Max is riding shotgun because she called it before Rachel could and Rachel conceded, since shotgun is a holy thing – her words, not Max’s.
Chloe is silent next to her, eyes on the road. “Penny for your thoughts,” Max says under her breath.
“What is happening, Max?” Chloe asks immediately, like she was only waiting for Max to say something. “What are you doing?”
“I’m playing it by ear,” Max says. She feels untethered, feather-light. “Why, is it bothering you?”
“It’s – God, I don’t know. I feel like I have to get to know you all over again.”
“Well, likewise,” Max says. “I like you, so far. Big surprise.”
“I like you, too,” Chloe says in an undertone. It sounds like a confession. “Uh, this is it,” she tacks on, louder, as if that covers it up, and swerves into the driveway.
Max looks out the window, expecting the assorted, dulled colors of the junkyard, and is met in its place with a spectrum of greens so rich it almost looks fake. The rusty sign at the entrance is overgrown with moss entirely. The cars are covered in grass and bright-colored flowers, bushes have grown over piles of electronic waste. Max is reaching for her camera before she even thinks to look at Chloe and Rachel, who are staring silently.
It’s not how Max remembers the junkyard. Apparently, it isn’t how Rachel or Chloe remember it either.
“We were here on Friday,” Rachel says, disbelieving. She is struggling with her seatbelt, all of her attention on the scenery outside.
Max gets out of the car. The ground is springy, moss and grass. The emerald-metallic shine of a beetle at her feet captures her attention for a second, then she ventures deeper into the junkyard, vaguely in the direction of where she remembers the makeshift shack.
It’s still there. A tree has grown out of it, through the window. Max snaps a picture of it, of the vines snaking up the walls, before she even lets herself wonder about it, and then she does, walking closer: it’s a chestnut tree, nothing like the shaggy spruces she remembers seeing around this place, leaves bright green and juicy despite the season.
Chloe and Rachel catch up with her around her third polaroid, and just in time for her to start worrying.
“Chloe,” she says out of one corner of her mouth, “what if it’s a sign? Like the dead birds?”
“It’s a nicer sign than dead birds for sure,” Chloe says. She tries to sound dismissive, but a tinge of overwhelmed clings to her voice.
“This is how it started before the storm came, too. The first sign was snow in October – it was like eighty degrees out, and it just started snowing. It wasn’t obviously bad, just very strange, and then the storm happened– ”
“Max. This doesn’t have to mean bad things. What if it’s a good omen, this time?” Chloe clasps a hand on Max’s arm, and Max realizes she’s shaking again. It doesn’t do anything to calm her down, this time.
“You said that, too. In the other reality. That it was a gift and that I should keep on using it, and then things kept – getting – worse… Maybe I should never use them again. Maybe that’s what it’s trying to tell me.”
“Or maybe it’s telling you that you did well. That you saved everyone you could save and – that’s – ” Chloe hitches a breath and stumbles forward, towards Max, but her eyes are set on something further away. Max steps aside and watches her walk to one of the cars. Or, what used to be a car. It’s covered in moss and white lilies, now, and a tree has grown through the tailgate, almost unnaturally straight up into the sky, save for two branches that stretch out horizontally. A perfect cross, covered in leaves.
Max turns to Rachel, who is still standing wide-eyed and taking it all in: the greens, the weird-to-insane conversation Chloe and Max just had. When she speaks, she doesn’t ask any questions. She raises a hand for a vague point, and says: “That’s Chloe’s dad’s car,” and suddenly everything makes sense.
Rachel is the one to go after Chloe, and only when she’s made it halfway there does Max manage to follow.
When she reaches them, Chloe has sunk to her knees, Rachel crouching next to her, their arms slung around each other.
“Why?” Chloe asks, and Max marvels at her voice, stable and only the slightest bit angry. “Why could we save everyone but not him?”
She says we like they’re a team.
Because they are, Max realizes. Max may have made the call but Chloe made all the plans, and Rachel saved her life when Max wasn’t around to do it.
“I don’t know,” Max confesses. “I don’t know what makes everything possible but this. But whatever is doing this – ” she gestures at the lilies, the trees sprouting everywhere, as if Chloe was looking at her, “- it wants us to know that it respects your father – maybe it’s saying sorry for not making it possible to fix this, too.”
Chloe’s arms around Rachel tighten, and Max itches to give her comfort, too. She reaches out a shaky hand and places it on Chloe’s shoulder. Chloe’s muscles relax under her palm when she squeezes.
“God,” Chloe says, shaky. “And here I thought I was over it.”
Max’s fingers itch for her camera again, and before she can stomp down on the desire, Chloe says: “Just take the picture already.”
Max freezes. Chloe turns around to her, a smile slowly assembling on her face as if she’s relearning how. “I know your tells. You haven’t changed that much.”
Max responds by taking out her camera and crouching down to get the entirety of the tree – it’s a magnolia, she thinks absently, it’s going to be gorgeous in full bloom. She sets the focus on Rachel and Chloe, the car a blur in the background, and takes a picture.
She’s still fanning the polaroid in the air when Chloe and Rachel extricate themselves from each other and come towards her, arm in arm. Max doesn’t know why she slips the polaroid into Rachel’s back pocket, but she does. Rachel doesn’t seem to notice, lost in thought.
Chloe slips Max something, too, and Max’s eyes widen when she sees the white lily.
“A lily for my Lily,” Chloe says, and Max feels her face heat immediately. Rachel’s good natured laughter rings in her ears as Max looks around for a place to store it. When she looks back, shrugging her bag off her shoulder, a butterfly has settled on it, wings flicking open and baring a reddish brown that gleams in the sun. Don’t disturb it, is Max’s first thought. Don’t take a picture. Act like you’re not here. She stands stock still.
“Max?” That’s Rachel. She sounds more than half concerned, now. “I didn’t mean to -”
“It’s fine,” Max says, so quiet she’s not sure Rachel can hear. The butterfly flicks its wings closed again, perches on the tip of a petal, and takes off. It’s fine, Max tells herself again. And if it isn’t, I can always come back here and fix it.
Her heartbeat is still pounding in her ears. Rachel takes her arm and leads her to the shack, where sunlight filters in through the leaves. The vines also grow on the inside of the walls, and Max wonders, briefly, if they’ve grown over Chloe and Rachel’s tags. In the darker corners, mushrooms are growing. Max sits down on the stem of the chestnut tree, tilted to an almost comfortable degree. Chloe perches next to her, and Rachel’s shadowy figure stands in front of them, arms akimbo. “So,” she says. “I think you guys owe me a couple of answers?”
“Ugh,” Max says. She’s getting tired of her particular story. Tired of owing people. Making things right and right and right again.
Chloe nudges her in the side, and Max says obligingly, “I can rewind time. For reals. I come from an alternate timeline in which Arcadia Bay was wiped out by a storm. I went back to when I was fourteen and called Chloe with a set of instructions to avoid all the bad things from happening, and she did all of it and now here we are.”
For several seconds, Rachel’s face is entirely unreadable – not in the sense that it is still, more that too many things are happening at once.
“Prove it,” Rachel says finally, and Max can’t help but tub pleh t’nac xaM dna ,yllanif syas lehcaR ,”ti evorP”
“Prove it,” Rachel and Max say in unison, and Rachel flinches back for a split second, but then she comes closer, close enough to see her eyes in the greenish twilight, shining with intrigue and delight. “That’s amazing,” Rachel says, almost reverent. “Do it again.” Max sighs and dna shgis xaM “.niaga ti oD”
” Do it again,” Max and Rachel say, in unison again, and this time, Rachel laughs.
“ Incredible. I’m loving it. Tell me everything.” She gasps. “ You were the mystery person Chloe got all her Jefferson intel from! I knew something was up with that!” She crowds closer still, grinning, and demands, again: “Tell me everything. I want to know what happened in your alternate universe. Connect all the dots.”
“It’s not…” Max clears her throat, grateful when Chloe squeezes her hand and takes over for her. “It’s not a fun story, from what I gather. I don’t think either of us stays alive – well, stays alive for long stretches of time at once. I’ve been trying to get Max to tell me about what happened, but if she needs more time…”
Max straightens up. “No, I think I should tell you guys – from the beginning. If I don’t do it now, I never will, and you will always wonder what’s going on, and we’ll never have a proper relationship, or friendship.”
Rachel nods, and Chloe squeezes her hand tighter.
Max leans back against the bark of the tree, head cushioned by Chloe’s thigh, and starts at the beginning.