Friday barely finds Chloe at all: It’s the last day of school, nothing of importance is going to happen, so she doesn’t see why she should go at all. Except maybe that Rachel and Max are depending on her to bring the truck for the road trip.
Joyce finally just opens the curtains, gives the lump underneath the blanket that is her a hug, tells her to have a good time on the road trip, and leaves for work. Chloe curls up into a tighter ball.
The truth of the matter is that she’s worn out, and not telling Joyce about what has been going on at Blackwell fucks with her more than she thought it would.
Victoria has kept up an icy truce as promised, but there’s plenty of whispers and stares anyway, and it’s draining in a way Chloe thought she left behind when people finally got over her being a lesbian.
The thought of the road trip has kept her going this long, but Chloe has the creeping suspicion that it won’t solve everything: They’ll be stuck together in a confined space for days on end, and no amount of activities Rachel picked out for them to space out the time they spend on the road will cover up that they have some things to talk out still.
It’s a text from Max that finally rouses her: Are you okay? óò
no emojis!!!! she texts back, more out of habit than anything else. I’m fine. Overslept. Gonna be there by break, and then she realizes that she needs to hurry up if she really wants to make that happen.
She shovels cereal into her mouth in a speed even Joyce would disapprove of, and leaves the house with the rest of her luggage.
Max and Rachel are already awaiting her in the parking lot, ready to add their trolleys to hers in the trunk.
They look – subdued and tired, both of them, and Chloe knows how that feels: Like the stares and the whispering and the dumb graffiti you keep finding on your desks pull at you, like the planet has been collecting mass while you weren’t looking and now gravity is twice as strong, and you can’t keep up.
She makes a snap decision and snags Rachel for a hug when she comes by her side. “Okay. Get in. We’re bailing,” she says into the crown of her head.
“Fuck, please,” Rachel mumbles into her shoulder. “I was ready to leave this town in kindergarten.”
“So we’re going now?” Max asks from the other side of the car, and Chloe nods. Rachel hugs her tighter.
Max uses that window to snag shotgun, and Rachel grumblingly concedes, untangling from Chloe and spreading her entire self out on the back seat instead.
Max buckles up, then hands Chloe an honest-to-God- cassette , because the truck doesn’t do CDs, and Chloe laughs and pops it into the player.
As whatever indie band Max is listening to these days starts blaring, Chloe does a sloppy three point turn and leaves Blackwell behind. In the rear view mirror, she can see Rachel flip it the bird as it vanishes from view. Max, twisted around in the passenger seat to watch her, gives a delighted laugh, and Chloe realizes how long it’s been since she’s heard that particular sound – definitely not since Victoria started her little campaign. It already feels like they’re healing. Like they’re unfolding and finally taking up the space they’re due again.
The first leg of the journey is easy, she’s been to Grant’s Pass a couple of times – they have a nice view up there, and it’s a place that isn’t Arcadia Bay, so Chloe used to escape there when things got too much at home. And the route there practically brings them by the Oregon Caves, which are their first stop. She relaxes in the driver’s seat, giving Max and Rachel a quick glance each. They’re both smiling, Max silently mouthing the words of the song, Rachel has already gotten out nail polish the same shade of blue as her earring and is in the process of painting her nails. Chloe turns on the AC against the smell.
“You know what’s funny?” Max says eventually.
“What?” Rachel asks, holding out her right hand to inspect the freshly painted nails.
“We all missed each other’s first kisses. I missed mine with Chloe here, Chloe missed mine with her there, and you missed yours with me.”
Rachel laughs, and Chloe, relieved somebody who isn’t her addressed the elephant in the car, joins in. “We all missed out. We should tell each other how it was! Did I suck?”
Max shakes her head. “You were great,” she says. There’s enough of a pause in it to make Chloe question the statement, and Max seems to notice and sighs. “It was more that it was in the middle of a storm and everyone was dead or dying, and I had just seen you die again that kind of ruined the mood.”
Chloe knows that this is the route that Max and her would have taken in the alternate reality where everything went to shit. There’s a lot of stuff on Max’s mind that she usually feels like she can’t talk about, and here she’s carved out this temporary space where she can. But for the life of her, she can’t think of a reply to that.
Luckily, they’re not the only people in this relationship.
Rachel, frozen in the attempt to unscrew the nail polish again for the left hand, pipes up: “So what was it like?”
Max pulls her feet out of her shoes and onto the seat, looking at Chloe like she dares her to say something. “Stormy,” she says. “Like we were making a promise. Like we’d sooner die than let go of each other.”
Chloe, not for the first time, has the weird experience of being jealous of an alternate version of herself. She shrugs it off, impatient.
“Would it have worked out, do you think?” she asks.
“God, no. You’re not made for the kind of proximity I would have needed after this kind of catastrophe. Losing everyone – you deal with things differently. We would have been at each other’s throats constantly.” Max bites one nail and mouths a few words of the current song – Rewind, I wanna go it again, light up the dark, halo on the side – and then continues, more softly, “But we wouldn’t have let each other out of sight again.”
Chloe opens her mouth to say something, but Max is faster: “No, I know that’s not healthy either, but there’s some part of me that wants that. That safety.”
“What’s unsafe about what you have right now?” Rachel asks, not unkindly. She’s gone back to painting her nails, but she pauses to look at Max for the question.
Max rolls her head to one side, then the other on her headrest. “I just – I don’t want you to do anything differently, but any time I’m alone, I’d rather not be.” She flexes her hands. “Keep tabs on everyone. Make sure we’re all safe.”
“Mm,” Rachel says.
“You’ve got to learn to trust us again,” Chloe supplies. “We’re not in danger anymore, you made sure of that. We can take care of ourselves now.”
“But what if I can’t?” Max says. “I still wake up every night, and it takes me ages to calm down if you aren’t there.”
“What? I thought it got better?” Chloe blurts.
“Yeah, because I rewind every time after you’ve calmed me down,” Max says like, duh.
Ah, fuck. How did Chloe never think of that as a possibility?
“Okay,” Rachel cuts in. “New rule. You let us know when we help you and with what. I know it’s some bad stuff but I want to know. ”
She sounds like she’s thinking of the time Max told her about how they found her corpse. It’s a vivid image, hard to get rid of for Chloe as well. Sometimes she still dreams of it, digging into the soft earth of the junkyard and finding flesh. Rachel’s face, except empty, except full of bugs. She shudders. “I know you’re the one with the trauma and we can’t take that away from you, but we can at least share the knowledge, and the stories, and the awful details. So at least it won’t be news to us every time you bring it up.”
Max taps her feet against the seat, and fidgets, and cracks her fingers. “Okay,” she says finally. “Deal.”
Then: “I can’t rewind in the car anyway.”
“What?!” Chloe asks, “I was only letting Rachel lounge around in the backseat like that because I was sure you wouldn’t let anything happen to her! Rachel, sit up!”
“Yeah,” Max says, “I stay in the same place when I rewind, so I’d rewind myself right through the windshield.”
Rachel snickers at that, but obediently puts her feet down.
“So a rewind-free zone then,” she says, contemplative. “Seems like a good place to play truth or dare?”
“Yes, good,” Max says, clapping her hands. “I start. Chloe, have you ever been jealous of an alternative self?”
Chloe lifts one hand from the steering wheel to drag it down her face. “You didn’t let me pick dare,” she complains.
“You can’t do dares, you’re driving,” Rachel says smugly from where she’s leaning far enough forward to peek between Max and Chloe so as not to miss a single word.
“Okay. Fine. Yes. Like, a thousand times. Blue hair and tattoos sounds honestly way cooler than I’ll ever be.”
“Even if you finish school and become a lawyer just like Ms Hayes?” Max sing-songs, and this time when Chloe drags her hand across her face she uses her nails.
“Like I’m the only one to ever get a tiny crush on an authority figure, Lily ,” she replies, which shuts Max up fast.
“My turn. Rachel, what’s your worst fear?”
“I pick dare!”
“We’re in a car. There’s nothing to dare. We’re playing truth or truth.”
Rachel leans back, eyes narrowing like she intends to argue some more, but then Max turns around to take her hand, and she leaves it.
“I’m afraid I’ll die before I get the chance to leave an impact.”
“No need to be afraid,” Chloe says at the same time as Max says, “You already have,” and then hurries to clarify: “Left an impact, I mean,” because they live in a crazy world where Max has to specify that she didn’t mean you already died before you got the chance to leave an impact.
Rachel pulls Max’s hand (and, by extension, Max) close and presses a kiss to her fingers.
Max slumps against the headrest with a dreamy smile. It would be sickening if Chloe weren’t so fucking in love.
“My turn. Max – what about you? Ever been jealous of an alternative self?”
“Ah, fudge,” Max says. “Yeah. When I came back and realized that Chloe missed the old me. I was so selfish, I never assumed you’d grow to like the self I’d ordered to stick around and do her absolute best to be a good friend to you, and when I realized my mistake… man, that hurt.”
“You’re your best self,” Chloe says immediately, and Rachel adds, “You know, I don’t want to play favorites – who am I kidding, that’s all I do, you’re my favorite Max.”
Max smiles, and gives Chloe’s thigh a few playful pats. “Aw, thanks. You guys are my favorites, too. Now, let’s see… Rachel, since you like to play favorites, who of us do you like best?”
“Oh wow,” Rachel says. “What the fuck.” Chloe meets her eyes in the rear view mirror, pointedly raising her eyebrows at her. Rachel sticks her tongue out at her. “It’s none of you, you both suck.” Chloe laughs, and Rachel continues, “I want to say it’s both of you, but you’re right, I always have a favorite. It’s whoever I’m hanging out with at the moment. If you’re both there, it’s whoever’s talking at the moment. Unless they’re trying to make me choose, Max, in which case it’s Chloe.”
“Fair,” Max says, and produces a giant bag of Doritos from the glove compartment. “How about now?”
“You’re my favorite, Max, always have been, give me those chips.”
Max hands them over, and Chloe makes a face until Rachel stuffs a Dorito into her mouth.
“Do you think this is the best thing that could have happened?” Rachel asks after a moment, and both Chloe and Max immediately reply: “Yes.”
“Even with Victoria?”
“Victoria has been a bitch in all realities I’ve visited,” Max says, then stops herself.
“Yeah?” Rachel asks.
“Well, there was one where she wasn’t. But I’m not going back there.”
“Which one was it?”
“It was the one where I saved Chloe’s dad and Chloe died instead.” Chloe freezes for a second. It’s been awhile since she’s thought of that particular reality. That it was an option at all.
“Do you miss your dad, Chloe?” Max asks, softly.
Chloe doesn’t need to think about her answer this time. “Of course I do. Every fucking day. Whenever I see how tired Joyce is, whenever I struggle to fix the car. Every time I eat pizza, every time you take a picture with that old camera, Max – he’s missing in so many aspects of my life. But you said you won’t bring him back, and I get why you have to be selfish about this. You had to make so many decisions you should never have had to make, and you still brought us here – and look at us now.”
She lifts a hand from the wheel to gesture at them, the cassette player – happiness hit her like a train on the track – the pale December sun slanting through the windshield, “We’re here and we love each other so much and we’ve gotten so much better at talking about things, and I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Max covers Chloe’s hand where it’s back on the steering wheel, and Rachel hugs her from behind as best she can, with the seat between them.
“Hear, hear,” Rachel says, and Chloe can hear the smile in her voice, “Chloe talking about her feelings without sounding tortured about it. They grow up so fast.” She wipes an imaginary tear from the corner of her eye.
Chloe finger guns her, which is a little awkward in the car with Rachel sitting behind her, but nobody can say that she left out a prime opportunity to bring out finger guns like this.
“My turn,” she says, “Rachel, you ever gonna tell your parents about us?”
Rachel uses her current position to slink behind Chloe’s seat and out of view. “Ugh,” she says.
“I will rub my grubby Dorito hands all over your face,” Max warns her. “And I can’t even rewind it.”
“Oh my God,” Rachel says, “Yes, I want to tell them. Apparently I’m very chicken about it, though. They are – I mean, you’ve met them. Very proper. And I mean, I’m like 90% sure they love me and will continue to do so. But.” She sighs. “I’m just so done being judged. I know it’s tricky, and I know it will continue to be tricky, but I’m happy with both of you, and I’m all in, and I don’t want anyone to question us because they care. ”
“I feel you,” Max says. “I mean, I don’t want to lie to my parents, but I also definitely don’t want them to feel like they can talk to me about this in any way.”
“I can only recommend the method of dropping an ever-increasing amount of hints and then immediately leaving, so they can draw their own conclusions and never bother you with it,” Chloe says. “Although Joyce may still just be completely clueless and very slow on the uptake.”
“Thanks, I will try that,” Rachel says, laughing. “Reasonably sure my parents are not slow on the uptake. I mean, there’s a reason I grew up to be such a good liar. Okay, done. Max! What’s the ballsiest thing you’ve done that you rewound?”
Max contemplates this for a while, licking Dorito dust off her fingers. “Dumping Frank’s meal on the floor in the Two Whales?” She says finally. “There was a bit where I told Jefferson to eat shit and die, but I’m pretty sure that was a dream.”
“You did what”, Chloe asks, and Rachel says, “Frank Bowers?”
Max laughs. “It was the only way to get his keys, but it was also kind of fun while it was happening.”
“Now I want to know what the ballsiest thing was that you’ve done that you haven’t rewound.”
“You wait your turn, Chloe. If you were to get a tattoo, what would it be?”
“Oh man,” Chloe says. “I’ve always loved tattoo sleeves, but I feel like I should distinguish myself from my alternate self, so… I mean, I’ve thought about getting a hedgehog and a bunny in Kate’s and my style, but they say you should never get a tattoo for a person…”
“Let’s take a selfie right now, and I’ll use it to go back in time and tell you right now if you shouldn’t get it after all,” Max proposes, and Chloe laughs. “Sure, okay.”
Rachel leans forward again while Max gets out her camera, and they make a variety of dumb faces and gestures at it until Max is laughing so hard she can’t keep it steady anymore. She distributes the polaroids evenly among them. Chloe calls dibs on the one where they all make devil’s horns and exaggeratedly snarl at the camera.
“So,” she says, watching Max stuff the polaroid into the inside pocket of Chloe’s jacket as instructed. “What’s the verdict on the hedgehog tattoo?”
“That’s a strong yes on the hedgehog front,” Rachel says. “Hedge yeah,” Max supplies, and ducks away when Rachel attempts to hit her for the awful pun.
“Very good. I also vote for a coffee, since we’re voting,” Chloe says. “And whoops, would you look at that, I get two votes in all things driving related, so here we go,” and she takes a right towards where a starbucks sign is visible from the highway. They’re almost there, but she’s feeling coffee, and it’s not like anyone can stop her.
“Not that I’m opposed to coffee, but two votes don’t give you an automatic majority in this situation,” Rachel says.
“Oh man, I’m sorry to tell you this, but Rachel… you get zero votes on all things math, so the majority is mine because I say two votes are enough.”
“Fair enough,” Rachel says, not sounding like she had particularly high stakes in the coffee debate anyway. “Man, I’m feeling something so cinnamon-y that everyone within ten feet feels compelled to tell me that cinnamon is bad for you .”
“I’ll do you one better, I’m feeling something so cinnamon-y everyone within ten feet immediately dies from a cinnamon overdose,” Chloe replies, steering into the drive thru lane. “Including me. It’s bound to be my coolest death yet.”
“Not hard,” Max says offhandedly, “None of your deaths were particularly cool.”
“But there were many of them, and I think that makes me cooler than either of you,” Chloe says and then ends that conversation by pressing the speak button and giving their order.
The scenery flying past goes abruptly greener before their over-sweetened, over-priced beverages are empty, an evergreen forest on both sides of the road. The B-side of Max’s road trip playlist comes to an end ( you took a polaroid of us / then discovered / the rest of the world was black and white / but we were in screaming color ), so Chloe turns on the sputtering radio.
“Everyone ready for some caves?” she asks.
“I am ready to embrace my inner cavewoman,” Rachel says, and Max puts her feet up on the dashboard and flashes her a thumbs-up from behind her paper cup.
“I’ve never been to a cave,” Chloe admits.
“Me neither,” Max says.
“What! Two firsts? It’s gonna be so cool!”
“Very cool. 50 degrees all year round, I’ve heard,” Max says, and ducks again. Chloe gives her shoulder a shove in Rachel’s stead.
When she comes to a halt in front of a house made of dark wood, they’ve all finished their drinks and stacked the cups.
“This is it,” Chloe calls, and they get out.
Their tour guide is Marian, a resolute looking lady with greying hair, and they are the only ones who seem to want to go underground when it’s already near freezing where the sunlight reaches.
She leads them down a very narrow staircase, single file. “Don’t touch the walls,” she warns them. “The stone changes color when it’s touched, and we’re trying to preserve the original white as best we can.”
“Here, I’ll help you not touch anything,” Rachel whispers, holding out a hand behind her. It’s a joke, but it’s not like Chloe will pass up on a chance to hold her hand, so they end up descending the stairs hand in hand (in hand, because Max wordlessly snags Chloe’s other hand) from behind her.
She looks up at the ceiling, glistening white in the low light. Every step she takes takes her further away from the outside world, where people care about who’s holding hands with whom. It feels a little bit like the earth is breathing them in, cold and damp.
They round a corner, and Marian opens her mouth to start explaining, stops, does a double take. “That’s not possible,” she says, and Rachel tugs Chloe forward to see what she’s talking about.
When they crowd into the cave, the light overhead is reflected thousandfold across the glittering walls. Max lets go of her hand to get out her camera, and before Chloe can stop herself, she runs a finger across one of the crystals that the walls around them seem to consist of: smooth and solid, almost like glass. Like they’re standing inside a giant geode.
“I thought this was a marble cave?” Rachel asks, head tilted up towards the glittering ceiling. She’s smiling, like she already knows the answer before it comes: “It was,” Marian says, “I mean, it is. I don’t know what this is, some – prank –” and she tries to pry off one of the crystals, but it holds tight.
Max wordlessly hands Chloe a polaroid: it’s her, running a hand across the walls, the refracted light painting tiny rainbows across her face.
It’s beautiful in a way that Chloe has never seen herself, almost serene.
Every time she sees a picture Max took, she is reminded that this is how Max sees that person, that place, that animal, the world. When Max thinks of Chloe, this is what she sees. Max thinks she’s beautiful all the time, and she was only waiting for the right lighting, the right moment to show her.
It’s enough to make her briefly press the picture to her chest and squeeze Max’s hand, hard, Marian be damned.
(Marian is not looking, she’s muttering, pacing the cave.)
“Hey, can we still – I can see some water in the next cave, are we still doing the tour?” Rachel asks, putting her hands together like she’s pleading.
Chloe almost laughs out loud. She knows Rachel’s innocent act, it never disappoints.
And sure enough, Marian replies, shaken: “Of
course, yeah, you paid for the tickets, I should see what the rest looks like, anyway… Sorry I can’t tell you anything about this…”
And she makes for the adjacent cave. Chloe gives Rachel a broad grin in passing, and Rachel winks at her.
If the strange occurrences in Max’s alternative reality were warnings, Chloe thinks as they enter a much larger cavern with a lake taking up the better part of it, this must be a sign they’re doing it right. It’s too beautiful to be anything else: the still surface of the lake glittering with the light from above, prisms splitting it into rainbows upon rainbows. Rachel turns to her, her face an array of colors and feelings, looking the way Chloe feels: like she’s so full of love she has to share some of it, to keep from spilling over.
It all fits in with the theory Chloe has been adding onto since their talk with Kate: that whatever gave Max her powers has big and small ways to show its opinion about how she’s using them, with Max’s headaches and nosebleeds and – whatever this is. There’s not much science behind it, but Chloe finds herself leaning toward the feeling: They’re doing it right. They’re on a good path. They’re meant to be together, and to be happy, and to be here.
She remembers the junkyard, the tree-turned-cross, and the white lilies. She remembers how Max said that it looked like something was apologizing for not being able to fix this, too. At the time, Chloe thought it was just an awkward apology from Max, because she is the one with the power, and she refused to use it – but it’s starting to make sense now: They must be dealing with something sentient, something that has opinions, something that, in whatever way, likes them and wants to protect them.
For the first time in ages, Chloe lets herself think of a benevolent God.
She keeps the thought close to her chest, and follows a speechless Marian and Max into the next cavern. This one is longer, with glittering stalagmites and stalactites. Even Chloe knows that this is not a thing.
Max walks up to a loose crystal on the floor. She stands by it for a while, then picks it up, turning it over in her hands. It almost looks like it’s glowing in her hands.
Marian finally seems to come to. “What have you got there?” she asks, probably remembering her own “no touch” rule.
Max looks her square in the face and pockets the crystal.
Marian sputters. “Wha–”
”–ahW“ .srettups nairaM
.latsyrc eht stekcop dna ecaf eht ni erauqs reh skool xaM
.elur ”hcuot on“ eht gnirebmemer ylbaborp ,sksa ehs ”?ereht tog uoy evah tahW“ .ot emoc ot smees yllanif nairaM
.sdnah reh ni gniwolg s’ti ekil skool tsomla tI .sdnah reh ni revo ti gninrut ,pu ti skcip neht ,elihw a rof ti yb sdnats ehS
Chloe blinks, and the crystal on the floor is gone. When she looks up, Max catches her eye and winks – or, well, tries to. It’s Max. It’s more of a slow blink, a cat’s smile.
Chloe shakes her head at her, grinning.
“I didn’t think crystal stalagmites were possible?” Rachel asks, politely interested, from the entrance. Chloe can see her amusement behind the question, clear as day.
“They aren’t,” Marian says, sounding lost. “I don’t know what this is, what – grew here overnight, but it sure wasn’t here yesterday. I should call the police…” She trails off, and Chloe knows she’s probably imagining how that conversation will go.
“Do you know what kind of stone this is?”She asks.
“Could be quartz,” Marian says, absent. She pats the wall next to her. “I’d have to get an expert in here to be sure, and the lighting isn’t ideal to see the color, but I think they’re clear.”
“Definitely clear,” Max agrees, between two pictures. She hasn’t asked them to move out of frame once, which means either she’s being very patient, or she wants them in the pictures, contrasting the sharp angles of the stone. Or maybe she has and just rewound it, since she seems to get to keep whatever items she acquires.
Chloe waits for Rachel to catch up, slings an arm around her waist and surreptitiously stuffs her right hand into the back pocket of Rachel’s jeans. They spend the rest of the tour gently bumping into each other while they crane their heads to see it all.
When Max realizes that Chloe is wearing fingerless gloves and possibly getting a little cold, she stows away her camera and shares her right coat pocket with her, which Chloe gratefully accepts.
By the time the tour is over, they’re so full of impressions that it makes them a little giggly. Max tips Marian well, possibly out of guilt for the stolen crystal, and they leave her to her confusion. Chloe makes a mental note to keep tabs on any news regarding Oregon Caves for a few days.
The cave breathes them out with a gust of slightly stale, cold air, into the fresher, colder air outside. It feels like it should be night, but the sun is only just beginning to set. They stumble back to the truck, slightly starry eyed.
Max hands her another tape, and with Rachel on the passenger seat, Chloe drives them to their hostel near Grant’s Pass to the sound of the How to Train Your Dragon soundtrack. Max is going through the polaroids she took, putting some in her scrapbook and handing out the rest like candy. None of them say much: it feels like any attempt to put words to what they just saw would only diminish it, so they don’t.
They get a greasy dinner at a McDonald’s on the way, and when they arrive at the hostel, they’re just awake enough to brush their teeth, push their two queen beds together, and fall into a pile on top of it.
“What a good first day of a road trip,” Rachel mumbles. Max leans across Chloe to carefully set the stone she stole down on the nightstand, where it breaks the light of the bedside lamp. “Very successful,” Chloe agrees, shifting underneath the covers until she’s found a comfortable position.
“Mmm,” Max says, eyes already closing.