The sun was especially hot that day. Sweat clung to their forms, pooling at armpits and settling in inconvenient crevices. It was Bumfuck, Arizona, so it was to be expected, but Chloe and Max were from Bumfuck, Oregon so maybe their expectations needed adjusting. At least, it was a dry heat. Chloe was thankful for that, at least.
There were a lot of things to be thankful for, if Chloe was being honest with herself. Max was alive. A few Arcadia Bay residents survived the storm. They still had some savings to burn through on the road. Even her relationship with Stepfucker was improving, although it unfortunately included ceasing with the “combative nicknames.” Max reminded her every so often that they were trying not to alienate him. Chloe was trying. In fact, David was why they were even here, in the middle of Bumfuck, Arizona.
They called this place “Away.” It was for fresh starts. The idea was, you got away from the big city or suburbia or wherever and got back to basics. Basically, the residents intended to turn a new leaf, open a new chapter, take their life by the horns and not let go. Jury was still out on how successful that was. David himself had his work cut out for him, Chloe thought. He wasn’t the type to sit back and take in the nature. Oddly enough, though, they all seemed content.
“Ah crap, I’m all out. Did you bring your sunscreen?” Max asked.
Not as content as Chloe was around Max, of course.
Chloe grinned and tossed her a can. The cream sunscreen took a little longer to apply, smearing it all on and rubbing it in and everything, so, once they hit the desert, they stocked up on the aerosol cans. They’d been there a week, and they already got through at least one and a half of those cans. At least, they were convenient. Given they were clad in shorts and T-shirts, they were in dire need.
They wouldn’t have been in need of so much sunscreen in Arcadia Bay.
Chloe watched as Max sprayed each arm, each hand, her neck and face. Chloe couldn’t help but notice, not for the first time, how much smaller Max was than her. She was shorter, obviously, but her fingers were smaller and less calloused, her arms were thinner and lacked the hardness of muscle tone. The only things about her that were large were her big doe eyes and thick messy hair.
Max turned away from her, pulling her hair out of the way. “Could you get my back? I can’t really reach.”
Chloe was always a little afraid to touch her. She was smaller, more sensitive. What would she do if she broke her? She didn’t want a broken Max. She wanted her whole and beautiful and wanting her.
But that seemed rather impossible, given everything they’d been through.
Chloe would definitely not want Chloe, if she was in Max’s old converse shoes. Chloe was a warning sign with flickering neon lights that said STAY AWAY, hung outside an area of construction where unfortunate accidents took place. Maybe Chloe was an unfortunate accident; maybe she wasn’t. But she knew a lot of bullshit happened to revolve around her like flies to a corpse, probably one whose death inspired the warning sign at said construction site.
However, she took the can from her and set a hand on Max’s shoulder to steady her as she pressed the nozzle of the spray can. The clear fluid covered her skin and shone in the sun. Carefully, Chloe removed her hand. She was good, for now. With that, she took a step back and put away the can in her bag.
Max turned back around to face her, and the slight upturn of her lips did things to Chloe’s chest. Chloe smiled back, as Max asked, “where to? I lost track of the trail.”
Chloe pointed to what she thought was east. “There, I think.” She snuck a look at the map in Max’s hands as she spread it out. She considered where they came from, the landmarks they passed. Chloe tapped where they were and followed the trail with her index finger.
“Yeah,” Max said, “you’re right. East.”
“East, where you can feast your eyes on…” Chloe’s mouth set in a disappointed line as she gestured outward. “Uh, dirt, I guess.”
“Rocks,” Max said.
“I don’t think that rocks, Max,” Chloe disagreed.
“No, I mean,” Max said and pointed to the rocky terrain. “Literal rocks.”
Chloe kicked a small one on the ground. It wasn’t anything like Arcadia Bay. It was weird that she kept comparing the two, since she really hated Arcadia Bay. She couldn’t understand why she was doing it, even, but she was. “Remind me why Stepdou- David decided to come out here again?”
“Change of scenery?” Max guessed.
“Or,” Chloe said with glee, “he’s become a super-secret international criminal, and he needs somewhere discreet to commit his crimes.”
Max laughed, her small smile stretching into a grin. “Right, David being a discreet criminal, the guy who was mouthing off to everyone in Arcadia Bay about his totally invasive “security” plans.”
“Hey, maybe he’s into tax evasion now,” Chloe teased. A raise of her brows here, a shameless smile there. “We don’t know. He could have a Swiss bank account full of his misbegotten gains.”
“Chloe,” Max said, her voice only lightly scolding. “I think we’re past accusing him of stuff. We’re here visiting him, after all.”
Chloe shrugged as Max got ahead of her on the path. “True, but, the next time he thinks I’ve done shit, I’ll point right to the suspicious RV in the middle of nowhere.”
“Not all of them are suspicious. Karen seems nice,” Max said. “Sad, though. I wonder what happened to her.”
Chloe was tempted to argue that she left a life of crime behind, and that that’s where David was getting his advice on his law-breaking. But she thought she’d be pushing it. Instead, she caught up to Max, who nudged Chloe’s arm with her own. Chloe’s smile faltered.
“Running from her past, maybe?” Chloe offered. “It’s called “Away” for a reason, right? They all want to be away from something. We ran.”
“Hey,” Max’s voice softened, and they both stopped in their tracks. “We had to go. It was dangerous for us to stay there considering the storm and everything, and you wanted to visit other places in the meantime. No one, including me, blames us.”
But I do, Chloe couldn’t say. She couldn’t say it with Max standing in front of her, not with her looking to Chloe with her dark blue doe eyes that meant the world to her. Not when her voice was soft but firm with Chloe because Max just had to tell Chloe she didn’t regret saving her, not once. Not when her hand carefully brushed up against Chloe’s, their fingers starting ever so slightly to entangle, and Chloe cleared her throat because it was so much, so little, so soon, so late.
As Chloe took a step forward, her foot landed on something that felt different.
That was all she could think of, before she felt a sharp stab on her lower calf. The unrecognizable pierce into her skin sent Chloe to attention, adrenaline rushing through her. She yelped and looked down to see a fucking snake by her feet. She practically jumped to get out of its way, and, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Max follow her lead.
“Fuck, shit, fuck, did I just get b-” Chloe started, but she found herself cut off.
“Chloe, y-you need to calm down,” Max said, but she could hear the wavering in her voice. “We need to- We need to get you back to Away, so, uh-” Her face contorted into that of uncertain terror. Chloe had seen Max panicked before, but this was something else. “Let’s just get back. Let’s go back. Someone there will have to know what to do about a snakebite-”
They watched as the pale brown, dotted snake slithered away, probably out of fear. Chloe would’ve been afraid if she was the snake. Humans were far bigger and clumsier, the kind that would stupidly step on a snake on accident when leaning forward to- to do what, exactly? Chloe swallowed. She felt like an absolute idiot. Why did Max even bother with someone like her?
But she gave up everything for Chloe.
Max’s hand came into view. She gave Chloe her smaller, less calloused hand. “Let’s go.”
Chloe gave her everything, all of her self, in return.
Chloe and Max walked hand-in-hand as they trekked across the desert, the sunlight cast down on their sweaty forms as their shadows’ angle shifted. Chloe was worried her sweaty hands would make it uncomfortable for Max, but Max made no comment. As the heat thronged around them, Chloe could feel the effort in every step, and she wondered at Max’s tenacity. She had nowhere to look but Max’s determined vibe, the way she looked straight forward in silence, her jaw set and her grip on Chloe’s hand tight.
Chloe could feel herself starting to go woozy, and she wasn’t sure if that was because of snake venom or because Chloe thought it was snake venom and her body picked up the slack.
The sun was starting to lower, and the sky above was deepening to a darker, more purple blue. Lighter blue still clung to the horizon, but they were losing light soon enough. Chloe watched the remaining rays trace along Max’s silhouette, and she couldn’t help but stare. There Max went, determined and stubborn. Awash in the daylight they were quickly losing, her doe eyes staring straight ahead.
She deserved someone to give everything they had.
“Are we there yet?” Chloe joked, not for the first time, but it fell on deaf ears.
Minutes later, Chloe felt a squeeze on her hand, and she let out a shallow, anxious laugh. They’d been out here for a while. If they got lost, would anyone go searching for them? Max’s parents barely knew where they were half the time. Would David, of all people, care? Would his new neighbors? Another laugh.
She squinted, seeing hints of civilization ahead. As they moved closer, she realized it was Away. They were almost there. Around them, the sky was a spectrum of colors, shades she saw in her dreams. Blues and pinks and yellows, swirling altogether. She slowed down to take it all in. But soon enough, she felt it all rotate, and her legs wobbled.
She started to fall.
Chloe distantly heard Max scream her name.
The rest went by in a blur. She found herself at Away soon after, being carried in by Max and someone else. She was forced into a sitting position, and her head lolled from side to side. A flurry of whispers fluttered around her, and she thought she could reach out and catch the words. But she couldn’t make out a single one. She picked out Max’s voice, soft and breathy but strained.
“Chloe?” She heard suddenly. “Chloe, crap, please be okay.”
Chloe blinked. Hands were on her leg as it stretched out, her heel on a stool. “What’s going on?”
Max was pacing, not able to stay in one place for very long. She could feel the anxiety radiating off her in waves. She gripped a water bottle and took frequent gulps.
Chloe looked to her side, seeing Joan, one of the Away residents, pour a little water onto a wipe before cleaning the calf. “It doesn’t look swollen. That’s gotta count for something.”
“What if it was venomous?” Max asked quickly, her breathless voice climbing in pitch.
Joan’s face leaned in close, and Chloe met her gaze. “Can you breathe alright? Are you feeling nauseous? Or got a weird taste in your mouth?”
“Yes, to the- uh, second one,” Chloe said. She didn’t think she had an unusual taste in her mouth, and she could definitely breathe.
Joan made a humming noise under her breath. She sounded skeptical. “Did you happen to get a photo of it?”
“Yeah,” Max said and offered her phone.
Joan leaned over, peering at the screen. After a few moments, she sighed.
“Is that the good kind of noise? Or the bad kind?” Max asked.
Joan continued cleaning Chloe’s wound, and Chloe could feel Max’s anxiety heighten. Her rapid pacing was starting to gnaw at her. “We’ll have to see, but-”
“Hey. Hey, Max?” Chloe said, grabbing her attention with both hands. “Look at my face. In the eyes. Focus on just that, okay?”
Max warily rose her head and did as told. “Oh- Okay.”
“I’m here with you,” she reminded Max. “Fucking always.”
Max kept staring at Chloe’s face, and Chloe stared right back, not wanting Max’s attention to stray elsewhere. If she kept her attention on her, then she wouldn’t have to think about why they were here and what happened. It would just be Max and Chloe, like it always should be. And Max didn’t stray. Her eyes were locked squarely on Chloe the whole time.
Karen, who apparently was already nearby, took a few steps closer towards the table by their side. “Hey, how’s the patient?” With that, Chloe and Max’s attention fell away, and they looked elsewhere.
“It looks like a Glossy Snake, if I had to guess. She’ll live,” Joan announced, smiling warmly at Karen.
Max let out an audible breath of relief. “Really? You’re sure?”
“Don’t sound too disappointed,” Chloe joked.
Max flashed a scolding look at Chloe. “Chloe.”
She felt a bandage wrap around her leg. It was secured firmly at the front. Chloe resisted the mighty urge to pick at it, since she knew she’d get hell for it.
“Aaaand, we’re done.”
Chloe smiled. “Man, am I glad for that to be over.”
Joan chuckled at that. “Well, you’re going to be disappointed, since it’s we’re done, not you’re done. You have a little more to do. Change the dressing every couple hours, depending on the bleeding. But you should be fine.”
She let out a groan at that. “Fine. Hit me with the warnings to be responsible.”
“Now that you say that,” Karen started, before stopping herself with a small laugh. “No, you know what you need to do. I won’t nag.”
“And the nausea?” Max asked.
David sidled up with a six-pack of water bottles. Joan tore one free and tossed it to Chloe, who scrambled to catch it.
“It’s probably just the heat,” Joan stated. “You guys aren’t used to this climate. It can screw with you in all kinds of ways.”
David looked at her, and Chloe looked back warily.
“Thanks, David,” Chloe said with some reluctance. She hated thanking him, and she knew Max knew that.
“No problem,” he said stiffly. “We were all worried when you guys were out for so long. I was going to send someone out on the trail to look for you.”
“You’re so young,” Joan said. “You probably think you can take on the world, but it’s okay to call it quits every once and a while.”
Chloe thought about Arcadia Bay, and that familiar guilt crept along her skin. She felt her heart squeeze in her chest. She snuck a glance at Max, who was looking at Chloe. Was it really okay? Or was that a lie to tell themselves at night when they couldn’t sleep? Everyone in Away left something behind. They called it quits so easily, but it was something else for Chloe.
She’d always wanted to leave. It was everything. But now that she left, she wasn’t sure anymore.
“We should leave you be,” Karen suggested. “I bet you don’t want us old fogies fussing over you too much.”
“Never,” Max said, but the Away residents started to filter out of the space by the table. Slowly, five became four, which became three and finally two.
Max and Chloe were soon alone.
Chloe settled in her chair uncomfortably. She took a swig of her water before setting it down on the table. She had Max just barely out of view, so she decided to fix that. She pushed herself up and tried to stand. Carefully, she steadied herself with the edge of the table. At least, she could stand. Not well, but it was something.
“Are you…” Max started, before dropping that thought.
“Am I…?” Chloe started.
Max opened her mouth before closing it again. Her hands fell to her sides.
Silence passed between them for a couple moments. Chloe shifted her weight from foot to foot. She felt a little antsy, if she was being honest. Maybe, it was nervousness at the close call. It would have been easy for the snakebite to be more threatening.
“It’s just,” Max started again. “You almost died. Or, well, you did die. A lot. I just kept with the do-overs, rewinding every time. So, when you got bit, I thought I’d have to do it all over again-”
“You thought I was going to die?” Maybe it should have been obvious, but it was slowly clicking together for Chloe.
“You kept dying- You’re almost fragile that way.” She took a step closer. “So many people died in the storm, Chloe.”
Chloe’s heart seized, the nerves twisting inside her. “I’m so sorry,” she croaked.
But then, Max said, “I’d do it all over again.”
Chloe’s mouth fell open in shock. She couldn’t believe her ears. “What? You’d- For me?”
“Yes, for you,” Max said, taking another step. Then, as if starting to realize something, she added, “and for me, too.”
She could feel her heart beat in her chest.
Chloe mirrored her action. They were now a couple feet apart. “I don’t want to force you to make that choice, Max. I don’t know what it’d do to you.”
Max reached for Chloe’s hand, who gave it to her willingly. Her skin was smooth and warm against her. Chloe’s heart beat a little faster, a little harder. “You- You have no idea what you do to me, Chloe.”
Chloe’s breath caught in her throat. She felt like an absolute idiot. “I-”
But Max was moving forward, ever closer, and her fingertips graced Chloe’s jaw. So gentle, like handling glass. Her lips met Chloe’s so gradually, Chloe wasn’t sure at first what was happening. Her eyes widened before closing, her hands settling on Max’s shoulders. Chloe moved her lips as Max’s started to form shapes.
Skin moved against skin, warmth settling in the pit of Chloe’s stomach. Her hands lowered to Max’s waist, tracing the small slope of her body. Her grip was light, almost as light as Max’s hand on her jaw. Her thumb carefully tapped the underside of Chloe’s jawline as her tongue peeked through an opening. Chloe let her in.
Max’s mouth was warm, almost hot, though the heat wasn’t as oppressive as the Arizona daytime. It must have been night because she felt cold pinpricks along her arms and legs. So she clung to the warmth of Max’s body, pulling her closer against her. I’d do it all over again, sang in her head again and again and again.
Chloe moved them onto the chair, sitting Max on her lap. Their lips parted, but Chloe’s arms were around her, trying to conserve their body heat. Max squirmed to find the perfect position on top of her. Chloe barely suppressed a goofy grin. “Hey,” Chloe whispered. She wondered why it took them so long, why they never had that conversation. “Why did it take a snakebite for us to do that?”
Max laughed, leaning her forehead against Chloe’s neck. “I don’t know.”
“Fuck,” Chloe chuckled, adjusting her hold on Max as she lowered her head onto Max’s. “I don’t know either.”
“I guess we’re just special that way,” Max suggested.
“Or stupid that way,” Chloe said.
“We solved a murder,” she reminded her. “I’m pretty sure that at least makes us average. I’d even say a little above average.”
As they settled in their respective positions, Chloe felt her heart start to calm down. Even when everyone started to go back to their respective RVs, Chloe and Max sat there outside. They watched the evening pass around them, cuddled up on an old, rickety chair in the middle of Bumfuck, Arizona. And Chloe could swear, as Max clung to her on her lap, that she didn’t even miss Bumfuck, Oregon.