“You’ve got to eat something, Max. I know the funeral and everything that happened has been hard on you, but if you don’t eat, you’ll make yourself sick. You need your strength, sweetheart.” Vanessa sat at the breakfast table across from her daughter, watching her only child mourningfully sulk. “At least talk to me then.”
With darkened grey bags hanging under her gloomy eyes, Max slowly lifted her head and glanced back towards her mom. “Talk to you? No thanks. I tried that. You don’t believe a damn word I say, mother. Why the hell should I even try?” She drooped her head back down towards the tabletop, heavy breaths causing her chest to rapidly expand then contract.
“Oh, Max.” The woman briefly paused to clear her throat. “You were there. Not to be morbid but her body was in the casket, right? You saw it. Chloe is d…”
“Fuck you.” Max’s voice trembled as she abruptly pushed back from the table and onto her feet causing the chair to tip over behind her and crash to the kitchen floor. “I can still feel her! She’s out there. I don’t know what I saw in the goddamn casket, but Chloe is alive. She’s alive! I don’t give a shit what you say.” Max turned from the kitchen, stomping out of the room and up the stairs.
Slamming the bathroom door behind her, Max peered at herself in the mirror, despising the girl that stared back. She twisted the lever above the faucet spout and splashed water on her face. Having not showered in days, the cooling sensation gave her a start, causing her breathing to stagger. Admittedly, the liquid felt nice on her skin, but a twinge of guilt from experiencing even a sliver of joy made her hate herself a little more. She left the bathroom and plopped down on the side of her bed, legs dangling so her toes could just slightly scrape the floor. She retreated into herself, placing two open palms on her face, head craning over her lap.
I gotta go back… I can’t do this.
The fear in her mind of potentially creating another storm paled in comparison to the bitter remorse in her heart for letting her soulmate die. She swore to herself, not long ago, that she would never use her power again. Consequences followed, both immediately and long term, whenever she manipulated time, but none of that mattered anymore. She couldn’t live with the outcome of her decision on the cliff any longer. Max was going to try whatever she could to find Chloe. Even if it meant turning the universe inside out, she was set on finding a way.
She’s not gone. Fuck. That.
Max stretched her hand outward from her body and squinted in preparation for a tiny rewind attempt. She remembered the nosebleeds, headaches, and nightmares brought on by excessive power usage, so she wanted to begin with extra caution. She knew the risks, but if she were going to figure out how to get back to Chloe, she’d need to hone her power and take her time doing so.
Max forced it out at a barely discernible trickle then released her grip. It was such a minuscule rewind that she barely even perceived reality moving backwards at all. Dropping her hand back down to the bed, the girl inhaled deeply through her nose. The cool air trailing into her nostrils then down to her lungs somehow felt more real than anything she’d experienced within the past week. It was in that moment she realized how numb she’d been since the funeral. That first rewind served as a reminder she still had an incredible power deep within her. A slight boost of assertiveness pulsed through her body, providing her with newfound clarity. She remembered how each rewind felt during her week with Chloe, and she couldn’t recall a single instance that it didn’t hurt. Headaches were all too common back then, but this first attempt felt fine. Starting slowly, Max continued to advance with her self-training.
You gotta keep going, Max. This is just the beginning. Train, train, train young grasshopper.
Her chapped lips marginally curled upward at the corners. A chill brought goosebumps to her skin as she felt resolve and purpose once again. Only twice in recent memory did the girl feel confident with her path in life. The first time was being accepted into Blackwell so she could focus on photography. The second, reconnecting with and being around her favorite person in the world.
Using her cellphone’s timer function and a ripped-out sheet of notebook paper she snatched from her desk, the girl started tracking her progress. She knew if she were holding her phone and paper during the rewinds, they would still function properly without being erased or reset. Time seemed to treat objects she was touching like they were somehow a part of her.
After what had to be several hours, though the clock on her nightstand told a different story, she built up to a solid two minutes where she could use the power with only a little bit of tightness and negligible pain.
Max considered the twisting, horizontal column that she noticed during her last two attempts. It was frisbee-sized, and it stretched outward like a tentacle originating from her chest. Before anything else, she figured she needed to clear her head and forget about time travel for a few moments. Strolling over to her window and peering outside, she sought any signs from the universe that her power was impacting the world around her.
Gosh, if I see one more dead bird…
Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, so the photographer decided to wash off in the shower. She knew the pipes in their house were older and her mom, no doubt, was glad to hear the water running. She’d been on Max’s case about her lack of showers as of late, but the girl just didn’t see any reason to clean herself until deciding to go back and save Chloe. It filled her with a strengthened desire to push forward, and it motivated her to focus on the task.
In the shower, she pondered her next steps, and, naturally, they would be to try the power’s other abilities. When she remembered jumping back through a photo to save William, Chloe ended up on death’s doorstep, facing a fate perhaps worse than dying. The hurt and mental anguish brought on by her condition after getting into a terrible vehicle accident, made Max’s stomach churn. But even that feeling seemed dull and distant compared to the pain of the last time she photo jumped. She recalled crumbling to the Blackwell bathroom floor, hearing Nathan’s and Chloe’s voices, and the abrupt bang of the gun that ultimately sent a bullet through her best friend, ending her life in a heap of loneliness and desperation.
I can still feel her! She’s alive. She has to be…
Max toweled off and dressed herself in fresh clothing. She hadn’t realized how grimy she was, but after her shower, she felt refreshed and ready to continue her training. After retrieving her notes and phone from the desk where she left them, she closed her eyes and searched for the power deep inside. Once located, Max just slightly tapped in then released. This time, it felt more like she was smoothly sliding a magazine into her weapon, locking it in place with a satisfying click. She was beginning to feel more at ease using her power, so she decided to immediately catch up to the spot where she left off.
Here we go.
Max began to rewind again…
So far so good, Max.
A little pressure, but nothing too bad. Keep pushing.
There’s the column!
Fuck, I’m losing control!
Reality started wobbling in a much more intense manner than she had ever experienced before. The universe bent and stretched like silly putty, causing it to warp and become distorted.
Shiiiiiit! I caaaaaan’t llllllet goooo!!
The column began sucking Max inward as all perception vanished, leaving her staring into a heavily vibrating vortex of spinning spirals. Try as she might, she couldn’t release the power. She dug her heels in and braced backward, against the vacuum-like sensation, leaning all of her weight in the opposite direction.
Suddenly, the hold was broken and, like a passenger on a ride without control and barely hanging on, Max witnessed the floor beneath her quickly approaching. The girl landed flat on hard wood, her face and the side of her head bouncing to a stop in a gathering puddle of scarlet liquid.
(The Blackwell restroom. A butterfly. A new path…)
“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 warden seemed to be waiting for some sort of debriefing, but Max wanted no part of it. After exiting the jail cell, reluctantly leaving Chloe behind, her only concern was her next steps. She briskly walked past the man’s office, through the halls, and up to each threshold door, waiting for the buzzing tone that indicated it was unlocked. Making her way out of the building and to the parking area, she pulled out her phone beside her car. Before entering, she noticed several texts: one from Maria, two from her mom, and one from her boss.
Fuck that guy! Okay, relax, Max. You gotta keep your cool.
She remembered the shit he tried to do to her prior to discovering her power and pulling the rug of time out from under him. Now that she had calmed down and began reconnecting with Chloe, she knew she’d need his blessing if she wanted to see her again; which she very much did. Anger began welling inside her but she had to push her emotions aside to make room for clarity.
The photojournalist entered her vehicle and inserted her key into the ignition. Before putting the car in gear and hitting the road, Max realized she hadn’t even thought about her pills in a while. Despite the increasingly perilous situation she and Chloe were in, she felt healthy. Her mind was clear and focused on her next tasks.
Her phone was still in her hand so she opened Weston’s message first. She intended to respond in the most business appropriate way she could muster.
Weston: Max, I fully expect you to come see me when you finish with the prisoner. We need to know what progress you’re making to continue. Your job is riding on this. Come directly here.
Max: Just finished up. I’ll be there shortly. Thank you.
It took the entirety of her will power to resist saying a few choice words then walking away forever. The new job had completely lost its charm, which was sad because she had such high hopes after the first few days. Now, all she thought about when the Fresno Herald crossed her mind, was that filthy slime ball leading the place. Maria, her closest confidante since moving away from her parents’ house, actually gave in to Weston’s advances to help her career. It made Max’s skin crawl thinking about it.
How could she let herself do that?
After replying to her boss, she decided to check Maria’s message next.
Maria: Max! You gotta show me your pics of the prisoner. I’m dying to see what you got! Oh, and be careful when you get back. Weston wasn’t too happy you didn’t meet with him first thing this morning. He can be a little aggressive when he doesn’t get his way.
Max chose not to respond. She felt a little guilty because Maria had lost a lot of her charm as well, but she couldn’t help the way she viewed that sort of thing. Only a few days ago, she was over the moon about making a new friend. Now, she felt let down and disappointed by what she discovered about the woman.
I wonder what Mom said.
Clicking away from her colleague’s text, Max slid her thumb down to her Mom’s.
Mom: I’m still in town, Max. Your dad is worried about you. We both were because of what happened before. But I think we really need to open up to one another. It’s the best thing to do. I believe it might be the only way now for you to move forward.
Mom: I love you, sweetheart. I have something for you too.
Max: Hey. I’m stopping by the office then I’ll meet you at the apartment. Love you, too. 😀
Plugging her cell into the USB charger that was connected to the middle console, Max set her phone down and pulled out of the prison parking lot. Without concern for the law, she pressed the pedal down and held it in position, sending the vehicle quickly along the road well over the posted speed limit. She was less than thrilled to return to her place of employment but needed to face that monster and somehow convince him to keep her on the assignment. His intentions with her was clear, so she would have to find a way to remove that thought from his mind.
Avoiding the potholes, Max parked outside of her office building. It was within the hour most of her co-workers were still at lunch, so she hoped to avoid interaction and make this a quick trip. As soon as she entered the main front doors to the office, she saw Maria peeking over her cubicle siding, looking in the younger girl’s direction.
“Psst. Max! Get over here.” The woman raised her hand, motioning for Max’s attention. Obliging the request, Max hastily made her way to her friend’s cubicle, walking around the front partition and stopping at her desk. “I know you got ‘em, girl.” She swiveled her chair around from facing her monitor to looking at the brunette who was hovering over her.
“What?” Max wasn’t sure what Maria was asking.
“The photos of the prisoner. I wanna see her.” Maria’s eager eyes were compelling, but Max didn’t really want to share anything about Chloe. “Pleeeeease.”
“I really don’t know if…”
“Oh, come on, Max. You gotta show me something! I’m not prying for story deets. If you’re like me, you wanna keep those to yourself until you publish your article, but if you don’t show me some damn pics, I’ll fight you. Well, not really, but you know what I mean. Plus, I have a really good eye. I can help you decide which ones to submit for publishing.”
“Yeah,” Max responded, “I guess it couldn’t hurt.” She knew Weston was somewhere around the office and that she’d have to face him eventually, but a little procrastination should be fine. Max opened up her bag and located the thumb drive where the photos of Chloe was located. Reluctantly, she handed the storage device to her colleague and watched as she inserted it into her own computer.
“Pull up a seat,” Maria suggested, pointing to an old wooden chair located against the wall near the entrance that served as a makeshift waiting area for visitors. Not seeing anyone in eyesight, Max scampered over, retrieving the chair then returning to the cubicle.
“Damn, these are good shots,” Maria marveled. “I’m floored.”
“Don’t act surprised,” Max quipped. “I may be new at the journalist thing but photography is like my calling.”
After a small giggle, Maria responded. “I know, girl. You are gifted for sure. Oh, damn, this one is interesting.” On the monitor, the seasoned journalist had selected the selfie photo Max took with the prisoner in the background. “How the hell did you create that sort of depth? I love a good selfie and all, but either me or the background is blurry when I take one. You somehow focused both yourself and the prisoner. By the way, she’s hauntingly beautiful. She seems so much softer than I thought she would by now.”
Beautiful is an understatement.
“So, you didn’t see pictures from the trial or anything after that?” Max wondered.
“The trial was years ago; she just looked like a young girl who was scared shitless. Now, she looks almost the same except more confident and accepting, I guess. From the little I know about prison, a lot of peeps harden and change while they’re in there. Bad shit happens, ya know? But Jane looks really good, all things considering. Her hair is short and blonde now, too. She had almost shoulder length blue hair back then.”
“Yeah, she’s… special,” Max whispered. Either Maria didn’t hear her or she didn’t care to comment.
“I just sent the three best photos to the printer. They’ll be ready lickety split.” The machine on the adjacent side of her desk grumbled and hummed until each was printed and stacked in the output tray. She extended her arm reaching as she slid over and tenderly obtained the photos, holding them with an open palm beneath.
“That’s a nice printer.”
“Yep. So, this first one is for you personally. You gotta keep the selfie shot for yourself; it’s literally perfect but not good for publishing. These other two are my picks for the article. You can thank me later.”
“Thanks, Maria.” She began tucking the first photo in her bag.
“I said to thank me LATER. Jesus, Max.” The smirk on her friend’s face let her know she was joking around.
It suddenly occurred to the younger girl that she hadn’t even bothered to ask Maria about her article.
Dammit, Max. You’re so self-absorbed sometimes. Just ask about her work then get out of here.
“What about you? How was your interview and everything?”
“Well,” the woman began as she clicked through some other documents on her computer, “it fell through.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Maria.”
“It’s not a big deal. Right before the interview, the woman decided she was done. For some reason she wanted everything private all of a sudden. I drove out to her house to meet her in person, but I couldn’t change her damn mind.” As she spoke, the woman at the computer stared into her screen, clicking through files Max had never seen before. “These things happen, ya know? Just gotta find my next big story.”
From behind, Max unexpectedly felt two hands land on her shoulders and began rubbing in circular motions. Startled, she twitched at the abruptness but the grip was too firm to shake off.
“Hey girls.” Weston’s deep voice sent a harrowing shiver down Max’s spine. “I need you to join me in my office…”
Before he could finish, Max quickly stretched out her hand and located her power. Releasing after only a few seconds, she heard Maria’s voice once more.
“It’s not a big deal. Right before the interview, the woman decided she was done. For some reason…”
Shit, here he comes. I need to make sure he doesn’t ask me to go to his office. Fuck!
Max jumped to her feet and moved to Maria’s other side. She wasn’t necessarily comfortable with being that far into the woman’s work space, but the alternative was creepy hands touching her shoulders again.
Even though she expected it, when her boss turned the corner and looked in her direction, Max’s heart sank. His arrogant eyes and overly confident smirk caused her breathing to stagger, and she felt a panicked energy rendering her speech useless. The thought of being assaulted by that man again sent her mind into a debilitating frenzy.
“I need you to join me in my office. A full recap of your experience with the prisoner is expected. It’ll probably take a while,” the man subtly licked his lips, “so you can clear your afternoon.” Weston winked and turned around to head towards his office.
Oh, fuck that!
Max aggressively plopped back down where she was seated moments prior, held out her hand, and rewound again.
“…These things happen ya know? Just gotta find my next big story.”
Shit. Not far enough.
From behind, Max sensed Weston’s hands approaching her shoulders once again. Before he could speak or get his hands on her, she quickly rewound. This time a hitch in the flow of power caused a quick but sharp pain to inflect her head. When she stopped the rewind, she felt a tingling sensation above her lip, just below her nose.
“It’s not a big deal. Right before the interview, the woman decided she was done. For some reason she wanted everything private all of a sudden…”
Placing the side of her index finger below her nose, Max pulled her hand back and noticed warm liquid droplets trailing out. She realize she had smeared it on her face a little when Weston turned inward towards the cubicle.
“Hey girls. Oh, gross! Max, damn.” The man dry heaved and twisted around towards the outer wall, bending down with both hands on his knees doubled over. “Uhhh! I fucking hate blood. It’s so nasty.” He retched again and took several steps away from the women.
“Are you okay, Max? That’s a lot of blood.” Maria stayed calm and retrieved a box of tissue from one of her desk drawers. “Here. Tilt your head back and squeeze your nose. This should stop the bleeding.”
“Goddamnit, Max,” Weston queazily spoke, his back still turned away. “I was going to invite you to my office to work on your article, but shit. I’m not in the mood now. Just… damn. Get yourself cleaned up and email me your notes and photos by tomorrow morning.” As he disappeared around the corner, it sounded like he nearly vomited again.
I guess that’s one way to get rid of him.
“You get nosebleeds often?” Maria actually seemed concerned. Max wondered if maybe she judged the woman too harshly about what she and that asshole did. She’d never condone that sort of behavior, but maybe there was more to the story.
Another bubble materialized then floated through her mind, yet she couldn’t grasp it. Not fully.
…“ You freaked me out there. Do you feel any better now?”…
…“A little. Thanks for helping me, just… give me a minute.”…
…“Too much action for Arcadia?”…
…“Maybe not enough. This is kinda fun. Scary and stupid, but fun.”…
“No, not really,” she responded, shaking off the partial memory. “Well, I used to… I think. Listen, thanks, Maria. I gotta get going.” With her head still slightly tilted and her pointer and thumb tightly squeezing the tissue around her nose, Max secured her belongings and bolted straight for the door. It wasn’t easy, but she luckily got through a brief confrontation with her boss. Thankfully, she did what she came to do, which meant another visit with Chloe would be in her near future. Her plan was to send Weston a couple of prison photos and an ambiguously worded outline for a story she never planned to write later that evening. For now, her next stop was her apartment. Her mom was still in town and Max intended to finally get some answers.