The last week before Christmas break creeps up on Chloe in a flurry of Christmas gift shopping, last minute preparation for tests, and making checklists of what kinds of rewind give Max a bloody nose (the powers that be don’t seem to mind cheating and other mildly chaotic shenanigans, she notes, while they do appear to have strong opinions on them continuing to hide their relationship.)
She barely has the time to (on Joyce’s orders, with Joyce’s money) get the truck fixed up enough to survive the road trip, plan the stops, and convince Joyce that really, it’s okay, and anyway, Max is there, so what could even go wrong? (It works, and once more Chloe wonders if Max’s real superpower isn’t that she is the child all parents wish they had.)
All of them are ridiculously busy, which means it’s no wonder none of them see it coming, even though they should have.
On Monday morning, Chloe enters the women’s bathroom and immediately comes face to face with a lipstick-red MAX FUCKS CHLOE AND RACHEL across her reflection’s face. Some variation of it is on every mirror. Chloe has already raised her hand to erase it, almost on reflex, when the door opens and Dana comes in.
Chloe lets her hand sink. Erasing it now feels like denying their relationship, and she’s sick and tired of doing that. So she just watches Dana through the mirror, the angry red words between them. Say something, I dare you.
But Dana just nods at her with something that almost feels like sympathy, and Chloe suddenly remembers the incident with her and Juliet and that they have both stopped talking to Victoria. And the smear campaign that followed. She nods back, solemn.
After Dana has disappeared into one of the cubicles, Chloe glares at the two mirrors next to hers that say RACHEL AMBER IS A WHORE and CHLOE PRICE IS A CHEATER, and turns on her heel to find her girlfriends.
She finds Max first and proceeds to spend most of the English lesson they share whisper-telling her the story. Max reacts mostly by rolling her eyes so hard Chloe is worried they’ll get stuck that way, which shouldn’t surprise Chloe but does.
“Want me to do something about it?” Max finally asks, nonchalant.
“Uh,” Chloe says, stumped. “Let’s wait what Rachel has to say.”
When Victoria turns around to them and gives them a nasty grin, Max only stares back wordlessly. Chloe has to turn away after a few seconds at the sight of Max’s expressionless face, and Victoria doesn’t fare much better, but she hisses something in their direction first that Warren in front of them obviously catches, because his eyes go round and he turns around to them as well.
This time, Chloe is the one to meet his gaze. She does her flattest what. expression, and Warren quickly turns back with an apologetic grimace.
“Thanks,” Max, who has been suspiciously buried in her notes until this point, mumbles in her direction.
It’s going to be okay. She has two sisters in arms. It’ll blow over. They only have to endure one week of this and then everyone will forget over Christmas.
Warren catches Max’s arm when they make their way out of class, and Chloe can only hear his hurried, “Listen Max I am so sorry about earlier, I know it’s none of my business and uh I didn’t mean to imply that you can’t date whomever you want—” before she’s out of earshot, Max waving her away with a slightly pinched expression. Warren has been following her around like a puppy for awhile, and something in Max’s slightly impatient reaction tells Chloe this isn’t the first reality in which Warren has developed a crush on her.
Chloe finds Rachel in their usual spot, perched on the fountain, shoulders hunched.
Of course. Rachel knows when people are staring at her, and she knows when it’s out of admiration.
“I’m so sorry, Rach,” she says, leaning into a side-hug as she sits down next to her. She would usually plant a kiss on her cheek too, but people are watching and Rachel looks like she might shatter on any kind of impact.
“What’s going on?” Rachel asks, sounding small.
Chloe should have seen it coming. Rachel has absolutely no experience being anything less than admired.
“Have you been to the bathroom today?” she asks, and Rachel shakes her head, quizzical.
“Well, someone, let’s not say any names, possibly called Victoria Chase, wrote some nasty shit on the mirrors. About us. And Max.”
“Like what?” she finally asks, disbelieving. “Rachel Amber has two stunning girlfriends instead of one, like originally suspected? What a burn. ”
Chloe laughs. That’s more like her Rachel. “Yeah, it’s all pretty dumb. We haven’t done anything about it yet because we were waiting to confirm, kind of… if we’re denying this or not.”
Rachel takes a deep breath. Then another. Because that’s the question, isn’t it? It’s been the question for a while now.
“Whatever,” she finally says. “Better out than in, right?”
“That’s right,” Chloe says, and lets out a breath.
“In that case, do you have some lipstick on you, because I’ve got some stuff to say.”
It turns out Rachel has not one, but two shades of red on her, so they make their way to the nearest bathroom arm in arm and get to work together.
When Chloe looks up from turning RACHEL AMBER IS A FREAK into RACHEL AMBER IS A FREAKING GENIUS and sees that Rachel has added a what a lucky girl she is to the one that says MAX FUCKS RACHEL AND CHLOE, she thinks, It’s going to be okay.
It’s not okay.
The next day, it’s screenshots from their group chat. They don’t figure it out until Warren tells them, red-faced, what has been going on: Apparently, everyone has been sending them out to each other, excluding them, and whispering about it when they’re out of earshot. Sometimes not even that.
That’s the thing that gets Chloe riled up like nothing else. They don’t even have the courtesy to wait until they’re out of earshot, and most of them are people who got along fine with Rachel and Max at least – Chloe knows hers is not an easy personality to like. But they gossip at them, daring them to react, and Chloe pulls Rachel and Max aside during break.
“I’m not sure if I can hold out until the end of the day without punching someone on the nose,” she says, eyeing Juliet who is pointing at them from where she’s standing with her friends.
“Me neither,” Rachel says. She’s been white-faced, thin-lipped all day, not just since Warren showed them the picture of what’s essentially nothing more saucy than simple flirting, interspersed with bickering (because no chat that Chloe participates in survives without a healthy dose of bickering). “Victoria is going down first.”
Victoria has been quietly gloating all day. The only one who doesn’t seem unnerved by this is Max. “How do you keep this calm?” Chloe asks her, and she shakes her head.
“I’ve lived through every single mean thing she has to say,” she tells them. “At some point, it gets boring. You know what’s radical? Being kind to people.”
Rachel shrugs. “Yeah, but it still hurts.”
“You want me to talk to her?” Max asks again, with that slight emphasis on talk that gives Chloe goosebumps.
“Let’s wait out today, then we take her aside,” Chloe says before Rachel can open her mouth. She puts her own slight emphasis on the we.
“Fine by me,” Max says, and Rachel nods.
Kate joins them a few minutes later, looking almost too sorry for Chloe to bear. “I just heard what happened,” she says. She still looks vaguely uncomfortable around them, like she thinks she’s interrupting something. “Have you considered taking this to a teacher?”
Rachel laughs. “Hey, Ms. Grant, I was wondering if you could help me out here? I’m in a triad with these two girls and a mean classmate stole screenshots from our private chat and is sending them around?”
Max cuts in. “We’re kind of hoping to keep this from the parents until we’re ready to tell them.”
Kate nods, emphatic. “I feel you. I’ve kept tons of things from my parents.”
“Yeah?” Chloe asks. “Like what?”
She needs some distraction from this bullshit, stat. Kate seems to get that immediately.
“Like when I was talking to this guy, Phil – not even flirting! I wouldn’t even know where to start! But we were talking, sharing art, he did these impressive silhouette-y paintings, all black and white and one pop of color… I mean, I thought he was great, obviously. Can’t imagine what my mother would say.”
She laughs. “He had blue hair and piercings. Nobody in my family would have been thrilled.” There’s a brief pause. “Obviously it petered out anyway when I moved out here.”
Chloe wonders what it would be like, to have to actively keep such benign things secret from her mother. She’s not even trying that hard with this thing. She vows, for the thousandth time, to be more grateful for Joyce.
“You should reach out to him.” That’s Max, smiling softly. “He sounds like a great guy, it would be a shame to let him go without even trying, right?”
Kate looks between them, their defiantly linked hands.
“Is it worth it?” she asks, and isn’t that just a blow to the stomach.
“Yes,” Rachel says, immediately, and Chloe turns to look at her. She’s bright-eyed, angry in that way she gets when she sees something as a threat to someone she loves. “Every goddamn day. Of course today isn’t a picnic, but we’ll get over it. We’ll just stuff Victoria into a few trash cans after school. It’ll be fine.”
“Joking,” Max adds at Kate’s vaguely disturbed look.
There’s always been an unease between Kate and Rachel, something that seems to be perceived as a rivalry by Rachel and the healthy amount of distance anyone would keep from a jealous Rachel Amber on the other. Today, Kate takes a step towards Rachel and seems to breathe through her fear. “Well, if you need another hand with that trash can,” she says, and Rachel breaks out into surprised laughter.
Chloe remembers that Victoria used to pick on Kate, too, and gives her a solemn nod. “We’ll let you know.”
It’ll be fine.
It’s not fine.
Because on day three, Victoria puts up copies of the letter Chloe stuffed into her backpack on the day they went to talk to Kate.
They’re fucking everywhere. Pinned to the bulletin boards, stuck to the fronts of their lockers, on the doors of all classrooms. The first one she finds is stapled to a tree near the parking lot: Chloe parks the freshly prepped truck, gets out and practically comes face to face with it immediately.
She freezes, heart sinking. No.
No no no no please no— she pockets it, and tears down all the others around the place, too, but it’s too late, because Chloe is always late to first class, and she can’t even count on Rachel and Max to have torn down the others. She checks her phone: Radio silence.
Being late has the benefit of not meeting anyone on the way to school except the security people, who don’t look too judgy as Chloe marches across the school grounds, tearing down the letters wherever she can reach them.
What’s even the point, she thinks as she frees everyone’s lockers in passing: They’ve already seen them. She just knows that she can’t bear to be around them with other people present – she feels naked, almost. Like one of those nightmares where you go to school and realize you forgot your clothes, and then you keep trying to put on some clothes but somehow never manage to focus on the task long enough to actually do it.
For a moment, Chloe wonders if this is a nightmare. It certainly feels like it, the quality of stress, and how eerie the absence of other people suddenly is— but that would be too good to be true, and so Chloe moves on.
She shares first lesson with Kate only, and she’s not sure if she can bear her pity right now, but any other option feels worse, so she slinks into class mumbling an apology and sits down on her chair.
Kate immediately slides her a note, and Chloe sighs and resigns herself to the beginning of what will probably be a very long day of explaining herself – except when she unfolds the paper, she finds the prickliest, angriest bunny she’s ever seen, rendered in broad strokes of pencil, murder in its eyes and a bulging plastic bag in one paw, the squiggly lines above which suggest a strong smell. NEED ANY HELP TAKING OUT THE TRASH? it says, and Chloe laughs, so relieved it almost hurts.
Halfway through first lesson, Max sends her a text. I’ve got a picture from last week I could travel back to, to stop this from happening, if you want.
It’s about half an hour late, as a temptation. Are we still on for giving Victoria a Talking To? Because I’d like to try that first she texts back.
I would love to give Victoria some feedback ^_~ is Max’s vaguely unsettling reply, immediately followed by Rachel is on board, too
Chloe breathes out for the first time in what feels like hours. She spends the rest of the lesson doodling a hedgehog with a tiny battleaxe leading its motley gang of friends (said prickly bunny, a doe with worryingly sharp teeth and an owl going in for a dive, claws first) into battle. LET’S TEAM UP ON THE TRASH FRONT she scrawls underneath and hands it over to Kate, who gives her a solemn nod.
Just when the bell rings, she gets another text, this time from Warren, of all people. If you guys need a sidekick talking to Victoria hmu, and Chloe spends five extra minutes rendering the meanest red panda she can draw and adding it to the crew.
I’ll take you up on that, she texts back and attaches the picture with hastily scrawled names, and gets back a string of delighted smiley faces (ugh).
When she finally packs up her stuff and starts leaving, Max and Rachel are waiting for her at the classroom door to escort her out, with Kate hanging back a few feet, like she wants to give them privacy.
They’re silent, but Chloe is reasonably sure that most of the quiet rage she finds in both of their stances and expressions is not directed at her. She’d still rather they said something.
But then again, she’s the one who needs to explain herself.
“I was gonna tell you guys,” she says. “That’s why I was carrying that letter around in the first place, I was waiting for a good time to tell you.”
“I figured,” Rachel replies airily. “I would have loved to find out about it like, in a slightly different way? But I’m with you, here. I’m with you and I’m enraged and I’m ready to reduce Victoria Chase to absolutely nothing.”
“Damn, I’d like to see that.” That’s – Steph’s voice from behind them, oh. They haven’t really talked in ages, but Chloe has felt a kinship with her ever since she admitted to having a crush on Rachel ages ago.
That she chooses to show alliance now only serves to strengthen the sense of kinship. Without turning around, Chloe holds up a hand for Steph, and receives a slightly awkward high five. “Then join us. Kate and Warren are coming, too. What’s your patronus?”
Steph steps between them like she does this every day, absolutely unperturbed by the non-sequitur. “Sure, I’m in. That bitch has had it coming for a while now. A swan, why?”
Chloe stops then and there to add an angry swan to the doodle. She doesn’t even need to give it eyebrows, because swans are always raging, and this one has ducked its head down low and its wings spread halfway, so Victoria is already as good as dead.
She flips the paper around to show Steph, who whistles.
“Well, then,” Max says. “Let’s pick up Warren by the fountain and find Victoria.”
And so they do.
Victoria looks up when they advance, and only shrinks back a tiny bit for a second at the sight of the six of them. She’s perched on the steps to the girls’ dormitory as per usual, Taylor and Courtney by her side.
“Oh, look at that, have you guys picked up more lovers already?”
Courtney and Taylor laugh dutifully.
“Of course,” Rachel says airily. She looks like she wants to say more, but Max is closing in, ready to take over.
“Listen, Victoria, I know that you lost the two people you trusted most when Nathan and Jefferson had to leave, but honestly trusting people who turn out to be potential murderers and kidnappers should be enough to make you question your judgment, I would have thought? But here you are again, spreading rumors and outing people against their will. How does it feel? Does it make you feel better? Is it a nice feeling?”
Victoria looks from Max, who sits down on the stairs below her like she doesn’t have a care in the world, to the rest of them, who are showing different types and degrees of rage.
Finally, she opens her mouth. “What is this, an intervention?! What’s even your problem? If you don’t think it’s dirty, why do you care if everyone knows you have the hots for each other?”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Max says, quietly.
“What do you care how I feel?! You didn’t seem to care when you were pitting Dana and Juliet against me!” Victoria is looking down at Max now, chin up, a disgusted curl to her lips.
“Because it was the fastest way to stop you from making fun of my friend. I know I should have taken the time to tell you in more detail, because apparently you’re the dumbest smart person I know, but you know what happens when you bully people? Sometimes, they kill themselves. And you don’t know which ones, and you don’t know when. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, not even you want to be famous for that.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?! Kate wouldn’t have killed herself just because I called her a nun. What’s your fucking problem, Maxine?” Victoria sounds brittle now, almost shrill.
“It’s Max,” Chloe corrects her automatically.
Then, Kate steps out from between Warren and Chloe. She’s pale, shoulders hunched, but there’s a determined twist to her mouth. “Actually, if you’d done something like this to me? Posted something that personal for the entire world to see? I wouldn’t vouch for my life.”
There’s a split second where Victoria blanches and Chloe thinks, now we have her. But then she sits up straight, gives them a haughty look and says, “Well, it’s not my fault if you don’t have a will to live. Don’t blame that on me. I’m here because I know how to fight, and you won’t stop me just because you like to play the victim.”
Max shrugs and turns away. “Call it what you want, but next time you expect me to care when I ruin one of your friendships, remember this moment. Remember that I tried. I asked you how you felt and you refused to answer. I tried to make you see my side and you blocked me. If you want war? You can have it. But this is a warning. There’s more of us every day, and every time you run one of your dirty little schemes you will lose more people who are willing to listen to you. I’m willing to listen to you, but if all you give me is bullshit, I won’t waste my time with you.”
She gets up, and next to Rachel, Steph starts clapping slowly. Chloe joins, then Rachel, then Warren, and finally, Kate. Victoria looks at Courtney, then at Taylor, who are completely silent. She hunches her shoulders a little.
“Look at that, Victoria. I haven’t even talked to you yet and you’re already shivering. Do you want five more of these speeches, or do you want to help us take down the fucking letters?” Rachel asks, taking a step forward.
Max high fives her, like she’s handing over the baton.
“Yeah,” Steph adds, “We all have our grievances, and we’ll make sure you hear them, one by one. Remember when you wrote Steph is a dyke in all the toilet stalls after I came out? Because I do.”
When Rachel sits down in Max’s spot, smiling up at Victoria, she finally crumbles. “Fine. I’ll take down the letters and we’re even.”
“If by even you mean if you pull the tiniest piece of bullshit, we will make sure it rains back onto you? Then yes,” Chloe says. Rachel gets back up again, dusting off her pants.
“Hey, Courtney, Taylor?” Max says as everyone is turning around to leave, and they look at her like deer in the headlights. “You seem like cool people, I admire your sense of fashion. If you ever want to hang out with people who know what loyalty is worth? Come to us.”
“I will make your lives hell,” Victoria hisses warningly, and Warren says, “huh, case in point, I guess. You know, normal friends don’t threaten you to keep you by their sides. They do nice stuff, like draw you little pictures, or text you when they see something and it made them think of you. Share their food. You should try it sometime.”
And they leave. Rachel mimes a mic drop to Warren, who seems exceptionally pleased with himself.
By the time Chloe goes home, the letters are gone.
She breathes out. Two more days.