It was so calm. Save for the seagulls speckled throughout, the sky was clear, burning in its amber tones. The sun hung low, golden and radiating like the heart of the heavens as the horizon began to swallow it. The waves far below provided a constant, dull roar as they built and broke. A pair of blue eyes stared out at the scene, aching with the desire to keep it forever. A tiny, playful giggle drew her attention away, redirecting it to the little blonde girl standing triumphantly with the marker in her hand. She pointed at a red skull and crossbones on the map.
“So we can always find each other,” Chloe said, “in case of an emergency.” She slipped the marker into her pocket and grinned as she removed the pirate hat from her head. She knocked it twice with her fist, disturbing any dirt and dust, and held it out. “You wanna be captain for a little bit?”
“You always mutiny…” Max said quietly, the freckles in her cheeks catching the light as she smiled. Chloe rolled her head back with a sigh.
“I promise I won’t, Max,” she stated, popping a fist onto her hip. “Besides,” she took a step forward and grabbed the girl’s hand, “we’ll both be the captain when we become real pirates! Teamwork!” She carefully placed the hat on Max’s head, then smushed it down with a spirited rumple.
“But we’ll be good pirates, right?” The brunette asked, pointing at her friend with one hand as the other adjusted the hat. Chloe puckered her lips and shrugged.
“As long as good pirates still get all the gold they want.” She wandered over to the newly installed bench and plopped onto it. “Take a seat, Pete,” she said, patting the space beside her.
“You sound like your dad,” Max giggled as she sat down. She took in a steady breath as she gazed out over the water, on fire with the setting sun. She hesitantly lifted her hand and pointed at it. “That’s the gold I want.” She regarded the girl next to her with a nervous smile. Chloe nodded in understanding.
“I’ll help you get it,” she said easily. “When we’re older, we’ll be able to go wherever we want. Do anything we want. With you and me as a team, we can’t lose!” She reclined against the bench, slinging her arms cockily over the back of it.
“You really think so?” Max asked, her eyes slipping away from Chloe and back out to the horizon.
“Trust me,” Chloe said matter-of-factly, “you and me are going to leave a mark on the world…”
. . .
The telephone pole shattered near the base then careened into the street, snapping all of the wires it held in support. It landed on a car that was moving only seconds before, crushing the front seat and obliterating the windshield. The live wires fell every which way, some finding dangerous homes in the growing puddles. A man stood in the window of a shop, waving his arms and shouting. He was gone a moment later as the roof above him collapsed, placing a pile of rubble where he just was.
“We need to leave!” Chloe shouted, her voice being snuffed out by the blistering noise of the wind. Max wound one hand through her hair, gripping it tightly as she watched the storm carve its way through the town. The remaining streetlights flickered feverishly before blinking out in quick succession. Far down the street, a strong gust rolled an SUV onto its side as if it were as light as a feather, dragging it across the road and into the brick wall of a home with a bang. Without waiting for a response, Chloe grabbed her by the bicep and pulled her away.
“It’s following us,” Max muttered, her eyes lost in the swirl of debris now being pulled into the air. First it was trash and small objects, but then she thought she could see something flailing desperately. “Chloe, it’s following us.”
The scene playing out before her was horribly familiar. Less than three weeks ago, she had watched Arcadia Bay get demolished from the safety of the cliff. Despite the possibility that going back to the start of the week could fix everything, she chose Chloe instead. And when the rain finally stopped, the word ‘town’ no longer seemed to fit. There were only ruins.
They left it behind, lost in a mist of thoughts and addled with shock. All either of them knew for certain was that they had to get away. They found themselves at another small town three hours north of Arcadia Bay and took root in a cheap motel, locked in and quiet as they struggled to process everything. Less than a week later, a seam opened in the sky, releasing a heavy rain that was quickly accompanied by thunder and lightning. Being as rattled as they still were, the weather sent them into a panicked frenzy. Within minutes they were in the truck, not even bothering to check out. Logic would say that their trauma understandably had created a negative association with bad weather. Logic would say that, even though such things were natural, it made sense for them to be afraid. But logic had no answer for the monstrous thing Max thought she saw coming together in the mirror as they sped away in search of clearer skies.
And now it was happening again.
“Come on, Max!” Chloe yelled, jerking the girl behind her as her stride grew longer. Max was finally able to pry her eyes away from the chaos, focusing in front of her so she wouldn’t stumble. The screaming wind was thankfully at their backs, jettisoning them further down the street. The girls ran with tunnel vision on Chloe’s truck, ignoring everything falling apart around them. “Get in,” Chloe barked once they finally reached it. Max ripped the door open and threw herself onto the seat, gasping in pain as the wind slammed the door shut on her foot before she had it secure inside.
“This can’t be happening,” Max said numbly, as if she might convince herself. The truck’s engine groaned to life and was immediately in motion, throwing Max back against the seat. Without a word, they boomed down the road, swerving only once to miss a downed tree. Chloe focused in the rear-view and swore under her breath.
Chloe never stopped driving. The rain clashed against the windows of the truck, the roar of the thunders and the lighting all around them, the waterfall on the windshield so thick that only a few meters ahead were visible.
The vehicle left the town behind in a matter of minutes and even being at a safe distance of the disaster taking place, Chloe never took off her foot from the throttle. Max could still see the massive tornado approaching through the rearview mirror behind them, making the wreckage fly around, partially hidden by the rain on the dirty crystals of the pickup. Not a word was spoken, and the tension filled the cabin by the second, like a presence among them. Like a block of ice resting on Max’s shoulders, as she fought in vain to erase the image of that car getting destroyed or that ceiling falling on that man at the store. Just more names to add to the death trail they had been leaving behind for almost three weeks now.
Because it was all her fault and she understood that now. One freak storm was a thing. Two freak storms was an impressive coincidence. Three storms? Not a chance at all. The pattern was clear as water, as much as Max hated it. Because at this point it meant much more chaos and destruction than she anticipated. Way to leave a mark on the world…
“Chloe…” She said, with her voice broken, heavy and wary.
“What?” Chloe asked, her eyes fixed on the road ahead. The defeated tone in her voice made Max cringe.
“You understand what is happening. Right?”
Max could see how the knuckles of her friend went white, as she squeezed the wheel between her fingers. Her silence was dry, cold, sharp as a knife for a moment, soon replaced by her characteristic fire.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Chloe snapped back, her voice tense and almost high pitched. “The only thing I want now is to get the fuck away from this nightmare.”
Her words hurt. As sharp as her silence was, Max wasn’t sure if she prefered the emptiness or the blow up.
“We can’t do that, Chloe…”
Another long and tense silence followed, their only company being the loud roar of the truck and the rain, the occasional frustrated sighs Chloe let escape through her lips.
Max didn’t break it this time.
They were away now, enough to lose sight of the tornado, though the sky was dark as if it were night in the middle of the day and the rain kept falling, relentless. Each drop on the windshield felt like an added weight to them.
The landscape changed. Less urban, more rural, nothing much on the sides of the road, just fields and the occasional building. The rain slowly stopped, the storm being erased with each kilometer traveled, losing its grip now that they were out of reach.
After what felt like an eternity to Max, Chloe finally slowed down the pace, to end up parking the truck carelessly on the side of the road. With another frustrated sigh, she just stayed there, her hands still on the wheel and her eyes, filled with tears of fury, seeing without looking through the front.
Gathering her courage, Max sighed too and found her voice, somehow.
“Don’t. Just don’t, Max,” Chloe replied, her voice broken as the tears started to fall. “This is not going to work.”
Panic ran down Max’s spine like electricity, the edges of her friend’s words hurting her more than she expected.
“What?” She asked, almost hoping for Chloe to take her words back.
“You said this thing is following us, right?” Chloe said, like it was obvious. Her lower lip was trembling as she tried to keep the crying at bay. She was still looking through the windshield, her eyes glued on the distant horizon.
“Yeah…” Max said weakly, her hands shaking. She curled them into fists on her lap, trying to keep control. The image of the man being crushed to death by the wreckage still appeared behind her eyelids every time she blinked. “Three storms… This is no coincidence.”
“Then you made a mistake,” Chloe said. She shook her head and finally looked at Max in the eye, her blue ones filled with tears and desperation. “If this is following us, it’s because you didn’t do what you were supposed to. I told you! You had to let me go and you didn’t!”
“Fuck that!” Max snapped then, her anguish replaced by fury for a moment, as her face contorted into an expression of pain. “I couldn’t do that to you!”
“You couldn’t. Yes. And now what? We have a fucking…body count! We basically murdered three towns, Max!”
The anguish in her voice was deep and painful. The sight of her friend being beyond the level of panic and horror was enough for Max to snap out of her own anxiety, because the single idea of actually doing what Chloe asked for…
“Chloe, shut up for once and listen to me,” Max interrupted Chloe, grabbing her by the shoulder. A flash of pain ran down her spine when Chloe shook her hand off, her heart shrinking in her chest with intensity.
“Why did this have to happen? What the fuck did we do to deserve this?” Chloe said, pulling away from her, keeping her distance as much as the truck allowed. “Fuck this shit!”
And with that, Chloe opened the door brusquely and stepped outside, grabbing her head with both hands and screaming at the sky in anger. The sound of her crying was loud enough to drown the distant roar of the wind and thunders far behind them. Max swallowed her pain and stepped out too, following her friend to the middle of the road.
“Please what?!” Chloe snapped again. “I’m the one asking you please, for fucks sake. Why do we have to endure this? What are we going to do now?”
“I don’t know,” Max admitted, her hands shaking and her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know what we are going to do but I know what we are not doing.”
“I suppose it’s too late to let me bleed out in that bathroom,” Chloe replied coldly, her eyes filled with fury as she returned Max’s gaze. Chloe could see something breaking in her friend’s eyes when she heard those words. She immediately regretted it. “I’m so…”
And at that, Max exploded. She walked towards her and stood right in front of the punk, with her teary eyes filled with a fire and fury Chloe had never seen in her before.
“You will listen to me right now. You are not giving up. Not after all we went through! If the storm is following us then we will do what we have to. We need to stay away from it! I… I can’t fucking lose you again. Not like this, not after all that happened! We can’t go back now, I have no way to go back to that bathroom anyway! I destroyed the picture…”
Those words seemed to snap Chloe out of her meltdown momentarily because she stopped talking and just looked at Max in silence, her eyes still tortured and full of guilt and anger.
“And… I don’t care if we actually have to run away from that thing for who knows how long. I’ve done more than that before just to keep you alive,” Max stated, tears streaming down her cheeks now, her hands shaking and her hair a mess in the wind. “So, excuse me if this doesn’t change anything.”
They just stared at each other for a moment and then Chloe released another frustrated sigh and looked away. She knew that was an argument she wasn’t going to win, even if she was right for a change. Even if she knew everything was ultimately her fault and she deserved to fucking die already. But she swallowed, she kept it locked inside her for Max’s sake. Her friend was all she had left anyway.
“Now what then? Where do we go?”
Chloe seemed defeated more than convinced, but there wasn’t much Max could do about it. Those few words were the only thing that she wanted to hear at some point and even if she wanted to hug her friend tight… She remembered how she shook her hand away before so she chose against it. Instead, she walked towards her and timidly grabbed her by the hand, leading Chloe back to the truck.
“For now, away from that thing.”
The room was dimly-lit. It was small and it smelled weird, but at the moment, nobody cared about it much. It only had two twin beds, one next to the other, separated only by a night table with a lamp, barely lighting the room. A lonely sofa near a window, curtains closed, and an old TV placed nearby. The little amount of furniture gave the room a lonely air, and the smell of humidity kept that feeling alive.
The silence that had been a constant since they got into the truck had settled in again. Unavoidable. Expectable.
The only reason Chloe accepted to actually stop driving was because Max almost begged her several times to do so. They were both tired, stressed, and there was only so much distance any of them could drive with such a burden, with so much weight on their shoulders. Chloe even wondered if she would ever feel okay again, trying to not think about the horrors she witnessed. The horrors she caused.
Now that the adrenaline of the escape and survival had faded, Chloe felt drained, exhausted even. But she also knew Max would bring the topic back up again and she wasn’t sure if it was selfish of her to wish her friend could just stay with her mouth shut. That line of thought made her curse under her breath. Selfishness seemed to be the trending topic of the week.
She walked towards the window, moving the curtains ever so slightly, to check the wet parking lot at the other side of the crystal. Her hands were itchy and shaky, and at this point, she would consider killing for a cigarette. Oh, well. Maybe indirect deaths may count as well.
“Are we going to talk about this ever?” Max asked softly. She was sitting on the bed, her shoes off and her knees bent, her arms and chin resting on them.
“I think you were pretty clear before,” Chloe replied, her eyes still fixed outside as the night settled in.
“We need to plan ahead, Chloe. We can’t just… I don’t know! Aimlessly drive through the country.”
“I don’t want to hear it, Max,” Chloe stated with tiredness. “Besides, running away from a fucking supernatural storm doesn’t sound like the most logical thing to do.”
“And what do you expect us to do?” Max asked coldly. “As I said before, giving up would mean all I did to keep you alive and safe was for nothing.”
“Maybe it was. I mean…look at this mess! All those people are dead because of us, Max. How the fuck are you keeping it together so well? This has been driving me insane since…the cliff. How can you…?”
Max got up from the bed, shaking her head.
“You seriously think that I am okay with all that happened? With all the shit I had to go through? You weren’t even there when the real bullshit happened!”
The brunette was furious, her hands clenched in fists, but her eyes showed all the guilt and remorse she was holding back, bright blue and filled with tears.
“Excuse me! I was fucking dead, Max!” Chloe snapped back, dropping the curtain and looking at her friend with fury in her eyes. Like she didn’t feel like shit already because of that. “As I should be now so there are no more freak storms! I was supposed to die in that bathroom and you know it!”
Chloe’s voice raised with each word, almost to the breaking point.
“I told you, you were the only one that could make that choice. I didn’t argue with your choice at the time because I didn’t fucking expect that shit following us! Or…following me.”
“We can prevent them from hitting again, Chloe. We can do this. I am doing it,” Max said, taking a step towards her friend. “There is a pattern here. The same one we saw before the first storm. Weird weather events, dead animals, strange shit happening…then the storm.” She pointed at the window with emphasis. “Exactly the same happened the second time, when I thought it was a terrible coincidence.”
“Are you willing to keep risking lives because you have a fucking hunch? What is wrong with you?” Chloe snapped back, annoyed at the fact that she kept denying reality with such strength.
“I spent the last three hours locked in that truck, thinking about this, Chloe,” Max said coldly. “I’m not taking this lightly, I know that if I’m wrong a lot of people may…suffer.” She shook her head. “But it all makes sense! The weird weather patterns were a warning before that a storm was coming. And the same happens now. It takes around four or five days for it to form, we have seen it three times already…”
Chloe just stood there for a moment in silence as the words sank in, slow and painful. She kept her eyes fixed on Max’s face, a mix of disbelief and worry invaded her as she didn’t see any hint of hesitation in the brunette. There was nothing left of the insecure teenager she found just weeks ago.
“You are serious about this,” Chloe said. It wasn’t a question. “How can you be willing to do this instead of what we are supposed to?”
“Do I really need to explain that again?” Max asked, her tone almost powerless and Chloe couldn’t help but let the rest of her cold anger melt away.
There wasn’t much to say after that exchange and Max’s defeated sight certainly didn’t encourage her to keep insisting. Since Chloe didn’t actually reply to the brunette, she turned around and went back to bed, sitting in the same position she was before the argument, her dark, blue eyes, tired and puffy from crying, fixed on some invisible point at the other side of the room.
With a tired sigh, Chloe resumed her peeking through the window, her mind running a million miles per hour with the possibilities about their resolution, and of course the waterfall of doubts and questions about it. Because who the fuck in their right mind would pick to actually live under those rules anyway?
She shook her head and walked away from the window, finally accepting defeat.
“So, you said you had a few ideas?” Chloe asked, hesitant.
“I do,” Max replied, blinking a few times, the emptiness in her sight replaced by sadness again. “We still have a bit left of the money we took from the Principal’s office.”
“Yeah, we don’t know how long it will last though. You’re the one running numbers here. What about when we run out of it? If we will be in constant movement there is no way we can get jobs or…I don’t know.”
“I assume we could figure it out,” Max said, and then shrugged slightly. “I also have a bit in my bank account.”
“I guess we will have to improvise at some point,” Chloe said as she started to pace in circles in front of the bed, too anxious to stay still despite being beaten to the bones. “And…what about your parents?”
Max tensed at the mention of her parents and she looked away, feeling half guilty and half terrified. They had been calling like crazy for the past few weeks. First because they couldn’t get a hold of her, then because they were simply worried. Truthfully, the only reason Max answered as soon as she did was because Chloe insisted she pick up the goddamn phone. Vanessa told her that Ryan even drove to Arcadia Bay in search of her, though he couldn’t even reach the town because of the mess and rescue groups working in the area. The disaster was unprecedented and Max asked expressly to her mother to not give too many details about it. She wasn’t sure her mind and heart could actually bear the guilt and pain of knowing the outcome of what she unintentionally orchestrated.
She did get into something of an argument with her mother. Understandably, her parents wanted her to come home as soon as she possibly could. Max agreed that going home was the best option, but she told them it might take longer than they’d like. Part of this was because, still halfway submerged in a haze, she wasn’t sure her and Chloe actually could just zip up to Seattle. They were still so tired, so scattered that their pace was naturally slow. The other part was…she didn’t want to just show up with Chloe. Not only did she not really know what to expect from her parents regarding her but also how it’d work the other way around. Chloe had just lost her mother. If Max needed a break to just get her head together, she couldn’t imagine how Chloe felt.
Vanessa had told her they were even considering putting out a search and involving the police in that short time before Max had answered them back. They were still so jittery with concern that it seemed like she still had to assure them it wasn’t necessary. She knew she had to go back for them, to show that she was okay. Or pretend to be. Where else would they go anyway?
“Now that we know the storm is chasing us we can’t go there, Chloe,” Max said, her voice low as she kept her sight away.
“That’s bullshit, Max. You said it yourself, the storm may take a few days to form. If we come and go it may never happen again,” Chloe said, crossing her arms in a vain attempt for keeping it together.
“I know I said that but…”
“Of what are you so afraid of? Why can’t you face them? Because of this? Because of what we did?” Chloe exploded, her voice raising again. She squeezed her arms to the point that it hurt.
“What am I supposed to say, Chloe? They will ask about what happened! I can’t…I can’t tell them and I also don’t want to lie to them!” Max replied, her hands shaking, and her eyes filled with tears again.
“Max, you have to go. You can’t just…leave them hanging like that,” Chloe said, her voice breaking.
“Besides, if we go, we can’t stay. What am I supposed to do? Sneak out and escape in the middle of the night? You know they will not want us to leave!”
“At least they fucking care about you!” Chloe said, almost shouting, her eyes fixed on her friend’s face with fury. “At least they are fucking alive and you can actually try something, even if it’s all fucked up. I have nothing left. You do! Fucking do something about it!”
Chloe produced an enraged sound and violently kicked the backpack that was resting at the foot of the bed, just to get rid of the insanely huge amount of frustration running through her veins like fire.
“You can’t fucking ignore this. You can’t simply disappear like that!” Chloe said, utterly angry. “I know your mother said she wouldn’t do that but…holy fuck, your parents ain’t Rachel’s parents! They will not give up. You can’t fucking…do that. Just no.”
Those words felt like a slap in the face to Max, who simply stared at her friend in disbelief. And then she realized what she must have been thinking, what ideas and feelings must be rampaging behind her furious and teary light blue eyes, looking at her like she was insane. And maybe she was. Maybe everything that had happened made her grow cold in no time. Because even if she felt like shit, it wasn’t hitting her as much as she expected it to. She may as well be in shock and denial still.
And at some point, she would have to brace for impact.
“Fine,” Max finally agreed, looking away.
Chloe’s words still burning in her ears and the weird feelings messing with her thoughts, as the punk released another frustrated growl and walked away from her. She sat on the couch, arms crossed and her eyes fixed on the old TV. Max could see by the edge of her eyes the crystal tears rolling down Chloe’s cheeks.
Cold silence settled down again. It descended upon them, making their skin crawl and their spines shiver. It was a deep, painful silence, the kind of silence that you want to scream to break. The kind of silence that feels like you have someone covering your ears with their hands. Empty. Hollow.
Chloe shook her head with anxiety, grabbed the TV remote and turned it on, craving for an escape from her own scary, silent head.
The screen came to life, and the first thing Chloe saw was the typical news show set up, a male reporter was talking towards the camera, his expression between concern and cold, with the image of a massive wreck right at his left side.
“… third storm in a row that scientists can’t explain. Following a strange succession of weather anomalies since the past month, this is the third town that is absolutely ravaged by what on the scale would be an E5 tornado, though experts keep saying that nobody had ever seen disasters of this magnitude. These tornadoes caused complete destruction, obliterating and sweeping away almost anything in their paths. The amount of casualties is still uncertain, though we are aware the numbers are getting higher by the minute as the rescue teams, FEMA and the government work in the affected areas. As we informed previously, the first succession of anomalies followed by this terrible outcome took place three weeks ago, when a coastal town here in Oregon named Arcadia Bay suffered what was defined as the worst storm in the history of the United States…”
Chloe raised the remote and turned the TV off, without even bothering to listen to the rest. Silence fell again upon them…only interrupted by Max’s sobs.
A single raindrop fell on Max’s cheek, and her eyes fluttered open slowly. As she focused, she realized she was no longer in the motel room, instead lying on the floor of some place that seemed hazily familiar. She tried to bring a hand to her face to wipe away the raindrop, but both hands moved. Tilting her head down, her eyes focused on the silver bindings around her wrists. Her stomach dropped and she threw herself into a sitting position out of panic. Now frenzied, she scanned around her, the clean white walls feeding into a claustrophobic feeling.
Again, another raindrop fell on her, then more as it picked up into a steady pattern. She angled her head back and gazed at the ceiling of the room, though…there was none. Instead, she only saw swirling, dark clouds angrily clashing against each other.
“Max, that is perfect,” said a familiar voice. It clawed at her, making her instinctively bundle in on herself in protection.
“You think so?” Another voice responded. It was her own. Max lifted her feet and spun in place so she could see the source of the conversation.
“I know so,” Jefferson said confidently, holding his camera out and taking a picture, the ‘click’ snapping at Max’s eardrums. With everything that had been happening with the storms, her experience in The Dark Room had fallen to a hidden, quiet place in the back of her mind. But the sound of the camera, seeing Jefferson bending and shifting to achieve new angles, had brought all of those feelings back. Her heart broke into a sprint and she found it harder to breathe.
The Dark Room was much the same, though certain aspects of it seemed distorted or dreamlike. The few paintings that had adorned the walls were replaced by blown up photos of her “session” with Jefferson. Several stacks of red binders, so high they seemed unstable, were scattered around the room. The white label of each one faced her, all bearing the name ‘Max C.’
She watched the other Max pose, playfully putting a hand on her waist as she looked to the side. She was split between anger and terror, but before she could decide on either one, she caught sight of Chloe’s bullet necklace resting against her doppelganger’s shirt.
“Why do you have that?” She asked, her voice scratchy and more shaky than she would have preferred.
“Hm? Do you hear something?” The nightmare version of her asked, readjusting her pose so she was now holding the necklace out as if it were to be the focus of the shot.
“Only the sound of magic happening,” Jefferson chuckled primitively, simulating a wolf licking its chops. “These will be my masterpiece.” The other Max grinned at that and looked down at the bullets draped over her knuckles. She turned to regard Max.
“Mine too,” she said.
“What do you want from me?” Max asked. In response, the nightmare Max only flitted her fingers, drawing emphasis to the jangling necklace.
“Yeah, hold it like that,” Jefferson begged, the noise of the camera roaring louder. The other Max disregarded him, instead walking out of his sight toward Max. Jefferson didn’t seem to notice, only continuing to snap photos in a haze of ecstasy. The rain became heavier.
“So,” Nightmare Max said, squatting down to be level with Max, “you just figured, what, it’d all be over after one storm? Everything would be A-OK?” She squinted and shook her head. “Not your brightest moment. If you’re going to jump to conclusions, you should at least stick the landing.”
“You’re not even real,” Max spat. “None of this shit is.” She remembered all too well the nightmare she had while Chloe carried her to lighthouse. The other version of her that did nothing but mock and guilt trip. It had silently bothered her since, wedged in the back of her mind like a thorn. Her reflection perked an eyebrow, smirking almost childishly.
“You know, typically it’s three strikes and you’re out,” Nightmare Max said, touching an index finger to each of the bullets on the necklace. “Three times now you’ve razed a town. Killed people.” Max said nothing, only stared back with teeth clamped on the inside of her bottom lip to stop it from trembling. “Maybe you should listen to Chloe this time, huh? Girl’s got a death wish for the ages. And what about your poor parents?” She held a palm out, catching the rain in the creases of her hand. Suddenly, the rain stopped all at once and a single piece of paper floated down into her grasp. She examined it for a moment, then held it out for Max to see. “Not too bad, right? Really nailed the whole ‘loss of innocence’ vibe, huh?” It was a photo of Max, or at least it looked like her, though the bullet necklace was visible around her neck. On the bottom of the paper was the word ‘MISSING.’ “You’re going to worry them sick, you know…” When Max didn’t respond immediately, she sighed and let the paper slip from her hand, drifting to the floor and growing darker as it absorbed the water on the ground.
Jefferson was still taking photos of nothing, grunting and groaning to himself in an avalanche of malevolent passion. The clicking from the camera escalated in volume until they were indiscernible from thunder, violently shaking the room.
“You can’t run forever,” said the other Max.
“You’ll have to give in to destiny eventually.”
“You heard her, she regrets even giving you the choice.”
“Nobody can escape fate, Max.”
Nightmare Max looked up into the sky, now pitch black and brewing. Her mouth drooped open, smiling as now instead of raindrops, more and more missing person posters of Max began to fall, scattering every which way at gravity’s will. She stared back down at Max, her gaze cold and harsh.
“Nobody can escape me.”
Max didn’t sit up shrieking. She didn’t jolt, gasping for breath, clutching at her blankets as she desperately tried to figure out what was dream and what was reality. She only opened her eyes, breaking the dam and allowing what tears hadn’t already escaped to stream down her temples. She rolled her head to the side and found Chloe sitting on her bed, nervous and concerned. She realized the girl was holding onto her hand with both of hers.
“You were having a nightmare…” She said quietly.
“Still am,” Max replied, closing her eyes. She waited for Chloe to respond to that, something acidic or frustrated. Instead, she felt the grip on her hand grow a little tighter.
“I know,” Chloe said. She opened her mouth, releasing two or three broken sounds originally meant to be words, then finally settled on a very defeated, “I’m sorry.” Max opened her eyes again and held Chloe in her sight. She left herself open, vulnerable as hundreds of thoughts and pleas glanced through her blue irises.
“I made the choice, Chloe,” she finally said. “You have no reason to be sorry for anything.”
“You were talking in your sleep…” The blue haired girl shifted uncomfortably. “Talking about Jefferson.” Both of Max’s wrists jerked, an automatic instinct to make sure they were not bound to anything. It was the way that Chloe held on tighter, showing the smallest bit of fear that Max was pulling out of her grasp that pulled more tears out of her.
“I’m still scared of him,” she whispered. “We’re being hunted by…by magic storms and I’m still afraid of that monster. What if he’s still out there?” Her breathing became deep and uneven as she tried to hold back from sobbing.
“He’s not,” Chloe said, her expression bending into uncertainty. She couldn’t know for sure. Neither of them could. She decided to dig for a deeper source of comfort. “It doesn’t matter if he is,” she continued, “I’ll protect you, okay?”
Max remained prone in her bed, staring hard into Chloe’s eyes. Now she returned a bit more pressure into the girl’s hand. Behind Chloe, she could see the sunlight through the curtains, radiating and golden. It seemed so hopeful. All she wanted was to stay there, at peace with the thought that the sun was shining, lighting up wherever it is they were. But she knew staying would only make the sun disappear eventually. The people, too. Something broke in her throat.
“Fuck,” she sputtered, sitting up. She noticed so quickly how the contact of Chloe’s hands on hers disappeared, only widening the wounds in her heart, but it was displaced as she felt the girl’s arms wrap around her instead.
“It’s okay,” Chloe whispered, trying on a soothing tone that didn’t fit her nearly as well as she would have liked. “It’ll be okay, Max.” The brunette didn’t respond, but did let her weight shift further into Chloe’s body. “I’ve been up a while. Thinking about all of this.”
“And?” Max asked.
“I mean, if your theory is true, we don’t…really have a choice. We have to stay on the move,” Chloe said. She released Max from her arms and stood up from the bed. “I guess we have enough money to get by for a little while and then after that…”
“I can figure something out,” Max responded, holding her hand up, looking almost embarrassed. “I can…still do it.” Chloe grimaced at the suggestion, sighing as she nodded her head.
“Okay, we’ll figure it out.” She walked over to the window and pulled the curtain open enough so she could look outside, taking the sight of the dilapidated, pothole filled parking lot in. “Max, we do have to go to Seattle. Even if it’s only for one day. You need to talk to your parents.” Her voice was firm, but still sounded as though she was afraid to hear Max’s reaction.
“I know,” she said, breathing out slowly as the image of the missing person poster bloomed center stage in her mind. “They deserve that much, at least.” Chloe let the curtain fall back into place and went back over to the bed.
“Then we have our first move,” she replied. “We’ll leave for Seattle today.” She let her head fall back a bit as she looked at the ceiling, as if awaiting some sort of direction or answer. “I guess we’re doing this,” she said after the heavens remained silent.
“I guess we are,” Max said back.
Max knew she should be happy to see her parents. And she was, of course. Given everything she had been through, the thought of a loving hug from her family was one that brought an overwhelming sense of warmth. But that was merely a murmur behind the anxiety of trying to figure out how she should handle the situation. They would have to talk about the storm. They would have to talk about Joyce. They would talk about how wonderful it was to have both of them there and safe. All the while, she’d be trying to come up with the best lie that would separate them again.
“This is the street?” Chloe asked, the truck already making a slow turn onto it. Max sat up and blinked, taking in her surrounding for the first time in about an hour. It was her neighborhood. When she lived in Seattle, she loved the culture and most things about it, but something always seemed to be missing. Maybe it didn’t exactly feel like ‘home.’ Seeing it now, the familiar streets and houses, released a new strike of pain through her.
“This is it,” she replied quietly, her voice cracking. The truck jerked to a sudden stop. Chloe quickly turned to look through the back window, then fell limp against the seat.
“Alright.” She sighed the word. “Are you ready for this? Do you…have a plan for this yet?”
“Not even close,” Max said, turning to regard Chloe. “I have no fucking idea what we’re going to do. How we’re going to explain that we need to leave.” She nervously fiddled with the cord of her hoodie. “They’re going to want to basically lock us up.”
“Yeah…” Chloe responded. “You said we have five days, right?”
“That’s the theory.” Max stressed the word. “It’s taken five days all three times but I don’t really want to fucking gamble. Two days at most. That’s how long we stay.” Chloe nodded.
“Better safe than sorry, agreed,” she said. Her eyes drew tightly shut for a moment and her head lulled downward. “I don’t want to talk about this shit. I really don’t want to.”
“I…know, Chloe.” It really only took two days together again for Max to know Chloe didn’t particularly like acknowledging horrible things. It was evident in her behavior since the storm. She had cried a few times in front of Max, but they were brief and quickly forgotten. It certainly didn’t seem like it was enough to properly grieve the loss of a parent. The loss of your home, the loss of everything you had. If she had moments where she truly broke down, Max hadn’t seen them. “I’ll try to work around it as best I can.”
“Thanks,” Chloe replied, and the truck rocked into a slow movement.
One more turn and they were on Max’s street. She had thought about what it might be like to come here with Chloe, but never under these circumstances. Truthfully, almost nothing had managed to work itself out the way she had imagined just a few weeks ago. As her house came into view, she drew in a deep breath and found herself with an iron grip on the inside door handle.
She tried to talk herself into the right mindset. Calm, collected, fine. She couldn’t let them see how bad it really was or they’d never let her leave. The last thing she wanted was to sneak off without a word. Her feet had barely touched the tar of the driveway when her parents burst through the front door, arms extended as they cried.
“Oh god, Max,” her mother sobbed, crushing her in a hug. There was an added, stronger pressure as her father joined. However good she had thought the hug would feel, it felt a hundred times better. Calm, collected, fine. She hugged them back, losing herself in their embrace.
“We’re so glad you’re okay,” her dad said, “we were so worried.”
The sound of a car door closing tugged at Max’s attention. She pulled her head up enough to see Chloe standing there, uncomfortably wringing her hands. Her mother noticed it as well and looked at the girl. It seemed like for a brief moment, she couldn’t believe it was the same Chloe she used to know. As the slightly confused look on her face washed away, it twisted into sadness and she huffed pityingly.
“Chloe… Oh, Chloe,” she said, holding her arm out, inviting the blue haired girl into the embrace. Chloe took slow, unsure steps toward them. Ryan, with tears still glistening on his cheeks, placed a hand on her shoulder. At his touch, she moved more quickly into them. As Max’s parents hugged them both, squeezing them together, Max could feel Chloe begin to tremble. Calm, collected, fine, she tried to tell herself. But when she heard Chloe begin to cry in earnest, she couldn’t help but follow.
It was hard to tell how long they all stood in the driveway simply grateful to be together. And even harder to tell how much longer they did the same once inside. Eventually, when it seemed all tear ducts had run dry, they found themselves sitting quietly around the kitchen table. Vanessa was the first to speak, staggering to her feet in realization.
“You girls must be starving,” she said. She moved toward the refrigerator. “We have plenty of food here or we can get takeout. Whatever you want, we can do it.” She turned to regard them nervously. In a strange way, her parents’ awkward behavior was soothing to Max. It just felt sort of reassuring that they had no idea how to handle this either.
Unsurprisingly, neither of them had been terribly hungry recently, but it didn’t seem like they should pass up a nice meal while they had the chance. And now that it had been mentioned, Max did feel a bit peckish. After a bit of drawn out conversation, Vanessa set to work on making them dinner.
“Chloe,” Ryan said, clearing his throat. She looked up at him, pulling her aimless stare away from the table. “You uh, you’ve really grown up.” He shook his head, somehow managing to conjure a little smile. “You’ve changed a bit since I last saw you.”
“A bit,” Vanessa laughed, highlighting the understating in his words. She stopped what she was doing and placed a hand on Chloe’s shoulder. “I always knew you’d grow into a beautiful woman. I have a good eye for those things.” Chloe chuckled quietly and bowed her head in embarrassment.
“Thanks, Mrs. Caulfield,” she said.
“Oh,” Vanessa waved her hand, “you can call me Vanessa. It’s fine.” At Chloe’s nod in agreement, she went back to preparing the food.
Another breeze of silence entered the room. Ryan twisted his wedding band around on his finger, audibly swallowing every so often. Max thought there might as well be a literal elephant sitting at the empty spot at the table, glaring at each of them in offense for not being acknowledged. She didn’t exactly envy their position. How were they supposed to breach a topic so massive?
“Girls, I don’t…” Ryan rubbed his forehead with a sigh. “I don’t know where to begin with all of this. I’ve watched every report but it seems like no one has a good answer for what’s happening. First Arcadia Bay, then those other two towns? I know in your last call you mentioned being near one of them. We’re so lucky you’re both okay.”
The word, in all of its wonderful varieties, was quickly losing all meaning. It was just a sound. A noise that meant ‘I can’t think of anything to say, but let’s stay positive.’ There was something bitterly humorous in how, if taken out of context, the past month had been reviewed with such a chipper attitude. Thousands of people dead? It’s okay! Chloe losing her mother and stepfather? That’s okay! An uncertain future constantly running from the cosmos that want nothing more than to kill your best friend? We’ll be okay…
“Chloe, I just…” Ryan continued, trying to keep cool, “I can’t imagine-”
“Pop,” Max interrupted. He looked at her only for a moment, then weakly nodded.
“Okay,” he said, the tension releasing in his shoulders. “Uh, how’s the food coming?” He asked, shifting his attention to Vanessa.
“Should be done any minute,” she replied, her voice sounding thin. Ryan bowed his head and began fidgeted with his ring again. Max could imagine the elephant doubly frustrated now that someone had almost addressed it before changing their mind. The air felt so tight.
“Awesome,” Chloe said, forcing a sliver of enthusiasm into her voice before the quiet could truly settle in again. “I’m…I’m hella hungry.”
Though she had only been gone a few months, her bedroom felt strangely alien to her. It was the opposite of what she had expected. Everything about Seattle had always felt a little distant, like she was only visiting rather than living there. Everything but her room, which had become her safe haven. Now it was everything else that had provided a sense of comfort, however small it may be, while her room felt like it had belonged to someone else. And maybe, after everything she’d been through, it sort of did. She couldn’t help but notice the various things missing that she had taken with her to Blackwell. Things that were now property of the ruins of Arcadia Bay.
“So, this is where you were for five years,” Chloe said, slowly scanning the room as she sat at the foot of Max’s bed. Though she knew Chloe probably didn’t mean it, she could hear the bitterness in her voice. “It’s nice.” That sounded much better.
“Thanks,” Max said quietly, drifting over to the empty wall where her photo collage once was. She realized how much she would’ve liked Chloe to see her room at school. Maybe she’d get a kick out of all the photographs. Be impressed or…something.
“So, have you thought of how we’re going to get out of this?” Chloe asked.
“Nothing solid,” Max admitted, still looking around. “We need a good reason. Something believable. And then once we’re away, we can play it by ear.” She turned to face Chloe. “Do you have any ideas?” Chloe rocked her head back and forth, then sighed.
“My uh, dad had a brother,” she said. “Honestly, I haven’t heard from him in years. But maybe we could…I don’t know, say we need to check in with him?” She closed her eyes and seemed to be trying to coerce the next words out of her mouth. “He’s like, the only family I have left so…it’d make sense for him to want to make sure I’m safe.” She flitted a hand. “Probably, right? That…does make sense?”
It was actually the perfect excuse. Chloe came with Max to see her parents, so she assumed they would find it fair that she accompanied Chloe to see her uncle. It also gave them a bit of wiggle room as to why she wouldn’t be immediately returning. Surely her parents would want details, but they could talk themselves around that. The only thing was… Max felt awful about using the loss of Joyce as an excuse. She guessed that if they were really going to go through with this ‘lifestyle,’ they would have to start loosening their moral integrity, but it still made her stomach turn.
“It does,” Max finally said. In response, Chloe just nodded. “I guess we can bring it up tomorrow. Say he’s been in touch and…try to get out of here either tomorrow night or the next morning.” She rubbed her temple. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We’re going to need to be very convincing but…it’s definitely a start.” Max clasped her elbow and shifted her feet. “I’m sorry, Chloe.”
“It’s cool,” she responded. “Weeelll,” she elongated the word awkwardly as she patted her knees, “I’m pretty fucking tired. Are you okay to call it a night or?”
“Uh, yeah, okay,” Max said. She suddenly became self-conscious of the fact that there was only one bed. Sure, she and Chloe had shared a bed around a month ago, and it did lead to them kissing but…things were different now. Since the storm, they had always gotten two beds at the motels where they stayed. Though, if it bothered Chloe at all, she didn’t show it as she slipped herself under the covers without hesitation. Max turned out the light and joined her.
“Goodnight,” she said in a whisper.
“Night,” Chloe replied.
As they laid in bed, she thought of a million things. The constant feeling of guilt grew louder in the silence, creeping along her mind slowly and thoroughly. The storms shaking and stumbling through the towns. But when she felt Chloe’s foot graze her leg as she turned onto her side, another anxious feeling began brewing her stomach. Because then she could only think of why she had chosen her.
The conversation with her parents didn’t go as smoothly as she would’ve liked, but by the end they had reluctantly agreed to let her go with Chloe to see her uncle Aaron. Of course, they had no intention of actually going to meet him, but it was the lie they needed to get things moving. When they asked where Aaron lived, Chloe told them Colorado. It was far enough away to warrant a decent gap of time, but close enough that they could get away with driving there. That didn’t stop the Caulfields from insisting that they’d pay for a flight, but they relented after a bit of convincing.
When she had the chance, Max wanted to sow more seeds of believability into their plan. When it was just her and her mother, she made sure to stress how the long drive could help clear their heads. And because they were going to visit Chloe’s relative, it had eased the topic of talking about Joyce from her parents’ minds. Presumably, they figured if anyone was going to be able to help, it would be family. She felt bad about the pity she was cultivating in Chloe’s name, but there was little else she could do.
Since they were at home, Max thought it’d be a good idea to pack a few bags of clothes and other useful items. Aside from a few articles of clothing from a thrift store, they had basically been wearing the same outfits for weeks and washing them when they could. Thankfully, because of the circumstances, her parents offered some money to help them get to Colorado. Though she was fairly certain she had the money situation figured out, she was relieved to know they could at least get Chloe some new clothes suitable for the cold weather.
Once everything was sorted and agreed upon, they decided to stay that night and leave early the next morning. Having pulled it off, Max was feeling relieved and even a bit excited that their plan had worked. She noticed Chloe’s demeanor change as well, but not in the same way. She began to talk less when it was just her and Max in the room. When they weren’t directly conversing, it almost seemed like she didn’t even realize Max was in the room with her. That night, when Max told her goodnight, Chloe didn’t respond.
The next morning, the four of them stood in the driveway. Ryan had just loaded two bags in the bed of Chloe’s truck and now stood with his arm around Vanessa’s shoulders.
“You girls be careful, okay?” He said seriously.
“We will,” Max replied. “Thank you so much for your help.” She stepped forward and wrapped an arm around each of them, resting her forehead in the middle where their shoulders met. They hugged her back tightly.
“You remember to check in with us when you can, okay?” Her mother sniffled, then bowed her head and kissed Max’s scalp.
“Promise. I’ll call and update you guys as we go,” Max said. Now, just like when they had arrived, Ryan gestured Chloe forward and pulled her into the embrace as well.
“Chloe, we love you and want you to know you’re always welcome here,” he said. Max could just barely make out the sad, sardonic snicker from the girl in response. Just like that, Chloe had found a new home and it was already being taken away.
“Thanks, Mr. Caul- Ryan. That means a lot to me,” she said, taking a deep breath afterward.
“Max, we love you, sweetie,” Vanessa said, once again kissing the girl on the head. “Come back soon, okay?”
It was the moment she knew she wasn’t prepared for. Saying goodbye to her parents, promising she’d see them again, hearing how much they loved her. And knowing she wouldn’t be back for a long time. If ever. And it hurt like hell.
“I love you too,” she said, her lip quivering as she squeezed them tighter. “I love you guys so much.” When the embrace broke, she felt something inside her follow suit.
As the truck backed out of the driveway, Max took in the sight of the house one last time. All things considered, maybe it wasn’t such a bad place after all. It would be nice to spend another night there.
“Call us!” Vanessa yelled as the truck began to move. Max nodded and did her best to wave as cheerily as she could. She watched in the mirror as her parents became smaller and smaller until finally, they were no longer there.
Snow was slowly falling, piling up around her. It wasn’t enough to actually create a sheet on the iced floor, but enough to make her shiver every time a snowflake found its way to her face and uncovered hands.
The road was quite transited, several vehicles passing by her, driving carefully slow to avoid sliding with the thin ice covering the road. The early morning sun could do little against the thick, ominous clouds covering the sky, giving the landscape quite a dark tone.
Max looked at the store once more, an old fashioned gas station where Chloe was buying stuff they needed for the rest of the trip. She scanned the building, locating her friend near the front entrance, through one of the multiple windows. Her hair, half-blue, half-blonde peeking under the very familiar dark blue beanie, as she looked around the shelves, with a focused expression.
Max stared at her for a few seconds, absorbing her features, how there was a rebel bang of hair pointing to the sky, how her eyebrows furrowed in frustration while examining a box, right after leaving it again on the shelf. The way her usually exposed neck was hidden behind the oversized green coat she bought not long ago, since her black jacket wasn’t enough to fight the winter cold.
The brunette shook her head, realizing her behavior and looked away, repressing a frustrated sigh. One of the many she had bottled up for the past couple of weeks.
Admitting defeat, she walked around the truck and jumped onto the cargo area, where their small luggage was secured and covered to avoid the snow. She sat down, resting her back against it, her eyes still fixed on the gas station, trying to avoid the silhouette of her friend walking around.
Max took her phone from her pocket and turned it on. They decided to keep it off as long as they didn’t need it or use it to save battery. She unlocked the screen and dialed a familiar number, before bringing the phone to her ear.
It rang a few times until the tone of the answering machine rang.
“Hey, sorry for not checking in sooner,” Max said, her voice low as she started to bounce her leg a bit against the floor. “I know I promised I’d keep in touch but it’s been almost a month, so…you know. I guess it was about time I showed up.”
She looked around to the woods surrounding the area and the parking lot, her eyes resting for a moment on a trucker getting out of his vehicle and walking towards the store with a worn out, pissed off face.
“We have been driving for a while now. Chloe just stopped to buy stuff at the store. We are fine, you know. Just…moving I suppose.” Max pulled a face. “We have been in a few nice places lately. I…sorry but I didn’t take any pictures. I…I’ve been feeling a bit off with the camera lately. I’m sure it will go away soon. Art block or…”
A shiver ran down her spine as she could visualize Jefferson’s sick smile at her words. She shook her head to kill that line of thought, the image of her own missing posters falling from the sky still carved in her skull like an ominous reminder of what could have been.
“Something like that,” she concluded with a sigh. “I…I don’t know how to tell you this. But lately…I’ve been having nightmares. Like, a lot of nightmares. Almost every single night. Sometimes I don’t remember them…but sometimes it’s like they are real. Have you ever had a dream that seems so…vivid…seems so real that is almost like a vision? Those are…fucking terrifying. Somedays I can’t even shake away that…awful feeling they give me, you know?”
“Also…there is something else,” Max said into the phone, incapable of avoiding rubbing half of her face in frustration with her free hand.
She stayed silent for a brief moment, then her eyes drifted again to Chloe. The punk returned her gaze for a brief second, through the window, right before she looked away almost instinctively, focusing again on her task.
“Maybe I have been obvious before in my previous calls…but what I’ve been feeling is getting out of hand. I try to keep it hidden because I’m sure Rachel is still on her mind…”
Her own words hurt her, a sharp pain in her heart making her uncomfortably change her position, bending her knees and resting her free arm on them, like she was trying to protect herself from that feeling.
“As much as that thought hurts me…what if it’s true? What if she doesn’t feel that way about me? Stuff keeps happening, like those awkward silences…or even hours without saying a word.”
She looked away, frustrated of how whiny she sounded. She felt dumb for a moment, talking about this on the phone, but at the same time, she felt like if she kept it quiet, the thoughts would drive her insane. And her own double from the nightmares never missed an opportunity to use those negative and self-depreciating thoughts against her.
“But sometimes… We fall asleep holding hands or…even when I have nightmares, she hugs me and I can actually sleep.”
The memories of the past nights warmed her heart a bit, despite the snow falling on her. The wonderful feeling of her friend’s arms around her, her words of comfort, the soft caress of Chloe’s breath on her forehead and the top of her head as she held her. And the fact that she didn’t pull away, or any distance at all, when Max grappled her like a castaway to his raft. Max fixed her eyes on the floor at her feet for a moment, the tiniest of smiles curling her full lips up a bit.
“Do you think that means she feels the same? That…it’s not only in my head but she…loves me too? I know this must sound really weird to you…but…I’m sure you understand.”
Max sighed, knowing that she would have to wait for that answer. She looked up again and saw Chloe walking out of sight into the store.
“Anyway, I better go,” Max concluded, getting up with a soft groan and jumping off the back of the pickup. “We still have a few hours driving to reach the next town and I can see her from here about to leave the store. I hope to hear back soon, I’d love to hear what you think about all this. Take care.”
They lost hours to the road. It was the new normal. After a few days, they would get in the truck and drive, sacrificing a third or more of their day just to be sure they had enough distance behind them to be out of the storm’s immediate reach. Or their best approximation of it, anyway, since there wasn’t exactly a handbook that told them how big of an area acted as a single target. Chloe gripped the wheel with one hand, her eyes looking forward but not particularly taking anything in but ‘we’re still on the road.’ She might even admit that at first, the thought of driving without a destination in mind was appealing. But that dissolved quickly. She hated those long stretches of nothing but movement. It didn’t help that the truck would be silent for hours on end, neither girl wanting to be the one to break it.
Thank god for the radio. The few CDs she had in the truck had lost all of their charm within the same day of her putting them in, including even those mixes that she remembered carefully putting together with a small sense of excitement. She hated them now and had even taken an opportunity once to frisbee one out of the window while Max was sleeping. It felt like she was always sleeping.
So far, their plan had been to stay in one spot for around two days, leaving on the third. It just seemed the best way to be safe. Chloe had quickly acclimated to being disenchanted with the whole process of traveling. Sometimes, when Max was awake during the drive, she’d catch her staring out the window or reading a passing billboard with more interest than Chloe could even pretend to muster. But that…that was its own kind of satisfaction. Max was routinely inhabited by a pressure around her, pulling her down into a state of despair. So even if it wasn’t a smile, seeing her admire their surroundings was more than enough to keep the flame from going out. As if something as small as a sneeze from the brunette was a relief, causing her to think ‘there you are. You’re still with me.’
Her head jerked up, her eyes widening for a split second as she realized she was dozing off. This had grown to become the sign that they needed to stop and find the nearest place to stay. Typically, this was the first sketchy motel they happened across. She cracked the window and let the December air slide through, the chill of it waking her up enough to finish the drive. Once already they had to stay the night on the side of the road, sleeping uncomfortably in the truck. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they both didn’t wake up shivering, nearly frozen from the snow laden countryside. That was all it took for her to know she had to push herself at least enough to find some place with heat.
After twenty minutes more, they pulled into the parking lot of a motel. She sighed, letting her head rest against the window. Safe and sound, or at least something close to that. She looked at Max, the girl slumped against the seat in a deep sleep. It frustrated her. If she was awake, Chloe wouldn’t have to be alone with her thoughts. It wasn’t fair to leave her all alone, stewing in the knowledge that many people were dead because of her. All because the sleeping, small girl next to her thought she deserved life more than anyone else in Arcadia Bay. Consequently, more than anyone else in the other two towns as well. This poor, slumbering girl that had to make a heartbreaking choice who, in the end, chose her. But could barely talk to her. Could barely look her in the eye.
Not that she was any better. On those rare occasions where Max actually attempted conversation, Chloe often let her words flounder awkwardly as she gave short, cold replies. Why did she do that? Every single time, she immediately regretted it. It made her angry. It made her sad. Sometimes it just made her laugh from the sheer absurdity of it. There she was, a working pulse and breath in her lungs at a tremendous and terrible cost. It had to mean…something, right?
“What the fuck is in your head?” She whispered, staring at Max. She didn’t know why the lack of reply ate at her so much. Like she expected Max to spring into consciousness with a concise explanation. It made her feel lost. She acknowledged the uncomfortable feeling growing in her stomach and cleared her throat, staving off the impulse to get choked up. “What…are we?” The question was clawing and desperate. And as much as her heart was contorted by a thousand feelings, many of which were based around different shades of anger, she couldn’t find it in herself to feel them genuinely at the girl next to her. More than anything, she was stricken with the cloying and overbearing feeling to protect her. Like it was her turn to keep her safe now. She hadn’t even realized it, but despite all the negativity in her head, she was actually smiling as she watched her. She reached across the seat and, very gently, brushed the hair out of Max’s face.
“Hey, I need a room,” Chloe said to the scraggly looking man behind the counter. She was becoming very personally familiar with the graveyard shift workers of the world.
“Uh…yeah, sure,” he said back as if he himself had recently awakened. “One bed or two?” Chloe stared at him, turning the question over in her mind. There seemed to be a 50/50 shot that she would spend the night in Max’s bed trying to soothe the girl’s nightmares. Being a twin bed, they were always forced close together. She didn’t mind being so close to Max, but it was uncomfortable. She figured maybe she should just cut out the middleman and get one big bed for them. It would make sense. It wouldn’t have to mean anything.
“Doesn’t matter,” she replied, clamping her eyes shut at the uncertainty in her answer.
“Cool,” he said and lazily turned to retrieve a key that was hanging on a hook. She dug her wallet out of her pocket and opened it, grimacing at the sizable wad of twenty dollar bills. Max had learned that she could withdraw from her bank account over and over so long as she used the rewind and get as much money as they needed. Chloe didn’t like it. A part of her knew it was something Max, under normal circumstances, would hate doing. But once the brunette had figured it out, she did it without a hint of hesitation. Because they weren’t just fucking around with an endless stream of money for fun. They were surviving. Morals could be bent.
Once she had paid for that night, she returned to the truck where Max still remained asleep. She opened the passenger door and leaned across the girl, pressing her thumb on the switch to the seat belt lock and carefully working the strap over Max’s body. She reached for her shoulder and paused. Who would wake up? Someone scared? Someone lost in guilt and sadness? She hoped it might be the girl who laughed with her a few weeks ago before everything went sideways. Was that girl even still in there? She exhaled through her nose and nudged Max’s shoulder.
“We had to stop,” she said quietly. “Gotta get you inside to sleep, okay?” Max opened her eyes slowly, regarded Chloe for a moment, then nodded. “Okay, come on,” she said, reaching her arms under Max to help her out of the truck. Once she was on her feet, Chloe grabbed her by the hand and led her to the room that coincided with the number on the keychain. As she slid the key into the lock, she found herself especially curious about what sort of bed awaited her on the other side of the door. She also found herself grateful when she saw it was a queen sized bed.
“Big bed,” Max said sleepily as she stumbled toward it.
“Is that okay?” Chloe asked, shutting the door, locking it and sliding the door chain into place.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?” Max flopped onto the bed, her arms out wide. Chloe rounded to the other side and sat down. She ran her hand over the pillowy comforter.
“I don’t know,” she said with a small shrug. “Maybe you’re picky?” Max snorted quietly.
“I’m not picky,” she protested. She tilted her head back all the way so she could see Chloe. “Where are we?”
“Bumblefuck,” the girl replied. That made Max laugh.
“So, same place as yesterday,” she said, smiling. The elusive Max Caulfield smile. It seemed like she always reserved it for the night, just before they both collapsed from exhaustion. She tried not to make a big deal of it, but Chloe did everything she could to savor the mood. To capitalize on it.
“No, not the same place,” Chloe said. “This Bumblefuck actually has a working ice machine.” Max faked a gasp.
“Living the high life,” she giggled.
They maintained this fragile banter for a little while before they unanimously, but silently, agreed that it was time to try to sleep. Chloe climbed under the blankets and settled in, lying flat on her back. She stared up at the ceiling, barely visible in the soft glow of the moonlight.
“I’m here if you have a nightmare,” she said. She tried to situate her arm more comfortably and grazed against Max’s. She hadn’t meant it as any particular sort of gesture, but couldn’t find it in her to complain when the brunette grasped her hand.
“Thank you,” Max said and carefully allowed her fingers to lace between Chloe’s. She didn’t respond. She just focused on the feeling of their hands together. They stayed like that until she thought Max had fallen asleep. “I’m cold,” the girl said suddenly, letting the words crash through the silence. Without thinking about it, Chloe turned onto her side and scooted closer, wrapping an arm around Max.
“Better?” She asked.
“Mhm,” the brunette replied. There was a breathy hesitation. “You’re always so warm.”
“Feel free to use me as your incredible human heating pad anytime,” Chloe said, chuckling.
“Noted,” Max said. There was a brief pause. “I’ve been cold a lot lately.”
And Chloe wanted to say something back, maybe another joke or something comforting. Or maybe how much she needed to feel Max just as badly as the girl needed her. That it helped her too. But all she could think about was how in the morning this Max would be gone, replaced with the guarded, silent one. So she remained quiet, holding Max until she drifted to sleep with only one thought running through her head:
Our relationship is fucking nocturnal.
“Here you go, girls,” the waitress said, placing the food in front of them. Max scowled at the smiley face on her dish constructed out of eggs and a strip of bacon.
“Well, that’s creepy,” she said, forcing a bit of laughter out. Chloe nodded in her direction and turned her attention to her own food. Max’s eyes dropped, the heat of embarrassment burning in her ears. She began to prod the smiley face.
It felt like every time she tried to talk to Chloe, the girl offered nothing but a frigid shoulder. The problem was, she couldn’t pinpoint from which direction she was coming from. She didn’t believe it was anger, at least, not at her. Not with the way she held her at night whenever she had nightmares. Then was it guilt? A sense of feeling unworthy? It was driving her crazy. Just like how Chloe’s hand on the table was driving her crazy with the itch of contact. She just wanted to hold her hand…
She felt naked. When faced with an impossible decision, her heart took control. She chose Chloe over everything. It was the clearest declaration of how she felt that she could imagine. ‘I choose you.’ All her cards were on the table and the girl sitting across from her silently shoveling food into the mouth she wanted nothing more than to kiss was giving her nothing in return. Naked. Vulnerable. Maybe she just didn’t feel the same way. She still wouldn’t regret her decision, but it would be a hurt that never healed.
She knew Chloe cared about Rachel. Maybe she underestimated how strong those feelings really were. Maybe she was stepping on Rachel’s grave by wanting, and even to a degree expecting Chloe to love her back. It made her feel selfish. She found herself with a question loaded behind her teeth, waiting and thrashing to get out. ‘What more can I possibly do for you?’ She jabbed the crisp piece of bacon with her fork, shattering the smile on her plate.
The bell above the entrance to the diner jingled as a man entered.
“Jenna,” he called to the waitress, “you got some dead birds out here. Don’t know what happened to ’em, but you should probably get someone out here to clean them up. Bad for business and all.” The waitress huffed and nodded to him, then disappeared into the back. For the first time since sitting down to eat, Max and Chloe made eye contact. They finished their food quickly.
After the meal, they headed back to the motel. It was the third day at this particular one, so the dead birds only confirmed for them that they should move on. When she allowed herself to actually think about it, Max found herself unsettled by how little the sight of broken, lifeless birds on the ground phased her. While they were driving, Chloe turned the radio down and cleared her throat.
“Hey, if it’s cool, could we maybe…not do diners for a little while?” She asked, not taking her eyes off the road. The pain subtly poked at them both.
“Of course,” Max responded, saddened but in a way just happy the girl was talking to her. “We can do anything you want for food.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I guess we should get our shit together at the motel and hit the road.” Max could already hear the exhaustion and irritability in her voice. They were supposed to do this for the rest of their lives and it was already taking its toll. She didn’t know what to say. She just wanted to apologize for the whole disaster, but at the same time, she refused to be sorry for saving Chloe. So, she stopped talking and instead thought of what would happen later that night at whatever new motel they found. That time frame where she was more honest and Chloe held her close. It was her favorite part of the day. Even if she did have nightmares sometimes.
Chloe was here
Rachel was here
Max was here… unfortunately
She clutched at her elbow, self-conscious of the graffiti in front of her. She stood in water up to her ankles, seeping into her shoes and giving her a chill. The clubhouse in the junkyard seemed so much bigger now, or maybe she just felt smaller. Outside, she could see the rain falling and winced when there was a loud crack of thunder.
In spite of much larger problems, she couldn’t help but feel a bit embarrassed by her inclusion on the wall. Things had changed so much in such a short time. When she had written her name, it was with the whimsical naivety of creating a trio of BFFs. Seeing it now, it seemed more like the desecration of something sacred. She hadn’t known the full extent of how precious Rachel was to Chloe. She didn’t know how quickly her own feelings would change regarding Chloe. Just one day, one kiss, later and everything had gotten too tangled up to understand. How deep did Chloe’s feelings for Rachel really go?
“Why won’t you love me!?” She heard her own voice cry. She whipped around, her hands bundling into fists. The other version of herself was talking to Chloe. Chloe simply stared back at her, her arms crossed with a look of disgust on her face.
“Why would I love you?” She asked, the bite clear in her words. Max felt her stomach begin to knot.
“Because,” Nightmare Max said, thrusting the back of her hand onto her forehead in a dramatic fashion, “I love you soooooooo much, Chloe! I killed all of those people for you! Isn’t that good enough? How many more until you’ll love me back!? Just pick a number, I swear I’ll do it!” As she flailed her other hand, Max watched the bullet necklace swing in her grip. Chloe wasn’t wearing it.
“Stop,” Max said, though it was timid and came out sounding more like a question.
“I love Rachel,” Chloe stated with a bit of a growl in her voice.
“O-okay, that’s fine! I can pretend! I can be whatever you want me to be!” The other Max’s tone was drenched in mock desperation. She waved a hand over herself, transforming each article of clothing until she was wearing Rachel’s clothes. The same ones Max had worn just a few weeks ago when she kissed Chloe.
“Please, please stop,” Max begged, taking small steps toward the two. “Not this… God, please don’t fuck with me about this.”
“Wearing her clothes doesn’t make you Rachel,” Chloe barked. The other Max stepped back and held a hand over her heart.
“But Chloe! You’re my savior! You give me reason to live! I’d do anything for you!” Nightmare Max continued, conjuring dramatic faux pouts and quivering lips.
“I wish,” Chloe said, taking a step toward the other Max, “that you had just let me get shot so I could finally be with her and away from you.”
“God, please,” Max pleaded as she began to cry. “She doesn’t think that. I…I know she doesn’t.” Suddenly, Chloe froze, one hand raised in the air with her index finger pointing out as if ready to make a point. Nightmare Max leaned to the side, peeking around Chloe, and unleashed a twisted grin at Max. Several cracks dashed through the wall to the left of her, then it crumbled, revealing nothing but a black void.
“It is interesting though, isn’t it?” Asked the other Max. “You’d think doing what you did for her, she would have undressed you with her teeth back up at the lighthouse.”
“No, no,” Max muttered, clapping her hands over her ears. “Please, not this.”
“Oh come on, lighten up,” Nightmare Max laughed as the lighting in the room brightened considerably. “So what, you swung, you missed. She’s just not that into you, Maxine.” She made an exaggerated cringing face. “But boy, is that awkward or what? She’s basically just chained to you now because of your decision when she…doesn’t even like you.” She took in a deep breath through her nose and shrugged. “Guess I kinda had the whole Stockholm Syndrome thing backwards.”
“Shut up,” Max demanded, the words forming from panic rather than bravery.
“Not gonna happen,” Nightmare Max scoffed. She stepped around the still frozen Chloe and began to prowl toward Max. “Besides, you know as well as I do that you have a lot of trouble keeping your mouth shut. Always gotta add your two cents…” She stopped and raised an eyebrow as the ringing of a phone filled the room. “Oh? Who could be calling at this hour?” She mused. “Where is that damned thing? Ugh, please,” she held a hand up at Max and rolled her eyes with a smile, “you’ll have to forgive the mess. The residents here are so filthy, you’d think they’d slept in the dirt just outside.” She let go of an ‘oooh!’ and violently kicked a small, metal ‘wrong way’ sign. It banged into the shallow water once, then slowed to a stop in midair on the second hop.
“Please, can you ju-” Max tried to say, but was cut off.
“Found it!” Nightmare Max held a cell phone up victoriously, its ring continuous and piercing. She tapped the screen and held it to her ear. “Yeeees?” Her eyes widened in feigned surprise. “Why, Max, it’s for you!” She held the phone out. Max didn’t budge, only stared back at her with teary, blue eyes. “Oh, no worries, I’ll just put it on speaker!” She pressed the screen again.
“Chloe!? Chloe!? Where are you!?” Max clapped a hand to her mouth as she recognized Joyce’s voice. “Please, god, I just hope you’re okay. Please, call me and tell me you’re okay,” Joyce said, her voice falling apart as she started to weep. “Honey, I’m stuck at the Two Whales. Listen, if something happens I just want you to know how much I lo-!”
And with a scream, the call was cut off.
“Hm, kind of rude to just hang up like that,” Nightmare Max pouted, letting the phone slip from her fingers. As it hit the water, the wall to the right of Max rumbled, then disintegrated, leaving the window suspended in the air. Though she could still see the rainy junkyard through it, all that surrounded it was black. The other Max regarded the window and smirked as a blue butterfly fluttered through it, landing on a magazine barely floating in the shallow water. She made a sound of disgust. “These dreadful little things. Always causing so many problems for me.” Behind her, two luminous blue wings sprouted from the petrified Chloe’s back.
“Please, you have to stop this,” Max whispered before breaking into a sob. Nightmare Max glanced up at her curiously.
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” She snarled. “I’m trying to stop this but you,” she gestured to the window, “left the window open. So now we have a pest problem.” She took a large step toward the butterfly and gazed down at it. “One little flap and everything goes haywire.” She lifted her foot, her eyes narrowing darkly before bringing it down on the butterfly, crushing it beneath her shoe with a splash.
“You’re…you’re made up. You’re just a nightmare,” Max said, shaking her head. She kept glancing at the still Chloe, her stomach doing flips as she thought about what she had heard her say.
“Heh, yeah, your worst nightmare,” the doppelganger replied. She took in a sharp breath and burst into hysterics. “Sorry, holy shit, that one was over the top.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” Max asked, now gripping each of her elbows as she held herself.
“She,” the other Max said, pointing at Chloe, “is not supposed to be alive. Everything you’ve done since you stopped her from being shot has been off script. Everything is changing!” She held the necklace up and looked over it with disdain. “She’s flapping her wings far too much.” As she said it, the wall across from Max crumbled, revealing the same unending darkness as before. Only, this time there were two large, round lights far off in the blackness. They were blindingly bright and getting bigger. “Too much flapping,” the other Max repeated. Chloe heaved forward as she was unfrozen.
“Fuck! Fuck!” Chloe screamed, clutching her head. “I just want to be dead so I can be with Rachel! Let me be with Rachel!” Max held her stomach, shaking her head at the words. The lights grew bigger and she now realized they weren’t growing in size, they were getting closer. They projected two beams directly at Chloe, lighting her up in a silhouette. The wings on her back were twitching, anxious to take flight as the glowing blue contrasted sharply with the void behind her. Nightmare Max took a hasty step toward her and tightly pinched one of the wings before it could flap.
“See, this is what I’m talking about,” she said with a light tone of disapproval.
As she held her there, another voice echoed in from nowhere. There was a strange distortion about it, as though Max could somewhere in her subconscious understand what was being said, but all her ears could hear was mostly incoherent.
“Mumbles…am I going…mumbles…to…mumbles…die…mumbles…soon…mumbles…Max?”
“You hear her?” The other Max asked, jingling the necklace so the bullets clinked against each other. Chloe was still screaming, clawing out frantically toward the lights. “She wants to die to be with her Rachel. The girl you could never live up to. Which…is impressive considering your advantage there.” She glanced over her shoulder at the approaching beams. “Who am I to deny an insect’s last wish?” And with that, she pushed Chloe into the void toward the round lights. A calamitous bang erupted around them, along with the sound of glass shattering.
“Chloe!” Max screamed, reaching out after her. But the girl was gone, leaving nothing left but an abyss. Nightmare Max dusted off her hands, then pulled the necklace over her head.
“Listen to me, Max,” she said, staring deeply into her eyes. The floor beneath them began to weaken. “She doesn’t love you.”
And the floor gave out.
She woke up screaming. The fear crawling on her skin, her head in overdrive, desperately waving her arms around, trying to get a hold of something; somehow, to stop the fall. But she also noticed she couldn’t do it freely; something preventing her ability to move at will and the panic forced another scream, weak and tired, through her lips.
“Max! Shhh! It’s okay!” Whispered a familiar voice in her ear, a warm breath caressing her temple as the prey around her body got loose, giving her room to maneuver. But it was that voice, the voice that usually made her feel better, that made her feel even worse.
Max rolled away from contact, curling into a ball by the edge of the bed as the sobs shook her body in a violent fashion. She hugged herself, trying to reassemble the pieces together, furious because of how weak she felt, how naked, how exposed. The mocking tone of her nightmare twin filling her thoughts loudly, at the point she just wanted the roar to stop.
The same pair of arms surrounded her again, unsure, awkwardly even.
“I’m here. You’re okay,” Chloe muttered against the back of her head as she tightened her grip, firmly this time. “It was just a dream.”
But it wasn’t just a dream. It was true, Max thought, as tears kept rolling down her cheeks and getting lost in the bed they shared. The brunette shook her head and tried once again to pull away, because she couldn’t bear the thought of Chloe hugging her out of guilt. The thought of Chloe being with her just because she had no other choice. The thought of everything being in vain because she was nothing, just the consolation prize, the only barrier between her friend and death.
Again, the punk tightened her grip, burying her face in Max’s shoulder. The girl noticed how a wet drop of what she assumed were her friend’s tears reached her neck and slid over her skin, leaving a trail of fire.
“Please, don’t,” Chloe whispered, her voice raw and filled with pain for a moment. Her guard was down as much as Max’s and all she had been repressing for the past month or so seemed to be at hand’s reach. “Just…just don’t. Talk to me. Please.”
Timidly, almost afraid, Max looked at Chloe over her shoulder, and their eyes met. Even in the barely lit room, Max could read guilt and pain in those light blue eyes that kept avoiding her during the day, but that were always focused on her the moment the sun went down.
They just looked at each other for a few moments, curled up tight together, so close that it seemed ridiculous, considering how self-conscious they always were during the day about the space between them. Now, it was nonexistent and tense, almost like either of them could basically pull away brusquely and try to brush it off. It didn’t happen.
“What’s in your head, Max?” Chloe asked, her eyes still fixed on Max’s, worried and tired.
After a brief moment of silence, Max looked away, making Chloe’s chest hurt. But she didn’t pull away. She just adjusted herself to be enveloped in Chloe’s warmth, her eyes fixed on the window at the other side of the room, where the lights of the parking lot and the motel sign went through, dimly lighting the room.
“I’m…afraid,” Max said, her voice weak and ashamed.
“I am too,” Chloe said softly.
“I’m not afraid of the storm. Or…afraid about what we are doing,” Max clarified, letting a sigh escape her lips. May as well say it anyway, she thought. She could even feel her doppelganger widely smiling at her with cynicism.
“What was the dream about, if…it wasn’t about that?” Chloe asked in confusion, pretty sure that having a deadly, magic storm chasing you would be a main concern.
“It was…it was about you,” Max said, shy all of the sudden. She covered her face with a hand and Chloe could imagine her blushing like crazy.
“I… You were there and you… I don’t know how to say this,” Max muttered, incredibly grateful that Chloe couldn’t see her face at the moment. She could feel the heat creeping on her cheeks and neck. “It’s…fucking embarrassing but…I thought I was clear at the cliff. I thought it wasn’t necessary for me to actually say it out loud.” She sighed in frustration, trying to control the tone in her voice, despite how terrified she was. “And then, nothing happened. I know I am not Rachel, and I never will be but…”
“What does Rachel have to do with anything?” Chloe interrupted her, her arms tense around Max for a moment.
Max shook her head slightly, and another frustrated sigh came through her lips. She was so awfully conscious about all the places their bodies were touching, how warm Chloe felt against her back and neck, her arms around her, the sound of her breathing so close to her neck…
Impossible to keep focus, the words simply came out as she was thinking for a better way to be subtle. She failed.
“Chloe, I know you love her. You love her, not me…and…”
“Wait, what?” Chloe’s grip loosened a bit and Max felt her heart drop. The laugh of Nightmare Max so loud in her ears it was torture.
But Chloe didn’t allow her to continue explaining herself.
“I am not in love with Rachel, Max,” Chloe said, her tone surprised but firm, resolute. Honest. “Not…in love. I had a crush and she was my friend but I’ve never…”
Max doubted. Chloe’s voice was loud and clear in her ears, but her mind refused to believe in those words so easily. She could almost feel Nightmare Max working her way through her deepest thoughts to seed the doubt as much as possible, a torrent of negative possibilities. She was at some point sure that was the situation they were in. Chloe not loving Max, but Rachel… How was it possible it was any different? Why did it take her almost three months to actually at least say anything about it?
“I…fuck, I can’t believe this,” Chloe cursed under her breath, and Max could feel her shaking her head. Her tone was a bit harsh when she spoke again, but it got softer and softer as she spoke, trying to find the words to express her thoughts correctly. “Max, listen. You left…and Rachel was there for me. But…if there was something I’ve always wanted was that…Rachel was you. Not the opposite. Rachel took your place and even if she…was amazing and I fucking miss her and…I can’t believe she is dead.” She muttered all of the sudden, shutting her eyes closed in pain, but she recovered. “She never fit that well. Because she wasn’t you. I…”
There was a silent pause for a few seconds, as every word travelled slowly to Max’s brain and she analyzed every single one of them, trying to discover where the trick was. Because it couldn’t be…but maybe Nightmare Max was wrong?
“Everything is just a fucking mess right now,” Chloe said, sounding a bit more composed now. More sure of what she was saying. “But I’ve always, in a way, loved you. Not her. I do now.”
Then the doubt again, back and forth in the back of Max’s mind. The answers she didn’t want to find weren’t there. But that sentence didn’t even make sense to her. Not when she thought about how Chloe had been acting since that fatidic day back in October.
“I don’t…or at least I didn’t think I had to clarify it after the…cliff,” Max admitted, shrinking a bit in Chloe’s arms. “Or after the third town. And yet…”
“I am afraid, Max,” Chloe snapped. “I’m…even if I’m doing this with you I still think we can’t run forever. Or that I’m not worthy of all this at all. How could I drop that shit on you?” Max felt her stomach make a flip and she had to actually stop herself from interrupting her friend to argue about it. “I wanted to believe you did it because you…because you loved me but you are so…fucking hard to read sometimes.”
Hard to read, she thought. How were three dead towns and a fucking run for your life race against the clock hard to read?
“Do I need to sign a written confession?” Max said, frowning to nothingness and tensing her shoulders in defense as a wave of anger raced through her veins like fire.
Without hesitation, maybe because she was tired and vulnerable, maybe because she was angry or maybe because she was tired of being afraid to speak her mind and be rejected, she turned around, surprising the punk and faced her. Max’s blue eyes bright and angry at herself and at the whole situation fixed on Chloe’s.
“When I said you are my number one priority now, that you are all that matters to me…I wasn’t lying,” she said, no room for doubts in her tone. “I was being honest. I’ve never been so sure of a choice in my entire life. And…I’ve never been so sure about anything I’ve ever felt, except for what I feel for you.”
Chloe simply stared, her face expressing all the surprise and shock she felt, like it was something unpredictable, something that she never in her life dared to consider real. But it was real and she felt it with every single bit of her soul.
She swallowed awkwardly and the moment Max hesitantly cupped her cheek with one hand, she closed the tiny gap between them and without even asking or giving Max the chance to avoid it, their lips clashed together. Furious and clumsy at first, then slow and soft near the end and when they parted, their arms entangled and their hairs messy, they looked into each others eyes and at the same time, both laughed nervously.
“I…I love you too,” Chloe said, and another kiss, less desperate this time, followed her words.
She woke up, but didn’t open her eyes just yet. For a moment she wasn’t sure if she even wanted to. Through her eyelids, she could see the sun getting into the room, cold light of winter brightening her surroundings.
But Max couldn’t feel cold at all. In fact, she was comfortably snuggled with the sheets and the comforter in a burrito fashion in the middle of the double bed she was so happy to have found last night. The remnants of another familiar warmth still around her, keeping her away from the cold air in the room and a third type of warmth, inside her chest like a bubble of happiness, softly beating against her ribs.
Part of her mind was still resistant to acknowledge what happened. The realm of Nightmare Max was still untouched, her doppelganger screaming at the top of her lungs that all was just a beautiful lie, but for once, the embodiment of her darkest thoughts wasn’t hard to ignore, reduced to just a whisper in the back of her mind.
But as she sighed and convinced herself once more that she was awake and all worked out in a really not smooth way, she realized the lack of weight, due to not having Chloe’s arms around her, neither her breath in her neck, or the slight pull of her body on the mattress. She turned around confused, and she felt her heart jump when she realized the bed was empty.
She sat up in the bed and looked around, wide awake all of the sudden. With panic raising and crawling on her skin, she frantically looked around for their luggage and with a not so relieved sigh, she saw Chloe’s backpack against the wall where she had left it last night. Her coat was missing though.
And with good reason, since the door opened a second later, revealing her presence. The loose green coat wrapped around her slim silhouette, beanie in place with a tiny bit of snow on top, her cheeks really pink and her eyes bright, carrying two to go cups of coffee and a brown paper bag in one hand.
“Holy shit!” Chloe said, visibly shivering as she closed the door. Then she stopped, shrinking in place and stood there still for a second. “Brrr! It’s cold as fuck outside!”
Max couldn’t help but chuckle at the display of drama as her…uh…friend? walked over and left the recently bought items on the nearby low table. Then, she took off the coat, the beanie and her boots.
“Breakfast is served!” The punk said, walking towards Max with a smile on her face and lending a hand to drag her out of bed.
The brunette complied, slightly hesitant, but ended up being pulled into a bear hug so tight all the air in her lungs escaped brusquely between her teeth. It lasted just a few seconds until the punk released her and went to the nearby couch, with predatory eyes fixed on the paper bag resting on the table.
Max took place in a chair nearby, taking the coffee with both hands in an attempt to warm her now cold fingers.
“Hope they got your shit right,” Chloe mocked her as she took a donut from the bag and started to nosh with delight.
“Come on, you are the one that always forgets!”
“Excuse me, I know exactly what you always order. It’s not my fault they fuck up. Not everyone gets why you would order a pumpkin spiced latte. Believe me, I don’t. Sooo pretentious for a hipster…”
Max shook her head but a smile curled her lips up. She brushed it off with a dismissive gesture of her hand.
“Oh, please. It’s more an irony than anything. Don’t you punks enjoy that kind of thing?” She mocked Chloe, with a silly smile. The first silly smile she had in months.
“Yeah, well. It’s just that it sounds so elitist that it loses part of it’s charm,” Chloe replied, shoving the rest of the donut carelessly into her mouth and while munching, her hand went to grab another one from the bag.
Max took a sip of her coffee, which was okay after all, and spent the next few seconds contemplating how Chloe was just staring at the donut, like she was making the necessary physical calculations to make it fit whole in her mouth. The mouth she had so wanted to kiss before and she actually did hours ago. She wanted to do it again, and again, because she couldn’t simply explain how grateful she was for her presence. The mere fact of Chloe being alive and now actually seeming to be alright and in a good mood for a change… The spoken words from the night before still ringing in her ears, as Nightmare Max shouted a full sonnet in her head, trying in vain to brush off that wonderful feeling.
“As much as you complain, you always take it black and boring,” Max said, sipping her coffee again and nonchalantly grabbing a donut from the bag.
“Not boring if I go Irish,” Chloe said, looking at her with her light blue bright eyes and deliberately winked in her direction with mischief.
Then Max realized the possibilities of her own words and awkwardly covered half of her face with her free hand.
“I’m just grateful you avoided that terrible joke I basically set up for you,” she said, her smile getting wider.
“You’re welcome, honey.”
Then Chloe shoved the entire donut in her mouth somehow, besides the physical impossibilities and since not choking with it required her whole attention, she didn’t notice Max’s change of expression at her words.
“Uh…honey?” Max asked, a bit unsure. The sound of the word on her lips sounded somehow absurd. Like, the whole situation seemed to be kind of absurd.
“Wha’ ?” Chloe asked, making an almost inhuman effort to speak. “I’ somethin’ ‘ong?”
She swallowed with effort and blinked twice, before grabbing her cup and taking a long sip. She coughed a bit and then looked at Max again, waiting for an answer. Chloe’s confused expression muted into concern when she saw Max’s weird look.
“I…don’t know,” Max said, looking away awkwardly. “I guess I’m not used to you calling me that. It’s…uh…”
Max sighed, then left the half eaten donut on the table next to her coffee. She just stared at them for a moment, like she was gathering enough bravery to actually be direct for once. Now, during daytime and with her guard up again, it was way harder to be direct and open. She cursed under her breath because of that.
Before she could actually make the question, Chloe started to talk and they kind of interrupted each other.
“Chloe, what are we?”
“If you don’t like it I could…wait, what?”
Chloe stopped and sat rigid on the couch, a completely puzzled expression.
“Yeah…” Max said, trying to keep eye contact. “I mean, I…”
“Uh…I thought we were…uh, together?” Chloe said, a sudden flash of fear in her eyes. “Like…we kinda have been for a few months even if we didn’t…you know…kiss or state it until now?”
Despite how much she hated herself for it, Nightmare Max’s constant remarks in the back of her head and the awfully vivid memory of the nightmare forced her to ask. And she felt completely stupid the moment the words left her mouth.
“You…are okay with that?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Chloe asked, leaning over and resting her elbows on her knees, looking at her with intensity. “I’m…even pissed it wasn’t clear before. But it is now.”
“Okay…yeah,” Max said, a bit more confident that her…girlfriend(?) made it more clear. Lovely awkward insecurities boosted up by really evil imaginary twins. “It’s…it’s good.”
“Hella good,” Chloe corrected her with a wide smile. “And actually…you know what’s the coolest thing about it?”
Max smiled at her and shook her head, without formulating the question. Chloe’s smile turned into a mischievous grin as she got up from the couch and walked towards her. She grabbed Max’s face softly with both hands and looked at her deeply, with that characteristic naughty spark in her eyes.
“Now, I can kiss you whenever I want,” she said, and then leaned over to do so.
Throughout her life, Max had often heard the phrase ‘dream come true’ in regard to a great many things. But lying there on the bed, feeling the way Chloe’s fingers slid through her hair, the way their kisses had become more experimental with teeth catching and pulling on lips, the sensation of the girl’s hips pressed so tightly against hers…it was a completely different thing to have your nightmares be proven false.
It still felt surreal, like it all might be swept away at any moment. She stole glances when she could, taking in the soft, vulnerable expression on Chloe’s face between kisses. In her head, she constructed a side by side image – the cold, distant look she had seen so much of lately next to what she currently saw. It almost didn’t make sense. She noticed the way Chloe kept closing her eyes every time her face got close. She heard the small, lustful noises that would rumble in her throat. She felt her own heart bouncing against her chest.
“I think,” Chloe said, a luminous smile on her face as she caught her breath, “we might have missed the entire movie.”
“There was a movie playing?” Max asked with a giggle.
“The gunshots…weren’t coming from outside,” Chloe teased, perking an eyebrow. She dragged a hand through Max’s hair, brushing it out of her face and behind her ear. “It’s…really nice to see you smiling.”
“Yeah, ditto back,” Max said. She reached for Chloe’s hand and fit their fingers together. Already it felt different than when they had done it before. Gone was the sense that it was compulsory or a gesture of comfort meant solely to calm Max down. The way Chloe’s thumb moved back and forth on Max’s hand in a rhythmic metronome was new. She was a fan.
“So…” Chloe began, the bright smile condensing into a small, playful one, “big bed from now on? No more singles?”
“Uh, yes?” She replied as if it were a given.
“Do you want to put another movie on?” Chloe asked. Max raised her head and looked at the TV, stuck on a blue screen as it waited for further instructions. She fell back onto the pillow.
“Sure, why not?” Using the hand that wasn’t already hooked with Chloe’s, she gently touched the girl’s cheek. “Why can’t it just stay this way?” Chloe’s eyes fell closed, and Max took notice of how different it looked than just a few moments before. When Chloe opened them again, there was a hint of fire.
“It will,” she said. “We might always have to be on the move. Things might be about as fucked up as they can get, but…” She nestled her cheek into Max’s hand. “We’ll stay the same. And I mean,” she let go of an embarrassed chuckle, “wouldn’t you agree that our biggest problem so far has been that we’ve secretly loved each other and were too fucking scared to say anything?”
“I just thought you might not feel the same way. I already forced,” Max made a sweeping gesture around the room, not letting go of Chloe’s hand as she did it, “this on you. I didn’t want to put any pressure on you to grow feelings for me.”
“You’re fucking ridiculous,” Chloe said, smiling as she shook her head. “Grow feelings? This shit has been in bloom for a while now, you dork.”
“Be nice if you had let me in on that,” Max responded, faking a pout. Chloe sighed.
“Yeah well, that’s my bad, I guess.” She moved her shoulders a bit in a restrained shrug. “I haven’t known what to say about anything let alone ‘oh hey, did the whole refusing to let me die thing mean you loved me or am I reading this way wrong?'”
“Yeah…” Max returned the shrug. “I guess it’s just been a really screwed up situation.”
“Understatement of the century,” Chloe chuckled, sitting up in bed and grabbing the remote. She looked down at Max. “But it just improved a whole hell of a lot.” She turned her attention to the TV and grinned. “Kay so, what movie did you want to ignore now?”
It took a while for Chloe to actually convince Max to get out of bed, after another couple of movies being utterly ignored. As much as the brunette wanted to just stay inside, cozy and warm, enjoying her now girlfriend’s company, she knew the time was running short. They spent the whole day at the motel and they would spend another night too, to part early in the morning, without more delays. Time was, sadly and ironically, a luxury they couldn’t afford right now.
“Come on, it’s not that bad…” Chloe said while dragging Max by the hand to the fire escape stairs at the side of the motel. She carried a paper bag with a suspicious shape in the other hand, an acquisition she made during the short smoke break she took during that afternoon.
“Dude, I’m freezing my ass off here…”
“Oh, I have exactly what you need to warm up,” the punk said with a naughty grin on her face, then chuckled at the choice of words. “It sounds dodgy but I’m serious. Kinda.”
“You are out of control!” Max replied, genuinely smiling. Her cheeks hurt from the cold and from smiling so much. She thought she hadn’t smiled this much since…since October, basically.
“You love that wonderful feature about me, don’t deny it,” Chloe teased her as she double checked that nobody was watching them climb the stairs to the roof. She kept pulling from Max’s hand like an enthusiastic child about to commit a devilry.
“Yeah…” Max admitted defeat and went along with her after all, “I actually do.”
Up on the roof, they had a pretty decent view of the road where they were. It was near the entrance of a really small town, almost in the middle of nowhere. Max wondered for a moment where the fuck they were, something that she hadn’t questioned herself in a while, at least not with real desire to know.
From there, they could see the parking lot and the road disappearing in the distance. Just a few buildings around, a nearby diner, a gas station and a tiny store completed the small block of civilization. There was a city at the distance, blurry and almost invisible if it weren’t for the reddish light of the almost to be sunset giving the landscape a surreal aspect, almost like a movie. The few clouds in the sky, dark and ominous, predicted more snow to fall soon.
For the first time in months, Max cursed for not having the camera right there with her.
“I introduce you to our lovely companion for the evening!” Chloe announced, snapping her out of her contemplative state and revealing a bottle of rum that was hidden in the bag.
Max couldn’t repress her eyeroll and Chloe pouted at the display of rejection.
“Seriously? Where did you get that?”
“I can be pretty persuasive…” Chloe said deliberately balancing her weight on her tiptoes, provocatively moving towards her. Max simply stared with skepticism. “Okay, maybe I just got lucky and the guy from the store didn’t card me.”
The punk shrugged and proceeded to crack open the bottle. With a naughty smile on her face, she took a deep breath, inhaling the powerful scent of the bottle. She sighed in admiration with her eyes closed. When she opened them, they stumbled over a not so sure Max in front of her, whose eyes were fixed on the bottle.
“Come on…this is better than the gun at least!” Chloe said, opening her arms in exasperation. “Besides…could we just celebrate something for once?”
Those words seemed to strike a nerve, because Max’s expression muted from disapproval to sadness, and then she smiled a bit and sighed in defeat.
“Yeah, okay…I guess we could use a break. And since we actually have something to celebrate for a change…”
“Yeah, that’s the spirit!” Chloe said, victorious, as she took a big gulp from the bottle. She offered it to the brunette, who hesitantly took it.
Max smelled it and recoiled in reproval, with a mocking look on her face. Chloe rolled her eyes and with a simple gesture, encouraged her to take a sip. The brunette gathered courage and took a tiny, fast sip from the bottle and well, you know. She almost threw up.
“Gross!” She said, trying to erase the rest of the rum from her lips with the edge of her sleeve, shaking her head in disgust.
“You are so cute,” Chloe said after a short laugh.
She offered a hand that Max accepted without hesitation, and guided her near the edge of the roof, where both sat to contemplate the bleeding sun hiding behind the horizon line, painting their vision with an intense and warm orange.
They spent a few minutes in silence, Chloe taking small sips from the bottle from time to time. She offered it to Max again, even if she knew the girl would reject it.
“You’re usually knocked out at this time of the day when we are on the move,” Chloe said, her eyes fixed on the horizon line.
“Yeah. I just realized its been a while since I actually saw the sunset,” Max said with a sad tone, again annoyed at her lack of equipment to actually take shots of the beautiful landscape.
“It makes you think a lot about shit,” Chloe said melancholically. “At least…to me.”
There was a brief silence, only interrupted by the soft ‘tumb!’ of the bottle being posed over the concrete, at Chloe’s left.
“And what is in your mind now?” Max asked without looking at her.
“Not always good stuff.”
That was the answer she was more or less expecting, so it wasn’t terribly sad when she heard the confirmation. Of course not everything was fine, not in the slightest. This beautiful and warm day was just an illusion. A dream from which both of them would have to wake from eventually to proceed with what now was their lives. They would eventually have to keep running.
I hope you’re happy, Universe, Max thought bitterly for a moment, before extending her hand and grabbing Chloe’s.
“It’s okay.” Chloe brushed it off with a small sigh, but she smiled at the sun. “It’s hard but it always ends up coming back to my main reason to be here.”
Even if Max knew Chloe didn’t mean it in a guilt tripping way, she couldn’t help but feel again the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders. She basically doomed Chloe to a life of constant movement. And even so if it was better than just letting her die without a fight…how much time could they keep going forward like this?
“Not that you had much of a choice,” Max said, caressing the back of Chloe’s hand with her thumb, tracing small circles over her pale skin.
“Oh, I had. I’ve made my choices too,” Chloe replied, her smile gone for a second. “I’m still here not only because you saved me. I may have said what I said at the cliff and believe me, I still know that would have been the right thing to do. Still is.”
Those words, though soft and real, hurt Max more than anything else. She just kept her eyes fixed on the sun, hoping Chloe wouldn’t see the tears gathering behind her eyelids.
“But…I have you,” Chloe continued, shrugging a bit. “And call me selfish but I will not give up on you.”
Chloe looked at her partner with intensity, but she didn’t return her gaze. Max simply kept staring at the sun, a tiny smile curling her lips despite the bright tears that never started to fall from her eyes.
“Me neither,” she said, her voice slightly broken. “Though I think that much is clear.”
“Partners in crime and partners in time, right?” Chloe asked and Max nodded in approval.
They spent a few minutes like that. Max with her eyes fixed on the sun, Chloe with hers on the brunette’s face. Chloe admired the edge of her choppy hair, the bright tears in her eyes, the multitude of freckles covering her cheeks, the soft curve of her lips, chin and neck, and the sad smile, that kind of smile that even if it’s sweet and tender, hides a terrible sadness behind it. That smile was the only layer between her Max and the Max that seemed almost lost in darkness during the day.
Chloe couldn’t contain the need to keep the warmth and that little piece of dream come true for a little longer, as the sun finally went down, the night taking over the land, and the purple rays on the horizon giving it a cold welcome.
She leaned over and softly pushed Max to lay down on the cold floor…roof(?) of the motel, softly grabbing her by the arms as she leaned over, each knee against Max’s thighs as she looked down. The punk admired her partner’s beauty once more and couldn’t avoid a massive smirk when she caught her biting her lower lip softly.
“What’s in your mind right now?” Chloe asked, turning the question around, her eyes lingering to those pink lips she kissed all day, but either way, it wasn’t enough.
And at that answer, Chloe rested her body on Max’s and kissed her once again, first softly, then harder, treasuring that moment forever in her mind.
Not so far from there, without any warning and without any other sign, a flock of blue jays flying through the sky started to fall to their death, producing an upsetting sound when they met the ground.
The birds left the fresh and cold white snow stained with blue and red, as the storm dangerously threatened to appear.
“…leave a message!”
Sorry it’s been a little while again. Things have been…interesting. I’m not even sure where to begin or how to say it. Remember my last call and how I was telling you about how confusing things were with Chloe? Well, we kind of…figured it out. We’re together now. She said she’s felt the same way this entire time. Turns out we’re both just stupid.
I don’t even know how to describe how she makes me feel or how everything’s been since we’ve admitted it to each other. Things just feel…better? There aren’t any long silences anymore. Now it seems like sometimes neither of us can even shut up. And I never want her to.
I was finally feeling better, so I decided to try and start taking photos again. Of course, I should have probably known that my camera was damaged beyond repair. If you shake it, you can even still hear some water sloshing around inside! I was really upset, but then Chloe surprised me with a new one for Christmas. It’s an even better model! Since then, I’ve taken quite a few. I’m even really proud of some of them! Maybe I’ll get to show you them eventually…
We spent New Year’s Eve watching fireworks by a very pretty lake. I guess that’s not out of the ordinary, it just felt like it was this time. It’s hard to believe 2013 is over. The way time just…keeps marching on and you can’t…do anything about it.
Anyway, I better wrap this up. Sorry to unload this big, huge ‘I’m in a relationship with my best friend’ bombshell on you! I’m curious to know what you think about it. Do you approve? Probably, right? Blah, I don’t know! Hope to hear back! Byeeee!
“I can’t believe it,” Max said, a twist of feigned surprise in her voice, “it actually stopped raining!”
“About fuckin’ time,” Chloe replied, tugging at the pair of sunglasses hooked in her collar and putting them on. “April showers bring May flowers. Well, I want some damn flowers!” They approached the truck, each carrying a different duffel bag full of the belongings they had been accruing over the past few months. Chloe opened the door and threw one in, then took the other from Max and tossed it next to the first one. “You about ready to hit it? We should make it to the city tonight if we drive straight through.”
“I’m ready!” Max said, bouncing up onto her tiptoes to give Chloe a quick kiss. “I’m hoping there might even be some cool shots in the city. It feels awesome to be in my groove again with photography.”
“And it feels even better to actually see you taking pictures,” Chloe said with a smirk as she rounded the bed of the truck. They climbed inside and Max huffed as she moved the bags to her right side so she could be closer to her girlfriend. She unzipped one of the bags and dug through it, removing several Polaroid photographs. She chuckled as she shuffled through them, little glimpses of how not only their relationship had improved, but their morale in general. She held one in particular up and bared her teeth.
“This guy,” she laughed. “What was his name? Adam? I’ve never seen someone shotgun that many beers!” Chloe stuck her tongue through her teeth as she relived the memory. Or what she could remember of it, anyway.
“That dude was crazy.” She turned the key in the ignition and released the roar of the engine. “I think that idea you’ve had is so fun,” she said, turning to Max. “We’ve started meeting so many people, getting pictures of them is kind of like…” She narrowed her eyes. “It’s sentimental.”
“Oh, what’s wrong?” Max mocked with a pout. “Is Chloe having trouble using that big ol’ heart of hers?” She began to cackle as she prodded the girl’s chest, letting her fingers wander down a bit until they gently swiped at her stomach, tickling her.
“No, noooo!” Chloe yelped, shaking her head. “I swear to god, you’re going to make me crash this thing and we aren’t even moving!” Max sat back and cocked her head with a lopsided smile.
“Babe, if you manage to do that, you’ve reached a whole new level of self-destructive behavior.” She began to hum as she kicked off her shoes, which she put on only moments before just to cross the parking lot. She tucked her legs beneath her. “I know you said about driving all the way through, but we’ve got to stop and get something to eat. My stomach is so mad at me.”
“Well, I won’t let you starve,” Chloe responded, finally backing out of the parking space. She checked her mirrors with a careful concentration and then pulled out of the lot. “What kind of girlfriend would I be then?”
“Mmn, I dunno,” Max mumbled, already twisting the dials on the radio. “A pretty shitty one.”
The entire dynamic of traveling had flipped since the night they told each other how they truly felt. No longer were the rides painfully silent, but full of playful banter, thoughtful conversation and sickening sweetness. It was almost like they could push to the backs of their minds just why they were constantly on the move. It seemed absurd, but they had actually managed to fall into a routine. Some days were more frustrating than others, and they had gotten into an argument once or twice, but the sun never set on their anger.
The sheer amount of affection between them had only grown exponentially. The first few days after the ‘big talk’ as they had taken to calling it were filled with violent make out sessions, awkward but comforting hand holding and trepidation toward referring to each other as…each others’. But now, things had rolled into a consistent and warm status quo. Words like babe, baby and Chloe’s particular favorite, honey, had worked themselves into a good amount of their sentences.
The veil of ice being shattered between them only helped improve other aspects of their condition as well. They began to explore more, working themselves out of the habit of locking themselves in a motel room for days. Now when they stopped, they would take the opportunity to see what was around them and even meet locals. The camera Chloe had gotten Max for Christmas played a large role in these new adventurous behaviors. They explored so she could find new shots and Chloe even became quite adept at picking out suitable scenes. Then there was the project Max had started – her growing collection of photographs starring the people they had met. It happened by accident one night, with her being unable to resist taking a photo of a woman who had helped them procure some alcohol. If nothing else, it was a pleasant, if not a little somber, reminder of the people whose lives they had touched in some small way.
The nightmares had lessened as well, and when she did have them, they were vague and only barely managed to snip at her. And even on those nights, that small amount of dreariness was snuffed out almost immediately by Chloe’s soothing embrace and her medicinal lips. The pattern had been figured out and now, it just seemed like they were embarking on the adventures they had talked about when they were kids.
“I am stuffed,” Max said, her eyes half-lidded as she patted her stomach. Chloe snickered at her before leaving a sizable tip on the table. She even noticed the waitress’s eyes bulge from across the room. Maybe it was just the jovial nature of how things had been going, but they had been making more frequent trips to the ATM. Chloe still couldn’t believe how the total in Max’s account hadn’t changed since they started.
“Same,” Chloe replied. “That was delicious. I wish we could get a doggy bag for later…” She sat up in her seat, surveying the baked goods case a few feet away. Max made a ‘psht’ sound.
“We’re going to hit the city by tonight, I’m sure they have all kinds of crazy delicious grub!” She twiddled her fingertips together mischievously. “When’s the last time you had sushi!? I mean, really!”
“Uh, never,” Chloe said, shaking her head with a shudder. “Not my bag.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve gotta try it at least! Trust me, it’s amazing.” She smacked her palms on the table and scooted out of the booth. Chloe rolled her eyes, but offered a shrug.
“Whatever you say, honey.”
A few hours later, they found themselves almost to the outskirts of the city. Thankfully, due to the change in daylight saving time, it was still light out even though the clock crept steadily toward the night. The cool air of April was just warm enough for them to have the windows down, the flurry of wind thrusting their hair in a thousand directions. Not having much time to maintain a sense of style, both of their hair had grown a bit longer. Max actually loved the way the bottom of Chloe’s hair was still a faded blue and how it got progressively more strawberry blonde the closer it got to her scalp. In a way, she viewed it as the melding of past and present. Their being a couple was the perfect joining of their friendship as children and the hell they had gone through as adults.
Max took note of how gradually their surroundings grew traces of suburban influence. More lampposts, the buildings becoming more frequent. She loved how it slowly built in front of her, guiding them to the first major city they had dared venture into in months. She could tell Chloe was excited too, her eyes holding a spark that seemed to say ‘oh hell yeah, let’s do this!’ They screamed along to the songs on the radio, which they had both reluctantly began to accept were indeed catchy and sometimes even good. Max had even begun to find a small bit of excitement when the radio station faded to static as they strayed too far from its source. Finding a new station was fun. More than once she thought of Jack Kerouac and found a serenity there. Chloe and her, always on the road. It was dusk when they finally reached the edge of the city limits.
“I think we need to buy more light clothes,” Chloe said as they stopped at a red light. “I think it’s fine for now but, yanno, who knows where we’ll be when the heat really starts to kick up.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Max replied. “Can you imagine like,” she began to chuckle, “us in Arizona with our big winter coats? What a sight.” She leaned forward and began to fiddle with the radio buttons.
“Or we would just not wear them?” Chloe snarked back. “Though the desert does get fucking freezing at night, I guess we would need some kind of protection.” She gripped the wheel and leaned forward. “My god, am I going crazy or is this taking forever to turn? I’ll die of old age before this fucker turns green. Ugh, I want to get to the city soon! Make it change, Max!” Max stopped twisting the knobs of the radio. Her brow furrowed as a feeling of deja vu sank into her bones. Where had she heard that before? It seemed…very familiar. She shook it from her head and found a clear station.
“Ye of little patience,” she teased, sitting back up and looking at Chloe, though her eyes quickly shot over her shoulder. Behind the girl, two blazing headlights swerved, ripped a street sign out of its place, then redirected toward them. Before Max could summon any noise at all from her throat, the world fell apart. The glass of Chloe’s window shattered as the truck rocked from the impact, the tires on the driver’s side leaving the road and meeting nothing but air. Max’s airbag burst out and slammed her in the face, smacking the back of her head against the seat. She only had a moment to notice that Chloe’s didn’t deploy before realizing the pole of the street sign was just inches away from her face.
The color drained out of the world as everything froze.
Max gulped, her eyes focusing on the javelin frozen in front of her eyes. She could feel her heart thrashing against her ribcage. Her brain lagged behind as the familiar feeling began to register. A few times during that week in October, she had gotten into a situation where she might die. Whenever this would happen, the world around her would fall still, giving her enough time to rewind and stop it from happening. Still having trouble processing what had happened, her eyes wandered along the metal rod. Her emotional response was subdued, instead her brain focused only on gathering the details and putting them together.
She noticed as she scanned down the pole that a dark gray seemed haphazardly splashed here and there. Her head stored that detail as her eyes continued, following the length of the object until it reached an abrupt end. Refocusing her lens, she zoomed out and was able to take in the bigger picture. She ran her sight along Chloe’s jawline, moving it to take in the pained expression of her open mouth. A steady stream of dark liquid was flowing outward from her lips, frozen in an arc in the air. She found Chloe’s eyes, one clamped tightly shut while the other was drooping closed. Her head seemed to be at an odd angle, a dark gash across her cheek with a still shard of glass hovering just passed her. She refocused again and for a moment, she couldn’t tell what she was looking at. But her heartbeat sped up.
The pole that had been hit by the car was carried with it by the momentum and dislodged itself upon impact, piercing through Chloe’s throat. It had gone through so easily that it kept traveling, stopping just before it could kill Max as well. As…well? Chloe was dead? Her brain seemed to be snagged on that detail until the initial wave of shock dispersed. Her heart shattered, the scream of despair trapped within her body as she was unable to move. She felt an immense pressure build up around her sinuses, pushing on her eyes as tears begged to be let out. She had to rewind. She had to fix it. Summoning the familiar spark into her palm, everything began to move backwards.
Like clockwork, all the pieces moved with a strict, uniform timing. The airbag inflated, then deflated again as it was pulled back into its compartment. The rod retreated from her face and she watched in horror as it slid backward through Chloe’s neck, the arc of blood being sucked back through her lips as it moved. The shard of glass toppled in reverse, meeting Chloe’s face and erasing the gash out of existence as it moved across her cheek. The pole disappeared from sight as the skin on Chloe’s throat threaded perfectly back together. Her expression slipped back into something less ghostlike, now showcasing a look of wide-eyed fear. The truck fell softly back onto all four tires. The glass pieces of the window reconstituted, forming one singular pane and a laceration on Chloe’s neck, caused by the forceful tightening of the seat belt, vanished.
She concentrated, glaring as she watched the car reverse, the street sign pole flopping back onto the hood in defiance of physics. She held it longer, rewinding the vehicle further away. Before it hit the sign. Before it swerved. Before she could see the headlights. All the while, a burst of fire scorched the inside of her skull. There was a negative pressure, as if where her brain should be, a black hole pulled relentlessly, pining for an implosion. She felt another pressure build up beneath her nose. Once she was sure she had enough time – because she refused to go through that again – she released the power.
“-it change, Max!” Chloe playfully whined, a cocky smirk on her face as she taunted the traffic light. Max lurched toward her.
“Chloe, we need to move right fucking now!” She screamed. Even that sentence took too long. She hastily unbuckled her seat belt and climbed on top of Chloe.
“Max, what the fuck are you-” Her voice caught in her throat at the sight of the girl. All the stress building up through Max’s head released at once, sending a waterfall mixture of blood and tears down her face. Max dove down to the floor and slammed her palm on the gas pedal, causing the truck to roar forward. “Max! Max!” Chloe shrieked, twisting the wheel in a panic. The truck swerved, hopped the curb and plowed headfirst into a telephone pole. Chloe jerked forward, her forehead ricocheting off of the steering wheel as Max’s lower body left the seat, tumbling sideways in the air and colliding against the dashboard.
Just out of their path, the other car swerved, hit the street sign and drifted onto the road, throwing the sign free into the street. It sped away, not offering a single care at the accident it had just witnessed.
The next two hours blurred as Chloe did her best to keep a grip on everything. She had managed to pull Max out of the truck, though the girl was shaking uncontrollably. She tried asking her several times what the fuck happened, but Max spoke incoherently until all she managed to get out was ‘you died.’ It twisted her insides. She died? Again? Her blood began to burn, heating up her body with a sick anxiety. She opened her mouth to ask more of Max, but got lost in how wide her eyes were. How they seemed to be staring at nothing. What the hell did she see?
It took the tow truck 45 minutes to show up. She waited with Max on the curb, rubbing the girl’s back in comfort, trying to stuff down how horrid the trembling against her hand made her feel. All Max had said during the wait was that they were hit by a car and that Chloe died. She supposed that’s all she really needed to know at the time, but it did spin through her guts with worry.
The tow truck driver insisted that the girls go to the hospital to be checked out, and it took Chloe several attempts and a honed skill of persuasion to get him to instead take them to the closest hotel. She even feared at first that he would have to call the police to file an accident report, but when she explained the situation (that being, a drunk driver was headed toward them and they had to swerve out of that way) he seemed to soften. Finding that nothing but her truck had been damaged, he simply shrugged and told her he wouldn’t say anything. When he dropped them off at the hotel, by far the nicest place they had stayed so far, he gave her his number and told her to call in the morning to get a status update on the truck. Though, she could tell just by looking it was not in a state to be driven. If it would even start at all.
She could feel it all bubbling up inside her. The terror of knowing she had died yet again. The anger she felt at the cosmic forces wrecking their positive stride. Even frustration at the fact that she and Max couldn’t enjoy staying in a relatively nice hotel for a change. Max…it felt like she wasn’t even there. Chloe pulled her around by her sleeve, the girl complying with a faraway look in her eyes. After checking in and leading the brunette to their room, she guided her to the bed before going back to slam the door. In a combustion of emotion, she ripped one of the pillows off the bed and covered her face, unleashing a scream that slowly morphed into a sob.
That was all it took for Max to rejoin the land of the living.
“Chloe,” she whimpered, struggling to her feet. Her head was throbbing from what she assumed was a mixture of stress from the rewind and that her head had been treated as a pinball. She forgot she retained injuries through rewinds. Chloe had lowered the pillow and stared at Max, her face registering defeat. The brunette threw her arms around her and began to sob, which only ushered forth more tears from her girlfriend. “I’m so, so fucking glad you’re okay!”
“Am I?” Chloe responded, her lip trembling. “I died again. Not only do we have mystical storms chasing us, but I’m still managing to fucking eat it in other ways!” Her voice picked up an angry bite, though her behavior betrayed it as she buried her lips in Max’s hair.
“It was just an accident,” Max said, almost pleading. “I fixed it! I fixed it, okay? You’re safe!” Her breaths grew uneven as the shock from earlier was fully replaced with anxiety. “I fixed it,” she repeated several times.
“I know, like…” Chloe swallowed hard, “it makes sense for this to be a coincidence but it feels kind of fucked up to assign that word to a fucking fatal accident.” She left one kiss in Max’s hair. “I know it’s not like, the universe is scheming and plotting all these traps for me but…”
Lightning arced through Max’s head. She recoiled from Chloe’s grasp, taking a step back as her eyes grew wide with fear. The memory of the nightmare she had the night she and Chloe confessed their love spilled into her mind. The mumbled speech in it, the feeling of deja vu she had gotten. How the nightmare ended with two bright headlights charging toward Chloe. How the nightmare version of herself had pushed her into the abyss toward the lights. The sound it made.
“I…I saw it…” Max stammered. “I saw it happen. In a dream…a nightmare.” She brought her hands to her chest and clutched at her shirt. “Oh my god, Chloe, I saw it happen! I didn’t know what it meant!”
“You’re scaring me,” Chloe said quietly, a look of hesitation in her eyes. “What do you mean you saw it?”
“I…the fucking nightmare I had about you and Rachel! There was this like, fucking car crash.” Her hands slipped up from her chest and toward her face, covering it as she cried harder. “No way. No way can she tell the future.”
“Who?” Chloe asked, taking a cautious step toward her. She gently grabbed Max’s wrist. “Max, it’s okay. Breathe, okay? Your nightmares are just nonsense. Remember, you thought I loved Rachel? It was wrong.”
“No, no. Chloe, I swear, it had to be-” Her face was forced against Chloe’s chest, the girl closing her eyes as she tried to voice a soothing ‘shh.’
“Max, that was just a nightmare. The accident tonight was just…a shitty thing that happened, and then didn’t happen. Thanks to you.” She swept a hand under Max’s jaw and tilted her face up. “It’s okay. I’m alive, okay? I’m here. You’re here. We have…a nice fucking room for a change.” It was obvious she was trying just as hard to convince herself as she was Max. Before she could protest further, Chloe silenced her with a kiss. They ignored the salty taste of their tears.
Through the process of getting lost in each others’ kiss, things calmed down around them. A heavy cloud still hung above them, but they were slowly working themselves into a sense of normalcy. They kissed some more. They talked about the nice hotel room. They kissed again. They watched cartoons. All little actions meant to cover up what had happened. If they survived, if Chloe was alive…that was good enough, right?
Once it seemed like things were as fine as they were going to get that night, Chloe decided to take a shower. She even offered to have Max join her – not in a promiscuous way, but just so they’d still be together. Max declined though, electing to stay on the bed and keep focused on the television.
Chloe stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around herself. She stared into the mirror, once again taking in the sight of a girl she hardly recognized. When did her hair get so long? She sighed, killing the doubtful, slithering thoughts that always lurched from the mirror and looked at the pile of clothes she had set on the toilet. That made her smirk. She and Max were still not getting undressed in front of each other. Fine with her, she thought. Not like they didn’t have time to move at their own pace. Or…their own pace within something else’s pace. She got dressed and came back into the bedroom. The TV was off and Max sat on the bed, her knees bundled against her chest.
“It reminded me of…” Max whispered, her voice cracking, “of when I first went through a photo. And you…you ended up in a wheelchair.” Chloe felt the pull on her chest, but ignored it as she sat down on the bed.
“I’m here,” she said. To her surprise, she was truly getting good at using a soothing voice. “I’m here. That never happened, okay?”
“It happened to me,” Max said, beginning to cry again. “Chloe, I…I killed you. Because you asked me. You were in so much pain.” Chloe shifted uncomfortably, but took Max’s hand.
“You did as I asked. If I was suffering that much, then you did the right thing.” She closed one eye as she thought. “I’m sorry that I had to ask you that. Or that a me had to ask you that. But we’re here now, okay?”
“I just don’t understand…” Max shook her head, “why you’re so fucking convincing when you ask me to let you die.” She held her other hand out in frustration. “I don’t want to do that! I won’t do it again! Stop…asking me. Please…” Chloe assumed she was talking about all the times since the cliff that she had told Max it was a mistake. She sighed and stood up, walking to the head of the bed and holding open the covers.
“Let’s try to get some sleep, babe,” she said. Without much fight, Max complied and crawled under the blankets. Chloe slipped in after her and snaked an arm beneath the girl, then rested her head on her chest. “Look,” she said, “I know I’ve said some shitty things. But I won’t ever ask you to do that again, okay? We’re in this together. I’m sorry that any version of me has ever put you through that. And…I do know that I’m one of them.” Max didn’t respond, but did reciprocate the cuddle. Chloe ran through all the times she had inadvertently, or…not so inadvertently, made Max feel like shit about her choice. She knew she could get lost in the moment, say things coated in acid, but she would try her hardest to never do that again. It wasn’t fair.
But all Max could think about was Chloe in her nightmare, begging to be killed before being thrown at the headlights. And how for what felt like the hundredth time, she didn’t give her what she asked for.
The water was deeper now, just above Max’s knees. It was raining. Of course it was raining. She took a deep breath through her nose, her mind shuffling through emotions in search of the right one. Not fear. Not sadness. Anger. Wrath. That’s what she wanted. Around her were many dilapidated cars and miscellaneous scrap. The junkyard again, this time outside the clubhouse. As she looked down at the water surrounding her, she focused on her reflection. The steel in her eyes was so uncharacteristic, it almost surprised her. But then the reflection dropped similarity with her own expression and smirked at her. With a growl, she swiped her hand through the water, scattering the image away.
There was whistling. She glanced up and far across from her was the other Max, sitting in the bed of Chloe’s totaled pickup truck, swinging her feet lackadaisically as she fiddled with something in her lap. Max’s hands tightened into fists and she began to march toward the girl. Nightmare Max looked up at her and beamed.
“Hey!” She greeted. “Nice job on that rewind! I thought your brain would turn into a puddle before you pulled it off.”
“You sent a fucking car after us!?” Max shouted, closing the distance between them. “What next, are you going to drop a fucking piano on her?!” The other Max stopped moving the objects in her hands and puffed out her bottom lip, as if working it over in her mind.
“You know,” she pointed at Max with a piece of metal rod that looked strikingly similar to the one that had killed Chloe, “that’s really not as bad an idea as you think it is. Kind of…classic, right?” The pole was stained red at the end of it. Nightmare Max huffed. “I didn’t send the car after you, Max. I just…knew it might happen. Drunk driving is a real problem. I also figured you’d probably rewind yourself out of it.” She made a contemplative sound. “Commitment issues abound.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Max hissed, hastening her stride. Just as she was getting close enough to clearly see the details of her copy, yellow tentacles sprang from the water. No…not tentacles. Caution tape. The strands danced and wriggled out of the water, contorting themselves until they were taut, surrounding the truck. Max stopped and ground her teeth frustratedly.
“I’d stay away if I were you,” Nightmare Max mocked. “Murder scene, totally gruesome.” She turned her attention back down to the objects in her hands, released a quiet snort, then held them up. In one was the bloodied pole, obviously poking fun at Chloe’s most recent death. In her other hand, just like last time, she had a grip around the rope of Chloe’s necklace. She smiled as she tapped the rod against each of the bullets.
“You’re not scaring me,” Max said with a rumble in her throat. “You’re only making me angrier.” The other Max rolled her eyes and flitted her hand, ordering the caution tape to snap and fall back into the water. She dropped the broken pole into the water as well, though when it hit, the splash was made of tiny shards of glass that made small splashes of their own before sinking. She looked over the necklace in her hand once again, then readjusted her legs into a more comfortable position. Without any sign of a motor starting, the taillights of the truck lit up. It slowly reversed, bringing the other Max through the water. Just as it seemed like it might hit Max, it began to turn, backing up and then stopping so Max had a clear view through the driver’s side window. There was blood everywhere.
“See,” Nightmare Max said, excitedly hopping to her feet and climbing on top of the cab. She dropped onto her knees and pointed at the blown out window. “Right here is where that pole just went ‘shwoop!’ Right through Chloe’s neck like a hot knife through butter! Couldn’t have aimed it better if I tried.”
“Give me her necklace,” Max demanded, ignoring the taunts. The other Max turned to her and scowled.
“No,” she said, losing all trace of her demented playfulness, “this is mine.” Max opened her mouth to speak, but the other Max cut her off before she could. “She’s going to leave you, you know? She’s going to leave you all alone.” The statement wasn’t laced with her typical cocky inflection. It was only cold.
“Bullshit,” Max shot back, flailing her arms so they slapped at her hips. “You also said she didn’t love me. You were wrong about that too.” The other Max relaxed herself onto her rear and slowly rolled her head from left to right, her eyes following suit.
“Yeah, well…” She scrunched her nose in disgust as she jangled the bullets. “That’s the thing about her, isn’t it?” She ran her tongue across her top row of teeth. “She keeps on changing things. And it’s getting so bad that,” she let out a disbelieving laugh as she dragged a hand over her face, “I can’t believe I’m going to say this. She’s changing things so much that now sometimes even I get things wrong. How fucked up is that? Like with the car…I wasn’t a hundred percent on that.” Max gave a defiant chuckle.
“So then you’re beaten,” she said. Nightmare Max narrowed her eyes.
“Au contraire, Maxine.” She shook her head, a demonic smile stretching across her face. “You may be able to throw me off here and there, but…” She held the necklace out, “I know where this is headed. I might not be able to figure out which path you’re using, but I promise the destination is still the same. She can make the road as foggy as she wants, but that doesn’t matter if I’m already waiting for you at the end.” Suddenly, the driver’s side airbag burst out, startling Max. Nightmare Max giggled. “Oh, there it is. Was wondering about that.”
“Why can’t you just…let us go?” Max asked. “She’s just one person. How the fuck do giant storms wiping out countless people not fuck up your ‘rules’ more than just one girl? You’re causing more damage than we ever did. Just leave us alone!”
“We’ve talked about this,” the other Max said, dangling her feet off the cab of the truck and leaning forward. “She’s the outlier. The variable. Every fucking breath she takes is a strike against the natural order. Have you ever even thought about why the storms show up? They’re flyswatters, Max. Reset buttons.”
“We haven’t changed that much,” Max protested, feeling her fire flicker a bit. “We’ve kept to ourselves. It’s not like we’ve done anything drastic.”
“What part of butterfly wing flap equals storm is so hard for you to get?” Nightmare Max asked. “She says hi to someone, it’s a change. She buys a pack of gum at the store, it’s a change. She leaves a fucking footprint in the earth and, guess what, that shape was never meant to be there.” She held a hand out in explanation. “Did you even stop to think about what happened to the driver that hit you? They’d leave the scene with a few fractures in their face and several teeth in their stomach. But no, of course you didn’t.”
“Why the fuck does that even matter? I fixed it with my powers. The ones that you hate so much.” Max pointed at her. “You’re contradicting yourself.”
“C’mon, you’re the photographer, aren’t you? You should know when something’s being properly framed,” the other Max said. “You rewound a car crash that should have never even happened in the first place. You and Chloe should have never been at that intersection.” She snickered. “And what’s funny is, because of the parameters you put in place, technically the new natural result of the accident should’ve been a tombstone for Chloe and facial reconstruction surgery for the driver. You basically double crossed yourself!” She burst into laughter. “Man, talk about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You and your ‘fixing’ is so cute.”
“Oh, but killing her fixes everything?” Max asked, crossing her arms in an act of defiance. “I don’t buy it. This is all such bullshit. We’re not fucking things up.” The other Max raised her eyebrows and sighed, swishing her finger through the air. In front of Max, a bubble sprang from the water, followed by a Polaroid rising to the surface. It drifted listlessly until it was stopped by her leg. As she looked down, chills invaded her blood.
It was a picture of a man, taken after Max had decided to start keeping memories of the people they met. The photograph was just as she remembered taking it, but there were two giant X’s across his eyes. She understood the implication and it only made it worse that, for the life of her, she couldn’t even remember his name. Then another photo floated to the surface. And another. And another.
“Think about it this way,” Nightmare Max said casually. “You tell two people a secret. They each tell two more. Those four tell four more.” She chuckled. “I know you’re shit at math, but you get what I’m saying.”
Seeing all the faces of people she had met made it far more real. Panicked, she glanced at each one, overcome with the details she could remember about them. Even without physically being there, they were being held hostage in a very tangible way. Only, now Max was losing track of who was actually keeping them captive.
“No, no, no…” Max muttered as the photographs continued to appear in swarms.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes, Max!” The other Max cackled, springing to her feet once more. She held her hand out and began twirling it, letting momentum do its part in keeping the necklace around her finger as it spun in circles. “And do you know the best way to fix a situation like this?” Max stared up at her, words piling up in her throat, unable to escape. Nightmare Max stopped her hand, catching the bullets and bent at her knees. She bared her teeth viciously. “You kill the one with the secret.”
The first thing Max saw when she opened her eyes were three bullets dangling right in front of her face. On instinct, she swiftly grabbed them and pulled. Chloe lost her balance and fell on top of her.
“You okay?” Chloe asked, her cheek awkwardly smashed against Max’s. “Nightmare?”
“…nightmare,” she admitted. She didn’t feel the urge to cry as she had before, instead nurturing the small bit of anger left over. She wouldn’t let herself be tricked into believing she was the villain.
“It’s alright, babe. It’s okay,” Chloe said, casually slipping into her comforting voice. She readjusted herself and took the brunette in a hug. “You’re awake now. It’s all okay.” Max breathed deeply, shifting her ankles around to see if her socks and pants were wet. It was the same check of reassurance she had recently grown out of with her wrists being bound by Jefferson. She sighed.
“They are so vivid,” she said. Chloe frowned and touched her nose to Max’s cheek.
“They’re just nightmares.” She kissed her cheek three times. “This is more vivid. I’m here. You can feel me. I’m right here.” Max nodded and let her body relax, sinking into the bed a little more. A silence fell upon them, but it lacked the soreness from before they had gotten together. Chloe continued to caress and cuddle Max, kissing her face every so often. It did its job well enough of calming her down. After about a half hour, Chloe sighed.
“So, I called the tow truck guy,” she said. “They took it to their shop and had the mechanics look at it this morning. I told them money was no issue, but it’s going to be an extensive fix job. A few days at least. They have to order parts and all that. We’re stuck here for now.” Max’s eyes went wide as she sat up, turning to look down at Chloe.
“We don’t have a few days to be stranded, Chloe,” she replied, her voice lilting into panic as she imagined her and Chloe’s influence spreading like a sickness. She knew. The other Max knew and she was just setting the scene for her own enjoyment. Chloe’s face changed when she understood the problem.
“Holy shit,” she said. “Fuck, I was like half asleep when I called him and I…I didn’t realize. I’m still all screwed up from last night. Fuck. Fuck. What should we do?!” Max turned away and thought it over for a moment, her eyes scattering around the room as she formulated a plan.
“We need to figure out where all the banks are. The closest ones first since we don’t have wheels,” she said, not looking at Chloe. “We need to find as many ATMs as we can.”
“…leave a message!”
I’m trying to get more frequent with these calls but time just gets away from me some…times. I’m sorry.
Ugh, okay. Please don’t freak but Chloe and I got into an accident. We’re both fine, but her truck was a total wreck. I don’t want to go into the details, but we managed to scrape enough money together to get a used car to replace it. That…sounds way worse than it was, I promise. I actually don’t mind it so much. Chloe misses her truck, obviously, but it’s nice to have a backseat now. And I know you’re going to be worried, but I promise I’m not just downplaying this. We’re fine.
For the most part, anyway…
My nightmares have come back. Chloe thinks it’s just because the accident was traumatic for me. That could be true, but it doesn’t stop me from having them. I just…hate how real they feel. I don’t know. I guess it sounds silly to complain about, but I think you’d understand.
Sorry, I have to cut this one short. Chloe’s coming out with our bags. Off to a new, wondrous place. …I’m only being half sarcastic. Talk to you soon, okay? Bye.
Spring moved along. Temperature raised, landscapes became more green, less crowded and the skyline had less buildings in it as they traveled south, again the route being uncertain. No point, no destination, just big passages of driving and admiring the world around them, still intact.
But things weren’t as smooth as they seemed, as Max realized soon enough. The crash had taken its toll on both of them, maybe in different ways. She kept having nightmares, regular nightmares. It was hard, even impossible, to erase that twisted and terrifying image of Chloe, broken…lifeless in the most cruel and horrible way. Some nights, it was worse than imagining her walking into the storm, through the haze, to finally give up her life.
The new car was so different from the truck. And Chloe clearly missed it. The new car lacked of…”personality” as she said. But Max knew there was way more behind it. The way Chloe’s hand shook every time she grabbed the wheel, the speed limit she put herself in, even the way she didn’t bother to curse at other drivers when they pulled a random dangerous maneuver. She became more and more tense as they traveled, sometimes even pulling over to smoke and walk around. That stress kept building up to the point that Max offered her to drive more than once, and even if at first Chloe brushed it off and refused, eventually she gave the wheel to Max with a clear expression of relief in her eyes.
“Do you mind if I turn it off?” Chloe asked one afternoon, pointing at the radio. She was sitting in the passenger seat, silently thinking during the brief period Max offered to keep driving.
That was actually weird. It’s not the first time she’s done this, Max thought, looking at her partner with doubt. Then shrugged.
“Sure. We are about to get to the next town anyway,” she said, and observed with a hint of hesitation how Chloe leaned over and turned the radio off, killing the guitar riff with a soft ‘click!’
She didn’t say anything after that, and that pattern of Chloe keeping her mouth shut drove Max crazy. She knew everything was starting to take a toll even heavier than they thought, but the fact that Chloe was, somehow, pulling away a bit again and showing that old cold attitude she had at the beginning, made her head spin and her palms sweat.
She hated it. That little seed of doubt that was enough for her to question every single thing that happened. And of course her own nightmares, her own evil twin reminding her about that prediction.
“She is going to leave you,” her nightmare had said. And those words always struck her in the worst moment, the climax of their cold harsh silence.
As always, they parked the car in a hotel, a really nice one Max picked randomly in a vain attempt to cheer her partner up a bit. And herself as well, since the worry, the guilt and the horrible mental image of both Chloe leaving and Chloe dying left her more than exhausted during the day. She even felt herself pulling back to the old dark and isolated Max in a way, and that thought also scared the shit out of her.
Silently, they grabbed their luggage and went to the room, with the same already familiar set up; big double bed, a lamp on one of the night tables, low table with chairs and a TV, this time a lovely HDTV hanging from the wall. Not that any of them were in the spirits for movies lately anyway but no harm in trying, right?
“I’ll go take the shower first,” Chloe said coldly, grabbing what she needed from the backpack and walking towards the small bathroom.
“Alright… Chloe?” Max asked with hesitation. Her girlfriend stopped at the doorframe and tilted her head, waiting. The brunette sighed in frustration. It seemed like a fucking loop already. “Are you okay?”
A moment of silence then a nod. Max couldn’t see her face but her voice sounded harsh and cold. It made her shiver.
“I’m alright. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
And she disappeared into the bathroom. Max heard her put the lock up, something she kept doing for the past two weeks and that drove her crazy. Where was the girl that genuinely asked her to join, just to not be alone? It wasn’t the same girl that now was putting the lock in the door to keep her away.
Max put her own stuff in order near the bed and paced in front of it, wondering, trying to figure it out. And trying to keep Nightmare Max’s voice out of her head without any success. The silence of the room was oppressing, the walls started to feel closer, even if she knew it was all in her head. But there was that noise she couldn’t identify, something she was hearing, low and almost like it was trying to be as silent as possible. But it was the most upsetting sound she had ever heard.
She hesitantly walked towards the bathroom door, barefoot against the rug of the floor, slowly, afraid… And when she softly rested her ear against the bathroom door and realized the source of that sound, her world collapsed a bit again.
It was the first of many times she heard Chloe crying, locked up, just to come out of the bathroom a bit later, playing dumb. Max never asked about it.
Chloe leaned over the sink, grabbing it with both hands, her knuckles white. She raised her head and looked at herself in the mirror. Who is this person, she thought, paying attention to her face for the first time in weeks. The now strawberry blonde hair was long, almost around her shoulders, the tips still blue, faded, almost purple in some places. The red lines under her eyes, puffy and tired from crying made her look way older than she was, added to the dark circles under them.
A fucking wreck, that was returning her gaze from the mirror. And all she wanted was to smash it to erase that image of herself now stuck in her brain. She was falling apart in a spiral of anger and sadness she couldn’t even control anymore, as the self loathing kept her company, relentless and cruel every time. It felt like a boot pressing her neck as she was on the floor trying to fight for her life.
Her worthless life, excuse her.
“It’s the only way,” Chloe thought to herself, her eyes fixed on her own reflection. “It’s the only fucking way and you know it now more than never.”
She already decided to do it. She had to. Because she couldn’t bear the guilt already. What were the odds? This whole idea of escaping fate, crazy magic storms and car crashes was ridiculous in the first place. Eventually, it would catch up. Eventually there will be a day that Max’s powers will not be of use and both will fucking die. And that idea terrified her, kept her awake at night and more than anything, it made her angry. Angry at the situation, angry at the universe and angry at herself. Because it all was her fault and she needed to set it right somehow. Despite whatever Max wanted in the first place.
She sighed and looked at the electric razor and the scissors she bought, resting over the shelf right under the mirror. She knew it was dramatic, ridiculous even…but somehow fitting to her. When William died…everything changed. So she changed with it. Her long strawberry hair gave its place to the short-ish blue punky hair. Now, after all that happened, she let it grow, to the point she didn’t recognize herself in it anymore. Who is this person? She asked herself again. She felt weird looking at her own reflection. She didn’t feel like that was the person she wanted to be.
She didn’t want to be the selfish girl that accepted her friend to save her ass, killing thousands of people as a result. No. She didn’t want to be a hero either, because that was even more dramatic. But maybe, if at some point her death would mean a benefit in the long run for someone…for a specific someone…maybe it was worth a try anyway, right?
With a defeated sigh, but with determination filling her eyes, Chloe grabbed the razor and turned it on. For some reason the buzz made her nervous. Her hands were shaking as she clumsily tried to actually make everything work and not end up bald or something…what a brilliant idea to actually state the change, to actually convince herself she was the strong person she wanted to be. And actually walk away this time.
She started to cut the hair, putting all the effort she could in keep her hands as steady as possible, the buzz of the razor ringing in her ears…and the first chunk of hair fell off on the sink and she stopped, turning the machine off. Chloe stared at it for a moment, doubtful. Was she strong enough to actually do it? She knew she had to but…did she actually want to?
The answer was no. She growled in frustration, turned the razor on again and proceeded to keep shaving the side of her head with determination. Or at least trying to.
Another bunch of blonde hair fell on the sink and she stopped again, her hands shaking, her breath heavy and noisy. Was it just the weight of her choice? The confirmation? How hard could it be?
Too fucking hard and impossible to do.
But she had to. Chloe had to.
Another handful of hair gone and she stopped again. How many times are you going to chicken out? How many storms are you going to let ravage the shit out of random towns when you’re too tired to drive again?
How…many…times…are you going to be a coward?
She was crushing the razor in her hand, shaking, the tingling of the metal against the sink, when she heard the door softly open. Chloe cursed under her breath when she realized she didn’t lock it this time. She cursed again when tears filled her eyes and she avoided raising them, knowing they would just stumble upon Max’s face of worry.
Chloe didn’t say anything. She just stared at the sink, like completely out of it, thinking at full speed how to explain herself. Hello, I’m here in my underwear cutting my hair because I’m losing my shit and I’m going to leave you at the first opportunity? Sure. That would work wonders.
But Max didn’t say a word. She walked towards Chloe and rested a hand over hers, which was still shaking and softly, carefully even, she opened her fingers and took the razor. Chloe looked at her by the corner of her teary eyes and, as she expected, she found worry and fear in Max’s features. But also understanding? She couldn’t be sure. She didn’t want to be sure.
Max softly grabbed her by the arm with her free hand and made her a gesture to lower her head. And Chloe complied, still waiting for the question that never came. The sound of the razor again near her ear wasn’t so maddening and so heavy when Max continued the task she seemed unable to complete. The soft caress of her hands on her neck and her shoulders as the brunette kept shaving the hair, with care, even in a sweet fashion. Her breath on Chloe’s head as she examined closely the results, to make sure everything was going alright. Hair kept falling on the sink, bit after bit, forming a pile.
Finally, Max left the razor on the shelf and took the scissors.
“Do you trust me?” She asked Chloe, that almost physically cringed at the question.
“Yes,” she replied. But you shouldn’t trust me, her head screamed.
Max guided Chloe so she turned around, facing her. And without looking at her in the eyes she cut the rest of the hair with the scissors, her hands a bit clumsy with them, but it was working. As always, somehow it was working. Why couldn’t it just fall apart on itself? Chloe thought. It would have been so easy if they weren’t so fucking…meant to each other like a crazy destiny plot twist. It would be so easy to leave if…she didn’t love this girl with such desperation. If her touch didn’t burn, if her eyes didn’t reflect the world in the best way, if she wasn’t able to bring the best of Chloe every time… Except now, except after the cliff. Then both became monsters. Or at least Chloe became one, allowing everything to happen.
She wanted to just be dead already…and at the same time she couldn’t bear the thought of actually pulling away from this girl she had in front of her. This was impossible.
“It looks good,” Max said, a sad smile admiring her work. She put the scissors away and leaned over to grab the towel to get rid of the loose hair still on Chloe’s uncovered shoulders.
But Chloe moved, almost without thinking, and cut her off. Max again moved trying to reach the towel, and Chloe cut her path again. The brunette looked at her with confusion, their noses so close they almost touched.
“I was…going to…”
I can’t do this, Chloe thought, as they looked at each other’s eyes for the first time in what felt like an eternity. I can’t do this…but I have to, she decided. And feeling like the worst person alive in the universe (who shouldn’t even be that?), she leaned over and her lips met Max’s, hesitantly, shy even. Max didn’t respond, almost shocked by the sudden display of affection. Chloe’s tears started to fall at that brief moment of rejection, sliding down her cheeks and falling to the floor between them.
And Max dropped the towel, grabbed Chloe’s face with both hands and kissed her. Hard. Pushing her whole body against her, Chloe’s lower back against the edge of the sink as she returned the kiss with the same amount of ferocity, rounding her with her arms and squeezing as hard as she could.
I am a fucking terrible human being, she thought, closing her eyes with strength, making more tears fall as she kept kissing her. I am a fucking terrible human being, but I have to do it. I have to do it right this time.
The words sounded weird, distorted and confusing, like they had a weird echo behind them. Or maybe it was because Max heard them at least three times already and kept rewinding them away with all the might she could muster.
For a fourth time, she watched in desperation how Chloe, backpack on her back and her beanie in place opened the door without looking behind and walked away, her boots stomping on the corridor floor. She raised her hand, weak and shaky already and the universe stopped, time froze and slowly, painfully, brought her back to the room in reverse, undoing the terrible decision she made, just to formulate the words again without even stopping to consider the effect they had.
Was everything twisted beyond repair and broken, leaving them in a point of no return so fucked up that not even turning back time would fix it?
And again Chloe walked away through the door. Rewind. Her head started to hurt, a stinging pain in the back, making it’s way to her forehead. The pressure raised as Chloe again walked out the door. Rewind.
She could feel the blood slipping from her nose, to her lips, leaving a taste of rust and salt on her tongue. Enough for the spark to show up and bring her out of her shock state. And anger overcame pain and her words sounded as harsh as she intended, with her deep blue eyes that weren’t terrified anymore, fixed on Chloe’s face.
And then the world regained meaning and sense.
“Could you fucking stop leaving, please?” Max said brusquely, wiping away the blood from her face. Chloe’s empty look muted into a terrified one, her eyes wide open.
“Fuck. Seriously? That is not fucking fair and you know that.”
“Don’t talk to me about fairness. I’m not the one bailing when shit gets hard.”
A brief moment of shock registered in Chloe’s features, right before she looked at her with a scowl, trying to keep her fury restrained.
“Shit has been hard for months!” She said, her voice going higher. “Excuse me if I can barely breathe with the weight of thousands of dead on my back!”
Max gave a step forward, her hands were shaking because of the anger running in her veins like fire. Like she was the only one in pain all the fucking time, how could she be so selfish? She thought, almost unable to speak, her throat dry and her teeth clenched.
“On our back. Because that’s my doing, not yours!” Max snapped, pointing at her chest with a finger.
“Sure, makes all the sense in the fucking world,” Chloe replied, waving her arms around and a expression of cold disdain on her face.
“I sacrificed everything for you,” Max said, hating herself for bringing it up again. Grossed out at the fact that the only way she could actually make a dent in Chloe’s stubborn defense was by guilt tripping her. She wasn’t a better human being either. “Everything I could have had? I gave it up. I decided you were my main priority and I never regretted it.”
“But I did!” Chloe almost shouted, dropping the backpack and sliding her fingers through her short blonde hair. “I did and I do, Max! This is not only about you, for fucks sake! What about me and what I want?”
Again being selfish, Max thought, feeling like she was being stabbed in the chest with every single word that left Chloe’s lips.
“So…if leaving is what you want, why now?” Max inquired, shaking her head, but her voice almost defeated. “Why not months ago?”
“Because I thought this shit was going to be easier to handle!” Chloe spat with fury, again opening her arms making emphasis on the room. “I can’t just keep looking at you every five minutes to see if you’re a goddamn wreck again, either for what we did or because I died stupidly again, it’s not fair!”
“Sorry if you had to stand my sorry half-destroyed self because you died, Chloe,” Max replied coldly. She never thought she would be this furious at the person she loved the most in the entirety of existence, even more than her own hopes and dreams. She would have slapped her for even suggesting this was a good idea. “Excuse me if I woke up at night with crazy fucking time nightmares or if I was an annoyance!”
Nightmare Max was laughing so hard right now at the whole scene, she could almost hear her cocky tone while mocking her in her head about destiny, the universe, and a bunch of other crap Max refused to acknowledge. She said she knew where they were headed. And the evil smile on her face went wider.
“You know that’s not what I mean, don’t be a bitch about this…” Chloe almost begged.
“So, that’s the thing, right?” Max said, her shoulders sinking, her heart racing and the anxiety creeping slowly in her brain, ready to make it collapse when she heard the answer to the question she had this entire time. Even if she sometimes forgot about that nightmare, even if she tried to feel safe about that, there were so many pointers that everything was going to collapse already that…maybe confirmation would make it easier?
“What?” Chloe asked in confusion.
“You don’t love me anymore then? Is that it?” Max asked, looking away briefly.
“Are you fucking serious now? Really?” Chloe snapped, her hands clenched in fists and the anger returning to her aid. “That’s what you came up with?”
“I don’t see any other reason for you to leave like this,” Max said, cursing at how defeated her voice sounded. She could feel the tears forming behind her eyelids and slowly threatening to fall and give up hope with them.
“Are you listening to yourself?!” Chloe asked with fury, giving a step forward and grabbing her by the shoulders. Out of anger, she shook her softly. “Of course I love you, damn it! I am leaving because the storm is following me!”
And everything clicked in place. Chloe was leaving to simply die and get over with it, without even considering all the sacrifices that they had to do to reach the point where they were now. Max recoiled from the contact and pushed Chloe away from her softly.
“So, what’s your brilliant plan then?” Max asked, her eyes wide open in disbelief. “You’re going to just drive in the middle of the desert and wait five days for it to show up and end you? You realize how stupid that sounds?”
Chloe looked away, between ashamed and furious.
“It’s not stupid if it works,” she muttered.
“Besides, you are fucking insane in the brain if you believe for a second I’d not follow you wherever you go,” Max added. “Take the car if you want, I have time powers and infinite money. Good luck with that!”
“You don’t get it, don’t you?” Chloe asked, narrowing her eyes. “I’m doing this because I’m responsible for dooming your life to this shit! I’m trying to fucking save you for a change!”
“Look me in the eyes and tell me that’s what you want then,” Max said, and with a sigh, tried to hold Chloe’s gaze without success. “If that’s what you really want, then I’ll not stop you. But I know it’s not true.”
Her words were the last straw on Chloe’s patience and defenses. The punk started to pace around, her breathing fast and uneven, looking around in desperation like she was actually searching for an immediate escape route. Her eyes stumbled toward the door several times.
“I don’t want to be the cause of everything!” She shouted, looking at Max with anxiety, fear in her features aside from the anger, boiling behind her scowl. She grabbed her own hair with both hands and pulled. “I don’t want to feel like this terrible fucking human being because your life is ruined and it’s because of me! You are a wreck and, plot twist! I will die eventually anyway. It’s better for both of us…”
“Look me in the eyes and tell me that’s what you want then!” Max insisted.
And Chloe held her gaze for a few seconds, trying to focus, her lips trembling…the tears rolling down her face.
“You what?” Max insisted, grabbing her by the arms. Chloe didn’t recoil but she pulled a bit more of her hair in frustration, gritting her teeth.
“I…I don’t…” She mumbled, and then their eyes met, she collapsed, breaking into desperate sobs. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m fucking sorry for everything!”
Chloe released her hair and collapsed into Max’s arms, tightly grabbing her clothes and pulling from it. She buried her face on Max’s shoulder and the brunette guided her to the bed softly, as her own tears of sadness and relief in equal parts broke the dam and streamed down her face.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Chloe mumbled, still clinging to Max like her life depended on it. Maybe it did. “I…I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave you, I don’t want to…”
Chloe kept repeating her words, over and over, trying to convince Max with them, to erase what she just tried to do. But that was the thing. No matter how much Max rewound, Chloe kept making the same decision. No matter what she said. She only stopped when Max was obviously hurting, her nose bloody and her eyes teary. Maybe Nightmare Max had a point and that scared her so much, that she couldn’t avoid mimicking Chloe and held her like a red iron. The sobs made them shake as any seemed to be able to let go of the other.
“I’m so sorry, Chloe…”
The punk loosened her grip and grabbed Max’s face with both hands, their lips clashing in desperation, salty from the tears and the sadness. Heavy like the pain in their hearts.
“This is too much. I can’t anymore…” Chloe mumbled against Max’s lips, her eyes closed and her hands tense over the brunette’s cheeks, “I feel so fucking bad for doing this to you…”
“It was my choice,” Max replied, posing her hands over Chloe’s. “You will have to accept it was my choice. And I’m sorry if it’s too much but…I couldn’t. I can’t. Please don’t ask me to…”
Another kiss shut her up, hungry and anxious, clumsy and warm. Salty as the sea.
“I’m not worth all this…”
“You are. You are worthy to me,” Max insisted, her voice low and raspy from the contained crying. The anguish in her chest might as well be a black hole, draining every drop of happiness she felt in the past few months. Her hands slid from Chloe’s hands to her uncovered arms then to her waist, shaky and unsure.
“You’re not sure,” Chloe replied, her eyes still closed, feeling Max’s breath on her face, fast, uneasy. Anxious.
“No,” Max said with a broken tone. “But I don’t care.”
Max kissed her this time. First softly, then rough, and even if Chloe felt like shit, she allowed it. She let herself be pushed softly, back against the mattress, a familiar weight on her body as Max clinged to her for dear life. Another pair of tears wetted her cheeks but neither of them minded. They were too lost in each other to care about them. The tears sliced and kept coming until eventually they didn’t anymore. Anxiousness gave place to another feeling, slowly but surely, as the time passed and the kiss became deeper, slower and more theirs.
Weight changed and hands covered every inch of exposed skin, soft and careful, then a bit stronger than necessary. Fingers ran through hair and without any warning, kisses changed location, exploring more than just lips, travelling to necks, ears and collarbones.
Chloe expected at some point Max would stop. But she didn’t. The kiss extended, turning into something else. She shivered when she felt Max’s warm fingers against the skin of her ribs, too high to be casual, shaky and tense, at the edge of a line they had never crossed before. Chloe opened her eyes in alert when a growl got stuck in her throat.
“Wh-what?” Chloe muttered, her heart hammering her ribs like crazy. “Are you…”
“I…I don’t know, I…” Max said, a bit surprised at her own direct approach. But she didn’t remove her hand. They looked at each other in the eyes, panting, unsure and nervous. “Is it…okay?”
And Max’s cheeks turned red the moment her lips formulated her question and despite the pain, despite the tears and the fear stuck in Chloe’s chest, she chuckled.
“Are you laughing? Really?” Max asked, her eyes still watery, but her lips trembled and formed an awkward, tiny smile.
“I’m sorry,” Chloe said, trying to recover the seriousness and not seem so surprised. “I didn’t…expect…but…yeah. Yeah, it’s okay. But…are you okay?”
Max looked away, her face still red and then, after gathering her nerve, she nodded. Chloe sighed and without taking her eyes off Max’s face, she softly grabbed the hand the brunette had on her ribs, and after Max replied to her silent question with a shy lower lip bite, she guided her partner’s hand further up.
It was a small wave at first, rolling in along the nerves of her fingertips. She could feel Chloe’s heartbeat, lashing thunderously at her chest. The calmness surrounding them was disrupted, beckoning forth stronger, taller waves as the fabric slipped from their frames. Flushed faces appeared, then vanished as they moved through the glimmers of moonlight. There was the feeling of nails pressed into skin, pulling at the stirring ocean between them. When the last piece of cloth was clawed from her, Chloe fell upon Max like rain, and they were both swept away in the violent tide.
Storms are wonderful things. Terrifying, yes. But wonderful.
Storms are the mix of two opposites that complement each other. Cold and hot, they collide and rise, twisting, changing, muting, mixing. Both can create a thunderstorm due their instability. The electricity running through both as the opposites collapse into each other forming something complete.
And they both got trapped like a ship in the eye of the storm.
They were like hot and cold. Max was warm air rising and Chloe was cold air sinking. Shy at first, clumsy even, making their way to each other to be as close as possible, always in contact, always mixing. Blending with each other until they became the weather itself.
Cold air became the sea, hot air pushed the vessel.
Heavy breathing was like wild wind. A moan as loud as thunder broke the summer night silence and she stopped, worried and in alert just to find her partner biting her lip in embarrassment. The grin shined in the darkness as she resumed, becoming the ocean once more.
The vessel groaned with the pressure, arching, raising, when the waves were too high and too strong in the best way. Waves of sensations she never experienced before. She could be pulled under any moment, lost to the depths and even if that happened, she wasn’t afraid anymore.
The stormy ocean took away all her fears and insecurities.
The tides turned, the scenery changed, cold air now rising and warm air plummeting. The ship rocked, struck by lighting. A pair of hands held to it in desperation, leaving a red trail of fire, as the storm finally unleashed its whole power. Neither wanted to let go as they traveled together, ready to sail away into the winds of the rogue sea.
The journey ended with a last loud crack of thunder. The ship collapsed into itself and sank into the ocean, to never return. The winds never stopped roaring, the heartbeats marking the time, screaming I survived. We survived.
Silence followed, warm and comfortable, tired and painful. The best kind of pain. And a final kiss sealed the story, the storm dissipated and went away, becoming only calm air once again, coexisting with polar opposite temperatures.
They may be two different storms, Max thought, letting herself sink into the warm mattress and unconsciousness, the weight of her partner on her. They may be two different storms but Chloe… wasn’t the kind of storm she ran from. Chloe was definitely the kind of storm she would chase.
Max rounded Chloe with her slim arms and squeezed, the sleeping girl releasing a sigh against her chest. And as she started to finally fall asleep, she closed her eyes and smiled a bit.
“This is my storm,” she whispered, and then sank into the land of dreams.