The road trip continues without a hitch. They all call their respective anxious parents in the morning and get back on the road. Being able to push their beds together and sleep in does wonders for their mood, even though Max wakes them up again when she has night terrors, or rather: she doesn’t rewind them back into sleep when they have managed to calm her down.
Chloe feels many ways about this, but most of all she’s grateful. Max is an open book about so many things, but her particular brand of trauma leaves Chloe floundering more often than not; she is glad to have some amount of experience with what works for Max and what doesn’t, and she doesn’t mind learning about the alternate reality that managed to fuck Max up so thoroughly in only four days.
A gasp of “Kate!” is what wakes Chloe on the second day, in a cottage by the Fern Ridge lake. She turns around to Max, bleary-eyed.
Max is shaking, and Chloe carefully puts a hand on her back. “Kate is okay,” she whispers. “We made sure she would be. Remember?”
“And then we left her over Christmas,” Max replies, just as quiet.
“She will be okay. Remember how she stood up to Victoria the other day? Girl has balls of steel.”
“It only took one video,” Max says, and Chloe falters. Max doesn’t talk much about the other timeline’s Kate, and Chloe doesn’t usually pry.
“Victoria took a video of her making out with – I don’t know, some guys after she was drugged, it went viral, people were – you know, what happened to us, people were making fun, staring. Graffiti in the bathrooms.” Max takes a deep breath. “Jefferson told her she was complaining too much when she tried to talk to him about it. The next day, she was on the roof of the school.”
“How did you stop her?”
“I stopped time.”
“You what now?”
“I don’t know – I never could, before or after, but just this one time it let me stop time. I went up on the roof with her, and I talked her down, and Chloe, she would have jumped, I know she would have, I saw-”
“Shhh, hey,” Chloe says. It let me, she thinks. It’s not the first time Max has talked about the universe like it has some amount of agency, but it’s never been with a kind voice. It wanted you dead so bad, she said once. “You saved her, yeah? Then and now. She just needed to know someone was on her side. And this timeline doesn’t have Jefferson, or a video. She distanced herself from her mother out of her own free will, and I think that’s a good thing. Hey, let’s call her tomorrow and see how she’s doing, yeah?”
Max nods. When Chloe looks over to the alarm clock on the bedside table that blinks an unforgiving 4:23 am at her. At least Rachel hasn’t woken up yet. Max’s breaths are still uneven, chest heaving.
“Here. Breathe with me.” Chloe breathes in deeply, and Max immediately relaxes a fraction as she copies her. “In, hold, and out.”
They breathe together a couple of times, and finally Max’s head sinks back down to the pillow. “Thanks,” she says.
“It’s in the job description,” Chloe replies easily. “Hey, Max?” It’s probably a bad idea. But she can’t get the thought out of her head.
“When you were talking about stopping time, you said – it let you?”
“It – yeah. It’s like, different things are possible under different circumstances? I could rewind a stray bullet hitting you no problem, but rewinding when Rachel kissed me the first time cost me a lot of energy. Like running underwater.” Chloe gets stuck for the moment on the fake memory of being struck by a bullet, and then imagines Rachel kissing Max before they even talked about the possibility, but decides to move past both of those feelings.
“Mmm. Like an opinion?”
“Like… yeah. Like that. Like if I really wanted something, that made it harder to rewind that. But other times – I mean, I would constantly get headaches in the other timeline, and here almost never. But I really, really wanted to rewind a lot of things back then.” Max sounds like she’s already slowly falling asleep again. “It doesn’t really… make sense.”
Unless, Chloe thinks. “Mm,” she says, and then her pillows are too warm and her head is too heavy to think more, and she sinks back to sleep, too.
The next and last day of the road trip is almost a full day of driving, with a short lunch break scheduled in Portland. It’s also the 23rd of December, so they wisely scheduled a lot of time for traffic.
They did not schedule Max’s night terrors, but Chloe is willing to let her sleep in anyway; mostly because she’s hugging her pillow and occasionally making little sounds, and Chloe may be hard-hearted but it’s not like she’s immune to Max being this adorable. Chloe can drive in the dark, it’s okay.
Rachel and her spend the morning exaggeratedly tiptoeing around the room, planning the route (traffic is already hell), and getting ready to go out.
Chloe stares into the cloudy hostel room mirror, toothbrush in mouth, and considers, for the first time in years, putting on makeup. It’s weird, giving a shit. She didn’t feel this way about meeting Rachel’s parents for the first time after they got together. Next to her, Rachel is putting on what Chloe likes to call her warpaint, the kind of makeup she reserves for special occasions, though Rachel’s idea of a special occasion may differ from the norm.
“It’s going to be okay,” Rachel says, because Rachel can read minds.
“Mhm,” Chloe says noncommittally, and steals her mascara.
When Max finally stirs, they’ve assembled a tiny breakfast on the nightstand for her and are sharing the only chair, next to their packed suitcases.
Max raises her head, spends a few seconds looking around disorientedly and finally finds them. “Oh fudge,” she says. “I wanted to call Kate.”
“Let’s call Kate in the car, we gotta check out in half an hour,” Chloe says, and Max sits up, finds her breakfast, lights up, and digs in without hesitation.
“Thanks for letting me sleep in,” she says through a mouthful of donut.
“Course,” Chloe says. “Showering is out now, though.”
“S’okay”, Max replies. “My parents will still love me if I arrive stinky.” She gives Chloe a longer look. “Are you wearing mascara?”
“Yeah. Felt like it,” Chloe says, feeling strangely exposed. “Come on, less talking, more eating.”
Max stuffs the entire rest of the donut into her mouth, staring her down all the while.
They manage to check out in time and get the truck on the road. Max gets on the backseat without complaining, and proceeds to call Kate immediately.
“Hey, Kate? How are you doing?” She laughs. “Yeah, I slept in, Rachel and Chloe packed everything up so I could get an extra half hour. You’re probably already halfway through your day, right?”
“Put her on speaker!” Chloe calls back to her, and soon enough, Kate’s tinny voice sounds through the truck. “Good morning, guys!”
“Morning, Kate,” Chloe says, smiling. There’s something about Kate’s voice that just inspires happiness.
“What are you up to?” Rachel asks.
“Oh, not that much, shopping, drawing, taking walks… Warren invited me to watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special with him – not like that!” she says, when Chloe whoops at her. “Just as a friend.”
“Does Warren know that?” Max asks, with the long-suffering air of someone who has been in this exact situation.
“Yeah, he’s actually, um, confessed to me about someone he likes, so I’m relatively sure,” Kate says, sounding like she’s barely containing laughter. “But what about you guys? How’s the road trip going?”
“Swimmingly,” Chloe says, right as she turns onto the highway and spots a traffic jam ahead. “Ugh.”
“I will never again get into a car on a 23rd of December,” Chloe says. “But other than that, it’s pretty dope.”
“We did a tour of a cave system, and went horse riding, and slept in a cottage by a lake,” Rachel interjects. “I feel like dope doesn’t cover it.”
“Rachel has some feelings about her trip planning skills,” Chloe explains, and Kate laughs.
“But you’re doing okay?” Max asks.
“Yes,” Kate says. After a brief pause, she adds, “you know? I’m a little lonely sometimes, but at the same time, it’s so much better than constantly worrying if I’m good enough. My dad has called a couple of times. He’s been great about it.”
“That’s so good to hear,” Max says, relief audible in her voice.
“Thanks for checking up on –”
“What the fuck, watch where you’re driving, you sentient piece of shit! Sorry, someone cut in front of me, I have to insult their entire family including any and all pets now, I don’t make the rules,” Chloe says, and continues to do just this.
“Okay, calm it with the road rage, Chloe,” Rachel says after Chloe has reached the second degree of kinship.
“They deser –” Rachel stuffs a marshmallow into her mouth before Chloe can finish her sentence, which effectively muffles her protest.
“What’s going on?” Kate asks. “I feel like this is my cue to hang up?”
“I’m muzzling Chloe so she doesn’t insult someone to death,” Rachel says.
“Definitely my cue to hang up,” Kate says. “Thank you for calling, it was good to hear from you! Don’t insult anyone to death, Chloe!”
“S not possible,” Chloe slurs through a mouthful of fluff. “I’ve tried. Okay, have a good one!”
There’s a chorus of ciao s from Max and Rachel, and Max hangs up.
“You came pretty close that time you asked Jefferson how he liked your softer nature so far,” Rachel replies fondly. “To insulting him to death, I mean.”
Chloe chews and swallows. “Mm, that would’ve saved us a lot of work.”
Chloe watches Max shift on the back seat through the rearview mirror, and wonders if she feels left out when they talk about stuff that happened in their timeline. Probably not more than she would have anyway, since it happened before she moved back to Arcadia Bay.
“You know what,” Max says after a few seconds of thoughtful silence. “I’m glad I did everything I did in that alternate timeline.”
“Me too,” Chloe says, vaguely surprised. She had somehow assumed they were past this.
“No, I mean, I’m not just glad I ended up here, and now we’re all alive and together and in love,” and it’s still a thrill to hear her say it like that, “I mean I’m glad for everything that happened. So much of it was so awful, and there was so much pain, and I felt responsible for all of it, but it meant you got to keep your best friend and also become a raging feminist and also impress Rachel with your razor tongue, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad I had to make an impossible decision so I came here looking for a third option. I’d do it again if I had to, to get here.”
And there’s something about that – and last night’s it let me stop time – Chloe feels something slot into place in her mind. “ Lily ,” she says. “What if it’s you?”
Max blinks. “What?”
“The – the – the entity.” Chloe changes lanes, merging between two cars, and briefly loses her train of thought. “I mean… whatever determines whether or not you get a nosebleed or not when you try to rewind. Whatever let you stop time that one time. What if it’s you, but in hindsight.”
“What?” Max says again, but she sounds almost a little overwhelmed, this time. Rachel is sitting very still, eyes wide.
“It all makes sense! Look, it must be so awful to look at you go through everything you went through in hindsight? See all the things you rewound, all of them meaningless because you know in the end you would come back here, but it had to happen this exact way, you had to know everything? So all the headaches you got, what if they’re your future self looking back on your decision and having an opinion? Like, no, come on , there’s a better solution to this, or, please for the love of God stop rewinding when people you love kiss you?”
“I felt that,” Rachel says. “Ah, fuck, that’s a really good theory.”
“Going back in time to – what – make my past life harder, so everything happens like it did?” Max doesn’t sound happy, and Chloe realizes belatedly that this is also Max’s future they might be talking about.
Rachel doesn’t seem to pick up on it. “No, look, it makes so much sense! From the perspective of someone who can just randomly give somebody the power to rewind time, Chloe would be the obvious solution to save me. But if it was you all along? If you were the only one who could have the power because you already had it?”
“And the – the stars and the eclipse and the storm…” Max trails off.
Chloe brakes a little too harshly when she reaches the beginning of the traffic jam.
Rachel, already bent forward from the unexpected deceleration, takes the opportunity to get out her bag from under her seat. “Okay. I’ve got a theory, too,” she says. “Remember how we got each other caught up on everything in the junkyard? How Max took over for everything that happened in October?”
“Want me to read the rest of the dream journals to you guys?” She’s already got the notebook out and is leafing through the pages, dense with her round, loopy handwriting.
“Duh,” Chloe says when Max stays silent, and Rachel finds the right page and begins.
Things have gotten progressively worse over the course of the last few weeks, so you don’t expect roses when you go in this time. (It’s a selfie even, to check up on this Chloe. You worry, and even though there is nothing you can do, you still feel an obligation.) What you don’t expect is to come face to face with Nathan Prescott, of all people, frantic and pacing.
There’s an immediate pull away from him: you know what he’s capable of by now, and however pretty his words, and however beautiful his art, what you remember is the look in his eyes when he was escorted off the school grounds the day after they finally managed to lock Jefferson up: so full of hate, and specifically for you.
When you put distance between your floating sense of self and him, you also widen your perspective to include Chloe. She’s standing with her arms crossed, faux-confident: you know her tells, even when she has blue hair and more issues than you can count.
When she speaks, it’s just a shade too loud for comfort, even if the parking lot around them seems empty: “You want everyone to know you got me fucked up on God knows what to take pictures of me?”
There’s nowhere for the anger to go, when it slams into you: You can’t scream or punch Nathan or even ball your fists or cry or
You don’t have a voice, and you thought you’d gotten used to it by now, but there’s nothing to – do – you whirl upwards and higher, as Nathan hisses something, spins on his heel and makes for the school building, and there’s got to be someone who can help, there’s got to be someone who can beat Nathan up for you –
Flashes of classrooms pass through you too fast to register, until you falter and stop in one when you hear a familiar voice –
“One could argue that photography is going out of fashion, and it’s only a question of time until it’s replaced by film. To which I would reply – Yes, Victoria?”
Jefferson is still here.
Jefferson is still free and there’s nobody around to stop him, you look around frantically and – that’s Max, hunched over her notes – Max could help – she loves Chloe, she probably loves Chloe here, too –
You still don’t have a voice, but you’re willing to try anything to get her to help, and you’re already a spinning mess of a perspective, too much anger and fear and no outlet, so you just sink down towards Max’s head, as much of a screaming mess as you can be, hoping that any part of Max will pick up on it –
But then it’s just the camera on her desk that picks up on you and tips your perspective like a shift of gravity, and you spin into it and out in your bedroom, eye to eye with yourself in the mirror of your wardrobe.”
“That was the moment I had that first vision,” Max says slowly. “The one with the -”
“That’s what I thought,” Rachel says, sounding almost satisfied , of all things. “That’s what it felt like. A storm.”
Chloe stares out at the street. She remembers all too well how she called Rachel a forest fire in that letter to Max, and how Max would fondly call her a force of nature later.
For a moment, she feels small. Insignificant. Here she is, between two people who can and have moved worlds to be together, and what does she do? She knows how to start a fight and –
“It’s possible,” Max says, sounding about as small as Chloe feels. Chloe shakes off the feeling and finishes her thought: And she knows how to make a friend, and really, isn’t that just as important? Isn’t that what brought them here in the first place? Befriending Max, befriending Rachel, and then, when Max wouldn’t, befriending Kate?
Max pulls her feet up on the seat and hugs her knees. “That’s a lot,” she says. She’s very white. “I’m just some teen. I rewound to cheat on fucking tests, or to have a clever comeback for Victoria. I don’t want some – earth-shattering – power…”
“Then you don’t have to use it for anything earth-shattering,” Rachel says kindly. “So what if you keep using it for our shenanigans, for breaking into the pool at night and sneaking into each other’s rooms and for passing Chemistry. You already worked your miracle. You can settle down now.”
“And now you know the only one who’s watching is you,” Chloe adds. “Not some possibly dangerous entity that could end you at a whim.”
Max, who has begun to breathe rather rapidly, calms down a little. “Yeah,” she says. “Okay. Settling down. No more miracles for the foreseeable future.”
“That said, if you’ve got anything at all to make your parents like me,” Chloe throws in, and Max laughs.
“They already do,” she promises. She scrunches up her nose in the way that means she’s accessing her new memories. “They were so happy I got back in contact with you after we moved away. I didn’t make a lot of friends in Seattle.” She leans forward to pat Rachel’s head, “they’re also thrilled to meet you.”
“They should be, I’m a delight,” Rachel replies.
She doesn’t show any signs of nervousness, but then again, she knows how to deal with stage fright.
“Of course none of this makes any sense, on a scientific level,” Chloe says after a while.
“Yeah,” Rachel agrees. “You know, I’ve been thinking for a while that in the end, it’ll always come down to ‘life is strange’, when we’re looking for an explanation. Why did it happen? Why Max? How does it work? Where does the energy for the natural disasters and miracles come from? Who the fuck knows? Life’s fucking strange, man. Good things and bad things and just plain weird things just happen sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Max says again, a little relieved.
“Five miles to Portland,” Chloe announces when she spots a sign. “If I said let’s just find the first Chipotle, would there be mutiny, or…”
“I haven’t had Chipotle in forever ,” Max cuts in, though who knows what forever means in her rewind-pampered mind.
“Do I get two votes in all things food, granting me an automatic majority in this math-free scenario?” Rachel asks, already sounding somewhat defeated.
“You can try your little one-man-mutiny, but I fear it won’t succeed,” Chloe replies, grinning.
“Then I will succumb to the soggy tacos of your choice.” Rachel sags against the side window in what’s a pretty good impression of one.
“You are the soggy taco of my choice,” Chloe says, setting a blinker, “Oh, look, a Chipotle sign, it’s our lucky day.”
“Why do they need to be everywhere ,” Rachel whines.
“Capitalism,” Chloe replies cheerfully.
They seat themselves around a cheap plastic table and dig in with varying degrees of abandon. Chloe watches Max eat her taco with so much gusto it’s almost obscene, and she feels her anxiety about re-meeting Max’s parents ebb. It’ll be fine, and if it isn’t – they live in Seattle. Chloe can avoid them if she wants to.
“You’ve got a -” Rachel leans forward and kisses sauce off Max’s nose without finishing her sentence. Max briefly goes cross-eyed, then slurs a “Thanks,” and takes another bite.
Rachel shares a fond look with Chloe, and Chloe nudges her foot with hers. Rachel takes a sip of her soda, and when she reappears, she looks almost bashful.
Chloe keeps forgetting that Rachel is in just as deep as they are, because Rachel never seems fazed by anything. But she has been dating Rachel for almost a year now – if she watches for them, she knows her signs. Chloe blows her a kiss, which Rachel casually catches with her straw, but Chloe sees the little smile shaping around it while she lowers it back into her soda to slurp up what’s left of it.
“Where’s my kiss?” Max asks, all wide-eyed innocence and avocado on her chin.
Chloe and Rachel both blow her a kiss at the same time, and Max drops the rest of her taco without hesitance to catch them, one in each hand.
“Always good to know our kisses rank higher than your taco,” Chloe says.
“Barely,” Max replies, wiping her chin. She glances briefly at the hopeless mess of chicken and vegetables on her tray as if considering if it’s worth picking back up. “Ah, that was good. Okay gang,” which is something she’s been saying a lot. It’s adorable only by sheer force of personality. “Who’s ready for my parents? Because I definitely am. I’ve been needing a motherly hug since October.”
“Yeah, let’s get you that mom-hug, stat,” Chloe says.
“Hey, Max?” Rachel asks, getting up to throw out their trash and return their trays. “What are your parents like?”
“Oh!” Max frowns. “I really haven’t been talking about them much, have I?”
“I mean, so far I know you like them, which is a good starting point, and they’re cool with us staying over Christmas, so very promising, but what’s the dynamic like?”
Chloe knows what this is about. Rachel will sometimes do this when she cares about impressing people. She likes to get a lay of the land so she can buff her charisma properly, get her lines ready. She smiles.
“As far as I remember, Vanessa is resolute, but in a very cute way. She knows how to run a household, and she can get a little bossy. Just do what she says and you’re golden. Ryan is a kind dude. Doesn’t say much, but when he does, he’s hilarious.”
Chloe turns toward Max. “Still accurate?”
Max gives a little half-nod. “Yeah, except you know, we’re all five years older. Mom gets a little annoying sometimes with the rigidity of her rules, and Dad’s jokes aren’t always funny anymore.”
“Oh,” Chloe says. “Well, they’ll always be funny in my book.”
“Yeah, you also honked at the dude with the ‘honk if you <3 titties’ sign,” Max says, long-suffering.
“I don’t see your point. That was an excellent sticker. Titties are very important.”
“Word,” Rachel says.
Chloe gets back into the truck, starts the B-side of Max’s second tape, and gets them back on the road.
“Can we…” Max starts from the passenger seat. Chloe raises her eyebrows at her.
“I was just wondering if we could get this to a pawn-shop or something? I kind of want to know what it is now.” She’s holding up the crystal she picked up in the cave, twirling it between her fingers. It’s almost fist-sized, and beautiful in the light of the low sun.
“Oh! I meant to check out what happened to the caves anyway, wanna google that for me?” Chloe says to no one in particular. Rachel, who never minds spontaneously educating herself and others, already has her phone out. “And I guess look for a pawn-shop in Portland, as well,” she adds.
“There’s nothing in here about – oh, but the caves are closed for tours until next year! It doesn’t say why,” Rachel says. “Pawn shop, wait a minute… Okay, it’s another two miles, then take a right.”
“I wonder why they closed the caves,” Chloe muses. “Crystal caves must be way cooler attractions than calcit ones, I can’t imagine why they’d be passing up the opportunity? Unless they’re taking the time to take proper pictures to advertise.”
“That’s your right coming up,” Rachel says, and Chloe dutifully sets her blinker.
“I could always send them some of the ones I took,” Max says, thoughtful. “It’d be cool to be credited?”
“Let’s wait until we know what it is,” Chloe replies.
The pawn shop Rachel directs them to has a partially working neon sign that reads ‘pa n shop’, and one of those flickering psychedelic ‘open’ signs in the door. Chloe likes it immediately.
A bell dings when Rachel opens the door, and an elderly woman looks up from the crossword puzzle of the daily newspaper. “Afternoon,” she says briskly. “What can I do for you?”
“Hi.” Max walks up to her and places the crystal on the counter. “I inherited this uncut diamond from my aunt, and I don’t really have a use for it – could you tell me what it’s worth?”
Chloe barely suppresses a reaction. Looking over to Rachel, she’s also sporting her poker face, which means she must be surprised, too.
It makes sense, of course: If it’s anything less than a diamond, Max can rewind, correct herself, use the proper terminology, and maybe drive up the price they’d get if they walked in admitting they don’t even know what they have.
“A diamond, huh,” the pawnbroker says, sceptical. “Let’s see.” She takes the gem, inspects it from all sides, and places it under a microscope. Her chair creaks when she bends down to look through the binoculars, and Chloe looks over to Max, who is taking in the shop’s interior and visibly trying not to fidget.
Rachel is standing by the counter, keeping an eye on the pawnbroker, who is muttering and adjusting the focus of the microscope.
She fusses a little, then moves over to a magnifying glass, as if she doesn’t trust the microscope.
Chloe raises her eyebrows. If she’s not mocking them yet, things are looking good.
“Alright,” she says. “How much do you want for that?”
“A thousand dollars,” Max says.
“Done,” the woman says, and Chloe thinks, that was too cheap –
– paehc oot saw taht ,skniht eolhC dna ,syas namow eht ”,enoD“
.syas xaM ”,srallod dnasuoht A“
“Two thousand dollars,” Max says, without missing a beat. Chloe manages not to make a sound.
The woman narrows her eyes at Max for a moment. “One five,” she says.
“Two thousand,” Max says, “or I’m going to the next pawn shop.”
“Fine,” she says. “How did you say you came into this again?”
“Inherited it from my aunt.” Max is not as good of a liar as Rachel, but she’s gotten a lot better since she came back, and it doesn’t look like the woman is all that interested in the truth.
“I’m going to need some ID,” she says.
Max pulls out her wallet wordlessly. When Chloe looks closely, she can see her hands shake the slightest bit, but in general, she looks in her element. Of course, Chloe thinks: She can just rewind, here. This is an easy situation for her to get right.
As the woman copies down Max’s data, Chloe goes to admire a pair of turquoise earrings on one of the glass shelves that line the walls. When she reaches out a hand to touch them, the pawnbroker scoffs at her without even looking up. Chloe takes them in hand while looking straight at her still-bent head.
“Miss, put that back.”
Chloe summons all of her willpower and sets the earrings back down instead of putting them on and pointedly admiring herself in a mirror.
“Thanks.” She opens a squeaking register and starts counting 100-dollar-bills into Max’s hand. “Well!” She says, when Max is holding a thick wad of cash, suddenly cheerful. “You guys have yourselves a great day!” She hands Max a receipt, which Max immediately folds up neatly into halves, fourths, eighths. She briefly attempts sixteenths, then catches the elderly woman’s look and quickly stuffs the receipt into her pocket. “Thank you, you too,” she says, and they leave the shop.
The bell dings again as the door slams shut behind them, and Rachel turns around to them, half-laughing. “Well wasn’t that a-”
”-a taht t’nsaw lleW“ .gnihgual-flah ,meht ot dnuora snrut lehcaR dna ,meht dniheb tuhs smals rood eht sa sgnid lleb ehT
.pohs eht evael yeht dna ,syas ehs ”,oot uoy ,uoy knahT“ .tekcop reh otni tpiecer eht sffuts ylkciuq dna kool s’namow ylredle eht sehctac neht ,shtneetxis stpmetta ylfeirb ehS .shtgie ,shtruof ,sevlah otni yltaen pu sdlof yletaidemmi xaM hcihw ,tpiecer a xaM sdnah ehS ”!yad taerg a sevlesruoy evah syug uoY“ .lufreehc ylneddus ,hsac fo daw kciht a gnidloh si xaM nehw ,syas ehS ”!lleW“ .dnah s’xaM otni sllib-rallod-001 gnitnuoc strats dna retsiger gnikaeuqs a snepo ehS ”.sknahT“
.rorrim a ni flesreh gnirimda yldetniop dna no meht gnittup fo daetsni kcab sgnirrae eht stup dna rewoplliw reh fo lla snommus eolhC
”.kcab taht tup ,ssiM“
.daeh tneb-llits reh ta thgiarts gnikool elihw dnah ni meht sekat eolhC .pu gnikool neve tuohtiw reh ta sffocs rekorbnwap ,meht hcuot ot dnah a tuo sehcaer ehs nehW .sllaw eht enil taht sevlehs ssalg eht fo eno no sgnirrae esiouqrut fo riap a erimda ot seog eolhC ,atad s’xaM nwod seipoc namow eht sA
.thgir teg ot reh rof noitautis ysae na si sihT .ereh ,dniwer tsuj nac ehS :skniht eolhC ,esruoc fO .tnemele reh ni skool ehs ,lareneg ni tub ,tib tsethgils eht ekahs sdnah reh ees nac ehs ,ylesolc skool eolhC nehW .ylsseldrow tellaw reh tuo sllup xaM
.syas ehs ”,DI emos deen ot gniog m’I“
.hturt eht ni detseretni taht lla si namow eht ekil kool t’nseod ti dna ,kcab emac ehs ecnis retteb tol a nettog s’ehs tub ,lehcaR sa rail a fo doog sa ton si xaM ”.tnua ym morf ti detirehnI“
”?niaga siht otni emac uoy yas uoy did woH“ .syas ehs ”,eniF“
”.pohs nwap txen eht ot gniog m’I ro“ ,syas xaM ”,dnasuoht owT“
.syas ehs ”,evif enO“ .tnemom a rof xaM ta seye reh sworran namow ehT
.dnuos a ekam ot ton seganam eolhC .taeb a gnissim tuohtiw ,syas xaM ”,srallod dnasuoht owT“
“A thousand dollars,” Max says.
“Done,” the woman says, and Chloe thinks, that was too cheap –
– paehc oot saw taht ,skniht eolhC dna ,syas namow eht ”,enoD“
.syas xaM ”,srallod dnasuoht A“
”?taht rof tnaw uoy od hcum woH“ .syas ehs ”,thgirlA“
.doog gnikool era sgniht ,tey meht gnikcom ton s’ehs fI .sworbeye reh sesiar eolhC
.epocsorcim eht tsurt t’nseod ehs fi sa ,ssalg gniyfingam a ot revo sevom neht ,elttil a sessuf ehS
.epocsorcim eht fo sucof eht gnitsujda dna gnirettum si ohw ,rekorbnwap eht no eye na gnipeek ,retnuoc eht yb gnidnats si lehcaR
.tegdif ot ton gniyrt ylbisiv dna roiretni s’pohs eht ni gnikat si ohw ,xaM ot revo skool eolhC dna ,sraluconib eht hguorht kool ot nwod sdneb ehs nehw skaerc riahc reH .epocsorcim a rednu ti secalp dna ,sedis lla morf ti stcepsni ,meg eht sekat ehS ”.ees s’teL“ .lacitpecs ,syas rekorbnwap eht ”,huh ,dnomaid A“
.evah yeht tahw wonk neve t’nod yeht gnittimda ni deklaw yeht fi teg d’yeht ecirp eht pu evird ebyam dna ,ygolonimret reporp eht esu ,flesreh tcerroc ,dniwer nac xaM ,dnomaid a naht ssel gnihtyna s’ti fI :esruoc fo ,esnes sekam tI
.oot ,desirprus eb tsum ehs snaem hcihw ,ecaf rekop reh gnitrops osla s’ehs ,lehcaR ot revo gnikooL .noitcaer a sesserppus ylerab eolhC
”?htrow s’ti tahw em llet uoy dluoc – ti rof esu a evah yllaer t’nod I dna ,tnua ym morf dnomaid tucnu siht detirehni I“ .retnuoc eht no latsyrc eht secalp dna reh ot pu sklaw xaM ”.iH“
”?uoy rof od I nac tahW“ .ylksirb syas ehs ”,noonretfA“ .repapswen yliad eht fo elzzup drowssorc eht morf pu skool namow ylredle na dna ,rood eht snepo lehcaR nehw sgnid lleb A
“No need,” Max says when Rachel makes to open the door.
Rachel stares at her.
“Don’t tell me you changed your mind,” Chloe says. “What the fuck, I drove us all this way?”
Max gets out her wallet and shows them a thick wad of cash. Chloe looks once – twice – no, that’s definitely 100-dollar-bills, and a lot of them – “What the fuck, did you just rob the – did we just help you rob a store? Did you just delete my memory of a heist?”
Max rolls her eyes at her. “Short story is, it was a diamond, she still has it, so it’s not stealing. I just didn’t feel great about her having my data, who knows what’s gonna come of this.”
Chloe follows her back to the truck, still hung up on the amount of money Max just casually showed her. Enough for a nice vacation. Enough to cover moving expenses, if they were to move in together. Enough to let her breathe easy for a second.
When she gets in, Max hands her a fistful of loose bills. “Uh -”, she starts, “What?” For a second, Chloe wonders if Max can suddenly read minds – if she said something and Max rewound – “Gas money,” Max says, smiling.
Chloe stares some more for good measure, then she musters a, “Dude, that’s gotta be like… a thousand bucks…”
“It’s two thousand, and you deserve them. I just picked up a rock. Use it as a fund for moving in together, if you want.”
“I’m not sure if I’m the right person to safekeep money,” Chloe starts, and Max starts stuffing the bills into the various pockets on Chloe’s person until Chloe surrenders, laughing. “Okay, okay, I got it! I got it. I’ll take it.”
She cranes her neck to get a look at Rachel over Max’s shoulder.
Rachel is smiling at her, expression so impossibly fond again that it’s almost too much to bear. “I’ve been daydreaming about moving in together,” she confesses.
“I will buy us the biggest king size bed,” Chloe promises, with as much affection as she can cram into the statement.
Max seems to get it, because she climbs over the handbrake and into her lap again to kiss her until Rachel makes a dejected sound and earns herself a couple of messy neck-craned backseat kisses.
“Okay,” Rachel finally says, laughing. “You guys are gonna get cricks in your necks, let’s get going. Don’t you hate driving in the dark, Chloe?”
Chloe sighs deeply and starts the truck. “I do,” she says. “When are we there?”
“You stole my line,” Max says, pulling up the GPS, “But I think we’ve got about two hours to go?”
Chloe eyes the sun, about to set. “It’s on,” she tells it, and backs out of the parking space.
In the end, she doesn’t win the race – though not for lack of trying. It’s just that there’s so damn much traffic that she has to watch through gritted teeth as sunset turns dusk, which slowly gives way to the night sky while she edges the truck forward.
It’s not as bad as she remembers, maybe because of the company – though Max has nodded off, her head lolling against the side window, and Rachel in the backseat is engrossed in her phone, probably texting.
But the current tape (Max seems to have an endless supply) is just the right amount of upbeat to not be unnerving – give me a stage and I’ll be a rock’n’roll queen – and the moon and stars are so bright it almost seems like they’re trying to make a good impression.
One of the stars has caught her eye in particular, much brighter than the others and near the moon. She wonders how she never noticed it before.
She spends half an hour cursing and singing and admiring it intermittently, moving towards Seattle at a frankly annoying speed. When they’re stuck in almost immobile traffic again, she finally decides to ask.
“Hey, Rach. Tell me about that star by the moon over there.”
Rachel sets down her phone, looking out the window.
“That’s not a star,” is her immediate response, followed by, “what the fuck.” She leans to the left to get a better look at it through the windshield. “What the fuck.”
“Is it a bad thing?” Chloe asks, looking at the still-snoozing Max sidelong. “Do we need to get out of here?”
“No, it’s – looks like a supernova, but I don’t recall any supernovas being expected… The only star bright enough that’s going – I mean, technically hypernova – in the near future is supposed to be in the southern sky, Eta Carinae…”
“We just sold a fucking diamond that appeared overnight out of thin air,” Chloe says, “and you’re wondering about stars not being where they’re supposed to?”
“Of course I am, stars are gigantic masses of gas, they don’t just appear out of nowhere,” Rachel says, head still wedged between the front seats.
“Max said there were two moons in the alternate universe,” Chloe says. “Are you worried it’s a sign the universe is in disorder again?”
“I’m not worried,” Rachel says, and while it sounds sincere, she’s also an excellent liar. But then she catches and holds Chloe’s gaze in the rearview mirror and repeats, “I’m not worried. I mean it. Everything that has happened so far has been good, and I’m going to work to keep it that way, but it doesn’t feel like a bad omen. It feels like an extra light in a winter night. It feels like someone means well.”
Rachel cocks her head to the side. “Think, Chloe. If I was the one who caused the tornado in the alternate universe…”
“You think this is …?”
“The other Rachel, somehow? I mean, it would make sense. In a weird way.”
Chloe thinks back to the tree-cross in the junkyard, and suddenly has to blink a lot. She reflexively turns on the windshield wipers, then laughs and turns them off again.
“Need someone to wipe the raindrops out of your eyes?” Rachel says fondly.
“Yeah,” Chloe says, sounding a little choked still. “I just – the junkyard, you know how Max said it looks like someone is apologizing for not being able to fix this?”
Rachel leans forward, cupping Chloe’s cheeks in her hands on both sides of her headrest, warm and grounding. “I remember. I love you in all timelines, I’m very sure of this. Across them, too. And I’m sorry as well.”
Chloe swallows once, twice, three times. When her tears spill over, it feels almost freeing. She hasn’t cried in years. Right now, she doesn’t know why.
Rachel catches her tears with the pads of her thumbs. “Oh, love,” she says, hugging the back of her seat closer.
“I’m okay,” Chloe says, sniffing. She’s glad the cars in front aren’t moving.
Max starts shifting and making those small, soft sounds again that mean she’s about to wake up. (It’s so adorable it almost physically hurts, every time.) When Rachel starts lifting her hands, Chloe lets go of the steering wheel to cover them with hers for a second. Rachel catches the drift and snuggles closer again, giving Chloe’s cheeks a few gentle pats.
“What’s happening?” Max murmurs blearily, looking at them through half-closed eyes. “You okay, Chloe?”
“Yeah,” Chloe says, “look, it’s a supernova, just for us.”
“Hypernova,” Rachel corrects absently.
Max looks out of the windshield. “Oh, that’s beautiful,” she says, then turns towards Chloe again. “Do you need a couple more hands on your face, Chloe? I’ve got two free ones?”
Chloe laughs, and for a second, it really feels like all it takes to get her through the dregs of her grief is just enough friendly hands on her face. “Sure,” she says. “I’m sure you’ll find some skin to cover.”
“I’ll just go for your gigantic forehead, there’s enough space for both my hands,” Max says.
“That’s m–” Chloe starts to say, but it’s quickly muffled by Max’s right hand.
For a few seconds, she just sits there and lets herself get lost in the unfamiliar sensation, leaning her head back against the headrest. She feels the pads of Rachel’s thumbs still resting at the corners of her eyes, ready to catch any tears that come, and the palm of Max’s hand over her mouth, her cool fingers on her forehead. Grounding her. It’s good. She’s okay.
Finally, when the cars in front start moving again, she shakes off their hands. When Max refuses to let go, she darts out her tongue and licks a broad stripe across her palm. Max laughs and pulls away to wipe it on Chloe’s flannel, which, fair.
They drive a few more minutes in silence, towards the bright light in the sky. Max gets out her camera, stabilising it against the dashboard, and takes a few pictures. Rachel is on her phone again.
“People are already theorizing,” she announces after a while. “The star wasn’t a likely candidate for a hypernova, and people are wondering where they went wrong in their estimations.”
“They didn’t include Rachel in their calculations, is their mistake,” Chloe says.
“There’s already people saying it’s the new star of Bethlehem. Like it’ll lead them to the new messiah. You know, because we still think celestial bodies can mark a specific location on earth.”
“Oh man, when we get to Seattle there’ll be like three wise men and a thousand journalists waiting at Max’s parents home already, it’s gonna be a fun Christmas.”
“Oh man, I hope I’m not becoming a big sister, that’d suck,” Max says.
“Mainly for Vanessa,” Chloe throws in.
“But also for me.”
“Man, imagine if this is all just signs for the new messiah, and here we are, happily assigning them to ourselves?” Rachel laughs. “Ever met such a self-important group of young people before?”
“I mean, you guys do have secret superpowers. Some amount of self-importance is called for.”
Max spots something outside, leaning forward to get a better look. “Hey, I know that sign. Ten more miles to Seattle.”
“Can’t be more than two hours, then,” Chloe says darkly, even though traffic has dispersed a little.
Max calls her parents to let them know they’ll be there soon. When she hangs up, Chloe asks, on a whim, “Hey, Rachel, what was the name of the star?”
“The what? Oh, the hypernova? Electra.”
“Electra. I thought maybe it’d be something that sounds like your name a bit.”
“Is it in your astrological sign? You’re a – leo?” Max asks, sounding for all it’s worth like someone who has no idea what she’s talking about.
Rachel laughs. “No, it’s not. It’s part of the Pleiades, the constellation named after the seven daughters of Atlas.” She’s got her phone up again, knees propped up and digging into Chloe’s back through the back of her seat.
A few seconds later, she gives a muffled yelp. When Chloe looks at her through the rearview mirror, she’s covered her mouth with her hand. Catching Chloe’s eyes, she lowers her hand and says, “Electra means ‘amber’.”
“There we go, then,” Chloe says, satisfied. It’s as good a confirmation to her as any. She doesn’t need an explanation, at this point. She’s okay with things as they are. She looks at the bright star again, winking. “Amber.” For a split second, she imagines it blinking at her in turn. She decides not to question it.
“You have to take a right soon,” Max announces, not sounding like she cares about the newest revelation all that much.
Maybe it’s been too much. Maybe it really doesn’t matter. Chloe decides to give it time, and lets Max guide her through the outskirts of Seattle.
When they finally come to a halt in front of the house Max’s parents live in, they spend a few minutes in the truck, ostensibly to listen to the rest of the song – it’s time to come on out, there will be no sign from above – but actually because they all feel the moment’s heavy significance.
The end of their road trip, and the beginning of telling their parents.
The cassette in the player rattles to an end, and Max says into the silence, quietly: “I want you guys to know that whatever my parents think of us, it won’t change my mind about you. This – this road trip has meant a lot to me, and you have been so great about it. I keep imagining what it would have been like, with my other Chloe…”
Chloe feels a familiar stab of jealousy at that. It always comes back to the blue-haired Chloe. She knows there’s nothing she can do: What she has on her is nothing she can attain in any meaningful way. Max’s first kiss. The first love of her life. Shared memory of trauma, and the loyalty that comes with it.
“…and I know that I idolize her, but even I can’t deny that coming here with her would have been all kinds of awful. And you have been so kind with me, about my nightmares, about my random negativity whenever I remember something… And I know this is not going away. But I also think, you know… that it’s okay. I’ve got the time. I finally have the time.”
“And we’re not going anywhere,” Rachel says softly.
“We’ve got your back,” Chloe adds.
“And I’ve got yours,” Max says, raising her hand as if to rewind, resulting in Chloe making an aborted motion in her direction. She doesn’t want to lose this moment. Max laughs. “No, I just meant, I would, to help you. Anytime.”
“Literally any time,” Chloe says, because she is a smartass and can’t help it, and Max laughs, because she is a blessing.
“Partners in time?” Rachel says from the backseat. It sounds careful, the way she says it, like the words carry additional meaning.
“Partners in time,” Max confirms, and holds out her hands to both of them, slightly awkward in the car.
Chloe and Rachel take her hands, and she squeezes once, then lets go.
“Okay, gang. Let’s go. Road trip’s over, Christmas is starting.”
And they get out and into the cold night. Rachel takes Chloe’s left hand, and Chloe reaches her right out to Max until Max takes it, and together they go toward the amber light in the sky, toward the house with the warmly lit windows, toward another adventure.