Rachel leans out of the window and into the green world outside while Max begins, haltingly, to tell her story. It already feels familiar, but there’s still a shred of doubt in Rachel that says that can’t be, it’s not possible.
Max explains how she fell out of touch with Chloe after she moved to Seattle, how she couldn’t handle the grief that was palpable around her following her father’s death. She explains how she got a scholarship for Blackwell, and how she went there because the famous photographer and heartthrob Mark Jefferson taught there. She draws a shuddering breath and delves into one day at Blackwell in particular, how she went to the bathroom to deal with the aftermath of a dream – a vision – a something that had shown her Arcadia Bay in the middle of a storm.
“Nathan Prescott came in after me, and I hid behind the stalls. He had a gun. And then Chloe followed him – I didn’t recognize her, because I hadn’t seen her in ages, and this girl had tattoo sleeves and bright
hair, she’s clipped it to chin length, and she’s staring at her phone with a familiar intensity. You come closer to try and give her some – whatever it is she needs, and glimpse your own name on the phone screen: Chloe is trying to call you.
“I’m here”, you say, but the words don’t form. Your breath doesn’t manifest into sound. There is no breath, and when you try to put a hand on Chloe’s shoulder, you don’t have hands, either. All you are is a perspective on this strange blue-haired, tattooed Chloe, who is shaking her phone like that is going to get you to pick up.
It’s just a dream, you think, relieved. It’s a dream.
Except you can remember exactly what happened before this: Posing for Evan, the click of the shutter the last thing you heard before you ended up here in a whirl of colors. If it’s a dream, it’s a very long one, with a lot of detail.
“Fuck”, Chloe says viciously. She throws her phone onto her bed, where it bounces once and then lands on the floor with a clunk. You go to pick it up before you remember that you don’t have hands. You look at the cracked screen helplessly, and then get treated to a front row seat of Chloe throwing herself on her bed as well, her face in her hands. When she emerges, her face is dry. Her jaw is clenched in a way you haven’t seen before.
She looks tortured, you think.
“Chloe”, you try to say, but there’s nothing.
“Fucking everyone leaves me,” Chloe says. It sounds almost resigned, like she’s getting used to it.
You lean in closer as if to lie next to Chloe, but without the familiar warmth of her body it’s just disconcerting, and soon you give up and move in on Chloe’s phone again. The screen is dark, but the front camera seems inviting – you tilt, and shift, and whirl into it, disappearing into an array of colors and pixels –
“Fuck”, she says. “I thought those were dreams.”
“What were?” Max says, sitting up. She sounds entirely serious. Makes sense, Rachel thinks, that she’d assign more meaning to dreams, after what she’s been through. Makes sense that her story would sound so familiar to Rachel. They both want the validation that what happened to them doesn’t mean they’re insane.
No wonder Rachel feels so drawn to her all of a sudden.
“This spring, I started having – I don’t know – visions? Of this Chloe you were describing, she was looking for me, I saw her print missing person flyers and everything – I wanted to help her or tell her I was here, but I wasn’t – you know when you have a dream and you know you’re you but not really? It was like that.”
Max is off the tree and next to Rachel in a heartbeat. “You can go there? You’ve been there recently? How is my Chloe doing?”
My Chloe. Rachel chances a brief look at Chloe, who is crossing her arms and leaning back against the tree trunk like she doesn’t care about any of it. “It’s, um – It seemed to happen when people took pictures of me? Like I traveled into the camera and – uh – out somewhere else. It wasn’t all the blue haired Chloe, I would also visit one where she was in a wheelchair, briefly…”
“When I took your picture by the car, where did you go?” Max asks, urgent.
Rachel turns to her and sees her face drawn with guilt.
“I didn’t go anywhere.” When she says it, she doesn’t know if it will be a relief or a punch to the gut. From her expression, neither does Max. “It was the first time since it started that I didn’t go anywhere when someone took my picture. It’s why I was so quiet after.”
Max’s face slackens, but Rachel still can’t tell if it’s the relief or something else. Acceptance, maybe.
She decides to let her think, leans over and into Chloe, reaching up to ruffle her hair. Chloe squirms out of the way, but with an indulgent smile. “You guys seem to know more than me, now, which, wow, didn’t see that coming – but, uh, care to catch me up now?”
Rachel rummages in her bag.
“I kept a – well, a dream journal, I called it. Maybe it helps? Max can fill in the gaps.”
“I mean… if you want me to. It’s not really a nice part of your life.” Max looks over to Chloe doubtfully.
“It’s not really my life, so what would I care?” Chloe says, but Rachel knows her well enough to call that bluff. Chloe is not one to be stingy with her feelings.
“Caring is all you do,” she says gently, but still pulls her dream journal from her bag and opens it to the first entry.
“Just catch me up on my parallel life, you hag,” Chloe says, smiling just a little.
Rachel leans back out the window for light, and does. When she reaches the time Max shows up, Max takes over again – less halting this time, and more haunting. Rachel tucks away the second half of her diary without reading it to them, relieved.
“Fuck,” Chloe says, emphatic. “I mean, I feel like I shouldn’t be pitying myself but my alternate life has been shit, you guys.”
Max nods. Unlike Chloe, she doesn’t make an effort to obscure the pity she feels. And there’s that familiar something else, accompanying it, etched into her expression like it means to stay: grief.
“Do you miss her?” Rachel asks, and Max covers her face with her hands and nods.
When she talks, her voice is shaking. “I know it’s stupid, and it’s hypocritical, and it’s pointless, but it feels like – I killed her. I left that reality, and now it’s gone, and good riddance too, but I felt like she was- I was ready to spend the rest of my life with her. She said she would never leave me. And then the first thing I did was leave her.”
“Hey.” Chloe sidles up to Max, puts a hand on her arm. “I feel like I have some authority on the issue, and personally I’d like to thank you for making sure none of that bullshit ever happened to me.”
“Or me,” Rachel adds. “But you get to grieve. It’s still someone you will probably not see again, in that exact constellation. But all the stars are still there, and I think that makes it a little better.”
“So much better,” Max promises through tears. She reaches out with both arms and pulls Chloe and Rachel in for a hug. Rachel raises her right arm to close the circle.
After a moment, she extricates herself carefully, and walks out of the shed into the green world they had only discovered half an hour ago. She doesn’t wait for the other two to follow her; if they need to talk something out, they will. She knows of the necessity to have one on one conversations, even if she is now officially part of the Situation.
She finds a moss-covered hill that the October sun paints a shadow and light paisley on, and lies down on it. It’s soft and springy under her back, and if she arranges her limbs in a pose that’ll make for a nice picture, then well, she’s the only one who needs to know. She peers up into the sky, where feathery swirls are dotting the pale blue. No storm to be seen.
She wonders, briefly, if they’re all collectively losing their minds, then abandons the thought in favor of admiring the tiny, thin-stemmed white flowers that are growing out of the moss around her. If they are, she thinks, at least she’s not alone. At least she’s lying on a soft surface, and the sun is shining down on her, and she can feel the thrill of possibility tingle in her fingertips.
If this is insanity, it’s a kind one. Rachel decides to cherish that.
She hears someone approach and then hover, and calls out, “Hey, Max, take my picture!”
She plucks one of the white flowers and tucks it behind her ear.
“Are you sure?” Max’s voice rings out to her.
“I am!” she calls back, arranging herself in a more obvious pose as if to emphasize.
There’s a faint click, and then an absence of a colorful vortex that she had almost gotten used to. She smiles.
“Nothing,” she says. “You did it.”
“Yes,” Max says, smiling faintly. “I did not leave my Chloe in a world where everyone who loves her is dead. I deleted her from existence, instead. Well done, me.”
It sounds only half as sarcastic as it should, and it’s clear that Max thinks this option the better one. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be celebrating it anytime soon.
She’s caught the polaroid between middle and index finger and is waving it in the air absently. Her other hand is still clutching the lily. She doesn’t look like she’s going to let go of it any time soon.
“Did you know that you don’t need to do that?” Rachel says.
“Shake the polaroid. It doesn’t do anything to make the picture appear any faster.”
Max looks down at it and shrugs. “And yet here you are, in full color.”
She hands the picture to Rachel.
Rachel has never seen her give a picture she took to anyone. She always pockets them all, hoards them jealously, and eventually puts them up on her walls. Rachel doesn’t know what this means.
She takes it.
It’s a good one, too, one she could put in her portfolio or hand out when people ask for something that’s not a headshot. She moves to put it in her back pocket, and her fingers close around the edge of another glossy piece of paper.
Rachel takes it out, and looks at the two of them next to each other: Chloe and her, hugging under a tree grown cross, among a sea of white, blurry dots. Grief and sympathy in the lines of their bodies curving into each other. And then just her, like she doesn’t have a care in the world, sunlight painting her gold.
“She makes me better,” she tells Max abruptly. It comes out sounding almost apologetic.
“You make each other better,” Max replies just as instantly. Her face is an open book, just like it always has been, but there’s more to read in it now. There’s grief, but no regret. There’s a guarded sort of interest that Rachel wants to see more of. There’s relief, held back carefully like she can’t quite believe it still. Like believing it is what will shatter it.
Rachel is drawn to honest people, but more than that she is drawn to people who make her want to be honest, too.
“And you made us,” she says quietly.
“No. I couldn’t have done it without you. We’re a we. We did this together. Chloe gathered the evidence, and you saved her life when I wasn’t around to do it. Partners,” she takes a deep breath as if to steel herself for something, “partners in time.”
“Hey! Partners in time! I like that!” Chloe comes sauntering up behind Max and wraps her arms around her, resting her chin on Max’s head. Max’s expression shutters briefly, then she smiles.
“You would,” she says gently, covering Chloe’s hands with one of hers and stumbling back a little, into her. Chloe holds her tight, swaying her a little to the sides like a shuffling dance, giving Rachel a grin over the top of Max’s head.
All the stars are still there, Rachel thinks. The thought that she will never see the blue-haired Chloe again gives her a weird feeling that she can’t seem to shake. She has never been good at dealing with other people’s deaths, the thought of them being just simply gone too big for her mind. This is an entire reality that never even existed.
She doesn’t like it when things are out of her reach, and she can only imagine what it’s like for Max.
“We should go home,” Max says eventually, gently freeing herself from Chloe’s embrace. She’s still holding the lily, twirling the stem between her fingers, lost in thought.
“Sure,” Rachel says before Chloe can open her mouth. Max looks like she needs some alone-time. “I need to learn my lines still.”
They pile into Chloe’s truck, Rachel calling shotgun this time, and drive Max back to Blackwell.
Rachel is working painstakingly on removing a page from her dream journal, and ignoring Chloe’s sideways glances as best she can.
“What’s happening?” Chloe asks eventually, voice low enough to barely travel over the rumble of the engine. She sounds just a little lost.
“Good things, I’m pretty sure,” Rachel says. She smiles up at Chloe (her Chloe, she thinks, who she remembers when and why she cut her hair the way she did, who she knows what makes her laugh and that she would die for her and that she has no regrets.)