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The Ground Beneath Her Feet

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“Chloe!” Max screamed through the shadows. “Chloe, where are you?!”

Her voice lost itself amidst the vastness of the pine forest. As Max pressed on, the trees surrounded her like soldiers, penning her in and hiding the way out. Max forced herself to keep walking even as panic knocked at her heart. She had to find her best friend. She had to get back to camp before the afternoon light filtering through the trees dissolved into night.

They had come with their fathers for a weekend camping trip in the wilds just north of Arcadia Bay. They assigned her and Chloe to firewood collection duty, with the explicit warning not to stray too far. But Max, enamored by the autumn trees, had followed a butterfly in hopes of snapping a picture. And like a will-o-wisp, it had led her deep into the belly of the woods.

How long had she been lost in here? Thirty minutes? More? It was hard to tell in this dense forest. She couldn’t believe how this once tranquil landscape could turn so sinister, into a place that could swallow a 10-year-old kid whole and leave no trace. The thick canopy above turned everything around her into dark lines and black pools. Her sneakers crunched too loudly on the yellow-brown duff, each twig snapping like old dry bones. In the dwindling light, every rock and tree and bush looked like it might be concealing something.

She was afraid to stay silent and afraid to make noise—her voice might draw something out the blackness between the trees. A starving grizzly, or maybe something worse. Like that lurking cyclops from her nightmares, the one with the pale glowing eye.

“Chloe! Dad! Anybody! Help!”

Somewhere overhead, a bird cawed in protest. There was no controlling the panic now. Her camera bag beat a harsh rhythm against her leg as she broke into a run. There—hadn’t she passed through that break in the trees earlier? Max pelted towards it. But that sense of familiarity evaporated as the ground sloped sharply upwards.

She tried to catch a glimpse of the sun to figure out which way was north, so her foot missed the sudden drop, hitting the ground at an odd angle. She heard the subtle crack of her ankle an instant before the agony began, and she tumbled down the little hill and straight into a bush. She shrieked as twigs scratched long red lines at her arms and legs; a sharp branch tore the side of her blue shirt.  

“Chloe!” she cried. “Help, please! I’m scared!”

At last, she just lay there, shivering and weeping as she cradled her burning ankle, her face smudged with dirt, her upper half sticking out of the shrub. She imagined herself lost for days in this forest, with nothing for company but the gnawing hunger in her stomach and miles of endless darkness. They would never find her. She would die here, alone and afraid.

Something nudged at her hair. She cried out in alarm, covering her head.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t shy. It bumped gently against her hands and a soft, wet tongue flicked at her scalp. She tilted her head up and peered through her fingers.

The doe stood no more than a foot away, its graceful curving neck bending low towards her, a pair of liquid coal eyes regarding her with frank curiosity. The fading sunlight turned its auburn coat into gold.

Something about its fearlessness dispelled Max’s own terror and awoke wonder in its place. She had never seen such a beautiful animal, never even got the nerve to get this close to one in the wild. But something told her that its presence here meant she had nothing to be afraid of, that she was safe.

The doe inched forward to where Max clutched at her leg, then ran its tongue over her ankle. To her surprise, she felt her muscles loosening, the burning sensation receding into a dull throb. She released her leg as the doe moved back, gazing at her without blinking.

“Did you just…did you do that?”

Max wiped her eyes to get a better look at the animal. She wanted to make sure it wasn’t just some figment of her imagination. Part of her wanted to reach out to touch its face. Another wanted to reach for her camera to take its picture.

Even as her tiny hand inched down to her bag, the doe lifted its head, cocking its ears to something behind it. Leaves crunching, rustling…

“Wait,” said Max. “Don’t go!”

But the doe had spotted something. Favoring Max one more glance, it bounded silently over the shrub and onto the path behind Max. Its hooves left no prints, made no noise on the ground. It had come and gone like smoke in the breeze.

Now Max could hear footsteps. “Hello?” she cried.

More rustling, then a blond, gangly girl erupted from the bushes just ahead of her. “Max!”

“Chloe!”

The girl quickly rushed to where Max lay, kneeling beside her. “Max, thank God—where have you been? I’ve been looking for you for the last twenty minutes. What happened?”

“I’m sorry…I wandered too far, I had no idea. Before I knew it—“

“You got lost,” Chloe sighed. “Maxaroni, sometimes I wonder how you can find your way through your own pajamas.”

“Funny.” Max grimaced. “I hurt my ankle. Could you stop with the jokes and help?”

It took a few minutes work and quite a few more scratches to pluck Max from the shrub. But once they were sitting down, cleaning off the last of the dead leaves from their clothes, Max threw her arms around the taller girl. “Thanks, Chloe. You really saved my ass this time.”

“No biggie. Just subtract it from the number of times you pulled my fat from the fire.” Her hand smoothed Max’s hair. “You must’ve been so scared.”

“I was--at first. But then this doe came, and...oh Chloe, it was the most amazing thing!”

Chloe pulled back to give her a quizzical look.

“It came right up to me and licked my head. It wasn’t scared of me at all! Then it licked my ankle and…it was like magic, Chloe! The pain was almost totally gone! Then it must’ve heard you, ‘cause it bolted straight away. Didn’t you see it?”

“Didn’t see nor hear no magic deer.” Chloe said, canting her head to glance behind Max. “Just you, amigo, sticking out of the bush like a trapped rabbit.”

“You suck!” Max stuck her tongue out at her.

Chloe giggled, then gave her a once-over. “How’s the ankle now?”

Max stared down at her leg, where her ankle was starting to swell. “Hurts a little, but I think it’ll be okay. Oh fudge, Dad’s so not going to be happy about this.”

Chloe was already slinging Max’s arm over her shoulder. “Yep, I’d say you’re in for some painkillers and antiseptic. LOTS of antiseptic. Plus a lecture for going off on your own. Can you walk?”

“With your help. You know the way back?”

Chloe grinned and pulled a sharpened rock from her pocket. “Unlike someone I know, I was smart enough to cut some arrows on the trees.”

Max rolled her eyes. “You’re a genius, Chlo.”

“I know.”

They were lurching forward, down a forest path Max hadn’t noticed before. The sun was starting to set behind the tree line, but Max no longer feared the growing shadows. Not with her best friend beside her, holding her up with strong, sure hands.

“Chloe?”

“Yup?”

“Thanks. Really. I thought I’d be lost in here forever.”

“I’d have found you again, Max. You’re my first mate. Us pirates have to stick together, right?”

 

Chapter Text

Present Day

The jukebox switching tracks jolted Max Caulfield from her reverie. Blinking, she raised her eyes from the white and brown swirls in her coffee cup. That memory from the forest felt so crisp and clear, almost like a photograph. But it was whitening away now like it had been left too long under the sun.

She had been sitting alone in her favorite booth at the Two Whales Diner, waiting for Joyce to come and start her shift. The diner had been kind enough to give Joyce two weeks off for the funeral, but with the influx of new faces, the place needed her back badly. Today, Joyce was finally returning to work. Max wanted to be here to welcome her and offer moral support.

Because if it weren’t for me, your daughter would still be alive.

Max let her face fall into her hands. It had only been ten days since they laid Chloe to rest. Just the week before that, the two of them had been running around Arcadia Bay, getting into adventures as they searched for clues that would lead them to the missing Rachel Amber. What they had uncovered was enough to scar Max for life and left a pall over all of Arcadia Bay. And worst of all, she had lost her best friend all over again.

I just keep abandoning you, don’t I, Chloe.

Max pushed these thoughts away. They weren’t helpful, especially not now.

Her weary eyes wandered to the patrons of the diner. There were more now than ever, it seems. It wasn’t just hungry truckers anymore; construction workers occupied every booth and seat at the counter.

“So how’re things coming along at the site?” the waitress, Annie, asked one of the men.

“Now that the TRO’s been lifted, Prescott’s running us ragged every day,” the beefy guy in worker’s clothes replied as he slapped his companion’s shoulder. “My boys and I got maybe five hours’ sleep and 20 energy drinks between us. But we ain’t complaining. The weather’s been good and Prescott’s checks haven’t bounced once.”

“We could have started weeks sooner,” groused his friend, a leaner, grey-haired gent with a Portland Sea Dogs cap. “But the old man needed time to pull his kid out of the slammer and into a hospital.”

“We don’t talk about that,” the beefy guy said hastily.

Annie’s brows nettled. “You’d think after that nasty business with his son…”

“I suppose, but money opens doors, you know?” the grey-haired man said, completely ignoring his friend’s warning. “The Prescott Foundation has its investors and they’ll push for the project, never mind his troubles with his son.” He jabbed his finger at a newspaper headline for emphasis.

“But surely people would talk.”

“Nah. Prescott will find a way to get his kid off. Insanity plea, I reckon’. Shift the blame to that psycho prick of a teacher. Then they’ll stick the kid in a sanitarium and wait till it all blows over.”  

Confused, Max picked up a copy the Arcadia Bay Beacon a previous customer had left on the table.

 

PAN ESTATES CONSTRUCTION IN FULL SWING

by Juliet Watson

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pan Estates, the Prescott Foundation’s flagship real estate project, has officially resumed construction now that CEO Sean Prescott has succeeded in convincing the court to lift the temporary restraining order secured by the United Tribes of Oregon six months ago.

The court had ruled that developing real estate on land deemed sacred by the Tribes did not impinge on their right to religious freedom. The Tribes consider the forests north of Arcadia Bay as the dwelling place of spirits.

Currently, Arcadia Bay is seeing an influx of construction material and heavy equipment from Lincoln City. Residents are advised to avoid the road leading up to the forest in the Northeast side of town, as heavy trucks will most certainly

 

Before she knew it, Max’s eyes were straying from the article. Lately, she had trouble paying attention to anything for long. Likely because she was averaging four hours of sleep a night.

It didn’t matter. The whole thing had been resolved. Chloe’s sacrifice saved all of Arcadia Bay, and right now, both of Rachel’s murderers, Nathan Prescott and their teacher, Mark Jefferson, were sitting in county jail.

Nearby, Annie was asking in a hushed voice, “Do you really think they’ll make trouble?”

“Nah, they’re not the sort,” the worker replied, “but just between you and me, I’m not really keen on having ‘em around, y’know? Just the sight of ‘em creeps me out. Damn, was that racist? I—”

The swivel of the front door cut him off. The men at the counter took one look at the newcomers and fell silent.

For some reason, Max couldn’t help but stare. Though all eyes had gathered on them, the attention didn’t seem to faze the three Native American women who had stepped inside. Draped in black from head to foot, they stood in the middle of the diner like they were meant to be there.

Each of them was at a different stage in their life. The youngest seemed about Max’s age, tall and reed-thin, unblemished red skin and a long black braid that reached down to the center of her back. The woman beside her was middle-aged and matronly, her curly dark hair partially hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat. Both were dwarfed by the last woman—a crone, stooped and slow and round like a black moon, the shawl around her head concealing her features.

The youngest pointed to the last unoccupied booth—the one beside Max’s—and all three shuffled towards it. Anne approached to offer them menus while the rest of the diner averted their faces. To fill in the silence, a trucker selected “We’ll Meet Again” on the jukebox nearby. As if the music were a cue, conversation restarted across the diner.

One of the women—the matron—caught Max’s eye. They held gazes for a moment before Max turned her head towards the window. Try as she might, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman was still watching her. Peering from the corner of her eye, Max saw her lean and whisper something to the grandmother. Max couldn’t say why, but she felt certain they were talking about her.

Then the diner door slid open again and Joyce walked in from the cold autumn afternoon. Spotting Max, she made a beeline for her booth, favoring her with a wan, tired smile. “Hi, Max.”

“Hey, Joyce,” Max greeted her with a tentative smile. “How are you feeling today?” But she could already tell the answer from the older woman’s lackluster gaze and the deep shadows beneath her eyes. Max had seen that same look five years before, after the car accident that claimed William’s life. It isn’t fair that Joyce has to suffer through such a loss again. But I’ve been learning that life really isn’t big on fairness.

“About as well as you do, I expect,” Joyce said as she smiled back. She set down her bag on the table and slid her coat off. “Have you had anything to eat?”

“I’m not really hungry. Just this coffee’s okay.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t take some time off in Seattle. I’m sure your parents would have wanted you back with them for a while.”

“I know. They called and asked me to come home for the weekend. But I felt like I needed to be here. At least for a little while.”

Joyce slipped into the seat across her and reached out to touch the back of Max’s hand.

“Max, how are you?”

The guilt washed over her again, and for an instant, Max didn’t know what to say. What could she tell her that wouldn’t make things that much worse? That she had trouble sleeping? That last night she dreamt of holding and kissing Chloe again, and woke up with tears in her eyes? That she hadn’t taken a single picture with her camera since the day Nathan Prescott put a bullet through her best friend’s chest in the Blackwell Academy girl’s restroom? That each morning she would be jolted awake by the thought that she would never see Chloe again?

“I’m coping,” Max said, and Joyce gave her hand a comforting squeeze.

They talked a little more about Max’s parents, about school, and a few more inconsequential things to stave off an uncomfortable silence. But at length, Joyce pulled back her hands and clutched at her forearms. “I heard from Sean Prescott’s lawyers today.”

Max straightened up in her seat. Prescott again. She was so tired of hearing that name. “What did they say?”

“I didn’t have long to speak with them, but they said they wanted to meet. That Mr. Prescott had an offer I would be interested in.”

“And what did you tell them?”

Joyce’s gaze hardened like steel. “That I would stop with the charges if, and only if, they could give me back my daughter.”

“Good.” Max nodded. “They deserve what’s coming after everything they’ve done.”

“Yes, you’re right. And I won’t give up, no matter how they try to strong arm me. It’s just…it can get so tiring.” For a moment, her façade of strength slipped, and the lines of her face deepened with the afternoon shadows. “Oh, Max. Just to hear her laugh again.”

Joyce turned her face away, eyelids trembling. Max’s throat tightened at the sight of her fighting back tears. She reached out, threading her fingers through Joyce’s own. “I know.”

Max’s eyes slid away from Joyce’s, and by chance met those of the young Native American just a booth over. The girl was openly staring at her—insolently, too. That same judgy look reminded Max of Victoria Chase.

Max frowned at the girl, but turned back when Joyce spoke again. “Will you be alright here by yourself? I…I think I need to visit the lady’s room a moment.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Max replied. “I’ll stay here a while, keep you company. You can sit with me if you ever feel the need to talk.”

“Thank you. But I doubt I’ll have a minute to myself, given...” She gestured to Anne, who was throwing beseeching looks her way. “I suppose I should get started. These customers aren’t going to feed themselves.” She gave Max’s hand another squeeze, then stood to make her way past the counter.

“Joyce?” Max said, “Can I ask you something?”

Joyce paused and turned back to look at her.

“Is it helping, my coming to see you? Y-you know, if it’s too hard for…if you need time alone…”

The look Joyce gave her carried nothing but deep affection. “Max, never doubt for a moment that I’m always happy to see you. ‘Shared joy is double the joy, shared sorrow is half the sorrow.’ That’s something William likes to say. And I can’t think of a better person to spend time with than the one who gave my daughter some of the happiest memories in her life.”

Bitterness lanced through Max’s chest, but she managed to hide it under a weak smile. “Thanks, Joyce. I guess I really needed to hear that.”

Joyce smiled back and was about to turn to the counter again when something caught her eye.

“Now what do you suppose is going on out there?”

Max turned to the wide window beside her. Outside, pedestrians had stopped on the sidewalk to gaze up at the sky. One woman had her cell tilted upwards to shoot a video. A cop had even parked his squad car along the curb and stepped out to stare, his jaw hanging open.

Curious, Max tried to peer up from her seat. At first, she saw nothing through the blinders that had bunched up at the top of the window. Nothing but a flock of geese steadily pointing south, wisps of orange clouds against the deep blue, and…

“No.” Max felt as if a hole had opened in her guts. On unsteady feet, she slid from her seat and stumbled out the front door to get a good look.

The aurora shimmered high above her against the orange autumn sky. Like an optical effect or a light show, it stretched out in a long undulating strip of bright purple and green. Then another ribbon of light appeared next to it. Then another.

“You can only ever see them at night, right?” a man nearby was asking. “But it’s not even sunset!”

Max didn’t even consider the impossibility of it all. Her mind had opened a door into white silence. She turned in place, eyes fixed on the sky, while a single word occupied her entire being: why?

Low murmuring caught her ear. She looked down to see everyone in the diner peering out the window, looking up askance at the spectacle above them.

All except for the three Native American women. As one, their impassive gazes stayed on Max Caulfield.

 


 

Max’s Journal

October 27, 2013

This can’t be happening.

But I saw it. Everyone else in town saw it. The pictures are all over the web. Stop denying it, Max. Two days ago, you saw the aurora light up the sky--in broad fucking daylight.

In the other timeline, snow fell on a clear day. Then came the beached whales, the unscheduled solar eclipse, the twin moons. Then finally that enormous storm that had wiped out Arcadia Bay. Something that Chloe and I had been able to stop only by sacrificing Chloe’s life.

Oh god, Chloe. Was everything we did for nothing?

The aurora stayed throughout the night, flying over our heads like a demon. Everyone in Blackwell was talking about it. But it didn’t stop there.

The next day, around noon, the sun started changing color. First, it flashed into a bright ball of green flame. An hour later, it turned a kind of phosphorous blue. And after that, it became ochre, like clay. Then it turned to the color of dried blood until it disappeared into the sea.

That was yesterday. Today, every last animal was spotted fleeing Arcadia Bay. Squirrels, foxes, deer, cats, birds, and even dogs that weren’t caged. They seemed to be heading for higher ground, and nobody knows why.

I hear the Vortex Club is setting up an(other) End of the World party scheduled for this Wednesday. At least that much didn’t change this time round.

I can’t take this, Chloe. I might just go crazy. And I hate it most of all that I can’t talk to anyone about it. Not Kate, not Dana, not Warren. They keep trying to see if I’m okay, but I’ve been kind of avoiding them. Shitty of me, I know, but no one knows what I went through. No one can understand how I feel.

I wish you were here, Chloe. It feels like the Apocalypse and I miss you so, so much. I wish you could tell me—what do I have to do to stop this? What else do I have to give up?

Help me, Chloe. Please.

 


 

That Monday, her final class done, Max left Blackwell and walked towards the coast.

Today had been quiet, for which she felt grateful. No strange weather disturbance had occurred—at least not yet. She could almost pretend that the previous days were some kind of fluke. Yet the anxiety remained, twisting in her gut. She’d never been lucky in her life and she wasn’t about to get her hopes up now.

She had no earthly idea where she was going, so she let her feet lead the way. Before long, she had crossed Arcadia Bay Avenue and onto the beach. Then she followed the winding forest path to the cliff, up to where the lighthouse stood like a watchtower over the bay.

The sun was beginning its slow descent in the west, forming a curving, golden path on the water. The tide was coming in. A breeze, heavy with the scent of brine, swept in from the Pacific, ruffling her hair and her loose jacket. She crossed her arms to keep out the chill as she watched the waves roll to shore.

Even as a kid, she loved coming here. She and Chloe had raced fearlessly up and down the lighthouse steps, screaming to scare off the gulls. They had played pirates and made this place their fort. Just a stone’s throw away, by the town map, a stump bore their mark: BFF Pirates, 2008.

This was also where, a lifetime ago, she last held Chloe in her arms, where they shared a final kiss and a last goodbye. Chloe’s words still hung in the air around her, like a distant echo. I’ll always love youAnd Max Caulfield? Don’t you forget about me.

“Never,” Max echoed her own response as she shut her eyes. If I could take it all back, I would. If I could just hear your voice one more time…  

“There’s nothing like the sea, is there?” an aged voice said behind her.

Gasping, Max spun about. She could have sworn she was alone just a few moments ago.

Yet just a few feet away from her were the three Native American women she had encountered in the Two Whales days before. The grandmother and the matron sat side-by-side on the wooden bench while the young girl stood behind them. They smiled benignly at Max--except for the girl, who merely crossed her arms and frowned.

“Um, I suppose,” Max said, attempting to be polite. “Sometimes I come out here just to look at it. It’s so beautiful in this light.”

“Yes, it is,” said the middle-aged woman, removing her hat to get a better view of the coast. “Gorgeous, really. A pity that most disasters in this town come from the sea.”

Max blinked. “Disasters?”

“Storms and what not,” the grandmother clarified. “You can never tell. The land is capricious. To be respected, certainly, but never trusted.”

For a moment, Max felt like reality had tilted oh so slightly. Were these women speaking in some kind of code?

She studied them closely. They wore black from head to foot, loose clothes that hid their limbs. The eldest no longer wore her shawl, revealing a mass of crinkly grey hair pulled into a loose bun. Her mahogany, weathered face looked like a rocky cliff, filled with the deep ridges of crow’s feet and jowls that likely shivered when she laughed. She wore brightly colored shoes woven from some kind of straw.

The middle-aged woman still wore her round, wide-brimmed hat, her dark hair tumbling down past her ears. Now she wore round spectacles on her face and a talisman of animal teeth around her neck. She also carried a nervous air, and her black eyes watched the sea as if she were waiting for a ship to dock.

The youngest stood ramrod straight behind them, dark sunglasses in her hair, her mouth a grim line. Despite her severe expression, Max found her exquisite: sharp cheekbones and even sharper eyes, a small upturned nose, unblemished bronze skin, a single dark feather hanging from her beaded headband.

“I’ve never seen you around here before,” Max ventured. “Do you live in town?”

The young girl snorted. “Do we look like we live in town?”

“Manners, child,” said the matron, clucking her tongue.

“We come from another place,” the old woman answered. “Our tribe, Storm Raven, lives north of here.” She gestured somewhere over her shoulder, but her eyes never strayed from Max’s. “And you, young lady? What is your name?”

“I’m Max Caulfield. I study at Blackwell University.”

Manahuu, Max. I am Tuhudda.” She touched the shoulder of the woman beside him. “This is my daughter, Ada. And the impudent sore behind me is my granddaughter, Lulu.”

“Um, nice to meet you all.” Max felt her hands clenching and unclenching at the attention they focused on her. She wasn’t used to such scrutiny, especially from strangers. At least they didn’t seem dangerous. Just…weird, really.

“Does your tribe live far away?” Max asked.

“Far,” replied Lulu, checking her nails. “Not nearly far enough.”

“…Have you come here to sight-see?”

“We came to bear witness,” said Ada, whose smile had vanished from her face.

Max tilted her head. “Witness? Witness what?”

Tuhudda turned her dark eyes down to the beach far below. “Three weeks ago, I had a dream. I saw the ocean flee from the shore and the seabed give up its secrets.”

Max followed her gaze. “The sea? You mean here in Arcadia Bay?”

“Yes. This is what I saw in my dream. Our guardian spirit led me here, telling me to come.”

Okay, wow , thought Max. Spirit guardians giving side-quests. I’ve officially entered Final Fantasy territory.

“Well, some strange things have been happening with the weather lately,” Max said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if what you said did come true.”

“Yes,” Ada agreed. “Strange would be right.”

Max thought for a moment. “I noticed you in the Two Whales before, when the aurora came. But you didn’t seem surprised to see it.”

The old woman shrugged. “No, we were not. Auroras are common enough, daytime or no.” With some effort, she pushed herself from the bench to her feet. “Truth be told, we were more interested in what you would do.”

“What… I would do?”

Lulu crossed her arms again, the impatience clear in her voice. “Gramma, are you sure we have the right girl?”

“We do,” Tuhudda replied as she approached Max, eyeing her from head to foot. “The right girl in the wrong time.”

Max felt the hairs on her neck standing on end. “W-what are you talking about?”

Now Ada stood up to approach Max, who took an involuntary step back. “We came here hoping to meet you.”

“You…you know me?”

“By face,” Tuhudda replied. “You were also in my visions. Just like the sea.”

“What you’re saying sounds impossible.”

“An aurora in the daytime sounds impossible, but we all saw it happen,” Ada said. “One night three years ago, we saw smoke and fire rising from the forest north of Arcadia Bay, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in a generation.”

“A great cleansing flame,” Lulu added. “It set back the Prescotts’ designs for Arcadia by years.”

“And that was when our people knew…the cycle has turned,” said Tuhudda. “The land has chosen, and the Incarnate comes once more.”

Max looked from one woman to the other. “I…I don’t understand. None of what you said made any sense. What do you mean by ‘Incarnate’?”

“She is the judge,” Tuhudda said. “She is the God in the Wood, the Land-Who-Speaks. It is her duty to make things right. Her arrival is long past due.”

Ada continued, “Many moons have come and gone, and still she has not prevented the harm done to the land. The fish drown in the sea, the trees torn down to make way for rich men’s homes. But we could neither hear her voice nor feel her presence.”

“She’s gone,” Lulu muttered, then shook her head in anger. “She was killed.”

“Her blood on a Prescott’s hands.” Tuhudda spat out the name like it were poison.

All the women fell silent, heads bowed in either sorrow or shame. Max’s own head was spinning, so she latched onto a single word in a bid to understand. “You say Prescott killed her?” she asked Tuhudda. “Nathan Prescott?”

“The younger...and the elder. Yes.”

“And this, um, Incarnate…d-did you mean...Chloe Price?”

Tuhudda’s widening eyes reflected inner fire. She drew something from her pocket and held it to Max’s face. “I mean the Incarnate.”

Dangling from her fingers was a blue feather earring.

Images floated before Max’s eyes—a headline, a missing persons poster, a folded picture in Chloe’s room. “Rachel Amber,” she whispered.

Tuhudda lowered her hand. “Without her, the land has no eyes and no voice. Now it can bring only suffering and ruin to the Bay. But…”

She smiled, reaching out clasp Max’s hands with her own. “You are here now. While you live, there is hope.”

Lulu strode forward. “It’s been weeks. Why haven’t you done something about all this?”

“W-what?” Max shook her head, pulling away from her grasp. “I don’t know how to help you. I’m not…I mean…I can’t...”

“You have a gift, do you not, Max Caulfield?” Tuhudda asked.

This is happening. This is actually happening. Max swallowed, looked about for some kind of escape. “You know about my power too?”

Now it was Ada who strode forward. “We saw it in our dreams. The land, it saw this Incarnate was special...and in peril. So it chose another to protect her. It gave you your own gift.”

“A mighty gift,” Tuhudda cut in. “The power to set things right.”

“You mean my rewind power,” said Max. “But I can’t use it. Not anymore.”

“Can’t?” Lulu said, arching her brow. “Maybe...won’t?”

Max whirled to face her. “Does it matter? Every time I tried to change the past, something always goes wrong. Yes, I can manipulate time. I did do something about this. You know what happened? In a different timeline, a storm came to destroy Arcadia Bay—all because I saved my friend.”

Lulu tilted her head. “Is that what you think happened?”

Max stared back at her, dumbstruck.

Tuhudda spoke up again. “Nature knows what it is doing, young Max. It gave the raven wings to fly, the wolf fangs to kill. The land is wiser than you and I. Wiser even than Prescott, try as he might to outwit it. If you were given the power to ensure a just world, should you not use it?”

“I did use it!” Max cried. “I…I changed so much that reality started coming apart! I saw it happen! Are you saying I…I…”

Before she could finish the thought, the ground began to tremble. It started as a gentle rocking, like a truck was rumbling nearby, but it quickly gained strength. Max cried out as she lost her footing and landed on all fours. Taken by surprise, the women also tumbled to their knees.

Earthquake, thought Max. Today’s anomaly had come at last.

Around her the trees and bushes creaked and rustled, and from above came the groaning of rusted metal as the lighthouse swayed with the trembling earth. A glass window broke and twinkling shards fell to the ground around them. Max didn’t know what she feared more—that metal tower crashing on top of them, or the cliff they were on sliding into the sea.

But neither happened. The earthquake lasted a full unbearable minute before fading away. Max reached out and grasped Tuhudda by the arm to help her up. Lulu did the same for her mother.

Then Ada gasped. “It’s happening! Mother, it’s just as you said!”

As the women gazed at sea, Max turned to look—and wished she hadn’t.

The ocean was retreating from the shore, like a cloth drawn back by a giant invisible hand. It hissed faintly as it went, uncovering rocks, starfishes, seaweed, a sunken buoy, the forgotten remains of a sailboat. The seabed giving up its secrets, Max thought. The old woman was right.

And I was wrong. It’s not a storm coming for Arcadia Bay this time, but a tsunami. And I sacrificed Chloe for nothing!

Tears stinging her eyes, she turned to Tuhudda. “Why is this happening? Why couldn’t I fix it?”

“Disasters always come,” the old woman said, her shoulders slumping. “They are delayed, perhaps forgotten. But never denied. If not a storm, a fire. Or the unquiet sea.” She shook her head. “We are too late.”

A whimper escaped Ada’s lips. Lulu turned her dark, penetrating stare at her grandmother.

“What do you mean ‘too late’?” Max’s hands clutched at the old woman’s shoulders. “You told me we had hope. You said you saw all this in a vision, that you were sent here to help!”

But the spark had fled from Tuhudda’s gaze. “It seems the land will wait no more. Today is the end for this town, its demise written in water.” She pointed to the horizon. And sure enough, far out at sea, the waves had begun to swell. The hissing noise was replaced by a low roar, like a monster rising from the deep.

“No!” Max whirled to the old woman. “You can’t mean that! All those people–they don’t have time to get to higher ground! There must be something we can do!”

But Tuhudda just shook her head again. “We should have found you earlier. We knew this would happen, but not precisely when. If we had time, perhaps you could have found a photo, gone back into the past. But there is no time now. The land has chosen for us.”

“Then you must choose for her,” Lulu said suddenly.

Max turned to watch the other girl as she came to stand beside her grandmother. “You must send her back yourself.”

“Granddaughter, you know I cannot. There are rules. We were sent to witness—not interfere.”

“Oh drop it, Gramma!” Lulu stomped her foot, her braid swinging like a sword. “If you really believed that, you wouldn’t have come all this way to find the Incarnate’s guardian! You wouldn’t have shown her my feather, or told her about Prescott or about your visions! You came here knowing exactly what you wanted to do!”

Ada laid a hand on her daughter’s arm, but Lulu shook it off. “We waited years—years—for another Incarnate to come, to defend the land and to make Prescott pay for his crimes. Are you really going to stand here on higher ground and talk about hope, then fold your hands and do nothing? While so many die? While the land remains blind? When she—” She gestured to Max “—can do something about it?”

Tuhudda sighed, closing her eyes. “When we interfere, we invite dire consequences.”

“Consequences!” cried Lulu. She jabbed her finger out to sea, where the bulge had grown into a wall of dark water. “Do something, do nothing—everything has a consequence! Well, if there has to be one, then let it find us as we seek justice!

For a moment, they regarded each other, the young girl and the old woman. Defiance in the former, sorrow in the latter. What went on between them in the silence, Max would never know. But at last Tuhudda sighed, turned to her and said, “Max, are you willing to go back one more time and make things right?”

“But what can I do?” Max blurted out. “Whenever I tried to fix something, I ruined something else. I tried bringing Chloe’s dad back but I only ended up hurting her instead!”

“Shoot an arrow aimlessly and you are liable to hit anyone and anything, except your target.” She reached out a hand to Max’s shoulder. “This time, I will help you aim.”

Max lowered her eyes. “I don’t have a photo with me. I can only jump back in time through one.”

Tuhudda gestured to Max’s bag. “But you have a journal, do you not?”

“I…yes.” Max dove her hand into her bag and fished it out, holding it in front of her.

“Do you have an entry for a date just before April 22, 2013?”

That date sounded familiar for some reason. Then Max remembered it from all the missing persons posters of Rachel Amber. It was the day she went missing.

She flipped through the pages, her trembling fingers nearly tearing them in her haste. Behind her, the roar had drifted even closer. One glance behind told that the wave had turned into a colossus, a black wall wide as the horizon and nearly as tall as the lighthouse itself. Dark clouds gathered over it like a crown, and it had blotted out even the sunset.

“Focus, Guardian,” ordered Lulu. “You don’t have time.”

Max wrenched her gaze back to her journal and flipped a few more pages. There! She held the notebook up. “I have an entry for Friday, April 19. But…I don’t have a photo here. Just words, sketches.”

To her surprise, Tuhudda had taken out a long reed pipe, lighting it with practiced ease. She drew in a few puffs, nodded in satisfaction, then blew it all out. Max caught a sweet, alien aroma, like nothing she had smelled before.

“Don’t worry,” the old woman said. “In a moment, I will show you a vision. You will use your ability to enter it into the past. Do you understand?”

“I do...but what then? What should I do once I’m there?”   

The old woman pressed the blue feather earring onto Max’s journal. “If you wish to save your home, if you wish to save your heart, this is your task: save the Incarnate and let her choose. Can you repeat what I said?”

“I…okay. S-save the Incarnate. Let her choose.” Max shook her head. “But choose what? What do I tell Rachel? How are the Prescotts connected to all this?”

“We have only moments left, Max. You must find the answers out on your own.” Tuhudda grasped Max’s hand in her own bony grip. “Are you ready?”

Max swallowed a lump in her throat, then nodded once.

I’m going to try again, she thought. I’m going to save Rachel. I’m going to save Chloe. And I’m going to keep trying until I finally do. I’ll keep trying till the end of time if I have to. Because Chloe’s worth it.

“I’m ready,” she said.

Tuhudda raised a finger in warning. “One more thing. This journey will not be like the others. You will have only one chance to make things right and there will be no going back. And you will face wickedness like you’ve never seen. Layers upon layers of evil.”

“I’ll do what I have to,” Max replied, “if it will save Chloe.”

Still clasping Max’s hand, Tuhudda lowered them to a sitting position on the ground. Lulu and Ada sat on either side of them. Tuhudda placed the journal onto Max’s lap, then handed her the reed pipe.

“Inhale deep and keep it in for as long as you can. Then read your journal.”

Max took one deep drag from the lip of the pipe. Despite the sweet smell, it tasted bitter—bitter like vinegar, or tears. She coughed but managed to hold most of it in. Then she lowered her watering eyes to the journal.

April 19, 2013

Man, this Chem review is killing me. I’m trying to concentrate, but I just can’t. It’s like my bed is pulling me towards it with magnetic powers. I wonder if I could get away with cramming during break…

The world had narrowed down to the words on the page. Tuhudda was speaking to her, her voice echoing as if from the bottom of a well. “Look at me, Max.”

Max raised her eyes. It seemed as if time was slowing to a stop. She could no longer hear the din of the oncoming tide, nor the howling wind, nor the panicked call of the seabirds. Tuhudda’s face loomed before her, eyes black as night. Or the mouth of the underworld.   

“Think back to that day. See yourself there. Where were you? What were you doing?”

And through the darkness, Max could see it. She was sitting at her desk in her room, trying and failing to study. Her lava lamp was on, the radio was playing a jazzy tune, her stuffed teddy bear, Captain Woolychins, sat propped up against her books like a drunken sailor.

It looked so crisp and clear, almost like a photograph. If she reached out her hand, she could pull herself through.

Ringing erupted in her ears. The world was slowing around her, like a clock winding down. A shadow fell over them as the colossal wave formed a canopy that blotted out the sun. The world blurred.

Chloe...

Chapter Text

Alone in her bedroom, her mind adrift on a weed-tainted cloud, Chloe Price began to dream.

She dreamt she was in the junkyard, the one place she could run to when the world felt too much and she just needed to get away before she started inflicting damage, property or otherwise. The night lay on it like a shroud, and a fine mist coated the grass and moistened her bare feet. Above her, three ravens cawed in circles around a bloody, bloated moon. A hunter’s moon, her father had once called it.

She blinked and her father was standing before her, sporting the same grey plaid shirt and jeans she last saw him wearing. William Price, five years dead, but still looking as kind and as handsome as the day he drove out their home and into the path of a semi. She had not dreamt of him in three years, but here he was now, so real she could almost touch him.

He inclined his head, motioned for her to follow, and strolled past the carcass of an abandoned SUV.

The wind whispered in her ear, “Speaking with the dead brings nothing but grief.”

“Guess grief’s here to stay then,” she replied, and hastened to catch up.

Her father walked to the far corner of the junkyard close to the edge of the trees, then stopped and pointed at something on the ground.

“Dad?” Chloe said, closing the distance between them. He did not answer; his finger remained hovering over that one spot.

Chloe fell to her knees and began to dig. Above her, the ravens cawed louder, a maddening noise that sounded suspiciously like joy. She paid them no mind as she clawed at the earth with rising abandon. Her father’s index finger stayed just above her line of sight, demanding in its stillness. She could feel the dirt caking her nails, worms writhing through fingers, but she kept at it until—

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” her father said. “You don’t burn.”

Light, flickering orange and gold, flared out from the hole she had just carved into the earth. It was like she had ripped a passage into the underworld and it contained nothing but fire. At the first taste of freedom, the flames leaped up, clawing for air. Chloe shielded her face with her arms as heat enveloped her. The ground beneath her feet had erupted into a roaring pillar of fire, so beautiful it was blinding.

Gasping, Chloe opened her eyes.

“And that was the legendary Bob Dylan, folks. You’re listening to 87.9 FM, the STYR… Time now’s 8:09 PM, hope you lords and ladies of Arcadia Bay are chillin’ on this balmy April night…”

She realized she had fallen asleep while slouched against the foot of her bed. In her left hand, the joint she’d been smoking had gone out, its remains partly filling the round ashtray on the floor next to her knee. Her neck ached from leaning all the way back onto her mattress. Outside her window, dusk had crept across the sky.

The hell was that? Chloe thought, scrubbing her eyes with the palm of her hand. The dream…she dreamed of something bright and wonderful and terrifying, but the images were fading fast. Something woke me up though, I’m sure of it.

Willing her eyes to focus, she turned her gaze to the side where her phone lay blinking on the carpet.

Max Caulfield

3 missed calls

Chloe wondered if she was still dreaming. Then the phone buzzed again, displaying Max’s name in a larger font, the red answer button daring her to accept. Chloe picked it up with one hand and stared at its blinking crimson eye. The fogginess was rapidly draining from her mind, replaced by rancid feeling in her chest.

Maxine Fucking Caulfield.

She had actually imagined this happening many times before. Had even prepared exactly what to say and how to say it. Even now, the words were forming ranks behind her lips, ready to rush out and draw blood. Yo, Max. How’s Seattle been treating ya? Really big of you to think about calling me after leaving me in the shitter these last five years. No, I don’t really feel like talking to my ex-best friend right now, so let’s continue this conversation never. Bye, bitch.

Chloe jabbed her thumb at the answer button, put the phone to her ear, and managed a raspy, “Uh…hey.”

Price, you little chickenshit.

“Chloe?” said the familiar voice on other line. It sounded tentative yet hopeful, and for a moment, Chloe felt herself falling backwards in time to when she was a skinny thirteen-year-old, waiting for her best friend to call for their post-dinner talk.

“Chloe, it’s me. Max.”

“Max Caulfield. Yeah, I remember you.” Recovering a little, Chloe tried to get her script in gear. “So, how’s Seattle been—”

“Chloe, I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am to hear your voice. I wish we could talk longer, but there isn’t time and there’s literally nothing more important in the world right now than what I have to tell you. I need you to listen, please. You’re the only one who can help.”

Chloe blinked. “…Ooookay. You in jail or somethin’? ‘Cuz I dunno how I can help with that.” Wow, she sounds desperate. What’s her major malfunction? Chloe wanted to ask exactly that, but Max’s next question caught her like a splash of cold water.

“Where is Rachel Amber right now?”

Chloe was instantly on her feet. “Wha—how the fuck do you know Rachel?”

“That’s not important. Please, you have to tell me where she is.”

“I don’t know—probably at home!” Chloe paused, memory working. “She mentioned a party tonight, or something.”

“You have to keep her home, Chloe. Call her, or…or better yet, go to her and keep her from leaving.”

Chloe gritted her teeth as she found herself starting to pace. “Max, where the fuck do you get off asking me to do stuff for you? You bail on me for five years, and now you think you can call me and start making demands like you’re my—”

“Chloe! You have to get to Rachel tonight or you’ll never see her again! Someone’s going to kill her!”

Chloe froze. Something, the shrill edge in Max’s voice most likely, pierced her chest like a blade of ice. “Don’t joke about something like that, dude.”

“I. Am not. Joking.” Was she imagining it, or did Max sound close to tears? “I’ve never been more serious in my life. You need to keep Rachel safe or this would’ve all been for nothing! I’m begging you, don’t let her leave. And most of all, keep her away from Nathan.”

“Wha…Prickscott? What’s he got to do with any of this?”

“He’s planning to drug and kidnap Rachel at that party. You can stop him if you just keep her away.” Max paused, breathing harsh and ragged. “I know I’ve been a shitty friend for not calling or writing you these last five years. But this isn’t about me. Do it for Rachel. Please?”

Chloe ran her hand through her short blue locks. Nathan Prescott. That little creep had been all over Rachel’s shit the last few weeks and had succeeded in making even Rachel uncomfortable. Just picturing his smooth, smug face made Chloe’s knuckles itch. But would he really…?

“Max, how do you know all this? Have you been stalking me? Is that what you‘ve been doing with your free time there in Seattle? Elaborate pranks on people you know don’t have the money to sue you?”

“Chloe, I promise you, I will explain everything when I come see you tomorrow. For now, just—”

“Whoa, hold up,” said Chloe, dropping onto her bed. “You’re coming here? Back to Arcadia Bay?”

“Y-yeah. I’m already on a Boltbus headed for Portland. It’s going to take all night, but I think I’ll get to Lincoln City by 6AM. Then I can probably find another ride to Arcadia. We can talk more when I get there.”

Lincoln City? That’s less than an hour from here. “You’re taking a bus? Alone?”

“Yeah. There are no direct routes there from Seattle so it’s a 12-hour trip, but I’ll manage.”

“And how are you getting to Arcadia from Lincoln?”

“I’ll…look for another bus or something, I guess.”

Chloe shook her head. “You guess? So what’ll you do if there isn’t a bus, hitch with a trucker? Jesus, Max. I’ll come pick you up when you get there.”

Max fell silent for one moment. “You’d…do that for me? Chloe, I—”

“Save it. This doesn’t change the fact that I’m still pissed as all hell at you. Not one call, Max. Five years.”

“…Thank you, Chloe. Really. When you go, could you…could you bring Rachel with you?”

“What the fuck… Why ?” A dozen scenes of their reunion ran through Chloe’s mind, each one more cringe-worthy than the last. Rachel? Shit, how am I going to explain any of this to her?

“I just want to make sure she’s alright,” Max was saying. “It’s very important to me that she is. Would you?”

“...I’ll ask, but no promises.”

“Good. And when I get there, you can bitch at me all you want for what I did. I deserve it. But for tonight—”

“Yeah yeah, keep Rachel prisoner. Got it.” Chloe took in a deep breath. “Max, I swear to God that if this is your idea of a huge joke—”

“Chloe.” And like magic, that raw emotion was back in Max’s voice. “I would never, ever do that to you. I love you. I promised I’ll always have your back, even when it doesn’t seem like it. When I see you tomorrow, I’ll tell you everything and then you’ll believe me.”

“We’ll see,” Chloe replied grimly.

“I gotta go. My parents are away and won’t be back till Sunday afternoon, but they might call and I have to keep them from suspecting anything.”

Chloe permitted herself a little smile. “Sneaking out? That doesn’t sound like the Max I know.”

“I’ve changed too, Chloe.” Max paused, then a hint of a smile played on her tone. “But I never went as far as dyeing my hair blue. I’ll see you and Rachel tomorrow. Hopefully.”

When they hung up, Chloe found herself pacing aimlessly, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. It took her several moments to realize what she was doing: looking around her room for signs of Max. She thought she had gotten them all, tossed them out years ago with the other stuff she had no use for, but she was wrong.

Amidst the scattered clothes, magazines, empty beer cans, and discarded pizza boxes, she found stuff she’d missed. The pirate hat with the Jolly Roger and the black eyepatch perched atop her mirror. A tiny sticker of Spongebob that Max had accidentally stuck to the wall and never managed to pry off. The desk that she and Max had spent an entire afternoon painting cornflower blue. If she opened her cabinet drawers now, she would find little mementos of their time together—crayon drawings they’d made, old decrepit cellphones, cartoon hair clips, photos…

She’d never really gotten rid of Max after all these years. And now, her oldest friend was coming back at last.

Chloe scratched her scalp. Really, whateverthefuck? As if I’m going to spend gas driving over to Rachel’s. There’s a half-eaten salami sandwich in the fridge with my name on it. I should just chow down, catch up with my some shows on my laptop, then head for bed. Who cares what some freaked-out hipster up in Seattle has to say?

(I love you)

Chloe felt a momentary tingle in her cheeks. No one outside of her parents had ever said that to her, not even--

OK, maybe Max isn’t joking. Maybe she’s nuts. Calling from a sanitarium somewhere in the city. She’s never going to make it to Lincoln City tomorrow, much less Arcadia Bay.

(Get to Rachel tonight or you’ll never see her again.)

“Rachel,” Chloe muttered. Just the mere thought of that happening, ridiculous as it sounded, made her ribs shrink around her heart. She hadn’t seen or spoken with Rachel since Sunday--she didn't see much of Rachel at all most days, though they’d never failed to text each other. Rachel was almost always the first person to greet her in the morning and the last name she’d see on her phone at night.

Maybe I should go see her. Couldn’t hurt anyways. Hell, maybe I could even convince her not to go to that rager. ‘Specially if Dickscott’s going to be there.

But how to distract a girl like Rachel, who wants what she wants when she wants it? Chloe rubbed her chin. Moments later, a grin spread across her face.

Gotcha.

 


 

Rachel Amber’s reflection eyed her critically from head to toe. She wore her hair in a high ponytail, a crimson shirt with the three raven feather markings, and jean shorts that flattered her long tan legs. Her favorite blue feather earring dangled from her left ear. Last came the lip gloss, and once that was done, she just needed to pick her shoes and then she’d be ready to go.

I haven’t even arrived at the Vortex party yet and already I’m epically bored.

Part of her wanted to text Hayden and give her least lame excuse—she caught the ick, or something—and just curl up in bed to finish The Girl Who Played With Fire. But Hayden was a good guy, and she hadn’t talked with Juliet and Dana in ages, and maybe tonight Victoria would forget to play the monumental reality-TV bitch and just hang out like regular teens. Besides, Rachel had already promised she’d come, and she learned from her dad long ago that you could only break your word so many times before it starts to lose its worth.

She sighed and looked up the drama masks lined up along her wall. “What do you think, Chorus? Stay or go?” As they stared back at her without a word, she mused, “Yeah, you’re right. If you wanna keep up appearances, you first gotta appear.”

If only these parties could make me feel something. Truth be told, after the shit she went through this last month alone, she wished she could feel something other than a quiet desperation, the sensation of being trapped inside her own skin.

It was only 8:40 PM. If she left now, she’d get there a little too early to be fashionably late. Perhaps she could kill some time on social media. Turning, she reached for the lip gloss on her dresser. As she was applying it, a glint in the mirror caught her eye. A flashlight beam flickered at her window, once, twice, three times.

A smile ghosted across Rachel’s lips. She put the tube back on her dresser, checked her reflection once more, and blew it a kiss. Then she pulled on a frown as she marched over to her window and pushed the shutters open.

Chloe stood in the garden below, half-hidden in the shadow of a hedge, flashlight keychain in one hand and a satchel in the other. The intruder flashed a lopsided grin and waved before doffing her beanie hat and bowing with a flourish.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Rachel hissed.

“I’m here to save you, maiden fair,” Chloe stage-whispered, slipping her keys back into her pocket.

“Save me from…?”

“An endless night of fending off drunken boys, Nathan Prescott’s increasingly sad attempts at getting into your pants, and Victoria Chase’s thinly-veiled jabs at your virtue.”

Rachel had to work hard to keep from smiling. In the moonlight, she could see that Chloe had decided to dress up a bit: a red tank top, studded leather jacket with the sleeves ripped off, black torn jeans, and freshly-shined cowboy boots. Rachel loved that look, and knew that Chloe knew it.

“And who is going to protect me from any blue-haired punks intent on making me late for my party?” Rachel wondered.

“Why would you even want to be protected from that?” Chloe replied, grinning wider. “Punks are hot.”

“Not when they’re sneaking around my garden after dark.” She paused, then in a singsong voice said, “Or art thou meant to be my loyal knight, come to serenade me in these lonely watches?”

Chloe drew herself to her full height, puffed out her chest like a peacock. “Indeed I am—Sir Chloe of Arcadia, at thine service, O lovely one.”

“I see thou hast neglected to bring thine noble steed.”

“Aye, t’is my misfortune that mine horse laid eyes upon a comely mare, and has bade me to ‘Be a bro!’ whilst hanging his horseshoe on the stable door. But I have come nonetheless to take you away from those knaves and their worthless revelry. In exchange, I bring thee a night filled with wine, women, and song!”

“I do not see any wine on thee, sir Knight.”

Chloe raised her satchel. “Wouldst thou settle for Coors lifted from the fridge of one unwary step-douche?”

Finally, Rachel couldn’t suppress a giggle. “It will have to do. But I simply cannot allow thee to enter mine bedchambers without proof of thine affection. How canst a maiden ascertain her suitor’s pure heart otherwise? Wouldst thou recite a poem on thine love?”

Chloe lowered her bag, shifting her weight on one leg. “Really? Poetry? Alcohol doesn’t cut it anymore?”

“T’is a small price to pay, good Knight.”

“How about a dirty limerick?”

Rachel clucked her tongue. “A poem, if thou please, or I will have cause to doubt thine intentions.”

Chloe stood silently for a moment, gazing up with her beanie clutched in both hands. For a moment, Rachel thought she would crack another joke, but tonight her blue-haired punk seemed full of surprises.

“Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths 
Of night and light and the half-light…”

Oh, I love that one! Placing her arms on the sill, Rachel rested her chin on her hands and beamed down at Chloe, who took one look and was immediately lost.

“I…uh…I would spread the cloths, um, under your feet,
But I, being poor, have only, uh…my schemes—”

“My dreams,” Rachel gently coached her.

Chloe rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah, yeah, that.” She took a step forward, gazing up with the moonlight caught in her eyes.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly…”

…Because you tread on my dreams, ” Rachel finished with her, and sighed. “I can’t believe you memorized that. That’s so sweet.”

Chloe shrugged. “You said it was your favorite. What was I supposed to do?”

Rachel laughed again. “Indeed. Thou art worthy, gallant Knight. Come. I will open the front door for thee.”

“Nope, I got this.” Slipping her beanie back on her head, Chloe hefted her bag on one shoulder, approached the trellis on the wall, and started hoisting herself up.

“Chloe! What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” Soon Chloe had climbed to the top of the trellis and was scrambling on her hands and knees across the roof towards her window. A bit out of breath, she grabbed Rachel’s outstretched hand and dragged herself to sit astride the windowsill. “Ooof.”

“Good going, Spider-monkey,” chided Rachel. “That took a lot less effort than going through the front door.”

“Wanted to see you. Didn’t want your parents to see me.” Chloe slid her satchel to the floor before rooting around her jacket pockets. Rachel had to admit, Chloe looked even better up close. The moonlight turned her pale skin into pearl, contrasting with the dark roses and skulls of her sleeve tattoo. The piercing on her bellybutton glinted as she moved. Rachel caught a whiff of body spray and a hint of musk from the dampness on Chloe’s shirt. She must have taken the fifteen-minute walk—with shortcuts through other people’s yards—from her house to get here.

Chloe fished out a joint and lit it. After taking a hit, she offered it to Rachel.

“You’re just full of surprises tonight, aren’t you.” Rachel leaned against the sill and took a drag.

Chloe quirked an eyebrow. “Yeah? Well, I think it’s time you know that the knight in shining armor part is actually all a lie, and you let a dangerous bandit into your room.”

Oh, so we’re playing this game now. Rachel took pleasure in taking the lead, but for Chloe to do so felt…refreshing. She tilted her head, let her honeyed hair tumble past one shoulder. “You came here to steal something, then.”

“Maybe.” Chloe hefted one leg onto the sill and let the other dangle onto the floor. By some trick of willpower, Rachel managed to maintain eye contact.

She passed the joint back, now stained pink by her lips. “Can’t say I’m surprised. So what have you come for this time?”

“Hmm.” Again a hit, followed by that lopsided grin. “What if I already stole it?”

Rachel’s thighs gave an involuntary squeeze, but she smiled in challenge and blew a cloud of smoke into Chloe’s face. “If you already stole it, then I don’t have anything else to give you.”

Through the haze, the ember of her joint glinted in Chloe’s blue eyes. “I always want more.”

Rachel held that gaze for as long as she could bear. Then she pushed off the window sill and sauntered to her mirror, all the while hyper-aware of her pulse throbbing in her ears and of a clenching sensation, deep down in her center.  

“Your timing sucks, Chlo, you know that?”

Chloe didn’t answer or move from her place by the window. Rachel reached for her lip-gloss again and started retouching. “I’m gonna be hella late for the party, which means any time now, Hayden or Dana or Juliet—or all three—will be blowing up my—”

“You should wear your hair down,” Chloe interrupted.

Rachel lifted a golden brow at her reflection. “What, giving me beauty tips now? You know, I happen to like—”

“You should wear it down,” Chloe insisted, appearing behind her, “because that way it hides my favorite part of your body.”

Rachel’s heart skipped a beat at exactly how little space there was between them. She could feel Chloe’s body heat seeping through the thinness of her shirt, the susurration of breath against her left shoulder, the feather-light fingers against her hips.

“Your favorite part—”

“This.” Chloe shifted Rachel’s ponytail to the side so she could run blue-tipped fingernails along the nape of her neck, sending electric ripples down Rachel’s spine. “I like that your hair hides it because that means only I get to see it. When we’re alone. Just like this.”

“Chloe, are you for real now?” Rachel meant to sound chiding, but she found her words a breath too short as she watched Chloe’s movements in the mirror. Every follicle of hair on her flesh stood on end. That clench was back and was worse than ever, like little earthquakes in her belly.

Chloe chuckled, dark and deep. “Oh yeah, I love this part,” she said, tracing her fingers lower. “This beauty mark, right here where your neck meets your back. Every time I see it, I don’t wanna just kiss it. I wanna nibble and run my tongue on it, just so I can feel every goosebump rising on your skin.”

I can’t stand this, thought Rachel. I just can’t. “Chloe—”

“Do you know what you do to me when you flip your hair, Rachel?” Chloe breathed against the shell of her ear. “You make me so fucking hot I can’t see straight. You make me wet.”

“Fuck!”

Rachel spun around, but Chloe was ready for her—she captured Rachel’s lips in a searing, bruising kiss, long arms encircling her waist and tilting her backwards. Rachel flung her own arms around Chloe’s neck—to keep her balance, to pull her girl closer, to give as good as she got.

It took several moments before Rachel could pry her lips off Chloe’s and hiss, “You are such an enormous asshole!” Then she could only stand there, seething, as Chloe laughed at her smudged lip-gloss.

“Correction: I’m the biggest asshole in Arcadia Bay. And I’m yours.”

“Mine,” Rachel growled, plunging her tongue back into Chloe’s mouth. Rachel pushed her until the backs of Chloe’s thighs bumped into the bed, forcing the taller girl to sit and break their kiss. “Don’t you fucking move from there, Price.”

Chloe wore the look of a cat who just got her bowl of cream. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Rachel stalked to her table, picked up her phone, turned up Queens of the Stone Age on her speakers. In short order, she had flicked off her lights, turned on her starfield lamp, locked her door. Took one last hit from the joint on the sill before dropping it in her ashtray.

Chloe still sat there, watching Rachel’s every move until she returned to the bed. “Why,” Rachel demanded, “do you still have your clothes on?”

Chloe laughed, shrugging off her jacket and tossing it to the side. Rachel seized Chloe’s left boot. By the time she had extracted both boots and pants, Chloe was already topless, the pupils of her blue eyes blown wide and dark with lust.

“Rachel…”

“Quiet,” Rachel husked, pulling her own shorts down before shoving Chloe onto the bed and straddling her waist. “You don’t get to talk. Not while I have a better use for that smart mouth.”

Not one coherent word passed between them for a very long time.

 


 

When Rachel floated back to consciousness, her first thought was this is exactly what I needed.

She reached out to touch Chloe’s flesh but her hand met only air. Turning, she saw Chloe sitting up, pale back turned to her. She would have run her finger down the ridges of that smooth spine, but the other girl was sitting too far on the edge of the bed, smoking, staring down at the glow of her phone.

For a long moment, Rachel just lay there, silently watching her. Even that little gap between them felt heavy with unspoken questions, and she ached once more for the nearness of a warm body. Chloe was usually eager to provide, but sometimes, when the glow was over, a pall would fall between them, soft and sure as first snow. Rachel wondered—not for the first time—if Chloe kept some secrets too.

“Hey,” Rachel finally murmured, rubbing her eyes.

Chloe jumped a little before coming to face her. “Hey. You’re awake.” She raised her can. “Beer’s not cold anymore, sorry.”

“Maybe not, but I am. Get in here.”

Chloe smiled, stubbed the remains of her joint in the ashtray, and slipped beneath the covers. “So. That was…”

“Fucking mind-blowing.” Rachel purred, resting her head against the crook of Chloe’s neck while twining their legs together. That’s more like it. “Makes me wonder why it doesn’t happen more often.”

Chloe gave a small, noncommittal shrug. “We’re both busy…I guess.”

“I guess.”

“Did I at least pay you back for making you miss your party?”

“I’d say I’m all partied out right now,” Rachel sniggered and kissed Chloe’s cheek. “So…who were you texting?”

Chloe trained her eyes on the ceiling. “I wasn’t really texting. Just reading some messages.”

Rachel raised her head to look at her. “Everything okay?”

“Hmm? Yeah, sure.” Chloe replied, draping her arms around Rachel’s shoulders. “I’m more than okay.”

Rachel laid back down and waited. The thing about the two of them was that neither one could stay quiet for long if they really wanted to talk. Sooner or later, they would just spit it out.

And Chloe didn’t disappoint. “So somebody called a while ago, before I came here.”

“Oh?” Rachel murmured. She’s pensive, a bit sad, and very confused. A lot like the way she was when we first met. Meaning it’s someone from her past.

Chloe looked her in the eye. “Three guesses who.”

Rachel got it in one. “But why on earth would she call you?”

Chloe turned her eyes above, where Rachel’s star projector threw a brilliant swirl of constellations overhead. “It’s totally batshit crazy, dude. You’re not going to believe a word.” And she related her story.

“Wow,” said Rachel once Chloe finished. “That’s, um…a lot to take in.” She paused. “And Nathan?”

“Okay, maybe that part’s not so crazy.”

“But why would he...what makes her say...?” Rachel shuddered.

“No idea. So what do you think?”

Rachel didn’t answer at once. Part of her just wanted to close her eyes and drift away again, forgetting all about childhood friends and wild conspiracy theories.

Yet another part of her—the same part of that helped her thrive in the constant power struggles that pervaded high school—heard the need in Chloe’s voice, recalled the wistful looks on Chloe’s face each of the hundred times she spoke about Max. Even heard the tone she would use when recounting her pirate adventures with her best friend from long ago. Rachel had listened but had never given it much thought, had no reason for concern before now.

Max Caulfield. Funny how someone could wield such control over Chloe despite being so far away.

“Above all else, be armed,” Machiavelli had warned, and Rachel intended to be. She knew that—no matter how she felt about the matter—Chloe WOULD actually go to Lincoln tomorrow morning. Meaning Max would be coming to Arcadia Bay, and inevitably, Rachel would have to deal with her.

So why delay it? Why not meet her on my own terms, when I’m ready for her?

“Well,” Rachel finally replied, “you said she sounded desperate.”

“Yeah,” came Chloe’s wary reply.

“And she knew things she shouldn’t unless she was downright stalking you.”

“Down to me dyeing my hair blue. But she could have picked that up from Instagram or something.”

“Silly knight, thou doth not have an Instagram.”

“What I mean is she must’ve gotten it from someone’s picture of me online.”

Rachel nodded. “I can’t really tell what she’s up to. I guess we’ll find out when we actually meet her.”

“We?” Chloe raised up on her arm to look at Rachel. “You’re coming along?”

“Are you kidding me? I’m finally getting to meet the girl you wouldn’t shut up about for the last three years. I’m way too curious to stay away. So yeah, count me in. Let’s go pick her up tomorrow. I’d like to hear what she has to say.”

Chloe, who was searching her face, looked relieved. “Okay. Okay, cool.”

Rachel rolled off her bed and started gathering her clothes from the floor. “You’ve been keeping tabs on where she is now?”

“According to her texts, she should be near Portland. Wonder if her parents already put out a bulletin on her.”

“Hm. Okay. Chloe, stop perving at me for a minute and concentrate, will you?”

“How do you expect me to do that when you’re buck naked?”

Rachel dumped her clothes in the hamper and grabbed her pajamas from her closet. “Text Max and tell her we’re coming to pick her up tomorrow. Meanwhile…what time is it?”

Chloe checked her phone. “Almost midnight.”

“Well, so much for making it back before curfew. Tell your Mom you’re staying here for the night. We wake up at 6 AM—scratch that—I wake up at 6 AM and try to wake you up, while you finally roll out of bed at 6:20.” Chloe threw her pillow at Rachel, who caught it in one hand without so much as a glance. “Tomorrow, we’ll take your truck. Better to fit the three of us along with any luggage Max brought.”    

“Good thinking,” said Chloe, looking disappointed now that Rachel was mostly dressed.

“Don’t look so glum.” Rachel winked at her as she put on her slippers. “I’m gonna shower. If my parents are asleep, wanna join me?”

“Actually, I think I’ll chill here for a bit. Write that text message.” Chloe sat up to watch her head for the door. “Hey, Amber?”

Rachel paused right by her doorway, gazing at Chloe over her bare shoulder.  

“I—” Chloe paused, her face reddening, gaze shifting to the side. “I just think you’re the best. You know?”

“I know,” Rachel replied, shooting finger guns at Chloe. “But I sure like to hear you say it.”

Chapter Text

Max’s troubles began long before she arrived in Arcadia Bay.

The first thing she realized after coming to her senses was that she was sitting in her own room, wearing what was arguably the ugliest, most comfortable tartan sweater she owned, the pen in her hand hovering over the latest entry in her journal. The clock and calendar on her desk announced that it was quarter past 6 PM, Friday, the 19th of April.

The second thing she noticed was that, unlike her other forays deep into the past, she wasn’t bound by a restrictive white field of a polaroid frame—looking out her window, she could spy Seattle’s city lights winking into view. Peering out her open door showed an empty hallway, unhindered by white blankness.

Max dropped her pen and fairly leaped out of her chair. “I’m really here,” she said, staring down at her hands like she was seeing them for the first time. Tuhudda had really done it. And at the heels of that— does this mean I get to stay here without a time limit? Was that what the wise woman meant about things being different?

There was no time to dwell on the details. She had a long road ahead of her.

Her choice of date served her well—her parents were away on a business trip until Sunday afternoon, taking away one major obstacle from an unplanned visit to her hometown. First things first: she immediately booted up her laptop and purchased a ticket for the last Boltbus bound for Portland. She then piled some clothes and toiletries into an overnight bag before flying out the door and into the night.

Just as she was getting on her Boltbus, Max took the final, crucial step: dialing a number she hadn’t called in five years. She had ample time to rehearse her speech in her head while waiting for Chloe to pick up, but the instant that familiar albeit raspy voice reached her ear, Max was overwhelmed by a swell of emotion that left her momentarily speechless.

Chloe, you’re really okay…

It took all the self-control she had to keep her emotions in check and say everything she needed to. But in the end, she got Chloe’s promise. Now all she needed to do was make it all the way back to Arcadia Bay, where the real work awaited her.

Peering out the window, Max spied a Top Pot Donuts that was just closing shop. Hang on. If I’m going to get anywhere with Chloe, a peace offering would help a lot.

The waiter inside had just flipped the OPEN sign on the door. Max reached out her left hand, expecting the familiar tug on her fingertips and the dizzying pressure on her skull that always accompanied her rewinds.

Nothing happened.

Max blinked, stared at her open palm. “Maybe I’m just rusty?” She shook it like a malfunctioning remote control then reached out to try again. And again. And again.

Sweat beading on her forehead, heart hammering away at her ribs, Max tried repeatedly to seize control of time. But time was having none of it; the seconds continued to slip through her outstretched fingers.

“No, no, no!” Max clutched her head in her clammy hands. Some people turned their heads to look at her, but she paid them no mind. She couldn’t believe it—she was completely, utterly normal.

Why? How could this happen? I've been able to use my powers before when I traveled into the past. Why not now? Was it because of Tuhudda’s interference? Or something else? And without powers, how can I convince Chloe and Rachel? How can I make them believe they're in danger?

As the bus rushed past Seattle’s bright cityscape, Max spent the next several hours wide awake, heart fluttering like a caged bird in her chest, trying to think of a way out of her dilemma. It was not till the dawn started to break in the east that she finally put together a plan. Not a good one, horribly risky, and could possibly put her in Chloe’s shitlist forever, but it was the best she could come up with.

Step one: get a large bag of chocolate chip muffins.


“Told you you’d make us late.”

Chloe stubbed her cigarette against the outside of her car door and threw a sidelong glare at the girl in the passenger seat. It was already 7:12 AM when they left Arcadia Bay and started cruising south towards Lincoln City. The greasy hash brown she had stuffed into her mouth just twenty minutes earlier now sat uneasily in her stomach and didn’t help her mood one bit.

Still, it was hard to stay annoyed at Rachel, not when she was lounging carelessly in her seat, one elbow propped on the open window, the sun glinting off her hair and her aviators. She seemed dressed for fun today, and Chloe’s eyes couldn’t help but follow those long tan legs where they ended in white sandals and red toenails. Driving around with Rachel usually proved to be a risky affair.

“It’s fine,” Chloe growled over the wind as she floored the accelerator, sending her truck hurtling down the highway. “Max knows to wait for me.”

“Which makes her the punctual one of the two of you.”

“I can make up for lost time with my mad driving skills.”

“Well, before you burn up the pavement, you ought to know that you do have a passenger who doesn’t necessarily want to live fast and die young.”

When Chloe didn’t reply, Rachel quipped, “Someone’s a bit tense today.”

“Not me.”

“No? You look like you could snap a pencil between your ass cheeks.” Rachel peered at her over her shades. “She’s really got under your skin, huh?”

Chloe threw her another frown. “Look, I’m not, like, her groupie or anything.”

“I’m just teasing, you dork." Rachel’s laughter rippled through the space between them. "What is up with you today?”

Chloe shrugged. “It’s just…I’m not sure how Max is going to react.”

“React to what, exactly?”

“To me. I mean…well, look at me.”

A smile flitted across Rachel’s lips. “Been doing that all morning.”

“No, I mean, look at how much I’ve changed. You’ve seen pics of me from five years ago, right?”

That’s what you’re worried about? That your ex—”

“She’s not my ex.”

“—best friend…Is going to take one look at you and then hop right back on the bus for Seattle? Chloe. Get a hold of yourself. Do I need to remind you how many students—dudes AND chicks—eyeball you on a regular basis each time you pick me up from Blackwell? Do I need to reiterate how much I wish I could take a baseball bat to their collective faces at least five times a week? What’s it going to take to convince you how good you look?”

“That’s not what I mean, Rach. It’s about…about whether we’d still…”

“Hit it off? Oh, I see. Because you’ve changed? You’re thinking of Max as the same pony-tailed girl from five years ago. Well, what if she’s changed too? What if she’s got piercings and wears black lipstick and too much eyeshadow?”

Chloe guffawed at the mental image. “That’s hella crazy. You don’t know Max.”

“No,” muttered Rachel, turning her eyes back to the glittering Pacific coast. “No, I don’t.”


As it turned out, Chloe did make up for lost time: they arrived at the Lincoln City bus stop just a few minutes past 8 AM. The bus stop was just a large parking lot bound by a chain link fence and situated next to a red brick convenience store. Chloe parked between two spaces, but Rachel admonished her. “What would Max think if she saw you parking like an asshole?”

“She wouldn’t mind,” Chloe muttered. But she adjusted the truck into a slot anyway.

As Rachel opened her passenger door, Chloe caught her hand. “Hey, listen,” Chloe said. “Max is—well, how do I put this…she spooks easy, you know? So I’d appreciate it if…” she trailed off, grasping for words.

Rachel stared back, face unreadable, but only for a moment before slipping on an easy grin. “Hey, I promise I won’t freak out your BFF,” she said. “Just tell me to shut up if I start getting too nosey.”

Chloe’s breath loosened a little in her chest. “Right, thanks. Good talk.”

They approached the waiting shed near the convenience store entrance. A Boltbus was parked by the road, and a few people were milling about, waiting to get on.

“You see her?” Rachel asked.

“No,” Chloe murmured, tucking her hands into her pockets while glancing about. She spotted an elderly man in a tweed jacket sitting by himself, a pair of Asian backpackers consulting Google Maps on their phones, and a young couple quietly arguing while smoking by the trash cans. Not a hippie in sight. “She should be here by now. D’you think she got on the wrong bus?”

“I checked the website. Only one line goes this route at the time she specified.” Rachel shrugged. “Relax. Maybe she’s in the restroom. Did she text?”

Chloe checked her phone. “No such luck. Guess we’ll wait here then.” She plunked down on the wooden bench and watched the passengers form a line for the Boltbus.

Rachel scanned the front of the convenience store, but her eyes alighted on something more interesting: the vending machine by the entrance.

“I’m going for a Coke. You want anything?”

“Your treat?”

The corner of Rachel’s lip quirked at that. “That’s pretty much a given.”

Chloe grinned back. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching your girlish figure?”

“Didn’t hear anyone complaining about my girlish figure last night—just someone wearing out my name. Am I getting you a drink or not?”

“Dr. Pepper.”

“BRB. Try not to give a senior citizen a heart attack while I’m gone.” Rachel bounded towards the vending machine just as the store doors opened.

“No promises.” Chloe turned her attention back to the Boltbus, where the passengers were already filing inside. In a moment, the bus closed its doors and trundled away, leaving her in a deserted lot. She propped her elbows onto her knees and reached for a cigarette from her jacket pocket, then thought better of it. Try not to shock Max more than absolutely necessary, Price.  

Try as she might, she couldn’t ignore the fluttering in her stomach and the prevailing silence just made it worse. What am I so nervous for anyway? It’s just Max, for Chrissakes.

Yeah. Just Max. You know, the girl who just last night called you up out of the blue to unload a ton of weird shit on you, like she loves you. No biggie. Fuck, I should’ve taken the offer for a shower last night. I probably stink of weed.

Chloe sniffed herself and caught the scent of lavender. Scratch that, I smell like Rachel. Really not the improvement I had in mind. Maybe I should smoke a bit to mask it.

She had just stuck a cigarette into her mouth when a familiar, quiet voice to her right said, “Chloe?”

The cigarette tumbled from Chloe’s slack lips; she made a grab for it only to see it bounce off her palm and go pinwheeling into the gutter. Swallowing her regret, she swiveled to face a girl with short brunette hair, a brown jacket, and khaki pants standing just a few feet to her right. A green cloth backpack hung from her slim shoulders and she clutched a large white paper bag in one hand.

Is that Max? Holy fuck she’s cute. That hair looks great on her. Aaaand she caught me sniffing myself. Good job, me.

Chloe sprang to her feet. “Hey,” was all she could manage before drawing a blank. Everything she had thought of saying on the way here vied for control of her tongue.

It didn’t help that Max seemed pretty much in the same boat, standing there, worrying the paper bag with her hands, her gaze locked with Chloe’s. There was not a sliver of surprise on her face at Chloe’s appearance. But her clear blue eyes were misting over with tears, and the lips beneath that tiny, freckled nose quivered with emotion.

“I’m back,” said Max, as if it were all she could say.

“Y-yeah,” Chloe replied, “looks like you are.”

The silence stretched on and on. Shit, this is getting weird. Say something, Price. Play it cool. Pay her a compliment.

Breaking out a smile, she pointed a finger gun at Max’s face. “Say, bangin’ bangs.”

Max blinked. “Huh?”

Chloe mentally slapped herself. Twice. “I-I mean your hair,” she amended, dropping her hand. “It’s neat.”

“Oh. Thanks. I like yours too. It really suits you, Chloe.”

Chloe couldn’t believe how good it felt to hear Max speak her name out loud and in person. She wanted to say exactly that, but the only word she could wrangle out of her mouth was, “Cool.”

Max tucked a strand behind one ear and seemed to see something interesting on the ground. And just as the silence threatened to overwhelm them again, another voice cut in.

“Max Caulfield, right?”


Max jumped, turned, and before she could even steel herself, was face to face with the Girl.  

She had seen her pictures before, had fully expected to be impressed. She didn’t expect to be disarmed, captured by a pair of laughing hazel eyes, a smile filled with brilliant white teeth, and a perfectly symmetrical face that seemed a bit too close for comfort. The Girl leaned forward, arms tucked behind her back, blue feather earring swinging against her honey hair as she regarded Max with candid interest. By some trick of the morning sun, she seemed to be glowing, surrounded by flickering light much like that of a candle flame. When Max blinked, the illusion was gone.

Feeling time restart around her, Max said, “Y-yeah, that’s me.” She extended what she hoped was a warm, dry hand, only to find herself engulfed by a pair of toned arms and the subtle scent of lavender.

“Chloe’s told me so much about you!" The Girl exclaimed. "I'm Rachel by the way, and—oh, sorry—I’m a hugger.”

“That’s…um, fine!” Max gulped and awkwardly patted her back. Get a grip, Caulfield—it’s just a hug.

Rachel stepped back but kept contact, her hands sliding down to trap Max’s free one in a firm grip. “I finally get to meet someone who knows all the shit Chloe got up to when she was a kid. You and I have got to talk.”

“We…we will.” Max tried to come up with something longer than two words and failed utterly. She stole a glance back at Chloe, who seemed content to gape at them in rapt confusion.

If Rachel was aware of the effect she had on Max, she had the mercy not to show it. Relinquishing her hold, she inclined her head to the paper bag. “Are those muffins?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Max raised the bag. “From the store. Chocolate chip and oven-fresh. I thought you two might be hungry.”

Rachel’s grin broadened. “Of course! Who wouldn’t be hungry for chocolate-chip muffins? That’s like a fundamental law of the universe.” She peered at Max. “I’m pretty handy at reading people, so I can tell by looking at you that you haven’t had a bite to eat yourself. How about we sit down someplace, grab some coffee, and chat over breakfast?”

“That sounds awesome.”

Rachel tilted her head to look behind Max. “How about it, Chloe? Up for some coffee?”

Chloe, who seemed to have awoken from her stupor, replied, “Well, since you didn’t get me my Dr. Pepper...”

Max could practically hear Rachel rolling her eyes. “I didn’t get anything, if you hadn’t noticed. Let’s just focus on the matter at hand, shall we?”

“Coffee it is. C’mon, Max,” Chloe jerked her head to the café across the road. Max nodded and followed Chloe as she stalked across the road, but hesitated when Rachel sidled up to Chloe’s right side and took the taller girl’s arm. Chloe glanced at Rachel in surprise but did not object.

Max felt a twinge somewhere inside herself. All she had ever heard of Rachel were second-hand stories, but seeing her radiance—that would be the only appropriate word to use here, radiance —Max could finally understand why Chloe never forgot her. The two of them just looked right together: Chloe so effortlessly cool in her torn jacket and red top, Rachel at her elbow with those glinting sunglasses in her golden hair, tight white shirt with the word “Queen” printed in front and those even tighter jean shorts. They looked like they owned the place—like they ruled the world.

Max swallowed the rancid taste in her mouth and hurried to catch up, feeling much like a stray puppy as she walked beside them. She couldn’t afford these distractions, not when she had her task before her.

Just as she was thinking this, Rachel caught Max’s eye. “So Chloe and I were having a discussion earlier. She was completely terrified you’d be turned off by her current look. Be honest, Max. What do you think?”

Aghast, Chloe threw Rachel a warning glance. Max tried to will the heat climbing up her neck from reaching her cheeks. “I-I think she looks badass,” she replied as nonchalantly as she could.

Rachel gave a satisfied smile, as if she knew something Max didn't. “Not quite the word I’d use, but yeah, ‘badass’ works too.”

“I’m right here, you know,” Chloe muttered.

“We know, we can’t seem to get rid of you,” Rachel laughed, a sound that seemed to ring in a hollow space inside Max’s chest.  

What have I gotten myself into?


“So. You’ve got a story to tell us, right Max?” Rachel asked.

They sat around a small table on the patio of the deserted café, each supplied with a steaming cup care of Rachel. Max nursed her cappuccino with both hands, feeling very much like a refugee from a foreign country. She was hyper-aware of Rachel’s eyes on her as the blonde girl sipped from her own cup.

“Yeah Max, spill—the story, not the coffee.” Chloe chuckled at her own joke while dumping packet after packet of sugar into her latte. “What’s with the cloak-and-dagger shit you’ve been telling me on the phone?”

Max took a deep breath, mentally rehearsing the speech she had worked out while on the bus. “First of all, thank you both for coming.” She glanced at Rachel, who returned a slight nod. “I’m so happy you’re here. I couldn’t sleep on the way, wondering if I had warned you in time. I’m glad you kept her safe, Chloe.”

“Uh, sure. Whatever.” Chloe replied, staring down at her coffee. “Now, can we fast forward to where you tell us precisely what I kept her safe from?”

“You said I was in danger,” said Rachel. “From Nathan. Yeah, he’s a bit…off-putting nowadays—”

“Understatement of the year,” Chloe grumbled as she took a bite from a muffin.

“—but he’s a friend. Why would he hurt me?”

Max took a deep breath. “It’s all true, what I said. Nathan…he’s not alright in the head, Rachel. Something’s got its hooks in him. Part of it is drugs—”

“Drugs?” Chloe raised her head, glanced at Rachel. “You heard anything about this?”

“I’ve heard rumors he’s been on medication,” said Rachel, frowning, “but clearly that’s not what you mean.”

“No,” said Max. “It’s much worse. Nathan’s in deeper than you know. More than that, he’s obsessed with you, Rachel. He feels you’ve rejected him and wants you to himself. That’s why he’s planning on drugging and kidnapping you.”

Chloe’s grip tightened around her stirrer as if it were a dagger. But Rachel went on in a calm, level voice, “You said more than that, Max. You said he was going to kill me.”

“Y-yes. I mean that, too.”

Rachel set her cup down and leaned forward. “How could you know that? According to Chloe, you haven’t been back in Arcadia for something like…five years? How do you know any of this?”

And here we are, thought Max, setting her own cup down as well. Everything hinges on what happens next. For the umpteenth time this day, she wished she had her powers back. This would have been so easy with rewinds.

“Because it’s already happened,” she said.

Chloe blinked, oh so slowly. “Okay, I kinda feel like you need to expand a bit on that statement.”

“There’s no good way of putting this, so I’m going to just flat out say it.” Max looked from one girl to the other, making sure to hold Rachel’s gaze at the end.

“I’m not the Max you think I am. I come from a different timeline, six months into the future.”

Dead silence all around. Chloe broke eye contact first; the corners of her mouth twitched and she scratched at her lip to hide it. Rachel’s brows inched towards her hairline, but her face stayed impassive and difficult to read.

“I know how all this sounds,” Max pressed on. “I promise you, I’m not high. And I’m not crazy.”

“Ah,” said Chloe, who was now picking chocolate pieces from her muffin.

“Max,” said Rachel. “I hope you understand this is a lot to take in. You’re telling us you can travel through time?”

“Yes,” Max replied without missing a beat.

Chloe grinned. “Using what, a device of some kind? Like a big blue box or a really cool flying car?”

Max caught the smallest shift in Rachel’s balance. Chloe winced; did she just get kicked under the table?

“N-no,” Max said, feeling even more uncomfortable. “It’s…it’s difficult to explain. I can project my consciousness into my past self. That’s how I got here.”

Chloe said, “Great, so, this is the part where you wow us with a demonstration of your powers. Right?”

“I…” Max's face prickled with warmth. “I can’t. I tried, but when I traveled this far back it seems...I lost all my powers.”

“Hokay,” Chloe said, biting into her muffin. “Nothing then?”

Max looked up. “I can tell you what I know.

“I know you have an upside-down American flag for a curtain over your bed. I know that you and your stepdad David don’t get along: you call him ‘step-douche’ behind his back. I don’t know if you’ve done so yet, but you take his handgun and hide it in a box under your bed. You own a rusty old truck with the plate number TWNPKS. You were expelled from Blackwell, but you don’t care—you love living free with no one telling you what to do.”

Chloe by now had ceased chewing. “How did you...”

“Because six months from now we spend a week together in Arcadia Bay, and you show me everything I just said.” Max faced Rachel next. “You’re an actress and a model, and you dream of becoming a star. You're also a straight-A student who loves art and photography. Your room number in the Blackwell dorms is 224. Victoria Chase hates your guts but respects you in her own way. You and Chloe want nothing more than to drive out of Arcadia Bay to pursue all your dreams.”

“...You learn all this from me?” Rachel asked.

Max’s eyes fell away from hers. “No.”

“What do you mean...no?”

“There’s more I have to tell you,” Max hurried on. “But I can’t do so if neither of you believes that I know what I know because of where I came from. Please, take me back to Arcadia Bay. From there I’ll do my best to prove to you I’m telling you the truth.”

Another silence threatened to stretch into infinity. Finally, Rachel said, “Would you excuse us a moment?”

Max's heart sank, but she nodded. This was not the reaction she had hoped for, but at least it was better than her worst scenario. She did not think she could bear it if Chloe outright laughed at her.


Rachel dragged Chloe inside the café, away from Max’s line of sight. “Okay,” she said. “Quick assessment.”

Chloe had slipped her hands into her jean pockets. “What can I say? Look, I’m sorry I brought you along. If I’d known she’d be wasting our time…I don’t know how to tell you this, but Max is confused. Maybe it’s problems at home. Maybe it’s a…a really bad trip and she just needs to come down. Seriously, I don’t know what to think. This is some crazy bullshit!”

Rachel fiddled with her feather earring as she gazed out to where the brunette girl sat, head bowed in thought and her hands far from her cup. “We can rule out drugs, I think. No symptoms, and she’s cognizant.”

“Okay then, Doctor Amber, then she’s running a game on us. A huge joke. She must’ve gotten that info on us from somewhere. Maybe she visited Arcadia a few weeks back, stalked us before cooking up this wild time travel crap.”

“Do you actually have it?”

“Have what?”

“The gun. Under your bed.”

“No! The fuck would I? I mean, sure, it’s a hella great idea, but Sergeant 'Stache would hang my ass out to dry if he found out, thanks.”

Rachel was shaking her head. “If she’s lying, she’s good.”

“What?”

Rachel faced Chloe again. “I don’t get that vibe from her. You can tell if a person’s lying from their tells--the way they hide their mouths or touch their noses or move eyes around while talking. There’s none of that here. She believes her own story.”

Chloe gaped at her, then broke into a laugh. “Oh, I get it now!”

“Hm?”

“Gotta admit, you got me going there, Amber. You really did. I don’t know how you managed to rope Max into this, but this is a fine piece of work. Your best yet.”

“Chloe, what the fuck? Are you accusing me of setting this up?”

Chloe threw up her hands. “Oh c’mon, Rach! Like what Spock said: ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’ Max couldn’t have known any of that on her own unless someone told her. Someone. Like. You .” She pointed dramatically at Rachel, who simply crossed her arms in exasperation.

“Okay, Phoenix Wright. First of all, the quote’s originally by Sherlock Holmes. Second, it’s a fallacy. Third, why the fuck would I even?”

“Dude. I’ve seen you pull the most epic pranks on Victoria just because you’re bored. Well, no way you can’t pull a fast one on me. I know you too well.”

“Clearly,” came Rachel’s tart reply. “Great, not only do I have to figure out what your friend’s really up to, I have to convince you that I’m not behind all this. Way too much work and no real payoff.”

“Look, what other explanation is there? Unless you’re telling me I should call Stephen Hawking because we have an actual fucking time-traveler sitting five feet away ?”

“Nobody’s suggesting that. That’s just demented.” Rachel turned back to look thoughtfully at Max. “But there’s something she’s not telling us. She’s gone through something…terrible. A trauma maybe.”

That sobered Chloe up. “What do you mean, trauma?”

“I don’t know. Yet. But I plan to.”

“A plan? What sort of plan? Am I in this plan?”

“Look, just follow my lead, okay? Whatever this is about, I promise I’ll drag it out of her.”

“...Part of me still think you’re behind this, Amber.”

“Like whatever, Spock.”


Max looked up warily as the pair returned to the table. “I’d like to hear more about your story, Max,” Rachel said. “To tell you the truth, it’s pretty hard to swallow, I’m sure you can appreciate that. But I don’t think you’re lying.”

Max’s face lit up with hope. “You believe me?”

Rachel held up a hand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like I said, I’d like to hear more, but I’m sure you’re not comfortable discussing it here. What do you say we head back to Arcadia and get you settled in?”

Max nodded vigorously. “Sure. I’m ready now. I mean, if you are.”

“Great. Have you got a place to stay?”

“Well, I…” Max paused. “I haven’t really thought it through, being honest? I’ve got some cash, so I could crash in a motel just for the night. I have to get back to Seattle tomorrow before my parents return and realize I’ve run off.”

“Oh hey,” said Chloe, “you don’t have to spend money on that. You can always—”

“Stay over at my place,” Rachel finished.

Flabbergasted, Chloe half-turned to the blonde beside her. “Um, what?”

“Chloe, if you don’t shut your mouth, your tongue’s liable to fall out,” quipped Rachel, who was positively beaming. “Besides, you know David’s not going to be happy to hear you’ve got a guest all of a sudden. You’re already in his shit list for not coming home last night.” She turned to Max. “What do you think about staying with me?”

Before Chloe could interject, Max quickly said, “Yes.”

“Yes?” Chloe repeated.

“Yes,” Max repeated, flushing. “I mean, I would be happy to stay with you, just for the night. If you’re okay with it.”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay with it?” Rachel laughed and favored Chloe a sidelong wink. “Let’s you and I sort this all out over a sleepover, yeah?”

Chloe just stared back. If someone had told her that her former best friend would be sleeping in the same bed where she just had mind-blowing sex with her current best friend, Chloe would have asked them what kind of weed they were smoking and where she could score some.

I was so not prepared for today, she thought, but nodded to Rachel anyway.

Chapter Text

                                                                                        Another

                                                                                                  Great

                                                                                                        Day in

       ARCADIA BAY

       WELCOME!

Max kept her eyes fixed on the sign as they hurtled past it into town. It felt so strange to arrive like this, to come so far just to go right back to where she started, like she had been running with all her might just so she could stay in place.

It was her luck—the Caulfield luck, as her dad labeled it. Good and bad fortune always following one another to offset some hidden cosmic scale. “Never forget, Max,” he once said as they sat together at a hockey game, watching the score tilt from one team to the other. “Steel yourself for the hard days, because joy and sorrow always come in equal measure to us Caulfields.”

So far—at least for today—her luck had been holding. Now if she could just get Rachel alone.

Their trip back to town surprised Max by being mostly pleasant. As she sat between them, knees pulled together to avoid bumping into Chloe’s swift gear changes, she lay directly in the path of the pair’s rapid-fire banter. Chloe and Rachel wove in and out of topics with hummingbird speed, talking about anything under the sun—except Max’s story. It made her feel like an interloper more than ever. Fun as their stories were, they just drove home that Chloe had found her own adventures—and her own measure of happiness—without Max.

“So I was in the Bay Mart the other day,” Chloe was saying. “Mom wanted help carrying shopping bags and shit—”

“Yeah right,” laughed Rachel. “The only reason you go is so you could grab free samples—which was it this time?”

Chloe pressed a palm over her heart, faux hurt on her face. “You wound me, Rachel! How can you just assume that? And the answer is cheese, by the way.”

Rachel threw Max a knowing look. “See what I have to put up with?”

Cheese, Rachel, free cheese! The lady there was handing out bits of this cheese with a name too long and too French to pronounce. The trick is to take one so fast she doesn’t get to talk you into buying an entire wheel.”

“Yeah? So what’d you do? Keep snatching them up while she was busy with another buyer?”

“Oh please. When she put the platter down to grab a wheel from the shelf, I tilted what’s left into my bag and walked away!”

“Chloe!” groaned Max, unable to contain herself. Which made Rachel laugh even harder.

“I think you just managed to scandalize even Max!”

“Hey, it’s not shoplifting if it’s free, right?” Chloe drawled and thumped her chest. “Pirate for life, baby.”

Rachel poked Max’s shoulder. “Was she like this when she was younger?”

Max blinked at the girl’s easy grin and realized Rachel genuinely wanted her to be part of the discussion. “Not really,” Max replied, unable to help a smile. “She was blonder.”

That prompted another earnest giggle from Rachel, but Chloe remained silent. From the corner of her eye, Max saw her staring at some distant point ahead, both hands clutching the wheel. Did I piss her off? Shit. Maybe I should’ve just kept quiet.

But Rachel was eager to exploit the opening in her shell. “Tell me, what’s the craziest thing you got up to when you were kids?”

Max racked her brain for an answer that wouldn’t make either of them seem like a pair of utter dweebs. “Uh, there was this one time we tried to TP our neighbor’s house...”

“Oooo, classic,” Rachel leaned toward her. “Anyone I know?”

Chloe cut in before Max could answer. “Ronnie Burton. A dickwad we knew who liked to snap girls’ bras back in grade school. We went to TP his roof ‘coz we knew his dad would make him clean it up. Max threw the first roll. She missed, though.”

“Y-yeah,” Max added. “It wound up in the swimming pool instead. I was so mortified, I made a run for it. Chloe did too.”

“Well, at least I got to dump my rolls in the pool first before I rabbitted.”

Rachel shook her head, golden tresses flowing along her shoulders. “That’s Chloe for you. Always has to get the last word on anything, huh, Max?”

“Absotively,” said Max.

“Posolutely!” Rachel wheeled on her, delighted. “And did you just quote a little-known, underappreciated Disney cartoon from the ’80s?”

Max’s eyes widened. “You saw Oliver and Company too?”

“Only twenty times! Billy Joel as Artful Dodger is just sublime and—”

Chloe coughed. “Are we really going to be talking about old Disney movies all the way home?” she groused. “‘Coz if we are, I’m gonna start blasting some heavy metal like right now.”

Rachel rubbed Chloe’s shoulder affectionately. “Last time you did that, we got pulled over by Sheriff Skinner. You were sweating bullets the whole time I was doing the talking.”

Chloe bared her teeth. “For the record, the cops around here don’t like me. And I fuckin’ hate that smiling creep Skinner. I swear he was looking down your shirt behind those bug-eyed shades of his, Rachel.”

Rachel gave another mesmerizing smile that Max could swear was some form of witchcraft. “Which makes him that much easier to handle, Chloe.” She turned her attention back to Max. “So, how long will you be in Arcadia for?”

“It’s just a short visit for now,” Max replied. “But I’m actually planning on staying here for two years. I got a scholarship for the extended senior program.”

“Full-ride?” When Max nodded, Rachel whistled, impressed. “Guess that’ll make us schoolmates next year then. Lookin’ forward to a fresh face in Blackwell, Max.”

Max noticed that they were now in the affluent section of Arcadia Bay, a place she and Chloe never had a reason to wander into when they were younger. They looked even more out of place now, rattling around in Chloe’s rusty old truck. More than once, Max glimpsed a window curtain pulled aside and suspicious eyes glaring at them from behind the glass.

“Well, here’s my place,” Rachel said as they turned a corner and approached a house made of brick and rose-colored wood. Seeing the painted glass on the door and well-manicured garden, Max didn’t have to guess that this was the home of someone wealthy and important. As if the sign on the lawn didn’t make that clear enough.

Integrity. Honesty. Loyalty.

It’s all in the name

  JAMES AMBER

Your District Attorney

 

Even before Chloe could brake, Rachel was already opening her door to jump out. “Come on in, you guys. You can hang out in the living room while I get my room read—”

“Yeah, actually,” Chloe said, leaning against the wheel to look at Rachel. “I’ve got an idea. How about we give you some time to do all that? I’d like to take Max to the Two Whales. My mom will be happy to see her after, you know, a gajillion years.”

Rachel seemed caught off-guard; her expression froze for a split-second before she met Chloe’s eyes and smiled. “Sure, why not? I got an English Lit paper to finish off so I need an hour or so to myself anyway. Wanna leave your stuff with me for now, Max?”

Max hesitated, looking from one girl to the other. Anxiety knocked at her heart again—was it really okay to leave Rachel alone like this, even for a few hours? But Chloe was staring at her expectantly, waiting on her decision.

“S-sure,” she said, grabbing the backpack at her feet and handing it to Rachel. “Guess I’ll see you in a little while.”

“Counting on it,” Rachel chirped, accepting the bag. “Hasta la vista, Chloe. Catch ya later, Max.”

“Yep,” Chloe said. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring her right back.”

Rachel shut the door and waved as Chloe began to pull away from the curb. Worried, Max waved back as she watched her retreat into her house through the rearview mirror. Then it hit her—she was finally alone with Chloe.

The silence that greeted their reunion was now back in full force. Max held herself very still, caught between the need to keep her eyes focused out the window and the desire to look at the girl beside her. She’s not my Chloe, she told herself, closing her eyes. I can’t talk to her the way I could back then. She has none of my memories...our memories.

“Rachel’s really nice,” Max finally said when she couldn’t stand the quiet any longer.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah,” Chloe agreed. Max couldn’t tell if she was distracted or disinterested. Maybe both. “She’s made half the town fall in love with her. No surprise, really.”

“I can see you two are really close. I’m glad you made a good friend, Chloe.”

“Uh-huh. Funny, by all accounts I should’ve hated her, the unbearably blonde and perfect theater kid.” For a moment, Chloe’s voice softened as she talked. “But she...wasn’t what I expected. We’re a team, we got each other’s backs, saved each other more than once.” Then she shook herself, her features hardening again. “Anyway. Here on a full-ride scholarship, huh? Must be nice.”

“I, uh, don’t actually have it yet,” Max demurred, earning a confused glance from her companion. “I’ll get the text message from Blackwell in July.”

“July? Oh, right. Because time travel.”

Max could only nod.

“Must be sweet to have your life so predetermined, huh?”

Max’s mind rushed back in time to when she was standing on a cliff edge again, watching the colossal, hungry storm hurtling towards Arcadia Bay. Unable to answer, she just said, “So, what’ve you been up to nowadays?”

“Huh. How ‘bout that. Something that even the time-traveling hippie doesn’t know.”

That stung more than Max expected. “I...you...didn’t tell me all that much about what you and Rachel got up to before we met,” she muttered, hands tightening around her knees.

Chloe abruptly turned the wheel, sending the truck skidding towards a side street. “Since we’re doing show-and-tell now, why don’t I just show you instead?” Hitting the gas, she drove them out of the upper crust neighborhood of Arcadia Bay towards the middle of the town.

The morning sun climbed higher in the sky as they arrived at a car repair shop on the main avenue. As the truck clambered over the curb, Max looked up to see a large, well-worn wheel propping up a neon sign for Popsy’s Garage. From within came the heavy scent of motor oil and the rhythmic clanging of metal.

Max recalled visiting this shop back in her childhood. She turned to Chloe, eyebrows raised in question.

“This is where I work,” Chloe explained. “Well, sort of.”

She honked her horn twice and the hammering instantly stopped. A bald African-American man in green overalls poked his head out from behind a truck. “Chloe? Now you decide to show up?” Scowling, he straightened up and lumbered, bear-like, towards them. Max felt a bit intimidated by his stocky, six-foot frame, but then noticed the Collected Poems of W.H. Auden sticking out of his front pocket.

“Max, this is Popsy,” Chloe said. “Real name’s Ed Stewart. His dad was the first Popsy, but now that Ed’s the owner he has to keep the brand going. I guess you could say Popsy here’s my boss. Or would be, if he’d just pay me properly.”

“I AM paying you, Chloe Price,” he said, raising a warning finger as he came to stand beside her truck. “First, a few dollars for small repairs, and second, with the experience you need to actually get a better job. If you’d just take it more seriously, maybe it’ll work out for you.” He peered at Max. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

“Um, Max Caulfield, sir.” Max tentatively extended her hand through the window. Even as she returned his smile, her mind raced through her memories for a glimpse of him. 

“Max? Ryan’s little girl?” Grinning, Popsy wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “Don’t remember me, huh? I’d shake your hand, kiddo, but...” He showed his grease-covered palm. “Y’know, I used to fix your dad’s old Chrysler all the time when y’all still livin’ here. That clunker of his still kickin’?”

“You bet. He drives it to work every day.”

“Last I saw you, you were only this high and still carrying around your teddy bear.” He raised his palm to his waistline. “My, how time flies. Now, why you hangin’ around with this delinquent?”

“You’re a real sweetie, Pops,” Chloe growled. “We just stopped by to say hi and so she can see where I work.”

“Work?!” Popsy guffawed. “I’m lucky to have you here three out of five work days a week! This rate, you never get your trash heap in shape.” He knocked on the side of the truck for emphasis. “Get your ass here tomorrow morning, 8 sharp. Lumley’s bringing his Chevy over for a tune-up, so maybe you learn somethin.’”

“Hokay, that’s all the time we got for the Pops Show,” grumbled Chloe, releasing the handbrake. “I’mma show Max around town. See ya, old man.”

Pops tapped the truck door. “You take care of yourself, Max. Don’t let that delinquent bring you down.”

“I promise I’ll try and keep us out of trouble,” Max said as the truck pulled away. Turning to Chloe, she said, “He seems like a cool boss.”

“He’s a pain in the butt most times, always trying to work me to the bone. But yeah, he can be cool. And I’m learning a lot about cars. Guess he thinks I’ll make a mechanic someday, seeing that his two daughters are aiming to be computer engineers or something.”

“How’d you get the job?”

Chloe bopped the wheel with her fist. “I’ve been trying to get this piece of junk in shape for a long road trip south. Rachel and I...well, as you so eloquently put it, we’ve been planning to leave Arcadia Bay for a couple of years now. This truck’s going to be our escape vehicle. But I doubt it’ll get us past Portland before it falls apart on us, and the cost of repairs...fuhgeddaboudit.

“So I approached Pops to fish for a huge discount on repairs. Instead, he decided to show me how to do it myself—you know, teach a man how to fish and stuff. That’s how I became the sole apprentice of the only real mechanic in town. So what do you think? Would I rock a pair of overalls or what?”

I think you’d look good in anything, Max didn’t say. She wondered why Chloe never told her about taking on a part-time job in the other timeline—then realized why. She quit when Rachel died.

“I think it’s cool you’re learning a new skill, Chloe,” Max said. “It’ll really help you later on.”

Chloe peered at her as if trying to suss out some hidden meaning in her words. Then she relaxed. “Yeah well, I started only less than a month ago. Pops says I’ve got a lot left to learn.”

They were rolling down the main avenue along the coastline. But they as they approached the Two Whales, Chloe didn’t slow down.

“I thought we were visiting your Mom...?”

“Nah. Mornings are the busiest time for her. We can come back after the lunch rush.” Chloe grinned, hunching down on the wheel as she shifted gears. “I’ll show you something good, meantime.”


As she drove, Chloe mentally ran down her checklist: showed off her utterly gorgeous new best friend: check. Showed off functional if not equally gorgeous ride: check. Showed off her brand new job: well, that didn’t come off as impressive at it should have been, thanks to Popsy’s big mouth. But hey, at least her truck was behaving itself—it didn’t choke or stop once the whole trip.

Thus far, Chloe felt confident that she'd gotten her message across: she’s got her shit together here in Arcadia Bay, Max or no Max.

Whistling, she drove past the city hall and water tower, then veered right to a stretch of road that ran through the trees. Presently, the familiar rusted wire fence and stacks of abandoned cars came into view.

“I know this place,” Max suddenly said.

Chloe’s mouth dropped open, cutting off her tune mid-whistle. So far she’d been doing a good job of forgetting Max’s wild time-travel story, but here it was again. Points for consistency, Caulfield. Well, what did I expect? She’s been spying on us this whole time, hasn’t she?

“I guess you’d know about this,” Chloe said, mood souring. “This is my home away from hell—”

“American Rust.”

Chloe frowned, her mouth turning into a tight little line. “Yeah, okay, wow. Should I ask how you figured that one out? The sign’s been gone since forever.”

“You told me. In the other timeline.”

“Rrright.” Chloe pulled over just outside of the entrance before shifting into reverse. “Anyway, since you know about this place, I guess you don’t really wanna hang here...”

“No,” Max hurriedly replied. “I mean, yes, yes I do. I’m glad you took me here.” She opened her side of the door and stepped out.

Chloe killed the engine and called after Max, “Maybe you should start off with telling me all the stuff you already know, so I don’t have to waste time showing you around!”

But Max had already wandered up the winding dirt path into the junkyard. Without much choice, Chloe got out her truck. The sun was getting high in the sky, so she pulled off her jacket and threw it back into the driver’s seat before hurrying after Max.

Why’s she walking like she owns the place, anyway? What kind of game are you playing here, Max? Why don’t you just tell me what you want already?

Max kept on walking, seemingly entranced, past the fallen basketball post and the abandoned tugboat, and all the way up to the little building that served as Chloe’s hideout. She stopped at the doorway, taking in contents of the room. Chloe halted right behind her.

“It’s just like a pirate fort, isn’t it?” Max said.

Chloe blinked. “It’s...what?”

“A pirate fort. Like the one we built when we were kids.” Max’s eyes scanned the little room, taking in the couch, the elephant-themed tapestry, the pockmarked dartboard, and the graffiti on the wall that announced Chloe was here, Rachel was here. “Something to keep the world out.”

“What are you on about?” muttered Chloe. But she knew exactly what Max meant. Already her mind was falling back through time to the tree house their fathers had set up at the outskirts of the forest near their homes. She and Max would spend hours there, detached from everything but whatever make-believe universes they were in at the moment. It was a wonderful, treasured memory, of which this concrete box of hers was just a pale imitation. Yet she had spent nearly every bad day over the last three years in this tiny room, stumbling onto the couch after getting her ass fired from another part-time job, toking up to climb onto her dreaming cloud, drinking to forget.

Yes, this was exactly what it was: a fortress she built to keep the world out. And here was Max, standing at its threshold.

“Sorry,” Max was saying. “Just reminiscing, I guess.” She stepped back from the doorway and leaned against a nearby car wreck, looking down at her shoes.

The unwelcome jaunt into the past awoke something inside of Chloe—it irked her because she hadn’t felt anything like that in something like a year now. And these long fucking silences weren’t helping either. Chloe didn’t mind them back when they were just reading comics or sketching in their notebooks. Now it was just a wide chasm that she always felt the need to fill in with words.

And she never could find the right words when she needed them. Not with two hands and a flashlight.

“Max,” Chloe demanded, “why are you even here ?”

The edge in her voice made Max look up and Chloe immediately wanted to vacuum the words back into her mouth. But there was no going back now. “No more of that time travel bullshit. Why are you back in Arcadia Bay? What do you want?”

Max was having a hard time meeting her eyes. “Would it help,” she whispered, “if I said I’m not happy with the way we left things back then? With the choices that we...that I made?”

Chloe shook her head. “And you pick now to tell me that? You were happy enough to let five years slip by without saying a word. What makes you think I—”

She bit down on the rest of it, suddenly recalling what Rachel said—Max had some kind of trauma. Abruptly, she asked, “Max, are you okay? Did...something happen back home?”

“N-no! Nothing like that. I’m fine.” Max dropped her gaze and curled her arms around herself as if to ward off a chill wind, though the late spring sun was nearly overhead.

“Well, what then?” Chloe pressed on. “Did living in Seattle really suck that hard? Thought you could hide out here?”

“It’s not like that!” Max pushed off from the car and started walking again, as if to escape Chloe’s questions. “Seattle feels like a lifetime ago. I was happy there, or at least I thought I was.”

“Well, great.” Chloe quickly followed, falling in step beside Max. “And your parents? They good? They’re not...are they?”

Max shook her head. “They’re still together, if that’s what you’re asking. I mean, my family had its ups and downs. Dad got his paper job in Seattle and it worked out super well. His boss liked him, he got promoted quickly, and we bought a house. Things were going great.”

“But?” Chloe pressed on. “I’m hearing a ‘but’ in there somewhere.”

Max’s lips pressed hard together as if trying to hold back her words. “They...wanted to have another baby.”

“Okay? I remember you always wanted to have a sibling.”

“Yeah. They...they tried for a year. Mom got pregnant, it was great for a while. We even started building a baby room. Then Mom had a stroke from a blood clot and...and she miscarried.”

Chloe halted like she had walked into a brick wall. “Jesus,” she muttered.

Max looked down and kicked at a stone near her feet. “We were in and out of the hospital for months. The doctors told us she must never get pregnant again, because the risk of another stroke was too high...”

Aunt Vanessa got that sick? Chloe remembered her as her wittier, weirder second mom, a self-confessed hippie who liked incense and crystals and carving badass designs on pumpkins for Halloween. She couldn’t imagine what it felt like for her to never have another kid. “Jesus, Max, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” Max replied, her eyes far away. “It’s not your fault. I didn’t keep in touch.”

“Yeah, well,” Choe trailed off. What else could be said about that? “But she’s okay now, right?”

“Don’t worry, she made a full recovery.”

“And you? What did you do after that?”

“Oh, I tried to stay busy with school. My grades were mostly shit, though. Dad eventually put me in an IEP—which kind of helped, I guess.”

“What’s an IEP?”

“It, um, means Individualized Education Program. A bit like the special needs stuff. Like different tests and a teacher’s aide to help me learn.”

Chloe tried to imagine Max working with some kind of tutor, every day after school hours. Sounds like a previously undiscovered circle of hell. “Did they let you continue with photography, at least?”

Max nodded. “Yeah, I took it up. Dad encouraged me to, said I got an artist’s eye. But...it was hard to fit in with the Seattle crowd, you know? I always felt like I was a pretender, that I always had to catch up with everyone else. I felt I had to work hard to prove I would amount to something. For a while, taking photos didn’t seem as much fun anymore.”

In a quiet voice, Chloe asked, “Is...all that why you stopped talking to me?”

Startled, Max whirled to face her. “No! That’s not...I didn’t want...”

Max trailed off, the color draining from her face as she spotted something in the distance. Confused, Chloe half-turned to look. Her eyes went past the familiar abandoned SUV to the west corner of the junkyard. That spot there on the ground...that was where...

Her father stood there with his finger pointed down, bidding her to dig deep.“Don’t worry, honey, you don’t burn.”

Chloe felt a chill creep up her spine, but then a noise arrested her attention. She turned to see Max rooted to the spot, quivering, still staring at that corner as tears spilled down her freckled cheeks.

“Max? Uh, you okay?”

Max lowered her head, hiding her eyes behind her bangs. “Yes. No. I don’t—I....” She gulped, pressing her palms against her face. “I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore, Chloe. Everything’s so hard, and I could fuck it all up by doing or saying the wrong thing and—”

“Hey, hey, take it easy. Uh, here.” Chloe pulled out a handkerchief—clean, thank goodness—from her breast pocket. God, how many times had she done this for her when they were kids? “C’mon, let’s go sit over there.” She gently steered Max by the shoulders to the hood of a nearby car.

Max wiped her eyes with the handkerchief. “I’m so sorry, Chloe. I can’t begin to say how sorry I am.”

“Shh...it’s fine. Just take it easy for a bit.”

“It’s not fine,” Max declared. “Nothing’s fine!”

“‘Kay, now you’re exaggerating.” Chloe sidled closer to her and leaned back to look at the bright blue sky. “We got sunshine today—that’s pretty fine. We got this entire junkyard to ourselves, which is the only way I want it. Right now, someone somewhere’s knocking back a few beers at a barbeque. It’s just, you know, not us at the moment, which I guess that kinda sucks. But hey, if we’re gonna suck, might as well suck together, right?” She cleared her throat and waited for Max’s sniffles to die down.

Max managed a small smile. “There’s so much I want to tell you, Chloe,” she said once she found her voice. “I just don’t know where to begin.”

Chloe shrugged. “Just start, Max. I’m listening.”

Max took a deep breath and lowered the handkerchief to her lap. “I’ve...I’ve had a lot of time to think about you and me these past few weeks. Back then, I didn’t really have much of choice about whether to stay or leave, you know? But I did have a choice about keeping in touch. I know that. It’s just that it...it...”

Max raised her reddened eyes to Chloe’s. “It hurt,” said Max. “It hurt to be away from you. It hurt to be in a city filled with people I didn’t know. It was so hard to make new friends. It hurt that all I could do was talk to you and not be able to see you or be there with you.

“So I thought it would be easiest not to talk at all. I thought I could take that hurt and bury it somewhere it couldn’t touch me. I threw myself into my life in Seattle and tried to be happy. I lived in this fantasy that you were happy too, that you became an honor student in Blackwell, that you even found another best friend, maybe even a boyfriend.

“But really, all I was doing was running away. I was selfish. I wanted to keep in touch, but I didn’t want to have to deal with the pain of being apart.

“That’s why I stopped talking to you, Chloe. You have every right to be mad at me. I’ve been a real shit to you, and I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe my story. I just want you to know—I’ll do whatever it takes to make things right again.”

Max finished, quieting her sniffles and blowing her nose into the handkerchief. Chloe thought back to all the unanswered messages, the missed calls, the Happy Birthdays that were never returned, the long silence that followed. She recalled the feeling of being alone and abandoned, the inner emptiness that drove her to sometimes stand in front of an oncoming train hoping to feel something, even fear.

The memories were all there, intact, but the bitterness that accompanied them had melted away.

She came back for me. After all this time, she came back for me.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Chloe said, smiling and ruffling her friend’s hair. “Same ol’ Max, so sappy and weepy—”

“I...I wasn’t like that all the time!” Max hiccuped.

“Yeah, you were. Remember when you got lost in the forest and I had to pull your ass out of a bush?”

“Like you’ll ever let me forget.” Max gave a little smile, then shook her head. “Chloe, I meant what I said—”

“Yeah yeah, I get it.” Chloe slid off the car and stretched her arms overhead. “You regret not keeping in touch. But hey—in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big girl now. I got a job and car and a...uh...the point is, you’re here.” She spun on her heel to look back at Max. “You’re here, and that’s something, right?”

Max could only nod, holding the handkerchief to her cheek to catch another tear. Grinning, Chloe grasped Max’s shoulders. “Hey, tell me. You’re serious about wanting to make it up to me, right, Max? Five years is a long wait for an apology.”

“I know, I know,” Max replied, looking hopeful. “I will make it up to you, Chloe. I swear.”

Chloe’s grin turned absolutely feral. “Well for starters, you owe me five years’ worth of birthday presents.”

Max’s face fell. “Dog, you’re merciless. Look, I don’t have a ton of money on me right now. But fine. If that’s what it takes, I’ll make it happen.”

“Chillax, Max! I’m not asking for all of it at once. We’ll make you a layaway plan or something.” Chloe leaned back and laughed. “Oh, this is good. This is really good. My life’s looking up! And—oh yeah.” Eyes narrowing, she zeroed in on Max again. “There’s one more thing I want.”

Now Max looked really worried. Chloe took a moment to savor her fear before saying, “Got any muffins left?”

Max rolled her eyes and fumbled with her jacket pocket. “It’s our last one.”

Sitting down beside her again, Chloe accepted the napkin-wrapped snack. She broke the muffin in half, studied the pieces a moment, then offered Max the one with the most chocolate chips.

“For what it’s worth,” Chloe said, stuffing her entire portion into her mouth, “welcome home, Max.”

Chapter Text

[04/20 4:32 PM] [???]

Hi Rachel, it’s Max. Chloe gave me your number. :)

[04/20 4:36 PM] [RA]

Hey Maxie!!! Where you guys at?

[04/20 4:39 PM] [MC]

Chloe was just showing me around. She took me to the Two Whales for lunch. We’ve been here for a couple of hours now.

[04/20 4:39 PM] [RA]

How’s Joyce? Bet she was really happy to see you.

[04/20 4:40 PM] [MC]

Yup, she really made me feel welcome! She even had a few moments to sit and talk before she had to get to work again.

Anyway, I wanted to check if it’s alright for me to come by now.

[04/20 4:43 PM] [RA]

Only if you promise to bring me a cinnamon waffle. I’ve been craving one ever since you mentioned Two Whales.

[4/20 4:44 PM] [MC]

Deal!

[4/20 4:45 PM] [RA]

Yesss! Come on over you guys and let’s party!

[4/20 4:46 PM] [MC]

See you in a bit, Rachel!

Oh, also...Chloe says she can’t stay. She’ll just drop me off before heading home.

[4/20 4:46 PM] [RA]

OH NO!!!!!

...

[4/20 4:47 PM] [RA]

Price. Max just told me you can’t spend time with us tonight. What gives?

[4/20 4:48 PM] [CP]

like u said earlier, i’m on dick-tator david’s shitlist. Mom’s already given me the lowdown.

if i want my life to anywhere bearable this week, i need to be home by “eighteen hundred”

also, pops wants me at the garage early tomorrow to tune-up some asshole’s ride

[4/20 4:50 PM] [RA]

I can’t believe you’d be so lame as to ditch spending the night with two cute girls so you can play greasemonkey on a Sunday >:(((

[4/20 4:51 PM] [CP]

it’s called a JOB, Amber. some of us need them to survive?

also, it’s just for the morning

also, no emoji

I already spent like 14 hours with u. Aren’t you tired of me yet?

[4/20 4:52 PM] [RA]

Don’t ask stupid questions Chloe.

What if I told you there’s gonna be pizza?

[4/20 4:53 PM] [CP]

don’t make this any more painful than it has 2 be, dammit

[4/20 4:53 PM] [RA]

Fine then your loss. Guess it’s just me and Max. We’ll be best friends before the night’s out.

You never even told me she’d be that cute wth

[4/20 4:54 PM] [CP]

RACHEL

go easy on her. u promised

[4/20 4:54 PM] [RA]

;)

[4/20 4:54 PM] [CP]

oh ffs


“You sure you’d rather not stay over at my place?” Chloe asked for what must’ve been the fifth time now.

Once again, Max found herself in front of the Amber household, biting her lip as she eyed the stained glass window of the front door. The engine of Chloe’s truck felt warm and relaxing as it idled away beneath her seat. She wished she could stay, or simply delay what was about to come. But she also knew every second she dawdled left the chance for disaster to strike. Just the Caulfield luck at work.

“I’m sorry Chloe,” Max replied. “Rachel’s right. David won’t like a guest suddenly dropping in—even if I am an old friend of yours. I don’t want to burden you, and since I’ll be back here for two years, it may be worth getting on his good side.”

Chloe snorted. “A pig’s ass doesn’t have a good side, Max. But fine. I’ll trust your instincts on this one.” She scowled. “But next time, girl, you’re staying with me. Got it?”

“I promise, Chloe. No...” Grinning, Max held up her pinkie. “I swear.”

Laughing, Chloe shoved at her shoulder. “Get outta here, hippie! I got places to go!”

With her takeaway box in tow, Max hopped out of the truck.

“Hey, Maxaroni?” called Chloe.

“Yeah?”

“You’ll call if you need anything, won’tcha?”

“Even before I dial 911.”

They shared a smile before Chloe pulled away from the curb, honking her horn twice to say goodbye. Max watched her disappear at the corner before taking a deep breath to try and calm her galloping pulse. She had already run through every possible scenario she could think of after she said what she had to say. At worst, she would have to hike to a motel or take up Chloe’s offer after Rachel threw her out of the house.

C’mon Max, you’ve got this, she thought, forcing herself to reach for the doorbell. Into the lion’s den we go.

The door opened, revealing a pretty, middle-aged brunette woman wearing a silver monogram necklace and a brown cardigan. “Hello there,” she said, smiling warmly. “You must be Maxine. I’m Rose Amber.”

“Oh, um, hi.” Max held out what she was sure was a cold and clammy hand. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Amber.”

The woman’s hand felt warm in hers. “You too, dear. Rachel told me you’d be visiting. Won’t you come in?” She stepped aside to make way for Max.

Feeling much like an intruder, Max thanked her and ventured inside. The foyer opened into a living area lit by Chinese-style lamps and recessed lighting. Carpets lined the floor, paintings of various sizes adorned the walls, and every mahogany surface had been polished to a sheen. To her left, the room opened up to a den lined with couches, recliners, an enormous TV, and shelves overflowing with books and family pictures. There was even a turntable with speakers and a collection of vinyl. While it all looked interesting for Max, they all screamed “antique” and “do not touch.”

“I see Chloe won’t be joining us today,” Mrs. Amber said, appearing at Max’s right.

“Oh, yeah, sorry. She said she has work tomorrow morning.”

The older woman chuckled. “I guess even she has to grow up sometime, doesn’t she?”

“Uh, I suppose.”

“I’m only joking. Chloe is wonderful, and she makes my Rachel very happy, I can tell. When you see her again, please tell her that she’s always welcome here.”

“I will,” promised Max. “But...wouldn’t she already know that?”

Mrs. Amber looked thoughtful. “I like to think so. But she hasn’t come over very often anymore, and when she does, I can’t even convince her to stay for dinner.”

“That...doesn’t sound like Chloe at all. She never turns down free food.”

Mrs. Amber laughed again. “Seems like you’re good friends with her.”

“Oh, of course. I’ve known her since we were little.”

“Well, do try to get Chloe to visit. I miss her, and I hate to think she’s avoiding us for some reason.” She gestured to the paper bag in Max’s hand. “Shall I take that for you?”

“Um, yes, thanks. It’s for Rachel, actually.”

“I’ll just slip this in the fridge for later. There’s some iced tea there as well if you’re feeling thirsty. Rachel said she’ll be down in a little while, so make yourself at home.” With that, Mrs. Amber made her way to the nearby kitchen.

Wow, thought Max. Rachel’s mom is so nice. I don’t see why Chloe wouldn’t show up here every weekend, given how great this place is...

Max’s gaze wandered around the room until they fell upon a cabinet beside the stairwell. This time, her curiosity got the better of her and she peered inside, only to be shocked by the sheer number of medals, plaques, and other awards packed in there. Holy shit. Top Honors, Spelling, History, Debate team, Track, Cheerleading, Drama, Dance...The only awards I ever got are for participation. Maybe that’s how Rachel gets so much leverage with her parents—by being good at literally freaking everything.  

Rapid footsteps made her heart leap in her chest. Stepping back from the cabinet, she caught sight of Rachel bounding down the steps two at a time.

“Max, there you are!”

“H-hi.”

Rachel looked right at home in her red tank top, jean shorts, and bare feet. With cat-like grace, she hopped over the last step to land just inches before Max. And just like that, the Girl stood before her again, larger than life with her radiant smile and laughing hazel eyes.

“So,” Rachel said, “it seems we’re Chloe-less this afternoon.”

“Yeah. Sorry I couldn’t get her to stay.”  

“Not a problem. I’m sure we’ll have fun by ourselves.” Her grin carried the glint of mischief. “Then we can bug her on Skype all night long and keep her awake.”

Max laughed with her and hoped she was only joking.

“C’mon,” Rachel said, grabbing her hand. “Let’s get you set up. Dad won’t be home till dinner, so it’s just the three of us for now...”

Keenly aware of Rachel’s warm fingers enclosing hers, Max let herself be led to the second floor. She nearly slipped on the stairs up; apparently, her going sleepless for more than twenty-four hours was finally catching up with her.

The second floor seemed every bit as well-furnished as the first one. Every inch of the hardwood floor was carpeted, and the shelves housed a collection of handcrafted vases and sculptures of various animals.

“Did you make these?” Max asked, awed.

“Hmm? Nope, Mom did. She loves working with her hands. She even makes me costumes for my plays.”

“I’d no idea she was so talented! And I’m glad your parents are cool with me staying the night.”

“Oh, I haven’t asked them yet.”

Max nearly choked on her own saliva. “You...you haven’t?”

“I figure it’d be easier after they take a liking to you—relax, they will.” She patted Max’s arm and continued down the hall. “Besides, it’s one of my rules for living.”

“Um, what rule is that?”

“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” Rachel opened a door to her right. “In here.”

Max let herself be ushered in, and instantly felt like she had entered a different dimension. Rachel’s room was bright and airy, lit not by lamps but by sunshine streaming in from the window. Max even caught the shy scent of flowers from the garden below.

In striking contrast to Chloe, Rachel seemed to be a neat freak—no dirty clothing scattered on the floor, no empty pizza boxes, no foul-smelling cans of beer peeking from beneath the furniture. Her bed was made, topped by a floral pattern quilt and a pile of fluffy pillows. Even the books and magazines on her enormous shelves seemed to be categorized by subject. Posters of Broadway musicals, rock bands, and exotic locales in France, Spain, and Japan lined the walls. Hung beside her bed were drama masks, wide-brimmed hats, and a large map of the USA filled with pins and stickers. A nearby whiteboard announced in fluid cursive:

“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” — GK Chesterton

“If you want to shower and change clothes,” Rachel was saying, “the bathroom’s just down the hall. Your stuff’s in here.” Rachel slid open a wardrobe, revealing Max’s overnight bag along with several racks of clothes. If Max had any doubts that Rachel was serious about being a model, a single glance at those clothes quelled them.

Rachel seemed invincible. Max couldn’t help but feel awed—even a little intimidated—by someone so capable and interesting and strong-willed, her complete opposite. But that was fine. Better than fine. After all, she wanted to know as much as she could about Rachel. She wanted to know everything possible to gain the would-be model’s trust.

“Thanks, Rachel,” Max said. “I really appreciate you going this far for me.”

“It pays to be nice to the newcomer. Or the oldcomer, I guess. Feel free to look around and get comfortable. I know our house can seem a bit cold, but here you can make yourself at home.”

Rachel moved to sit on her bed. Max followed but halted by her shelf, scanning the titles on the book spines. Several of them made her eyes pop: art books, photography collections by Avedon and Arbus, what appeared to be entire seasons of Dr. Who DVDs, Machiavelli's The Prince, Asimov’s Foundation series, The Millenium Trilogy, and a variety of fantasy novels, including—

The Last Unicorn ?” Max gasped.

Rachel’s face lit up. “You like? I honestly thought you’d go for one of the photography books, but...” She reached over and handed the book to Max. “It’s the Special Illustrated Edition. I even got it autographed. See?” Sure enough, when Max cracked it open she found the author’s signature on the flyleaf.

“Wowzer,” breathed Max, flipping through the pages to gape at the hand-drawn illustrations.

Rachel goggled at her for a second before bursting out in laughter. “What are you, a Saturday morning cartoon? Who says ‘wowzer’?”

Max blushed. “Uh, me apparently. It’s just that I haven’t seen or read this book in like ten years.” She flipped back to the first line at the beginning: The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. “My mom used to read parts of this to me when I was a kid. I love this book so much, but I lost it when we moved.”

“I’ve read it tons of times. It’s one of my favorites—and the subject of the English Lit paper I just finished.” Rachel gestured to her laptop, where an open document read: ‘How the Anachronisms in The Last Unicorn Blend Fantasy With Our Reality.’

“That sounds, um, complicated.”

“It should be. It’s one of the best fantasy stories ever written. And I love the character of the unicorn, how she’s this beautiful, immortal, legendary creature forced into a role she isn’t ready to play.”

“A mortal,” Max supplied. “A woman.”

Rachel smiled. “Yeah, precisely. I love stories about journeys and transformation and becoming something more than what you are.” She shrugged. “My dad prefers self-help books, but I find that fantasy and sci-fi teach more truth than any Robert Greene bestseller.”

When she noticed Max was still thumbing through the book, she said, “Hey, if you’re so interested, wanna borrow it for a while?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Max said, setting it down on the table. “It’s got Peter S. Beagle’s signature and everything—one day it might be priceless!”   

Rachel picked it up and put it in Max’s hands. “Please. If you had good memories from reading this, I’d like you to have them again. Think of it as my way of welcoming you back to Arcadia.”

“T-thank you,” Max mumbled, wishing she brought her something other than a bunch of stupid muffins. “I know I’ll enjoy this.”

Rachel slid down to straddle her chair, laying her arms atop the backrest. “So. Max the Photographer.”

Max, too self-conscious to sit on Rachel’s bed, slid down to the floor with her knees against her chest. “Yes, Rachel-the-Actress-slash-Model-slash-Honor-Student-slash-Cheerleader?”

Rachel giggled. “It’s a bit awkweird that we’re hanging out, huh?”

More than you know, thought Max. Now that she was sitting down a comfortable, carpeted floor, she could feel her fatigue much more keenly, like a heavy blanket enveloping her body. She forced herself to focus. Rachel was watching her intently.

“It’s a little awkweird, I guess. But it makes sense we’d meet, being friends with Chloe.”

Rachel hummed. “And if I had to guess, she’s the reason you’re back here in Arcadia Bay.”

“Yes,” Max replied, holding her gaze.

Rachel smiled. “You really are an honest girl.”

“I hope that’s a good thing...?”

“It’s refreshing,” Rachel replied, lifting her shoulders. “I probably don’t have to tell you this, Max, but Arcadia’s not exactly a paragon for honesty. To borrow from your favorite subject, people tend to look at each other through lenses and filters.”

“Lenses and filters?”

Rachel made a viewfinder with her thumbs and index fingers, capturing Max in its square. “They see only what they wanna see—or are seen how they wanna be seen.”

Max thought back on everything she had heard about Rachel from the residents of Arcadia Bay and wondered if the blonde was talking about herself, and wanted Max to know she was doing so.

Rachel gazed longingly at the map of the country by her bed. “But I guess that’s true wherever you are in the world. Which is why I’m glad I met Chloe. She’s as genuine as you can get, right?”

It was Max’s turn to smile. “Chloe’s always been like that. In fact, she kinda laid into me earlier today for not keeping in touch.”

“Really? Not too badly, I hope.”

“I deserved it. And we’re good now. I think I just have to keep giving her presents and stuff to keep her happy.”

Rachel just shook her head. “God love her.”

“Absotively.”

“Posolutely.”

They beamed at each other.

“So, we have some time before dinner. Would you like to play a game with me, Max?”

“Uh, what kind? It’s not like a consequence game, is it?”

Rachel gave her another mischievous look. “Would you like it to be a consequence game?”

“Um...”

“Relax. I think you can handle this.” Rachel tapped her temple. “It’s the kind of game where we try to get around our lenses and filters. And it’s really simple: during your turn, you take everything you’ve seen and heard so far about the other player and deduce something about them they’ve never told you. And they just say whether you’re right or wrong.”

Oh shit. I would so totally win this game if I only had rewinds. “I already know I’m gonna suck at it,” offered Max.

“Just give it a try, you might surprise yourself. Let's go with three rounds each. I’ll start off with something easy.” Rachel pursed her lips, eyeing Max from top to bottom. “Hmm...I bet you could beat Chloe in a foot race.”

Max had to grin at that one. “I think you’d be right, but how’d you come up with that?”

“I started with your shoes.” Rachel gestured to Max’s trainers. “They’re well-worn, scuffed at the sides, and mended a few times. You wore them on this trip, which means they’re most comfortable for walking or traveling long distances. The way you tie your laces shows you use them for running too. You like to jog in the mornings, Max?”

“Sometimes,” Max said, astounded.

“You strike me as a morning person,” Rachel said. “Chloe gets all cranky if you make her get up before ten. So if you ever want to challenge her to a race, set it in the early morning.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” laughed Max. “Chloe used to beat me at school work, but I was always better at P.E.”

“All that leg and no lung power.” Rachel tapped her lower lip. “Next up...I think people think you’re nosey, but are too polite to say.”

Max felt her face warming. “You are crazy good at this. How’d you figure that out?”

“That took some more work. Based on your body language and manner of speech, I can tell you’re the reserved, quiet type, someone who likes to hang back and talk as little as possible. You don’t like too much attention—it makes you nervous. But I see that you get very curious about other people and want to learn about them by observing them.”

“Oh, uh, sorry if that creeps you out.”

“Don’t worry about it. Curiosity is the mark of an intelligent mind. Plus, it really suits you as a photographer, doesn’t it? Observing people from behind a lens?”

“You make it sound like I’m more of a spy.”

Rachel gave her an enigmatic smile. “And for my third deduction...Max, are you in some kind of trouble?”

Max blinked. “What do you mean?”

“First, lemme apologize—I’m also kinda nosey. When I got your bag earlier, I checked it for a camera. You didn’t bring one. Which may be because you had to get here in a hurry, but it’s really weird for a photographer to not bring their camera, especially if they were visiting their hometown. It’d be like leaving a part of your brain behind, right?”

Max didn't reply at once. She shifted in her seat, chewing at her lip. “I just...didn’t think to bring it. I was in a hurry...”

Rachel said, “I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you left it on purpose. But why?” Frowning, she leaned forward on her seat. “I’ve been watching you Max, and you seem really...strung out. Like you lived through something terrible. Do you...want to talk about it?”

A camera bulb flashed somewhere behind Max’s eyes. For a moment, the air carried the sharp scent of antiseptic. The skin on her nape crawled at the touch of a ghostly, latex-covered hand. Max shook her head, dispelling the memory.

“I want to,” Max finally said. “And it’s important that you hear what I have to say, because it involves you too. It’s just...I don’t really know where to start.”

Rachel nodded. “I just want you to know, I’m here to listen. I’m sure Chloe feels the same.”

“Thanks, you don’t know how much that means to me.” This is going to work out, thought Max. If she’s really willing to hear what I have to say...

Rachel smiled and got up. “Let me get us something to drink. Then it’s your turn to—oh.”

Her phone was buzzing in her pocket. She pulled it out and glanced at the screen, blinking. “You mind if I get this? It’s kinda urgent.”

Max shook her head. “No, no. Go for it.”

“Be right back.” Rachel jumped to her feet and hustled out of her room, shutting the door behind her.


In the hallway, Rachel wasted no time hitting the answer button on her phone and putting on a sunny smile. “Hey.”

The voice on the other line came as smooth and warm as wine. “Hi. What’s Arcadia’s resident supermodel up to right now?”

“Aren’t we getting a bit ahead of ourselves?” Unbidden, her fingers toyed with her blue feather earring. She enjoyed the flattery, even as she recognized it for what it was. “Last I checked, I’m still knee-deep in this hick town without an agent or a prayer. Better stick with just Rachel.”

“Well, ‘Just Rachel,’ I have the feeling that’s about to change.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You should sit down first.”

Rachel, who was walking towards a window overlooking the street, propped herself against a nearby cabinet instead. Her pulse had suddenly gone quiet against the flesh of her wrists and neck. “Yeah?”

“I hope you don’t mind, but last week I emailed the photos I took of you to a friend of mine, Marcello Ruiz. He’s a fashion editor for the LA-based Mayfair Magazine. You can look that up. Long story short, he’s impressed. He wants to talk to you this week.”

Her pulse came back full force, a throbbing rhythm that swelled in her brain. For a moment, her vision clouded and she needed to grip the cabinet to keep her balance. The carpeted hallway vanished before her eyes, replaced by the lamplit streets of L.A., simmering from a long day under the blessed sun.

“You there, Rachel?”

“Oh, Mark...I-I can’t just accept this…”

Laughter on the other end. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

“You didn’t…didn’t lean on him? Call in a favor? Twist his arm?”

“That REALLY doesn’t sound like you. The Rachel I know is supremely confident in her abilities. Did I maybe dial the wrong number?”

“Mark, please.”

“The answer’s no, not even a little bit. Marcello is well and truly smitten. You can expect his call sometime Tuesday.”

“I don’t know what to say. I guess…thank you. Thank you so much for this. It means a lot that you did this for me.”

“It was my pleasure. Someone as exquisite as you deserve every such opportunity.” He paused, cleared his throat. “Listen, are you busy at the moment?”

“What, like now, now?”

“Yes, I think I was specific enough.”

“Well, I actually have a friend over.”

“Any chance you can get away for a little while? I’d like to speak with you in person. Discuss your future in finer detail. A deal may be in the works, so there are some things you should know about the LA fashion scene.”

Rachel bit her lip. “I’d like that. I’d really like that. But my friend’s new in town and she’ll likely freak if I leave her alone. Could we talk Monday, say after class?”

The line went silent for a moment, and Rachel thought she might have annoyed him. Then the voice came back, rich and deep and resonant as a lion tamer’s. “I’d really like to see you, Rachel. Even for just half an hour. I’m sorry to sound desperate for your company, but there’s little to draw inspiration from a town as banal as Arcadia Bay. And the afternoon light’s so beautiful now by the sea. I could shoot you again. Wouldn’t that be nice?”  

Though she had her back to the window, Rachel could actually see it in her head: the sun sweeping low to kiss the ocean horizon. Perfect for an impromptu shoot. And she could be back quickly if she so wanted.

But Max...

Moving towards her door, she nudged it open and peeked in. Max was slumped against the foot of the bed, head bowed towards the open book on her lap, chin resting on her chest, her breathing slow and deep.

“Max?” said Rachel. Her guest didn’t stir.

Rachel sighed in relief. Perhaps this was easier than she thought. If she were quick, maybe she’d be back before Max even woke up. The thought of doing something so illicit was causing her pulse to quicken again.

“That…does sound quite nice,” Rachel said into her phone. “I’ll need a change of clothes first.”

“Don’t bother. I’m sure you’re as radiant now as you’ll ever be.”

“Where do I meet you?”

“I’ll be at the parking lot at the foot of the lighthouse. Can you make it there in fifteen minutes?”

“Less if I can help it. See you in a bit.”

“Looking forward, my dear.”

Suppressing a smile, Rachel ended the call and inched her way back into her bedroom. I’m sorry, she mouthed to the other girl as she tiptoed to her dresser to pick up her make-up kit and the sandals under her chair. Getting to the bottom of Max’s story would have to wait, and besides, it looked like she needed the rest. Max didn’t even stir as Rachel softly closed the door behind her.

Moments later, Max’s phone buzzed as a message came in.

 

[04/20 6:37] [RA]

Heya. Sorry, we’re out of iced tea. Heading to the convenience store real quick. BRB!

 


Humming to herself, Rachel brisk-walked down her subdivision’s road and turned the corner. From there, it was just a couple of blocks until she reached Arcadia Bay Avenue, followed by a few minutes’ walk to the lighthouse parking lot.

A cool, soft wind wafted in from the sea, and there was nary a cloud in the sky. Rachel had no time to admire the view. Her mind was far away, in another place where the air stayed warm even in winter, and the evenings pulsed with music and a never-ending array of city lights.

If she took a moment to ask herself why it was a good idea to take up with Mark Jefferson, she wouldn’t be without reasons. His credentials alone could make any Blackwell art student cry. He had serious connections in the fashion world, friends and allies that could make her climb up that particular slope much easier. He obviously had money to spare if he wanted to go as far as help her get a leg up in the city (Rachel would never dream of asking that of him, but then, she never really had to ask).

But if she were to be perfectly honest, what drew her to Jefferson was the same thing that once drew her to Frank. Both men possessed an edge, a dangerous presence akin to a wild animal’s. With Mark, it was more subtle. Rachel could sense it anyway—from his gaze, the quick movements of his hands, his quiet, forceful way that made even his suggestions sound like commands. Each man revolved around their own personal dark star, and Rachel couldn’t help but be drawn to them. It was the same thing that drew her to Chloe all those years ago.

Chloe. Just the thought of her worsened the growing thread of unease inside Rachel. It was torture keeping this from Chloe, despite knowing that in the long run, it would benefit them both. But even the thought of confessing, of seeing the look on Chloe’s face, made Rachel’s courage fail. How long could she keep this up? She had to resolve it somehow, soon.

But that would have to wait. For now, her dreams lay ahead, waiting only for—

“Rachel!”

She whirled about, shock spreading across her face as Max pelted down the sidewalk towards her.

“Rachel, you can’t go!”

Rachel's face flushed with heat, but she managed to school her features. “Hey Maxie,” she said, producing a sheepish smile, “I’m really sorry to worry you. I thought you might like some tea, but it looks like Dad drank it all last night so—”

“We both know this isn’t the way to the store.” Panting, Max came to a stop some five paces away, her face pale and open and full of fear. “You’re meeting him, aren’t you? You’re meeting Mark Jefferson.”

Rachel felt her feet rooting themselves into the concrete. There was a hot coil winding deep in her chest, heating up her blood. She had been so careful; she had told no one.

“That’s why you’re sneaking out,” Max continued. “It’s Jefferson. He asked you to meet him.”

“Max.” Rachel focused on keeping her breathing steady. “I’m not sure what you’ve heard from whomever, but this isn’t really—”

“I know all about him, Rachel. He’s the reason I needed to talk to you alone. I know about the letter you tried to write to Chloe but you ended up throwing away. I know about you and Frank Bowers. I know you gave him your bracelet and I know about the drugs.” Max gulped, then blurted out, “And I know that if you go see Jefferson right now, it’ll be the last thing you’ll ever do.”

Rachel’s blood boiled up from her chest into her head. Her body acted on its own—she lunged towards Max, eyes blazing, finger raised in warning.

“How?”

She halted just inches from Max—Rachel could see every inch of her features, from the freckles standing out against her pale skin to the lump being swallowed down her throat. But Max did not back away.

“How do you know all this?” Rachel demanded. “No more games, Max! Tell me right now!”

Max stared back at her, hands balling into fists. “You already know how, Rachel.” 

“Like I’m supposed to believe you came from the future! What the fuck is your damage, Max? Who can swallow—”

“It’s already happened. And it’s going to happen again unless we do something to change it!”

Max’s lips were trembling, but her eyes never wavered. Rachel was struck by the absolute certainty in that blue gaze. It was as if Chloe were looking at her—no lenses, no filters. And for the second time since she met Max Caulfield, Rachel was seized by the insane, terrifying possibility that every word this girl was saying was true.

Still, she cried, “You’re—you’re working with David Madsen, aren’t you? He’s been spying on me for weeks. And you’re helping him, trying to get me to confess to something. It’s not going to work, Max!”

Max didn’t even reply to this; she simply gazed back, looking sad and lost and helpless, and Rachel felt foolish for even dreaming up such a thing.

“Max,” she said, voice faltering, “what…what is this?”

“This is me doing everything I can.” Max stretched out her hands towards Rachel’s. “You have to trust me, Rachel. Don’t go to him. He’s the real murderer. He’s built a Dark Room where he drags his victims so he can take these horrible pictures for his fucked-up collection. He destroyed Nathan—and he’ll destroy you too.”

“Y-you’re not making any sense.”

“Rachel, earlier you said you believed me. You said I was honest. You know I wouldn’t come all this way just to play some kind of joke. Not on you, and especially not on Chloe.

“So I’m asking you to trust me. I need you to trust me. If you’d just listen for a few minutes, I’ll tell you everything that he’s doing. Please, Rachel. You need to know what he did to me. To you. To Chloe. Please help me make it right.”

And now it was clear to Rachel how she knew Max wasn’t lying. She could read it from the quiet terror in those wide eyes, the knot between her brows, the prickling of her flesh. Some unspeakable horror lived just beneath Max’s skin and it was impossible to fake. Of this Rachel was sure, because an answering horror was rising inside her too.

In a cold, flat voice, Rachel said, “I need to go, Max.”

She turned away from Max’s crushed expression, faced the road to the lighthouse once again. “You’d better go too. I’ll be back home in about an hour, and I want you gone from there before I arrive.”

This is simply self-defense, Rachel assured herself. Max was assaulting her foundations, the reality she had so carefully crafted all these years. She could not—would not—see them shattered.

Rachel took five steps forward and the world plunged into darkness.

She halted, nearly losing her balance in the sudden gloom. One moment the shoreline was bathed in soft afternoon light, next it was night, as if she had lost several hours in a matter of seconds. A faded yellow moon hung in the sky, and the lighthouse in the distance was an unlit candle in the dark.  

Have I gone crazy? She thought. No, no way. I’m dreaming—I must be.

It wasn’t completely dark after all—a flickering glow from her right caught her attention. Rachel dragged her eyes to look and her breath instantly went backward.

Arcadia Bay was in flames. The town hall nearby was an inferno, fire crackling from every window, the grass on the lawn shriveling up and dying beneath the trembling heat. In every street, flames ran rampant amongst the stores and houses. Metal snapped and groaned, glass shattered, and burning wood crashed to the ground. Above it all, ravens cawed a maddening chant against a glowing, smoke-filled sky.

Just like back then, came Rachel’s unbidden thought, three years ago, when I burned the forest down.

“This isn’t happening.” She clutched her head with both hands. But the heat was already baking her skin. A gust of wind brought acrid smoke and bits of ash to her nose, stinging her eyes and catching in her throat. “This isn’t real,” she wailed. “I’m dreaming...dreaming! I—”

A firm hand gripped her shoulder. Rachel blinked in surprise; the sea of flames was gone. Every building stood as it had always been; nothing but golden light filled the sleepy town.

“Rachel?” Max said, gently shaking her. “Rachel, can you hear me? Are you okay?”

Rachel stared back at Max’s worried expression, mouth agape, the taste of ash still on her tongue. The vision felt so real, nearly as real as the hand steadying her shoulder. But Max hadn’t seen any of it.

“Rachel?”

Rachel looked to her right, out over the bay. The sun was hanging low over the sea—the golden hour was almost here. She could almost see California appearing before her like a mirage, a Fata Morgana hovering over the restless, grasping waves.

If she hurried, she could still make it to Mark, prove to herself it was all real and good and true.

But even now, clouds were racing towards the shore, threatening to obscure that blazing light. She tore her gaze from the sunset and back to Max’s concerned face. And then, she felt it—a quiet shift, the universe pivoting ever so slightly on some hidden axis.

“Tell me everything,” Rachel whispered.


Max led her down to the shore to an empty bench, hidden from the street by a stone barrier. They sat tilted towards each other with only a hand’s breadth between them. Then Max talked—haltingly at first, then surer, then it came tumbling out, an awful litany that seemed like she was exorcizing her own demons.

She talked about her past (their tomorrow?), her first reunion with Chloe in the Blackwell girl’s room, how the two of them joined forces to hunt for clues to Rachel’s whereabouts. How they discovered the Dark Room conspiracy, and the shelf full of red binders, like crypts marked with the names of girls. She talked about Chloe’s murder at Jefferson’s hands, and of the storm that left both Arcadia Bay and Max’s life in ruins.

“I tried so many times to save her,” Max said, pausing to gather herself. “But it’s like the world had it out for her. No matter what I did, Chloe ended up dying.”

Finally, she told Rachel of the three Native American women who promised salvation, if she did the one thing they asked of her.

“Save the Incarnate,” Rachel repeated. “Me.”

Max talked. Rachel listened. Sometimes, when Max faltered, Rachel would repeat the last thing she said to prompt her. During the worst parts, when Max talked about Chloe suffering, Rachel would fit her palm over her mouth to hold back a gasp or a sob. But she barely uttered a word, allowing Max the space to go on with her story.

Soon, the sun began to dip below the water. The dark clouds gathered and glowered; the sea breeze felt charged and dangerous.

It was only after Max had finished, arriving at their present, that Rachel drew a deep shuddering breath and said, “So you’re saying…it all hinges on me now.”

“Yes.”

“That you have to save me, to let me ‘choose’, in order to stop things from going to hell.”

Again, “Yes.”

“And if I…if we don’t do this…if we fail…either a storm destroys Arcadia Bay or Chloe dies?”

Max couldn’t even bring herself to speak; she just nodded.

Rachel found the edges of her mouth quivering. Touching them didn’t help—her hands were trembling too. “Can I…I need…I need a moment alone.”

She got up from the bench and stumbled onto the sand towards the water. She had forgotten about Jefferson and the promise of California—it felt surreal, like it had happened in a different universe.

Throughout Max’s story, Rachel had had to force back the shock, the horror, the guilt that sickened her stomach. The grief at how she had so thoroughly ruined Chloe’s life, and the sheer terror that, in some misbegotten future, this was already past, the life she had so carefully cultivated swept away at the hands of madmen. And that it had been averted—that she had been saved—only by the mercy of strangers. She couldn’t decide whether to laugh or throw up.

Her hands wouldn’t stop trembling. She had never wanted a smoke as badly as she did now. She wanted a hit, a pill, anything to shield her from the pain. But she had nothing. Instead, she fell to her knees just a few paces from the water. The sand crept into her sneakers, scraped against her legs, but Rachel welcomed the discomfort. She gritted her teeth and hugged her shoulders as if she could bottle the truth up inside and keep it from harming her. But Max’s words had cut her open and laid her bare.

She had failed Chloe. She had failed herself. In one afternoon, her dreams had turned to ash. There were no words to capture all of this, but she didn’t need them.

Rachel raised her head and screamed. Her cry ripped through the air in a wave of power and, unable to resist, the sky itself answered.

Max, who had kept her eyes fixed on the girl by the surf, was instantly blinded by a bolt of shattering, incandescent white. Rachel vanished behind a blast of air and sand, her cry swallowed up by the deafening crash of thunder.

Chapter Text

A hush had descended over the bay, broken now and then by the rustle of trees and the rattle of a passing train. Somewhere beyond the treeline, one seabird called to another for a final fishing run before the day came to an end. The shadow of the pines lengthened incrementally, black fingers creeping across the empty parking lot towards its lone occupant.

Couldn’t be more isolated, Mark Jefferson thought as he leaned against the driver’s side of his car. The perfect spot for one last photo shoot.

Except his model was missing.

Scowling, he checked his watch. Rachel had said she would meet him in fifteen minutes or less. That was almost thirty minutes ago. This was also the fifth time he’d looked at his watch since he arrived, and every time he did he felt more a fool. Something was wrong.

At Blackwell, he had gotten used to the way she had played the model student in every sense of the word: prompt, respectful, studious, always eager to help. And outside of Blackwell, well, her lingering gaze alone told him all he needed to know. She was his creature—of this, he was almost certain.

So where was she?

Calm down,” he muttered, and forced his foot to stop tapping. Stay calm. Worry breeds panic, panic breeds mistakes. You can’t afford a single mistake. Breathing deeply, he reviewed his preparations. The syringe sat securely in his jacket pocket. Bending down, he took a peek at the backseat of his car. On the expensive black leather sat the roll of duct tape he would use to bind her limbs and seal her mouth. He even brought a heavy woolen blanket to conceal her body, if he were forced to stop and roll down his heavily tinted window. He knew his routes, main and backup, should he be followed. All bases covered.

All this trouble because that imbecile failed to get Rachel to that Vortex party last night. The boy had forced Jefferson to do what he hated most: to act directly, exposing himself to risk.

But he had to work with what he’d been given. His relationship with Nathan, however galling, had allowed him to stock the Dark Room with everything he needed. It was just his luck that this particular fruit had fallen far from the Prescott tree—apparently hitting every branch on the way down.

That itching in his brain turned into heated gnawing, eating away at his inner calm. The plan was foolproof. Rachel had said she was coming to him! What happened?  

Something has gone very wrong. He could feel it coming like those clouds he could see in the distance, threatening to obscure this beautiful light. Even the air smelled different, like it was going to rain.

After another ten minutes, he succumbed: he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed Rachel’s number. He let it ring a dozen times before finally texting her a simple message: “?”

He needed to stay busy, to work so he could think. Reaching into his car, he grabbed his Hasselblad camera from the passenger’s seat. But what to shoot?

He scanned the length of the parking lot—and realized he wasn’t alone after all. Perched on a low fence post just a few dozen yards to his left, a raven faced the beach, watching as the other birds gathered to frolic on the seashore. Well, he thought as he approached it, I’ve had worse models.

He stopped twenty paces away from the bird so as not to spook it. Not that he thought he could—the thing was enormous. It probably had been gorging on garbage for years to get that fat.

Hunching down, he lifted the viewfinder to his eye and fiddled with the focus of his lens. It felt good to work, to lose himself in his art. Already the worry was starting to ebb. It’s all under control, he told himself. Sooner or later, I’ll get what I want. I’m in control.

“Hold still, you ugly beast,” he said under his breath. “Let me immortalize you.”

As if it had heard him, the raven whipped its head in his direction, regarding him with eyes like flecks of coal. Something in its blank stare froze Jefferson’s finger as it hovered over the shutter. Before he could shoot, the bird vaulted into the air.

“Ah, shit.” Jefferson lowered his camera to see the raven flapping overhead. Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie, O, what a panic's in thy breastie.

Returning to his car, his eyes fell on an oily white starburst on his once pristine windshield. “Oh, fuck you too, my friend. Fuck you very much.”

He thought he had lost his chance for good, but as it turned out, the bird didn’t go very far. It had descended on the branch of a barren tree on the other side of the lot. Rather than approach, Jefferson straightened up and raised his camera again, zooming in to line up a shot.

The damned beast was staring at him again—only this time, it wasn’t alone. To his surprise, four more equally squat, equally fat birds perched on nearby branches, so still that they barely seemed alive. As one, they stared back at him, the subject of ten little black lenses.

What is this? As the camera sunk away from his face, Jefferson found himself suppressing a shudder. He hated being stared at. He had never felt good under such scrutiny, not since his mother—

Alright, enough.

Jefferson tugged open the car door and slipped into the driver's seat with a little more haste than he meant to.

As he maneuvered his way out of the parking lot, he risked one final look at the rearview mirror. The dead tree still stood there like a prop from a bad horror movie, but of the ravens, there was no sign. He let out a relieved sigh. Then he scolded himself for what could only be a detour into cowardice. Chased away by a flock of birds. Christ. Hitchcock would have laughed himself sick.

His radio was playing a tune—he couldn’t even remember when he’d turned it on.

Over by the window,

there’s a pack of cigarettes

Not my brand, you understand,

sometimes the girl forgets

He ran his hand through his hair, focused on his breathing. He needed to go back to the matter at hand—he was still short one model. If Rachel were simply running late, she would’ve answered his calls. She was not the type to forget her cell at home; youngsters nowadays would sooner marry their phones than their sweethearts. No, this had to be something else.

He drove down the main avenue, hoping to catch sight of Rachel hurrying along the sidewalk. No such luck: the entire stretch of road was deserted but for passing cars. It was as if she had never left home at all—which was most likely the case.

She forgets to hide ‘em.

I know who left those smokes behind.

She’ll say, “Oh, he’s just a friend.”

And I’ll say, “Oh, I’m not blind.”

Gritting his teeth, he turned left at the town hall and headed for home. By Monday he would hear her explanations, but for now, he was done playing the jilted suitor. It didn’t matter. He would regroup, make a new plan. The opportunity would come again.

He was just two blocks from his house when thunderclap jarred him out of his thoughts. His foot mashed the brakes—the wheels screeched in protest and he lurched forward, seat belt snapping painfully against his shoulder. He sat still for a moment, blinking, looking in his rearview mirror, partly convinced that the lightning had set a nearby building on fire. He had never heard thunder so close like that; so long and loud, it had rattled his car windows and made his ears ring. Even the radio had dissolved into static—could lightning even do that?

There was nothing to see behind him but the dark clouds obscuring what would have been a lovely sunset. Looks like a thunderstorm on the way.

It’s been a long day, he thought, now acutely aware of the weight on his shoulders. I’m a bit more rattled than I thought. He switched off his radio, released the brake, and drove the rest of his way home.


Alone at last, Jefferson did his best to forget about the fiasco. He made himself a salad for dinner, which he ate while watching the evening news. Afterward, he spent an hour inspecting and cleaning his equipment before retiring to his room. There he spent the rest of the night poring over a book on deer hunting, Nat King Cole crooning over his speakers. After an hour, he passed out on his bed.

His eyes popped open when his phone rang. On instinct, he reached for his night table, but stopped when he realized the ringtone wasn’t from his regular cell. Still slow from drowsiness, he turned down the music before reaching beneath his bed to peel off the burner phone taped beneath the frame.

“Jefferson.” The voice on the other end made him snap fully awake. “We need to talk.”

Jefferson glanced at his watch. “...It’s one in the morning. I don’t suppose this can wait?”

“No.” The growl that accompanied that single syllable told him not to push his luck.

Clearing his throat, Jefferson replied, “I’m listening.”

“In person. I’ve sent someone to pick you up. Be ready in ten minutes.” Then, as if in afterthought, “Bring your camera.”

The line went dead. Jefferson started at the phone in his hand, then sighed. Clearly, this long day was far from over.

He carefully reattached the burner phone to the bottom of his bed frame. Then he reached for his shoes, picked up his camera, and waited on the couch beside his front door. When high beams crawled across his curtained window, Jefferson slipped on his shoes and exited his house.

His driver was already waiting, leaning beside the black Lincoln with its engine still running. He towered over Jefferson by half a head and seemed taller still with the wide-brimmed leather hat he wore. The sleeves of his blue polo shirt were rolled up, exposing muscular forearms covered in coarse, grey hair. In the harsh light of the lamppost, he met Jefferson with a cold look and a thin, sardonic grin.

“Sheriff Skinner,” said Jefferson, approaching the car. “Nice night.”

Hank Skinner raised one hand that Jefferson thought was in greeting, but quickly realized that the cop was telling him to halt. “Before we go on,” he drawled, “I’m gonna have to ask you for the usual.”

Jefferson stopped at the sidewalk, exasperated. “Is this strictly necessary, Sheriff? We’re working together, aren’t we?”  

Skinner took off his hat, revealing a high widow’s peak of oily grey hair. He was grinning, showing teeth that looked very white and very strong. That smile sent alarm bells ringing through Jefferson’s head and made him think of the handgun in his workshop drawer.

“Mr. Prescott throws money at his problems and eighty percent of them go away,” Skinner began, setting his hat on the roof his car. “For the other twenty, he’s got me.” The cop leaned forward, regarding him gently. “Are you gonna be that sort of problem, son?”

Jefferson took a deep breath before slinging his camera strap over one shoulder and raising his hands overhead. “Look, just make it fast. He sounded impatient.”

Skinner obliged him, stepping forward to pat him down. Satisfied, the taller man jerked his head towards the car. “Let’s go, Prof.”

Jefferson didn’t miss the touch of derision in that last word, but he made no comment. Instead, he walked over to the car and got in the passenger’s side. The inside smelled strongly of cigars. “Where are we going?”

Skinner stooped to throw his hat into the back before fitting himself into the driver’s seat. “Not far,” he said, starting the engine. Jefferson waited for him to say more, but the older man was clearly not up for chit-chat.

“Can you at least tell me why I needed to bring my camera?”

Again that horrid grin. “Why, to take some purty pitchers, of course. Ain’t that your job?”

Jefferson sat back as the Lincoln cruised through the streets. Should’ve known better than to ask when you know answers aren’t forthcoming. He’s simply toying with me.

“You ought to remember your place, son,” the Sheriff was saying. “In our setup, information don’t always trickle down to the low man on the totem pole.”

“See, everybody gets that reference wrong,” Jefferson said. “Per Native American lore, the low man is the most important person of the story, which is why he’s placed closest to the earth. Little reading goes a long way, Sheriff.”

Skinner said nothing, favoring him a sidelong glance. Then he smiled and chortled, “Well dang, you learn somethin' new every day." 

They drove down the empty streets, passing silent, dark houses and empty shops. At this time of night, Arcadia seemed like a ghost town inhabited only by lampposts and parked cars. Not even a stray cat out tonight.

The Lincoln finally came to a stop at the marina parking lot. Skinner killed the engine and unbuckled his seatbelt. “C’mon. Sooner we're done here, sooner you can get back in bed.”

As Jefferson started towards the marina, Skinner said, "Oh yeah, and Prof?"

Jefferson turned around, just in time to catch a fist to his guts. The air exploded out his lungs as he doubled over, clutching at his stomach, forehead nearly kissing concrete. Saliva dripped out of his wide open mouth. It hurt too much to even groan.

Skinner crouched beside him, gently rubbing his shoulder as he crouched there wheezing. "You’re right about one thing. Boss’s in a mood tonight. I'd watch that lip, son.”

Taking him by the arm, Skinner dragged Jefferson down to Pier 3, towards a lone figure hunched by the water. The sheriff stopped where his shoes touched wood. He motioned for Jefferson to continue, then turned his eyes back to the avenue to keep watch. Gasping, Jefferson stumbled onto the pier.

Sean Prescott sat on one of the wooden pilings, gazing out into the dark water. He wore a black blazer over a green shirt, and his cufflinks sparkled like a lynx’s eyes. He was turning a flat stone over and over in his hands, and didn’t raise his head at Jefferson’s approach.

“What kept you?”

“...I came as quick as I could,” gasped Jefferson, fighting to keep his composure. Prescott was not someone to show weakness to. “If you don’t mind, what exactly do we need to discuss out here?”

Prescott didn’t answer at once. He continued to turn the stone in his hand, like a magician about to perform a coin trick. “Do you know who wins wars, Jefferson?” he asked.

“Pardon?”

“Who wins wars.”

“I would say people of influence, of power.” Someone like yourself, is what you’re probably driving at.

Prescott raised his head, his eyes obscured by distant lights reflecting on his thick-rimmed glasses. “Men of great causes win wars. It's sine qua non. Nothing in this world happens without a cause, least of all victory.”

“I’ve no doubt you have one, Mr. Prescott. You’ve talked about it since the first day of our agreement.”

“I don’t merely have a great cause, Jefferson,” Prescott replied. “I have a great enemy. Whose face I’ve never seen.” He hurled the flat stone across the water, making it skip four times before it disappeared into the waves. “You took up my cause without ever believing I had an adversary, but that’s understandable. I’ve never shown you any physical proof.

“There’s something I want you to see.” Prescott then pointed to a section of the beach some fifty feet away. “Go and take a look. Once you’re done, come back and we’ll talk.”

Jefferson’s eyes followed his pointing finger to a spot close to the water, then stole a look at Prescott’s face. The older man’s expression was stony, the look of a general gazing at a distant enemy encampment. He didn’t lower his finger until Jefferson jumped down from the pier onto the beach.

He hurried across the sand, not merely for Prescott’s sake but because he was now feeling the night air cut into his flesh. He rolled his sleeves down over the goosebumps on his arms and focused his attention on the task at hand. The sooner he was done with whatever nonsense Prescott wanted, the sooner he could get back to the warm shelter of his house.

But there was nothing out here but sand and surf, and the lighthouse gleaming in the distance. They were still at high tide at this hour, but the waves were receding now, based on the water line. Nothing of interest at all—  

“Ah!” He pulled his foot back as his shoe struck something in the sand. It felt sharp, like a broken bottle. He must’ve scuffed his loafer. Gritting his teeth at the pain, he looked down to see some kind of crag jutting out of the sand.

Jefferson squinted in the dim light of a lamppost. This looked rather strange for a rock. In fact, he seemed to have broken off a chunk when his foot made contact. He fished for his phone in his pocket to turn its flashlight at the sand at his feet. 

He was wrong—it wasn’t a stone. It looked like some kind of coral, still wet from the high tide. The piece that broke off just lay there like a dismembered statue’s finger, so he picked it up and held it under the light.

It wasn’t coral at all. Coral didn’t glitter like this. Moreover, this substance didn’t seem organic. It was hollow, brittle, and gritty. In fact, it seemed a bit like quartz, like...

“Glass,” muttered Jefferson. He cast the flashlight beam back down onto the ground. Over there was another piece jutting out of the sand. No, not a piece. Beneath the light, it resembled a web of arteries or a partially uncovered tree root. Long tubes of a glasslike substance zigzagging through the beach. It seemed familiar somehow, but he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen it before.

Jefferson stalked along the sand, turning the flashlight this way and that. As he followed the substance, he soon realized that they were shaped like a starburst, radiating out from a point several meters from where he first saw the glass. It grew thicker as he approached the center. There they looked even more fantastic—intricate little tendrils and towers that reached up from the sand like tiny claws.

(tiny bird claws)

He squelched that ugly thought in his head and focused on remembering where he’d observed this phenomenon before. Then it came to him. He had seen pictures of this in a science journal some years back. This was fulgurite—a glass-like substance that naturally occurs when lightning strikes sand.

So that bolt from earlier hit this beach. He was amazed to see so much fulgurite, as it mostly formed beneath the ground. That lightning bolt must have been massive indeed for this much to pierce the surface.

Well, this is quite fascinating, he thought. Certainly something to write home about, and promised good money if they could get someone to dig it out of the ground. But it was hardly worth getting dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. He doubted Prescott was the type to waste their time on something like this.

He followed the fulgurite arm till he reached the center of the starburst, and he stopped, eyes widening, breath going shallow. I must be hallucinating, he thought. That can’t be real. That’s impossible.

Dropping his phone onto the sand, he unslung his Hasselblad and took a picture. Fighting to keep his hand steady, he stared down at the image on the screen. His eyes had not been deceiving him. It was really there.

Jefferson approached, careful to watch his step, and raised his camera again to snap another picture. Then another. And another. After several minutes, he grabbed his phone and sprinted back to the pier.

Prescott hadn’t moved from his seat; he crouched there in the dark like a goblin, the glowing cigarette in his hand like a single red eye.

“So you saw it.”

“I did,” Jefferson breathlessly replied. “I can’t even begin to explain how—”

“It doesn’t require much explanation.” Getting to his feet, Prescott threw the cigarette into the sea and motioned for Skinner to come over. “What it needs is quick, decisive action.”

Jefferson stared down at the screen of his camera. He had taken a picture of what must be the center of the starburst, where the fulgurite was thickest. This was the exact spot where the lightning bolt had struck the beach.

Amidst the thick web of hardened lightning was a pair of footprints. Someone had been standing there when the bolt hit the sand.

And that wasn’t even the most remarkable thing. Off to the right side of the picture was another starburst with a footprint. And another. Whoever it was had been hit again and again by lightning, but had simply walked away.

Jefferson looked up to meet Prescott’s gaze. The older man’s face was a mask of hatred. “It’s her.”

Jefferson blinked. “You mean you suspect the aberrant—”

“I mean the witch. She made me wait three years, but she’s awake at last. And this time, she’s not getting away.”

Skinner, who had just strolled up to them, asked the question that Jefferson was smart enough to avoid. “Sir, we should look at the possibility that this is some kind of fluke. Suppose someone did get hit by lightning and just...survived? If we check the hospital admission records, we could—”

Skinner fell silent as Prescott fixed him a malevolent look.

“Let me be clear when I say I don’t give a shit about what you think, Sheriff. Only what I tell you to do. That witch is here in Arcadia Bay. She poses an immediate threat to me—and we don’t even know who. She. Is.” He jabbed a finger at Skinner, then at Jefferson. “Your task is to find her.”

He looked back at Skinner. “I want you to treat this as a crime about to be committed. You have her footprints. I want you to provide me with a description based on that. How tall she is, her build, everything. Then I want you to narrow down a list of young women based on those parameters.”

Skinner cleared his throat. “I’m going to need information. Mostly the biodata of students in Blackwell Academy, but also from department stores, hospital records, whatever that’s available so I can cast a net.”

“You’ll get it.” Prescott turned to Jefferson. “Is the Dark Room all set up?”

“It is,” Jefferson confirmed. “I’ve tested it on a few subjects. But no positives so far.” He shifted his balance to the other foot. “Should I wait till you have the list of candidates based on the prints?”

“That may take too long. I want you busy. Do you already have someone in mind?”

Jefferson thought back to Rachel. “I do have some candidates,” he averred. “Blackwell students.”

Prescott’s gaze drilled into him, as if sensing he was hiding something. Finally, he nodded. “Fine. Get it done, fast. Notify me at once when you find something.”

Skinner spoke up again. “What about the site, sir? Can I pull my boys out now or...”

“Leave them there. Given what we’ve found, I’m moving up the timetable. I’ll send in workers over the next few days to start construction and I don’t want them interrupted.”

Skinner scratched his chin. “Indians won’t like that, sir. They may stir up trouble.”

“I don’t care if they send lawyers or warbands. Keep them away from the site. You’ll have ample opportunity to do your job.”

Jefferson said, “Suppose we tell the others? I’m sure they’d provide some help in locating—”

Prescott’s face flushed red as he surged forward, his chest almost touching Jefferson's. “You will tell NO ONE!” he thundered, jowls shaking. “NO ONE AT ALL! This is MY operation! I deal with my enemies, you understand?”

“...Yes, sir.”

A long silence ensued as Prescott controlled his breathing. “I want that part of the beach cordoned off," he said to Skinner. "Tomorrow, I’ll have some men dig up and destroy the fulgurite. In the meantime, make up some bullshit about a dead whale or something, I don’t care. I don’t want anybody seeing those footprints. I don’t want any pictures floating around the internet.”

“Got it.”

“Good.” He gazed at them over the black frames of his glasses. “Do not fail me, either of you. If we find her, you will be rewarded. If we don’t, she’ll find us. And you’d better pray that won’t be the case, because you can expect less mercy from her than from me.”

Prescott took one last hard look at both of them, then stalked back up the pier towards his car.

After a moment, Skinner put his leather hat back on and spat into the sea. “So that’s my job now, chasing ghosts and goblins.” He turned his feet to the parking lot. “You coming, Prof?”

Not for the first time, Jefferson wondered how Prescott could cow a man like Skinner. Then he remembered the look of obsession and fury on Prescott’s face. The look of a man who would ruin the world to get what he wanted.

Sine qua non.

“...I’ll walk, thanks. I need some time to think.”

The cop gave him a strange look. “Suit yourself. I need time to handle this shit tonight, anyway.” And he strolled back the way he came.

Jefferson looked back down at the image on his camera’s screen. He thought of the life he had left behind here in Arcadia Bay nearly twenty years ago, and how Prescott had forced him to come back. He thought of the task that now hung over him like Damocles’s sword.

Mostly though, he thought of why Rachel never came to meet him. His mind rewound back to their last conversation over the phone. Of course. He had missed the obvious. Rachel had mentioned a female friend was staying over, someone who might have stopped her from leaving her house.

She might have mentioned their name.

What was it again?

 

Chapter Text

Rachel lay wide awake, her burning, tired eyes fixed on the map by her bed. She wasn’t sure what time it was, but she felt certain it was useless trying to sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she would see the horrors Max had described from her future. The secret bunker beneath the Prescott barn. Her body buried in a shallow grave in the junkyard. Chloe’s own lifeless form sprawled atop her own.

Or if not those, she would flash back to the exact moment when lightning came roaring down towards her, how her body turned incandescent as she was enveloped by white-hot plasma, how the superheated sand beneath her glowed with a pale brilliance that didn’t leave a single burn on her skin. How she had fled across the beach to where Max lay dazed, pulling the other girl to her feet and scuttling back to her home like a pair of frightened rabbits.

There was no explaining any of that and she dared not think deeper on it. She thought she might go crazy if she tried. What the hell even is an “Incarnate”?

The sheets rustled as her bedmate stirred. Carefully, Rachel moved to lay on her back as she glanced at Max. The other girl faced away from her, curled up like a mouse.

On an unspoken accord, they gave each other a wide berth, as if lightning still lived beneath Rachel’s skin and would harm Max if they touched. It was more than awkward, but Rachel was grateful for that space. Connecting with someone—even Chloe—was the last thing on her mind right now.

Rachel didn’t know how they had even made it past dinner. She had spent it gazing down at her plate, pushing food from one side to the other, and leaving Max to deal with her parents’ cheerful banter. They were lucky her dad offered to put Max up for the night—it had completely slipped Rachel’s mind to ask.

She didn’t know how to feel towards Max, this girl who knew her worst secrets yet had apparently just saved her life. Part of her felt incredibly grateful, like a condemned prisoner getting pardoned at the last minute before the noose.

Yet another part of her was screaming and clawing to undo everything she had learned and for the love of God get her old life back. Bland and disappointing as that life was, it was normal.

Finally, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She slipped out of bed as carefully as she could and made her way to the door. A glance over her shoulder told her Max hadn’t moved, so she let herself outside, went down to the kitchen, and poured herself a glass of wine from the bottle her dad had stashed in a French display cabinet. She then sat down on the sofa in the living room sofa, sipping her drink, lost in thought.

Moments later, the telltale creak of the stair told her she was not alone.

“I can hear you over there, you know,” she said without turning.

A moment later, Max sheepishly stepped out from behind the bend of the stairs. “Sorry.”

Rachel shrugged, took another sip of her wine. “Can’t sleep either, huh? Well, you might as well join me.”

After a moment's hesitation, the other girl crept into the living room. She sat down beside Rachel—careful to maintain that bit of space between them. “I was dozing. But I felt you leave, and, um...”

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t planning on sneaking out tonight. I just...needed to calm down a bit.” She raised her glass. “Drink?”

Max gave a wry smile and shook her head. “Alcohol kinda doesn’t agree with me.”

“Well,” laughed Rachel, “alcohol and I’ve never argued once. This,” she held up her glass, “is about the only thing that can help me sleep now.”

She took another long sip, prompting Max to ask, “Are you okay?”

Rachel clamped her eyes shut as she wiped her hand across her lips. “I can’t begin to get into the many ways to answer that with no. Today feels like the longest fucking day ever.”

Max hugged her knees close to her body. “I’ve had longer.”

Rachel paused, then set her glass down on the coffee table. “You have, haven’t you? I believe you, Max. I do. What other choice do I have after everything I’ve seen?” She also drew up her knees, mirroring Max. “Just thinking about all the shit you and Chloe went through because of me...God, Max.” She hid her face in her arms. “I fucked up. I fucked up royally. What you must think of me.”

Max shook her head. “I’m not here to judge you, Rachel. You were a victim too. You weren’t responsible for what Jefferson and Nathan did. And as for whatever happened back then between you and Chloe—that’s something you two should talk about yourselves.”

“Thank you, Max. I mean it. Even if you hadn’t exactly seen me in the best light, I-I want you to know—I’ve never, ever wanted to hurt Chloe. I’ll always want what’s best for her. If you can believe one thing about me, please believe that.”

Max nodded once. “I do believe you, Rachel.”

“Again, thanks. It’s going to be hard enough dealing with that and with—with what I really am.” Rachel sighed. “So. Where do we go from here?”

“I still have to a task to do,” Max replied.

Rachel nodded. “To ‘let me choose.’ Whatever that means.”

“Yeah.” Max laid her chin on knees. “I wish I had time to question those women who sent me here.”

“They remind me of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, only this time, shaping the future instead of predicting it.

Rachel hesitated, then in a small voice asked, “Max, is it possible for you to...to take this back? Can’t I just surrender this power and give you back yours?”

Max‘s face fell. “I don’t think that’s how this works, Rachel.”

“No. No, of course not. Why would it be that easy.” She pressed a hand to her face. “Sorry, Max, that was incredibly selfish of me. Jesus, you already went through hell, and here I am asking if you could do it over again.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. I think I’d feel pretty much the same if I were in your shoes.” Max laid a hand on the other girl’s shoulder. “Rachel, I know this is beyond difficult for you. But I want you to know—I’m here to help. Even if I don’t have my powers. I’ll do everything I can to keep you and Chloe safe. You don’t have to do this alone.” She paused, her expression hardening. “You don’t have to face him alone.”

Rachel’s brows gathered like storm clouds. “Jefferson.”

“Jefferson,” Max agreed, and the name raced between them like an electric charge. “We need to stop him before he can hurt anyone else.”  

Rachel shut eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. To go from beloved mentor to sworn enemy in a matter of hours. Longest fucking day ever.

And yet, it felt good to have a cause. Taking down Jefferson lent her focus, marshaling her thoughts and easing any doubts. Already she could see her step one.

“Before we go any further,” she said, “there’s someone we need to have on board.”

Max bit her lip. “We need Chloe on our side.”

“Yeah.” Rachel raised her head to smile at Max. “She was so wrong about you, you know.”

“Huh?”

“She told me that Max Caulfield spooks easy. But as far as I’ve seen, you’re one of the bravest people I’ve met.”

“Oh.” Max’s cheeks turned an interesting shade of red. “Th-thanks, but really, Chloe exaggerates. Like a lot.”

“She also said you were bad at taking compliments. In that sense, you’re two peas in a pod.” Rachel cast her eyes down again. “Hey, could you do me just one favor?”

“What is it?”

“When the time comes, once we’ve dealt with Jefferson for good...let me be the one to tell Chloe about what I did. Till then...”

Max stiffened, the shadows hiding her face. “Rachel, she’s the last person I want to keep secrets from. It would be totally unfair.”

“You won’t have to keep secrets, not for long. I swear, I will have that conversation with her. Just, for now...it’s like you said—we need her on our side. So...please?”

More silence. For a moment, Rachel feared she was going to refuse. And why wouldn’t she? Max had already saved her life—what else did she owe her conniving, cheating ass?

But to her surprise and immediate relief, the other girl gave a tentative nod.

“For now.” 


“So. Why are we out here again?” Chloe asked.

She dropped her batch of dry twigs inside the low steel drum which formed a makeshift fire pit in the grassy clearing. Brushing her hands of dust, she watched as Max and Rachel added a few more onto the growing pile.

The fire pit lay not ten feet away from the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped some thirty feet straight into the water. This ledge lay in the southern part of town, the counterpart to the cliff with the lighthouse. From this vantage point, one could get a breathtaking view of the entire bay.

Chloe was familiar with this place; it’s a popular hangout for kids from Arcadia Bay and nearby towns. Just someplace to sit and booze and shoot the shit. You could even get some private time by the trees over there—not that she was going to volunteer that info to either Max or Rachel.

Right now, though, the place was deserted, which seemed to suit them just fine.

The two girls had surprised Chloe by showing up at the garage just as she had finished work with Pops. She’d been scrubbing the grease off her hands when the Ambers’ Volvo rolled up to the driveway, Rachel behind the wheel and Max waving from the passenger seat.

Truth be told, Chloe was more than a little peeved that neither one bothered to text her the night before—maybe they were having a little too much fun on their own. But Rachel had only needed to lower her aviators, flash that smile, and say, “Hey stranger. Can we take you for a ride?” And Chloe, grinning madly, had fairly leaped into the backseat.

It had seemed almost surreal, sitting there listening as the two girls—whom she’d never expected would meet each other in this life—seemingly got along. Chloe had barely been able to get a word or two in, mostly because she was a bit too lost in wonder to talk. The morning sun diffusing through the windshield had brought their features into stark relief: the woodland green of Rachel’s eyes, the cut of Max’s cheekbones, the way their small hands drifted through the sunlight as they talked. Rachel had been regaling Max with behind-the-scenes stories of the Drama Club, while the more subdued Max had asked how Dana and Juliet were doing. How she knew them, Chloe had very much wanted to know, but had been too distracted to ask.

The plan was to drive Max to Portland so it’d be easier for her to get a bus back to Seattle, but Rachel had surprised her again by going off the road to this clearing. When Chloe had asked about the little detour, both of the girls had simply evaded the question—Max demurring and looking to Rachel, who merely smiled and promised, “You’ll see. But first, help me gather some wood.”

Now that their task was done, Chloe raised an eyebrow at Rachel, who was inspecting the woodpile in the drum. “I think we’re good,” the blonde announced, before nodding to Max.

All three of them were standing around the fire pit now, looking like they were about to start a witches’ coven. Rachel seemed more subdued and pensive, the way she was right before a performance. Max, on the other hand, seemed jittery and watchful, worrying the lapels of her jacket as she checked the dirt road for an approaching car. Whatever it was they were doing, it seemed like it might get them into trouble.

Chloe liked trouble. She just wished she knew what kind this was.

“Nice,” she muttered, “but if you ask me, we’re short some meat and exactly one grill.”

“We’re not throwing a party, Chloe,” Max said. “We just want to show you something.”

“This would go a lot faster if you’d tell me what this is all about.”

“It’s something of an experiment, Clover,” Rachel said. She was no longer smiling, but stood there with her arms crossed, her mouth a staid line as she frowned down at the firepit.

“Ooookay. So, what’re you gonna do, make a burnt offering? And for fuck’s sakes, don’t call me Clover.”

Max raised her hand. “Um, can I call you Clover? I think it’s really cute.”

No.”

Rachel took a deep breath and held out her hand to Chloe. “Lend me your lighter?”

“Uh...” Chloe’s mind reeled back to a very distinct memory of a night three years ago. The trees here were far away enough to not be a problem, but there was still quite a lot of grass around.

“It’s okay, Chloe,” said Max, giving a small, encouraging smile. “Rachel’s got this.”

“Yeah, yeah, fine.” Chloe reached into her pocket and handed over her lighter. “It’s just that the last time I did that, it didn’t turn out so well for the Overlook Park. Just lookin’ out for the Bay is all.”

“Sweet of you, Chloe.” Rachel flicked the lighter once to test it. “I guess I’ll need something for tinder.”

“Oh, here,” Max pulled out a slip of paper from her jacket. A receipt for yesterday’s muffins.

“Thanks.” Rachel lit up the receipt and slipped it in a little space beneath the twigs. It didn’t take long for little tendrils of smoke to start rising from the pile. No flames, though.

Chloe couldn’t help but feel relieved as she took her lighter back from Rachel. She looked down at the smoking pile and shrugged. “That’s not going anywhere. Or is that the point?”

Rachel just turned to Max again. “Uh, I’m not sure how this is supposed to work. What should I do?”

Max bit her lip, hands clenching and unclenching beside her. “The first time it happened,” she began, “I was under a lot of stress. I had just seen something terrible happen in front of me, and I wanted— had to stop it.” Her brown eyes flickered towards Chloe before locking back onto Rachel. “I wasn’t thinking at all. My feelings drew me along. I reached out my hand and...that’s all it took.”

Rachel nodded. “I think I see. If I could just remember how it felt like back then...”

“How did what feel back when?” Chloe asked. But Rachel was glaring down at the pit now, her hand reaching out as if to grab the smoke curling up through the air. Her frown grew blacker, her pink lips parting in a grimace. That expression—Chloe had seen that rage and anguish only once, the night Rachel had burned her dad’s picture.

For a second, an unspoken terror seized Chloe’s throat. But only for a second.

Whoosh! A rush of warmth filled the air as the entire woodpile burst into flames.

“What the fuck!” Chloe took an involuntary step back. The fury had left Rachel’s face, replaced by surprise. She snatched her hand back as the fire quickly grew larger and fiercer, devouring the pile beneath it.

“Jesus Fucking Christ, how did you do that?” Chloe watched as the fire licked upwards. Then, like a rocket igniting, it shot up towards the sky. The burst of hot air knocked her back on her ass. She flapped a hand against her beanie—it hadn’t caught fire, thank God.

“Shit,” said Rachel, backpedaling. “Shit! SHIT!”

Max had also scrambled back from the now volcanic pit. “Rachel, put it out! It’s burning way too hot!”

“I’m trying!” Rachel reached out as if to beat out the fire with her hands, but it only rose higher, twisting upwards like a tornado. Now sparks were winking through the air like a swarm of fireflies. “Fuck, I don’t think I can stop it!”

“You kind of have to, Rachel!”

“That’s way useful, Max!”

Chloe hadn’t even gotten to her feet; she just stared dumbfounded at the towering pillar of flame, so hot it made beads of sweat appear on her face. Like in my dream, she realized, and it was as if her ribs were squeezing around her heart.

“Just try something!” Max was saying.

“Water!” Rachel shouted. “We need water!” She looked around, her hair flying wildly, before turning to the cliff and bringing both hands in a pulling motion.

The ocean...bulged. In an instant, an enormous white-capped wave began curling towards the cliff. Chloe felt like she was going insane.

“Oh God,” Max said, “RUN!”

None of them needed to be told twice. Max and Rachel yanked Chloe to her feet and together they made a mad dash for the car. Behind them, the ocean uttered a guttural roar. Chloe looked back just in time to see a wall of white water barrel into the cliff. It swallowed the burning pillar whole—and kept right on going.  

They were twenty paces from the car when the water hit them, knocking them off their feet. Chloe choked on salt water as she rolled onto the grass. Beside her, Max had shrunk into a ball with her hands around her head. Then, as quickly as it had come, the seawater receded around them with a hiss.

Lying prone, Chloe coughed out water and looked to her sides. All three of them were drenched from head to foot. Max lay on her back in the muck, her hair now resembling a wet mop. Rachel was on her hands and knees, mascara dripping down her cheeks like black tears.

Chloe found her feet and looked behind them. All she could see was a clearing of muddy grass; the ocean had swallowed both the burning pillar and the makeshift fire pit.

She turned to Rachel, mouth gaping as she struggled to form words. Finally, she said, “You...you have...powers?”

Leaning on her arm in a mermaid pose, Rachel pushed the hair from her eyes and laughed. “I think we’ve proven that beyond reasonable doubt.”

“You. Have. Powers.”

“There’s more to it, Chloe. Max was telling the truth. She was the one who showed this to me. She really did come from the future.”

Chloe rounded on Max, who has wringing water from her jacket. “What?”

“I think we broke her, Max,” Rachel giggled. “She’s been reduced to monosyllables.”

“What? What? WHAT?”

Max shook out her jacket, sighing. “We’re gonna need a change of clothes.”

“WHAAAAT?”


It took an hour for them to head to the junkyard, dry off on some towels, and get changed from their cache there. Rachel seemed pleased to get some of her own clothes on Max. “You’re just my size!” she said, delightedly laying out an array of tees and pants on the couch. They even found her a pair of old sneakers to wear.

That done, they decided to stop by the Two Whales for lunch. After ordering burgers all around, Max and Rachel sat together on one side of the booth with Chloe opposite them.

It fell to Max to explain the entire story of her timeline. Beside her, Rachel listened carefully, picking at her fries, head bowed, face expressionless as Max went through the details of their investigation. For her part, Max kept her word: she only gave only cursory information about Frank’s involvement with the drug supply, and not a breath about Rachel and Jefferson.

Throughout it all, she watched Chloe’s expression darken little by little. By the time Max finished, the blue-haired girl’s face had turned red with rage.

“That’s it,” Chloe declared, jumping to her feet. “We’re going to that barn right now!”

“What? Chloe, no!” Max said.

“We’re burning that fucking bunker down to the ground before that piece-of-shit motherfucker can ever use it to hurt anyone again!”

“We can’t just show up there! He’s got security cameras—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck if he’s got a robot dinosaur with bazookas coming out of its ass! ‘Coz he’s next!” Chloe was rolling up her sleeves. “He wants a pretty picture? We’ll give him one—he’ll make the front page once we light him on fire!”

“Chloe,” said Rachel.

“And when we’re done with him, I’ll pay Nathan a visit and feed him his whole gun—one bullet at a time!”

Chloe,” Rachel said. “Enough. I know how upsetting this is—”

Chloe barked her laughter. “I’m just getting started!”

“—but you can’t rant about it in public, and not someplace where cops regularly come to lunch. Please, sit down. We need to think this through.”

Chloe was about to say something, but clamped her mouth shut and took her seat again. She slammed her fist into the cushion for good measure. It was a childish thing, but it endeared her to Max. She had no doubt that the punk would’ve taken out both Jefferson and Nathan all by herself if they hadn’t stopped her.

“Rachel’s right,” Max said. “We need to be really careful, Chloe. We can’t make anyone suspicious of us right from the get-go. Remember, I don’t have time powers anymore. I can’t just fix things on the fly!”

“Okay, maybe so,” Chloe countered, “but Rachel obviously has powers! She’s got nature powers, for fuck’s sakes! Who's the police going to arrest if Jefferson spontaneously combusts, or if poor little Nathan’s car blows up while he’s on the way to school? We’re bulletproof, Max!”

Max shook her head. “It’s not that simple, Chloe! There’s a lot going down that we don’t know about. Remember, I received a warning.”

“From the three witch doctors, I get it—”

“Max is correct,” Rachel said. “She was sent here for a reason. I have these powers for a reason. It’s likely that this goes deeper than what we know, and what we don’t know can hurt us. Besides...” She gave a rueful smile. “From what you’ve seen, we’re still not clear exactly what I’m capable of, or even how to control any of it. If I mess up, we may just kiss all of Arcadia Bay goodbye.”

“Alright, fine!” Chloe folded her arms. “Consider their sentences delayed. But they’ve still got to pay, one way or another!”

Scowling, Rachel reached out and gripped Chloe's arm. “I swear, Chloe. They will.”

Chloe echoed her expression, but then her face lit up. “So how’d you find out about your powers, anyway?”

Max’s breathing stilled, but Rachel’s reply came swiftly. “I brought Max to the beach yesterday,” she said, holding Chloe’s gaze. “She told me the whole story and, well—I kinda got so upset hearing it that I wound up calling in a thunderstorm. I even got hit by a lightning bolt.”

Chloe’s eyes went saucer-wide; she slapped her hands on the table and leaned forward. “You can summon fucking LIGHTNING!?! SHOW ME!”

“Shhh!” Max hissed.

“Jesus, Rachel, we gotta test your powers some more, find out what else you can do! With you around, nobody can touch us! You’re like a—a friggin’ superhero!”

Max bit her lip and turned away, praying neither of them noticed. It was not three weeks ago when Chloe was telling her the exact same thing.

“Actually,” Rachel said, “What I need to do is learn how to control these abilities. Otherwise, I’m as much a danger as I’m a help.”

“What about Max here?” Chloe asked. “Why doesn’t she have her powers? We sure could use a little time traveling.”

“I don’t know,” Max replied, deflating in her seat. With Chloe on board, she felt even more of a liability. “I’m still trying to figure out what’s wrong. I think it’s because of the way I was sent back here.”

“It’ll be okay, Max.” Rachel laid her hand on Max’s shoulder. “We can figure that one out later. Meanwhile, I think you can help me with something equally important.”

Max faced her, blinking. “Me?”

“Yep. Remember, of all of us, you’re the first one to ever get powers. You learned how to control them.” She grinned. “Maybe you can teach me to control mine?”

“Oh.” Max hadn’t thought of that. “I’m not sure how much help I can be, but sure, we can give it a try.”

“Holy crap, yeah baby!” Chloe wheeled to Max, face lit up like Christmas. “We’ll be unstoppable! Sensei Max, Tempest Queen, and me!”

“Can you please not be the one to make up codenames,” Max groaned.

“Oh yeah, I will. I’M going to be your loyal chauffeur and sidekick—like a punk Kato,” Chloe mimicked a one-inch punch in the air. “So what do we do now?”

“We need to get organized,” Rachel said. “Here are our non-negotiables. We need to create a scenario where none of us ends up in the ground. That means preventing a storm or anything like it from destroying Arcadia Bay.”

“And we need to find out how far Rachel’s powers go and how to control them,” added Max. “We also need to figure out why she has them in this timeline, and what she needs to do.”

“And finally,” Chloe seethed, “we need to take down Prescock and Jeffershit.”

“Without any of us winding up in jail,” Rachel finished.

Nods of assent all around.

“But before any of that,” Rachel squeezed Max’s shoulder, “we need to get this one to Portland and on her 2 PM Boltbus, or her parents’ll find out she’s gone and we’ll be permanently down one member.”

“Oh shit, you’re right!” Chloe stuffed the rest of her burger into her mouth. “Move that scrawny ass, Max, we’re outta here!”

Max was about to protest that her ass wasn’t at all scrawny, but Rachel was leaning towards her. “We’ll see you again next weekend?”

Max nodded, answering Rachel’s conspiratorial grin with one of her own. “Friday night, if I can swing it.”

“Bitchin’. Now let’s get you safely home.”

When they were out the door and making their way across the parking lot, Chloe took Max’s elbow. “So...uh, you told Rachel everything about this.”

“Um, yeah.”

“You told her first and not me?”

Max had expected this and was ready with a reply. “I’m sorry, Chloe,” she said, “I had to. I wanted you on our side, but I couldn’t do that without proof that would convince you. It would’ve been different if I had my powers, but since I didn’t I had to rely on Rachel instead. She was the proof I needed.”

Chloe nodded, seeming to accept this explanation. Then she drew Max into a hug. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I’ll never doubt you again, Max.”

For a moment, Max was a mess of emotions. Her own arms lifted up to return the embrace. She couldn’t believe how good it felt to be held like this again. “Chloe, I—”

“Just shut up and accept it, okay? Do you know how often I apologize?”

“About as often as you shower?” Rachel called from her car.

“Shut up, Amber! I’m tryna have a moment here.”

“Well you can have it in the car,” Rachel replied, slipping into the driver’s seat. “We’ve got exactly two hours to get Max on her bus or that’s the end of our weekend plans.”

Too soon, Max had to disengage from Chloe’s arms. But as she sat in the backseat, listening to Rachel and Chloe’s excited chatter, she would sometimes close her eyes and relish the moment over and over.

She had Chloe back.

And Chloe was right. The three of them—together—felt unstoppable.


Thankfully, Rachel got them to Portland in just a hair over an hour and a half.

She and Chloe stood side by side as Max boarded her bus. The brunette even took one last smiling wave at them before getting on board. The pair remained where they were, reluctant to leave until the bus pulled into the main avenue and out of sight.

Neither said a word as they trudged back to the Volvo for the long trip home. Lost in thought, Rachel’s mind still swirled with the complications that lay ahead, the nearest problem being school tomorrow and the possibility of running into Jefferson.

Mostly though, her thoughts kept returning to the image of Chloe hugging Max in the parking lot, and the way Max’s eyes drifted shut as she sank into Chloe’s arms. It warmed Rachel to see them reconciled, even as her chest tightened at seeing them so close. It was so petty of her, she realized, that she even couldn’t resist trampling on their moment before it could fully—

She nearly collided with Chloe when the punk suddenly rounded on her and grabbed her by the shoulders. Rachel was about to ask what’s wrong, but her words fell at the cold fury in Chloe’s blue eyes.

“I’m not losing you, Rachel.”

Rachel gazed at her blankly; Chloe had said it with such force that she didn’t quite know how to respond. “Chloe, c’mon. You don’t really think I’d—”

But Chloe’s hands coiled even tighter around her. “They won’t get you. I’ll kill them all before I let any of them touch you.” Rachel stiffened as Chloe pulled her into a tight embrace. All she could do was stand there, unable to think, unaware of anything but the warmth of Chloe’s arms. So strong. She had no idea Chloe could be this strong.

Trembling, throat tightening, Rachel let herself melt into the embrace, lips touching Chloe’s neck as she breathed in her girl’s scent. She'd almost forgotten how wonderful it felt to be cherished like this. She wanted nothing more than to stay in this bubble, blissfully cut off from the rest of the world. Her arms lifted to return the hug, then froze.

For now.

Rachel’s hands drifted back down to her sides like fallen leaves.

“Who am I, Chloe?” she murmured. “What is this?”

“You’re Rachel Amber,” Chloe answered, stroking her hair. “And they’re in for a lot of trouble, ‘coz they got no clue. No fucking clue.”

”About?”

“Just how far I’ll go to protect you.”

Chapter Text

The sound of an incoming Skype call jolted Max from The Last Unicorn. Lifting her eyes, she spotted the icon of Rachel’s pink-lipped smile hovering over the answer button.

Wowsers. While they had been texting for the last three days since their weekend together, Max still couldn’t quite get used to having someone calling every night like this. Nor could she quite get used to having Chloe blowing up her phone with texts every few hours.

But Max wasn’t about to complain about all that attention. No sir, not a peep.

Jumping out of bed, she fumbled to her chair and clicked the answer button. She couldn’t help but grin when Rachel’s image popped up onscreen.

“Hey there, Maxie!” Rachel gave a little wave. “You doing okay?”

“I’m good, Rach. You?”

“Just super. And if ever I’m not, I promise you that Victoria would know about it in record time so she could be the first to hork it all over school. Was she much different in your timeline?”

“Not really, no,” Max laughed.

“Ah, so it isn’t because I exist—Victoria’s just a bitch on principle.”

“But there was this one timeline where she was my friend and—well, kinda obsessed with me. That was awkweird.”

Rachel whistled. “You somehow made Victoria Chase worship the ground you walked on? Damn, Caulfield. You got hella more game than you let on.”

From what little she could see of the background, Max could tell Rachel was sitting in her dorm. Why Rachel stayed in a dorm when she had a house in town was something Max thought to ask her sometime.

“Since Chloe hasn’t arrived yet—as usual,” Rachel was saying, “lemme ask real quick—did you ace that Chem exam just like we planned?”

Max had mentioned a couple of days ago that she was having a tough time studying for her exam, so Rachel had taken her under her wing, emailing her snapshots of organized notes with her own immaculate handwriting. Rachel had even spent a couple of hours tutoring her online.

Still, the question made Max want to hide under the covers. “Well, ‘aced’ is going a little too far.”

“Oh c’mon, Max! I thought we were in it to win it! Please don’t tell me we did those electron valence charts for nothing.”

“Hey, don’t worry, I passed! Or at least I think I did. Our study periods really helped, Rach. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Rachel winked. “Then I’m happy to keep at it. If you have other subjects you need help with, just gimme a shout, okay?”

“Thanks, but don’t you have your own schoolwork to worry about? I don’t wanna be a burden.”

“Max. No peeps of mine are gonna flunk out under my watch. It’s the least I can do after all the help you’ve given me. Besides, if your grades start dipping, your folks won’t let you come down to Arcadia Bay. Then we’d really be fucked.” She inched closer to the screen. “Speaking of, did they say yes?”

Max let out an exasperated sigh.

“That’s not what a ‘yes’ sounds like.”

“They’re kind of on the fence about it. My dad seems okay with me coming over—I guess there’s some residual guilt over moving us out in the first place. But I need to work harder on convincing Mom. She’s not happy with the thought of me spending most every weekend over there.”

“Even if you tell them you made it into Blackwell?”

“You know I can’t tell them that, at least not for another month.”

“Hmm.” Rachel fiddled with her earring. “Don’t worry, we’ll come up with something.”

“What about you? Did you...um...you know.”

“You must’ve given me a bit of your Irish luck, Max. Jefferson’s been scarce. No one’s seen him at Blackwell so far this week, thank God.”

Max breathed a sigh of relief, even as a fresh bout of worry set in. It’s been a few days now. If Jefferson hadn’t tried anything, did it mean he suspected something was wrong? Was he plotting something? Or had he already found another victim? Kate was next in line—was she still alright?

Just as these worries started to coil around her belly, Rachel said, “Hang on a sec. Someone wants to butt in on the conversation.”

A second pop-up appeared beside her screen. “Whassup, bitches?” Chloe boomed.

Max winced. “Not so close to the mike, Chloe.”

“Yeah, yeah, great to see you too. Hey Rach, didja tell Max about the thing yet?”

“Uh,” Rachel’s eyes darted to the side. “I was just about to—”

“Quit stalling and spill it already—I’ve got my own stuff to share!” Chloe’s wide, all-too-pleased grin told Max her friend was happy to not be the one in trouble this time. “Wait till you hear what she did, Max.”

“Huh?” Max squinted at Rachel. “Did something happen?”

“Well, I—” The blonde forced a smile. “There’s...actually something I need your help with, Max. It’s kinda urgent.”

“Um, sure. Anything.”

Rachel was chewing her lip. “You know that convenience store on Tollman Street, right? Well, Chloe and I visited it over lunch so we could pick up some smokes. I was waiting for her in the parking lot, and I saw that it was kind of empty—”

Comprehension dawned on Max. “Rachel, you didn’t!”

“Oh yes she did!” laughed Chloe.

“What did you try?” Max bent closer to the screen. “Were you seen?”

Rachel held up her palms. “I wasn’t, honest! There was actually no one there! So I just thought, well, it might be a good time to practice—

“Which is why there’s now a small tornado in the parking lot of the local Q-Mart!” Chloe fell back on her backrest, laughing fit to burst.

Max groaned. “Rachel, we agreed to wait!”

“I know, I know! Never in public. But look, I’m the type who learns by doing, and the place was deserted so I thought—”

“It’s sure as fuck not deserted now!” Chloe said, pasting a link on the chat. Filled with dread, Max clicked on it. It opened to a livestream of said parking lot, apparently shot from a camera on a tripod. A small crowd had formed, all eyes on a tornado that looked to be at least ten feet tall and nearly opaque from the pieces of dirt, plastic, leaves, and cigarette butts it had sucked up.

“Five hours and counting,” someone was saying offscreen, “This mini-twister’s been here all afternoon. We got some meteorologists coming in tomorrow to study it because, shit, it’s the weirdest fucking thing ever.”

“Dude, check this out!” The camera panned to a blond boy in a sports vest hurling a monobloc chair into the whirlwind, which it proceeded to spin through the air like a toy.

“Oh Dog.” Max put a hand against her forehead. It’s been five hours?

“I was really trying to make it small, I swear,” Rachel said. “And it’s not like it’s causing any trouble. I was kinda hoping it would go away on its own.”

“Hope in one hand,” said Chloe, “crap in the other, see which one piles up first.”

Rachel was doing her level best to ignore her. “Do you think you can help me out, Max?”

Max sighed. Was this a preview of how things were going to be with her? “I’m not sure how, Rachel,” she replied, muting the livestream. “I think our powers work differently. I always had to consciously activate mine whenever I rewound, and it always stopped whenever I stopped concentrating. But yours seems to stay active even when you’re not thinking about it.”

“Groovy,” said Chloe, who had just opened a bag of chips and was making obnoxious crunching noises. “So is that tornado going to be a permanent feature of Arcadia Bay now? Maybe we can make a little money on the side by charging tourists to see it.”

“I tried everything I could think of to make it stop,” Rachel said. “Nothing worked. You’re my last shot, Max.” She shrugged, eyes brightening. “No pressure.”

Max frowned. Somehow she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was some sort of test. Well, regardless, they couldn’t just leave that thing out there. What if it grew bigger? Or worse, started running amok in Arcadia Bay?

Max racked her brain for a solution. “Could you walk me through what you were thinking of when you used your powers?” she asked.

“That I could really use a good smoke,” Rachel replied, simpering. “And that I would really, really like to use a tornado to throw Jefferson’s ridiculously expensive car at his own head.”

“Word,” Chloe said. She propped her palm up against the right side of her pop-up screen, which Rachel high-fived from her left.

Max latched onto Rachel’s last statement—maybe there was something there. “You made the tornado because you were mad?”

“Well, not quite.” Rachel shrugged. “Like I said, I wanted to learn how I can control my abilities. I mean, I clearly need the practice. Power’s just not useful without control.”

“And what are you feeling right now?”

Rachel quirked a brow. “Like, I’m really wondering where you’re going with this, Max.”

“Um,” Max paused. “It’s just...I had this thought. When I first got my powers, I went through something really, really frightening. I told you about it—I had a vision of a storm sweeping into the Bay and destroying everything, and after that...” She paused to take a deep breath. “After that, I witnessed Chloe get shot by Nathan in the Blackwell girl’s room.”

Chloe paused midway through biting a chip. Rachel went very still. “Oh.”

“That was the first time I ever rewound,” Max went on. “I wanted to stop what was happening and—suddenly I could. I think you’re right, Rachel. You need to learn how to control your powers. And I think that these powers are somehow linked to our emotions. That’s why I thought to ask you about how you’re really feeling.”

“Huh.” Rachel’s brows knit together. “Okay...I guess, being honest, you could say I’m worried.”

Chloe blinked. “Yeah?”

“About whether I can control this thing in me. It’s just...so alien, you know?” Rachel clasped her hands before her. “To have these abilities, and not knowing where they came from, what I’m supposed to do with them, what their limits are, or if I can even get them under control. And we’ve got a hella lot riding on this. You see, I...may have had a vision too.”

Max’s eyes widened. “You did?”

Rachel nodded. “Remember when I was spacing out on the sidewalk while you were trying to talk to me? While I was looking at Arcadia Bay? Well, I saw the whole town going up in flames.”

“Holy crap,” muttered Chloe. “What’re you saying? That the town may get hit by either a storm OR a fire?”

“I-I don’t know if that was some kind of hallucination or some actual precog shit, but it spooked the hell out of me.” Rachel said, rubbing the inside of her wrist with a thumb. “The whole town lighting up like a box of matches. So that time at the parking lot, I got to thinking about exactly how much is at stake here: our homes, our friends, our lives. And I may have panicked a little. I just didn’t want to be, you know...

“The one who messes up?” Max asked, and thought, I can relate.

Rachel quirked her lip. “The one who holds us back. The weak link. It’s a lot of pressure—I’m normally good with pressure, but this is a bit much. I guess I wanted you guys to see that I got this.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Well, clearly I don’t.”

“Not yet, Rach,” Chloe stressed. “We’ll get you there, don’t worry.”

Rachel smiled gratefully. “So yeah. I guess that’s why I did it. I was in a hurry to master my powers like you did yours. It’s all I could think about these past few days, cooped in my dorm and hiding from Jefferson. Once I saw I had the chance, I just had to test them again. And...here we are.”

So that’s what it is, Max thought. “I think I know how that feels,” she said. “I’m always afraid of messing up. In school, I’d overthink things and worry about making mistakes, so I end up freezing and barely getting anything done. Eventually, my parents put me on an IEP.”

Rachel inclined her head. “Does it help?”

Max nodded. “I have an instructor, Ms. Quinn. She helps make the anxiety a little easier to manage when things get rough. So, I was thinking, if strong emotions make our powers go off, then maybe calming down can stop them.”

“Heh.” Chloe smirked. “Do we hold hands and sing kumbaya?”

Smiling, Max shook her head. “We have this exercise. It’s a bit like self-hypnotism.”

Rachel leaned forward. “Show me.”

Max took a deep breath, nerves jangling, chest tightening. She’d done this often with Ms. Quinn, but she’d never led someone through it before. “Do it with me,” she said, straightening up in her seat. Rachel mirrored her, pulling her shoulders back and sitting taller. Even that simple, graceful movement reminded Max of a professional model.

“Okay. Um, f-first, just focus on my voice. Slow down your breathing to a count of four.” Max inhaled through her nose and exhaled out her mouth. Rachel followed suit. Even Chloe was quiet for once; she had set aside her chips and was eyeing her screen curiously.

“Good,” said Max, consciously softening her voice like how her instructor would during their sessions. “Now, um, we try to engage the senses. So name four things that you can see.”

Rachel blinked, then smiled and glanced about. “Okay. I see... The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the blue top I wore today hanging from my closet door, aaaand two cute girls.”

Max’s breath caught itself in her throat. Chloe just grinned. “Right,” Max hurried on. “Now—name three things you can hear.”

Rachel tilted her head. “You, talking. My dad playing Stranger in Paradise on the old record player. Chloe tapping her finger on her table, waiting for something exciting to happen.”

“Good. Name two things you can smell.”

Rachel closed her eyes and inhaled. “Lavender soap from freshly-washed clothes. Mom’s flowers from the garden outside.”

“Finally, one thing you can touch.”

Rachel’s eyes remained shut. “My own skin beneath my fingers.”

“Great.” Max nodded to herself. So far so good. Now comes the crucial point. “Think of a place that you love, somewhere you feel relaxed and at peace whenever you visit.”

Rachel said nothing for a long moment, then said, “I see it.”

“Imagine you’re there right now. You can hear all the sounds and feel the same sensations. Say to yourself, ‘I’m here. I’m safe. I’m okay now.’”

Rachel took another deep breath. “I’m here.” She whispered. “I’m safe. I’m okay now. I’m here. I’m safe. I’m okay—”

“DUDES!” cried Chloe. “Look at the tornado!”

Rachel’s eyes popped open, and she and Max hit the livestream link almost simultaneously. The vortex of air was disappearing, dropping mounds of dust and trash all over the pavement. Max felt the air whoosh out of her lungs. Rachel had one hand on her mouth to suppress a cry.

“I can’t fucking believe that actually worked!” Chloe said.

“Oh my god, Max!” Rachel exclaimed, beaming at the screen. “You’re amazing! Thank you, thank you so much!”

“D-don’t mention it,” Max said, her chest loosening. She could hardly believe it was that simple. And if this was what it took to control Rachel’s powers, their chances of stopping any storm were that much—

Something arrested Max’s attention; she hit the maximize button of her screen and peered closer.

By now the whirlwind had disappeared entirely, revealing a man who had been standing directly behind it. He looked to be in his early 50s. Unlike the people milling excitedly about, he stood still as an obelisk, hands jammed in his coat pockets, eyes unseen behind his thick black-rimmed glasses. The wind tossed strands of his graying brown hair from his clean-shaven, box-shaped face. Grim lines played around the muscles of his jaw as he stared at the spot where the tornado once spun.

Something about his look and his stance gave Max the impression that he’d been standing there a long time. Once every last bit of dirt had fallen still on the ground, he walked to a nearby black Mercedes and drove away.

He looked familiar—eerily so. Where had she seen him before?

“Max?” Chloe was saying. “You okay over there?”

Max snapped back to reality. “S-sorry. It’s nothing. I zoned out for a bit. What were you guys saying?”

Rachel was laughing. “That we absolutely need to get you down here, you goof! This is a good thing we got—we have to keep practicing!”

“Yeah, yeah you’re right,” Max replied. “I’ll do my best to get my mom’s permission, I promise.”

“You’d better!” said Chloe. “If you want, I could call Aunt Van and beg her to let you.”

“Ah, no way. Let me deal with Mom on my own, thanks.”

“Yeah, forget it, Chlo,” Rachel chimed in. “We want her mom to let her come, not put her under protective custody.”

“Ha-ha, smartass. Well, since we’re doing some show and tell...” Chloe grinned. “I’ve got a little bombshell of my own. You guys ready for it?”

Curiosity piqued, Max inched closer as Chloe tapped rapidly at her keyboard. “I was doing research on Jefferson, seeing if I could dig up some dirt from his past. Did you know he lived in Seattle for some time, Max?”

“Yeah, I read about that in his bio.”

“Good. So I was thinking, a lowlife shitbird like that must’ve started his fuckery earlier in his career, right? I read up on the beginnings of his career in Seattle. If he was just starting then, he must’ve been sloppy at first. So I Googled him for past crimes.”

“And?” Rachel prompted.

“Aaaaand I found nothing. No one’s ever published anything about him getting charged for a crime. BUT THEN!” Another link appeared on the chat, seemingly to a university news portal. “I started combing through the online archives of a university he once taught at in 1996. And I hit paydirt, baby!”

Max clicked on it to reveal a 1998 article from the Seattle University Gazette, written by a Susan Darby.

“I’ll summarize it for you,” said Chloe as Max and Rachel started skimming through it. “A student once reported that she volunteered to help Jefferson prep for a photo shoot at his studio. He offers her a drink, then suddenly she gets real sleepy and doesn’t remember passing out. She wakes up briefly to see—” she reads from the article, “‘I was partially undressed, and he was bent over me, breathing heavily as he took pictures.’”

Max tasted bile on her tongue. Rachel’s lip curled in disgust.

“He tells her she passed out from the heat and he was helping her recover, but she wasn’t having any of it, so she goes ahead and reports it to police,” Chloe went on. “Surprise, surprise—nobody believes her. She didn’t have proof, and then some students said she had been stalking Jeffershit for months. And before you can say ‘victim-blaming’, the police are accusing her of making shit up. They file no charges, and Jefferson gets away without so much as an ink stain on his fingers.”

Max scrolled down to the name of the victim. “Laura Nuñez from Seattle.”

“Could she still be living there?” Rachel asked. When Chloe shrugged, she went on, “We need to find her.”

“You want her story.”

Rachel nodded. “It might help bring down Jefferson—if she’s willing to share it. If we want to protect every girl in Blackwell, we have to expose him for what he is.” She reclined back on her chair and crossed her arms. “I’ve been thinking that maybe I wasn’t the only person he targeted in Arcadia Bay.”

Chloe’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean—”

“Max, can you recall any other names from those red binders in the Dark Room?”

Max hated returning to that awful place, even in her own head. But she knew that Rachel was getting at something important. Focusing, she recalled the cabinet full of named binders. “I remember one marked Brittany, and Lucy, and Ashley...there was Lynn, I think, and Kelly—”

Rachel’s brows shot up. “Kelly?” she asked. “As in Kelly Davis?”

“He only ever wrote first names on the sides of binders. And we only opened two.”

Chloe asked, “Who’s Kelly Davis?”

“She was more of Juliet’s friend, but we hung out a few times,” Rachel replied. “She used to stay in the dorm room across from mine. Room 217. ”

“Used to?” Max asked.

“Kelly suddenly moved away about three weeks ago—with no explanation and barely a goodbye. Juliet and I worried about her. She was always this friendly, outgoing girl who loved to hang out. Even had a boyfriend in town. But those last few days she started acting weird, wouldn’t talk to anyone or leave her room. Then she upped and left, just like...” Rachel's eyes widened. “Max, was there also a Megan on the binders?”

“Whoa, whoa—what?” Chloe exclaimed. “You don’t mean Megan Weaver?”

Max thought hard. “Yeah, yeah there was a Megan too.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” Rachel asked.

“M-E-G-A-N? Is she also someone you know?”

Before Rachel could say anything, Chloe bolted out her chair and stalked out of view of her camera. Max heard a distant “Fuck!” and something pounding against the wall.

“She’s...an old friend of Chloe’s, from before we met,” Rachel added, her scowl deepening. “She was a Blackwell student too, until she left. Right before Kelly did. Said she needed to be with her parents to sort stuff out. Everyone thought it was because she got pregnant.” She shook her head. “I never dreamed it would be because of this.”

Max felt sick to her stomach. When she first saw those names, only those of Kate and Rachel seemed real. Now it hit her—all those girls had been victims long before, and some were people Chloe and Rachel knew!

“I’m so sorry,” was all Max could think to say.

Chloe stomped back to her laptop, knocking over her chips and rattling the table. A muffled voice complained about her noise but she paid no attention. “Has anybody got a plan?” she demanded. “Tell me someone’s got a plan, or I’m gonna mow him down with my truck right fucking now!”

“Don’t worry, Chloe,” Rachel said. “I’ve been working on something.” She paused. “But we can’t do this on our own—we’ll need some help. Max?”

“Yes?”

“I need you to tell me one more thing.” She leaned forward. “Who in Blackwell can we absolutely trust?”


It took all of Thursday morning for Max to finally wear her mother down. She eventually relented and listed several conditions: that Max would call her when she arrived there and when she headed back, that her grades wouldn’t suffer despite her frequent trips, that she would stay out of trouble. Max promised she would and immediately knew she would end up breaking more than a few of them.

She texted Rachel and Chloe and told them the good news. Their replies came swiftly.

[4/25 10:45 AM] [CP] I’ll pick you up at Portland. Just tell me where.

[4/25 10:45 AM] [RA] Sweet! See you soon, Maxie. We’ve got a few surprises for you.

Surprises? That got Max worried. Rachel had proven herself unpredictable; Max hoped she would hew to her word not to use her powers again until they found a safe spot for practice.

Just before 5 PM that Friday, she kissed her parents goodbye and was finally on her way south. Heeding her mother’s advice, she took an Amtrak, cutting the journey to just under three and a half hours. It was a much more pleasant trip this time, knowing that someone was waiting to pick her up. She even got to nap a little, and each time she opened her eyes she would be greeted with a text from Chloe, checking up on her.

Max spotted Chloe the moment she got out of the station—it was hard to miss her friend waving frantically from the side of her truck, which was clearly beside a No Parking sign. Max hurried over and gave Chloe a quick hug before begging her to get them out there before a cop spotted them.

“Hey,” Chloe said as they pulled onto the main road, “you really did Rachel a solid by helping her sort out that tornado.”

“Don’t mention it. It’s what I came back for.” She paused, then added, “I mean, I wanted to help everyone. Especially you.”

That drew a smile out of Chloe. “Heh, good thing I’m not the one with powers, huh? If it were me dealing with all that emotional shit, I would’ve already wiped the fucking town off the map.” She twisted the wheel and sent the truck hurtling down the freeway.

“So I gotta ask,” she went on, switching through radio stations, “what’d you tell Aunt Van to get her to let you come?”

“Oh.” Max looked down to hide her sheepish look. “That’s, um, well...I kinda over-exaggerated your problems in Arcadia Bay. I told her that you really, really, REALLY needed a friend.”

Chloe glanced at her and whistled softly. “Wow, Max. You guilted your Mom into letting you back here by telling her I’m a teenaged basketcase?”

“I’m really sorry, Chloe—I just couldn’t think of anything else!”

Chloe laughed. “Chill, it’s all good. You’re such a terrible liar, I’m surprised it worked at all. But then,” she gave a rueful smile, “you’re probably not too far off the mark to begin with.”

Max wondered if Chloe really did need to talk about something, but Chloe switched subjects as easily as she switched gears. “Anyway, glad your dance card’s free on Friday nights.”

“Yeah, me too. I’m a lazy slug come the weekends. Normally I’d just go home and veg out while reading a book and listening to music.”

“What, you don’t have a boyfriend waiting for you back up in Seattle? Someone to sneak in through your window at night?”

“Ew, Chloe. No, nothing like that. I’m not dating anyone.”

Chloe's smile broadened. “Figures. Uh, what I mean is,” she scratched her ear, “you got a good eye and a sense of taste. Those Seattle losers are way below your league, you know.”

It felt strange to go down a variation of this familiar path, so Max just said, “You think so?”

“I know so. And by the mere fact that you’re not asking, you probably already know that it was Rachel who rescued me from drowning in the Arcadia Bay dating pool.”

“Mm-hm. You kinda told me, back then.”

“Heh, back in the future.” Chloe cleared her throat. “But hey, you’d tell me, right? Like if you ever started dating, you’d let me know. So I can give ‘em a thumbs up or down.”

Their last kiss together by the lighthouse flashed through Max’s brain. She squeezed her eyes shut to clear it. Not helping right now .

“T-there isn’t anyone, Chloe,” she said, gazing out at the procession of telephone poles rushing past. “And if ever there were, yeah, you’d be the first to know.”

They talked about trivial things for the rest of the trip until they finally arrived at Arcadia Bay. Night had fallen, and the distant lighthouse cut through the darkness with long blades of light.

Max remembered something as they turned the corner to the richer part of town. “What’s this surprise that Rachel was talking about?”

“Oh, yeah, that.” Chloe shrugged. “You’ll know in a sec. Just let me get us there.” She turned the truck a couple of streets and stopped in front of a large house with a pewter-shingled roof, white walls, and wide lawn bordered by low hedges.

More confused than ever, Max moved to unlock her seatbelt but Chloe caught her shoulder. “I’ve got your first surprise,” she announced, positively beaming. “Check the glove compartment.”

Bemused, Max did as Chloe asked. Her breath slid back down her throat when she looked inside.

“Ta-dah, it’s your birthday gift!” Chloe said. “I hadn’t gotten you anything these last five years, so I’m also doing some catch-up. Go on, take it.”

Some things never change, thought Max as she picked up the Polaroid camera and turned it in her hands. A green ribbon was laced around it in a neat bow, tying a packet of film to the bottom.

Chloe said, “It’s my dad’s. You remember, right?”

“Yeah,” Max said, staring down at the lens. “Yeah, I remember.”

“He must’ve taken thousands of pictures of us when we were kids. I’m thinking he’d like it if I gave it to a real photographer. Every artist needs her tools. Oh, and the film’s from Rachel.”

“Max?” Chloe’s tone became tentative as Max kept silent. “You...don’t you like it?”

How could Max explain the lingering dread inside of her? How the sound of another camera click might drag her back into the memory of bound hands, the feeling of helplessness, the purr of a low, hungry voice demanding her submission?

She couldn’t.

“No, no, I do! It’s lovely, Chloe, thank you. I’ll be sure to use it.”

Chloe beamed. “Great. Rachel’s probably going to pester you about taking her picture later on—pictures, plural—so be ready for that.” She threw open the driver’s side door. “Now let’s go check out your other surprises.”

Side by side, they strolled up the gravel path lit by motion sensor lamps until they reached the front door. The place was even bigger than Rachel’s, and it looked like every light inside was on. “Who lives here?” she wondered.

Chloe hit the buzzer beside the white wooden entrance, and Max got her answer the moment the door opened.

“Heyyy, there she is!” cried Hayden Jones, gesturing at Chloe with his beer bottle and nearly splashing them in the process. “Lookin’ good, Chloeee. How’ve you been?”

“Eh, can’t complain,” replied Chloe, accepting his high five. “Even if I did, no one would listen. You high already, Hayden?”

“You know it! But don’t worry, I ain’t so lit I’m not up for whatever Rach’s got planned.” He laughed before turning to Max. “You must be Chloe and Rachel’s friend from Seattle. Sorry, I already forgot your name.”

“Max Caulfield,” Max replied, trying to hide her bewilderment. They were at Hayden’s place? Why? Given the beer bottle in Hayden’s hand and the rock music coming from deeper within the house, it was pretty clear they were throwing a party.

“Nice,” Hayden said. “Well, what’re you waiting for? Come on in! Mi casa et tu Brute, or something like that.” He made way for them to enter. Chloe took Max’s arm and led her inside.

“Where’s Rachel at?” Chloe asked as Hayden ushered them down the hallway.

“They’re in the den,” he replied, giggling. “You know Rach’s serious when she hasn’t touched the Kush all night. Mind giving me a head’s up on what’s about to go down?”

Max wondered if Hayden meant to sound like he was talking in innuendos, or if that was just a function of the weed.

Chloe just shrugged. “It’s hella complicated. I’ll let her explain—she does it better than me anyway.”

“Alrighty then.” He led them down the hall and turned right into an expansive living room decorated by vertical Asian paintings. An enormous plasma TV was playing a music video on the opposite wall. A bucket full of beer and soda cans sat on the low glass coffee table, along with an enormous bowl of nachos and a Macbook she recognized as Rachel’s. An Xbox lay ignored on a nearby bench.

Rachel was ensconced on an L-shaped couch, deep in conversation with two other people. Her face lit up when she spotted them, her hand shooting up in greeting. “Max! Chloe! Finally!”

The other two guests turned their heads to look, and Max couldn’t suppress a gasp.

The brunette girl lounging beside Rachel eyed her curiously, taking in details from her face, clothes, and mannerisms. This didn’t surprise Max one bit; if there was anyone in Blackwell nosier than her, it would be self-proclaimed X-treme reporter, Juliet Watson.

But it was the other girl, sitting primly on the other side of the couch without so much as a beer bottle in front of her, who really caught Max off guard. Kate Marsh gazed back at her with a tentative smile as she held up the paper cup she’d likely picked up just to be polite.

Max caught Rachel’s gaze, but the blonde simply winked and mouthed, “Be cool.”

“Gangs all here then?” Hayden asked, dropping onto the couch next to Juliet.

“Nope,” Rachel replied, “I’m still waiting on a couple more faces to show.” She raised a bottle for Chloe to grab as the taller girl slid into the space beside her. “Hey, join us, Max. Everyone, this is Max Caulfield.”

Max decided that now was not the time for her crippling social anxiety to show. “Hi,” she said, forcing her legs to carry her to the couch and nearly tripping on a cushion along the way. She sat down beside Kate and reached for a cola from the bucket like she was groping for a shield. “Hey,” she mustered, “how’s it going?”

“Hi,” Kate replied in her familiar timid way. “Nice to meet you, Max. Rachel was just telling us about you.”

Wish she told me about you, Max thought, hiding behind a smile. Get a hold of yourself. Kate was your closest friend next to Chloe—of course you’ll get along with her even in this timeline.

“Yup,” Rachel was saying. “Max here’s come all the way from Seattle just to meet you guys. She’s planning on joining Blackwell’s extended senior program next year to pursue photography.”

“Rachel tells me you used to live here,” Juliet piped up. “Must be cool living in the big city now, huh?”

“Y-you could say that,” Max replied, feeling more certain by the minute that she was the lamest person in the room. “As a photographer, there’s a lot of material for me to work with.”

“So what brings you back to your sleepy old hometown?”

Max tried to formulate a workable answer but came up blank; the thought of even saying Jefferson’s name made her want to vomit. She looked beseechingly at Rachel and Chloe, but they were quietly conversing and fiddling with the laptop on the table. Thankfully, at that moment, the doorbell rang.

“The more the merrier,” said Hayden, jumping up and heading for the door.

“You’ve been busy, Rach,” Juliet said.

“It’s just two other people I know from school,” Rachel said, looking at Max. “They’re cool, I promise.”

Max stared back at her. Then it hit her—two days ago, Rachel has asked her who in Blackwell they could absolutely trust. Max gave her two names. Since Kate’s here, that left only—

“‘Sup, everyone!” the brown-haired boy wearing a Godzilla t-shirt said as he entered the room, taking in the faces around him. Despite his attempted swagger, Warren Graham seemed a bit lost, like he wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t invited here by mistake.

But Rachel was already at his side with an offering of beer and a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Warren! Glad you could make it! We’re just chillin’. Come sit, I’ll introduce you to everyone. You remember Chloe, right?”

“Yo,” Chloe muttered, not even lifting her eyes from the laptop screen.

Rachel steered him past to the other side of the couch. “And you know Juliet and Kate from our English class. And this is Max from Seattle.”

Warren came to a stop beside Max, and he gave a toothy, nervous smile. “Hi, Max from Seattle. What’s goin’ on?”

“Uh, hey Warren,” Max extended her hand to shake his. “I’m Max. Well, I guess you know that already.”

“Yeah, I kinda gathered.” He guffawed in a loud, awkward way that made Chloe shoot him an annoyed look. He sat beside Max as he cracked open his beer. “Kate! Nice to see you. Is your bunny doing good?”

“Hi, Warren. Yup, she’s a lot bigger now, thanks. And you were right—broccoli leaves are better for her tummy than flowers.”

“Cool, cool.” He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. “Um, listen. Can I ask you guys something?”

“Uh-huh?”

He scooted towards them. “I’m really not much of a party animal, you know?” he whispered, “so I found it a little weird that Rachel invited me out of the blue to this one. Frankly, I don’t even know her or anybody here that well. What about you guys?”

Max couldn’t disagree. Everyone sitting on the adjoining couch seemed the very essence of cool: Rachel in her dark blue top that hung down one shoulder, chatting animatedly with Juliet who had her stockinged legs crossed and a beer can balanced on her knee, and Hayden looking right at home in his loose turtleneck, grinning as he leaned with his arms on the backrest to listen to them. Even Chloe, wearing an expression that announced she would rather be anywhere but here, fit in better with them than with Max’s side of the room.

“Rachel said she wanted to tell us something important,” Kate replied. “She went out of the way to ask me to come, so I did. That’s all I know. Did she tell you anything, Max?”

“Uh, well—” Max paused, fidgeting. “Sort of and, um, I really don’t wanna spoil it for her. But it’s awfully important for you to hear it.” I just wish she’d get on with it.

Before they could ask her to elaborate, the doorbell rang once more. This time it was Rachel who stood up. “You haven’t had five seconds to relax, Hayden,” she said, laughing. “Let me get it.” And she vanished into the hallway.

“She’s really playing this close to the chest,” Juliet observed. “She didn’t even ask me to bring Dana. That’s pretty weird.”

Hayden shrugged as he sat beside her. “Hey, I’m just glad I’m getting to hang out with people again, you know? You realize it’s been nearly half a year since I got to host a party at my house?”

“Is this because your Dad caught you with a packet of weed in your car?”

“Worst part was it wasn’t even mine. Justin fucking dropped it when I gave him a ride home. And speaking of weed...” He reached down beside the couch and pulled up a bong and a lighter. “Am I really the only one who’s going to be sampling these stupid fine herbs I prepped for tonight? Anybody?” He gazed around the room as he lit the bong.

“Oh, I really shouldn’t,” said Kate, holding both palms up.

“Weed makes me too chatty,” said Warren. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m chatty.”

“I’d like to hear what Rachel has to say before I start thinking everything’s funny,” said Juliet.

“I don’t really smoke,” said Max.

“Oh god, I’m surrounded by dweebs!” Chloe sneered as she pushed the laptop away. “Give it here, Hayden. Clearly we’re sitting on the fun couch tonight.”

“Thatta girl! Sink it!” Hayden laughed as he passed the bong to her. Chloe took her hit as easily as she would knock back a beer.

Voices from the hallway: “...really can’t stay long. Club needs me to do firewall updates in the morning. You know how it is.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Rachel said, smiling as she walked backwards into the den. “I won’t ask you to stay if you can’t, though I’d be really happy if you would. I’m sure we can find one or two things to keep you interested.”

“Somehow I doubt—”

The last guest appeared in the hallway, and Max was left more confused than ever. Black hair sporting a red streak, sleek, dark eyes behind thick glasses, a purple tablet tucked securely under one arm—it was hard to mistake Brooke Scott for anyone else. She gave the motley gathering a bemused stare, but her eyes opened wider when they fell on Warren.

“Now that everyone’s here,” Rachel said, wearing the satisfied smile of someone who’d accomplished something quite difficult, “we can get this meeting started.”

Chapter Text

“I need people I can trust.”

As Rachel gazed at the faces gathered around her, Max tried her best to read the room despite the twisting feeling in her stomach. No one was talking. The music had been shut off at Rachel’s behest. The loudest sound was Chloe chewing on a nacho, and even she quieted down when Rachel laid a gentle hand on her knee.

“So I take it this has nothing to do with you wanting to stage Cyrano next year?” Juliet inquired, smiling.

Rachel returned her cheeky grin. “I’m afraid Monsieur de Bergerac’s gonna have to wait. This is far more important. You see, I think something terrible’s happening in Blackwell.” She paused, her smile inverting. “Something that has to do with our newest faculty member, Mark Jefferson.”

Warren blinked. “Er, you mean Mr. Jefferson the photographer?”

“No, she means Mr. Jefferson the singing janitor,” Chloe grumbled. “Duh, yeah, that Jefferson.”

“Just what do you mean, Rach?” asked Juliet. “I was under the impression you were thrilled to have him teach Photography for the senior program. You even boasted about being among the first to sign up.”

“That was before I discovered what he really is, Jules,” Rachel replied, shifting closer to her laptop. “Thanks to Chloe’s detective skills, I found out that our Mr. Jefferson was up to some unsavory stuff in his career. Involving unwilling girls.”

Brooke, sitting on a cushion on the floor, lifted her head from the doodle on her tablet. Kate’s eyes widened, her fingers worrying the paper napkin wrapped around her cup. Juliet and Hayden exchanged concerned glances. Chloe just sat very still, glowering down at her beer.

Rachel angled her laptop to face the gathering. “This is an article from Seattle University’s student paper archives.” She gestured towards the screen. “Here’s the gist of it: an art student once accused Jefferson of drugging her while she was volunteering as an assistant for his photoshoot. When she woke up, she found herself partially undressed and that he was taking pictures of her, like some kind of pervert-psycho. He was never punished for it. That was in 1996. Now, he’s here in Blackwell.”

Max watched five astonished faces as their gazes crawled across the screen. No one spoke for a long while; Rachel was prolonging the silence to let the facts sink in.

“Oh my,” Kate whispered, touching the cross around her neck.

“I can’t believe it,” muttered Warren. “Did he really actually do this?”

“Now hold on,” Juliet exclaimed. “Just because someone accused him once doesn’t mean he’s guilty. This article doesn’t even say he was charged with a crime, which likely means no one found any proof that he did this.”

“But he still did it,” Max whispered. The instant she spoke, all eyes converged on her. Her heartbeat thumped away in her ears and she curled her hands tightly around her knees.

“Max is right,” Rachel stated. “Not only is Jefferson guilty—he hasn’t stopped.”

“And he won’t,” Chloe growled. “Until someone makes him.”

“But wait—how are you so sure about all this?” Warren inquired.

“Because of Kelly Davis.” Rachel was answering Warren, but her eyes were turned to Juliet. “Do you remember how Kelly vanished from that one party, only to turn up the next day at the dorms—without any memory of how she got there? Remember how quiet she became, how she wouldn’t talk to us or tell us why she was leaving Blackwell? Do you remember that blank look on her face the day before she left? Like she was horrified by something she couldn’t explain?”

“I...” Juliet paused, the color draining from her face. “Are you saying she—you can’t be—it could have been—”

“Or before that,” Rachel went on, “Megan Weaver. You all remember her, don’t you? You remember how she’d go out of her way to help us all make posters and banners for every Bigfoot event. How she liked to smile and laugh, how quickly she made friends. Then a couple of months ago, she left without even saying goodbye. Just that same expression on her face. Why?”

The temperature in the room seemed to have sunk one or two degrees. From the corner of her eye, Max saw Chloe’s hand curl around her beer bottle in a crushing grip. Concerned, she laid a hand on her shoulder. Chloe inhaled sharply, then relaxed beneath her touch.

To Max’s surprise, Brooke spoke up next. “Okay, that’s one way to arrive at a conclusion. But you have to understand, this is all still pretty much conjecture—not proof. You can’t just accuse a guy based on hearsay.”

“And it’s really hard to believe he’s doing all that without anyone noticing!” Hayden added.

“I hate to say it,” Juliet said, choosing her words, “but they’re right. It’s really suspicious, but none of this proves that Jefferson is what the article says he is.”

But as she said this, Max saw Juliet’s eyes sparkling, her leg bouncing up and down where it was crossed over her knee. There’s no mistaking Juliet’s excitement, and one glance was enough for Max to see that Rachel saw it too.

“You’re not wrong,” Rachel replied. “I know I’m missing some crucial details here, but just because we don’t yet see the full evidence doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” She planted both hands on the table as she gazed about the room. “Listen—even if we don’t have the whole truth, what we do know is reason enough to start looking for it. Because now we know and there’s no unknowing it. If Jefferson IS guilty, don’t you think we should stop him before he hurts someone else?”

There was the slightest tremor in her voice when she said that last line, easy for a casual listener to miss.

“Rach,” said Juliet, “are you saying...?”

Rachel took a deep breath. “I believe Jefferson’s targeting me next,” she replied. “He offered an in with an LA-based fashion magazine, in return for a photoshoot with me. Alone.”

Shock rippled across the faces of the gathering.

“Jesus,” muttered Hayden.

“Fucking ew,” Juliet cried. “And you said?”

Rachel kept her gaze level as she spoke. “I told him I’d think about it. I didn’t want him to get suspicious.”

The gathering fell quiet at Rachel’s revelation. Max swallowed and kept looking straight ahead. From the corner of her eye, she could tell her Chloe was practically vibrating, her fists ready to punch something. Max could hardly believe that Rachel would be so brazen as to lie in front of everyone like this; she could only hope that no one would find out.

It was Warren who broke the silence. “...So, what do you think we should do?”

“I kinda have a guess already,” Juliet said, smiling.

Rachel leaned back on the sofa and crossed her arms. “Jefferson’s managed to hide his crimes because he enjoyed a position of authority, and because his victims either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak up. But none of that makes him immune to the truth. And that’s what we’re going to do first—dig up the truth.

“Juliet, you’re the best journalist in Arcadia Bay. Would you be interested in pursuing a story like this? We already have a lead with Laura Nuñez. Max, since you live up in Seattle, could you and Juliet team up to find her? Perhaps interview her?”

Juliet turned to Max, the sparkle in her eyes brighter than ever. “What do you think, Max? Up for a little legwork?”

Rachel glanced her way, and Max understood that they had reached the critical point of the plan. “Yeah,” she replied at once, “of course I’ll help.”

“Great,” Rachel said, the tension melting from her shoulders. “After that, we need to reach out to both Kelly and Megan, find out their sides of the story. I really, truly hope I’m wrong, but if I’m right then we have to help them get justice too. Chloe, Juliet, would you contact them for us?”

Juliet assented quickly. Chloe hesitated, then nodded once.

“What about us bros?” Hayden asked, motioning to Warren. “What should we do?”

“You’ve got an important role, Hayden,” Rachel said. “While we were talking things over, Chloe and I found a correlation between Kelly and Megan—they both left school soon after they attended a Vortex Club party.”

Hayden’s jaw fell open. “Now hang on—what’s the Vortex Club got to do with this?”

Rachel sighed. “I don’t know for sure. But think for a moment—if it’s true that Jefferson’s been drugging and kidnapping girls, how would he go about it? Where could he do it without arousing suspicion? What about a big party? It makes sense—people drink, they do drugs, and sometimes, they’re not aware of what’s going in their cups.”

“Okay, you lost me there, Rach. I’ve been to every single one of those ragers and Jefferson’s never turned up, not even once!”

“He doesn’t need to,” Chloe interjected, “if he has help.”

Beside her, Max heard Kate gasp.

Juliet frowned. “Are you saying...?”

Rachel said, “What if someone else is dosing the girls for him? An accomplice who targets vulnerable girls? If they exist, we need to find out who.”

You already know who, thought Max, but you know better to float his name without proof. You want our friends to figure it out themselves. You want to build the case. And you want them to help bring Nathan down along with Jefferson.

Hayden was shaking his head. “Not gonna lie, Rach, this is quite a stretch. I can’t think of anyone we know who’s capable of pulling that shit.”

Rachel’s eyes darkened, all sweetness vanishing from her mouth. “You might be surprised, Hayden,” she said. “Look, all I’m asking is that you keep your eyes open, especially during these parties. You might just save someone’s life. Will you do it?”

“...Fine. I’m not sure what you expect to find, but fine.”

“Er,” Warren began, “I’m not a big party-goer myself, but maybe I can help?”

“You most certainly can, good sir,” Rachel replied, smiling again. “The more eyes we have around Blackwell, the better. You say at the dorms too, don’t you?”

“Yup. Room 102.”

“Great. Word gets around fast in the dorms and locker rooms, I’m sure. I’d like you to keep your ears open, particularly where drugs are concerned. Like who provides them. Just keep it hush, okay?”

“I can try.” He hesitated, then said, “You really think someone in Blackwell’s helping him?”

“He only showed up at school this January,” Chloe said, “and already two girls have left. Yeah, he must have help.”

Hayden raised his hand. “Hang on, I just thought of something. If you want to stop Jefferson from preying on people, won’t it be quicker to just spread some rumors about him? Get everyone to talk about his past? Won’t that slow him down?”

Brooke cleared her throat. “Well for one thing,” she said, “that’s fucked up.”

“I really don’t want to have to do that,” Kate added. “Not if we don’t know for sure.”

“And for another,” Juliet sighed, “that would put us directly in someone’s crosshairs.”

Rachel grinned. “I’m afraid you’re right about that. Victoria’s been so keen on Jefferson getting into Blackwell, she won’t let anything stop him from teaching next semester. She’ll hunt down who started the rumors—me—and go all Terminator on them.”

Warren said, “So we find the proof we need, expose him, and let the truth speak for itself, huh?”

“Exactly.”

“And what about you guys?” Brooke asked, motioning to Rachel and Chloe. “What’ll you be doing?”

“We think Jefferson’s got some kind of safehouse where he brings girls he...targets,” Rachel said. “We’re gonna try and find out where. That means keeping tabs on his activities. We could sure use your help on that front, Brooke.”

Brooke raised her brows. “Is this going to be something illegal?” she asked. “Because that’s what it’s starting to sound like.”

“I’m not asking for anything specific—yet,” Rachel replied. “But in case we’ll need your skills, then we’d very much appreciate it if you could provide an eye in the sky.”

“Kate,” Rachel went on, turning to the girl on the far end of the couch, “I know you do volunteer work at the principal’s office, so we could also use your help.”

“I...” Kate paused, visibly swallowing. “I think I have to decline.”

Max’s heart sank. “But—”

“I know you mean well,” she hurried on, “but I don’t think I can be party to spying on someone and potentially ruining their reputation. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but I want to believe that Mr. Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty.”

“I’m with you on this, Kate,” said Juliet, “that’s why I’m going to research and verify this story as ethically as possible. I’m not telling anyone about this until we’ve gathered the facts and I’m convinced it’s true.”

“That’s all I’m really asking for,” Rachel said. “And I totally understand. No one talks about this issue with anyone outside this circle until Juliet’s gets something solid for her story. And if you feel there’s no truth to it, we won’t speak of this issue ever again. How’s that?”

Kate hesitated, frowning in thought. “Alright,” she finally said, turning to Juliet. “I’ll at least listen to what you can find.”

Brooke shook her head. “So, am I the only one who thinks that we’re punching above our weight class here? Assuming we find the proof in the first place, what’s the endgame? We take him down ourselves, Scooby-gang style? Shouldn’t we leave this mess to the police?”

Rachel opened her mouth to answer, but Chloe beat her to it. “If the cops could’ve taken down Jefferson, they’d have done it back in ‘96,” she said. “He outsmarted them then, and he’s been outsmarting them now. So yeah, Brooke: we are going to take him down Scooby-gang style, if that’s what it takes. The cops can have what’s left of him after. Question is: are you in or not?”

“You really think we can do this?” Brook countered. “A bunch of high school students?”

“I have no doubt we can,” Rachel said. “I fully intend on cooperating with the authorities, Brooke, when the time comes. But Mark Jefferson targets girls when they’re most vulnerable and he’s doing it right fucking now. I’m not standing for that. None of us should. Don’t discriminate against yourself because you’re still in high school, Brooke. Because I promise you, Jefferson won’t give a damn.”


With that, the meeting was over. As the rest of the party polished off the remaining nachos, Kate gave her apologies, saying she had a boosters meeting the next day. Max and Rachel saw her out the door.

“Thanks for coming tonight, Kate,” Rachel said.

“You sure you’ll be alright going alone?” Max asked. She looked out in the night and felt danger hiding behind every shadowy bush and picket fence, waiting to snatch up Kate as she walked by.

“The bus stop’s right there,” Kate said, smiling at her. “I’ll be fine. Thanks for inviting me, Rachel. And it was nice meeting you, Max. I hope we can talk again.”

“I’m sure we will,” Max replied. Nevertheless, she let Rachel go on ahead and watched through the window till Kate got on her bus.

When she got back to the living room, Hayden was rubbing his hands together, saying, “So, night’s still young, guys. Any ideas on what we can do?”

“We could watch some movies,” said Warren, digging through his pocket. “I got some sick films here in my thumb drive.”

“Yeah?” Chloe asked, lounging back and crossing her arms behind her head. “Like what? Scott Pilgrim?”

“Um...”

“Scott Pilgrim’s an absotively cool movie, Chloe,” Max protested, poking her in the side.

“Well, of course you’d like it, nerd,” Chloe said, poking her back. “It’s not my scene. No offense to nerds. Or Canadians.”

“Oh yeah?” Rachel said, smirking as she grabbed another beer. “Could’ve sworn someone here had a ladyboner for Envy Adams and wouldn’t stop humming ‘Black Sheep’ for weeks.”

Chloe shoved at her shoulder. “It’s catchy as fuck—what do you want from me?”

Hayden shrugged and motioned towards the TV. “Well, if anyone’s up for it, we got an Xbox 360. Don’t get much use since my brother left for NYU. I got Rock Band 3. With instruments.”

Warren’s face lit up. “Rock Band’s good!”

“Great! I got the drums.” Hayden got up and dragged the controllers out from under the couch.

“And I got some moves with the guitar,” Warren said, accepting the guitar-shaped controller from Hayden.

“Then I’ll go with the keyboards,” said Brooke, getting up from her floor cushion.

Warren grinned at her as he slipped on the guitar strap. “Wow, you know how to play too, Brooke?”

She gave a lopsided shrug. “What do you think we Asians do with our time outside of playing video games and musical instruments?”

“Knock yourselves out then.” Chloe slumped forward and slid the bucket of beer closer to her. “You dudes won’t be needing these, will you?”

“You know,” Hayden said, booting up the Xbox, “I got the track for Black Sheep loaded in here. And we do need a vocalist.”

Chloe paused mid-sip. “Hm. I guess I can’t stand someone else half-assing such a good song...I can give it a whirl. Whatever.”

As they were gathering around the TV, Max looked around and spotted Rachel through the nearby glass sliding door, smoking on the patio. Seeing everyone was occupied, she thought now might be a good time to talk.

Max stood up and slipped out the glass doors to the outside. Rachel and Juliet leaned close together, smoking as they leaned against the wooden railing between two white pillars.

“...got a lot riding on this story, Jules. If we can prove that he’s behind this then—”

“We help a lot of people, I know.” Juliet blew a cloud into the cool night air. “And now I get why you didn’t ask me to bring Dana along. She wouldn’t be able to keep this to herself.”

Rachel’s cigarette traced a red line in the darkness as she waved her hand. “I love that girl. But we both know that if we tell Dana to keep something in confidence, it’s as good as gone. Taylor would know, then Victoria, then all of Blackwell.” Rachel shook her head. “I want you to have the chance to pursue this story unmolested. I don’t want Jefferson catching wind of what we’re trying to do.”

From the corner of her eye, she caught sight Max standing by the door. “Oh, hey there.”

“Hi,” said Max. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Not a problem,” said Juliet. “Actually, I need to bounce too. Max, call you tomorrow about our Seattle plans, okay?”

“You got it.”

Juliet slipped past her and through the patio doors. Back inside the den, Chloe had picked up the mike, exclaiming, “Alright kiddies, this is my jam, so nobody screw it up!”

“Please don’t drop the mike, Chloe,” said Hayden. “That shit costs sixteen dollars.”

With the door closed again, Max turned back to Rachel, who was leaning back against the wooden railing.

“So.” Rachel skewed her lips to blow smoke to the side. “How’d you like your surprises?”

“I...” Max took a moment to process her thoughts. “You and Chloe really caught me off-guard.”

She grinned at Max. “That’s kinda the point of a surprise.”

“I know. I appreciate the camera—”

“Chloe’s idea.”

“—And it was blast seeing Kate and Warren again. I’m glad they’re a part of this, even if only in a small way. It’s just that...I get way too nervous around people, Rachel. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Rachel tilted her head to one side. “I don’t know about that, Max. They liked you well enough.”

“Well, maybe. But I’m not good at improv like you. And I don’t have time powers to fix things if I screw up.”

The blonde laughed and raised both palms in a placating way. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry Max. From now on, I promise to give you a heads up when I’ve got something big planned.”

“Thanks.” Max brushed her hair behind her ear, then added, “But I want you to know I really appreciate what you did, Rachel. Especially with Kate. Even if she’s not too keen on helping, now that Kate knows about Jefferson, she’s gonna have her guard up. She’ll think twice before going to a Vortex party.”

Rachel inclined her head. “She’s your friend, Max. It’s the least I could do, though we may have just killed off the last vestiges of her social life.” She stubbed out her cigarette on the ashtray. “Come join me, will you?”

Max stepped over to where Rachel leaned against the railing, placing her elbows on the wood and looking up at the stars. “You make it look so easy.”

“Make what look easy?”

“Talking to people. Influencing them. I can’t even convince my mom I’m an adult. But you pulled all this off in one go. Just like that, we got allies against Jefferson.”

Somewhere behind them, the bass began to pound against the windows as the song started up. Rachel gave a little laugh. “It only looks easy, Max. You don’t know the work that went into it.

“Take Juliet, for instance. She’d never go to a party without Dana or she’d never hear the end of it. I convinced her to come alone with the promise of a juicy bit of gossip, something she absolutely had to hear first.

“Hayden is easy to convince. If two or more of his friends agree to something, he’ll go along with it. That’s why getting Juliet on board was key.

“Brooke was tricky since we’re not exactly friends. But she owes me for convincing Principal Welles that the computer lab needed a serious upgrade. That’s how I got her to come, and even then I had to make her feel like she was doing me a favor.

“Both Kate and Warren are too nice to turn down my invite. But to convince them to help, well, I had to lean on you.”

Max goggled at her. “But they don’t even know me! Well, yet.”

“People only need a few seconds before they decide they like someone. And they made up their minds the instant they met you, Max. Don’t worry—they’ll help.” Rachel winked. “You underestimate just how adorable you are.”

For her own peace of mind, Max decided that that comment was just Rachel being Rachel. “You really thought this through, huh?”

Rachel rested the small of her back against the wooden railing. “I learned long ago that if you help people get what they want, they’ll help you get what you want. The real trick comes in getting them to want the same thing. Like now.”

They both fell silent at that moment, because Chloe’s voice cut through the pounding rhythm.

Hello again, friend of a friend, I knew you when
Our common goal was waiting for the world to end

“Holy shit,” breathed Max, turning to watch her through the glass. Chloe must really like that song: she was bouncing on her toes in the middle of the room, grasping the mike in both hands, not even following the lyrics onscreen, letting the rhythm alone guide her.

Now that the truth is just a rule that you can bend
You crack the whip, shape-shift, and trick the past again

Around her, Hayden, Warren, and Brooke rocked their instruments, pleasantly surprised at how quickly they managed to find their flow. But despite the roaring guitar and clash of cymbals, Max found she couldn’t for one second take her eyes off of the blue-haired whirlwind in their midst.

Rachel glanced at Max, smiling. “Didn’t you know she could sing like that?”

Max was jolted out her reverie. “Oh yeah. Her teachers used to make her lead the national anthem and everything back in grade school. But I don’t remember her sounding this amazing. Or that she could even belt like that.”

“She’s a treasure, isn’t she?”

“Mm-hmm.”

They stayed quiet for a moment, content to let the music wash over them. Then Rachel said, “Chloe’s been...different...since you came back to Arcadia Bay.”

Max blinked. “How do you mean ‘different?’”

“She’s been coming to see me every day this past week. Seems she’s really thrown herself into the bodyguard role, offering to drive me whenever I needed to go somewhere in town. She hasn’t been this attentive in a while.” She cast her eyes down, grinning to herself. “I’m the type who likes my own space, but...it’s nice, having her near me like this all the time.”

She turned her gaze back at Max. “I guess I got you to thank for that.”

Max shook her head. “You don’t have to thank me. I didn’t do much. Chloe’s always been loyal.”

“Yeah. It’s just like her, huh?”

“When you were...I mean, back in my timeline, Chloe never stopped looking for you when everyone else had given up. She covered the whole town with your missing person posters. We spent an entire week searching. She‘s absolutely relentless when it comes to you, Rachel.”

Rachel smiled sadly. “I could have said as much from the way she spoke about you, Max.”

Max felt a tremor deep inside her chest. “She talked a lot about me?”

“About Captain Bluebeard and First Mate Max?” Rachel laughed. “What about your science experiments that nearly left a hole in her bedroom floor? Or your not-so-secret wine-tasting session? Or that you both dreamed about leaving Arcadia Bay for a life of treasure and adventure?”

Max pressed a hand to her face. “She made us sound like a couple of dorks.”

“I think it’s kinda sweet.” She took a sip from her drink. “I guess she and I had the same idea about leaving this place for good.”

“Maybe that’s why she wanted you and me to meet.”

“Yeah, and here we are.” Rachel tapped her nails against her beer can, her eyes catching Chloe again through the glass.

“Max,” she whispered, “I know what I did. I saw the look on your face when I mentioned Jefferson’s offer. I know I just told a monstrous lie in front of my friends. In front of Chloe.” She paused, frowning down at the price sticker she had peeled off with her thumbnail. “I did it to convince them of the danger we’re in, but—it doesn’t feel good. It feels like I’m digging myself in deeper into a hole I should be trying to climb out of.”

Max didn’t know what to reply to that. She placed a faltering hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

She shook her head, her blond tresses felt like silk on Max’s fingers. “I don’t know. But I don’t want to lie like that ever again. I won’t if I can help it. I want you to know that, Max.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Rachel took a deep breath, then her lips curved upward once more. “It’s strange, Max. Just a week ago, you were nothing more than a name. I could never have imagined you.”

Nor I you. “Well,” Max said, grinning back at her. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Rachel Amber.”

“Ditto, Maxine Caulfield. Thanks for having my back.” She raised her beer can in a toast, to which Max raised her own imaginary drink.

“So,” Max said. “What now?”

Rachel golden brows furrowed. “Now we get ready,” she stated. “Since you asked me for a head’s up with surprises, I should tell you now: we’re going camping tomorrow.”

Max’s eyes widened. “Camping?”

“Out in the woods, where we can train without anyone seeing us. That was the plan, right? My powers as our ace in the hole against Jefferson? Well, I know just the place for it.” She wiggled a finger at Max. “You and Chloe did a lot of camping yourselves, or so she told me.”

“Y-yeah, we did.” Going out into the woods for some privacy sounded like a good idea, at least. “But if we’re going, should we be getting some rest...?”

“Screw that!” Rachel finished off her beer and plunked the can down onto the railing. “Isn’t it a waste that Chloe’s making some killer music right now but nobody’s dancing?”

Max, dizzied by Rachel’s frenetic pace, froze at the word. “Dancing?”

“Yeah, Max. I’m sure you're familiar with the term.” She grasped Max’s hand and dragged her back into the den.

“Um, I don’t really dance, Rachel!”

“Not what Chloe told me—she said you two can boogie like mad!” Maneuvering them beside Chloe, she began to jump with her, swaying her hips and shaking her head so that her mane whipped about like a flag in the wind. Max tried to keep up, but all she could manage was a weird, twitching shimmy.

Now that the truth is just a rule that you can bend
You crack the whip, shape-shift and trick, the past again

She caught Chloe’s eye, and her best friend grasped her fondly by the shoulder, laughing her way through the rest of the lyrics. Before long, Max found herself laughing as well.

She ended up crawling half-alive into Chloe’s bed sometime past two in the morning.

Chapter Text

It was a day for miracles.

A balmy spring breeze rolled in from the sea, trading the scent of brine for wildflowers as it passed over the outskirts of Arcadia Bay. Max breathed it in and hoped it was a sign of good luck. Looking back over her shoulder, she could see her hometown shrinking with every step she took up the hills northeast of town. The midmorning sun blazed down, glistening on the grass beneath her sandals. The view all but begged her to take a picture. 

Chloe ignored all that. She halted on the upward climb to slap palms to knees, her head sinking below her backpack as she gasped for air. Max stopped and put her hand on her best friend’s shoulder to steady her. 

“Damn hangover,” Chloe wheezed. “Why the hell are we killing ourselves coming up here again?” 

Max didn’t answer right away, not even to point out that they hadn’t even been climbing for ten minutes. She was distracted by the sheen on Chloe’s skin, by the exact curve of that pale bare shoulder against her fingers. Chloe. Alive. Here with me. Was it only a week ago when I would wake up crying from missing you?

“You know why,” Max replied, forcing her hand to let go. “We’re going somewhere secluded enough so Rachel could train without anyone seeing.”

“Then tell me why we can’t do it in a nice, flat junkyard that’s ten minutes from my place instead of in Bigfoot’s backyard.”

Max grinned. “Because I don’t relish the thought of getting squished by a flying car when Rachel makes a tornado?”

Chloe grunted as she straightened up, her eyes chasing the receding form of the girl in the plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves, who was steadily treading up the hill towards the forested hilltop.

“I swear, I don’t know how she does it,” muttered Chloe. “She drank as much as I did last night, so why’s she spared the hangover?”  

As if hearing her, Rachel turned and yelled, “Hey Max, is she slowing you down? We can come back for her later, you know!”

Chloe struggled to raise two half-hearted middle fingers before giving up. Too much work. Instead, she latched onto Max’s arm to use as a crutch and resumed the climb.

“You realize,” Choe huffed, “that my own mother can’t get me out of bed on a Saturday morning, especially when I’m hungover?”

Max smiled, her pulse quickening a little as she circled an arm around Chloe. If there was one thing she’d learned these past few days, it’s that Rachel was a master at getting what she wants. “Maybe you should save your breath instead of talking.”

Chloe half-heartedly swatted at Max’s arm, then gathered herself. “I can do this. My dad trained me better than this.” 

“C’mon, C!” Rachel cried. “Don’t give up now. We’re almost there!”

“That’s—( huff )—what you said ( huff )—ten minutes ago!” 

“Yep. And now, we’re ten minutes closer than when we started! It’s worth it, I promise!”

Max laughed. Chloe made another irritated noise and said, “So far this campout’s been pretty butt.” 

“So not,” Max said.

“You’re a butt.”

“No you.”

“What are you two talking about over there?” Rachel shouted over her shoulder.

“Nothing,” they replied together. 

“Totes butt,” Chloe muttered.


Rachel’s campsite was a little clearing beside a ridge that overlooked the town. The surrounding pine trees made it seem like a nest and assured them some privacy as they worked. Rachel called it the Aerie, and she was right—the view was worth the climb. 

“You can see the whole town from here!” Max breathed. Indeed, Arcadia Bay seemed like a collection of miniatures, and the lighthouse to the west looked like one of Chloe’s cigarette stubs half-buried in the ground. 

“Told ya,” Rachel said, grinning, her hands on her hips. “Pretty enough for a picture, huh?” 

In the uneasy silence that followed that hint, Max thought of the camera at the bottom of her bag and found herself without an answer. She was grateful when Chloe said, “Eh, s’alright.”

Rachel quirked an eyebrow at the blue-haired girl sitting on a nearby rock. “Finally got your breath back, Clover?”

Chloe spat out the water she had just chugged from her bottle. “Don’t call me that! I sound like a farm animal.”

“Well, since you don’t like the view very much, you don’t have to look at it.” Rachel reached over and pulled the beanie over Chloe’s eyes.

“Hey!” Chloe made a grab for Rachel, but the blonde laughed and twirled away from her hands. Grumbling, she adjusted her beanie. “Don’t we have stuff to do or something?”

She was right, of course. Now that they’ve caught their breath, it was time to get to work. “What would you like to practice today?” asked Max, coming to stand beside Rachel.

Rachel walked to the middle of the clearing, stretching her arms like she was about to rehearse a dance. “Since I started this week with a tornado, I thought we could work on controlling the wind. Also because Chloe over there gets antsy when I play with fire.”

“Yeah, none of that.” Chloe made an X with her forearms. “Last time you lit something up in the woods, you burned down an entire park and like six acres of forest.”

Max’s eyes widened at this, but Rachel merely simpered. “Will you relax? Max taught me how to stop it, remember? And besides...” She gestured to the woods to the north. “Look at how quickly it all grew back. You‘d swear it was magic.”

“Uh-huh. Let’s stick a pin on fire stuff till you get a handle on your powers.”

“Fair enough.” Rachel turned to Max, eyes sparkling. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

 

For the next few hours, Max watched Rachel summon one tornado after another, each one large and powerful enough to rush past the treetops and shake pinecones from their branches. And each time it rose that high, Rachel would always shut it down without fail. 

Except that wasn’t what they were going for. And given her flushed face, clenched fists, and deepening scowls, Rachel knew it too. 

When they hit their forty-sixth trial, Max said, “Maybe you should take a breather, Rachel.” 

Rachel ran her fingers through her tousled hair, taking one heavy breath after another to control herself.

Chloe plunked down on the grass. “Well, we established a couple things,” she said, ticking off her finger. “First, you need your hands to use your powers, which is important. Second, once you get things started, it can keep going on its own, without any intervention from you at all. And third—”

“WHY CAN’T I MAKE IT DO WHAT I WANT?” screeched Rachel. Then she huffed and said, “Sorry. It’s so frustrating. I mean, I can start and stop them just fine, but the stuff in between—”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Max said, putting a hand on her arm. “This isn’t like a school subject that you can master in one go. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.” 

“I-I know. Thanks, Max.” Rachel pinched her nose and lowered her head. “I’m annoyed to be wasting your time like this. And we’ve been at it for hours!” She paced around the clearing. “What am I missing?”

Chloe yawned and stretched her arms overhead. Wondering, Max leaned over and whispered, “You’re not too concerned about this.”

“You think this is the first time I’ve seen Rach lose it over some big challenge?” Chloe replied. “Dude, she gets super intense just rehearsing her roles. Don’t worry, she always make it work out in the end, you’ll see. She’s awesome like that—and really annoying.” 

Chloe hauled herself to her feet and announced, “Anyway, we’re losing daylight. I think I’ll get started on finding some wood for the campfire.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Rachel, barely listening. 

Chloe threw Max a questioning look. Max nodded and mouthed, We got this. 

Chloe shrugged, gave a salute, and whistled as she disappeared among the trees.

Max turned to Rachel, who had stopped to stare out at the town far below them. “You okay?” 

“Hmm? Yeah, yeah. Just thinking.” Rachel puffed a blonde strand away from her face. “You ever get that feeling, Max, when you know you should be good at something, but aren’t?”

“I feel that way every time I take a bad picture,” Max confessed. “The thought of all the money I’ve burned on polaroid film makes me want to bury my head in the ground.”

Rachel half-turned to her, the corner of her mouth quirking. “I should have a look at these bad pictures of yours, Max. Something tells me you’re a lot harder on yourself than you need to be.” Then she shook her head. “I keep wondering why I can’t get a handle on my powers.”

“Like I said, Rachel. We’ll work this out. It’s only a matter of time.”

Rachel turned her gaze back out over Arcadia Bay. “I wonder how much time we have,” she said softly. “I don’t like the feeling that he’s out there somewhere, planning something, getting ready to strike at me for ghosting him.”

The notion lanced through Max’s heart like a piece of ice. She touched a hand to the other girl’s shoulder, giving comfort even as she sought some for her own. “Rachel...”

Rachel’s fingers touched Max’s own. “It’s fine. No use scaring ourselves over something we can’t control. Let’s just be prepared.” She turned to face Max fully. “Can I ask, did you ever have trouble controlling time?”

Max shook her head. “I raised my hand and picked the most convenient moment to rewind to. Of course, that control came with a trade-off.”

Rachel nodded. “At least I’m spared the migraines and bloody nose.”

“My powers had limits. Yours don’t seem to. You’re like a—a living battery, Rachel.”

Rachel snorted. “More like an industrial fan with only one setting: max.” She laughed as she realized the pun. “Well, you’re my lucky charm, Caulfield. How do we do this? Because I’m not keen on starting things up again without some kind of strategy here.”

Max sat cross-legged on the grass and ran a hand through her hair. “What’ve we tried so far?”

Rachel sat down next to her, propping her chin on her hands. “We’ve tried relaxing, which works great when I want things to stop, but not for much else. We’ve tried the opposite—focusing as hard as I can to control the tornado. We tried emptying the mind. That worked about as well as anything else.” She threw up her hands. “Can’t shape it, can’t move it, can’t even make it smaller. It just won’t listen. I feel like I’m training a fucking cat.”

So it’s not a matter of focus. Max frowned in thought. She’d long concluded that their abilities worked differently. Rewinding took an effort of will, but Rachel could bring a tornado or a lightning bolt into existence with little to no effort. Yet exerting fine control—moving the tornado around, directing where the lightning bolt should hit—that was a whole other thing. 

They needed something more. Max thought back to all the meditation techniques she’d learned from her teacher. None of them seemed to apply here. What had they missed?

“You know what’s funny?” Rachel said, picking at the grass near her foot. “I chose air because I thought it’d be the easiest to work with. It’s the wind, for god sakes. Birds use it to fly without even thinking. I didn’t realize it would be such a—”

“Wait,” Max said, eyes widening. “What did you say?”

“I didn’t realize controlling air would be so hard.”

“No, before that. About birds.”

“I...was just describing how birds use the wind to fly.” She peered at Max, the edge of her mouth lifting. “Did you get an idea?”

“It’s a hunch,” said Max, but her heart was fluttering inside her chest like it too had wings. Would this work?

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. What is it?”

“It’s as you said,” Max began, “When birds fly, they don’t think about air. Maybe we’ve been going about this all wrong.” 

She sprang to her feet, pulling Rachel up with her. “What if it’s not a matter of thinking, or even of focus? What if it’s...instinctive? Like a bird flying? Or choosing the right moment to snap a photo? Or making art?” 

Rachel stared at her, then chuckled. “What, should I paint with all the colors of the wind?” She giggled harder at Max’s moue. “Okay, okay, you’re being serious. What do you suggest we do?”

“We follow your instincts. What’s your favorite art—acting, right? Can you think of a role you love?”

Rachel’s eyes sparkled. “I once played the female version of Prospero in a production of The Tempest. I was a sorceress who could control the weather.”

Max clapped her hands together. “I can’t think of a better example! So, remember how it felt to play her. Feel your way through, like you’re someone who has the power to do this.”

“Like it’s a role.” Rachel nodded once, seemingly lost in thought. For a moment, Max was struck by how lovelier she looked out here in the wilderness—the sun caught in her hair, the set of her jaw, the way her eyes gazed in the distance. She had never seemed more in her element, and Max wished she could have seen her onstage. 

Finally, Rachel said, “There’s something I’d like to try. But I need you to trust me.”

“Sure,” Max replied. “What is it?”

Rachel worked her shoulders in a circle and kept her gaze leveled at the trees. “When I’m up for a part, I do the work—I memorize my lines, I internalize the character. But when I’m on stage, it stops being work and becomes play.” She offered her hand to Max. “So I figured we should play.”

Max took her hand with hardly a thought. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see. Ready?”

Max drew a deep breath and nodded once. In response, Rachel clutched her hand tight and closed her eyes. 

For a moment, nothing happened. They stood there, facing the forest, hearing only by songs of hidden birds, the rustling grass, and their own unhurried breathing. 

Then the wind came—a gentle breeze twisting against Max’s jeans. It swirled up her legs like eddies in a stream. Then it came up to her waist. A second later it was roaring in her ears, clutching her entire body like she were weightless. Max couldn’t suppress a gasp; what was a river was now an invisible giant, cupping them in its hands and lifting them from the ground.

Max swallowed. “R-rachel?”

But Rachel was in some other world behind her closed eyes. A small, tender smile played on her lips as she recited: “I swear to thee—we shall fly beyond this isle—the corners of the world our mere prologue.

Max tore her gaze from Rachel and looked down. The tornado had lifted them in a bed of air, five feet from the ground. They were facing the sky, their clothes rippling in the wind, limbs spread across a bed of swirling air that smelled of leaves and grass. 

“Raaaachel?”

The other girl’s eyes flickered open and they immediately stopped rising, suspended in space with hands still joined. She glanced down before locking eyes with Max.

“Holy shit—we’re flying!” 

“Yes, we are! Can you keep it that way?”

Rachel threw her head back and laughed, her tresses glowing like a halo in the afternoon light. “Just watch me, Max!”

Her joy was contagious—despite her terror, Max couldn’t help but feel giddy as well. Together they bobbed through the air, screaming in laughter, arms spread like wings as they rollercoastered on the wind. Max’s stomach lurched with every dip, but the tornado caught them without fail. She could barely believe it—Rachel was in complete control.

The rattle of falling wood caught their attention. They turned mid-air to see Chloe standing slack-jawed among the trees, the blue lost amidst the white of her eyes. The sticks she’d collected were scattered and forgotten at her feet. “Fuck me!” she cried.

Rachel laughed and held out her hands. “Chloe—come on!”

Mouth still agape, Chloe sprang towards them, jumping up and down like a kid demanding to be picked up. Rachel gestured and a second tornado formed beneath Chloe, lifting her up into Rachel’s orbit. A heartbeat later they were in each other’s arms, laughing as they spun in a slow dance, a whirlwind within the whirlwind. 

Max couldn’t help the joy bubbling inside her as she watched them. And if she felt a twinge in her heart at seeing them together, well, that was something she could live with. 


The sun was sinking below the sea by the time Rachel brought them safely back on the ground. Chloe had wanted to keep flying under the moonlight, but Max pointed out that they hadn’t even set up camp yet and the tornado managed to scatter the wood they’d collected. 

A full moon was hovering over the trees by the time they had finished setting up the tent and the campfire. Rachel was playing some tunes on her phone. “Marina Diamandis is my spirit animal,” she announced, flopping down by the campfire. “God, I haven’t had this much fun in years.”

“Yeah,” Chloe chortled, falling onto her back beside her. “Loads better than supergluing Victoria’s locker shut.” 

“You...actually did that?” Max asked, kneeling across the fire from them.

“Yep. For drawing dicks on Kate’s prayer group posters. Someone‘s gotta stick up for the bunnies.” 

“You did it because it’s Victoria,” Rachel corrected her.  

“Yeah, okay, you got me. I like spilling her gravy.”

“Phrasing.” Rachel turned to Max. “Anyway, I don’t know about you, but all that fun’s got me starving.”

“Same,” Chloe replied. “Too bad we can’t get pizza.”

“Unless they can deliver by drone!” laughed Max. 

“Don’t worry, I came prepared.” Rachel got up and rooted around her backpack. “I got the cooking pot here. Max, could you get the satchel in the tent? I stowed some cans of corned beef in there.”

Max crawled towards the tent, but Chloe pounced in front of her, blocking the way. “Dude,” she hissed, “one of us has to do the cooking tonight. Do NOT hand the food over to Rachel.”

Max took in her friend’s serious expression. “Why not?”

“Because—okay, there’s no nice way to say this—Rachel’s the literal worst at cooking.”

“I—what? Chloe, are you serious?”

The taller girl gripped Max’s shoulders. “Trust me. She never follows recipes. She’ll do her own thing and it’s usually horrible. I’m begging you, Max. If you hand over the cans she’ll make something completely inedible and we’ll be starving by morning.”

A sudden breeze blew a dishcloth smack into Chloe’s face. “Just what are you telling her, Price?” Rachel stomped over to them, pot in hand and wrists planted on her hips. 

“Nothing!” Chloe peeled the offending rag from her head. 

“I heard you, you know! What do you mean I’m bad at cooking? Two weeks ago you were gobbling down those brownies I made you!”

“They were as tough as bricks, Rachel! I had to wait three days before they left my system!”

“It’s fine, you two,” Max sighed, taking the pot from Rachel. “You did a lot of work today, so let me cook, okay?”

“But...oh fine,” Rachel muttered. Then she brightened as she offered Max a handful of leaves. “Here. I found some mulberry leaves nearby. We can use them in place of cabbage!”

Staring down at the handful of leaves, it dawned on Max that Chloe wasn’t exaggerating. “Uh, that’s okay. My dad taught me a thing or two.”

A half-hour later found them sitting around the fire again, eating corned beef with slices of bread. 

“Thanks for saving our dinner, Max!” Chloe said around a mouthful of food, right before another breeze hurled the dishcloth into her face. 

“Wow. Really, Chloe?” said Rachel.

“You’re getting too good at that.” Chloe peeled the rag off of her face. “Hey, it’s not my fault you happen to be bad at that one thing.”

“Oh, like you’re one to talk.” Rachel leaned towards Max and stage-whispered, “You should know that Chloe sucks at giving gifts.”

“My gifts are awesome and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!” spluttered Chloe.

“Yeah? Like that time you gave me a potato for Valentines?”

“A potato?” Max gave Chloe a quizzical look.

“See, that’s exactly what I mean when I say my gifts are awesome!” Chloe waved her spork at Rachel. “A rose is going to wilt in a week. Potatoes last fucking forever—and if that’s not a great symbolism for relationships, I don’t know what is.”

Rachel glared at her. “You gave me a potato shaped like an ass.”

“Like a heart, Rach—it was shaped like a heart! Plus, there’s so much you can do with potatoes: bake ‘em, mash ‘em, make fries with ‘em, put ‘em in corned beef—”

“You gave someone a vegetable for Valentine’s,” Max pointed out. “Chloe, I can’t even.”

“You can turn them into batteries, Max! Batteries!”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Instead of Clover, I’m calling you Potato Girl.”

“Hey!”

Max hid her smile behind her hand as she watched the two of them bicker. She could imagine them going at it as they hung out in the junkyard after school. Not for the first time, she wished she could join them every day instead of only on weekends. 

“I know one gift of mine that’s hella awesome.” Chloe set her plate on the grass and tugged at Max’s sleeve. “Break out that camera, Maximus! Time to waste some film!”

The smile froze on Max’s face. 

“Hey, great idea!” Rachel chimed in. “Let’s take a selfie by the fire!”

“Uh, s-sure.” Max forced herself to walk to her bag. She had been banking on everyone forgetting about the camera. But by the excited glow on Chloe’s face, she was keen on Max using it. 

Suddenly, everything Max’s instructor had taught her about relaxing dissolved from her mind. It’s just a selfie, she told herself. You’re going to be fine. You’ve taken loads of selfies, sometimes first thing in the morning! 

She pulled the camera from her bag and stared at it. It looked back at her with its unblinking idiot eye, as if daring her to try and use it. It dawned on her that it had been over three weeks since she last took a photo. 

You can do this, she told herself, bringing the camera over to her two friends. Dammit, Max. Chloe gave you her dad’s camera. Don't disappoint her.   

“Max? What’s wrong?” She hadn’t been aware of Chloe’s approach until blue-tipped fingers closed around her shaking hands.

“Max? Are you okay?” Rachel came close as well, trying to catch her eye.

The words came automatically to Max’s lips. “I’m fine.”

“No you’re not,” Chloe stated, her frown sending a stab of fear through Max. “You’re sweating, and your hands are cold.”

Max swallowed a hard lump in her throat. How did it come to this? They were having such a good time tonight.

“I—I can’t,” Max whispered. “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“What do you mean?” Chloe said. “Max? Hey, c’mon, look at me.”  

“Max, you can talk to us,” Rachel said, “Do you mean you can’t take a picture? ”

Max didn’t know how or where to begin, but her mouth uttered the words for her. “It’s...it’s Jefferson.”

Chloe scowled. “Jefferson? What does he have to do with...” Her words died as comprehension dawned on her. “Oh. Oh...fuck.”

By the grim look on her face, Rachel also understood. “The Dark Room,” she said.

“Shit,” muttered Chloe. “I am bad at gifts.”

Max peered up at their faces, but it was hard to read their expressions now that her vision was blurring. “I want to use this camera, Chloe. It’s your dad’s. It’s so special. But just holding it like this, even the thought of hearing it click—”

“Shh! Forget the stupid camera!” Chloe gently pried it from her fingers and set it down on her bag. “I want to know you’re okay.”

“Come sit with us.” Rachel took Max’s hand and led her to settle down by the fire, with Chloe following a moment later. The two girls sat on either side of Max, their hands on both of hers. They sat quietly for a long moment, staring at the flames. Max felt her shame prickle deep at the thought of ruining their fun; she wanted nothing more than to hide in her sleeping bag for the rest of the night.

Chloe snapped open a beer can and drank it down. “If I had actual time powers,” she muttered, “I’d strangle Jefferson in his crib.” 

“Dark, Chloe,” Rachel remarked, picking up her own can. “But I’m with you. I promise, Max, he’s not going to get away with hurting you. Or any of us.” She smoothed the tousles in Max’s hair. “Hey, I’m really sorry we pressured you.”

Max shook her head. “You don’t have to be. You didn’t know.”

“Still,” Rachel sighed, “we did it anyway. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for you.”

“Me neither,” Chloe said, squeezing Max’s knee. “But you don’t have to face it alone. We’re here for you, okay? So you pick up that camera only when you’re good and ready.”

Max nodded, not knowing what to say.

“I hope you do go back to it, Max,” Chloe said. “Actually, I know you will. Your pictures are hella awesome. It’s your art. Don’t let him take that away.”

“And if you ever want to talk,” Rachel added, “if things get difficult, just call us. We’ll make time for you. You’re not alone. Okay?”

“That—that means a lot.” Max shifted in her seat, then leaned into Chloe’s warmth. “And I don't feel alone.”

Another quiet moment passed, filled by the crackling fire. The moon illuminated the camp, and somewhere in the trees, an owl crooned in greeting. The lights of Arcadia Bay spread before them in a poor imitation of the starry sky. 

Chloe said, “We ought to have a team name.”

Rachel frowned at her. “A what now?”

“We’ve got a superpowered drama queen, a time-traveling badass, and me! That just screams for a name. Work with me here.” She scratched her forehead. “We’re like those three witches in Macbeth! Or better yet—those Greek revenge goddesses. What were they called again?”

“What,” said Rachel, “the Erinyes?”

“No, no, the other thing.”

“Furies?” offered Max.

Chloe slammed her fist into her palm. “That’s it! We’re the motherfucking Furies!”

“Furies and Erinyes are the same thing, Chloe,” Rachel pointed out.

“Whatever, Drama Queen. Furies rule.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Maybe we should name ourselves something more relatable, closer to home. Any ideas, Max?”

Max thought for a moment. “What about...Pirates?”

Rachel threw a smirk at Choe. “There you go. So simple. So relatable.” 

“Huh,” Chloe slung her arm over Max’s shoulder. “That really takes me back. Guess this marks the return of Captain Bluebeard and Long Max Silver, huh?”

“Yeah,” Max said. The memory of her playing buccaneers in Chloe’s backyard lit a smile on her face. “Best-pirates forever then?”

“Yeah! Best-pirates forever!”

Max paused, then said, “I think we should probably...make up a codename for Jefferson as well. So we can safely mention him in public.”

“Huh, that’s a good idea, Max,” said Rachel. “We should come up with several, just to be safe.” She snapped her fingers. “How about we call him ‘Judge Frollo’?”

“Hmm,” Max said. “That means Nathan would be Quasimodo.”

Chloe threw Rachel a pointed look. “And I suppose you get to be Esmeralda?”

“Damn straight,” Rachel replied, grinning. “Which makes Max here the dashing Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers. As for you, Chloe,” she gave a dismissive wave of her hand, “well, I suppose you can be my goat.”

“Hey!” Chloe gave Rachel a little shove, inciting laughter from the blonde.

Max smiled and ducked her head. “Well, it’s kinda appropriate, Chloe. You—”

Chloe’s blue eyes flashed at her. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence.”

“—really like grass.”

Groans from either side of her. “Your ass is grass, hippie!” Chloe spluttered, and Max’s voice dissolved into giggles as Chloe’s fingers wriggled against her midsection.

Rachel laughed along for a while. Then she leaned back on her arms, took in the view of Arcadia Bay, and whispered, “It was only a garden a moment ago.”

“Wha?” Chloe said, still snickering. “You say something, Rach?”

“Nah.” Rachel shrugged, breathing in the cool night air. “Just moonstruck, I guess.”

They talked until the campfire burned down to embers, then climbed into the tent to talk some more, laying there in the dark. Max couldn’t remember exactly when she passed out, but it was to the sound of Chloe murmuring in her ear, and the warmth of Rachel’s hand on her arm. 

She wasn’t alone. And that made everything she‘d done to get here worth it. 


Chloe dreamed.

She was beginning to figure out when it was going to be one of those dreams, though this one started innocuously enough. She was flying through the air, whooping and waving her pirate hat as she rode on the back of a giant raven. The bird took her down to a sandy beach where she found Frank sitting on a sunbed, smoking weed while eating bean-stuffed tacos. Pompidou lounged beside him, chomping down on a bleached bone. 

Frank’s head was a giant pineapple, complete with his stupid face and scraggly beard. “What’s eating you, Chloe Price?” he trilled as he bit down on a taco. “What’s eating you? What’s eating—?” 

Chloe slapped him across the face to shut him up, then grabbed the bag of weed beside his chair and dashed towards the nearby jungle. Spotting a hole in the ground, she jumped inside to hide.

Here, the dream shifted. She was no longer in her pirate get-up but in her usual tank top and jeans. She was also no longer crouched at the bottom of a hole, but standing on an escalator heading down into the earth. 

She was sure she had seen this before in some movie—a long escalator that led into a subway. Or the underground, as the Brits called it. Except this one had no end in sight, a tunnel full of white tiles and antiseptic fluorescent lights. To her left, behind a glass divider, another escalator slid steadily upwards. She could hear nothing beyond the gentle hum of motors below her feet. As she passed poster after poster of random gibberish, she wondered if the tunnel had a bottom at all. 

Someone behind her was humming a country tune. Chloe turned to see her father coming down to meet her. 

“Hey there, sweetheart,” William said, smiling as he stopped on the step above her. He was still dressed in his blue plaid shirt and jeans, with not a blonde strand out of place on his head. 

“Dad.” Chloe felt glad to see him amidst her bizarre situation. “What are you doing here?”

He shrugged, inclined his head. “Just wanted to see how my little girl’s doing. And I’m happy to see she’s doing her best.” 

Chloe reached out to take his hand. He felt solid. Warm. Alive. Chloe’s heart beat a painful rhythm in her chest. “Is this a dream?” she asked. “Or are you actually talking to me?” 

William spread his hands. “‘She thrusts her fists against the post and still insists she sees the ghosts.’”

“Are you going to give me a straight answer on anything, ever?” Chloe gazed about, taking in the glare of the white lights on the rubber handrails. “Where the hell are we even going?” 

“Funny choice of words,” he said, before shifting his gaze to the left. “My, she’s also giving it her best, isn’t she?”

Chloe followed his gaze to the side. Beyond the glass partition, Max was fighting to run down the up escalator. The camera swung from her neck like a dead albatross. Her eyes pleaded with Chloe as she yelled and pounded her fist on the glass, but Chloe heard no sound above the soothing machine hum and the hiss of the rubber handrails. 

“What’re you saying?!” Chloe cried. “Max, I can’t hear you!”

But the panicking girl made no sound at all as she pounded and shouted through the partition. She was pointing at something further down. Chloe turned her gaze to see, far below, an unmistakable cascade of golden hair flowing onto a crimson plaid shirt. Rachel stood several steps down the escalator, one pale hand on the handrail as she faced the seemingly endless descent.

“I’ve never been much use at games, Chloe,” William said. “Actually, I was downright crap at it. You remember how you used to beat me at every session of Stratego and Risk?”

Chloe was barely listening. Something about Rachel—her silence, how she seemed frozen where she stood—made Chloe want to touch her and make sure she was real.

“But you know,” her father continued, “the thing about winning all the time is that it doesn’t teach you much. You don’t learn where your weaknesses are, and it gets pretty hard to tell when someone else’s got you beat.”

“I think I know a bit more about losing than I care to.” Chloe’s feet were moving long before she even realized it; they carried her down the steps towards Rachel. To her left, Max struggled to keep pace with her as she descended.

“You’ve got dark times ahead of you, daughter mine,” her dad called after her. “I ain’t sure you’re ready. To be fair, I don’t see how you can be.” 

Chloe paused at the step behind Rachel, then reached out a hand to touch the other girl on the shoulder. She was real too, but not warm. No—she was burning like a fever. Or a forest fire.

“You gotta learn, Chloe." Her father’s voice was far away, nearly an echo in her ears. "People are at their weakest when they think they’ve already won.”

Chloe forced Rachel to turn around—and her blood turned to ice. Rachel was much the same—her hair so bright, her fair skin still unblemished. But her eyes were empty sockets, little furnaces where red fires raged. 

Rachel was burning from the inside. 


Chloe woke up and gasped, “I’m not losing her!”

No one answered in the gloom. It was only a dream, she thought, licking her dry lips. Only a dream, but her hands were clammy and cold sweat glued her hair to her forehead. She waited for her racing heart to slow, then sat up and rubbed the grit from her bleary eyes. Looking at the wan grey light filtering into the tent, she realized it was very early in the morning. Probably dawn. 

She peered to her right. Max was still asleep beside her, curled up into a ball with her head cushioned by her hand.

Next to Max lay an empty sleeping bag.

“Rachel?” A sudden shot of adrenaline drove the last bit of sleep from Chloe’s brain. Shoving the covers off of her body, she crawled to the tent flap and poked her head out. “Rachel?! ” 

A spring mist blanketed their campsite. Chloe peered frantically about, then her chest loosened when she laid eyes on Rachel standing a few steps away. In an eerie moment of déjà vu, she had her back to Chloe, facing the trees. She was barefoot and wearing only her white t-shirt and shorts, yet she didn’t seem the least bit cold.

Am I still dreaming? Chloe wondered. Are we both?

In a monotone, Rachel said, “Chloe, do you hear that?” And without waiting for a response, she walked towards the trees.

“Wait!” Chloe cried as Rachel vanished into the mists. “Fuck!” 

Chloe ducked back into the tent. Max was still out cold—there was no point in waking her and losing more time. Rachel could get lost out there. Grabbing her jacket, Chloe stumbled out of the tent. 

The forest was swathed in mist and silence. She plunged through it, pushing past shrubs as the cold air pierced her flesh like needles. No animals appeared to be awake at this hour, which suited Chloe just fine. Last thing she needed was to run into a freshly woken bear. 

She couldn’t see Rachel through the mists and the trees. Breathing clouds into the frigid air, Chloe pulled her jacket tighter around her body and followed the moist footprints left on the grass. Now and then, she would catch a dark shape receding into the grey void between the trees. “Rachel!” she panted, hurrying on. “Rachel, wait up!” 

She rounded a line of trees and nearly collided with Rachel, who stood rooted on the ground, staring into the mists. “Oh thank God,” Chloe exclaimed, grabbing her by the arms. “Rach, you scared me! Why the hell’d you run off like that?”

Rachel turned to look at her, and for an instant Chloe was terrified that her eyes would hold nothing but fire. But to her relief, she found herself looking into the same hazel gaze she had loved for so long. They seemed unfocused, half-awake, and again Chloe wondered if Rachel were sleepwalking. 

“Can’t you hear it?” Rachel asked. She put a hand over her heart, as if it pained her.

“Hear what?” Chloe shrugged off her jacket and wrapped it around the other girl’s shoulders, though she doubted Rachel felt the cold. “I don’t hear any—” 

Chloe paused and really listened. She could hear something after all—a long, dull roar, a slight rumbling in the earth that hinted at something monstrous moving close by. 

“What the fuck is that?” Chloe said, and realized she was whispering.

Rachel did not reply. Instead, she turned and lifted both hands. A stiff breeze blew through the pines and the mists parted like a curtain.

Some twenty yards below them, cupped by a circle of hills, lay a square construction site, a wide clearing that had been shorn clean of grass and trees. A ten-foot-tall chain-linked fence ran a hundred feet on each side. Stacks of lumber sprawled on the north end, an idle cement mixer lay to the south, and to the east sat a squat wooden office with a corrugated steel roof and a narrow red door. 

Chloe’s gaze was drawn to the center of the clearing, where an enormous pit had been gouged into the earth. The hole was less than three feet deep, but she got the impression that it was meant to go deeper, given the men with shovels and hard hats milling around it. A man in green overalls stood at the edge, reviewing a blueprint as he shouted instructions to the rest.

The roaring grew louder, and its source became apparent when a yellow construction truck rolled down a new dirt road that cut through the forest. It came to a halt beside the unmarked gate. Chloe and Rachel watched, riveted, as the passenger door opened and a man in a dark suit jumped out, surveying his surroundings. 

Chloe sucked in an icy lungful of air; she grabbed Rachel’s hand and dragged her behind the nearest tree. Peering around the trunk, they watched the newcomer circle towards the open gate. The foreman met him halfway, shaking his hand and giving him a hard hat to wear.

“Him,” Rachel growled. Chloe nodded, jaws tightening, her gaze never leaving the man in the suit. Mark Jefferson took one more look at the surrounding forest before putting on his hat and following the foreman into the site.

Chapter Text

Above everything, Mark Jefferson hated being told what to do.

At his most polite, he would pointedly ignore suggestions from models and other photographers on how to set up a shot. He brooked no interference when it came to editing his photos. He had repeatedly claimed that an artist—at least one of his caliber—needed complete control of the creative process. Else what was the goddamn point of it all? He might as well have been a corporate stooge, a shill for jewelry and perfume companies.

An artist without control is no artist at all. Even if it meant he would commit mistakes, they would be his mistakes.

Jefferson’s last mistake was named Suzie, whom he had met while conducting lectures in Chicago. She was 22, a folk singer, Bohemian, lived in her car, and was never content to stay in one place for too long. She had long crinkly hair, an angular face and the sad, drooping eyes of a Basset hound. She smoked an obnoxious amount of marijuana, so much that her mouth smelled of it at all times.

She was also curiously innocent, believing that people were inherently good and the universe was just. So the serene look on her face when he finally took her picture, right when she was caught in that liminal state between sleeping and waking, was nothing short of exquisite. So was her expression of panic and alarm when he returned from his lab and found her wide awake, struggling with her bindings, and baying to be released. He couldn’t resist snapping another picture before he had to do the inevitable. Clearly, she had developed a resistance to sedatives long before she’d met him. Fucking druggies.

He tripled the dosage for the final injection. Her terror died with her.

Later, he stuffed her into a body bag, drove to a landfill, and buried her during the wee hours of that autumn morning. Three weeks later, he was doing lectures at Portland State University. That was when Sean Prescott caught him.

Jefferson received Prescott’s invitation to meet up and explore the possibility of a teaching job. Jefferson knew little of Prescott then, other than that he came from old money, was a real estate mogul, and also hailed from Arcadia Bay but had moved to Florida years before. It was also rumored that Prescott had spent his early youth in some kind of sanitarium. The idea of working with such a mysterious patron seemed interesting, so he agreed to meet at Prescott’s office.

Jefferson disliked Prescott from the instant they met. Everything about the man was hard lines: his hair, his black glasses, his jaw, even the cut of his suit reminded Jefferson of the granite facade of the man’s office. Prescott’s eyes were too small for his face and he spoke with a barely-there lisp. But all these belied the menacing energy the elder man wielded when he smiled, when he shook hands.

The first thing Prescott did when Jefferson sat before his immense oaken desk was to lay down a series of photographs on the polished wooden surface. “You can keep those,” Prescott said, smiling. “I have plenty.”

Every photo had clearly been shot with a telephoto lens. The first one showed Suzie entering his rented Chicago home. The second featured Jefferson dragging a body bag into the trunk of his car. The third showed him digging a large hole in the ground with a shovel. The last one showed him kneeling beside the body bag, which had been unzipped slightly to reveal Suzie’s ashen face as Jefferson laid a final kiss on her forehead.

Jefferson’s blood burned hot before running cold. His eyes drifted to the fountain pen in the marble holder as he contemplated the chances of stabbing Prescott in the throat and escaping from the building. Then he caught the older man’s gaze and realized Prescott had read his intent.

“I would rethink any rash action, Mr. Jefferson,” Prescott said. “It’s ill-advised and also unnecessary. I only wish to ascertain we understand each other. And it seems we do.”

Jefferson’s fingers constricted around the wooden armrests so hard he thought they would splinter. “How long have you been following me?”

“A while. I monitored your career closely after I learned of your...early indiscretion in Seattle.” He gave a deferential nod. “Let’s just say I admire your work.”

“What do you want?”

Prescott walked to his side and leaned against the edge of his desk. “As I said in my invitation, I need someone with your skills. I represent certain interests in Arcadia Bay, and I need someone to act on my behalf.” He tapped his index finger against the desk. “I’m offering you a job, Jefferson. At Blackwell Academy. Full pay and benefits. You will start at once, of course.”

“My agreement with Portland State—”

“I think you’ll find that the most binding agreements can’t be read through a pile of money. Moreover, you will be better compensated in my Academy, and in the long run, you’ll see that working for me will yield benefits beyond monetary reward.”

“...And what exactly will you have me do at your university? It’s the middle of the school year.”

“Why, exactly what you’ve been doing all along.” Prescott spread his hands. “That and one or two other things, as I see fit. You will serve as a guidance counselor until the next school year, where you may start teaching Photography.”

“How long shall I be tied to this job of yours?”

Prescott stood up and made his way to the wide window behind his desk. Despite himself, Jefferson was astounded that the mogul would turn his back on him. “Until you complete our main objective. After that, you are free to go. As free as air.”

“What objective?”

The older man held himself very still, then spoke his next words in a careful, measured pace. “I want someone found in Arcadia Bay. A teen-aged girl. It is imperative that I find her quickly, before she realizes her full significance.”

“You must have an army of private detectives under payroll. What makes you think I can help?

Prescott fixed him a cold stare, unblinking and impatient. “I’d rather you not play coy. We both know you work by gaining your subject’s trust. That’s your specialty, and that’s what I need. I am playing a most dangerous game and I need unorthodox ways of defending myself.

“Those are all the details you’ll need for now. I’ll explain more once you are settled in Arcadia Bay.”

“And after I complete this job, what then?”

Prescott gestured to the photos. “Once our business is complete, you can have all the raw files. Everything that has been buried stays buried.”

Watching Prescott’s large frame blocking the sunlight from the window, Jefferson did not for one second believe that the man would keep his word. But at the moment, he saw no way out of it. It was not so much the blackmail that cowed him—it was Prescott’s uncanny lack of fear, despite not having a bodyguard or a weapon nearby. Jefferson realized he would have to bide his time until he could find out what sort of demon possessed this man.

“I suppose I have no choice, then,” he said.

Prescott’s smile turned absolutely feral.

“You’re goddamn right you don’t.”

 

And so, Prescott brought Jefferson’s perfectly-ordered world to an end. Jefferson was reminded of that every day he stepped inside Blackwell Academy. The despair crawled into every aspect of his life; for months, he thought he could never create art again.

But a week later, Prescott came to him with a young man in tow. “This is my son, Nathan. I would like you to teach him photography. His doctor said art might do his temperament good.”

The boy was sullen and mostly uncooperative. It took a while to get past his defenses, but before long, Jefferson had the Prescott scion at his beck and call. Their relationship allowed Jefferson to fill the Dark Room with more comforts and expensive instruments than what the boy’s father had allowed for. Soon the Dark Room began to feel more like home than his own house in town.

Then Nathan introduced him to Kelly Davis, an incoming senior who was also interested in photography. She had clear, curious eyes and café au lait skin. For the first time in months, Jefferson gave a genuine smile.


 That Saturday night found Jefferson hard at work in the Dark Room, mulling over the list he’d received that day from Sheriff Skinner. This was the list of every girl that fit the profile they’d culled from Prescott and the footprints on the beach: mid to late teens, around five foot five, roughly a hundred and ten pounds. That narrowed down their list to 47 girls in and around Arcadia Bay. Still quite a number, and he had yet to round up and verify their correct addresses.

He was gratified that Rachel Amber made the list. At least the attention he’d paid her these past few weeks wouldn’t go to waste.

His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of his burner phone. Prescott again. Steeling himself, Jefferson picked up.

“I need you to take pictures of the site,” Prescott said the moment he answered. “I have business out of town, so I can’t inspect it myself.”

Jefferson fought to keep his breathing steady. It was outrageous—outrageous—to be reduced to the level of errand boy. “Mr. Prescott, surely Sheriff Skinner is more suited for something so—”

“Those are not the kinds of shots I hired him for,” Prescott said. “Go up there tomorrow morning, survey the site, and give me an update. With pictures. And remind Burrows he needs to complete the project in three weeks. No excuses.”

“But how will I even get there? My car isn’t designed to—”

“I have a truck scheduled to make a delivery tomorrow at dawn. They have instructions to pick you up and take you back. Meet with them at the main road and hitch a ride.”

Jefferson bit his lip until he tasted copper. Keeping his voice level, he said, “Fine. Is there anything else you need?”

Prescott hesitated. “I’m emailing you something,” he said. “Have a look at it. It’s video surveillance footage from a convenience store in town.”

“And what’s special about it?”

“Clearly you’ve been down in that hole too long,” Prescott growled. “There’s been another anomaly—a miniature tornado in the store parking lot. Blatant and public. It’s like she’s taunting me.”

Jefferson’s email notification dinged. He reached over to his laptop and clicked on it with hardly a thought but didn’t bother to open the attached file.

“The surveillance footage doesn’t give a lot to go on,” Prescott went on. “There’s no angle showing who caused the tornado. But we have the video of the store at the time the incident took place. Look at it and see if you can find some clues. Work with Skinner if you need to. That will be all.” Before Jefferson could get another word in, Prescott dropped the call.

Jefferson grabbed his own wrist to stop his hand from hurling the phone against the wall. He shut his eyes and wrestled his temper back down. Alright. I’m alright.

Tonight, he would lock up the Dark Room, drive home, shower, listen to some jazz, and take a pill to get to sleep. The video could wait. He had an early start tomorrow.

That night he dreamed of his hands around Prescott’s soft, pliable neck.

 

That Sunday morning at dawn, with only his laptop bag and a camera in tow, Jefferson drove up Arcadia Drive and past the lighthouse until he reached the town limits. There, he parked by the roadside and waited.

Minutes before dawn, a Ford construction truck stopped to pick him up. It didn’t help his mood that the driver, a sturdily-built Minnesotan with a penchant for snacking on blueberries, kept up the banter for the entire fifteen-minute drive through the misty woods.

Jefferson didn’t particularly enjoy the wilds, but he disliked the Arcadia Bay forest in particular. The place seemed haunted. There was something sinister in how little daylight pierced the canopy, in how the trees bunched together like prison bars. Hadn’t this wood partially burned down a few years back? One couldn’t tell based on the sheer number of trees here.

The dirt road they took was partially hidden from the main highway by bushes and a copse of trees. The path wound through the wood and up the hill before sloping down into a valley. It was only at this point that a No Trespassing sign appeared in the fog. Five minutes later, they arrived at a clearing cordoned off by a wire fence. Here, at last, was the site.

Burrows greeted him at the gate and waved the security guards off. “Great to have you here, sir,” he said, grasping Jefferson’s hand. “I want to let you know right off the bat that we’re on schedule. Mr. Prescott’s got nothing to worry about.” That last bit carried a touch of nervousness. 

“Great, great,” Jefferson muttered, unslinging his camera as he stepped over the rebar and wooden frames. The sooner he was done with this, the sooner he could get back home.

Burrows began rattling off some constraints they were facing in terms of logistics, but Jefferson paid no heed. He snapped pictures of the hole that had been dug into the soil, the men planting little yellow markers on the surrounding grounds, and the construction materials being stockpiled at the corner. After ten minutes, he felt he had taken enough material to satisfy the old bastard.

Jefferson then paused to look down into the hole the workers had excavated. It was only three feet deep, yet it struck him at how real it made all this craziness seem. They were actually doing this. Bad enough that Prescott wouldn’t be able to keep this secret from the courts or the Native Americans for long.

But once Dionysus found out—what then? If Prescott went down, would he take me with him? The thought sent an icy ripple down his spine.

The men had yet to unload all of the construction materials from the truck, so he had time to spare. Then he remembered his other task. Turning to Burrows, he said, “Alright if I sit down in your office? I need to make a call.”

Burrows perked up. “Of course! And if it’s for Mr. Prescott, I hope you’ll tell him how well things are going around here?”

Jefferson merely smiled and nodded before making his way to the nearby shack with the red door. Inside the hastily-built office was a workman’s desk and a plastic chair. Good enough. At least the place had a generator.

Jefferson pulled a seat and took out his laptop. The browser was still opened to his inbox—thankfully, he had downloaded the attachment the night before.

The zip file contained two movie files. The first one was labeled 5 HOURS OF THIS. Upon double-clicking, it showed a fuzzy video of the parking lot of a convenience store. The timestamp indicated this happened on 04-24-12 12:06:12.

As Jefferson watched, the wind began to pick up at the center of the lot, turning into a tornado that quickly rose past the roofs of the nearby cars. It remained stationary for the rest of the video, which would fast forward to various points in time, showing a small crowd of people gathering around and throwing garbage into it for fun.

Intriguing. So far, their quarry showed an incredible ability to control the weather. Pity there had been no sign of anyone nearby when the tornado was created. The camera had been badly positioned; whoever it was that created this anomaly, they were well out of frame.

Jefferson closed the video and moved on to the next one entitled STORE INTERIOR. The footage was a bit clearer this time, showing a bird’s eye view of a brightly lit-counter with a curly-haired attendant at the register. There was only one other person in the store, a young man with a skateboard under one arm, inspecting some paperbacks on a shelf. The time stamp read 04-24-12 12:06:09.

At 12:08:02, the automatic doors slid open and an androgynous young woman strolled in. She wore a beanie, a white tank top, a pair of dirty jeans, and suspenders that hung loosely from her waist. The girl looked much like one of those tiresome faux punk bitches he’d met way back in his Seattle days.

He watched as she marched to the counter, bought two packs of cigarettes, paid, and left. 

Jefferson sighed. Prescott was not exaggerating when he said there was not much to go on. Standing up, he pulled out his phone and dialed Sheriff Skinner. It took a few tries; the signal was terrible out here in the middle of nowhere.

Skinner answered on the third ring. “The hell you want?”

They stuck to their practice of never using their names or titles while out in public. “Just to ask a few questions. Did our benefactor send you a couple of surveillance videos recently?”

“Yeah. Turns out he found a tornado in town, or some such.”

“I’m reviewing the footage now. One of the people in the store interests me. Tall girl, blue hair with pink highlights, wears a tank top...”

“Yeah, I know her. Chloe Price. Lives on Cedar Drive.” The old man gave a yawn. “Known her type my whole career, sent more than a few of ‘em into juvenile. An insubordinate high school drop-out with a dead-end job and zero drive to get anywhere, like that rube mother of hers. If she’s the witch we’re looking for, I’ll eat my badge.”

“She doesn’t fit the profile?”

“Nah, way too tall for the footprint we lifted. It ain’t her.”

“If you say so,” said Jefferson. He knew this would be a waste of time. “Anything else you can tell me?”

“Next to nothing. Her social circle’s pathetic. I’ve seen her hanging around James Amber’s kid and that’s it.”

Jefferson halted, eyes gleaming. “You don’t say. Are they close?”

“Not a sliver of daylight between them. That’s all I have. If there’s nothing else, I’ve work to do.”

Jefferson thanked him and hung up. He smiled as he sat back down in front of his laptop and replayed the indoor surveillance video. Once again the image of Chloe Price strolling into the store played across the screen. Jefferson watched her purchase two packs of cigarettes, pocket one, and unwrap the other. He played the video again. And again.

Once he had finished studying the video he wrote down a word in a text file: Pall Malls.

Ms. Price opened up the Marlboro pack the instant she laid hands on it. But she pocketed the Pall Malls. Because they were for someone else. Someone who could’ve been waiting for her outside. Someone who could’ve been bored enough to leave their mark in the parking lot in the form of a miniature whirlwind. Whom did he know fit such a mercurial disposition?

When Jefferson finally exited the office, it was already mid-morning. But he felt his time was no longer felt wasted—he had a lead. And as before, Rachel Amber was now his number one priority for a private photoshoot.

He passed the workmen as they went about their business. He even felt cheerful enough to nod to Burrows as he passed him.

At the gate, he paused to throw a look over his shoulder. For some reason, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

A series of throaty caws rang from somewhere in the trees. A shiver far colder than the morning air crawled down Jefferson’s spine. He hurried up the passenger’s side and shut the door.

Noting his pallor, the driver asked, “You okay?”

“Perfectly fine,” said Jefferson. “I’d like to get back now, if you please.”

The driver shrugged and started the truck.

Far above the site, unseen by all present, a flock of ravens fled from the treetops as a white drone passed overhead. It pointed a single dark eye down at the construction site as it buzzed higher into the sky.


 “Is this going to take much longer?” Chloe asked.

Brooke raised her head from her tablet to glower at them all. “Like the drone’s gonna go faster with all of you crowding around me like this.”

All four of them were gathered beside Chloe’s truck where it was parked at the foothills. The moment Chloe and Rachel had spotted Jefferson, they had hurried back to wake Max, break camp, and drive all the way to the Blackwell Dormitory. Rachel had rushed in, emerging several minutes later with a bleary-eyed and grumpy Brooke in tow. Chloe had no idea how Rachel convinced her to come, but she knew why they needed her.

“Sorry,” said Max, backing away to sit on the truck’s front bumper. Chloe shuffled in place, then thought better of standing around and moved to sit beside Max.

Only Rachel didn’t budge. She stood before Brooke with her arms locked together, her mouth a staid line. Even Brooke seemed reluctant to utter a sharp word to her.

“You’re sure they won’t catch sight of it?” Rachel asked.

“Can’t guarantee that,” Brooke replied, fiddling with the controls of her tablet. “I’m staying far away enough so they won’t be able to hear the HiFly, but if someone looks up, they’ll have no problem seeing it. It’s not like we disguised it as a pelican or anything. Whoa, shit—I think I see him.”

Chloe couldn’t help rubbernecking at the tablet even as Rachel slipped beside Brooke. Sure enough, the drone’s camera showed a tiny figure in a dark suit walking toward the gate of the construction site and hopping into a truck.

Rachel’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Could we get a bird’s eye view of the place?”

“Already on it.” Brooke maneuvered the drone higher, snapping photos as it rose.

Chloe settled back down on the truck’s bumper. Beside her, Max was watching the forest, as if she expected Jefferson himself to suddenly emerge from the trees.

“Hey Maximus,” Chloe nudged her, and Max gave a little jump. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Max replied, rubbing her arms as if she were chilled. “Sorry, just the thought of Jefferson close by...”

“I hear ya. But it looks like we’re getting the drop on him this time, so try to relax, okay?”

“Mm-hm.” Max hesitated, then leaned towards her until their shoulders touched. Even when they were kids, Max always drew comfort just from touching her. “What about you, Chloe? How are you feeling?”

“Me? I’m cool.” Chloe threw a look back at the pair beside the truck and dropped her voice. “Actually, it’s Rach I’m worried about.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never seen her like this, Max. Never known her to walk blindly into a forest and find crazy shit like what we saw. Honestly, it’s making me nervous.”

Max nodded. “I think this whole thing’s got us all on edge. We’re finding out that there’s so much we don’t know.” She turned her gaze back to the treeline, propping her chin on her hand. “Why was he out there, Chloe? And what’re they building?”

“No idea. But I promise, we’re going to find out.” 

They sat quietly for a few moments, each warmed by the other’s nearness. Looking for a distraction, Chloe reached for the cigarette pack in her pocket, then remembered that Max didn’t like the smell of smoke and put it back. But that left her keenly aware of the growing silence, and she felt she needed to fill it in with something.

Last night’s dream drifted back to her.

“Hey, Max?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you had any...weird dreams recently?”

Max blinked, her chin lifting from her palm. “Weird dreams? H-how do you mean, weird?”

“Yeah, weird, like—” Chloe froze where she sat, looking at nothing, mouth working to spit out the next word. Max leaned away, breaking contact with her shoulder; Chloe instantly missed her touch. She turned to find her best friend staring at the ground. Was she imagining it, or was Max blushing?

“Yo, Max, you okay?”

If anything, Max’s cheeks grew even rosier. “Uh, yeah, totally fine! S-so, what kind of dreams do you mean, Chloe?”

Chloe shrugged. “Well, you know...” She focused on the faraway trees, trying to grasp the faded visions she had from the night before. Her father, telling her things as they descended deep underground. “Like...

“Like?”

“...Escalators,” Chloe finally blurted out.

Max stared at her. “Escalators?”

“Yeah, uh, nevermind. I’m being stupid.” Cursing herself, Chloe stabbed her cigarette into the side of her truck. “It’s not important.”

Before either of them could say another word, Rachel appeared at Chloe’s side.

“We’re done here,” she said, nodding to Brooke. “She’s bringing the drone back now. We’ve got pics, but it’s hard to look at them on a tablet.”

“I got a big-ass monitor back at the dorm,” Brooke said, climbing onto the back of the truck. “We can study the shots there. Unless you guys wanna stick around for the view, that is.”


Few words were exchanged on the drive back to Blackwell. To Rachel, it felt like an eternity. She tapped her foot against the truck’s floor as Chloe wove through the town’s side streets. Brooke, who sat in the back playing Candy Crush, complained about the bumpy ride, so Chloe made a game out of hitting every pothole she could find.

Rachel paid them little attention. In her mind, she was replaying the same scene over and over: Jefferson walking around in a construction camp in the middle of the woods, an image so incongruent it seemed like a fantasy.

Chloe said something, snapping Rachel out of her reverie. “Sorry?”

“I said, how did you know that the construction site was going to be there, Rach?”

Rachel shook her head, tried to refocus. “I didn’t. I didn’t know what we were going to find.”

“Huh.” Chloe turned the wheel sharply left, eliciting an annoyed grunt from Brooke. “So what made you go out there in the first place? It’s like you were hypnotized or something. Freaked me the fuck out.”

“I’m sorry, Chloe. I wish I could explain it.” She frowned, trying to recall the sensation. “When I woke up this morning I...I felt strange. There was this dull ache—a pressure.” She placed a hand over her chest. “Like something was pounding on me, right here. When I went outside to get some air, I heard that terrible noise.”

“You sure heard it way before I did.”

Rachel nodded. “Like I said, it was so strange.” She looked and found Max gazing at her wide-eyed. “Did anything like this ever happen to you?”

The brunette thought for a moment. “I’ve had visions before,” she responded slowly. “Mostly they focused on the storm that hit Arcadia Bay. Sometimes in the woods I’d see a spectral doe. But nothing quite like what you experienced.”

Chloe glanced at her. “Magic deer, Max? You mean like the one you said helped you when we were kids?”

Max blinked, gaze turning inward as she recalled something. “Wowzers, that right, Chloe! A doe did come to me back when I got lost in the forest!”

Rachel eyed her, half smiling. “You attract a magic doe? Is that like your spirit animal?”

“I’m not sure what it means.”

“None of us have any idea what any of this means,” groused Chloe as she skidded into the Academy parking lot. “So I sure hope those pictures we took will give us some answers.”

They filed out of the truck, made their way past the gymnasium and across the front lawn, only to stop dead in their tracks at the wall separating the dorms from the school proper.

“Shit,” muttered Choe, flattening against the wall. “I forgot that my step-douche’s on duty today.”

Rachel peered over the brick wall to see David Madsen, eyes glued to his clipboard, marching straight towards the school lawn.

“Well that’s just great,” Brook grumbled. “Not likely that Robocop over there’ll let non-students into the dorms.”

Rachel exchanged glances with Chloe, who nodded. “I’ll distract him,” Chloe said. “You guys circle around. We can meet up later.”

"I'm not getting caught on your account, Price!" said Brooke.

"You won't—just follow Rachel and you'll be fine!" So saying, Chloe lit up a cigarette and stepped out from behind the wall, saying, “Yo.”

“Chloe.” David’s gruff and weary voice made it clear he was not up for some shit today. “What are you doing here? Do you realize you’re trespassing?”

“Whoa, give it a rest, Major Payne. I’m not out to cause trouble. I’m just here to see Rachel. ‘Sides, I used to be a student here.”

Rachel motioned to Max and Brook to follow, and staying low, they crept along the wall till they reached the end, then made a U-turn into the principal’s driveway. She caught sight of David, mustache twitching, hands on his hips with his back towards them, as he glared down at Chloe, who was lighting a cigarette.

“Well, you’re not one now!” he barked. “Are you trying to get me fired? You can’t smoke on school grounds!”

“Hey, like you said, I’m not a student, so I don’t have to give a shit about the rules.”

Blowing Chloe a kiss, Rachel ushered Max and Brooke past the principal’s house and on to the dorms. Within minutes, they were in Brooke’s room, watching as she copied the files from her tablet to her computer.

Now that she had some time, Rachel took a moment to look around Brooke’s dorm. Every square inch of it was adorned with her interest: books by Neil Gaiman and Madeline L‘Engle littered her bed and nightstand, while posters of robot competitions and hi-tech drones covered her walls. Max was examining a cactus growing in a tiny pot by the window. On a different table, a laptop was downloading a torrent file. Meanwhile, Brooke tapped away at her desktop next to Max. And she hadn’t lied—the monitor was easily 20 inches wide.

“You know,” Brooke remarked, “for a day you said might never come, the day you needed my help came by pretty fast.”

“No kidding,” Rachel sighed. “But we had to know what’s going on.”

“Well, anyway, I helped you out just like I said. So now we’re square.”

“Yeah, looks like it. Thanks, Brooke. We couldn’t have done this without you.”

“Don’t mention it. And by that, I mean don’t ever mention it. Last thing I need is to give my mom an excuse to drag me back home to Salem.” Brooke frowned at the image rendered on the screen, then wheeled back her swivel chair. “It’s done. So, what’s this look like to you?”

Rachel and Max converged at the desktop, peering down at the image together.

It was an aerial view of the fenced-in construction site—a perfect square bounded by a chain-link fence, a series of huts, and piles of wood. And at the center of it all gaped that shallow, shell-shaped hole. It had been dug in such a way that wide steps gradually descended into the earth.

It seemed familiar to Rachel. And for some reason, looking at it hurt. She soon turned her eyes away.

“Rachel?” said Max’s, voice full of gentle concern.

“I’m alright.” But she could barely hide the inexplicable rage from her voice. When will any of this start making sense?

Brooke hummed. “You know who’d be interested in this? Juliet. I think she wrote an article about something like this. Property rights and land ownership involving the Prescotts.”

Max blinked. “Wait...the Prescotts? They’ve got something to do with this?”

“That’s something you have to ask Juliet. She’s the one who reported—hey, Rachel, where are you going? Didn’t you want a copy of these files?”

Rachel was already out the door. “Sorry, I need some air.”

“Um, give them to me,” Max said as the door closed behind her.

Rachel stalked down the hall to the stairs, eyes locked forward, acknowledging any greetings sent her way with only the briefest of smiles. She turned the corner, headed down the stairs, and was soon standing outside the dormitory entrance.

What does all this craziness mean? What does it have to do with me? Why did that image disturb me so much? It was beyond surreal. But the sight of that hole, carved out like a bullet wound on the earth, clung to her mind and wouldn’t leave.

The dorm grounds were deserted at this time, nothing but tiny shadows beneath the trees and benches to keep her company. Everyone had gone off to hang with friends and family for the last day of the weekend. Small favors. In another life, she’d be doing the same, perhaps crawling into bed with Chloe and smoking up some thunderclouds.

Or perhaps not. After all, wasn’t she supposed to be dead at this time, thanks to her own cavalcade of fucked-up choices? Maybe that’s what all this is—her quietly freaking out knowing the consequences of her own actions.

Rachel sank down onto the steps, pressing a hand to her face. Enough. Get a grip. Just focus on finding a way past this and everything will be back to normal.

She desperately wanted a joint, but cigarettes will have to do. She reached into her pocket for her case, then froze, breath catching in her throat.

Some forty feet away, Mark Jefferson was knocking on the door of the principal’s quarters. He spotted her immediately after she saw him. He hesitated, then, seeing no forthcoming response from Wells, ambled toward her instead.

Rachel forced her breathing to slow and her thoughts to align. You knew this was going to happen at some point; you can’t avoid him forever. But you got this. He’s not in control anymore—you are.

She put on a sunny, smiling mask. She was nothing if not an actress.

“Well if it isn’t my favorite person in all of Blackwell,” Jefferson said when he was within earshot. His smile was friendly, devoid of malice. Rachel marveled at his opacity even as it made her bowels revolt.

She stood and placed a self-deprecating hand on her chest. “I was thinking I might be somewhat less than a favorite, considering how I flaked on you last week.”

He stopped a few feet away from the dormitory steps, close enough to be heard while maintaining a respectful distance, as if she might bolt if he got too close. She didn’t miss how he glanced up at the windows to check for prying eyes.

“Whatever your reasons are,” he said in a low voice. “I’m sure they’re more important than an impromptu photo session with an old hipster like me.”

You are absolutely right, you sickening piece of shit, Rachel didn’t say.

“Thanks for understanding, Mr. Jefferson. It really was something that I needed to handle right then and there.”

“Of course, not a problem. It’s too bad though—it was such a gorgeous Sunday. The lighting then was indescribable. One should grab such opportunities whenever possible, as they may never come again.” He smiled at her.

Rachel held his gaze. “I suppose you’re right,” she sighed. “It’d be sad if great opportunities passed me by. Like that phone call last Wednesday.”

Jefferson blinked. “Phone call?”

“From Marcello. The magazine in LA. He never called.”

They stared at each other.

“Oh, of course.” Jefferson nodded. “Marcello’s a busy man. I’m sure he has his own reasons for postponing.”

“I’m sure they’re good ones.”

“Indeed.” Jefferson took a step closer to her. “I should call and remind him. You should just be patient, my dear. You’ll get your chance. As long as you have me in your corner, I’m sure you’ll go very far.”

Rachel felt the bile crawling its way up her stomach and wondered just how she could have fallen for his sleazy bullshit. Then Max’s face flashed through her mind and inspiration struck.

“Thank you, that’s very encouraging. You’ve always been encouraging to me, Mr. Jefferson. Which is why I made this week all about broadening my horizons.”

Jefferson paused, confused. Rachel went on, “I caught the eye of a talented photographer from Seattle. We’re hooking up soon to discuss a future project.”

She savored the astonished look on his face before it submerged into a blankness. “I’m glad for you then,” he said. “I’m sure they can help you find your way.”

“Oh, totally. The way forward has never been clearer.”

“So long as you’re happy.” Again, Jefferson glanced up at the windows. His hand inched into his coat pocket and Rachel’s imagination sprang into overdrive. Did he have a syringe in there? Would he be stupid enough to take her by force, right here in public?

I should kill you right now. The thought came so clear, it was like someone had shone a torch in her mind. It’d be the easiest thing to call up a tornado and throw you into the air. No one’s watching. I’ll tell them you jumped from the top floor. I’ll even cry at your funeral, you disgusting shitbag motherfucker.

Jefferson took a step closer. Rachel’s hand left the railing, fingers tingling, ready to command. The air stirred around his legs like an agitated viper.

Rachel jumped as the doors behind her swung open. “Hey, I got the files. We should go meet—” 

She turned to see Max frozen in place, one hand holding the door open, the other clutching a flash drive with a swinging bunny keychain. “Max...”

But Max wasn’t looking at her. Her gaze was locked onto the man standing at the foot of the steps, who was gazing back at her with bemused interest.

“Well, I see we have an intruder on the grounds,” Jefferson’s voiced had switched to his usual amiable tone. “Max, isn’t it? I’m Mark Jefferson. I teach here in Blackwell.” He held out his hand to shake hers. But Max merely stared at him, transfixed, mouth agape, all color draining from her face.

Rachel forced herself to act. “Oh, thanks for getting that for me, Max.” She grasped the hand carrying the flash drive and pulled Max along with her. “Sorry, Mr. Jefferson, gotta rush. Someone’s waiting for us with the engine running. Catch you later!”

Jefferson let his hand drift down as they brushed past him. Rachel could still feel his eyes on them as they marched lockstep across the grounds and past the principal’s quarters. Only when they reached the university’s front lawn did Rachel dare to speak. “Max, you okay?”

Max kept her eyes straight ahead and didn’t answer. Her face remained slack, her limp hand clammy in Rachel’s grasp. Rachel gripped her tighter, hoping to reassure her. “I’m sorry that happened. Don’t worry—we’ll be out of here in a minute.”

She wondered if she could ever tell Max she had been seconds away from committing murder.

They found Chloe at the parking lot, smoking as she leaned against her truck. She grinned when she saw them approach. “There you are,” she said, “I was starting to think—” 

A look of alarm crossed her face when she caught Max’s expression. The cigarette fell from her fingers as she rushed forward.

“Chloe...” Max released Rachel’s hand and in two steps she was in Chloe’s arms.

“Shh, it’s okay. I got you.” Chloe smoothed Max’s hair, then glanced towards Rachel and demanded, “What happened?”

Rachel swallowed a lump in her throat. “We bumped into Jefferson on the way here. He caught us off-guard, and Max...”

Chloe’s lips pulled back from her teeth. “If he touched her—”

She moved to disentangle herself but Max tightened her hold. “Chloe, no!”

“But—”

“I’m fine. I'm going to be fine. Just stay here with me. Please?”

Chloe clamped her mouth shut, then sighed and held Max closer. In response, Max rested her head against her neck and fought to control her breathing. 

Rachel watched them for a moment, then took a step closer and placed her hand on the small of Max’s back, pressing her gently into Chloe’s embrace. The softest breeze caressed Max’s hair. Rachel hoped it would comfort her friend, even only a little. She once told Max she couldn’t imagine what it was like to suffer through what she did, but it turned out she didn’t have to imagine at all. Max was suffering still, right before her eyes.

I’m so sorry, Rachel thought. But I swear to you, Max, we won’t let him harm you, ever.

As if hearing her thoughts, Chloe’s hand sought hers, their fingers linking like a closed circuit. They stood together in the parking lot and waited for Max to recover.


In his office late that night, Jefferson sat hunched over his desk in his Blackwell Academy office, poring over one student application after another.

His memory served him well. An application form bore the exact name and picture he was looking for.

Maxine Caulfield, born on September 21, 1995. A native of Arcadia Bay, currently studying in Seattle. A mediocre student with an interest in and purported talent for photography.

“Max Caulfield,” Jefferson muttered to himself. Her height, her build—it all matched their profile. But more than that, he recalled that look on her face. It was a look he’d seen on many a girl, a look of mortal terror, deeper and more profound than simply being caught where she shouldn’t be.

She must be the reason Rachel never went to see him that weekend.

Rachel was still his prime suspect, based on his previous conclusions. But he couldn’t erase the look on Max’s face from his mind. Perhaps she's the one...?

“Max Caulfield,” he said, relishing the name. “Who are you, really?” With his phone, he took a photo of her application, then slipped it back onto the pile.

Tomorrow, he would endorse Ms. Caulfield as a prime candidate for Blackwell University.

She deserved a bright future, after all.

 

Chapter Text

“Alright,” Chloe began, “what do we know for sure?” 

In her own room in Seattle, Max hunched over her laptop screen as she considered the question. After their close encounter with Jefferson that afternoon, Chloe had insisted Rachel stay with her for the night. Max had to agree—powers or no powers, there was no way they were going to leave Rachel in the dorms with that fucking psychotic murderer lurking around campus. 

She just had to grin and bear with the sight of them on-screen, wedged together on a chair, Rachel absently caressing the arm Chloe had slung around her shoulders. Just the Caulfield luck reminding her that comfort and pain oft came hand in hand.

Max dug her fingernails into her palms until her mind refocused. “Based on what happened,” she said, “we know that Jefferson’s still after Rachel.”

“Yeah, lucky me,” groused Rachel. “And now we know he’s somehow linked to Sean Prescott.”

Chloe popped open a beer can and took a swig. “So that thing they’re making out in the woods—that’s Prescott’s?”

“Juliet confirmed it earlier over the phone,” Rachel replied. “It’s very likely Pan Estates, Sean Prescott’s luxury homes pet project. Did it exist during your timeline, Max?”

Max nodded. “Juliet even wrote about it in the paper. And it’s also the epicenter of some kind of dispute between Prescott and some Native American tribes, I think.”

“I can confirm that. According to Juliet, there’s a court order out preventing him from building anything there. The tribes consider it sacred land.”

“Hold on, he’s there illegally ?” Chloe asked, swiping the beer foam from her chin. “This just keeps getting better and better.”

“But...” Max’s brows furrowed. “In my timeline, he started building in November, and it’s only April! So what’s changed that he’s doing this earlier?”

“It doesn’t matter now,” said Chloe. “So do we assume that Mr. Cliche Evil CEO has got Jefferson in his back pocket? We gotta watch out for Nathan’s dad, too?” 

Rachel scowled. “Prescott publicly hired Jefferson to join the faculty in the middle of the school year. Like he couldn’t wait to have him on board. I think it’s safe to assume they’re hand in glove. Do you agree, Max?”

Max pressed her fingers against her forehead and thought hard. “It’d make sense they’re working together. Prescott was the one who built that bunker underneath his barn. I read about that on Nathan’s computer, and...” Her eyes widened. “Oh shit.”

Chloe leaned in. “That’s the sound of someone who just remembered something important.”

“Before she sent me into the past, Tuhudda said it was the younger and the elder Prescotts who had the Incarnate’s blood on their hands.” She mentally slapped herself. “I’m so stupid. I can’t believe I’m telling you this only now.”

“It’s fine, Max,” Rachel replied. “No harm done. At least we know now. Can you remember anything else significant?”

Max squeezed her eyes shut. “Something about the land and how it’s somehow tied to you, Rachel. Sorry, I really couldn’t make much sense of it at the time.”

“Hey, it is kinda hard to remember something when there’s a tsunami right on top of you,” remarked Chloe. She threw a needling glance at Rachel. “Maybe you’re the secret heir to some rich landowner in Arcadia Bay, and Prescott needs to off you so he can get the land for himself?”

Rachel poked her in the rib. “You need to stop watching daytime soaps, Cap’n Crunch.”

“Yeah, well, fuck. So we’re dealing with Nathan and his dad now. We’re up against the guy who has most of Arcadia Bay on his payroll. Kill me now.”

Rachel threw Max a wry grin. “And I thought I was the dramatic one.” 

“Chloe’s got a point,” Max said. “With Prescott backing him up, Jefferson must be feeling confident. That means he’ll try something. And soon.”

The three sat silently for a moment, considering that idea.

“You’re right,” Rachel concluded. “And I think I know when he’ll have the opportunity.”

“Oh?” Chloe said. “Do tell.”

“Later. I gotta confirm things with Dana first. We’re just going to have to be ready for him when he makes his move.” Rachel scowled. “In the meantime, let’s go on as planned: we dig up dirt on Jefferson and—”

“We figure out what the hell Sean Prescott’s up to,” Chloe added, “then we deal with him, too. If Jefferson’s the best he can throw at us, well, our guns are bigger, baby.” She squeezed Rachel’s shoulder and bared her teeth.

Max sighed. Easier said than done. Is this what Tuhudda really meant by helping Rachel? Fighting Jefferson and Prescott? It sounds too simple. Way too simple. But at least if we can get Rachel to control all her powers, there would be zero chance of a storm hitting Arcadia Bay all over again.

Rachel was leaning toward the screen. “So, Max. Juliet and I will try and get in touch with Megan Weaver and Kelly Davis this week. Hopefully, they’ll be willing to talk to us. But we need your help with the big one.”

Max nodded. Laura Nuñez; Jefferson’s first victim. “I found out she runs a flower shop in Georgetown, here in Seattle. I’ll pay her a visit on Wednesday after my last class.”

“Okay. You know what you have to do, yeah?”

“I think so.”

“Great.” Rachel placed a hand on Chloe’s shoulder. “Meanwhile, we’ll take some time this week to stake out the construction site, see if we can pry some information out there.”

Max felt her chest tighten at that. “Okay...will you two promise me you’ll stay out of trouble? No unnecessary risks?”

Chloe finger-gunned her. “Chillax, Max. Double-O Chlo always gets her man.” 

Max and Rachel groaned in perfect unison.

“Yeah, baby. That’s what I call surround sound.”


The night lay quiet against the Price household, broken only by the muffled engine of a passing car. Chloe stared up at the ceiling of her room, fingers laced behind her head, slowly resigning herself to the fact that sleep was beyond her reach tonight. Thoughts kept unspooling in her mind, playing behind her eyelids like some picture in a fucked-up drive-in movie. When she had counted her thirty-sixth car, she sat up, knuckling at her eyes.

Her gaze fell on the girl asleep beside her, bare shoulder gleaming like marble under the moonlight. Chloe reached out a hand to touch her, to confirm she wasn’t made of smoke and air, then decided not to risk waking her. Instead, she slipped her shirt on, padded over to her desk, and lit up a fresh joint from her stash. She took a seat and gazed out her open window to the empty street below.

If she could only relax, unplug, maybe she could get some rest. Yet faces kept whirling through her mind like leaves in the wind: Rachel. Jefferson. Nathan. Sean. Her dad. Max. 

She let her eyes fall shut and waited for the weed to take her away. As her thoughts began to drift, the faces faded from her mind. Well, except for one. 

Max. The best friend whom she’d thought she’d lost for good, who had fallen through time like a real-life Kitty Pryde, now bearing some kind of PTSD from a horrible future they’re all trying their damnedest to prevent. As usual, Chloe’s chest would tighten at the thought of Max. Half of it was sheer terror—her best friend was facing something that just might destroy her. Hell, it might destroy them all, come to that. 

But the other half of it was a heady excitement, like Chloe herself had fallen back in time to when they were little pirates going on their storybook adventures. No, it was more than that. By returning, Max had shielded them from a bleak future and had thrown open the doors to one that ran riot with possibility. 

And she did it for me . The mere thought of it sent ripples up her spine; she involuntarily squeezed her arms to suppress them. 

Chloe hated every moment they were apart; the hardest thing she had to do each week was drive Max to the bus station where they would exchange goodbyes. Sundays nights were the worst—it would be five whole days before she could see Max again (thus she made it a point never to spend it alone). And each day after was a struggle to find an excuse to text her, call her, keep her close at hand until the weekend came again. And then it would be a different game of finding any excuse to hold her—

Whoa, WHOA. Slow your roll there, partner. The voice came from a corner of her brain she rarely listened to—it sounded suspiciously like her mother. You don’t need this kind of trouble. You‘re trying to put a psycho teacher behind bars, you have to deal daily with David, you owe Frank three grand for fixing a truck that’s still very much on life support, and your relationship with Rachel is starting to get back on track. Are you seriously telling me you're thirsting after your best friend, of all people? 

“It’s not like I can help it,” Chloe said out loud. Max had changed them forever, and the proof of this was Rachel herself. 

It was hard not to marvel at the change in Rachel, even discounting the tornadoes and lightning bolts and whatever else she could do. Only a month ago, Rachel was barely a presence in her life—an occasional late-night text message from some shit party she was at, admitting to Chloe how bored she was, how she missed them hanging out. They were adrift, their dreams slipping out of their grasp, and seemingly forgetting that they were supposed to have left this fucking shithole years ago. 

The danger Jefferson posed had brought focus, pulling them closer together, reigniting something Chloe had long thought had gone to sleep—just like when they first met, when the world felt new and held nothing but promise. 

But was it all enough? How long could they keep this up with their enemies seemingly springing out of nowhere? What could she contribute, having no powers whatsoever? Could they win, or would either Jefferson or Prescott bury them all?

A creak of the mattress, a whisper of cloth, and Rachel was standing beside her with only a blanket around her lithe body. “Chloe Price,” she murmured, fixing her a haughty stare. “You don’t give a girl a night like that only to leave her cold in bed afterward.”

Chloe’s mouth watered. She wasn’t exactly immune to flattery, and there really was no resisting Rachel. “Hey,” she chuckled, “it wasn’t my idea to sleep au naturel .”

“No, but you sure as hell enjoyed it.” 

“I get to have a cheerleader in my bed—what’s not to enjoy?”

“Classy.” Leaning against Chloe’s desk, Rachel held out her hand. “Can I get a hit?” 

Chloe gave her the joint. The ember flared red in the gloom as Rachel took a drag. “Worried about Max?” 

“Yeah,” Chloe muttered. “Among other things.”

“If it helps, Max is the safest of the three of us when she’s up in Seattle.”

“Thanks. It kinda doesn’t.”

Rachel’s slender fingers found and caressed the back of Chloe’s hand. “She’ll be fine. She’s a lot tougher than she lets on. She has to be to have survived a future like that.”

“I think she only barely survived it.” Chloe turned her hand up and captured Rachel’s own. “Why didn’t we leave, Rach?” she asked.

Caught off guard, Rachel’s gaze went blank. The question lingered between them like a ghost.

“Why didn’t we take off, like we always said we would?” Chloe went on. “We could have walked right out of here anytime we wanted. We’d talk and talk about going, then we wouldn’t move, like those two hobos from that play you like.”

Rachel said nothing for a long moment. Chloe was well aware of how they were avoiding each other’s eyes. She had no idea why she opened this Pandora’s box when they already had a longstanding silent agreement not to talk about it.

“I think we agreed one time,” Rachel began, “that we shouldn’t rush it. That it would be much easier if we had a ride and a pile of money to start us off.”

“I recall saying that,” Chloe replied, frowning. “Almost three years ago.” 

“Yeah.” Rachel took another drag from the joint; Chloe recognized the pause she took when remembering her lines. “I wish I could say why it took so long,” she finally said, her voice flattening. “There was too much tying us down, I guess. Too many things up in the air. We didn’t want to make any big mistakes. And before we knew it, we were living a routine. It wasn’t what we wanted, but we were comfortable with it. It was what it was.”

Comfortable. Chloe tried to feel her way through that answer for something solid to grasp, but the weed had encased her mind in cotton. So she just said, “I still would've gone with you. Mistake or not.”

Rachel reached out to tangle her fingers into the blue of Chloe’s hair. “I know. But if we’d left, Max would’ve had to face Jefferson all alone. What chance would she and the other girls here have against that motherfucker?” 

Chloe dropped her gaze. “That’s...it’s not like we knew that would happen!”

“No. But we do now.”

Rachel was right, of course. There was no unknowing it and there was no running away. Jefferson needed to be dealt with. As did Nathan, and his father, and anyone else who made it their business to mess with them and theirs.

Still, she couldn’t help but be wistful. “I just wish this didn’t have to happen to us.”

Sighing, Rachel pushed away from the desk and surprised Chloe by sliding onto her lap. “Some things happen for their own reasons,” Rachel said, “and some things we don’t get to choose. But here’s what I know. As long as we do this together, we can get past anything. We can win.”

Chloe took another drag before parking the joint on the ashtray. “Wish I knew how you could be so sure.”

“We’ve got my powers. We’ve got Max. We’ve got our friends. And we’ve got your amazing set of skills.” Rachel put her lips next to the shell of Chloe’s ear and breathed, “Screw your courage to the sticking-place and we’ll not fail.” 

Chloe couldn’t suppress a chuckle even as every follicle on her neck stood up, as if she were about to get struck by lightning. “Screw my what into the what ?”

“You heard me, Clueless.”

“Whatever you say, Lady Macbeth.” 

“Good girl. Now, take me to bed. We have maybe three hours left before David and Joyce wake up to find they have an unexpected guest. I have to be back at Blackwell before then.”

Chloe tightened her grip around the blonde’s waist. “I could convince you to stay.”

“You could.” Rachel nuzzled Chloe’s neck, rolled those slim hips against her warming body. “I promise you, Chloe. Once we’ve settled the score with Jefferson, Prescott, and whoever else wants to fuck with us, I swear, we’ll finally be done with this town.”

“Then we’re off to God knows where?” 

“Like we always said we would.” Rachel pulled back to look Chloe in the eye, her glowing smile like a sliver of moonlight. “Just picture it. We can drive south or east or sail across the Pacific. With my powers, we won’t ever have to worry about money again. I could put on street magic shows if I wanted. Or always have the perfect wave for any surfing competition. Or put up the only farm that gets rain all year round. There’s no end to how far we can go, Chloe!”

Chloe could see every word of it unfolding before her eyes, like watching home movies they‘d already made from their adventures. Yet while the prospect of escaping Arcadia Bay made her heart skip a beat, there was a certain hollowness to that vision she couldn’t capture in words.

Rachel must have seen it on her face. She watched Chloe for a long moment before speaking up. 

“Max is too good for Arcadia Bay,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I don’t like the idea of leaving her here for Victoria to screw over.” She ran electric fingers down Chloe’s arm. “What do you say we kidnap her and take her with us?”

Chloe’s eyes widened as she bolted upright. “You mean it?”

Rachel laughed. “Your face just now! Yeah, of course I mean it. Pirates live by their own rules, don’t they? If Max is game, then—”

Chloe whooped and wrapped her arms around the blonde. “She will be, I swear! After what happened in her future, what’s she got to stay here for? Yeah, let’s all leave—together!”

Chloe retrieved the joint and offered it to her but Rachel ignored it. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Chloe’s neck, brushed their lips together. The kiss coalesced into a pool of heat deep in Chloe’s belly; the rumble of desire in her chest turned into a roar.

“We’ll leave only dust behind,” Rachel murmured. “And hell to the liars.” 

Chloe’s eyes let her eyes drift shut as she disappeared into the kiss. There was no resisting Rachel. She would crave her till the end of the world.

“Hell to the liars,” Chloe repeated against soft, yielding lips. 


That Wednesday afternoon saw Max sitting on a wooden bench on Bailey Street, Georgetown. The afternoon light was beginning to fade behind the warehouses and car factories, and as much as she wanted to be home before dusk found her in a seedier, lesser-known part of town, she had a job to do.

Across the sidewalk from her bench was Milagros Flowers, and through the glass window, past the plastic bouquet and wreath displays, the silhouette of a middle-aged woman stooped over the counter. For the last hour, Max had been steeling herself to enter the shop and meet her. But she was having as much luck as if her bench were a magnet and she had an ass made of metal. 

For the hundredth time, she reviewed her discussion with Rachel.

“All I need is to get her to agree to an interview with Juliet. Not interview her myself.”

“Exactly,” Rachel said, giving that grin that could magically dissipate Max’s anxiety. “If Nuñez agrees, Juliet will come to Seattle over the weekend to speak with her. Let Jules do the heavy lifting. Don’t worry, Max—you got this.” 

“You sound way too sure. I don’t have my time powers, I can’t—”

“Max. You keep underestimating how likable you are, and how people will go out of their way to help you. You’ll. Be. Fine. Trust me. Trust yourself.”

Max sighed. It was a lot easier to believe when Rachel was there to say it. 

She shook her head. Okay, enough. If Chloe were here she’d kick my ass for being such a downer. I can do this. I have to do this. Lives are at stake. And just because I don’t have powers doesn’t mean I’m useless.

To reassure herself, her mind ran through a tale she once read in a sci-fi novel. In it, the heroine met Death himself, who barred her path and posed riddles for her to answer—who is stronger than life, and love, and hope, and the universe itself? And the girl would reply each time, correctly, “You are.” Then Death asked a final riddle: Who is stronger than me? 

The high-pitched ringing of a bell woke Max from her reverie; she looked up to see the proprietor exiting the shop. The woman turned, shut the door, and fished out some keys from her pocket to lock up.

Max watched her for a long moment. Chocolate skin, dark curly hair that fell down to her shoulders, a mole under one eye. She was beautiful, but there were hard lines stretched across her face, shadows beneath her eyes, and streaks of iron-grey in her hair. So this was Laura Nuñez.

Max forced down the lump in her throat and pushed herself off of her bench. The woman turned at her approach, her smile uncertain.

“Hello. Did you want some flowers? We’re already closed, but if you already have something in mind, I can open it back up for a little bit...”

“Thank you,” Max said, barely hearing her own voice over the rush of blood in her ears, “but I’m not here for flowers. I came because...I wanted to speak with you, Miss Nuñez.”

The uncertainty spread from the woman’s mouth to her eyes at the mention of her name. Max hurried on, “My name is Max Caulfield. I’m a university student. We—that is, my friends and I—need your help. You see, we heard about your story, and we want to raise awareness in our school about Mark Jefferson. Miss Nuñez, could we trouble you for an interview—” 

It surprised Max to see how quickly the woman’s face closed up, like watching a castle preparing for a siege—drawbridge up, gates slamming shut, steel glinting among the battlements. 

“I don’t think so,” Nuñez intoned.

“I-I’m sorry,” Max automatically said. “I know this must be difficult for you—”

“Difficult? Niña , you have no goddamn idea.” Nuñez dropped the keys into her pocket, turned on her heel, and stalked away.

Max stood stock still where the woman had left her, teeth digging into her lip, face burning like she’d bitten into a pepper. Tentatively, she reached out a hand to will the moment back to her. Of course, nothing happened. She was on her own.

Rachel’s voice cut through the fog in her head. Trust yourself. 

Max clenched her fists and forced her feet to move, even as the woman disappeared around the corner.

“Miss Nuñez,” Max called. “Please wait!”

Max rounded the bend and caught sight of her some twenty feet away. Without so much as turning her head, the woman hurried on down the sidewalk. Max pursued until Nuñez stopped and entered what appeared to be an old and rundown apartment building. 

Panting, Max came to a halt in front of the steps. Luckily, her quarry lived close by. She gathered her courage and pushed past the wooden double doors to find herself in a dim, dingy hallway. Three doors away, Nuñez was fitting her key into her apartment door. 

“I just want to talk!” Max cried. 

“I don’t.”

“You don’t understand!”

Nuñez glanced up at Max. “I understand that to you, I’m a story . One of thousands that journalists tell for good copy. But I, I had to live that story. I have to live it every time I tell it.” She succeeded in stabbing the key through the doorknob. “Don’t ask me to dig up the past for your benefit. I did that again and again for the police and the press, for whatever good it did me.” 

She threw open her apartment door and stepped through. “ Go home , Miss Caulfield. I can’t help you.”

In that instant, the image of Rachel’s bloodless, rotting visage floated before Max’s eyes. It was followed by Chloe, her face all crimson, the single bullet wound blooming on her forehead like a deadly rose. And right then, Max knew that everything hung on her doing what she must.

In four strides, Max was holding open Nuñez’s door with a grip of iron. The woman glared at her through the opening with a mixture of outrage and alarm.

“You’re about to make this very hard for yourself, niña .”

“Please, you have to listen—”

“Go away or I’ll make the police make you. They’re good for that much, at least.”

Listen to me! ” Both of Max’s hands now clutched at the door. “Jefferson’s at my school. He’s targeting the students there. We think he’s already harmed two other girls!”

The woman shook her head, mouth pulling into a tiny, bitter curve. “Then it’s too late for anything. No one’s going to help them because no one’s going to believe them. No one believed me.”

I believe you,” Max said. “Please. He’s after the people I care about. I can’t let him hurt them. I can’t let it happen again. I’ll do anything. You don’t know what I did, how much I had to give up—”

Max choked on her own voice and could go no further. How could she even begin to explain the insanity that was her life? It would only make her even less credible and more pitiful than she was now. Rachel was wrong; I am useless. The world was going blurry before her eyes; Nuñez’s face had dissolved behind a misty white wall. 

For a long moment, both of them stayed silent, gazing at each other through the doorway. Then Nuñez asked, in a softer, careful tone: “Did he hurt you, too?”

Max couldn’t speak, couldn’t even nod. All she could do was stare unblinking at that lined, barren face, her fingers going slack against the door as tears slid down her cheeks. In her head, the faint clicks and whirrs of a camera echoed, like they did in many a waking nightmare. She thought she might hear them forever.

Nuñez watched her, then finally she sighed, “You’d better come in, Miss Caulfield. I’ll make us some coffee.”

The noises in her head fell silent. Max took a deep breath, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes until she could see again. Then she stepped into the threshold of Nuñez’s home, closing the door behind her. 

It was an hour later when Max emerged from the apartment, blinking and half-stunned, the taste of black Arabica still branded on her tongue. Her phone carried a recorded conversation—about 90% of it was Nuñez relating her entire story. In a binder in her messenger bag were newspaper clippings Nuñez had collected, detailing what she had told the police and following Mark Jefferson’s career over the years. 

And on the last page of the binder was a black and white picture. It depicted a Laura in her early twenties, lying on a couch, half-awake, too far gone to know or care where she was. 

“I can still remember his face,” Nuñez had told her. “He was bent low and breathing harshly as he took pictures. I could tell from the bulge in his pants he was aroused, how he got off over how much power he had—” She had broken off, looking down at her coffee cup, and her words had resonated within Max in a feedback loop of pain. “I think you’ll find all the details you’ll need in the articles.”

“How did you get this picture?” 

“I needed evidence, so a few days later I broke into his lab to steal some. This picture was all I could find. But it was all for nothing. People thought I had staged it. It was still my word against his, and his carried more weight.”

She had looked up to meet Max’s eye. “If you tell my story, you will destroy him?”

“We’re going to try.”

“Good.” Nuñez had reached out to take Max’s hand. “Maybe afterward, you and I can sleep better. If not, at least he will sleep worse.”

On the bus ride home, Max held her messenger bag close to her heart, like it were a pet that had fallen asleep in her arms.

 

And Death asked her, Who is stronger than me?

In a quiet voice, the girl answered, “I am.” 

And Death stood aside and let her pass.





Chapter Text

Nathan Prescott floated back to consciousness with two realizations: one, that he was still alive, and; two, that he was still Nathan Prescott. The last was a notion he could contend with only once a day, so he set aside any thought of going back to sleep. 

Wan morning light leaked through his shutters. He sat up, pushing past the cobwebs in his head left by the Diazepam, and reached for his music player to shut off the whale songs that he used to help him sleep. He raised his bleary eyes to the far wall and, through the dim light, gazed at the image of a girl bound Shibari-style, her face hidden and turned away from the camera. Completely anonymous yet charged with eroticism—a true Jefferson classic. When his mentor gave it to him as a gift, he had it blown up and mounted on his wall so he could look at it every day. He could imagine it was anyone, and often did: Rachel, that Jesus whore, Vic sometimes. One day, he swore, one day, I’ll make one just like it. 

Not for the first time, Nathan wondered what it would be like to have Mark Jefferson as his real father, and not that ogre brooding in his castle on the hill.

No, don’t think of him like that—Jefferson’s voice in his head. It will make matters worse between you if you fall to hating him. Don’t hate him. Strive to make it so that he will have no choice but to love you.

That was when Nathan decided to pick up the camera. His father loved art, pushed him to learn from Jefferson. Maybe if he became an artist, too— 

But he wasn’t getting any photography lessons now, and perhaps ever. Jefferson had put a hold on their sessions, hadn’t even spoken to him in over a week. All because Nathan had failed to lure Rachel to his last Vortex party so they could— 

Nathan pressed his palms against his bleary eyes. Rachel. How different would life be if they had gotten together? And yet every time he tried to get close, she would laugh in his face and dance away into someone else’s arms. How was it possible to hate someone and yet want them so much at the same time? 

Enough. He had an hour till his first class. Nathan threw off the covers and pulled on his clothes. He glanced at his prescriptions on the bedside table and decided, no, he was not taking any more fucking drugs today. Doctors were already treating him like he had one foot in the goddamn sanitarium. He didn’t care if he had another episode or what. He’d disappointed his dad enough anyway—what was one more thing?

He was about to grab his toothbrush from the cabinet when rapid knocks rattled his door. “Yo, Nate! You up?”

Nathan grimaced. It was too early in the day for Hayden’s bullshit. “What do you want?” he shouted.

“Bro, chill. Just wanna know if you got a bit of that fine kush left over. I’m good for it.”

Just weed. Alright. Nathan cracked open his door to reveal Hayden, grinning like a kid going to Disneyland. “Kinda early for you, isn’t it?” Nathan grumbled. “You burn through that last batch I gave you already?” 

“It was good shit, you know how it is. Craving’s outta control, man. So?”

Nathan poked his head out to see if the hallway was clear, though he didn’t really need to. Anybody who was somebody in this dorm knew he was dealing. It had gotten a lot easier once he’d pushed Rachel out of the game. 

He stepped aside to let Hayden stroll in. 

“You a lifesaver, Nate.”

“Wait here. Don’t touch anything.” Nathan hurried over to his trophy case, where he pulled out a small lock box from behind a framed “Best Son” certificate that was signed by Sean Prescott. If his father only knew what it was used for. 

Opening the box, he retrieved a packet of weed and tossed it to his customer. 

“Muh man!” Hayden snapped up the crinkly plastic bag and dropped a few crisp bills on the side table. “Thanks a lot, Nate. You made my whole morning.”

“No doubt.”

“You got a steady supply of this shit. Your supplier must be fuckin’ loaded, huh?” 

In the pregnant pause that followed, Nathan realized it was an actual question. He scowled. “I don’t talk about that.”

“I was just thinking that if ever you ain’t around, and it’s like, an emergency, I might need a backup, you know—“

“I just said I don’t talk about that.”

“Hey, hey, it’s cool. Just makin’ conversation.” Hayden held up his packet. “Look, we got some time. Wanna smoke a bit before heading out?”

Nathan took a deep breath. He really should have thrown this moron out; Hayden had no idea when he was overstaying his welcome. Still, a little smoke might chill them out before the day began. It was a hell of a lot better than his prescription shit. 

He had just opened his mouth to say so when a loud ringing sound emanated from behind his cabinet. Hayden blinked, then flashed a toothy grin. “That ain’t your ringtone, Nate. You had a girl over last night or what?”

Nathan’s face turned into an ugly mask. “Get out!”

If Nathan hadn’t been so anxious, Hayden’s look of bewilderment would’ve made him laugh. “Wha—hey!” 

“Out!” Nathan grabbed his elbow, turned him around, and bum-rushed him out into the hall. 

Locking the door behind him, Nathan hurried to his cabinet, pulled it away from the wall, and reached for the burner phone taped to the back panel. He cursed himself for not putting it in silent mode, but then, he didn’t want to miss a single one of Jefferson’s calls. 

Nathan ripped the phone from its plastic bag and answered, “Hey, I’m here.”

“Hello, Nathan.” The warmth of the voice on the other end felt like Christmas morning. “I trust you’re well?”

Nathan nodded even as he said, “Yeah, yeah I‘m good. You, uh, need something?”

“I need your help, Nathan.”

I need your help. He’d never heard anything more beautiful. Mr. Jefferson needed him, still trusted him despite his fuck-ups. Nathan couldn’t help grinning, his heart marching to a painful drumbeat in his chest.

“Listen carefully now,” Jefferson went on. “Things are moving at a rapid pace and we must keep up. I have some things I need you to do. For safety reasons, you may not write these instructions down. You’ll just have to remember them. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“Very good.” Jefferson talked. As Nathan listened, the smile melted away from his face. After he repeated the instructions to Jefferson’s satisfaction, he put the phone down and fell to sit on the floor.

They were really going to do it. They were going after Rachel again. 

Part of him wished it were someone he didn’t know well. Why not a different nameless, faceless girl from this fucking town? But another, baser part of him, the part that looked at the naked girl on his wall and felt a dark stirring in his belly, knew he wasn’t going to refuse. 

Not on his life. Not Jefferson.

A moment later, he picked up his other phone and pressed a number on speed dial. “Hey. You got a minute to talk after your first class?”

His gaze crawled up to the picture on his wall, and his mouth twitched into a smile. “I know a way to get back at Rachel Amber.”


As soon as Max exited the bus station, she spied the golden-haired girl in the blue plaid shirt and trendy torn jeans. Rachel leaned against her Volvo, a pensive look on her face as she spoke on the phone, but her eyes lit up the instant she spotted Max. 

“You made it!” 

“Oh, hey!”

Rachel ended her call and hugged Max as soon as she was within arm’s reach. “Your trip go okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, it was good.” Max still hadn’t gotten used to how blithely Rachel skipped over personal boundaries—or how quickly Max would let her. “Sorry for getting here on a Saturday. My mom swore there was going to be a storm last night and wouldn’t let me go.”

“No worries, Max. What matters is you’re here and we can start making the most of it. But first things first...” Taking Max’s bag, she stuffed it in the back seat, then surprised Max by pulling out a guitar case. “This is for you.”

“I—what?” Max’s jaw dropped as Rachel popped open the case. Inside, a polished acoustic guitar glinted in the sun, its body peppered by an assortment of little paintings and stickers: roses, butterflies, lightning bolts, and in one corner, a cartoon of Hawt Dog Man saying “Neat!”

“Chloe found it in the junkyard,” Rachel said. “She repaired and decorated it herself. I bought new strings and had it tuned.”

“It’s...it’s so cute!” 

“Glad you think so because I can’t tell if it sounds right.” Rachel held the case out to her. “Well? Don’t just stand there, doofus. Give it a try.”

Barely believing her eyes, Max cradled the guitar and slipped the strapped over her head. She strummed a few chords, plucked her way up the F scale. Each sweet note seemed to hum in her heart. “It’s perfect! I can’t believe you two went this far!”

Rachel beamed as she straightened the strap on Max’s shoulder. “Chloe said she missed your last five birthdays, so this is her way of catching up with your gifts.”

“But...but I said I’d be the one to do the catching up for her birthdays! I—” Max hung her head. “I feel super lame right now. All I brought with me from Seattle was ginger beer!”

Rachel laughed as Max put the guitar reverently back in its case. “Somehow, I knew you’d find a way to make yourself feel bad over this. Hey, look at me.” Setting the case down, she took Max by the shoulders. “Chloe and I are so fucking proud of you. What you did with Laura Nuñez? No one else could’ve done it. And I want you to know we know that. 

“Listen, that was Juliet on the phone just now and, no joke, she’s over the moon. She didn’t spend more than ten minutes asking clarifying questions—most of what she needed was already in your interview.”

“Oh, that’s great,” Max replied. “I’m sure Juliet’ll make a killer story—um, no pun intended.” 

Rachel gave her shoulders a little squeeze. “If we bury Jefferson, it’s all because of you. This guitar doesn’t even begin to cover that and everything else you’ve done.” She steered Max to the passenger seat of the car. “So maybe you could, I dunno, give yourself a tiny bit of credit?”

Max felt the heat creeping up her face and just nodded, eyes sliding away from Rachel's fond gaze. “O-okay. Thanks. ”

“Stellar. Now, hop in. I got my own thing to show you.” 

“Oh? What is it?” Sitting down, Max strapped herself in and watched as Rachel ran around to the driver’s side and got in.

“This.” Rachel picked up a half-full water bottle.

“Are you gonna recycle that?”

“Droll, Max. I see you and Chloe have more in common than just being pretty.”

Max shut her mouth so fast her teeth clicked. With a satisfied smirk, Rachel uncapped the bottle. “After my first disastrous experiment with the parking lot tornado, I decided to start small. So I filled up my parents’ bathtub and after a full thirty minutes of training...I had to pick up a mop and clean up. 

“But! I decided to go even smaller and used a glass of water instead. And that’s where I learned to do this!”

Rachel held the bottle up by the tips of fingers and watched it intently. Max once again found herself admiring the way the other girl seemed to shift her whole being into focus, hazel eyes narrowed, like a cat about to pounce. 

Then Max’s breathing stilled as the water began to swirl. A tiny whirlpool appeared in the center. “Rachel...?”

“Shh. Concentrating.” Holding the container steady, Rachel lifted her other hand, palms up. The liquid vortex leaped to the neck of the bottle. “How’s that?”

“Are you cereal?! That’s fucking amazeballs!”

Rachel’s pleased chuckle sounded like music. “Did someone say balls?” She lifted her hand higher, fingers undulating. “I present to you—the solar system!” And the water lifted itself out of the mouth of the bottle, coalescing into tiny spheres that hung and spun in slow orbits through the air. 

Staring in disbelief, Max reached out a hand to touch a shimmering droplet. The water flowed around her index finger and reformed into a sphere before continuing its way. “Rachel, you learned all this on your own?”

“After you taught me that mind hack back at the Aerie, I found I could apply it with water. It took some work but I got the hang of it. Told ya I’m a quick study.” Her eyes softened. “But it’s hella easier to do when you’re around.” 

Max smiled back, fervently hoping that she hadn’t turned too red.

“Now the hard part.” Rachel closed her hand into a fist; the floating water reformed into a single spinning blob. “If I can just put the genie back in the bottle...” 

The liquid lowered itself, jumped twice, and exploded, spraying their faces and clothes. The two looked at each other for a moment before cracking up.

“I’m so sorry, Max,” Rachel snickered, reaching for the glove compartment. “Here’s some tissue. Guess that still needs work.” 

“Rachel, that was sick! I can’t believe you made such progress!”

“Again, couldn’t have done it without you.” She handed Max a tissue before wiping her own face. “Okay, let’s save the self-congratulatory speeches till after we’ve beaten Jefferson. Chloe’ll meet us at her house. She said she’s got a treat for us.”

 

The ride to Arcadia Bay was both short and pleasant, with a spring breeze bringing the scent of pine, the late morning sun glittering on the waves, and Rachel singing along with the radio. Her happiness proved infectious—Max soon found herself singing with her, until their slightly off-key duet dissolved into giggles. 

As they swept into town, Max thought to ask the question that had been bugging her most of the week. “So, um, last Wednesday you mentioned you had an idea about when Jefferson might make his move?”

“Yeah.” Rachel slowed down as they turned out of the Bay Drive. “I was gonna wait till we’re with Chloe, but I might as well give you the bullet points. Max, did you ever hear about the Grand Prom?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. What is it?”

“You might say it’s the ‘prom to end all proms’—organizer’s words, not mine. A little more than two years ago, Blackwell Academy decided to start a transition from being a regular high school to the exclusive, two-year senior-only institution it is now. They stopped taking in freshmen and let the remaining batches finish their years. I made the jump into the senior-only program myself after completing 12th grade last school year. I also attended my senior prom. 

“Now, next weekend, the last high school senior batch of the old Blackwell system will have their prom. But it will also be the last one in Blackwell Academy, ever. So someone hit upon the idea of making it the biggest in the history of the Academy. Every student currently studying is invited, and they’re setting up the gymnasium for the event. Dana’s on the committee, so I know a bit about what’s going on.”

“So you’re thinking Jefferson’s gonna try something there?”

Rachel nodded once. “It’s an opportunity. He knows he can’t get to me in the dorms or elsewhere on campus, and I sure as hell won’t meet him outside ever again. But a party this huge—well, let’s just say not everyone’s going to be aware of what goes into their drinks. Or what happens in the afterparties.” She scowled. “I think he might try something.”

“You kinda lost me there.” Max kept her voice low and calm, but her heart was beating double-time in her chest. Suddenly, the car felt confining, dragging her toward some shapeless doom. “If you think he’ll try to get at you there, why are you even going?”

Rachel ticked off her fingers. “Well, firstly, if I’m not there, there’s always the chance he’ll target someone else. The rest of our merry band—Hayden, Juliet, and Warren—are coming, so we can keep an eye on him. And, just maybe, we get the chance to catch him red-handed.

“Secondly, as Dana told me last Thursday, I’m a guest of honor. As last year’s prom queen, I was asked to help crown the new one.”

“Isn’t that a bit weird?”

“Isn’t it? Something about the whole thing feels off. I asked Dana who else was on the prom committee. She replied it was mostly Vortex Club members, including...well, you know.”

“Nathan.”

“Right.”

“...This sounds dangerous, Rachel. Maybe you shouldn’t go.”

“There’s a third reason.” 

Max turned in her seat to face her fully. “I don't like that evil grin of yours.”

“I think the prom presents us a valuable opportunity, Max. I plan for us to go on an excursion.”

“An excursion?’”

“Tell you more in a minute.” Rachel pulled into Cedar Avenue and parked in front of Chloe’s house. “Let’s talk more when Chloe joins us.”

As they alighted from the car and approached the front door, Rachel halted on the lawn, looking down at her tennis shoes. “Max?”

 “Hmm?” 

Rachel raised her head to speak but stopped, biting her lip. Then she flashed that radiant smile again. “I know it’s not the time, at least not yet. But...once this shit’s all settled...could I ask you to teach me photography? As I won’t be spending time with Jefferson, like, ever.”

“...Sure, Rachel. I mean, I’m not exactly a pro, but I guess I can show you the basics.”

“I think that’s all I’ll need then. C’mon.” Taking Max’s arm, she led them through the front door. 

As Max stepped into the hall, her nose caught the familiar scent of sizzling meat. Her eyes widened, her mouth watered, and her worries evaporated. She zipped past Rachel towards the open glass door that led to the garden. Chloe stood barefoot on the grass in front of a smoking grill, wearing her usual tank top but also her pirate hat and bandanna. She turned at Max’s gleeful shout: “Are you making Chloeburgers?!”   

Chloe grinned in answer and waved her spatula like a cutlass. “Am I Captain Bluebeard, Scourge of Arcadia Bay?”

“It’s been ages! I can’t wait to have ‘em again!” She stepped through the doorway, but Chloe held up a hand.

“What’s the passphrase?!”

Max pouted. “I’m the First Mate! Do I really have to?”

“Aye! We can’t compromise matters of security! Spit out the passphrase, or I’ll have ye walk the plank!”

“‘Victoria’s a salty monkey.’ Permission to come aboard?”

“Permission granted, and, oof—!” Chloe opened her arms as Max ran in for a hug.

“Thank you for the guitar! It’s just too adorable and you’re beyond awesome!” She had the presence of mind to disengage from Chloe as Rachel appeared at the door, but Chloe gripped her shoulder to keep her close.

“What in the world is a Chloeburger?” Rachel merely asked.

Chloe braced a hand on her hip and puffed out her chest. “Only the most mouth-watering, best-tasting beef patties in the whole town.”

“No joke, Rachel,” Max chimed in. “She used to make them all the time when we were kids.”

“Oh? Even better than the Two Whales?” 

“Bitch, please! Those greasy jokers can only dream they could cook a meal half as good as this!” Chloe stepped aside, grandly gesturing to the six patties sizzling on the grill. Each was the size of her palm and molded into the shape of a heart. 

Rachel chuckled at the sight. “Big words, Chlo. Guess we’ll see if they live to the hype.” She made to enter the backyard but Chloe held up her hand.

“Passphrase?”

“Are you shitting me? I was literally three feet away when Max said it.”

“You get a different passphrase.”

“We never agreed on one!”

“Make one up. Something that will prove it’s really you.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “‘Captain Chloe has the biggest booty in all of Arcadia Bay?’”

“Aye, that’s both true and something you’d say. Permission granted!” She reached out and pulled Rachel into a hug. “Hope ya scurvy sailors are hungry. Aside from Max here, you’ll be the only other person in the world to ever taste my culinary masterpiece.”

“Gee Chloe, aren’t you underselling this just a little bit?”

“You’ll be eating your words as well as my burger once you get a taste. Now sit your asses down.” Chloe steered them to the plastic benches of the picnic table that had plates, buns, and bottles of ketchup and mustard. 

It took only a few bites for Chloe to make her case.

“...Okay, holy shit. Chloe, you weren’t kidding,” Rachel exclaimed, licking juices from her fingers. “That was fantastic.”

“Heh.” Chloe puffed up her chest. “What’d I tell ‘ya?” 

“I mean, how much weed did you put in this?”

“How dare you.” Chloe threatened her with the mustard bottle, while a shrieking Rachel shielded herself with her napkin. “Say, Max, did Rach tell you about our plans yet?”

“Up until the part where we’re supposed to go on an excursion.” Max turned to Rachel. “Care to enlighten me?”

The blonde accepted a second burger from Chloe, sniffing it appreciatively. “It’s simple: we need an alibi. The idea is that we attend the prom, then we disappear for a while. If enough people see us, we’ll throw off any suspicion that we’ve been anywhere we weren’t supposed to. Say, at a certain site in the middle of the woods.”

Max’s eyes widened. “You want us to spy on the construction site.”

Again that impish smile. “Of course not, Max. Chloe and I have been spying on that place all week. And learned next to nothing. No, we’re thinking of something more along the lines of...a heist.”

“Whoa, hold up—we’re going to steal something? From Prescott?” 

“In a word, yes. We’re looking for building plans, documents—anything that will tell us what he’s doing. And maybe something that can implicate him as well. We know the foreman keeps his files in the office. We want to look in there.”

Max’s hands involuntarily crushed the napkin in her hand. “But the guards...”

“I’ve seen their patrols,” Chloe piped up. “Nothin’ I can’t handle.” She set another burger in front of Max, who suddenly didn’t feel like eating.

“But if we get caught...Chloe, Rachel, this sounds horribly risky. Is it really necessary?”

Rachel fixed her a solemn look. “I think so, Max. It bothers me how much we don’t know. Why did Sean Prescott bring Jefferson to Arcadia Bay? How are they connected? Why insist on building somewhere that would bring him legal problems? And why build it in a hurry? What does it all mean?

“Something’s very wrong here. And it has to do with that thing being secretly built in the woods. I can feel it. We need to find out everything we can—and quickly.”

Chloe covered Max’s hand with her own and said, “Don’t worry, you won’t have to come along. Rachel and I can go to the site on our own. You can wait in our getaway vehicle where it’s safe.” 

Let them go with that crazy plan without her? Max shook her head. “I don’t think you guys should go on your own.”

“Rachel and I know our way around the site. We can handle it.”

“Actually, Chloe,” Rachel interjected, “I kinda do want Max to be there. We could use an extra pair of eyes, and we’ve already established that having her around helps me control my powers, if we should need them. It’d be great if she were part of our crew.”

“Uh, how about no. Max is going to start in Blackwell next school year. The two of us get caught, we can weasel our way out. She gets caught, her parents won’t let her come back to the Bay and she can kiss her scholarship goodbye.”

Rachel shrugged and took a bite from her burger. “So none of us get caught.”

“How is that a plan?”

As the two began to argue back and forth, Max found her getting irritated. “I’m right here you know,” she said. “Let me decide how I can help.”

“She’s got a point,” Rachel affirmed. “Well, Max, you’ve been our MVP so far. What do you say?” 

Max thought for a moment. She still had doubts that this was necessary, but if they were set on going, what could she do?

Tuhudda’s words rang in her ears, seemingly from the far end of a tunnel. “You will face wickedness like you’ve never seen. Layers upon layers of evil.”  

Rachel was right; something was very wrong here. If they were to stop it, they needed to peel back the curtain. 

She took a deep breath to tamp down a jab of anxiety. “I’ll go with you. I want to help.”

Rachel nodded. “I know, and you will.” She took another bite from her burger, chewing thoughtfully. “Hmm, that reminds me. Chloe and I are going together, but since you’re going to the Grand Prom too, Max, you need a date.” 

Max blinked. “Oh, uh—I guess?”

“So, got anyone in mind? I think Hayden’s got a date already, but Warren might be free. You should go together—as friends, of course.”

Chloe choked on a mouthful of her burger. “Hold up,” she coughed, thumping her chest. “Can’t she go on her own?”

“She’s not a Blackwell student yet, Chlo. Someone needs to take her. Besides, the more eyes we have on the ground, the safer we’ll be.” Rachel nudged Max’s shoulder. “How about it, then? Want me to ask him for you?”

“Ah, no, it’s fine. I have his number. I guess I could ask him myself.”

Chloe looked like he had just chewed a hot pepper. “Isn’t there anyone else?”

Rachel threw her an impatient look. “What does it even matter?” 

“Just—if you put Max with an uber-nerd with Warren, she’ll be bored shitless by the end of the night!”

“Hey, Warren’s a cool guy,” Max interjected. “We can talk about sci-fi movies and video games, as least.” Chloe’s only reply was a scowl.

Rachel clapped her hands together. “Great, that’s settled. We’ve got alibis, we’ve got transport covered, and then immediately after the heist, we show up at Hayden’s afterparty to keep our cover story intact.” 

“Yeah,” Chloe grumbled, stabbing her fork into a bun. “Cool.”

Max sighed. She hoped she’d made the right decision. Unlike her and Chloe’s heist at the principal’s office, there would be no rewinds to save them. Rachel’s abilities would have to be enough.

 

Completing their plans left their afternoon free, so they changed into shorts and sandals and hit the beach. Chloe drove them to a secluded area, a small stretch of sand on the north side of the lighthouse. 

“So pretty,” breathed Max, shielding her eyes as she watched the glittering tide. High above, a seabird cawed a welcoming cry as it knifed through the breeze. The ocean sighed; the wind was sweet and invitingly cool. As they strolled towards the surf, Max found the grit of the sand between her toes as familiar and comforting as it had been when she was a kid. 

“Finally, some sun!” Rachel set down their blanket and her Bluetooth speaker down on the ground. “Gotta say, this place is just gorgeous!”

“Captain Chloe always delivers.” Chloe parked the cooler beside the blanket. Max set down her new guitar case. “Long Max Silver and I’ve scoured every inch of this town. We know all the best spots.”  

“My compliments to you, Captain.” Rachel stretched her legs on their blanket and set her phone to play some tunes on her speaker. Chloe settled beside her, popping open a beer. Max opened up her guitar case and sat on Chloe’s other side. 

“It’s strange,” Rachel said as she scanned the horizon. “I always thought nothing beats the view from Santa Monica Bay. But...this beach is breathtaking. I wonder why I never noticed before.”

Chloe gently bumped her shoulder with hers. “Maybe it’s the company that makes it better.”

“True.” Rachel leaned over and smiled at Max. “Glad you’re here, Caulfield.”

“Alright, that’s it!” That started a tickle war between them, and when Rachel fled to the surf and Chloe pursued, it quickly escalated into a water-splashing war. 

Max watched them from her place on the blanket, fingers strumming her new guitar. The music from the speakers drowned out any tune she could muster, but that was alright. Her thoughts were elsewhere.

Abruptly, the track switched on Rachel’s phone. “Oh, this song’s my jam!” Rachel jumped up and down, water splashing around as she lifted her arms overhead and swayed to the beat. Chloe quickly joined her, the pair rocking out beneath the afternoon light. 

Max had witnessed this scene before in her previous timeline—a picture of Chloe and Rachel dancing on the beach, without a care in the world, the sunset turning them into golden silhouettes. They’re gorgeous, Max thought, and she had to drop her gaze to her guitar. She couldn’t look at them for long; it felt like an intrusion. She wondered how much longer it would take before the sight of them together lost its sting.

The song soon ended. To her surprise, the next track was much slower—just a guitar and a woman singing a French ballad. Max strummed on, trying to find the chords to follow the song, but a shadow fell on her.

“My Lady Caulfield,” Rachel said in an exaggerated English accent, bending to look Max in the eye. “You have yet to take part in our festivities.”

Max grinned, ducking her head to hide the warm rush to her face. “Ah, I fear I must decline on account of my two left feet, Lady Amber.”

“Well, that will not do at all. We must correct that deficiency, don’t you think, ere the night of the ball.” She swayed with the music and extended a hand. “Shall we dance?”

Max’s heart caught in her throat as her gaze switched from the proffered hand to Rachel’s amused face. She knew it was a dare, she knew it. Just as Choe knew—she was grinning like an idiot where she stood in the waves. Swallowing her nervousness, Max took the slender hand, letting Rachel pull her to her feet, and lead her to the water’s edge. 

“First, we hold hands, here. You put your hand on my shoulder, like so. And I’ll put my hand on your waist. Now, follow my lead.”

Together, they slow-danced on the beach as the waves lapped at their toes. Max felt warm and light-headed, like she'd taken a sip of wine. She tried to follow the beat, watching her feet to avoid stepping on Rachel’s. She managed a single glance at Chloe. Her friend was no longer grinning; she watched them intently, expression unreadable. But Rachel led her on, smiling confidently, and if Max found her eye-catching from a distance, she was utterly mesmerizing up close. 

They swayed with the song, and soon, Max found that she could keep up if she listened to the music.

Prends ma main

Car je suis étranger ici,

Perdu dans le pays bleu,

Étranger au paradis

“Looks like you’re getting the hang of it,” Rachel said, pausing to give Max a twirl. 

“Um, you’re a good teacher,” Max laughed, her voice a little too loud in her own ears.

“Mm-hmm. Plus, I can multitask. Look down.”

Max did, and gasped. Their feet were no longer touching the sand. The water beneath them had melded into a pliant, semi-solid surface. It was like walking on a firm bed. 

She glanced up at Rachel. “How did you—”  

“I told you. It’s easier when you’re around.”

Max looked around the beach, but thankfully there were no intruding eyes. Just the open sea, the breeze stirring the waves, the rustling of leaves from the nearby trees. 

Rachel whispered in her ear, “Don’t look now, but there’s this scary blue giant watching us.”

Max suppressed a laugh. “Oh?” she whispered back. “Is she really that scary?”

“She can probably bore a hole through our heads with that look of hers. Sorry, but I’m gonna have to sacrifice you to escape.”

With both hands, she spun Max to the right. When Max blinked in the afternoon sun, she found herself in Chloe’s arms.

“So is this a private party,” the taller girl drawled, “or can anyone get a dance?”

“I—” Whatever Max was going to say vanished from her head. She was dancing. With Chloe. Together they did a slow spin above the still water. Less graceful than with Rachel, but Max was past caring; her heartbeat had jumped from a march to a wild gallop.

She yelped when Chloe dipped her; her hair brushed the hardened water beneath them. From her upside-down view, she caught Rachel rolling her eyes. 

“Oh, you think you can do better, huh?” Chloe retorted, pulling Max back up and sending her spinning towards the blonde. “Let’s see it.”

Rachel caught Max’s hands without missing a beat. “Easier done than said.”

Again and again, Max found herself shifting from one partner to another. She couldn’t bring herself to speak, only to nod, wide-eyed, when Chloe asked if she was alright. 

Can I have this? She wondered to herself. Can I really have this?

There was no answer except for the cool water lapping at her feet, Chloe’s warm hand in hers, and Rachel’s song crooning in her ears.

Et si tu veux bien de moi,

L'étranger dans ton paradis,

Alors nous irons, je crois

Plus loin que la vie.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chloe rolled out of bed that Saturday morning with a thrumming in her heart and a bounce in her step. It was only 7 AM—a shocking hour for her to be awake, but she simply couldn’t stay asleep. Part of her mind still lived in last week's space, when she and Rachel and Max had spent the afternoon dancing atop the waves. 

But another part of her had already leaped into the future—to tonight, when she would see them both of them again for the Blackwell Grand Prom, or whatever the fuck it was called. And, more importantly, the stuff that came after. Chloe could barely hold in her excitement at the thought.

Before then, she needed to prep. She needed to go to work early at Popsy’s garage so she could leave early. After that, pick up her rented tuxedo. Finally, give Max her third birthday gift.

First things first, though: breakfast. A girl's gotta have priorities.

She was about to bound down the steps, only to hold back when two voices from the dining room reached her ears.  

"Do you really have to be out that late?"

"Sorry, hon. It’s the job. I get off at 6 AM and will be home in less than half an hour."

"But you won’t get a wink of sleep between now and your shift at Blackwell!"

"I’ll get three hours’ shut-eye between the two jobs, that’s enough. Had it worse back in boot camp."

Fuck. She'd forgotten that David was still here. She considered hiding up in her room till he left, but she didn't have that kind of time—not if she wanted to leave work earlier today. 

Hold it together. You only need to make it till tonight . Chloe grit her teeth as she let her feet take her downstairs. When she entered the dining room, Joyce, who was sliding fried eggs onto David's plate, nearly dropped the pan in surprise.

"Stars and daisies—is this really my darling daughter up before 8 in the morning?"

"Don’t get used to it," muttered Chloe, taking a seat opposite them. 

"I likely won't, but I sure can dream." Happy to ignore Chloe's sour mood, Joyce had hurried over to the stove and cracked two more eggs onto the pan. David, meanwhile, chewed thoughtfully on his bacon as he eyed her. Chloe speared her fork into a piece of toast from the serving plate, studiously avoiding David's gaze. The fucker seemed to be intent on staring her down. 

"Going to work at that garage again?" he asked.

Oh look, just what I need—a conversation . "Yeah," she said around a mouthful of bread. "What about it?"

Joyce appeared at David's side, laying a hand on his shoulder. "We were just talkin’ about how happy we are to see you so devoted to your job. Isn't that right, dear?"

David nodded. "It's good you're finally living up to your responsibilities, Chloe," he said. "And it's a fine thing to see you spending more time at work. Keeps you out of trouble."

"Gee, thanks."

"I just think that you could do so much better than Pop's Garage."

A palpable chill settled on the room; even Joyce's smile faltered.

Chloe let her fork clatter onto her plate as she met David's eye. "I'm doing fine where I am." 

"I hardly think that's true," David replied, shoveling egg into his mouth. "Pops doesn't even pay you a full salary, does he? It ain't right to have you slave away for him without full compensation. Look, I know someone from the station who needs a hand with—"   

Chloe rose to her feet, her chair skidding behind her. "Yeah, no. Just because you suddenly got two jobs doesn't make you a financial guru. And I'd get a prefrontal lobotomy first before getting help from you or your pals in blue." She turned on her heel and headed for the door.

"Chloe!" Joyce said. "Your breakfast!"

"Nah, I’m good. I got places to be."

"Hey!" David shouted after her. "Your mother's asking you to stay and finish your food."

"Help yourself to it, buddy."

"What're you gonna do? Mooch off of your employer again?"

Chloe whirled to face him. "Pops and Marl gave me lunch! What, people don’t get to be kind to me anymore?"

"It’s disgraceful for you to have to rely on other people. They’ll start saying we don’t take care of you."

"You two, stop it!" Joyce said. "All I want is for Chloe to sit and have her breakfast." 

"Yeah, not happening." Chloe grabbed her jacket from the hook by the door, nearly ripping it in her haste. "I gotta get to work. Thanks for killing off my appetite, asswipe. Good luck on the new job. Far as I’m concerned, the less you’re around here, the better."

"Chloe!" Joyce and David said at once. But Chloe was already out the door. Her stomach growled once, but she growled louder deep in her throat and it backed down.

She got in her truck and slammed the door shut, setting her mind on the day ahead. No one—not Jeffershit, not Pisscott, not that fuckwit her mother decided to marry—was going to derail their plans today. No one. 


“I’m not sure about this, Rachel.”

“Sorry, Maxie, you already agreed. No takebacks!”

Max chewed her lip as she set herself down on a stool in Rachel's bedroom. Only half an hour ago, while they were having breakfast with her parents downstairs, Max had remarked that she'd forgotten to get her haircut before leaving Arcadia Bay the night before. She realized her error the minute Rachel's face lit up like she'd been offered a role on Broadway. " I'll style your hair!" she proclaimed.

Max demurred, but Rachel persisted. She wheedled Max. Max never expected Rachel of all people to wheedle; it was disarming even as it hammered on all of her anxiety buttons. What if Rachel cut hair about as well as she cooked?

But there was no getting out of it now, it seemed. Max pulled the towel over her shoulders as the blonde rummaged through her dresser. "Ah, here we are!" Rachel said, pulling out a pair of shiny shears from a drawer.  

"You're way too eager for this."

"Would you relax? It's just a little trim. Plus, I cut Chloe's hair all the time. And you love her look, don't you?" 

Max couldn't argue with that, but wished all the same that Chloe were here to verify that claim. Meanwhile, Rachel had picked up an open magazine and tapped the shears on a close-up of a model's hairstyle. "So, we keep your bangs, but we trim the rest so it's somewhat shorter at the back and longer towards the front—less pageboy and more A-line bob, yeah?"

"Not that I'm saying I'll need it, Rachel, but do you have a wig I could use in case this doesn't work out?"

"You are so cute." Rachel snipped twice with her scissors. "I work without a net, Max. Besides, compared to Chloe's hair, you're easy mode." She picked up a bottle spray from her table and spritzed a fine, cool mist all over Max's head. "Now, where to start? Hmm, guess I'll work on the back."

Max kept her gaze locked straight ahead as the other girl slipped out of sight behind her. She might never get used to someone paying her this much attention. Rachel was clearly playing a game of dress-up Barbie with her as the doll. 

Rachel's cool fingers combed through her hair before attaching a large clip to portion it. The first few snips sent some of her brown locks drifting to the floor. Max gulped. "That's-great-I-think-I'm-good-thanks!"

"I just started, silly." Snip. "Hmm, you have a few split ends back here. You'll probably want to condition more often, Max."

"Uh, duly noted." 

A giggle to her left, followed by a few more snips . "I'll text you a few brands to try." Rachel applied gentle pressure on her shoulder as her voice pitched lower. "Loosen up, would you? You're so twitchy, I'm afraid I might nick your ear."

Snip, snip. Max held herself still, watching helplessly as more of her hair drifted to the floor.

"Oh, you got a few strands stuck here." Rachel blew lightly against her cheek; the sensation sent a tingle down Max's spine. "Now, I'll try to shape the back of your hair. Tilt your head a little. There. Hold still."

Breathing deeply, Max—almost against her will—found herself relaxing. The tension seeped away from her shoulders. Her breathing soon softened and her focus drifted. Her next inhale caught a familiar scent. "Is that vanilla?" she asked.

"Oh, you like? Mom was baking earlier today so I went and grabbed some. When she was young, she couldn't afford to buy perfume, so she and her sisters would dab on some vanilla before going out on a date. I picked it up from her."

"I love vanilla." Shutting her eyes, Max breathed in to chase the scent. It was easy now that Rachel had drifted closer, her head bent low, clucking her tongue as she cut away at Max's fringe. Rachel began to hum a tune, and Max lost herself between her soft voice and the whisper of the scissors. 

"This is looking good," Rachel murmured, crossing over to the other side. "A bit more here to match your jawline...tilt your head this way, please." 

Snip.

"Once we're done, we can pick a dress from my wardrobe you can wear to the prom. Then later, I can do your makeup. Nothing fancy, don't worry. Just some eyeshadow and then a little highlighter to show off these gorgeous cheekbones of yours."

Max was barely listening, still caught between the mesmerizing cadence of the scissors and the ghostly scent of vanilla.  "Why are you so good to me, Rachel?" 

She could hear the smile in Rachel's reply. "Why do you make it so easy?" Her thigh gently bumped Max's knee. "Hey, getting sleepy?"

"No."

"They say people tell the truth when they're half-asleep." 

"S'true. Chloe used to call out the names of people she hated in school while she slept."

"Heh. She's such a dork, isn't she?" 

"Mm-hmm..."

"She talks about you all the time. She never stops worrying about you when you're not in town."

"Yeah."

"It's no wonder you're in love with her."

"Ye—" 

Max's eyes flew open, met the pair of hazel ones gazing down at her. Rachel had paused her cutting as she studied Max's expression. 

“Um...what? N-no way. You’re kidding, right? Chloe and I have known each other since we were kids and— ”

“And you’re in love with her.”

“I-I never said—”

"Max."

Max hung her head. Never before did she ache to have her rewind powers back. "I-is it that obvious?" 

"From the way you look at her when you think no one's watching? Pretty obvs."

Max swallowed hard. Rachel ran a hand through her own hair, absently looking at a point at the far end of the room. “What was your Chloe like? Were you two...together? Back in your timeline?”

Max sighed. "She was sadder, angrier, more desperate.  Chloe was so focused on finding you. Like, without you, she was broken. We never really...we didn't...” She drew in a deep breath and looked up at Rachel. “You don’t have to say anything. I'm already sure—she's not my Chloe.”

For a moment, Rachel kept her eyes in the distance, as if trying to peer into the future. Then she caught the look on Max's face and her smile returned. "Max, are you worried I'm upset at you?" 

"Maybe a little?"

"Don't be. I'm not."

"Really?"

"Really." Rachel sighed, smoothed her fingers over Max's hair, and resumed cutting. "Although, I have to confess—I was jealous of you for the longest time."

"Jealous? Of me?"

"Yeah, you. Who wouldn't be after hearing Chloe gab about you for three years? It's like we had your ghost following us around.  You two have a special bond, I could tell even back then. And hearing about it was sometimes a lot to take.

"And then you came back to Arcadia. Suddenly you weren't some figure from the past anymore. You're real, flesh and blood. And for a while, I felt threatened by you."

Max's gaze slid away from her. "Believe me, Rachel. I'm the last person you should feel threatened by. I wasn't...wasn't good for Chloe. I abandoned her—you know I did. More than once. What kind of friend—"

"Hey." Rachel stopped cutting and knelt to catch Max's eye. "Don't do that to yourself. Never doubt what you are to Chloe. What matters is you came back, and you saved us. So please remember, Max—I'm glad you're here, that we met. Chloe's forgiven you, so go easy on yourself. Okay?"

She waited for Max to nod, then stood up to resume cutting her hair. "Sorry. I didn't mean to make this a thing. I guess I...I didn't want us to have any secrets between us. You know, of everyone here in Arcadia Bay, you're the only one I'm not keeping secrets from. I'd like for us to trust each other. I want to trust you completely."

"Rachel?"

"Yes?"

"You love her too, don't you?"

Rachel faltered, gazing down at Max wide-eyed, scissors raised like exclamation points. For a moment Max thought that Rachel might laugh it off, or deflect it with another witty remark. Instead, Rachel's fingers crept up to touch something on her own neck—an ordinary-looking steel ring attached to a necklace. Did Chloe give her that? 

"Yes." The word fell from Rachel's lips. And there it was. No secrets between them, nothing held back.

Max brushed her fingertips against Rachel's hand. "Chloe's lucky. I meant what I said—I'm happy for you both." 

"Thank you," Rachel said, her voice barely above a whisper. "What a pair we make, huh? You and I." She set the scissors down and picked up a brush from her drawer. She combed Max's hair for a minute before stepping back, eyeing her work. "There. I think we're done." Putting the brush down, she picked up a mirror and held it up to Max. "What do you think?"

Startled, Max turned her head from one side to the other. "It...it looks great! Wow, Rachel, you cut it exactly how you said."

"And you were so worried." Rachel made a sweeping gesture with her hand, and a small whirlwind collected all the strands from the floor and deposited it in a nearby trashcan. "C'mon. Let's get you to the sink so I can wash your hair."

As she steered Max towards the door, Rachel grinned and said, "Hey, Max?"

"Yes?

"I'm sorry I kissed your girl while you were away these past few years."

"S’okay.” Max thought for a moment, then simpered. “I kissed her while you were away too.”

“Oh,” Rachel fell silent at the implication. Then she tossed back her hair and laughed, “Fuck you, Caulfield, you skank!”


At 5 PM, Chloe cleaned up her sweaty face with a towel and made her way to where Popsy was tinkering under the hood of a Mercedes. 

"I'm done for the day, boss." 

Popsy raised his head, mopped his broad brow with one forearm, and eyed her critically. "Gotta say, Chloe, this is some change."

"Say what?"

"You turned in a full day's work every day for a week. For a routine underachiever like you, that's a helluva feat."

"Gee, thanks." He didn't need to know that the reason Chloe stayed longer was to get more time at his workbench so she could finish working on Max's gift. 

"It's a compliment." He fished out his wallet from his back pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. "Here."

Chloe's eyes popped open. "Whoa, Pops! Not that I'm complaining, but that's a bit more than what I usually—"

"A full week's pay for a full week's work. Fair's fair. Now shut up and take it."

"Hey, no fucking problem." Grinning, Chloe pocketed the cash. She had more than enough to cover the tux and then some. This was shaping up to be a great weekend.      

"You did good," Popsy went on. "It felt more like a had an extra hand than a hanger-on. So I wanna make you a deal." He planted a meaty fist against the hood of the car. "Jeff's leavin' town next week—got a job in Portland. There’s space for a new employee. I need someone who's quick, hardworking, and consistent. But I suppose I'mma have to settle for you."

Chloe stood stock still, gaping at him. "You're offering me a job?"

"If you’re takin‘ it.”

"Well, I gotta check my dance card first...but...yeah. I mean, I'd probably do it if you'd stop playing that god-awful World War 1-era crap you call music."

"Hey!" He stabbed an index finger at her. "The Ink Spots are a goddamn national treasure. Right, Mondays to Fridays, and some overtime on the weekends. A bit more experience and you'll make a top mechanic. So I'm banking on you showin' up. You get me?"

"I getcha." She grinned and waved briefly. "Well, gotta rush. This cash isn't gonna spend itself." 

Popsy shook his head, grinning. "None my business, but lately it looks to me like you found yourself something worth fighting for."  

Chloe stopped and threw him a look over her shoulder. "Now what're you talking about?"

"You changed, Chloe. It's like you chasin' something. That's good. People're built to chase things. Whatever it is, you keep at it."

"Y-yeah, okay, whatevs," Chloe snorted. "See ya next week, old man."

"Don't you blow it all on weed, girl."

 

Chloe made a mad dash home for a quick shower before throwing on her rented blue tuxedo. Then, per their plan, she left her truck at home and walked to the Amber residence. 

She was annoyed to find someone had beaten her there. Warren was emerging from his aging Subaru while simultaneously straightening his bow tie. He wore a solid black tux and carried a small bouquet of roses in his hand. He waved as soon as she approached. "Oh, hiya, Chloe!" 

"Warren." Chloe sauntered over to stand with him in the front yard. One of his shoelaces was untied, but she decided not to tell him that.  

"So." Warren scratched the back of his head. "Tonight might be...dangerous, huh?"

"Maybe. Getting cold feet?"

"What? No way. I said I'd help. Even if it means we spend the whole night stalking Jefferson, I'm up for it." 

"Great. If he tries something funny, you can Vulcan neck pinch him."

"See, the amazing thing about what you said is you know what a Vulcan neck pinch is."

They both fell quiet at that instant because the front door opened and Rachel stepped out into the night. 

She wore a lava-red evening gown that looked like it had been painted on her. The fringes of the neckline curled upwards like flames, and a slit on her right side revealed a long flash of leg and the dragon tattoo on her calf. Chloe realized her mouth was watering.

"Hey," Rachel said when she reached her, leaning up to kiss her cheek. Around her neck, the metal ring Chloe had given her the week before bounced against her collarbone.  

"Hey yourself," Chloe breathed. "You look dazzling, as usual."

"And you look fuckable, as usual," Rachel whispered in her ear. "But that's for later." She turned and gave Warren a friendly hug. "Hey, Warren. You good?" 

Warren seemed happy just to have been noticed. "Oh yeah, totally. Looking forward to tonight."

"Max'll be out in a sec. She’s putting on her shoes." Rachel fixed Chloe a look. "What's this? No bouquet for me?"

"I already got you roses last year," Chloe retorted. "'Sides, I blew all my cash renting this monkey suit. Ah, but then again—" She pulled back her sleeve, revealing a corsage on her wrist, which she unclasped and slipped onto Rachel's. 

"Always full of surprises." She admired the corsage, then turned to look as the door behind her opened. "Ah, looks like our squad is complete." 

Chloe turned her eyes to the entryway—and shock pulsed through her like a thunderbolt. Max was making her way across the lawn toward them. Chloe had never seen her wear a dress like that before—a bright yellow, satin gown, with matching shoes that peeked out of from under her long pleated skirt. Her shoulders were bare—also a new thing for Chloe—and the shy look on her face made her doubly appealing.  

Chloe realized her mouth was hanging open and she snapped it closed. She wanted to wind the clock back to the moment Max first appeared at the door. She wanted to take Max's arm and walk her to the car. She wanted to choke Warren out cold for gawking at her.

When Max reached them, Chloe shook herself and hastened to think of a compliment—but again, Warren beat her to the punch. "You look...amazing," he said.  

Max smiled as she accepted his bouquet. "Thanks. This," she gestured at her dress, "is all Rachel's, by the way." 

"It's mine," Rachel agreed, eyes twinkling, "but Max owns the fuck out of it."

Chloe struggled to find her footing. I gotta compliment her somehow. Let her know she looks good. 

"So," she said, smirking, "finally living out your Disney princess cosplay dream, huh Maximus?" Goddamit, Price.

"Just stop," Max muttered. "I feel so awkward already. And aren't we supposed to be going over the plan tonight?"

"So we shall." Rachel loosened her shoulders and gazed around at them. "Alright, listen. Our objective's pretty clear. For the first half of the night, we go to the prom and keep an eye out for Jefferson and Nathan. We spot them, we make sure to stay out of their way. But we also have to make sure they see us there. Then, once they announce the prom king and queen..." She nodded to Warren.

"Oh!" he said, surprised he was called on to speak. "Right. I...get my car and drive you guys to Chloe's. Then I head to Hayden's place ahead of you guys and wait with the rest."

Chloe picked it up from there. "We change clothes, grab our gear, and head to the site. Once we get what we need, we drive over to Hayden's for the afterparty. Alibi bulletproof."

"And we get to be drunk and stupid for the rest of the night," Rachel finished. "Contingencies?"

"If we get separated," Max said, "we meet up at the school fountain. But..." She fidgeted, looking to each of them. "Let's NOT get separated."

"As much as possible," Rachel agreed. "Keep an eye out for Jefferson and Nathan, and keep an eye on each other. Don't accept drinks from anyone, don't let your cups out of your sight."

"Okay," said Warren, fidgeting. "But, won't you tell the rest of the group where you're going? We might be able to help."

"Thanks for that, Warren," Rachel said. "But the fewer people who know, the greater your deniability. Not knowing protects you. Don't worry, if we need something, we'll call." 

Rachel looked around at them. "Alright. All we need is to get through the next few hours and—"  

Her phone dinged. Rachel scooped it out of her purse and glanced at it, frowning. "It's Juliet," she said, then turned her screen to show to the rest.

 

Quasimodo's in his belfry; Frollo not in court  

 

Chloe blinked. "What the fuck? I thought all the teachers are supposed to attend as chaperones."

"That's what I thought too," Max said.  

Warren shrugged. "Maybe he’s late?" 

"Not like him," Rachel said. "I don't like that he's unaccounted for."

"Same," Choe growled. Who knows what he's up to?  

Rachel chewed her lip. "We don't have much of a choice. Let's stick with the plan for now. We'll keep an eye out for him at the prom." She nodded to Warren's car. "C'mon. If we leave now we'll be fashionably late by—"

"Uh," Chloe began, "can I grab a minute with Max here? I'll be quick."

Rachel hesitated, eyeing them both, then relented when Chloe gave her a beseeching look. She took Warren by the arm and led him to the curb. "So this car of yours looks bitchin'. I've never seen it before."

"Oh! Uh, it's actually my brother's. He visits every weekend..."

As they left, Chloe turned to Max, who was watching her curiously. "A'ight," Chloe said, "just between you and me, his car looks like the kind mob guys get shot in."

Max giggled. "Don't be mean, Chloe. So, what's up?"

"Er, nothing really. I, uh—" Chloe dug a hand into her coat pocket, panicked for a moment when she couldn't find it. Then her fingers closed around it and her chest loosened. "I wanted to give you your third birthday present." She held out her palm to Max.

Max stared down, uncomprehending, at the ring in Chloe's hand, then her eyes filled with recognition. "That's the same one Rachel has!"

"Yeah, I made two of them. I'm giving one to each of you, 'coz—" Chloe shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Look, just take it, okay?"

Max picked it up and held it to the light. It was a simple steel ring with a little bump on one side. To Chloe, it looked unlovely, like something that belonged in a car engine, not on a pretty girl's finger.

But Max said, "Chloe, this is so cool. Thank you."

Her words made Chloe feel three inches taller. Max always appreciated Chloe’s gifts; in that regard, she never changed. "Waitaminute, I haven't shown you the trick to it. Hold on to it firmly. Yeah, like that."  

As Max raised the ring, Chloe pushed the tip of her finger against the lump at the top. "There's a catch here, see? If you press down on it like this..." Chloe did so, and a tiny hook-shaped blade folded out of the lump. Max‘s lips parted in surprise.

"If you ever find yourself in a situation with your hands tied up, this blade'll help you cut through the bindings. Remember, it's razor-sharp, so be careful you don't hurt yourself."

"Chloe...wow. You really made this?"

"That's what I said."

"It's even better than the secret decoder rings we had when we were kids!" Max slipped it on her finger. "And it fits perfectly!"

Chloe shrugged and scratched her cheek. "I still have one of your rings from way back, the one you left in my room. I used it as a template. Lucky you didn't get fat since we were kids. Hey." She caught Max's gaze. "Always keep it on you, okay? In case you get in trouble."

Max enclosed the hand with the ring with her other hand. "I will, I promise. Your birthday gifts keep getting awesomer, Chloe. And yes, I feel safer. Thank you."  

As the heat rose to her face, Chloe couldn't hide her own trembling smile. Now that Max was wearing her ring, it now felt like she laid some kind of claim on her. Suck on that, Warren. Especially later when you go back home alone to your basement. 

"Yeah, yeah that's good." Chloe shuffled in place, eyes wandering up the street. "You, uh, look great by the way. Digging the haircut."

"T-thanks. It was Rachel’s idea. I just sat there, really."

"Heh. Yeah. So...we should probably get going?"

"Yeah. Let's."

As they walked side-by-side to where Rachel and Warren were waiting by the car, Chloe hoped the rest of their night out together would turn out as smoothly. 

 

They briefly swung by Jefferson's house on the way to Blackwell to check if he was home. The lights were on, but since the garage door was shut and they could see no movement at the windows, there was no way to check that he was home. Rather than risk getting spotted, they drove on to school.

Even from the parking lot, they could already hear the music blasting from the back of the school. Cones of light slanted towards the night sky, blotting out stars. The party had begun in earnest.

Rachel curled her hand around Chloe's arm as they took the lamplit path towards the open doors of the gym. "Ready?"

Chloe squeezed her hand. "You know it." She glanced over her shoulder to see that Max had taken Warren's offered arm. Warren was yammering something about his WoW character and Max was listening like it was the most interesting thing in the world. So they had stuff in common. 

Chloe wanted nothing more than scrape that smile off his face using the pavement. She kicked a low hanging balloon out of the way and let Rachel lead her into the entrance hall. 

"Rachel! Chloe!  You made it!" As they entered, a statuesque girl with auburn hair, hoop earrings, and a little black dress stood up from behind the blue-clothed registration table. 

"Hi, Dana!" Rachel disengaged her arm from Chloe’s to accept a hug. Chloe raised a half-hearted hand in greeting. She threw Max a questioning glance and jerked her head towards Dana. Max smiled and nodded—yep, she knew her. 

"Dana, this is Max," Rachel was saying. "She's attending the seniors’ program next school year."

"Cool!" Dana gave Max a friendly wave. "I see you got acquainted with our resident Einstein. Heya, Warr."  

“‘Sup, Dana!” 

Chloe had mostly tuned them out. She craned her neck to stare into the dark cavern of the gym entrance, hoping to glimpse either Jefferson or Nathan amidst the whirling, strobing lights. No such luck, though. 

"Is Juliet here?" Rachel asked.

"Yep, she said she'd wait for you inside." Dana clapped her hands together.  "You guys, there's a Vortex afterparty later at Nathan’s place! It's supposed to be exclusive, but I bet I can get them to let you in. We'll roll out of here as a group at around 11-ish. You guys should totally come!"

Rachel glanced at Chloe. "Thanks, Dana, but..."

"We got plans," Chloe finished.

"Exactly." Rachel gave her a conspirational smile. "But if we can tear you away from the Vortex, you're invited to our own little get-together. If you're interested, I'll text you the deets later. We'll head on in now. Gotta talk to Jules." 

"Okay! I'll head in after I close up here. See ya!"

The gym was packed with bodies half-smothered in darkness, undulating to the beat shrieking from the speakers. Only the rock band onstage was well lit. The stage was decorated with suspended disco balls and glittering cellophane that hung from floor to ceiling. The band was dressed all in white, the blonde lead singer-slash-bass-player dancing around in her sequined gown and looking like she‘d just discovered Stevie Nicks. The air rippled with the heavy thud of drums and bass.

Chloe hated being back here and this prom reminded her why. Blackwell was a shithole filled to bursting with boring, stuck-up twats who had no reason to live except to spend their parents' money as quickly as possible. It pained her that Blackwell still had its hooks in Rachel, or that Max would be coming to school here in two months' time. She couldn’t wait until they finally put this place in the rearview mirror where it belonged. 

She looked over to Max and shouted over the din,  "You sure you wanna go to Blackhell?" 

Max shrugged, gave her a helpless grin. "It's got its upsides, Chloe." She and Warren were trailing after them like a pair of ducklings. Yeah, neither looked like they belonged here.  

"Lead singer's got me sprung, brah," someone yelled in Chloe’s ear. "Check out those legs."

"This prom sucks ass,” his friend yelled back. “Can't wait for the afterparty at Nathan’s."

Nathan. Where's that sack of shit at? Chloe peered through the throng whirling around her, but he was nowhere to be found.  

 Rachel, however, quickly spotted someone of interest. "Jules!" she shouted. 

They wove through a cluster of giggling girls to find Juliet, wearing a cherry-pink gown, drink in hand, hanging off Zachary Riggin's arm, and both looking bored shitless. But Juliet's eyes lit up when she spotted their group. "You’re here! Great!"

Rachel gave her a hug. "Is Quasimodo—?"

"Not here, too loud. Let's talk outside." She nodded to her jock boyfriend. "Babe, give us a minute, okay? Girl talk."

With Juliet in the lead, the five of them made their way through the busy dance floor to one of the fire escapes across the hall. The doors were ajar, so they opened them fully and let themselves out. The noise was reduced to the low thumping of bass. Chloe breathed in a lungful of the cleansing night air.

Juliet spun towards them, perfectly-drawn eyebrows knitting together. "Don't worry about Quasi. He's over there in the corner with some other Vortex members." She nodded past the open doorway. "Er, Hayden's keeping an eye on him."

Turning, Chloe spotted Nathan in an expensive tux, lounging on a bench next to a pretty girl she didn't recognize, who was busy tapping away at her phone. Hayden stood in front of them, yammering away while wildly flapping his arms.

"But who's keeping an eye on Hayden?" grumbled Max. 

Chloe snickered. "Ten bucks says he's already high." 

"No one's gonna take you up on that bet," Warren muttered.   

Rachel turned back to Juliet. "So, no sign of Frollo?" 

"Neither hide nor hair. And that interview, I never wanna see him again. God knows I might blow chunks in his face." Juliet shook her head. "Jeezus, guys. What a mess. We got a total psycho stalking us in Blackwell. I could use a fuckin' smoke." 

"I got us covered," Rachel replied. She opened up her purse and retrieved her metal cigarette case, but Chloe grabbed her wrist. "Faculty alert," she said from the corner of her mouth.    

They wheeled to face Ms. Grant, who was marching towards them from gym entrance. "Oh shit, did she see?" Rachel pulled her hands behind her back as their teacher closed the distance. 

"Well well, good evening ladies," Ms. Grant said, her teeth taking a bluish tinge beneath the neon lights. "Enjoying yourselves out here?"

"Oh, yeah, it's totally banging, Ms. Grant," Juliet answered, hurling a glance at Rachel. 

Rachel flashed a smile. "Yup, we just wanted a break for fresh air." 

"Glad to see some new faces here." She nodded to Max before turning to Chloe. "And good to see some familiar ones too."

"Yo, Ms. Grant. What's good? Bring a date?"

"No, I didn’t, thanks for asking. And I'll tell you what could be good: if everyone present could keep to the rules of our school, whether they go here or not." Ms. Grant squinted at them. "That means no smoking anywhere on campus. Especially not prohibited substances."

"Ah, we weren't doing anything like that," Rachel began.

"Good. Then you won't mind if you show me the contents of your purses, would you kindly?"

Chloe was about to protest, say something about privacy and such, but Max, goody-goody that she is, had already stepped forward with her bag held open. Ms. Grant gave it a cursory inspection before turning to the rest, eyebrows raised.

"Do I look like a girl who carries a purse?" Chloe offered as a distraction.

"Your pockets then, if you please."

"Fine, fine." She turned her coat pockets inside out. "See? Clean as my bank account."

"And we are too," Rachel’s voice held no trace of affront as she and Juliet showed their open purses. Only Rachel did it with her right hand. From the corner of her eye, Chloe saw that she held her left hand behind her back, offering her cigarette case for someone to take. Before Chloe could do so, Max quickly took it and slipped it into her own purse.  

What the fuck, Max?

"Alright, thank you." Ms. Grant didn't seem at all satisfied as she eyed their group again. Must have been some instinct of hers that could sniff out trouble. "Now, this fire escape needs to stay closed. Please come inside now, all of you." 

"Of course, Ms. Grant." Rachel tugged on Chloe's arm. "C'mon, guys. Let's go get something to drink." They regrouped beside the table where a waiter was serving punch from a bowl.  

"So," Warren said. "Guess Jefferson didn't bother to show up tonight."

"I'm actually kinda glad for it," Max averred.

"I'm not," Chloe swigged her entire cup down and plunked it in front of the waiter for another. "What if he's lurking around here somewhere? And what about Nathan?"

Rachel nodded, throwing a glance to where Nathan was still slouched against the bleachers, surrounded by his Vortex cronies. "But if it's true that Jefferson isn't here, then he might not make a move tonight. Which means we can operate freely."

"Tch." Chloe stuck her hands in her pockets. "Feels like a waste. Can't we just off Nathan right now?"

"We're not the mafia."

"No, we're pirates. We make our own rules."

"Ms. Grant's still got her eye on us," Max pointed out.

"Let's lose her then." Grinning, Rachel tugged on Chloe's hand while herding Max and Warren towards the dance floor. 

"Um," Max looked about as they were led towards the mass of twisting bodies. "What’s happening?"

"We’re going along with the plan," Rachel replied, rolling her head as the beat took hold of her. "We came here so that people would see us. And they will."  


Taking another swig from the punch he'd liberally spiked with vodka, Nathan gazed across the gym to where the lights flitted and strobed on the dance floor. Despite the writhing wall of teens, he still glimpsed the red flash of Rachel's body as she danced through the crowd—again in someone else's arms. The drink soured in his mouth. If he had a grenade right now, he'd pull the pin and fling it into—  

His phone buzzed. Glowering, he fished it out and glanced at the message onscreen. 

 

Unknown Number: Get into position.

 

Nathan took a deep breath, held it in for a second, then let it out. "Gotta take a leak," he said to no one in particular as he stood up.

"Oh, uh, sure man," Hayden said, interrupting his own inane story. "See ya in a bit."

Without even a glance his way, Nathan headed towards a nearby door that led backstage.  

Showtime.



Chapter Text

As she let herself be pulled onto the dance floor, Chloe fought to keep an eye out for any sign of Jefferson, but it was a losing battle—inevitably, her gaze was drawn back to Rachel. She wasn't the only one; a wave of heads turned the instant Rachel swept through the crowd, the dancers parting like they were afraid to touch her.  

Letting go of Chloe, Rachel raised her arms overhead and spun her hips a tight circle, her crimson dress flowing in a whirlpool of fire. Chloe's lips fell open: she couldn't believe anyone could be this lovely, nor could she believe anyone this lovely would be hers. Then Rachel gave her that look, head tilted down, glistening lips curving into a sultry line, and Chloe was done for.  

She grabbed the girl’s hips to pull her closer; Rachel threw back her long blond tresses and laughed—a sound that quivered in Chloe's heart. She wanted to drink from those red lips, wanted to lead her out of the gym and into the shadowy trees where no one could see, and really give these Blackwell idiots something to talk about. 

"Didn't I promise we'd have fun tonight?" Rachel shouted over the din as they spun and rocked to the heat of the music. 

"Yeah, you did," Chloe shouted back. "And we are, but I got my doubts about Max."

A single glance over her shoulder confirmed it: Max was doing her darndest to blend in, but the halting steps and timid little circles she made with her arms made her look like she was trying to avoid touching anyone. And while Warren seemed to be having fun, the way he was hopping about and jabbing his fingers in the air so much made Chloe afraid he'd poke someone’s eye out. She didn't know whether to be annoyed for Max or be glad that there won’t be another date.

Still, Chloe was content. Max was safe. Rachel was in her arms. Presscock was sulking in his kids' play corner. Jefferson wasn't around and perhaps wasn't even going to show. Tonight might go easy on them after all. 

Then, as they danced towards the edge of the crowd, Chloe spotted a blonde girl nearly as tall as she was making a beeline toward them. Welp, she thought, so much for easy.

"Don't look now," she muttered to Rachel. "Icky Vicky incoming."

Rachel let her head fall to Chloe's shoulder and heaved a long-suffering sigh. "'Bout that time I guess." She turned to head the intruder off with a smile. "Victoria! You look amazing in that dress!"

She wasn't lying; even Chloe had to admit that Victoria Chase in a svelte black bodycon sporting golden bangles on her arms was easy on the eyes. Too bad she had to go and ruin it by opening her mouth. 

Victoria came right up and gave Rachel smacking air kisses that made Chloe's skin crawl. "And you look absolutely fierce in yours. Gonna be perfect for the awards tonight!" She turned to Chloe. "Oh, look who it is—Kari Price!"

Chloe peeled her lips back from her teeth—"Great to see you too, Veronica"—and savored the barely-there curl at the edge of Victoria's mouth.  

Rachel favored Chloe a glance that was at once admiring and placating before turning back to Victoria. "So, are we starting?"

"Oh yes, everything’s set. Adam's already backstage so I'm here to get you. But there's a teensy little problem I could really use your help with." Victoria's voice pitched a little higher. Must be the voice she used to wheedle money from her parents, Chloe thought.

Rachel nodded. "Sure, what's up?" 

"Well," Victoria shot a glance at the band. "I'm supervising backstage, as you probably guessed. The band's lead singer came up to me a few minutes ago and said she had to deal with some kind of medical problem. I already called Principal Wells's attention to her unprofessional behavior, but the reality of it is we don't have a singer for the slow dance portion of the night, and..." 

"Okay, whoa, hold up!" Chloe raised her palms. "Are you seriously asking Rachel to fill in for the lead singer?"

"In a word, yes." Victoria gave Rachel a beseeching look."It's just for one song after the awards are done. Think about it—the returning Prom Queen, serenading the new couple as they dance...it would be so perfect! "

"I...I dunno, Victoria," Rachel began.

"This is the part where we ask why this is our problem, right?" Chloe muttered to her, but it was clear from her expression that Rachel was thinking it over.  

"We really could use your lovely voice, Rachel," Victoria pressed on. "Principal Wells specifically asked for you." She paused, then shrugged. "But then again, if you're not up for it, I could tell him to try someone else. Maybe Jamie Russo or Susan Lyons, they can sing pretty well too..."

"Do you have their setlist?" Rachel abruptly asked, and Chloe snorted in exasperation. She should've known Rachel wouldn't pass up the chance to be in the spotlight again—the Blackwell stage was her territory, after all.

Victoria perked up at the request. "But of course!” She pulled out a note and handed it to Rachel, who scanned it and tapped a finger on a song. 

“Great choice! Right this way. I'll brief you and the band as soon as their song is done." Victoria turned and led them both toward a side door beside the stage. 

"You really have to do this, Rach?" Chloe grumbled. "We'll be delaying our plans."

"One song then we’re gone," Rachel whispered back. "It'll give the impression we were here longer than we actually were. We'll skip out right after I finish."   

"Principal Wells will join you and Adam backstage to announce the winners," Victoria was saying. “ This is going to be absolutely fabulous—I can see it already!"

Chloe wasn't so sure, but she followed them to a side door, which Victoria opened to a dimly-lit hall that connected to the dressing room. Rachel stepped through, and as Chloe was about to follow her in, Victoria blocked the way. "Um, where do you think you're going?"

"Following my date, duh," Chloe retorted. "What, you wanna see my passport?"

Victoria tsked. "Sorry. VIPs and staff only. You'll have to wait out here."

"I so give a fuck about that. Where she goes, I go."

"You want to take it up with Principal Wells, be my guest. Here he comes now." 

Sure enough, the stolid form of Principal Wells trundled through the hall towards them. He scowled when he caught sight of Chloe hanging around the entryway. She wondered how many shots of bourbon it took to straighten the creases on his broad forehead.

Rachel was quick to compromise. "It's alright, Chloe. Just keep an eye on Max." She leaned across the threshold to plant a kiss on Chloe's cheek. "Be good. It's only a few more minutes." 

"Hn, fine." Chloe hated losing sight of Rachel, but at least she’d be around people she knew, and Chloe could watch her from the audience.  

"Ah, Rachel," said Wells, closing the distance between them. "Don't you look positively radiant tonight. I was hoping you could help us with our problem."   

"Thank you, sir," laughed Rachel, successfully ignoring the scent of liquor on him. "And yes, I’d be happy to." She plied him with banter as they disappeared into one of the adjoining rooms. Chloe then turned to catch Victoria's smirking expression, and instantly felt like slapping her. 

"It's really very interesting how tightly Rachel's got you coiled around her finger," Victoria said, tapping finger to chin. "It'd be so funny if it weren't so sad." 

"About as sad as the fact that you're not half as gorgeous, talented, or admired as she is?" It was satisfying to see the grin melt off of Victoria's face. 

"I could say the same of you, Kari. I guess when Rachel slums, she goes straight for the bottom of the pile."

"Rachel does what she wants and gets what she wants. Which is why she gets to be the returning Prom Queen and you're stuck playing stage monkey."

"Least I'm no small-town skank!"

"Least I'm no big-mouthed bitch!"

"Ugh!" Victoria threw up her hands. "Why do I even bother? Go get wasted with what passes for your friends. I can't wait till Rachel moves on to someone she didn't find in a dumpster dive." She turned and followed the principal to the adjoining room.

"Bye Veronica!" Chloe tried to sound cheerful, but sending a little more venom than she meant to. For some reason, that last blow landed a little too squarely. 

Weaving past a gaggle of students, Chloe made her way back to where she’d left Max. She and Warren had apparently taken a break, standing on the sidelines to talk and hydrate. Max, looking relieved to not be dancing, held her cup of punch in both hands like it was a lifeline. 

It irked Chloe that Warren still got to hang around Max while she had to be away from Rachel. "Yo, Einstein," she called as she approached.

Warren faced her, cheeks flushed and grinning like an idiot. "What's up, Chloe?"

"Rachel's going up on stage in a few seconds. If we're going to make a quick getaway after she's done, we're gonna need you to untangle your car from the parking lot and wait by the front of the school."

He slapped his forehead. "Oh shit, you're right. I hope no one double-parked behind me. I better go get ready."

"Yeah, you do that."

"See you in a bit, Max," he said, turning to his date. "I wanna know more about Tala when I get back." He then hurried off, leaving them alone together. 

Chloe turned to Max. "Hey." 

"Hay is for horses," Max replied with the kind of glee that earned her an eye-roll from Chloe.

"Now I know you're bored out of your mind." 

"I'm alright, Chloe. Warren's keeping me company."

"Yeah. You seem to be having a lot of fun with 'Warr'. Who's Tala?"

"Oh, she's my gnome mage from World of Warcraft. Warren plays an elf ranger, and we were talking about doing raids—"

"Yeah, forget I asked.” Chloe stuffed her hand in her pocket and stared down at her dad’s worn black loafers. “So I leave you alone for five minutes with Beaker and now you're gaming pals?" 

"You know, I was friends with Warren from my timeline too. He and Kate Marsh were the few who actively tried to befriend the new girl."

"Yeah, well," Chloe gave a shrug. "Points for that I guess." So he's not a bad guy. Hell, Max is allowed to have friends apart from me and Rachel, right? Just...why does it have to be some dude who’s clearly into her? Does Max even see it?

“Where’s Rachel?” Max abruptly asked.

“See for yourself,” Chloe said, jerking her head towards the stage.

The last song had come to an end. Principal Wells stepped into the spotlight, his deep voice echoing throughout the gym. "Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please. In a moment, we'll be entering the most awaited portion of the night—crowning the new Prom King and Queen!”

A rumble of excitement went through the crowd as everyone pressed closer to the stage. 

"And to help me celebrate this occasion, please give a warm welcome to last year's Royal Pair, Adam Morris and Rachel Amber!"

Chloe's chest loosened as Rachel came into view. She never even saw the guy who walked out on stage with her; he was a nameless faceless nobody. The fair-haired girl was the one who glowed in the spotlight, and by the whistles and shouts that came her way, the only one people were looking at. Rachel's in her heaven; all's right with the world.  

"She looks amazing onstage," Max gushed beside her. "Just like a movie star."

"Yeah," Chloe muttered. "She loves the limelight, I'm sure you can tell. Which was why when Victoria asked her to fill in for the band's singer, Rachel barely hesitated." 

Max's lips fell open. "Are you serious?"

"Yup. Sometimes I wish I could reel her in a bit—" 

"You mean I'll actually get to see her perform? Oh my God!"

Chloe fell quiet as she glanced at Max. "I wish I were half as bold as she is," Max sighed, eyes glued to the stage. "Imagine the things I could do."  

Doesn’t she realize, came Chloe’s thought, that if she hadn’t done what she did, Rachel wouldn’t be up on that stage right now? That we wouldn’t be here, enjoying tonight, together?

"Don't you say that," Chloe replied. "You're a lot more like Rachel than you know, Maximus."

Max eyed her quizzically. "What do you mean?"

Smirking, Chloe threw her a sidelong glance. "Don't play innocent with me. I saw you hide Rachel's cigs from Ms. Grant. "

Max’s cheeks turned a pretty shade of pink. "Uh, yeah. Kinda acted on instinct back there."

"You being a total badass is what it was! On top of getting your parents to let you come down here every week—you're not the wishy-washy kid I knew back then."

"I—I didn't want her to get in trouble.” Max looked over to the stage, where Rachel was opening an envelope to announce the new Queen. “Considering we may be getting into a lot of trouble later on."

"Oof." That's right—they were still heading into dangerous waters later. "Yeah, okay, look, if you wanna back out—"

Max wheeled on her. "Not on your life! I said I'd go, Chloe, and I meant it."

Chloe laughed, nudging her shoulder against Max‘s. "See? Like I told you—you and Rachel aren't so different. You've changed a lot, haven't you."

"I didn't mean to." Max's lips eased into a smile as the tension between them melted away. "Sorry."

"Don't be," Chloe replied, beaming. She stole the cup from Max's hands, relishing the exact moment that their fingertips touched before taking a sip. "I like this Max. I like her a lot."

Max’s smiled widened. It sent every inch of Chloe's warming and tingling, as if the punch she’d drunk had been spiked. Something about that little grin made Chloe feel bold. We can make this work, she thought to herself. You, me, and Rachel, hitting the road together. Just gotta learn to tame my pulse a bit whenever I’m around you.

She’d completely missed the naming of the new Prom Queen and King— who gives a fuck, anyway? But now the music was starting again, this time playing a ballad, and people were pairing up for the slow dance. It was giving her ideas. 

She downed the last of the cup's contents and swiped her hand over her mouth. "Say Max," she began. "What do you think about...uh..." 

"Hmm?" Max was still looking at her, that sweet smile on her face. 

"A-about a...ah..." Chloe inadvertently crushed the cup in her hand. She drew in a shuddering breath and just spat it out. "I mean, you wanna show me some of those Dorky Dancing moves of yours?"

Max stared at her, cheeks turning a deeper shade of pink. "Do you think Warren would mind?"

"Yeah, well, he might. But he isn't here right now." Chloe released a breath she didn’t realize she'd been holding. "Maybe not, huh."

But Max cast her eyes down, the smile on her lips trembling at the edges. "It's...it’s not a no, Chloe."

Chloe's heart turned over. She opened her mouth to speak, to seal the deal, then thought better of it and just held out her hand. Max too stayed silent as she put her small hand in Chloe’s. They stepped closer together, close enough for Chloe to smell the lavender perfume on Max’s neck. Her other hand curled around Max’s waist—

But Max paused, frowning at something over Chloe's shoulder. 

"Chloe," she said, "where's Nathan?"

"What?" Chloe blinked as if waking from a dream. She turned and peered at the Vortex-occupied corner of the gym. The girl Nathan was with still sat there, tapping away at her phone. But there was no sign of Dickscott.

Jesus friggin’ Christ—he’s gone.


The floodlights filled Rachel's eyes as she waited for Principal Wells to finish speaking. Beside her, Adam adjusted his tie and gazed down at his shoes. He'd never been comfortable in the spotlight like her. Rachel kept her poise, letting her sight adapt to the brightness as she smiled down at the audience before her. A dozen pairs of starry eyes stared back; in each one, she saw the same hunger for a part of her glory.   

But her own eyes were pulled elsewhere. She picked out Max and Chloe from the crowd at the edge of the dance floor. It wasn't the bright yellow of Max's dress or the cobalt blue of Chloe's hair that made them stand out. At the moment, they were the only two faces in the room who weren't looking at Rachel. Max and Chloe faced each other, smiling, laughing, oblivious to the rest of the world. And not for the first time, Rachel felt a touch of fear deep inside.

She blinked. Principal Wells had finished speaking and was staring at her, nodding to the envelope in her hand. It wasn't like her to lose focus onstage. She forced herself to step toward the mic and say the lines she'd prepared just moments ago.

"Hey, Blackwell!"

Whistles, shouts, and catcalls filled her ears. For an instant, that tidal wave of sound muted her doubts and buoyed a smile to her face. It had been a while since she was last on a stage. 

She took a moment to soak it in before saying, "Thank you for being here tonight, to our last Blackwell Senior Prom." She went on to thank the people who organized the whole thing, successfully keeping the venom out of her voice when she mentioned the Prescotts. "Blackwell is all about forming connections, relationships. Tonight most especially—"   

She paused, smile faltering as her eyes fell on Max and Chloe again. They had drifted closer together, almost touching, sharing a plastic cup between them as they laughed over what might be another childhood memory. Standing above them, Rachel felt removed, disconnected. Like the footlights had formed a bright gulf that she couldn't cross.

Quelling her apprehension, she forced herself to keep speaking. 

"Tonight we have our fondest memories, not because it's one of those lasts that we'll never have again, but because we're here with our friends, with loved ones, with people that matter. 'We don't remember days, we remember moments,' said Cesare Pavese. So tonight, let it be all about making these memories. 

"It's been a blast, you guys! So here we go—tonight's Prom Queen and King." 

She read from her envelope, Adam read from his. Gracie Kim stepped forward, her face glowing like she’d been beatified by the Pope, and was followed swiftly by Jason Mangold, who puffed his chest out and grinned like he knew this would happen. And that was that. After the gushing and the congratulations were done, the new Royal Pair stepped to the center of the floor, clasped hands, ready to lead the slow dance.    

Adam and Principal Wells nodded to her, smiling, then left the stage for her to do the song number. It was her time.  

Abruptly, Rachel leaned over to the lead guitarist and said, "About the song, could we do a different one from the setlist instead?" He smiled and nodded, eager to please. She gave him the title and he began to play a soothing accompaniment on his guitar. The lights dimmed, leaving her in the spotlight.

I’m here, she told herself. I’m safe. I’m okay now. Rachel drew in a deep breath and the words came readily to her.

 

Maybe I could be a picture frame round the faces you like

Or a kettle by the fire

In the morning when you need something to be warm in your hands

I could be your old worn gloves

 

All around her, as far as the light could let her see, dancers paired up, bodies melded into one, heads nestled closer together as they swayed to her song. Yet Max and Chloe still stood at the fringe of the crowd, a pair of dark shapes close to touching, oblivious to Rachel's music and gaze. The dancers soon hid them from her sight, which made things even worse. 

 

If I could be your biggest mistake

The one that you hate

Would it mean I'd get a minute of your time

Cause the truth is I'd be anything for you

If you'd be mine

 

Look my way, please, she willed them. Look at me.

And before she could catch sight of them again, all the lights went out.


Max froze, disoriented by the sudden darkness. Chloe's afterimage floated before her eyes a moment more before fading to black. At first there was dead silence—then a din assaulted her ears as the room began to howl and boo.  

But not Chloe. She shrieked, "RACHEL!" and Max heard frenzied footfalls and scuffling as Chloe shoved her way through the crowd. 

"Wait!" Max reached out but caught only air and the fading scent of cologne; Chloe was gone. 

A harsh drumbeat started up in her chest. Max took a few halting steps before stopping; she had no idea if she was even heading the right way. Chloe would go for the stage, but where was it? The cursing, moaning crowd jostled her as they moved past. Nearby, glass crashed to the floor. A girl screamed. 

Beams of light began to appear as the party-goers began turning their cellphone flashlights on. Max felt like slapping her forehead— duh, of course. Turning on her own light, she saw she was at the center of the dance floor. No sign of Chloe.

Max's palms had turned cold and sweat moistened her brow. The thrumming had crawled from her chest up to her ears. What was happening? And what was she supposed to do?

Their contingency plan came to mind—if separated, meet up at the fountain in front of the school. But could she really leave Chloe and Rachel in here with God knows what's going on? No, of course not. 

Max shut her eyes and forced herself to breathe. Relax—it's just a blackout. Nothing more. Still, the timing was strange. She’d never known the school to have a total electrical failure before.

Focus, Max—what's the quickest way to find them? Call them of course, you dummy. But you'll never be able to talk with all this noise.

Max turned and brisk-walked towards the fire exit their group had occupied only half an hour before. Even the Exit sign was dead—why hadn't the emergency generators kicked in? She pressed against the handle, shoved the door open, and let herself out into the cool night air. She breathed it in; now that it was quieter, her heart rate began to let her mind catch up. 

She tapped Chloe's name on her call list and raised the cell to her ear. It rang once, twice—no answer. Max waited, the grip around her phone tightening with each drifting second. Nothing...nothing...

A moving red light to her left caught her eye. She turned and spotted a sleek black car gliding silently over the grass, disappearing behind the gymnasium.

Max's skin prickled in the suddenly freezing air; her tongue tasted like metal. That car...that car was Jefferson’s. She was almost sure of it. 

Jefferson is here—probably been here all along. He's tricked us. He’s coming for Rachel

Tucking her phone into her purse, Max sprinted toward the back of the gymnasium, then skidded to a halt by the corner. What did she think she could do? She was alone with no powers, no weapons. Wait. She did have one weapon, the one thing she knew how to use better than anything else.

Hands shaking, pulse throbbing madly in her ears, she reached into her purse and pulled out the Polaroid camera Chloe had given her. This wasn't how she envisioned going back to photography, but she was going to have to skip the freshman orientation. If it really was Jefferson out there, if she could catch him committing a crime, she could end him before Juliet's article even came out.

You can do this, she told herself, looping the camera strap around her hand. Be quiet, stay out of sight, take the shot. Do it for Rachel. For Chloe.  

Max let her breathing slow, then peered around the corner. The back of the gym was dark as anywhere else around the school, given there were no lit lamp posts. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the starlight. She soon spotted the car—it had parked some twenty feet away, next to a few maple trees. The engine was off and so were the brake lights. It was too dark to see the license plate.

Nothing for it, then. Drawing a deep breath, Max sidled around the corner, her purse in her left hand and the camera tightly clutched in her right. Ducking low, she put her weight on the balls of her feet as she approached the car. 

The trees were her best bet—the shadows would offer her a bit of safety while she tried to figure out where the hell Jefferson was. She inched onward, following her thin shadow as it reached for the maples. She never thought twenty feet could seem so far, nor the scuffling of her shoes on the grass so loud.

Nevertheless, she made it to the closest tree without incident. Flattening herself against the trunk, she peered around the edge to view the car. The license plate confirmed what she already knew—it was Jefferson's alright. More, it was parked close to another emergency exit, located at the back of the building. Did Jefferson plan on entering from there? Or was he waiting for someone to emerge—maybe carrying an unconscious victim?

And where was Jefferson? Was he sitting inside the car, waiting? Or had he already entered the building? 

Max needed to know—she needed a better vantage point. Steeling herself, she moved from behind the trunk, veering towards a tree closer to the car. If she could keep an eye on both the emergency door and the car while remaining unseen, then she could—  

"Nice night," said a voice in the dark.

Max jumped. The camera fell from her nerveless fingers, would have clattered to the ground if it hadn't been for the strap around her wrist. But her purse fell, contents spilling onto the grass. She turned to see Jefferson step out from behind the opposite tree not five feet away. He was smiling at her, his teeth white in the gloom. 

"Ms. Caulfield. We meet again."

Chapter Text

Rachel blinked as she stared into the pool of blackness before her. Only seconds ago, she was listening to her own voice and the hum of the solo guitar on the loudspeakers. Now there was only the bustle of confused, angry voices as people shouted for the lights to come back on. 

She waited a few more moments for the emergency power to kick in, but when only cell phone lights broke through the darkness, she knew it wasn’t going to happen. Every instinct screamed at her to leave, to find Max and Chloe and get the fuck out of Blackwell. Jumping off the stage was out—she didn't want to crush someone's foot with her high heels or, worse, twist her ankle on the landing. She would have to go back the way she came—past the wings, into the dressing room behind the stage, and back into the adjoining hall. 

She turned and walked off the stage with short, halting steps. Reaching out a hand, she felt for the wall of the stage wings and guided herself to the dressing room door. The backstage seemed enormous now; in contrast to the audience area, the place was cold and still.

And the realization hit her like a blast of freezing air: this was no random blackout. It was Jefferson's gambit! He was behind whatever this was—had to be! He got her separated from her friends, vulnerable and blind. What good were powers if she couldn't see a thing?

Jefferson and Nathan must've planned this, must've fucked up the power. They've even roped Victoria into it somehow, giving you an excuse to come onstage. And you walked right into it, you blind, stupid bitch—

Alright, enough. I can recover. They haven’t outwitted me yet. I’ve got people looking out for me. I just need to get to Chloe and Max quickly and everything will be okay.  

She imagined Chloe fighting her way through the crowd to get to her, and her racing heart slowed down a bit. She just needed to get somewhere bright with people around. With luck, maybe either Adam or Principal Wells was still in the dressing room, and she wouldn't be alone.

As Rachel reached for the doorknob, as it turned easily in her hand and the door creaked open, the thought came to her—what if it’s not them who were waiting in there? What if it was him?

She hesitated. Now going down from the stage didn’t seem like a terrible idea anymore, certainly better than the yawning blackness before her. She took a step back from the threshold, but a strong hand suddenly clamped over her mouth and shoulder, stifling her scream. 


Inside the near pitch-black dressing room, Nathan Prescott stood by the door to the stage and waited for Rachel. His hands trembled, his eyes opened wide as he kept his back pressed flat against the wall. Any moment now, her footfalls would betray her approach. Any moment now.

In his right hand, he held upright a single plastic straw, one finger blocking the bottom hole. Inside the straw was scopolamine, also known as Devil's Breath. Odorless, tasteless, a single whiff of this fine white powder would cause a total memory blackout and loss of will. The victim would be reduced to a zombie. It hadn’t been easy to get. Good thing that punk-assed mopey loser Frank took the money without too many questions.

Jefferson's plan was nothing if not thorough. After Nathan got the Devil's Breath, he had to find a way to get Rachel Amber onstage at the night of the Prom. For that, he bribed the band’s singer to disappear for a while during the awards, giving Rachel an opening. Then he got Victoria to pitch in. It didn't take much: he promised he would dose Rachel's water bottle with muscle relaxant prior to her going on stage. Wouldn't it be a hoot to see the Queen of Blackwell slurring and swaying throughout her speech? 

But of course, that was all a lie. The final step of Jefferson's plan was for Nathan to sneak into this dressing room after Rachel had gone onstage, stay out of sight in a closet, and wait as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Once he was in position, Jefferson would sabotage the school's circuit breakers. Then, as Rachel stumbled blindly into the dressing room, Nathan would grab her and blow the dust into her face. From there it would be easy—the hallway outside the dressing room had an emergency exit that led directly outdoors. Nathan would drag her out to where Jefferson would be waiting to spirit them away. The next day, Nathan would start a rumor that Rachel had been spotted leaving the party in an RV matching the one owned by Frank Bowers. That would throw everyone off their scent. 

And Rachel would be mine, the darkest part of him whispered.

The hard part was that Nathan couldn't write any of it down. But he‘d remembered every step up to this point. He felt very proud of that fact. Jefferson could count on him. 

Now, he was a panther in the dark, waiting for his prey.

Any moment now.

Any moment.

Nathan stood where he was, mopping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve, struggling not to make a noise. He waited the way his father would sometimes wait in the darkness of his study, motionless, watching and listening for some unknown thing only he could sense. What would his father think if he could see him now? Would he be proud that his son was doing his dirty work? Or would he only care about results? Maybe later, Jefferson would point out how dutiful a son he‘d been. Perhaps then his father—   

There! Heavy footfalls, approaching quickly from the stage. They stopped right in front of the door, and the sound of the doorknob turning set Nathan's teeth on edge. The door swung open, letting in dim light from the stage area. Here she comes! Eyes blazing, Nathan inhaled, held his breath, raised the straw to his mouth.  

Someone stepped into the room—but it wasn't Rachel.

The dark figure towered over Nathan, broad shoulders turning to face him as a strong hand grabbed his wrist. A gruff voice demanded, "What the fuck are you're doing, Nate?!" 

Nathan only took a split-second to realize who was talking. "Hayden?!?"

"What's this you got in your hand?"

"Leggo of me, bitch!" Nathan struggled and tried to backpedal, but Hayden's grip was steel. When another hand landed on his shoulder, Nathan lost it. 

He held up the straw like a dagger and fought to shove Hayden away. Hayden refused to give in, grunting as he held on. Nathan went for a headbutt but in the dark he only managed to hit the other boy’s shoulder. They screamed incoherently at each other as they did a crazy dance around the blackened dressing room, ending only when they crashed sideways into one of the wooden tables. 

Nathan’s coat ripped at the seams. The straw tipped over in his weakened fingers; he gasped as he felt the fine dust scatter across his shirt and his face.

"Jesus, fuck!" Hayden shouted, disengaging as he caught a whiff of the powder.        

Shit shit shit! Free from Hayden's grasp, Nathan wasted no time scrambling away. He skirted around the table and fumbled towards the door, all the while wiping what he could of the drug away from his eyes and nose. Already his head was swimming, like he’d swallowed a shot of vodka. There was a keening noise that he couldn’t tell was real or not.

He'd ruined it. He'd failed—again. Now Jefferson would never look at him as anything but a complete failure—like his father did.

Driven to tears, Nathan crashed through the dressing room door and ran headlong into someone else. A girlish scream rippled across his face, and in the dim light he recognized Victoria. What did he look like to her, his face all streaked with white powder? Like a ghoul?

"Nathan?" she gasped, gripping his shoulders. "Nathan, is that you? What happened? Why'd the lights go out? Where’s Rachel? Nathan—"

Her words were drowned out by the maddening siren rising in his ears. Roaring, shoved her aside and stumbled towards the emergency doors. She couldn’t help him. Only one person could, and Nathan had to go to him. Jefferson was his only hope.


“Rachel!”

Chloe knew, without having to think, that this was all a ploy to get to Rachel; she could feel it in her core. So she shoved and elbowed and shouted her way through the crowd to reach the stage—only to find that Rachel wasn’t there. 

Lungs nearly bursting, Chloe planted both hands on the wood and hauled herself onto the apron of the stage. She then forced her trembling hands to pull her phone out of her pocket and turn on the flashlight; the beam showed her only the band members, useless instruments in hand, looking around in mute dismay.

Her phone started to ring but Chloe ignored it. Only Rachel mattered now—where the fuck was she? Chloe stalked to the left of the stage where the dressing room was located. “Rachel?!” she called again.

Her heart gave a painful throb when a voice shouted, “In here!”

Chloe tore past the curtains and into the dressing room; her beam of light found Rachel kneeling on the floor next to Hayden, who was sitting with his knees bent and a hand planted to his face.

”Rachel!” Chloe knelt and caught her in a tight embrace, which Rachel returned. “Thank fuck you’re okay! What happened?”

Rachel released a shuddering breath, gazing at Chloe with wide, pale eyes. “Hayden saved me.” She uncoupled from Chloe to put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Nathan was waiting for me in the dressing room. He and Jefferson must’ve set this thing up—the power, the ambush, everything. But Hayden stopped me from going in and went ahead of me. He and Nathan fought, and whatever drug that asshole was planning on using fell on them. Chloe, call a doctor!”

“No,” Hayden said, shaking his head to clear it. “I’m fine, just dazed. I didn’t get a lot on me.” He pointed to the opposite side of the room. “Don’t lose Nate. Been tailing him all night. He’s probably going for the rear exit. Stop him before—”

Adrenaline surged through Chloe‘s muscles as she leaped to her feet. “Rachel,” she growled, “get Hayden and meet up with Max by the stage. I’ll follow soon as I can.”

”Chloe, no! What if he‘s got a gun? What if he‘s not alone?”

But Chloe was past hearing, already rushing to the door, one hand balling into a fist and the other almost crushing her cellphone in her grip. A cold wind had been blowing through her skull ever since Rachel told her that Nathan tried to attack her. That little fuckwit better run like the devil’s on his tail. ‘Coz when I catch him, the last thing he’s gonna feel are my hands around his scrawny little neck.


"I'm sorry for scaring you."

Max faltered back as Jefferson took a step towards her. Sweat broke out on her cold palms but her tongue had gone bone dry. She felt faint; it was strange to be hyperaware of her every movement even as her mind was attempting to flee her own body.

"N-not at all," she managed to say. 

Jefferson peered at her, scratching his beard. "Are you lost, Ms. Caulfield?"

"No, I was just—just..." She motioned helplessly at her camera.

"This is an odd time and place to practice photography, wouldn't you say?" Jefferson frowned down at the scattered contents of her purse. "Need a hand with this?"

Max's eyes scanned the ground, searching for a rock or a fallen branch—anything that could serve as a weapon. Of course, there was nothing but the camera in her hand and Chloe’s ring on her finger. 

But Jefferson didn't mind her. Instead, he got down on his knees and started picking up her things. For an instant, Max was caught between two absurd urges—to smash her camera onto the back of that exposed skull, and to bend down and help him clean up. 

"You know," he went on, not even looking at her, "I saw your Blackwell application. You'll likely be joining us next school year, Max. May I call you Max?" He didn't wait for an answer as he piled her belongings neatly into her purse, which he then handed to her. "It's a good time for you to know the rules of this school."  

Max blinked as she snatched back her purse. "R-rules?"   

"Yes. For instance..." He stood and held up the metal box he had palmed without her noticing—Rachel's cigarette case. "No smoking allowed on school grounds." He opened the case, a small grin appearing beneath his mustache as he checked the label. "Pall Malls." 

Some natural instinct in Max wanted to say that the cigarettes weren't hers. But to her shock, Jefferson merely pulled a stick out of the case, retrieved a lighter from his pocket, and lit up. 

"I think we'll be happy to have you, Max," Jefferson said, taking a single deep drag. The smoke drifted up like a ghost in the moonlight; the cigarette tip flared like a demon's eye. "I'm honestly looking forward to having you be a part of us." 

Is he really going to harm me, she wondered, as the breath left her lungs in a small quiet sigh. Is he really going to do it here, while we're all alone behind the school gym? Would anyone come if I screamed? Would I even have time to?

As if hearing her thoughts, Jefferson dropped both the cigarette and the case onto the grass. His shoe snuffed out the ember as he took a step toward her. Max ordered her legs to turn and run. Something in his gaze commanded her to stay exactly still. The only thing she could do was grip the camera hard, ready to throw.

A crash arrested their attention. They turned to see Nathan emerging from the fire exit, bloodshot eyes wide, grasping hands reaching for Jefferson. His face and the front of his shirt were smeared with some kind of make-up, contrasting with the dark stain on his pants. "H-help me!" he croaked. “Help me!”

Jefferson's face turned chalk-white. He caught Nathan in his arms and braced him up. "What happened to you?" he demanded. But Nathan couldn't answer. He'd been reduced to a blubbering mess, tears streaking down his face. He didn't even notice Max standing there, horrified. 

More voices came from the open doorway. Jefferson shot her a look filled with quiet, sublimated rage, but it quickly vanished beneath an icy expression. "Come on," he said to Nathan. "I'll get you cleaned up." He took the boy’s shoulders and steered him to his car's passenger side. Max watched in silence as Jefferson entered the driver's side. He didn’t bother turning on the headlights as he backed the car up and drove silently away. 

Max clamped both hands around her mouth and let out the scream she’d been holding in; all the air in her lungs came out in a muffled  eeeee as she crumpled against a tree. Her legs wouldn’t stop shaking; she’d been too terrified to cry. The look on Jefferson's face had broadcasted exactly what would have happened to her if Nathan hadn’t shown up.

Caulfield luck, she thought. Saved by nothing more than dumb Caulfield luck. And thank God I have it.  

"Max!"

That voice calling for her was the most beautiful sound she'd ever heard. Max straightened up and turned to the open fire exit—just in time to catch Chloe as her best friend rushed into her arms.   


“So what do we do now?” Warren asked, looking at the faces around him.

Their group had gathered beside Warren’s Subaru, which he’d parked along Blackwell Drive. Warren sat on the open driver’s side with his feet planted on the sidewalk and one arm propped on the open window. In the backseat, Hayden sat in the same pose, though with his head in his hand. Juliet stood nearby, offering a cup of water she’d brought for him while wiping away the last traces of powder on his face.

Max leaned against the car’s left side, Chloe’s coat pulled tightly around her shoulders. Chloe stayed next to her, one hand grasping hers and clearly reluctant to leave her side. Together, they watched Rachel storm up and down the sidewalk, her hands clasped around her biceps like she was trying to ward off the cold. Max knew just by watching her that it was taking everything she had not to explode. 

Warren’s question went unanswered for a long while. Finally, Hayden raised his head and said, “You probably shouldn’t push through with it.”

Juliet nodded. “We know for sure Jefferson’s targeting Rachel and now he tried to take Max, too. He’s fucking insane! And if he’s waiting for you guys—”

“He’s not,” Rachel interjected.

“You don’t know that, Rachel. Hayden’s right. You guys aren’t in the right frame of mind to pull off whatever it is you’re planning. I think you should call it a night and get some sleep. Okay?” She looked in turn to Max, then Chloe, then finally to Rachel, who had halted in front of Hayden.

“How’re you feeling?” Rachel asked him, the guilt plain in her voice. 

“Still a little foggy, but it’s going away now.” He grinned. “I didn’t get hit as bad as Nathan. Freak looked like he tried to put on clown makeup in the dark.”

“Serves him right,” Juliet said. Beside her, Max heard Chloe’s knuckles crack as she clenched a hand into a fist.

“I dunno what’s gonna happen if we meet up in school again,” Hayden went on. “To think I actually defended the guy! Turns out he was a drug-running assclown for Mark Jefferson!”

“This is so going in the school paper!” Juliet announced. 

“That’s never gonna work,” Chloe muttered.

Juliet shot her a look, but Rachel said, “She’s right. It’s Nathan’s word against us all, and as a Prescott, his will carry more weight. It was dark, and he got away with the majority of the drug he used, so we can’t pin that on him either. If you attack Nathan publicly, you might not be in Blackwell long enough to publish your article on Jefferson.”

“We can’t just do nothing!”

“Yeah...so back to the question,” Warren said. “What do we do now?”

Silence again. Juliet and Hayden looked at Rachel, who kept her gaze far away on the town lights below them. 

Max sucked in a breath, shut her eyes, and made her choice. “We stick to the plan.”

She could feel the weight of their gazes on her, but she forced herself to keep talking. “We can’t wait. Jefferson’s on our tail. Somehow, he’s zeroed in on us.” 

She gave Rachel a meaningful look. “He’s got the Prescotts behind him. They know things we don’t know. They’re holding all the cards. If we’re gonna figure this out, we’ve got to even the odds before Jefferson tries again. And he will. He lost tonight, sure. But he only needs to win once .”

“So we go on the offensive,” Rachel concluded. “We make our move tonight, when they’re least expecting it.” Her eyes gleamed, and so did her smile. “Damn, Max. You’re braver than I even imagined, and that’s saying something.”

“I’m actually scared out of my wits, Rachel,” Max replied. She got to her feet and faced Rachel fully. “But I’m in if you are.”

“You know I am.”

Chloe switched her gaze between the two girls, then heaved a sigh pulled from the bottom of her lungs. “Yo Hayden,” she called, “you still up for that afterparty?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Baller,” Chloe grumbled as she pushed off from Warren’s car. “‘Coz we’re gonna be needing that alibi.”   

 

 

Chapter Text

In a timeline where Max chose to save Arcadia Bay, she finds herself adrift and mourning the loss of Chloe. To her shock, two weeks after Chloe's death, unnatural disturbances start happening again all over Arcadia Bay. Max realizes that despite her sacrifice, another disaster is bound to happen and soon.

While pondering this, she is met by three Native American women who appear to know about her and her abilities. They offer her a bargain: she can save the town and Chloe if she goes back in time to save someone they call the Incarnate--none other than Rachel Amber. Despite understanding little of their cryptic warnings, Max agrees, and a ritual sends her six months back into the past.

Max is able to warn Chloe the night before Rachel's disappearance and Chloe manages to keep her from going to the Vortex party. Max travels to Arcadia Bay to meet the pair, and she ends up bonding with Rachel while reconnecting with Chloe. One encounter with Rachel by the beach turns explosive when Max reveals exactly what happened in the other timeline. In a fit of emotional turmoil, Rachel accidentally summons a blast of lightning that strikes the beach. Rachel, as it turns out, has powers.

Unfortunately, this unnatural lightning also tips off the wrong people. Sean Prescott summons his accomplice, Mark Jefferson, who had just failed to meet and kidnap Rachel. Prescott is sure that this lightning is a sign that his enemy is here in Arcadia Bay but doesn't know who it is. He orders Jefferson to step up efforts in locating this Incarnate witch.

With the help of the local sheriff, Skinner, Jefferson gathers data on the likely suspect. A chance surveillance video at a local convenience store leads him to believe that their suspect smokes a particular brand of cigarettes: Pall Malls. He finds that Rachel Amber fits the data almost exactly.

Meanwhile, Max, Rachel, and Chloe gather allies in their fight against Jefferson, forming their own anti-Vortex club composed of Juliet, Hayden, Kate, Warren, and Brooke. Digging up Jefferson's past reveals that he has been accused of crimes before, leading Juliet to start writing an expose. Meanwhile, Chloe starts having visions of William, her father, who gives her strange warnings about the future.

While on a camping/training trip in the outskirts of Arcadia, Max, Rachel, and Chloe chance upon a construction site out in the middle of the woods. Confirming that the site belongs to the Prescotts leads them to believe that Arcadia's richest family is in league with Jefferson. But what are they building? Rachel states they need to find out more, and proposes they break into the site to gather information. To give them a solid alibi, they plan to do the heist during Blackwell's Grand Prom.

Unfortunately, Jefferson also plans to kidnap Rachel during the very same Prom. While the party is in full swing, Jefferson turns off the school's power and has Nathan lie in wait backstage, ready to ambush Rachel as she tries to leave. Their plan nearly succeeds, but Hayden, who has been following Nathan around for the evening, manages to stop him from drugging Rachel. Meanwhile, at the back of the building, Max has a chance encounter with Jefferson. Max accidentally drops Rachel's cigarette case and Jefferson sees they are Pall Malls, leading him to suspect Max of being the true Incarnate.

With Jefferson's plan having gone off the rails, the trio decide to push on with the heist in the hopes of finding out what else their enemies have in store.

Which brings us to now.

Chapter Text

"Are you sure you're alright, Hayds?" Juliet asked as she led him by the arm to his front door.

"Sure I'm sure," Hayden replied, flashing a wink and a cheeky grin. "Keep paying me attention like this and Logan’s gonna get all jealous.”

Juliet laughed and pinched his arm. "He won’t complain since he’ll be mooching weed off of you all night.”

"Yeah, well, more importantly..." His gaze drifted to Logan, who was reaching through his car window to grab their coolers. "How do we get him to play along with...you know."

Juliet smirked as she followed his eyes. "I like Logan a lot, but he’s far from the sharpest knife in the drawer. Get him high enough and I promise he won't remember who was or wasn't at this party."

"I'll keep that in mind. And—whoa, check it out! We got company!" Hayden nodded to the opposite side of the street. Juliet's eyes widened as she recognized the two figures crossing over to them. “Kate! Brooke!”

Kate's brows were knitted and she pulled her cardigan tighter around her as she hurried across the lawn. Brooke followed more cautiously, shoulders hunched and her hands deep in her jacket pockets while trying to avoid their eyes.

"You came!" Juliet cried, reaching out to give Kate a hug.    

“We headed out as soon as we got your text,” said Kate. “So Jefferson really attacked Rachel and Max?”

“Nathan came after Rachel,” Hayden said, scowling. “I barely managed to stop him. As for Jefferson, he showed up and tried to kidnap Max when she followed him to the back of the gym. When that didn't work, he took Nathan and left.”

“Well, shit,“ muttered Brooke. “So it’s true after all.” She and Kate gazed unhappily at each other, and Juliet understood that they'd been hoping this was somehow going to go away on its own. 

"What's the play here then?" Brooke asked.

"A'ight, plan's simple.” Hayden said, lowering his voice. Juliet took a moment to admire his stepping up as a leader—it was something different and new. “We hang out, we drink, and we wait for Rachel, Chloe, and Max to show up. Anybody asks us, we tell them they were with us the whole night. Got that?"

"I took some selfies with them on my phone," Juliet announced. "I've already posted them online."

"We can take more when they arrive then!" Kate added, earning her a look from everyone around her. She blushed but held her ground. "If they're working to protect us, I wanna help protect them." 

Brooke stared down at her shoes. "Yeah well, if Kate’s willing to break one of the Commandments to help out, I guess I don’t have an excuse.” She kicked a pebble onto the grass. “So we provide those three an alibi. Easy enough." 

Juliet couldn't help herself. "I'm so proud of you guys!" she cried, throwing her arms around Kate and Brooke. The latter squawked and tried to push her off.  

“Yo Hayden!” Logan shambled toward them from his car. He cast a look at their group, clearly questioning the presence of half the people there, but then put his arm around Juliet and declared, “We gonna start this party or what? Booze ain’t gonna drink itself.”

"You know it. Come on in, guys!” Hayden waved them in through his front door. As their gathering trooped inside, Juliet looked out into the night and wished Rachel and the others all the luck they could possibly get.


"You sure you won’t need me for anything else?” Warren asked for what must’ve been the fifth time.

Max caught Chloe's low growl of impatience from somewhere behind her, so she shook her head and smiled. "I think we can take it from here." 

They were standing at the foothills at the edge of Arcadia Bay, the same place where they had climbed to Rachel's Aerie over a week ago. Before that, they stopped by Chloe's house to prep, changing out of their evening wear and into more practical jackets, jeans, and boots. They had also grabbed a slew of tools: flashlights, gloves, trowels, a knife, and some steel wire.

Rachel slung her satchel over her shoulder and came to stand beside Max. “We’re all good, Warren, thanks so much for the assist. And please don't worry. We’ll join you at Hayden’s as soon as we can.” She curled her fingers around Max's arm as she spoke, an act that to Max’s mind bore a touch of possessiveness.

Warren took a deep breath and stared out at the dark forest. "Okay then," he said. "I dunno what you'll be doing out here, but please—be careful. If you see Jefferson, get the hell outta there, okay?"

"We will," Max promised, knowing they'd do no such thing.

They watched him get into his car, back up until he hit asphalt, then head back into town.

Chloe approached and slung her arms around their shoulders. "You realize we could've used him as a distraction, right? He could've shown up at the front gate, pretending to be drunk and lost."

Rachel poked her in the ribs. "You watch too many spy movies, Chlo. He would've been an immediate suspect afterward." 

"I'm not seeing the downside here."

"Cute. Let's get started before anyone loses their nerve." 

Chloe nodded, looking around at them. "If any of you wanna back out, speak up now or forever hold your peace."

"Hell no," Max replied. 

"Ditto," Rachel said. "Jefferson and Prescott attacked us on our own turf. Now we're gonna hit them back."

Chloe shrugged. "I knew you'd say that. Well, Prescott's secret construction site ain't gonna rob itself. Let's roll." 

 

The night lay restless in the forest, pulsing around them like an irregular heartbeat. Max had camped in it numerous times before with her dad and with Chloe. But it had never seemed this...alive. The woods were filled with rustling and creaking and leaves crunching underfoot. Hidden owls hooted from the trees, and now and then something stirred among the nearby bushes. Clouds hid the moon and stars, and a soft breeze stirred the pines with a chorus of sighs. 

The forest would have scared Max half to death had she been alone, but she had Chloe, who was leading the way, and Rachel, who was a half-step behind her. Chloe was using a flashlight covered in red cellophane. She pointed the beam down at the leaf-covered ground. Occasionally, she would stop and look around, confused. 

"We left markers to point the way to the site," Rachel explained to Max. "We thought they'd be easy to see at night, except Chloe here insisted we use red flashlights. Now they're almost invisible!"

"Red light is harder to see from a distance!" Chloe retorted. "It's so we don't get spotted by the guards, Rachel!"

"You're assuming we're actually near the site and not halfway to Canada!"

"We. Aren't. Lost. Just give me a sec to find the next marker."

Chloe searched the forest floor for several minutes, turning here and there like a hound chasing a scent. Finally, Rachel reached into her pocket. 

"I'm turning on my flashlight," she announced. 

"Do it and you might as well get on a bullhorn and tell Prescott's guards we're here."

"Considering the noise we've been making, I'm surprised they haven't found us yet!"

Max hissed, “Alright, quiet you two!” As both fell silent, Max went on, "Chloe, doesn't anything here look familiar? Wouldn’t it help to just backtrack?"

"No, gimme a minute, I'll find the way." Chloe cast the light around again, searching the ground. 

"Backtracking will only take a few seconds, Chloe."

"I said I got it, Max. It's—" Chloe's light abruptly stopped moving, focusing on the ground. "Jesus Christ! What the fuck—?!" 

Max jumped at her voice. "Chloe?" She caught hold of her friend's arm; the taller girl's eyes were wide and white, staring straight into the gloom. "Chloe, what's the matter?"

Her friend didn't answer. As Max watched, the red beam of the flashlight inched up from the ground to shine at a spot in the underbrush. There was nothing there, but Chloe held the beam for a long, uncomfortable moment. 

"Chloe?" Rachel approached and put her hand on Chloe's shoulder. "Hey, you okay?"

Chloe shook herself as if waking from a dream. "Y-yeah. I'm good, I'm good." Her voice sounded different—lower-pitched, the irritation replaced by an odd, nervous energy.

"What happened?" Rachel went on. "You see something strange?"

"Me? No. Didn't see no one. Anyway, I...uh, I remember where we need to go. It's this way. Come on." She motioned with the light and stepped forward.

"Uh, you sure? I didn't see any of our markers." 

"’Course I'm sure. It's this way."

As Chloe moved ahead of them, Max exchanged glances with Rachel. "That was...weird," Rachel whispered. 

Max nodded. "I've never seen her spooked like that before."

"Yo, let's go," Chloe called over her shoulder, pointing at a path through the trees. "I think we're pretty close." 

"If you say so," Rachel replied. She held out her hand to Max. "Coming?"

"Yeah..." Max took her hand and together they followed Chloe.

It took some time for Max to realize what bothered her about Chloe's response. Rachel had asked her if she'd seen something. Chloe had replied she saw no one .


“I just don’t get it.” Juliet shook her head as she flopped down on the sofa. “Why would Nathan do this? I mean, yeah, he’s got his issues, but working with a pervert like Jefferson? That’s next level psycho!”

The rest of their group had gathered in the den where they’d partied together just a couple of weeks before. Hayden had set up Madden NFL on his Xbox for Logan to play—he was busy thrashing his co-player Warren, so he was happy to sit apart while the rest talked. Hayden then handed out coolers and beers to everyone—for Kate, who didn’t drink, he poured a glass of orange juice.

“Nathan’s always been a weird little shit,” Hayden observed, sitting down beside Juliet. “I used to stand up for him and say it was all his asshole dad’s fault.” 

“Hey,” said Brooke, grinning as she ate Doritos from a bowl, “don’t curse around Kate. You’ll make her ears burn.”

“Right. Sorry, Kate.”

“Um, what?” Kate goggled at Brooke. “That’s not true!” 

“Brooke’s just teasing,” Juliet said. “Anyway, I get that Nathan would look for something like a father figure, if that’s what this is about. But a kidnapper like Jefferson? He’d go so far as to help that fuckface? Sorry, Kate.”

“Hey!”

“Maybe he just wants to get back at his dad,” offered Brooke, sitting down on the floor. “It’s his way of acting out. Some kids drink and stay out late, others turn into Ted Bundy Jr.”

“Nah.” Hayden lit up a reefer and lifted his eyes to the ceiling. “Nate’s always been obsessed with pleasing his dad. Maybe there’s something deeper here.” He shrugged. “Maybe it has to do with their curse.”

Kate raised her eyebrows. “I’m sorry—their what?”

Hayden peered around at their blank expressions. “What, you guys never heard of the Prescott Family Curse?”

“We’re not exactly in Nathan’s social circle,” Brooke pointed out.

“Just spill it, Jones!” Juliet exclaimed.

“A’ight, fine. I don’t normally rat on my Vortex pals, but I guess Nate’s made my shit list. Gather ‘round kiddies.” He glanced over to check that Logan was still preoccupied, then leaned his elbows on his knees and spoke in a lower tone. 

“So, sometimes Nathan likes to go hard, you know? He’d drink and do weed even after he’d taken his meds, which is a big no-no according to the docs. I stick with him when he gets like that, because it can get pretty funny to watch, but also so he doesn’t do something stupid, like smash up his car or pick a fight with a moose.

“Anyway, one night he goes off nuttier than usual. This was last year, at Josh Miller’s afterparty. Nate and I were in the garden, shootin’ the shit, you know, and he was going on and on, yelling about his dad’s gotten worse now that his sister Kristine’s run off to Brazil.

“Then Nate stops yelling and sits down. He got this weird calm look on his face, like something dawned on him. And he says to me, ‘I’m gonna die, Hayden.’

“I humor him. ‘We all gonna die someday, homes. You just gotta tick off the stuff on your bucket list before that happens.’

“He shakes his head. ‘You don’t get it. I’m gonna die because that’s what happens to the men of the Prescotts. The old pricks here in town, they hate my family not because we got money. It’s because they know we’re cursed and they want us gone.

“Then—I shit you not—he starts crying. Not bawling or anything. Quietly. These huge teardrops rolling down his cheeks as he stares out at nothing. I say, ‘Hey, Nate, you okay?’

“He says to me, ‘My grandpa died a bad death. His uncle died too, years before. Down the line to the first Prescott who ever stepped onto Arcadia Bay. One day, it’ll happen to my dad, then I’m next. I don’t blame Kristine for leaving. She didn’t want to watch it happen. Because I’m just as cursed as my dad.’ Then he gets up and walks—I dunno—home, I guess. Even left his fucking car in Josh's driveway. When I see him again in class, he’s back to his usual self. He never talked about his family like that ever again.

“But you know, something about what he said bothered me. It didn’t sound like he was making shit up. So I went and talked to my old man, asked him if it’s true that Nate’s granddad—that's Harry Aaron Prescott—died of a curse. 

"He looks at me like I was crazy. ‘Course not, Hayds. Who’ve you been talking to? Sure, it was a tragedy he died fairly young, but nothing supernatural about it. Just plain old bad luck.’"

Hayden paused to drink from his can. Scowling, Juliet said, “That’s the worst possible time ever to take a sip of beer.”

“I’m thirsty! Slow your roll.”

“Hurry up and tell us what he died of!"

“‘He got hit by lightning,’ my dad replied. ‘Got hit by lightning twice, if I heard right.’

“'Whoa,’ I said. ‘Like a bolt got him but he walked it off then after a few weeks another bolt hit him again?’

"‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Got hit twice on the same spot just seconds later. Like God decided to double-tap. Bam. Bam . It's rare lightning does that, sure. But like I said, it's nothing more than bad luck.’ 

"And that was the last I heard of it.” Hayden stopped and took a hit from his weed, then realized the girls were all staring at him.

“That,” said Brooke, “is the biggest load of bullcrap I’ve ever heard. All hearsay.”

Hayden put up his palms. “Hey, I just repeated what my dad said.”

"That's what hearsay means, Hayden. Who even has proof that all that happened?"

"It's probably in the newspaper archives somewhere. Or you can talk to the only person who witnessed it. My dad said Sean Prescott was there when his father died. He saw the whole thing."

Kate gasped, putting a hand over her mouth.

Juliet said, “So is it true? Did the Prescott men really die violent deaths?”

“I dunno.” Hayden shrugged. “I never looked into it. So who knows what the truth is?”

"I say Nathan made it all up for a self-pity party after getting high on meds and bad weed," Brooke concluded. “Like he’s the only guy in town who’s got family troubles.”

“Poor Nathan,” Kate said, looking down at her glass. “Do you think the Prescott Curse is real?”

“Oh, please.” Brooke picked up another nacho to munch. “There's no such thing as curses. Also, this is Arcadia Bay. Nathan aside, nothing weird ever happens here.” 


Before long, Max could feel the ground start to slope gently down. Guided by Chloe's surefooted pace and Rachel's strong grip, they negotiated the way to the bottom. And there, just above a line of underbrush, she spotted the lights of the construction site.

The place seemed somehow bigger in the dark than in the daytime. Likely it had to do with the wide halo of the floodlights placed on every corner of the wire fence. The place was lit up like a concert or a ball game. Why so bright? Max wondered to herself. Is Prescott expecting someone would try to steal from him? The thought sent a chill through her flesh, and she banished it to a dark corner of her mind. Instead, she focused on each step she took towards the bushes at the base of the slope.

Chloe pointed to a hole in the thicket before getting down on her hands and knees to crawl in. Swallowing her fear, Max followed her in and Rachel brought up the rear. 

The tunnel wound through the underbrush. They didn't even need the flashlight anymore: despite the cover of leaves and branches, the site gave off enough light to see through the tunnel. Max was more worried about all the noise they were making—no matter how slow and careful they went, every movement brought the crunch of leaves or the snap of a twig, making her clench her teeth with every foot they crawled.

An eternity later, Chloe paused, making Max stop as well. The taller girl cocked her ear and, satisfied no one was nearby, she took hold of a loose branch laying on the ground in front of her and gently lifted it out the way. Several leaves moved with the branch—it was concealing the tunnel exit. Max's jaw dropped at how clever all this was.

Chloe peered out the hole, then just as quickly pulled back. "Down!" she whispered and dropped prone. Max fell on her front, the thud of her body making her heart fall silent in her chest. Behind her, Rachel followed suit. None of them made a sound, which made it easy to hear the approaching footsteps. 

Teeth digging into her lip, all her muscles tight as wires, Max dared to peek as the footsteps grew louder. Boots scuffling on the grass. She strained to see, her eyes starting to sting as she forced herself not to blink. 

Just above Chloe's head, through the wire mesh, a pair of black boots and khaki pants marched past the field of vision allotted by the tunnel opening. A moment later, the footfalls began to recede.

"Fuck, that was close," breathed Rachel.

Chloe nodded. "Close as the Holy Ghost, but—" She trailed off, uncertain.

“...But not good enough for toast.” Max finished for her. “Something your dad used to say, right?”

“Yeah,” Chloe murmured. “He did like to say that.” Again she sounded strange. Max wanted to ask again if she was okay, but Chloe pulled herself forward with her arms, squeezing her way out of the tunnel. Max had no choice but to follow.

Moments later, they were all lying on their bellies beside the wire fence. This spot had more shadows, being far from the corners of the camp, where the lamps were located. Beyond the fence gaped the enormous hole that had been dug into the earth, only this time, it was mostly filled with concrete and steel poles. 

"See that building by the gate?" Chloe pointed out a squat wooden building elevated by stilts and with a short stairway leading up. "That's the guardhouse. They have three guards in there, and every hour, one of them makes the rounds on the perimeter. That just happened, which is good. We got a full hour before he shows up again."

"Hopefully more than enough time," Rachel added. 

Chloe nodded. "See over there, that long building that looks like a barracks? That's where the construction workers sleep. And over there," she made a picture frame with her fingers, "that shack with the glass windows and the red door, is the foreman's office. THAT'S what we want to hit."

"Okay," Max breathed. The building wasn't too far away, maybe some 60 feet from where they were. Seemed easy enough—assuming there was no one inside. The windows were lit, though. "Okay. So how do we get over this fence?"

"We go under ," Rachel corrected her. She reached into her bag, pulled out two trowels, and handed one to Max. "Let's get digging."

Five minutes of work, and there was a little bowl-shaped indentation beneath the bottom rail—enough for a person to squeeze through, with some difficulty. Once they were done here, they’d cover it up again and hopefully no one would notice.

Chloe took a deep breath. "Looks like it's my turn now."

Max put a hand on her shoulder. "Chloe, remember—no unnecessary risks, okay? You find what we need, then get out."

"Chillax, Max. It's not my first rodeo." Even so, there was no humor in her smile, and her blue eyes strayed to the red door of the building ahead.

Rachel asked, "You got your headset ready? And your gloves?

Chloe nodded. She pulled on her leather gloves and stuck her phone’s earbud into her left ear. "Call me when I get to the office building."

"Hey—look at me," Rachel said, brushing a blue strand from Chloe's face. "You got this."

"I know." Chloe's smile turned into a grin. "Kiss for good luck?"

"For starters," Rachel answered with a smile of her own before grabbing Chloe by her jacket and planting a searing kiss on her lips. Max turned away, hoping they wouldn't notice her reddening face.

Moments later, Chloe had pulled herself through the hole beneath the fence. With a quick look to check for guards, she scuttled towards the nearest hiding spot—a pair of plastic water barrels halfway between the fence and the buildings.

Without her, Max could readily feel the chill on her skin. She and Rachel settled back down on the grass. Rachel fitted one earpiece into her ear and offered the other one to Max. "Now the hard part," she whispered, holding up her phone between them.

"Yeah," Max sighed, her eyes trained on the guardhouse. "The waiting." 


Keeping her head low, Chloe raced across the grass towards her goal: the western wall of the foreman's office, which faced away from the guardhouse and had enough shadow for cover. She kept her eyes glued to the guardhouse window as she ran, expecting any moment to see someone to lean out and yell, "Who's there?!"

But no one did, and seconds later, Chloe had her back against the office's wall, waiting for her breath to catch up. 

Her phone vibrated in her pocket. She reached in and hit answer, and Rachel's voice seeped through the earpiece.

"Chloe? Can you hear me?"

"Like my guardian angel," Chloe panted. Thank goodness they had some reception out here; it was easier to do this with Rachel and Max talking her through. "You got eyes on the guardhouse?"

Max answered this time. "Yeah. No one’s moving. I think you're good."

"Gotcha. Let's make this quick."

The front door was a no-go, not with a lamp shining directly over the door. Chloe slid along the wall to the rear of the building and peered around the corner. The site was deserted and all the lights of the barracks were dark. So far, so good. The only thing she was afraid of now was getting surprised by some idiot stepping out for a midnight whiz after one too many beers.

Well, nothing for it . Chloe rounded the corner and inched her way along the back of the building. No backdoor, but it did have a window. She peered inside, fully expecting to see the foreman working a late night.

The room was deserted. Overhead lamps filled the room with yellow light. Large office desks were placed against three of the other walls, with a fourth dominating the center of the room. On the desk opposite the window sat a laptop, a large brown coffee mug, a desk fan, and a black ashtray filled to the brim with stubs. To the right of the table was a low cot with a single dirty pillow. To the left of the table stood a low filing cabinet. Looks like something to keep important stuff in , she thought.

Chloe tested the window but only succeeded in rattling it. "Window's locked," she muttered.

"Well, we didn't come here expecting a cakewalk," Rachel replied. 

"No big. Captain Bluebeard comes prepared." 

The window was the sliding type. Chloe pulled out a steel wire, fitted it in through a gap between the two frames, and twisted it against the latch. It gave easily. With a little push from her splayed fingers, the window slid open.

"I'm in," she whispered.

"Keep your eyes sharp, Captain," Max whispered back.

"Always, First Mate." Grabbing onto the ledge, Chloe wormed her way through the window and nearly plunged headfirst into a wastebasket sitting beneath the sill. She managed to catch herself with her arm but tipped the basket over, spilling crumpled paper onto the floor.

"Chloe?" came Max's alarmed voice. "What was that noise?"

"Nothing, nothing, it's under control," Chloe muttered as she hurried to clean up. Smooth, Double-0 Chlo

Pulling herself to her feet, she surveyed the room again. A low hum emanated from the fan on the desk—the foreman clearly wouldn't be gone for long. The laptop was on, displaying a screensaver of ribbons floating in a breeze. 

Keeping low and avoiding the windows, Chloe approached the laptop and touched the mousepad. She scowled when the screen prompted her for a password. Dead end here. Too bad—this probably has the data we need, if I only knew how to hack.

She crept toward the file cabinet instead. There were three drawers in all. Pulling the lowest one out revealed some survey documents on Arcadia Bay and the surrounding area. Not much interest there. 

The second drawer had piles of invoices for building materials and transport trucks, all by a firm named Pastoral State, Inc. That's interesting , Chloe thought. She made a mental note of the name. I might be able to research something about it later. 

Finally, she pulled on the last drawer. Locked

"Dudes,” she whispered, “are the guards getting restless yet?"  

After a second, Rachel answered. "There's someone at the guardhouse window. I can see his silhouette. He doesn't seem to be alerted, more like he's looking around. But I don't like it. Hurry, Chlo."

"It's not like I'm on vacation here, Amber." Chloe fished the wire out from her pocket again and produced a hairpin from another pocket. Bending the wire into an L, she stuck it into the keyhole and turned it slightly to the right. While maintaining light pressure there, she pushed the hairpin inside, scrubbing gently at the lock's tumblers. This was a skill she learned from Frank. Little by little, the lock began to give, until finally it yielded a satisfying click that brought a smirk to her face. She turned the lock all the way and yanked the drawer open.

There was only one document inside—a folded piece of vellum paper. Chloe picked it up and spread it open. The grin on her face widened. 

"Guys, found a blueprint for whatever it is they're making here. It's a building alright. A weird one."

"Can you snap a photo?" Max asked.

"Already on it."

Chloe laid the blueprint flat on the table, then took a step back and opened up her phone's camera. It was difficult to get an angle that got the whole thing, but eventually she found one that worked. It was only after a bright flash accompanied the click of the camera that she realized her mistake.

"Fuck!" Chloe said, staring down at the screen and, yes, the flash had been set to auto.

"Chloe?" came Max's voice. "Chloe, we saw a flash from the window. Was that you?"

"Yeah, shit, yeah. I forgot about the setting. Did anyone—"

Rachel interrupted her, her words coming rapidly through the phone. "A guard just walked out of the outpost. I think he saw it. He's heading towards you!"

"Fuck!" Chloe grabbed the blueprint and stuffed it back into the file cabinet. Adrenaline was flooding through her veins; her fingers were shaking as she pushed the drawer shut. She eyed the open window and wondered if she had enough time to squeeze her way out.

"Chloe, he's almost at the door! You gotta hide!"

No time , she thought. She scurried to the center office desk and ducked beneath it. At that instant, the door opened.

Footsteps tramped into the room and paused by the door. The guard was surveying the place. Chloe's breathing went shallow; her pulse was throbbing in her throat. She thought of her penknife but feared the sound of drawing it might give her away. Thankfully, she was concealed on three sides by cabinets and the desk's wooden panel. 

It’s fine. The only way he can spot me is if he walks over to the other side of this desk and—

The footsteps started moving again, catlike against the wooden floor; the guard was doing a slow sweep of the area. Fuck, he's gonna be thorough . Chloe pressed herself deeper into shadow until her back was flush against the desk's panel. A bead of sweat stung her eye. In her earpiece, Max was whispering her name. Chloe dared not reply.

A pair of scuffed work boots and khaki pants appeared at the edge of her vision. The guard stood beside the desk, close enough for her to touch. If he stooped just a little, he'd have no problem seeing her there, squeezed into her cubbyhole like a terrified mouse.

But before he could make a move, a voice called out from the direction of the doorway.

"Can I help you with something, Madsen?"

Chloe’s breath hitched as the guard responded with a gruff and distinctly familiar voice. "It's fine, sir. I just thought I saw something through the window. A...flash of some kind."

Holy fuck! Chloe fitted a hand over her mouth to choke back a gasp. David!?