to jump in. “Wh-Where am I?” Her voice squeaked, scratchy throat slightly burning.
Damn, my head hurts. How did I get here? A glass of water would do me wonders.
“Max!” Vanessa jubilantly gasped as she clutched her daughter’s hand and cupped it between both of hers. Max’s father stood and placed a palm on his wife’s back and one on his daughter’s shoulder. “How do you feel?”
“Sorta groggy and thirsty. And, ouch… a headache.” She squinted and gingerly reached up, touching the back of her head with her fingertips. “Where am I?” She repeated the question but recognized the objects that surrounded her; had to be a doctor’s office. Taking a moment to think, Max was unable to recall what day or time it was nor what she was doing prior to the present. It was like a shotgun had blasted birdshot through her memory leaving trails of disconnected, bubbled thought floating in the ether. She wanted to grasp at the memories but didn’t have the strength to force an attempt.
Vanessa retrieved a bottled water from her purse, unscrewed the lid, then handed it to her daughter. Max took a small sip to wet her lips and tongue, followed by a larger, instinctive gulp. It felt like a cool spring waterfall trickling down her throat, and she was grateful for her mom’s insistence on keeping a bottle with her at all times. One of her many disbanded memories came to the forefront of her thoughts, and, while she previously viewed her mother’s obsessive behavior as strange, she realized her mom just liked being prepared.
Pushing between the married couple, the doctor escorted the mother and father pair back to their seats so she could focus on her patient without parental interference. Centering her attention on Max, the woman pulled out a flashlight and flipped on its switch, shining its light towards the floor. “Max, I’m sorry about the headache; you’ll get used to is. It’s a side effect from your new medication. Do you mind if I look at your eyes? I want to check your dilation.”
After a slight approving nod, Max felt a gloved finger gently lift her left eyelid upward followed by a piercing brightness from the flashlight beam. She flinched but resisted the urge to completely pull away. The doctor moved from one lid to the next in succession. After the eye examination, the woman in white flipped the light switch to the on position and focused back on her patient. “Good. Now, Max, I have a series of questions to ask you. They’ll progressively seem more difficult. Are you ready?”
Her thoughts still hazy and a bit disoriented, Max wasn’t in the proper headspace to make a stand against the doctor. She nodded again and took a deep airy breath, preparing herself for what she assumed would be a tough onslaught of inquiries.
“What is your name?”
Oh. This might not be so bad. I know this one.
“Max Caulfield,” she uttered with a subtle edge of confidence behind her words.
“Of course. Tell me, what year are we currently in?”
“Oh. Well… 2013? Right?”
“2014, but close.” The woman scribbled some notes on a pad clipped to the board she clutched with her fingers and cradled on her forearm. Her mother and father seemed to shift uneasily in their seats. Max noticed the calendar on the wall across from her was tacked up with January 2014 in the front.
“Next, what are your parents’ names?”
Looking over and making eye contact with her dad followed by her mom, Max was ready to answer. “My dad’s name is Ryan, and my mom’s name is Vanessa.”
“Very good. It appears you have no trouble recalling the more ingrained, deeper rooted memories such as names. Now, this might be a little more difficult. Where do you currently live; where do you call ‘home’?”
“I-I…” Max scanned her memories for the correct answer but couldn’t recall the last time she laid down in a bed. “Uhhh…”
If I could just remember the last time I slept, I’d know this one. Fuck! Why is this so hard?
Closing her eyes, the brunette shuffled through the endless bubbles of memory. Each time she stretched out hoping to grasp something palpable, the bubbles scattered away from her attempt like effervescent froth being pushed away by a breeze.
Wait. I got it.
Suddenly, a bubble floated down into her hands. She threw her eyelids open and could feel the skin between her ears tighten from the pleasant sensation of a slight smile forming on her face. “We live in Seattle.” It wasn’t much, but Max felt a trickle of pleasure from finding the answer she sought.
“Very, very good,” the medical professional beamed, mouth slightly curving upward in the corners.
Max noticed her parents leaning into one another in their seats whispering something she couldn’t quite make out.
“This might be the toughest question I’ll ask you. Please, take your time and let the answer come to you. At this point, it might be easiest for you to relax your mind and let the memories come to you. Release your apprehensions and try to clear your head.” A brief pause followed the doctor’s words, and Max noticed her parents angling towards one another in a sideways hug. “Max, what is the last thing you remember before this very moment?”
She figured this one was coming, but her expectation didn’t offer any insight into her past. A lengthy silence ensued. Flecks of busted moments materialized in her mind while the other individuals in the tiny room awaited her response.
“I-I… I remember Seattle…”
“Uhm… Kristen and Fernando…?”
“Taking photos at the Fremont Troll…”
“We… we were celebrating for some reason. You took me out to dinner and…”
“…and we were excited about something I did…”
“Oh. That’s it! I was awarded a scholarship at Blackwell… wait… I…”
“That’s the last thing I remember. Damn. I don’t even know how I got here…” Her breathing pulsed in rapidly increasing shortened increments. The room began to twist around, perception lopsided and abstract.
…“Shake that bony white ass!”…
The doctor urgently revealed a bottle of pills from her white coat. “Max, take this. You don’t look so hot. We might need a stronger dose.”
Reality faded with burnt edges until only white nothingness remained.
…What the fuck?!
The visitor drew the pen-like device from her pocket, thumb hovering over the switch that would bring the guards rushing into the room. A slight twitch made the button marginally depress, though not enough to engage the distress call, and the prisoner’s eyes went wide.
“Wait, don’t!” she shouted as the photojournalist retrieved the handheld cylinder from her pocket. “Don’t leave me… not again. J-Just hear me out, yeah? Please, Max.” There was a sharpness behind her desperate yet heartfelt words. The way she said Max’s name sent pleasurable yet uncomfortable chills through the brunette’s body. It was like she was stripped bare and the prisoner could see past her skin and bones down to her very soul. Max felt her innermost thoughts and secrets on full display from just a glance, as if she’d known this person her whole life.
“You?” Max’s chest rose then descended, air trailing in and out like time had slowed to a crawl.
“Yes, me.” The pair’s eyes remained latched onto one another with a familiarity that baffled half of the women in the room, neither feigning. “Welcome to home shit home. Like what I’ve done with the place?” She bobbed her head left then right and raised her chained hands as far up as she could.
“H-How do I know you?” the brunette hesitated. Confusion plagued the visitor several years back, but as long as she looked towards the future, everything seemed fine. However, uncertainty about the pair’s connection pushed her thoughts towards searching through the past.
“Well, Max, I’m not sure you’re ready for that answer. Do me a favor though. Stop taking those stupid pills immediately. Fuck ‘em. I know it sounds batshit crazy, but that garbage is doing more harm than good for you.” A lengthy pause that would typically make Max extremely uncomfortable ensued, yet she surprisingly didn’t mind. She studied the girl’s facial features and sifted through the endless darkness for a bubble of memory that could indicate how she knew the beautiful girl sitting in front of her.
Beautiful? …what the hell, Max?
“How do you know about my meds?”
“Your blog. It’s amazing, by the way. I’m so proud of you, dude!” Her excitement for Max’s work felt sincere and enduring. Hearing the prisoner’s encouragement caused Max’s heart to flutter in a way she hadn’t experienced before. It felt strange but safe.
Why do I care what this prisoner thinks about me?
“Th-Thank you, I guess.”
“Look, Super Max, we don’t have a lot of time today. As fucking amazing as it is to see you and hear your voice, you probably need to take some pics and ask questions for your new job. Let’s do those things then come see me again tomorrow. Sound good?”
The photographer located her camera and started snapping photos. The lighting was terrible in the cave-like jail cell so she heavily relied on her employer’s expensive flash for her pictures. She walked in a semicircle gathering every angle she could imagine, even standing on the chair for a couple of aerial shots. While on the chair, she turned around and took a selfie with herself in the front and the convicted murderer in the background.
“Not gonna lie, it’s damn good to see you behind a camera. It’s felt like a lifetime since I got to watch you work your magic like this. Goddamn, dude, you’re amazing. I just thought you should know that.”
Max lowered the camera and plunked back down in front of the inmate, eyebrows lowered, thoughts focused. “You talk like you really know me. How could that be if I don’t really remember you?” She removed the thumb drive from her device and placed it in the bag.
“I’m in there, First Mate. Trust me. We just need to take this slowly. First, get off the damn meds. I know they probably help you feel more comfortable, but what we’ve been through ain’t comfortable at all. You need to remember, for both of us.”
Only the steady pattern of dripping water could be heard as the girls sat quietly searching each others’ faces for what felt like an eternity. The prisoner seemed more confident, even waggled her eyebrows a time or two, and Max began to wonder if she looked as ridiculous as she felt. She was in awe of what she was seeing; a beautiful, blue-eyed blonde in chains, bound and helpless yet mesmerizing and engrossing.
“So,” she began, breaking the silent stare, “did you really murder a man? It’s tough to look at you and think you would be capable of doing something like that. Maybe in self-defense, I guess. But the report says you shot him ‘execution-style’.”
“No, I didn’t do it. Though I suspect a version of me might have in some reality.” Her impish smirk didn’t match the confusing tale she was weaving. “Trust me though, he deserved far worse for what he did. Like, much much worse.”
“What does ‘some reality’ mean?” It seemed the blonde was giving her pieces to an overly complex puzzle.
“Shit, don’t put that in the article or whatever you’re writing. When you remember, it’ll all make sense my dear. I just hope it’s not too late by the time you do.”
“If you didn’t kill him, why not just say so? You could at least fight the death penalty. If I was accused of doing something I didn’t do like this, I’d like to think I would fight with everything I had to prove my innocence.”
“No can do, Maxi Max. We can chat more about it later on. But trust me, this is the only way now. It’ll take way too long to explain today. Sorry.”
“Fine. Well, so… what’s your real name anyway?”
Gosh, what if it really is Jane?
“Chloe. But don’t add that in either. It might make you seem less credible. Fuck, it’s hard to explain. Just don’t, dude. I promise this’ll all make sense eventually.”
The name rattled around in Max’s head. It sounded significant for some reason but she couldn’t quite place it.
The inmate began marginally twitching her nose and moving her mouth around in a sort of spastic manner, stretching and flexing the skin above her top lip.
“What are you doing?” Max asked, withdrawing her head backwards a few inches, befuddled.
“Help me out right quick, dude. I can usually reach my face,” she continued to squirm, “but being shackled to this fucking table, I can’t. Will… will you please… scratch my nose? The son of a bitch suddenly won’t stop itching.”
“What? Are you cereal?”
“Yeah, come on. Help me out, man. I’d scratch yours.” The awkward facial movements continued with a more strenuous motion. “Fuck, Max. I’m begging you.”
“Okay, okay.” The brunette craned in then slowly stretched out her arm, snaking her hand towards the girl’s face. She could feel herself tremble as she made her approach. Max noticed the prisoner staring into her eyes, not breaking her line of sight, as she alternated between the inmate’s nose, eyes, and her own hand. Using her pointer and middle finger, Max gingerly rubbed up and down watching the receiver’s eyes roll back in relief and pleasure.
After a few moments, she slowly inched her hand closer and slid it to the side, finally landing with an open palm on the girl’s cheek. It felt soft. The blonde closed her eyes and a beaming smile formed on her face, filling the room with a profound warmth that melted Max’s heart. She closed her eyes, joining the other girl, and they sat in complete silence. She didn’t know why, but the photojournalist never wanted to leave the moment. She hadn’t felt at peace like that since…
…a kiss on the cliff beside the lighthouse…
“What the fuck!” Max pulled back and jumped from her chair causing it to screech back and crash to the floor with an echoing clang. “What’s happening to me?!”
“Max, calm down. Just sit back down and we…”
“No, this is wrong! I can’t do this.” A thorny ripple of despair and panic undulated through her veins. She twisted around to face the jail cell bars and gripped two at shoulder level, crumbling down to her knees. She released the bars and located the button that was beckoning her and smashed it down. After it decompressed, she pushed it again and again, rapidly clicking like her life depended on it.
A second later, the large door at the entrance of the corridor was thrown opened with a deeply thunderous boom followed by the drumming of shoes rushing towards them in the distance, footsteps quickly increasing in sound. In the blink of an eye, the cell was keyed open and Max was being grabbed and hurried out of the room. She looked back just once to watch the prisoner shrink then disappear as she rounded the corner, never breaking eye contact until out of sight. The guards had surrounded the blonde with guns drawn and pointed directly at her, yet she never looked away from the departing interviewer.
“Are you hurt, Ms. Caulfield?” the warden asked once the heavy entrance door was shut and sealed behind them. “What the hell happened?” He led her down the hall and inside his office where he stood beside his desk near the far wall.
“N-No, I… I’m fine, I think.” Her racing heart was slowing down to a more manageable rate and she suddenly felt like an idiot for panicking; she knew she wasn’t in any real danger. A bubble of memory had merely shown itself and she remembered something she knew had been locked away. Max was still a bit jumpy and on edge from the abrupt recollection.
Who the fuck was she? Did we… kiss ?!
“Why did you hit the panic button, then?” Max jumped, startled from the question. She didn’t know where her mind went in that moment but it was far from the present. The puzzled look on the warden’s face matched his curious question. “Did you at least get something out of her; she spoke to you, right? You heard her speak?”
“I… I… I need to think. Can I just go now? Please.”
“Sure you can, Ms. Caulfield. But let me remind you, if your boss didn’t make it clear enough, there are specific folks who need to know what happened in there.” He turned and pulled the chair out, sliding between it and the desk with arms folded behind him in what looked to be a military-type stance. “For years, those people have kept me from using my more persuasive skills to get answers. And dammit, I could get answers. With less than a week left until her death day, they’ll want some info pretty quickly. You get me?” His ex-military swagger was in full display. It was clear he wanted to flex his experience but couldn’t fully due to imposed restrictions.
Max took a deep breath then exhaled thick, warm air from her lungs. “Actually,” she considered for a moment, “can I go back in? She was beginning to open up. I was just scared; I panicked. She did murder a man after all, and I’ve never been around a killer before.” Max believed the girl when she claimed not to have committed the crime, but she knew the warden would never believe it. Plus, she couldn’t mention the ‘some other reality’ part. She didn’t even know what that meant.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. We have a strict lockdown protocol. The prison will now function on threat level Orange for 24 hours. Pushing a panic button is no small thing. Get your boss to set up a meeting again tomorrow, and you can get back in there. We’re running out of time, though. The governor won’t be too happy if we get to the execution without answers.”
I can’t let that girl… Chloe… die. Why does she mean so much to me?
“I understand. Thank you, Warden.” Max slowly twisted around, stepping towards the door. She placed her hand on the frame and stopped. The photojournalist turned back toward the interior of the room, meeting the eyes of the man behind the desk. “I’ll see you again, first thing tomorrow.”