Chapter 1: 1.1 All of This
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 1: All of This
“This is my storm. I caused this... I caused all of this.” - Max Caulfield, LiS S1e5
“Max… It’s time…” There’s a note of pleading in Chloe’s voice, but whether she’s pleading with Max to let her live or let her die Max isn’t sure. Her eyes are a vortex more consuming than the one bearing down on them, a precipice more precarious than the one on which they stand. She wants to die a hero, and she wants to live a coward; she wants to go back to a time when she was whole and everything made sense, and even though she hates with every fiber of her being that this decision isn’t in her own hands she’s grateful not to be the one to have to make this choice.
A choice that Max has already made. Because this is Chloe standing in front of her.
Chloe, her captain; her best and truest friend, who took her back even after five years of selfish silence and neglect. Chloe, who has already suffered so much in her short life, has already lost and been lost so many times. Chloe, whose death was so unbearable to Max that she bent time itself to save her: again and again and again. Chloe, who drives every beat of her heart.
Chloe, who wanted to drop a bomb on Arcadia Bay and watch it turn to glass.
Max turns away from her, the rain-wet polaroid still in her hands. It would be so easy to grant her request. Already, stepping back in time is like stepping into a heated pool: warm and inviting and so quickly over her head. It would only take a little focus to go back and unmake everything. Let the photograph shimmer and open up to her, step back and let the storm unravel, let Chloe unravel, let her whole life unravel… She hates how easy it would be.
The photograph tears every bit as easily, as if that’s what it was made to do, the blue butterfly and Max’s reflection both splitting neatly into halves. The storm seizes the pieces before she has time to reflect on the consequences of this action, taking them from her hands like an offering and drawing them into its swirling mass.
For a terrifying moment, there’s no sound other than the raging of the storm. Chloe isn’t saying anything, and Max can’t bring herself to turn around and face her. The enormity of what Max has done hangs suspended between them, and Max fears that it will hang there forever, like the Sword of Damocles. It’s too much. Too big. Too terrible. She knows with a cold certainty that Chloe will never forgive her for making this decision - not after the way she implored Max to let her go. But she also knows that this was never really a choice. Either way, her world was going to be ripped apart. It was only a matter of whether it would be by grief or by the storm.
And she’s seen Chloe die enough times this week to know one thing beyond all shadow of a doubt: she doesn’t want to live in any reality where Chloe isn’t alive. She cannot let her die. She especially can’t let her die scared and abandoned on a bathroom floor, thinking that nobody loves her. Thinking that Max doesn’t love her.
“Max…” Chloe steps forward slowly, sounding numb with disbelief. “I’ll always be with you.” Her voice trembles.
“Forever,” Max promises. And if this is true, if Chloe will always be with her, forever by her side, then it’s worth it. As monstrous as this is, she knows it’s the truth. She would make the same decision again. Again and again, every time. Staring into the otherworldly tempest steadily bearing down on their hometown, she’s not sure there’s anything in the world she wouldn’t do to keep Chloe alive and by her side, any sacrifice she’d be unwilling to make for her.
Chloe takes Max’s hand in hers, and the gesture is so natural and familiar that it could be any other day, any other moment in their years of friendship. If their hands weren’t so cold, and wet, and trembling. If the sky weren’t grey and alive with electricity. If their ears weren’t full of thunder.
As the storm draws closer to the shore, buildings rip loose from their foundations and leap into its arms. It isn’t a vision this time. It’s real. Max’s storm is real, and it’s happening, and suddenly she can’t watch this anymore.
She clutches Chloe like a lifeline, burying her face in the crook of Chloe’s neck. Chloe pulls her close and cradles her in the safety of her arms. She holds onto Max tightly and lets her hide against her shoulder, her tears the only warmth that she can feel.
Max has already seen all of this; she doesn’t need to see it all again. But Chloe never has. She watches. She can’t look away.
She watches, and she holds Max. She means to be the one anchoring Max, but as she watches the storm slowly and deliberately cut a swath of destruction through their town she wonders if it’s really the other way around. Max’s hand trails slowly up and down her back, but whether it’s to soothe herself or Chloe neither of them knows.
Time passes. An hour, two, more. It’s impossible to say.
Rain still pelts down. The wind still grabs and tears. Max can hear the storm chewing its way through Arcadia Bay, but it doesn’t feel real anymore. She doesn’t feel real anymore. She feels like she’s floating. Or sinking. Or both. She can barely feel Chloe’s arm around her. Chloe’s saying something to her, but she sounds like she’s a mile away. Max tries to respond, but she’s not sure her mouth is forming actual words.
She’s hungry, she realizes, and at the same moment her guts twist with nausea. Is it totally messed up to be standing in the middle of a raging storm that’s destroying the town she grew up in and feel hungry rather than afraid? She tries to ask Chloe because maybe she can help her make sense of it, but her tongue feels cold and heavy and her teeth are chattering and she’s pretty sure now that, no, the sounds she’s making aren’t words.
It’s been a long, exhausting day. Max really just wants to lay down and go to sleep. Chloe’s yelling something she feels like she should understand. A short word, familiar. “Max! MAX!”
Things get a bit fuzzy after that. At some point Max watches Chloe attack the lighthouse door with her shoulder. She’s upside down. It’s sort of absurd-looking, Chloe charging again and again at the door with the ground in the air and lightning flashing around her head like a halo, defying gravity. Max wishes she had her camera with her.
Where is her camera, anyway? She should be taking pictures.
Not quite warm. Quieter. Max can feel that she’s shivering now. How long has she been shivering like this for? Someone should call a doctor. This can’t be normal.
Chloe’s voice. Safe and warm, the warmest she’s been. Max lets go of the last thread of consciousness and, for the first time in days, falls into a dreamless sleep.
The first thing that Max notices when she wakes is that it’s quiet. If the storm is still happening, she isn’t in the middle of it anymore. The second thing she notices is that she’s warm and dry, or close enough to it. The third thing she notices is Chloe snuggled up behind her.
Was everything a dream? The last day, hell, the last week has all been so surreal that she can almost believe that none of it really happened. The only thing that feels real to her is Chloe’s breath, warm and steady in her hair, Chloe’s fingers interlaced with her own and holding on firmly, Chloe’s… Wait, maybe this is the dream.
Max opens her eyes. The room around her is vaguely familiar but someplace she hasn’t been since she was a child. She can’t quite place it. She’s definitely never seen it from this angle: lying on the ground, wrapped in some sort of weird space-age shiny blanket. She’s pretty sure the last time she saw it, there also weren’t wet clothes hanging from every surface. An image flashes in front of her eyes like lightning: Chloe throwing her shoulder against the door of the lighthouse. It must have worked.
Not a dream, then. Max breathes a sigh of relief. She still feels cold and tired, her thoughts still jumbled and slow to form, but she knows that Chloe is with her and they’re both safe, and that’s all that’s important for her to know right now. The feeling of Chloe’s fingers tangled with hers brings a smile to her lips and a warm glow to her chest that feels like in time it could thaw the pervasive coldness of her limbs.
The lighthouse. It makes a poetic kind of sense that that’s where they would find shelter from the storm. Her eyes rove over her surroundings as she basks in the warmth of Chloe’s embrace, seeking out familiar shapes from their shared childhood. Sluggish and numb, her brain struggles to fit together the pieces of what she sees; seeing it all sideways doesn’t help. The winding staircase is familiar, but the dripping clothes strewn over its railing puzzle her. The longer she looks at them, the more sure she is that they’re not supposed to be there at all. A thought chisels its way into her brain and she tries to move her arm to lift the blanket covering her. Chloe’s arm is so heavy on hers that she can’t manage more than a twitch.
Chloe feels her stirring. “Oh thank god,” she whispers. “Max? Are you still with me?”
Max moves her lips slowly, testing them. They don’t feel numb anymore. “I…” Her voice is a little rough. She tries to clear her throat. “Yeah. I think so.”
Chloe’s arms tighten around her. “Jesus fucking Christ, Max, don’t ever do that to me again.”
Chloe wiggles her fingers between Max’s. “Ten fingers, ten toes? Still got them all?”
“I… What?” Max tries to push through the fog still clouding her brain. “What’re you talking about?”
“I did my best, Max, but I’m no doctor. And you were… really fucking cold. Like, scary cold.” Chloe gently squeezes each of Max’s fingers, one at a time. “I don’t think you lost anything, though.” She presses the tops of her feet against the bottoms of Max’s. “Toes feel okay?”
“They feel like toes.” Max presses back against Chloe’s feet to prove it.
“Good thing, because they felt like fucking ice cubes before.” Chloe lets go of Max’s hand and touches her ear. Max jumps a little in surprise. “Does that hurt?” Chloe asks, her voice tight with concern.
“No, just… Wasn’t expecting it.”
“Sorry. Just wanted to make sure it didn’t fall off or anything. You can still feel it okay? I tried to keep as much of you covered as I could, but...”
“I can definitely still feel it.” Max wonders if Chloe can feel the way her heartbeat has ratcheted up. Her fingertips still linger on Max’s ear, so that’s a strong maybe. “Um, Chloe…” Max clears her throat. “I’m kind of afraid to ask, but… Am I, uh…”
“Are you… what?”
“Am I, uh… A-are you…? Are we…?”
Chloe tenses a little. “Oh, right. That. Yeah, but get your mind out of the gutter. I may have failed Life Skills pretty hard, but even I know you don’t leave someone with hypothermia in wet clothes.”
“Oh.” If there was a hole in the ground, Max would crawl into it.
“Honestly, I was in too much of a panic to get you warm and dry to pay much attention, anyway.” There’s an awkward silence. “Uh, you feeling warm now?”
Max nods. “Mhm.” She’s afraid that if she tries to speak, her voice will betray her.
“Guess my work here is done, then…” Chloe shifts away, tucking the emergency blanket snugly around Max as she does. “You, uh, might want to close your eyes if you’re feeling shy about it. Preserve some of the mystery.”
Max closes her eyes. She listens to Chloe’s footsteps as she pads barefoot around the small room, gathering her clothes.
“I mean, I know this probably isn’t how you wanted to get me naked the first time, anyway, so…”
“What?” Max’s eyes pop open reflexively, then she squeezes them shut again.
“Ah, you can still blush! I’ll take that as a sign of health.”
“You, um, want to grab me my clothes while you’re at it?”
“Our clothes are still really wet, actually. Probably not a great idea. But don’t worry! I’ve got backup clothes in the truck.” Chloe kneels down and ruffles Max’s damp hair. “I knew my zombie preparedness kit would come in handy someday.”
Max snorts. “‘Zombie preparedness kit?’ I want to say you’re joking, but somehow I don’t think you are.” She cautiously opens an eye, then opens the other when she sees that Chloe is back in her clothes.
“You know me too well, Max. You gonna be okay on your own for a bit? Truck’s parked down by the beach still.” Chloe grimaces. “Or at least I hope it is.”
The beach. Sand ripping itself from the ground, water pouring upward from the ocean, spiraling, grasping-- “Wait.” Max reaches out and grabs Chloe’s wrist. “The storm. You shouldn’t go out there. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s okay, Max.” Chloe gently touches Max’s hand still firmly wrapped around her other wrist, running a thumb over her knuckles. “I’m pretty sure it’s over. It’s been quiet out there for a while now.” Max’s grip tightens. “I’ll check first. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go running out into a fucking tornado. Have a little faith in my sense of self-preservation.”
Max laughs, and it hurts. “Chloe, after this week I wouldn’t trust you to not stick a fork in an electrical outlet.”
“Ouch. That burns, Max.” Chloe chuckles. “Although so did sticking a fork in that outlet.”
“Wait, what? Really?”
“Story for another time.” Chloe pats her hand, then gently pries her wrist free. Max watches her anxiously as she walks over to the door and starts working loose the chair wedged between the door and the wall. It takes a couple of minutes and a fair amount of swearing. Once the chair isn’t bracing the door shut, it creaks just slightly open on its own. It swings in gently, an act of gravity rather than gale-force winds. Chloe opens it a few inches further and peers out. After a short silence, she clears her throat. “Looks clear. Still drizzling a little, but otherwise… calm. Shit, I think I even see some blue sky.” She turns and looks at Max. “I’ll only be gone for a little while. Okay?”
Chloe walks back over to her and hooks her pinky in Max’s, her hand still dangling loose from under the blanket. “I promise. I’ll be back as soon as possible, and I’ll bring supplies.” She hesitates, then leans over and presses her lips briefly against Max’s forehead. “You rest up. Keep warm. I’ll be back before you know it.” She gently tucks Max’s hand back into the blanket.
Max tries to stay awake, counting the minutes in her head. But it’s surprisingly warm in the blanket, and it still smells like Chloe, and soon she falls back asleep.
Chapter 2: 1.2 Ache
Chloe ventures out to get supplies from her truck. She *really* needs a smoke.
Happy last day of Strange Week! Appropriately enough, it's *storming* in my corner of the world. I figured since today is October 11th and this chapter (and the next couple) also takes place on October 11th, it's a good day to post. Fair warning, this chapter is heavy on the angst without much to lighten it. Next one will have more fluff. Hold tight until then.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 2: Ache
Chloe would kill for a cigarette.
Chloe would kill for a dry cigarette, because the pack of them in her pocket is predictably soaked, leaving every smoke in it limp and wet. She chews on one anyway, because maybe the gesture itself will be enough to get her through the long, cold slog down the hill.
The climb down feels longer than the climb up, which surprises her. On the way up the adrenaline rush of half-carrying, half-dragging Max through a storm straight out of a disaster movie must have dulled her sense of time. She feels every second on the way down.
Max. Fucking hell, Max.
It all feels so unreal. Everything from the moment Max came back into her life has felt unreal. She wouldn’t trade a second of it, though, not for a huge stack of cash and a lifetime supply of weed and booze. Not for… Fuck.
Chloe bites clean through the wet cigarette. It falls to pieces all over the front of her tank top, a sodden mess clinging to the damp fabric. Gagging, she spits out the filter caught behind her teeth. She brushes at her shirt, flicking off as much as she can. She would kill for a dry cigarette and five minutes of quiet in her head.
She has to be careful as she picks her way down the hill. Branches litter the way. Some of them as big as trees, hell, some of them probably were trees. An upended bench, planted at least a foot into the ground. She thinks it might’ve been the one that sat next to the lighthouse, but it’s at least a third of the way down the hill now. She’s astounded by how little damage the lighthouse itself took, considering that the shack behind it had been basically razed to the ground. She’s never believed in miracles, but the more she sees of the devastation left in the wake of the storm, the more miraculous the fact of her continued existence feels. It’s… fucking unnatural, really.
With her own eyes, she saw the buildings being swept up into the storm like tinker-toys in the hands of a child. Stores, houses, schools. Places where people worked and lived. She still can’t really process it in a way that makes any sense. The storm was real. The rain still lightly falling, hardly more than a heavy mist, is real. The destruction all around her is real.
It could have been her.
It should have been her.
She doubles up suddenly, guilt buried in her gut like a fist. She staggers and drops to one knee. Cold mud seeps into her pants.
She would kill for a dry cigarette and to never have to think about this storm again.
After a couple of minutes of hissing breath through her teeth, Chloe forces herself back up onto her feet and keeps walking. Finally, she reaches the parking lot. It’s not as badly flooded as she would have expected, but it’s still a mess of massive puddles, downed tree limbs, and wet sand dredged up from the beach. There’s a red car with its wheels in the air, helpless as a turtle on its back. It’s empty, she hopes. She makes herself duck down and peek through the shattered windows. Nobody home. It’s a good thing, too, because she doesn’t think she could handle seeing any dead bodies today and somehow she doesn’t think she could handle meeting any other survivors, either. It’s hard enough to take care of herself and Max, never mind introducing a potentially badly injured stranger into the mix.
She’s not sure she could stand the guilt.
Fliers litter the ground everywhere, fliers she recognizes immediately: she’s been papering the town with them for months, after all. They bloat and disintegrate in puddles. They’re plastered to trees, blown there by the wind and glued in place by the rain. She tries not to look at them. It doesn’t matter that they’re falling apart, she tells herself. They won’t help now, anyway. It makes her sick to see them that way, even so.
The truck is… not where she parked it. It takes her a few heart-in-throat minutes to find it. Its tires are on the ground, which is promising. It’s pressed pretty firmly against a tree a couple hundred feet from where she had left it, which is less promising.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit.” Chloe walks around to inspect the damage. It doesn’t look as bad as she feared, a fairly large dent on the side of the truck bed, which is basically a small swimming pool now. “Fuuuuuuck.” She unlocks the tailgate and drops it down. “Fuck!” Water cascades out, soaking her already-damp boots before she can hop back and away.
She would kill for a dry cigarette and a dry pair of shoes.
The driver’s side door doesn’t look too badly damaged, but it’s too close to the treeline to safely open it. Chloe marches back around to the passenger’s side. She flings the door open, then leans in and opens the glovebox. Her pack of emergency smokes is still in there and, mercifully, dry. She heaves a sigh of relief, then sprawls across the broad bench seat of the cab. It isn’t until she pulls out her lighter and it takes her eight increasingly frustrating attempts to get it to light that she realizes how badly her hands are shaking. Finally the tip of the cigarette catches and glows. She allows her body to sag into the seat and takes a long drag, filling her lungs with an aching warmth.
She knows she should grab the kit and rush back to Max, but fuck… She just needs five minutes. Just five minutes of peace. Five minutes without a storm ripping the world apart, without guilt crushing all the air out of her lungs, without her life being in danger, without Max being in danger…
Pressure builds behind her eyes. She takes another drag and tries to relax.
Max. She wonders if this is how Max felt after she saved her life the first time. Strangely powerful, life and death in her hands, and yet… so strangely helpless and afraid.
She’d really thought that Max was a goner. She really thought that Max was going to slip right through her fingers. That Max had saved her worthless life only to lose her own in turn.
She’d be damned if she was going to let that happen.
Chloe pulls herself up into a sitting position. She fishes her key out of her pocket and twiddles it in her fingers for a minute, contemplating the amount of water in the truck bed. The water level hadn’t quite reached the top of the bed, and even though the storm passed through just a few hours ago the area already isn’t particularly flooded. Still, that was a hell of a lot of water all at once, and she can’t really gauge how high the water reached before it receded. Plus there’s the unknown factor of how hard her truck was thrown against the tree, and what else it might have hit along the way. She sighs down at the tiny panda on her keychain. “Probably shouldn’t press our luck, hmm?” she mutters around her cigarette. She reaches down next to her seat and pops the hood open, pocketing her key once more as she slides back across the bench seat. She smokes the cigarette down to the filter, then stubs it out on the dashboard, flicking it into the parking lot as she climbs back out through the passenger’s side.
Chloe stops to check the trees next to the truck. As far as she can tell, it doesn’t look like the water reached more than a couple of feet deep on their trunks, but everything is so wet from the rain that it’s hard to distinguish a clear waterline. She swings the hood up all the way and props it open. The graffiti of a lion’s face stares back at her, drawn around an old gunk stain on the underside of the hood. She flinches at the sight of it. “Hey, Leo,” she says halfheartedly, avoiding looking at it directly. “Sorry about the storm, buddy…”
Gazing into the exposed inner workings of her trusty vehicle, she digs into a dusty memory from her childhood of helping her father check his car after an especially nasty storm had briefly flooded their street. She’s had many occasions over the past few years to be grateful for her memories of helping William repair his car; as painful as it still is to think of him - and especially to think of his car - the skills she picked up have served her well. Still, she wishes she’d paid more attention at the time: she could be genuinely good at this by now instead of merely competent.
She disconnects the battery ground strap and starts inspecting the engine for signs of water damage. Nothing seems obviously wet, but things do look like they’ve been knocked around a bit. Hopefully nothing a few more layers of duct tape won’t fix. She checks the dipsticks for water droplets. As far as she can tell they look fine. “So far so good.” She reattaches the strap and closes the hood. She double-checks the headlights for signs of moisture, then opens the door and slides herself back along the seat until she’s behind the wheel, pulling her key out again. “Okay,” she says, “Moment of truth. Here goes nothing.” She puts the key in the ignition and turns it. The truck hacks and sputters for a while. “Fuck.” Chloe lets it rest for a minute, then tries again. Same result. “Goddamnit.” Chloe folds her arms over the steering wheel and rests her head on them. “Guess you’re gonna need a little TLC before we can make a break for it, huh?” She sighs in defeat. “Fine. Max probably isn’t up for a road trip yet anyway. Be nice to have a lift to the hospital, though. If there still is one.” She turns the key a third time and lets it cough for a while longer before she gives up.
The truck bed is still dripping, but it isn’t flooded anymore. Chloe heaves herself up into it, the truck groaning under her weight but holding steady. She’s surprised to find that the cardboard box that held the fliers now scattered throughout the parking lot is still in there, albeit on its side and disintegrating into a pile of mush in the back corner, along with the remaining fliers. She avoids touching it as she finds what she came for and reaches for it: a large, red box packed with emergency supplies, hidden under an olive green wool fire blanket now soaked through from the storm. She peels the wet blanket off and chuckles. “Fuck off, Zombies” is scrawled in bold black marker along the top of the box. “Haters gonna hate, but I knew you’d come in handy someday.” She picks it up, but it’s heavier than she’d imagined and after hauling Max around for half the day her arms have nothing more to give. She just barely manages to set it down rather than dropping it. There’s no way she’ll be able to lug it all the way back up to the lighthouse.
“Okay, just the essentials then. Food, water, maybe the flashlight… and dry clothes.” Dropping to her knees, she unclasps the lid and prepares to open it, taking a deep, shaky breath.
She already wants another cigarette. Would another five minutes be too much to ask?
She thinks guiltily of Max alone in the lighthouse. She’s probably worried about her by now. This shouldn’t be taking her so long. What if Max decides that something’s wrong? What if she tries to come find her? She’s too weak for that. She’ll get hurt, or even…
Food. Water. Flashlight. Clothes. Chloe pushes the lid open with determination. She grabs a couple of pouches of food, some granola bars, a water bottle, a bulky flashlight that she hopes still works, and… and...
And here’s the real reason why she’s been dragging her feet for so long. Because there are two sets of clothes in the emergency kit: one for her, and one for…
She prods that wound experimentally. It’s still fresh. It feels like she’s had a tooth pulled without any anaesthesia, if her heart had a mouth.
Chloe sinks into the truck bed. The cold cuts right into her skin, but she doesn’t care. She lays out flat on her back and looks up at the heavy gray sky. How many days had she lain just like this, with Rachel by her side? How many nights?
And now never again.
She doesn’t even remember taking Rachel’s clothes out of the kit, but she finds herself cradling them. She buries her face in them, trying to catch a scent of her. They’ve been in the kit for at least a year, possibly more. They shouldn’t smell like much of anything: plastic, maybe, or possibly even mildew. But Chloe swears she can still smell a hint of jasmine on them.
The wound feels less like a missing tooth and more like a bullet hole, now. Chloe curls into a fetal position, hemorrhaging tears into Rachel’s clothes, keening and wailing like a lost soul.
Okay, that was a bit of a rough one. Such Rachel feels. Next one at least has some good moments of fluff and pricefield flirty banter goodness (aaaaand some more Rachel feels; that’s kind of a big thing in this story). And to tide you over until then, I’ll be posting a sweet Halloween story soon, hopefully before actual Halloween. A side of fluff for all the angst.
Chapter 3: 1.3 Checkpoint
Max and Chloe start to settle into their temporary new abode. Still 10/11, several hours after the storm has passed.
As promised, angst and feels plus fluff and flirting. Enjoy.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 3: Checkpoint
When Max wakes up, Chloe isn’t there. She has no way of knowing how long Chloe’s been gone - dreaming has a curious way of undoing time even under normal circumstances - but it feels like she’s been gone for too long. It’s uncomfortably quiet in the lighthouse. Max thinks if she could listen hard enough she might be able to hear even the stirring of dust motes in the air. She supposes she should be grateful for the silence, but it makes her uneasy. She wishes Chloe would hurry up and get back already. If anyone can fill a silence, it’s Chloe.
The longer Max lies awake on the floor, the more anxious she gets about Chloe not being back yet. She’s lost Chloe too many times this week to not worry that something bad will happen to her the moment she’s out of sight. Finally Max can’t stand it anymore. The stillness, the silence, the solitude: it’s too much. She can’t just lie there alone with her thoughts anymore. Max swaddles herself in the mylar emergency blanket and gingerly gets to her feet. Her head swims a bit at first, but she’s able to keep herself steady.
There isn’t much to the room apart from the winding staircase leading up. Her clothes are still draped over its railing. She touches her jeans: still sopping wet. Her shirt and underclothes aren’t quite as bad; under other circumstances she might put them on anyway, but in her head she can still hear the fear in Chloe’s voice, telling her how cold she’d been. She feels a lot better now, her head clearer, but she’s still exhausted and feeling weaker than she’d like. It isn’t worth the risk. If nothing else, it would probably freak Chloe out. Whenever she gets back.
If she gets back.
Max wrangles her phone out of the pocket of her pants. It probably would’ve been smarter for her to put it in her messenger bag before the storm, she thinks, although truth be told her bag looks every bit as wet as her jeans. Wetter, even: it’s still dripping. She tries to turn the phone on and… nothing. Stone dead. She’s not surprised, but it was worth a shot. She contemplates opening up her messenger bag to assess the damage, but she can picture so vividly the water pouring out of her camera - William’s camera - that it turns her stomach. She isn’t quite ready for that yet.
The emergency blanket makes all kinds of ridiculous crinkling noises as she slowly and deliberately explores her surroundings. The absurdity of it - walking around in the lighthouse wearing nothing but what amounts to a giant roll of foil - helps to distract her from the horrorshow that is this day. The uneven stone floor is cold against her bare feet, but she’s grateful to be able to feel it. She’s grateful the lighthouse is still standing.
Max remembers running up these winding stairs with Chloe, many years ago. Sneakers thudding up the steps. Giddy laughter that made her sides ache. Chloe always made it a race, and she always won. Max would always freeze, breathless, when she neared the top of the stairs. Chloe would always be waiting for her at the top. That high up, the stairs changed: they grew steeper, more frightening. Max would never have gone up them at all if Chloe didn’t call down to her, egging her on. “C’mon, Maxine! I dare you! I double dare you!” Max never could resist Chloe’s dares.
The view was always worth it in the end.
The lighthouse feels so different now. It used to be their playground, and now it’s their shelter from the storm. Max barely even gave this room a passing glance as a child; she and Chloe just went straight for the stairs, eager to get to the top and look down over the Bays of Arrrcadia, pretending to be in the crow’s nest of their pirate ship. Max is fairly sure she can’t handle the stairs right now, and she definitely can’t handle the stress it would put Chloe through if she found out she’d exerted herself that way in her absence. So instead she continues pacing slowly around the small, circular room at the base of the lighthouse, investigating the details of her surroundings.
The room is, in a word, utilitarian. Emergency lights line the ceiling, shedding a dull orange light. As far as Max can see, they seem to follow the curve of the stairwell as well. Along the wall Max finds a fire extinguisher, an AED unit, and an empty bracket that Max presumes held the first aid kit that’s been dumped onto the floor. The emergency blanket must have come from there. Bandaids and small packets of ointments are scattered on the floor around the open kit where it’s been abandoned.
There’s a small rack of informational brochures about the lighthouse and its history leaning against the curving wall. It stands next to a rickety-looking welcome desk with a rolling chair behind it and one wooden chair in front of it, the twin of the one Chloe had used to wedge the broken door shut. On the other side of the desk, there’s a door leading to the smallest bathroom that Max has ever seen. When she opens the door inward, it only opens part-way before the toilet stops it. She squeezes herself into the room to inspect it, careful not to catch the blanket on the door. Once inside, she can barely turn around in the gap between the sink and the toilet. The paper towel dispenser is nearly empty, in contrast to the wastebasket overflowing with crumpled towels. The liquid hand soap dispenser is slightly better, being nearly half-full. The toilet paper roll hanging next to the toilet is also about half finished, but she’s relieved to find a spare roll wedged between the sink and the pipe under it. She turns the taps on the sink and is shocked and delighted to find that water flows from it. It’s ice cold but it’s running water, and that’s more than she had hoped for after the storm. She resists the temptation to splash the water on her face to refresh herself: she’s pretty sure dousing herself with cold water after a brush with hypothermia would be a bad idea.
Before she returns to the main room, her reflection in the small, filthy mirror above the sink catches her eye. She looks even worse than she’d expected. Her hair is a mess, her skin even more than usually pale, and the circles under her eyes as dark as bruises. Her narrow shoulders look bony, almost skeletal. She draws the blanket up over them, embarrassed, and frees one hand to futilely attempt to smooth her hair down. No wonder Chloe’s so worried about her. She looks awful. Like she hasn’t had a proper meal or a decent night’s sleep in a month. Is this an “I-almost-just-died” thing, or is it an “I’ve-been-abusing-my-mysterious-time-powers” thing, she wonders. Uncomfortable with the hollow-eyed strangeness of her reflection, Max takes one last pointless swipe at her tangled hair and returns to the main room, struggling through the narrow opening of the door and turning to close it after her.
The lighthouse door scrapes open behind her, and Max turns toward the sound. “Your hero has returned!” Chloe keeps her tone light-hearted, but even in the low light Max can see that her eyes look red and puffy. “Hey, you’re up!” Chloe walks in and sets down a sizeable bundle of supplies on the floor. “You feeling better?” Her knees are a mess of mud, her clothes look wetter than when she left, and she absolutely stinks of cigarettes. Max practically dives into her arms. “Woah, hey! Take it easy, Tiger.” She returns Max’s embrace, briefly tangling her fingers in Max’s still-damp hair. “You almost knocked me right off my feet. You should be resting.”
“I’m just… so glad you’re here,” she mumbles into the warmth of Chloe’s shoulder.
Chloe relaxes into the hug, resting her cheek against the top of Max’s head. “I’m glad you’re here, too. Ya big goop.” She squeezes Max, then lets go and steps away. “Now, come on, let’s get you into some dry clothes. You keep hugging me dressed like that, I’m gonna end up with a tinfoil fetish.”
“And you’re blushing again. Careful, Caulfield, that kind of thing goes to a girl’s head.” Chloe squats down and unties her bundle, pulling items out and setting them on the ground. Max smiles when the faded black fabric of the bundle unfurls, revealing itself to be a somewhat weathered Jolly Roger. “I couldn’t carry the whole zombie kit--”
“Are you really going to keep calling it that?”
“--but I grabbed enough to get us through tomorrow afternoon at least,” Chloe continues without acknowledging the interruption. “Think you can handle food? I’ve mostly got granola bars, but there’s a couple of these soup things, too.” She holds up a retort package of beef stew and squishes it demonstratively. “They’re pretty soft, if that’s easier. Better heated up, but whatever. And I’ve got a flashlight in case the emergency lights go out. Hopefully it still works. And, um, clothes.” She hesitates, then picks up one of the piles of folded clothes and sets it before Max without looking at her. “I’ve got a shammy in here, too, you can use to dry your hair better. It isn’t the cleanest thing in the world, but at least it’s dry. And you can wear my backup beanie, too. Keep your head warm.” She tosses an olive green beanie down on top of the clothes.
“Chloe, you’re amazing.”
Chloe shrugs. “Not really. I just like to be ready, y’know, in case I ever need to go off the grid.”
“No, really, I mean it. Not just for getting the supplies and bringing them up here, but… everything. For taking care of me in the storm, getting me out of the rain…”
“It wasn’t a big deal.”
“You broke a door down for me.”
“I like breaking things. And technically I only broke the lock. Knock it off, Max; you know compliments give me a headache.”
“You saved my life.”
“Yeah, well, even if that’s true we’re still far from being even on that score.” Chloe gets to her feet, still dodging Max’s eyes.
“But you did it without any help. You didn’t have any magical, fucked up superpowers; you just… knew what to do to save me, and you did it. That’s amazing. You’re amazing.”
Max reaches for Chloe’s hand, but Chloe steps toward the door. “Seriously, it’s not a big deal. Rachel’s, um. She was really into, like, hiking and camping, stuff like that. Taught me some basic survival skills so I wouldn’t, y’know. Get us eaten by a bear or anything.”
There’s a sore spot there that Max knows not to press right now. Instead, she kneels carefully and picks up the offered pile of clothes. There’s a large damp spot on the front of the shirt. She touches it curiously. “Is it still raining out there?”
“...Um. Sure. Little bit.” Chloe turns quickly. “I’ll, ah, wait outside. While you get changed.” Her voice sounds tight. Her shoulders are tense.
“In the rain? Are you sure?”
“I’ll be fine. Honestly, I’m dying for another smoke.” Chloe tries for a reassuring smile, but it comes out looking ghoulish. “I’ll be right outside if you need me.” She’s out the door before Max can protest further. She leaves the door open a couple of inches so that Max can see she’s not going far, keeping her back to the opening and lighting her cigarette.
Max doesn’t take her eyes off of her. If she blinks she might be gone again. She changes into the clothes Chloe brought her as quickly as she can, feeling a bit shy even though nobody else is around and Chloe is making a point of giving her privacy. She towels off her hair as thoroughly as possible with the shammy, caring less than she would have expected that it’s stained and smells a bit like motor oil. Is it weird to sniff your best friend’s hat before putting it on? Max suspects it probably is, double-checking to make sure Chloe’s back is still turned before doing it anyway. It smells like cigarettes and pot smoke and Chloe’s hair when she hasn’t had time for a shower. It should probably be off-putting, but it comforts her.
However Chloe might try to deny it, she is amazing. She’s a goddamned miracle. And Max isn’t going to let her out of her sight.
“The coast is clear, Captain Bluebeard. Come back inside.”
Chloe glances over her shoulder, blowing out a long stream of smoke. “Yeah? You’re decent?” She takes one last drag on her cigarette, blazing it down to the filter, then drops it to the ground and crushes it out under her boot. “Not gonna greet me at the door wearing nothing but a tinfoil toga again, are you?” She pushes the door open. When she sees Max, her smile twitches. She clears her throat. Her eyes dart away. “Yeah, that’s… good. That should help keep you warm.” Her voice is stiff, the humor drained out of it.
There’s something in the way her posture shifts that breaks Max’s heart. The way her arms fold over her chest, not to be defiant or cocky but to shield herself. The way her shoulders sag like they’re bearing the weight of the world. The way she’ll look anywhere but at Max.
“What’s the matter?”
Max steps forward, reaching to touch Chloe’s arm. Chloe whips her arm away and steps back, bumping against the wall. “Chloe, what--”
“Don’t--” Chloe leans against the wall, pretending that was what she meant to be doing all along. “You shouldn’t touch me. My clothes are still wet.”
“Are you cereal right now?”
Chloe laughs in spite of herself. “You are such a fucking dork.”
“True, but I’m not going to shatter into a million pieces just because your clothes are a little wet.”
Chloe glances at her, then away again. “You might.”
Max studies her for a long, silent moment. Even though Chloe’s eyes are averted, the redness of them is still visible. Max tugs at the front of the shirt Chloe brought back for her. It’s still damp there. “It isn’t raining anymore, is it.”
Chloe sucks her lower lip between her teeth and doesn’t say anything.
And really Max has known it since the moment Chloe set the clothes out for her. The style of them is familiar, and the fit of them. And the scent. “These are her clothes, aren’t they. Rachel’s.”
Chloe gives a guilty swallow and nods with a single, stiff jerk of her head.
“Chloe, I…” Max doesn’t know what to say. She wants to go to Chloe and wrap her in a hug that will make everything okay, but she knows that that would only upset her more right now. “I’m so sorry.”
Chloe nods again. A deep, wracking sob escapes her. She clenches and unclenches her fists. She keeps her mouth shut tight to prevent any more sobbing, instead huffing each hard breath through her nose. Max wants to tell her that it’s okay for her to cry, but she can’t get the words out. Chloe squeezes her eyes shut for a long time. When her breathing finally calms, she opens them and looks at Max, forcing her eyes to stay on her. “I know. It’s… not your fault.” She takes a deep breath and lets it out, slow and shaky. “It’s just… hard seeing you dressed like that.” Her jaw clenches and her eyes sheepishly slip away again. “Last time, y’know, it was... kind of hot, dressing you up in her clothes,” she confesses. She shakes her head, face twisted with disgust. “But now… Now that I know she’s…” A muscle in her jaw pulses as she grinds her teeth for a few seconds, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “It’s just… hard.”
It’s then that Max realizes how little time has passed for Chloe since they found Rachel. She can hardly keep track of how long it’s been for herself: she’s moved back and forth in time so much that it might be full weeks since she lived through that horrible moment. But for Chloe it’s only been, what, a day? Not even that? And Chloe had loved her. Loves her still. She pushes down a selfish flicker of jealousy. She knows all too well, better than most people would, how it feels to see someone you love ripped away from you. She can’t fault Chloe for her pain. She wouldn’t fault her for wanting to rip the whole damn world apart.
She doesn’t reach out to Chloe again. She simply is there. Eventually, Chloe reaches out and touches Max’s hand. She glances up again, finding Max’s eyes, and manages a faint smile. “You do look really cute in my hat, though.”
Max squeezes her fingers gently. “Thanks.”
Chloe squeezes back. She drops her hand back to her side and clears her throat. “Anyway… I should probably get changed myself. These clothes are starting to chafe like you wouldn’t believe. And you don’t even want to know where.”
Max chuckles and shakes her head fondly. “Okay, sure. You want me to wait outside?”
“No.” Chloe’s response is so firm that it startles them both. “I mean-- It’s still kinda cold out there, and…” Max gives her a skeptical look. “You…” Chloe sighs. “Look, just stay in here for now. You don’t want to go out there yet. It’s… not a pretty scene.” She gives Max a smile that almost manages to mask her anxiety with a veneer of cockiness. “Anyway, if you’re still feeling shy you can shield those pretty blue eyes with your tin toga. You can pretend not to peek and I’ll pretend not to notice.”
“I-- Wha-- Pfft! I didn’t peek!” Max sputters.
“Mhm, sure you didn’t. And I didn’t notice. See? We’re good at this.” Chloe picks up the emergency blanket and tosses it to Max. Max lets it fall to the ground, folding her arms over her chest defiantly and leaning against the wall with exaggerated nonchalance. “Now,” Chloe continues, “avert your eyes lest ye be turned to stone.” There’s a hint of a dare in her voice. Max glowers at her. Chloe grips the hem of her tank top. “For reals, Caulfield. Shirt coming off in 3… 2… 1…”
Max blushes and pulls her borrowed beanie down over her eyes, pretending not to hear Chloe’s teasing laughter. She slides her back down the wall and sits red-faced in the dark until Chloe’s body finally drops down next to her. “Coast’s clear, Long Max Silver. Your virtue is still intact.” She nudges Max’s arm. “Dunno what you’re so worked up about, anyway. It’s not like I didn’t moon you all the time when we were tweens.”
A laugh bursts out of Max at the unexpected reminder. “You mooned everybody.”
“And yet I was never popular with anyone but you. Funny, that.”
“Also, I’m not ‘worked up’ about anything. Get over yourself.”
“Tell that to your face.” Chloe tugs her hat back to uncover Max’s eyes. “So, are you hungry?” She smirks, leaning in close and dropping her voice low. “Or are you just thirsty?” She looks different in her backup clothes: softer, more like the girl Max used to know. Jeans well worn in but not nearly as tattered, feet socked but shoeless, the long sleeves of her thermal undershirt hiding her tattoo, a t-shirt for a band Max has never heard of layered over it, bullet necklace tucked away beneath the layers… Max can almost imagine that she had never left, that nothing had ever changed, that they were still the same people they had been back then. If it weren’t for the mischievous look on Chloe’s face so close to hers and the way her uncovered blue hair hangs in damp strands around that face the same way it did when they broke into the Blackwell pool...
Max shoves her away playfully, trying to will away the racing of her heart. “Ugh! You are un-freaking-believable.” She places a hand over her own stomach. “I actually am hungry, though, if that was a serious question. And thirsty.” A wolfish grin spreads across Chloe’s face and Max quickly adds, “Like, actually thirsty, not urban dictionary thirsty. Think you can turn off the charm long enough to eat?”
“I don’t know; can you?” Chloe clambers to her feet with a chuckle and walks over to the supplies. “Okay, okay. Let’s get some food and water in you.” She grabs a pouch of stew, a collapsible camping spork, and the bottle of water, opening them each in turn and handing them to Max before sitting down next to her. “You should probably eat slow. Your body’s been through a lot today.”
Max tries to take her advice, but it isn’t easy when her stomach starts growling ravenously at the first scent of food. Chloe’s watching her like a hawk, though, so she makes herself chew slowly instead of inhaling the entire package at once. “Aren’t you going to eat?” she asks after a couple of minutes, when her hunger has been sated enough for her to start processing thoughts again.
“Nah, I’m good. I had some down at the truck.” Chloe picks up the water bottle sitting next to Max and raises it toward her. “Here, don’t forget to drink.” She watches with a satisfied smile as Max takes the bottle and lifts it to her lips. “Small sips,” she advises. “Don’t want to make yourself sick.”
“When’d you get so good at taking care of people?” Max asks between sips.
Chloe leans her back against the wall and shrugs slightly. “Did a lot of partying after you left.” She chuckles at Max’s puzzled expression. “Nursed a lot of people through hangovers,” she explains. She rubs the back of her neck and looks somewhat sheepish. “Myself included.”
Max nods vaguely and resumes digging into the pouch of food, keeping her mouth occupied because she doesn’t really know how to respond to that. It’s not like she can really relate. “This actually isn’t terrible,” she says with a slight note of surprise now that the food is starting to register with her taste buds. It’s weird eating cold stew, the texture coming across slimier than she’d like, but the taste is better than she’d expected.
Chloe gives a sarcastic but amused huff. “Glad to hear it’s up to your royal standards, Queen Maxine,” she teases. “For a minute there I was worried I’d have to haul a microwave up the hill. And, you know, fix the power grid.”
“Ugh,” Max groans, “gross. Don’t call me that.” She swallows another cold, lumpy mouthful of soup. “A microwave would be really nice, though. Or a campfire.” She glances around the small, enclosed space. “Probably a bad idea in here, though.”
Chloe draws her knees up and rests her chin against them, gazing at Max affectionately. “Y’know, maybe we should try to swing by Casa Price before we book it outta town. Sergeant Paranoia’s got a whole apocalypse-stash of self-heating military surplus grub in the garage we could raid for road-snacks.”
Max snorts, almost choking. “‘Sergeant Paranoia’s apocalypse-stash.’ This from the girl with a literal zombie apocalypse kit in her truck.”
“Hey, it pays to be prepared. I never said it didn’t. Are you complaining?”
“Not at all.” Max raises a sporkful of food toward Chloe. “Sure I can’t tempt you?”
“Oh, you can tempt me, Caulfield, but not with that.” Chloe smiles flirtatiously, but it doesn’t quite touch her eyes. It’s such a small thing that Max almost doesn’t notice it at first. By the time Max has emptied the pouch and most of the water bottle, it’s become a definite pattern: a suggestive comment here, a tease there, followed every time by a smile that falters before it reaches Chloe’s eyes. In those moments - the moments where Chloe’s smile seems to die on her lips - Max can feel a subtle shift in her gaze, as if Chloe is looking not at her but through her. As if she’s not seeing Max at all. As if she’s looking for someone else.
It’s warmer in Rachel’s clothes, the flannel and denim soft and cozy where the emergency blanket had been awkward and crinkly. Even so, it’s hard to be comfortable.
For whatever reason, this chapter took forever and a day to sort out. I spent way too much time figuring out the food for one thing (most emergency/camping food is freeze-dried, and I wanted prep to be really straight-forward). To keep up to date on progress for NTTWIO & other fics, occasional sneak peaks, and more of me overthinking small details, check out my tumblr: https://ghost-in-the-hella.tumblr.com/
Chapter 4: 1.4 Beacon of Light
The top of the lighthouse is a good place to get a look at everything. Everything.
Still 10/11, right around the golden hour.
Chapter title snagged from the Engine 54 song Eyes Wide Open.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 4: Beacon of Light
Blue smoke trails up from Chloe’s cigarette, drifting cloudlike out over the bay before it fades into the golden sky. The sun is huge and glowing where it touches the horizon. It paints everything with its color, soft and warm and brilliant, the waves of the bay undulating like molten gold. It’s… fucking beautiful. It’s prettier than it has any right to be.
It feels like the world has already forgotten. Like the sky has forgotten its fury; like the clouds have forgotten how they raged; like the waves have forgotten all the souls they swallowed.
It’s only been a few hours since Chloe’s white-knuckle drive through the storm to get them to the beach, dodging chunks of flying debris big enough to sweep her truck off the road while Max quietly panicked in the passenger’s seat and waited for her present to catch up with her past. How could the world forget so quickly? Chloe turns away from the too-beautiful waves and looks inland, where the storm has not yet been forgotten. She takes a deep drag, pulls the smoke into her lungs until they ache, and hopes it’ll calm her nerves. It helps a little. Not enough. Definitely not enough to make her forget.
Just a few short hours ago the lighthouse beacon shone brightly through the monstrous storm, its light blazing in a wide arc over land and water. Its light would’ve been small comfort to any ship that saw it through the storm, but it served its purpose as a guide nevertheless. Chloe had followed that light up the hill as she staggered toward her destination, half-blinded by the slashing rain and impeded by the weight of Max’s feet dragging through mud as she muttered in her delirium.
Max had told her that the lighthouse would keep them safe. That was the only thought Chloe had allowed into her mind through the harrowing uphill trudge. Not thoughts about what caused the storm or what it might do. Not thoughts about where Max had gone in her head, or the horrible words that kept slipping from her tongue, or whether she would ever come back again. Not thoughts about Rachel, or Nathan, or Mark Jefferson, or how many times, how many times Max had pulled her back from death. Only this simple equation, as if it had been carved into her brain with her pocket knife: Max + Chloe + lighthouse = safe.
Just a few short hours ago Chloe had watched that beacon of safety and refuge extinguish as it was struck from its perch and sent tumbling into the waves below. Her heart had fallen with it. If it had only been her - if she hadn’t been responsible for Max’s safety - she might have given up right there and then: less than a quarter of a mile from shelter. With Max’s limp arm slung over her shoulder she had climbed dutifully onward, the near-constant flashes of lightning illuminating the flooded and all but unrecognizable path. The lighthouse, when she’d reached it, was more horrifying up close. The lantern had taken with it a substantial portion of the lighthouse itself when it fell. Part of the winding metal staircase rose from the gaping wound like a spine exposed to the elements. Maybe half the balcony remained, its edges jagged and uneven like a mouthful of broken teeth.
While the storm still rampaged, Chloe had only had a few seconds to take in this devastation before Max came to. When she had gone out to the truck afterward, the state of the lighthouse had barely seemed worth noting compared to the total destruction which surrounded it. But in the hour or so that Max has been having her post-meal nap downstairs, Chloe has had time to get a proper look at the damage to the lighthouse up close and personal. And up close, it’s worse than she’d imagined. Even the golden glow of the setting sun doesn’t soften it. The surviving stairs dangle terrifyingly into space. The balcony looks ready to crumble and give way completely.
The top of the lighthouse is probably the worst possible place for Chloe to be, so naturally that’s exactly where she is.
She doesn’t know why, but she can’t handle Max’s stillness. She knows Max needs to rest - she’s the one who persuaded her to do so - but seeing her so still and quiet, sleeping alone on the floor in Rachel’s clothes and the rumpled emergency blanket that saved her life, makes Chloe so uneasy she can’t stay in the same room. She wants to shake Max awake and see the light come on in her eyes. She wants to see her smile, hear her voice, hear her laugh, feel her warmth.
She knows she should stay with Max and watch over her. She owes her that much. But she can’t. It makes her sick with guilt, but she can’t. She can’t sit still with Max like that, and she worries that the constant pacing, toe-tapping, and finger-drumming will keep Max from getting the rest she needs to recover.
And since Chloe can’t stand to be the one place where she should be, she finds the worst place to be and she goes there instead. It’s a terrible idea, which she knows. For one thing, it would be a hell of a way to show her gratitude if she fell. For another, she has a much clearer view of everything from here.
All of it.
Especially the cloud of smoke still hovering over the black spot in the landscape where the Two Whales Diner ought to be. Chloe wonders how much this Max remembers of the time between the End of the World Party and the, well, actual end of the world. Does she remember telling Chloe? Does she remember breaking down and telling her everything, a tearful confession as she bent over the pages of her journal? About the Dark Room, about Victoria in there with her, about San Francisco, about Chloe dead in the junkyard next to Rachel, about everything?
About her mother’s diner and how all it would take is one shovel, one lousy shovel of sand to prevent it from going up in flames?
One fucking shovel of sand.
Chloe isn’t even sure that what she’s feeling is anger. Either that fire inside of her has burned out or it’s burning so intensely that she can’t even feel it anymore, her emotions playing in such a high key that they’ve canceled out into a white noise that feels almost more like awe.
“Ahoy there! How fares the old crow’s nest?”
Chloe’s so startled by the sudden voice that she drops her half-smoked cigarette onto her pants. “Shit!” she hisses through her teeth, swatting at her thigh. “What’re you doing, dude?” She picks up the cigarette from the ground between her feet, brushes off the filtered end, then pops it back between her lips as she moves to look down the staircase. There’s Max, standing in the same spot of the winding stairs that always froze her cold, waiting same as ever for Chloe to call down and dare her to come up. “I thought you were taking a nap.”
“I was. Then I woke up and you were gone.” Max’s voice is small, suddenly, and Chloe’s heart sinks low in her chest.
“Needed a smoke?”
Max waits. “I wasn’t sure where you went.”
“Well, you figured it out.” Chloe winces. Her words sound harsher than she feels. “You should be taking it easy,” she says, forcing her voice to be gentle. “You had a near-death experience today; you shouldn’t be pushing yourself with all these stairs.”
Max’s reply is so quiet Chloe can barely hear it, but it cuts through her like a knife. “You did, too.”
It isn’t fair. None of this is fair. Chloe takes an impatient drag on her cigarette. She doesn’t even taste it, but it burns her throat a little. “I’m not daring you,” she announces, turning and leaning against the railing. Considering that half of it is gone, it bears her weight with surprisingly little protest. “I’ll be down in a minute. You can wait there.”
“I’m not ten, Chloe. You don’t have to dare me to do anything.” There’s a moment of silence, then Chloe hears the metallic clank of Max’s foot on the steep, narrow stairs. She turns in surprise. Sure enough, a minute later Max emerges looking both haggard and triumphant.
Chloe feels sick. Of all times for Max to grow a spine, why now? “Y-you shouldn’t… Fuck, Max, it’s dangerous up here.”
But Max can be just as stubborn as Chloe in her own way. She pushes past Chloe’s objections and climbs to the top of what’s left of the stairs. “What’re you talking about; it’s not that bad up--” It’s there that she hesitates once more, her brow furrowed. Chloe had frozen at that spot, too. The stairs were sturdy enough, but the gap between their breaking point and the ledge of the balcony’s remains was dizzying. It was only a distance of about a foot across, nothing that couldn’t easily be stepped over, but there was something about the combination of the twisted metal where the stairs broke off and the cavernous darkness that stretched down the height of the lighthouse below that made it seem much greater than that.
Max doesn’t look scared. The expression on her face is closer to confusion. “Do you feel that?” she whispers.
“Feel what?” Ash drops from the end of Chloe’s cigarette and scatters down the front of her shirt. She brushes it off with one hand.
If Max hears Chloe’s question, she doesn’t answer it. Her brow furrows. “What is that?” Her voice drops to a hiss, driving a spike of alarm into Chloe’s heart that sends her pulse soaring.
“What is what?” Chloe asks, keeping her voice as calm and placating as she can.
Max’s eyes dart frantically over the gap in front of her. “The railing…” she says after a long silence. She squints, her eyes still dancing over the emptiness as if she can read something there. “The stairs…” She shakes her head hard as if to clear it. She lifts her foot and before the thought can fully register in Chloe’s mind that Max is going to step directly into the void she’s already grabbing Max around the waist and pulling her over it to safety.
“Are you out of your fucking mind???”
Max’s hands close instinctively on Chloe’s shoulders to steady herself, but as soon as her feet are on solid ground she pushes back to look at her. She still doesn’t look scared, more dazed and vaguely concerned. And hurt, Chloe realizes with an immediate wave of guilt.
“I-I didn’t mean to yell at you, I--” Chloe thinks she should probably let go of her and give her space after shouting in her face, but she’s terrified that if she does Max will do something stupid and dangerous again and maybe her reflexes won’t be quick enough this time. A laugh that’s all nerves and absolutely no humor forces its way out of her lungs. “I panicked. I’m… I’m sorry.” Her hands are twisted into fists in the shirt Max is wearing, and they’re shaking slightly. She forces them to unclench, releasing her hold. She wipes her clammy palms on her pants. “Just… be careful, okay? This thing’s falling apart. You could get hurt.”
The confusion on Max’s face deepens, as does the concern. She lifts one hand from Chloe’s shoulder to touch her face lightly, and Chloe has the feeling that she’s now the one whose sanity is being called into question. Suddenly, Max is laughing. There’s an instability to it, a rush of hysterical giggles that seems ghoulishly out of place, and she leans forward quickly and braces her forehead against Chloe’s sternum.
Operating on instinct, Chloe’s arms rise to wrap themselves around Max in a comforting embrace. Her limbs stutter, stop short, fall back to her sides. Without panic driving her movements, it feels too strange to hold Max when she’s dressed like… that. It feels like a betrayal, but who exactly she’s betraying she isn’t really sure. “What? What’s funny?” She hates how tight her throat is, how tense her words come out.
“Nothing.” Max’s giggles subside. “It isn’t funny at all. Just… I’m used to being the one worried about you, and now you’re…” She lets go and steps back. Chloe’s hand reaches out to grab her, then stops. They’re both on solid footing. “It really isn’t funny.”
“It really isn’t,” Chloe agrees. She stoops to pick up the cigarette smoldering on the ground. She doesn’t even remember spitting it out. From the state of the filter, it looks like her jaw clamped down on it pretty hard; if she’s not careful, biting cigarettes in half is going to become a habit. She flicks some grit off of it, then returns it to her mouth. She needs the nicotine more than she needs to appear dignified in this moment.
“Oh, man, it’s kind of trippy up here…” Max’s eyes look like they’re having a hard time focusing. It does nothing to calm Chloe’s heightened nerves.
“Yeah? I guess that’s one way of putting it.” She makes herself take a step back, leaning back against the rail of the balcony once more. The gesture looks casual, but she’s fully prepared to use the rail for leverage if she needs to leap to the rescue again. She takes a long drag on her cigarette, wishing it were something stronger, as Max joins her at the rail. Chloe turns and looks out at the bay with her.
It’s easy to pretend, looking out at the water. If you can ignore the oppressive feeling in the air, can keep your eyes from wandering toward the land, can shake the nauseating vision that lingers like an afterimage over the waves.
Max frowns as if she’s reading Chloe’s thoughts. “It feels… wrong.” She shakes her head.
“Yeah.” Chloe finishes her cigarette and flicks it off the top of the lighthouse. “It’s fucked up. C’mon, let’s go back downstairs.” She puts an arm around Max’s waist to guide her, but Max slips free. “Max…”
But it’s too late. Max follows the railing, turning toward land. Her breath catches in her throat in an audible gasp.
“Max, please don’t do this to yourself…”
“Oh, god… Oh my god…”
Chloe gets to her side in time to steady her when her knees buckle and give way. “It isn’t your fault,” she tells her. It’s a lie, but it doesn’t feel like one when she says it. It sounds like one to Max, whose face contorts into a grief-stricken sneer. “It isn’t your fault,” Chloe asserts, and maybe if she says it enough it’ll become true. “It isn’t.”
Chloe wishes that Max would look away the way she did during the storm. She shouldn’t have to see this. It isn’t Max’s burden to carry. It really isn’t her fault. It’s Chloe’s.
Because Chloe’s been staring at this for an hour, and she still can’t believe it. This is how much Max loves her. This is what it costs to love her.
Nobody has ever loved her that much before. She’s not sure what to do with it. She’s not sure that she’s worth it.
And she hopes against hope that Max isn’t thinking the same thing.
Max says nothing for a long time. She just shakes her head sadly from time to time and lets Chloe hold onto her. “It’s wrong,” she says finally.
Chloe’s heart constricts in her chest. Her arms tighten around Max subconsciously.
“I thought that, somehow… when the storm was gone…” She makes a vague, confusing gesture with her hand that Chloe doesn’t follow, then tips her head up to look at her. “You feel it, too, don’t you?”
Max frowns and looks back out at the ruins of their town, all golden and smoldering in the dying light. “That feeling, like…” She sighs, annoyed at her inability to express what’s on her mind. “I thought it would, I don’t know, wash everything clean, like it would… Like it would be over. But it… Don’t you feel it?”
Apart from the black smoke, the sky is clear. Chloe’s pretty sure she doesn’t feel anything. Worried about Max, maybe. But beyond that… Static. White noise. Numb. But the way that Max is looking at her, she obviously is expecting something else. “I’m not sure what you want me to feel.”
“It’s not what I want you to feel, it’s… The storm is gone, isn’t it?” She waves her hand out across the placid expanse of sky. “It’s over. It got what it wanted.” She closes a hand over Chloe’s arm and compresses. “Got its goddamned pound of flesh.” Her voice is bitter as ash. “So why doesn’t it feel like it’s gone?”
“You don’t feel it, do you.” Max suddenly sounds exhausted. It’s almost an accusation. “That hum in the air, that… feeling, almost like nausea and almost like electricity…” She sighs and sinks deeper into Chloe’s arms. “Never mind.”
It’s petty, maybe, but Chloe feels stung by Max’s resignation. She thought that after everything they’ve been through together they were past this bullshit thing of shutting each other out. So what if Chloe doesn’t feel… humming, or nausea, or whatever? She can’t twist time in the palm of her hand, either, but Max made her believe it anyway. Why can’t she explain this to her, too?
Because she’s fucking exhausted, Chloe reminds herself. Because it’s been less than a day, and they’re both barely keeping their heads together, and maybe it simply isn’t worth the energy it would take for Max to convince her.
So Chloe just holds her a little tighter, and when she stares out at the fresh carcass of Arcadia Bay she tries to see it through Max’s eyes. It does look wrong, and in more than just the obvious “I spent my literal entire life in this shithole of a town and now it’s barely recognizable as a town at all” sort of way that one would expect. The thought had occurred to her earlier, once or twice, but she hadn’t really investigated it too deeply.
“Something definitely does feel off,” Chloe says, searching for the right words to describe the vague feeling that’s been tickling unexamined at the back of her mind. “I don’t know if it’s what you mean, but…”
Max tips her head back again, eyes curious and hopeful, and Chloe suddenly finds herself nervous that she’s going to disappoint her. Chloe started talking before she finished thinking, and normally that doesn’t trouble her but as soon as she sees that expectant look she realizes how much she doesn’t want to fuck this up.
“Well…” Chloe presses on carefully, “Isn’t it too quiet?”
Max raises an eyebrow, and Chloe already feels like she’s fucked this up. “Too quiet?” she repeats back.
Chloe nods, even though “quiet” isn’t quite what she means, not really. “Yeah, sort of…” She sighs, frustrated. “Shouldn’t there be… I mean, noise, movement, something?” It isn’t coming out right. Max looks as confused as Chloe feels as she struggles to put this sensation into words. Only it’s such a vague thing, this feeling: barely formed as a thought in her mind, let alone words in her mouth. “Shouldn’t there be, I don’t know, helicopters o-or something like that?”
Chloe’s confusion tips easily over into anger. “Or something. Ambulances, fire trucks. Fuck, news vans. The weird weather stuff’s been all over the news all week. But a big fucking tornado wipes out an entire town and all of a sudden nobody is interested? Where’s the camera crews? Fuck’s sakes, where’s the first responders? Where’s fucking FEMA or whatever?”
There’s a good half a minute of silence while Max just stares back at her, blue eyes opaque and inscrutable. “Huh.” She shifts her gaze back to the town below, fingers absently stroking a soothing rhythm against Chloe’s forearm until Chloe remembers how breathe evenly again. “That’s not what I was thinking, but you’re totally right. Why isn’t there anybody moving down there?”
From the top of the lighthouse, the remains of Arcadia Bay look utterly still. Apart from the occasional bird overhead, there are no apparent signs of life. Which is bullshit. People survive natural disasters all the time. But even knowing this, it still feels like Max and Chloe are the only two people alive in Arcadia Bay.
It feels like they’re the only two people alive in the world.
They stand and watch the stillness until the last rays of sunset disappear and the town goes so dark they can’t see anything anymore. The town is black and illegible, but the sky opens up with more stars than either of them have ever seen before. It is, like the sunset on the bay, more beautiful than it has any right to be.
There’s no light anywhere below them, save the emergency lights still glowing inside the lighthouse. They follow them down the stairs, Chloe escorting Max over the gap in the staircase, and back into the round, empty room that gave them shelter from the storm.
There are too many things for them to say, and so they fall into silence. It’s still early, too early for Chloe to sleep but she’s completely worn out. They curl up together between the emergency blanket and the Jolly Roger on the hard floor. Max nestles right up against Chloe like she belongs there, like she’s always belonged there. She sleeps with her mouth close to Chloe’s throat so she can feel her heartbeat against her lips. “You’re alive,” she whispers, once, softly into Chloe’s skin, an answer to a question unasked except perhaps in whatever dream she’s having. The words and the warm breath that carries them send a thrill up Chloe’s spine, followed by a pang of guilt.
Chloe holds her close and breathes her in. She can still smell a hint of Rachel on her clothes, but already that scent is nearly gone. Max smells like the rain. She smells like saltwater air, like electricity, like warmth. She smells faintly of sweat and, beneath that, a trace of soap, something sweet and floral. And still beneath that, another scent, one indefinable except as the scent of Max because it doesn’t smell like anything else. The scent of a hundred different sleepovers, a hundred different pirate adventures, a hundred different secrets whispered in pillow forts. And it’s this soft wave of nostalgia that lets Chloe’s mind relax and drift off to sleep.
I’ve been decent about sticking to the monthly release schedule, but there’s a good chance Chapter 5 might take longer. It needs a pretty drastic overhaul, and winter break is going to be a heavy writing/research time for my thesis so the chapter won’t be able to take high priority. Hoping it’ll be out sometime in February. Check my tumblr for updates (I know, I know, tumblr is a sinking ship, but I’m still on it for now): https://ghost-in-the-hella.tumblr.com/
Chapter 5: 1.5 Eye of the Beholder
It’s a brand new day, and Max is tired of being stuck in the lighthouse. What could go wrong?
10/12, morning. That’s right, it’s finally not the day of the storm anymore!
Okay, mid-May is definitely not February. Apologies for the 5-month delay between chapters while I was finishing my degree, and thank you for your patience. Since it’s been a bit, you can bring yourself back up to speed with this recap if needed.
Chapter title snagged from my favorite Twilight Zone episode.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 5: Eye of the Beholder
Max wakes to the taste of the salt on Chloe’s skin and the steady pulsing of her heartbeat against her lips. Her own heart picks up its pace when the world comes into focus and her mind registers these sensations for what they are. The floor is hard and cold through the thin fabric of the pirate flag and the mylar blanket over them is crinkly and uncomfortable, but Max feels none of these things. She feels Chloe’s arms around her, the gentle stirring of Chloe’s breath in her hair, Chloe’s bare leg slung warm and heavy over her thigh, Chloe’s pulse strong and calm.
She feels Chloe. She feels Chloe in her arms and she’saliveshe’saliveshe’salive, and she’s so close.
She’s so close that Max can feel her eyelashes brushing Chloe’s throat each time she blinks, so close she can’t even see anything that isn’t Chloe, can’t smell or feel or taste anything that isn’t Chloe.
It’s almost too much.
It’s not nearly enough.
Max wants to hold onto this moment forever. She wants this more fiercely than she ever has before and in a way that no photograph could ever capture. The feeling overwhelms her: a swelling in her chest that’s all but unbearable, a surge of emotion that isn’t sure if it’s joy or pain or love or fear. She doesn’t want it to stop, but if it doesn’t stop it might tear her apart.
She wants to live here. She wants to bury her face deeper still into Chloe’s neck and let herself sink utterly into their embrace. Her arms constrict around Chloe, and she has to hold herself back from squeezing as hard as she wants to for fear of hurting her. She’s rewarded with a soft, wordless mumble into her hair and a momentary tightening of Chloe’s arms around her.
Eventually, Max forces herself to let go and reluctantly extricates herself from Chloe’s warmth. She could bask in it forever, but the urge feels selfish and she’s a little afraid of what might happen if she gives in to it. She stands and stretches, turning and twisting to release the stiffness in her muscles. Some of her joints pop unpleasantly.
They must’ve crashed hard last night. Apparently she didn’t even think to take off any of her layers first, crawling into their makeshift bed fully clothed before conking out. She’s a little surprised that after all the resting she did during the day she was still able to sleep through the night. Not too surprised, though. She always did sleep better next to Chloe.
Chloe’s still out cold, even with the sharp light of morning beaming down from one of the small lighthouse windows directly onto her face. She looks so different when she’s sleeping. Softer. Her face is open and untroubled, the way it was for so many years before Max came back into her life. Max has missed that face.
It feels like since Max’s return to Arcadia Bay, she’s seen Chloe’s defenses more than she’s seen Chloe. Always guarded, always closed off. Always wearing her thorny attitude like a suit of armor, always wielding her sharp tongue like a weapon. Even when she acts like she’s letting Max in, Max can still feel her pushing her away.
Chloe was always tough, even when they were kids. She was the strong one. The brave one. The one who didn’t cry over every scraped knee. The one who never cowered when confronted by scolding parents or menacing bullies.
She’s even stronger now. She’s had to be. She’s the kind of strong that comes from carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders from far too young of an age and for far too long. Max hopes she’s not the kind of strong that wouldn’t know what to do if that burden were ever put down.
Max hopes she’s the kind of strong that can mend. She hopes she’s the kind of strong that can forgive.
Max shivers and tries to tell herself it’s only because it’s colder outside the blanket.
A sudden loud snore from Chloe snaps Max out of her contemplative funk. That much hasn’t changed, she reflects with a smile. Chloe’s snoring may be confined to just one or two brief snorts a night, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in volume.
With a shake of her head and a fond chuckle, Max pads quietly over to the clothes draped over the railing, turning her back to Chloe. If she looks at her, she’ll only want to crawl back under the blanket and into her arms again. She touches her clothes and is relieved to find them dry enough to change into. She pauses and listens to Chloe’s steady breathing, then risks a glance to make sure her eyes are still closed in sleep.
The clothes are stiff, crusted with salt and sand whipped into them by the storm. She brushes off as much of it as she can, but the ghost of it lingers. Unpleasant as her own clothes are right now, she’d rather wear them than stay in Rachel’s any longer than she has to. Rachel’s clothes are too full of memories, and none of them are hers.
She takes off the flannel and folds it, placing it on one of the steps. She follows it with Rachel’s t-shirt, swiftly replacing it with her own bra. She’s not sure if Rachel didn’t pack a bra and underwear in the emergency kit or if Chloe had decided that giving Rachel’s personal underclothes to Max would be a bridge too far, but either way it’s a relief to get her bra back on. Not that she needs much support, but not wearing one makes her feel a little exposed. She grabs her own t-shirt off the railing, but before she can put it on she’s startled by a sound she’s never heard before: loud and high, somewhere between the wailing of a ghost and the crying of a lost puppy. The shirt drops from her fingers as she whips her head around to find the source.
It’s Chloe, she realizes with a shock. She’s whimpering in her sleep.
Max approaches her gently and kneels beside her. Chloe’s face is scrunched up painfully. Her hands clasp at the emergency blanket, twitching and grasping. She’s pale and sweating, and the high-pitched keening she emits is utterly heartbreaking. Max stretches out a hand toward her, then hesitates. She doesn’t want to startle the sleeping woman, but she can’t bear the thought of Chloe dealing with whatever nightmare she’s having on her own. Tentatively, she strokes Chloe’s hair in as soothing of a gesture as she can, the way her mother used to stroke hers when she wasn’t feeling well. Chloe wakes with a sharp yelp, almost ripping the blanket as her hand spasms. Max falls backward onto her backside, hand still outstretched toward Chloe.
For a long moment both women stare at each other, frozen in place, Chloe still panting with fear and Max stricken with nerves. Chloe’s eyes dart around the room, unseeing for a long while before slowly gaining focus and settling on Max. Her breathing slowly calms and steadies. Max, realizing her hand is still out, lowers it slowly to her side. “Are you okay?” she asks finally.
Chloe blinks, her brain still trying to piece everything together and find solid purchase on reality. “Yeah… Yeah, I’m…” Her eyes flick quickly up and down Max’s figure sprawled awkwardly next to her. The look of horror fades from her expression. A look of pleasant surprise swiftly replaces it. “Oh! Hey there.” A smirk spreads over her lips. “You know, we’ve gotta stop meeting like this. Or, y’know, meet like this way more often.”
Max is puzzled for a second, then flushes with embarrassment when she realizes that her shirt is still where she dropped it on the floor several yards away. “I, uh, you were… I was just…” She splutters inarticulately.
Chloe’s eyes pass up and down her body again, slower this time, one eyebrow raised in a teasing suggestion. Max feels her face turn about six shades of red. Only Chloe Price could bounce back from a horrifying nightmare and promptly tease her into flustered insensibility. Max folds her arms over her chest. She isn’t even showing that much skin - Chloe has definitely seen more of her, and god she really doesn’t want to think about that right now - but there’s something appraising in Chloe’s look that makes her shy. Not uncomfortable, exactly, but shy. She’s seen the women on Chloe’s walls, the photo of Rachel in her wallet. She knows she doesn’t measure up. Not by any metric. “I… Y-you were having a… a nightmare or something.”
“So you decided to cheer me up by taking your shirt off? Your methods are a little unorthodox, but I like your style, Caulfield.”
Max laughs and shakes her head in disbelief. “I was worried about you, you ass.” She gets up. “But apparently you’re fine, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish getting changed.”
“Okay, awesome.” Chloe strikes a lounging pose, propping her head up on one raised fist and watching Max as she walks over to the railing to retrieve the rest of her clothes. “Don’t mind me. I’ll be right here.”
Max picks her shirt up from the ground and pulls it on. Chloe’s still grinning at her cartoonishly. “Are you cereal?”
“What?” Chloe asks, the picture of innocence.
“Are you really planning on staring at me the whole time?”
“I mean, you know I’m not big on planning but I’d hate to pass up a good opportunity,” she teases playfully. “Why? Feeling self-conscious?”
“Uh… Yeah, kinda.”
Chloe’s smile flickers but doesn’t go away. “Oh. Really?”
“Yes, really, so could you please just not?”
Looking chastened, Chloe closes her eyes and rolls onto her back so she’s facing the ceiling. “Yeah, of course. I… I was only kidding around; I didn’t mean to make you actually uncomfortable.” The playfulness has gone out of her voice. She sounds not hurt but tentative, nervous that she’s overstepped a line. She anxiously fidgets with her fingers. “...Were you always so shy about getting changed? We played dress-up all the time when we were younger. You didn’t seem to care about it then.”
When she’s sure that Chloe isn’t watching her anymore, Max unzips Rachel’s jeans. “It’s… different, now.” She snatches her underwear off the railing and trades it for the jeans as quickly as she can without falling over.
Max can’t quite read Chloe’s voice. Is she really that dense, or is she seeking confirmation? “If you don’t know, I’m not going to spell it out for you.” Max pulls on her own jeans before folding Rachel’s and adding them to the pile of her clothes. She looks back at Chloe, still patiently lying on her back with her eyes closed, the blanket drawn down on one side where Max had so recently been sleeping curled up in her arms. “Okay, I’m ready. You can open your eyes.”
Chloe waits a few more seconds before she does, rolling back onto her side to look at Max again. The cocky look is gone from her face, but her smile is encouraging. “I’m glad your clothes are dry. You look more… you.” Her smile broadens. “I notice you’re still wearing my hat, though.”
Max touches the beanie and returns her smile. “You want it back?”
“Nah, it looks good. Really pulls the whole look together.”
“Good, because I wasn’t going to give it back anyway.”
Chloe seems pleased by her response. She wrestles her way out of the tangled blanket and cracks her neck. “Shit, wish I had pillows in the zombie kit. This stone floor is killing me.” She freezes for a second and shoots Max a guilty glance. “Uh. It’s bothering my neck, I mean. How’re you feeling?”
Max stretches. “Kinda stiff,” she replies. “But not too bad. Better than I felt yesterday, that’s for sure. Steady on my feet. Head’s clear… Well, clear enough.” Her stomach growls and she places one hand on it. “Hungry.”
“We should have enough food left up here for breakfast.” Chloe gets up and tugs back on the bluejeans she’d discarded by their bedside last night. She snatches her bra up off the floor, gives it a sniff, then shrugs and starts putting it on under her shirt. Max catches sight of an expanse of bare stomach as Chloe maneuvers and quickly becomes absorbed in examining the floor. The stones are so rough and uneven: clearly it wasn’t designed for being slept on. It’s a wonder they never brained themselves by tripping over them when they used to run around the lighthouse like maniacs. Max looks up again when she hears Chloe rustling in their supply stash. “I’ll need to grab more food from the truck if we want anything crazy like lunch or dinner today, though,” Chloe continues. “Should probably start working on the truck, too. See if I can get that beast up and running.”
Something cold and heavy settles in the pit of Max’s stomach. “Alone?”
Chloe glances at Max over her shoulder as she picks up a couple of granola bars. “I mean, yeah. It’s a pretty long walk down the hill, and you should--”
“I just told you, I’m steady on my feet again. I feel fine. I want to go with you.”
Chloe walks over and holds out a granola bar to Max. She doesn’t take it. “Max…” Chloe sighs. “It’s not that I want to go alone. Believe me, I’d rather be holed up here with you. But the truck isn’t going to fix itself, and it’s our best bet for getting out of here. You may feel better, but I doubt you’re up for walking all the way out of town.”
Max folds her arms over her chest. “I’m going with you.”
“Max…” Chloe’s eyes swim with nameless feelings. Her voice goes soft and she lowers her outstretched arm to her side. “It… It really isn’t okay out there. I know you got a look yesterday, but… It’s bad enough from the top of the lighthouse. It’s way worse actually walking around in it.”
“I can handle it.”
The look that wrenches Chloe’s face might be pity, but it also might be doubt. “I can barely handle it, and I’m not the one--” She cuts herself off, almost biting her tongue in her abruptness. She shakes her head as if to erase the words. “Look. It’s bad. And I don’t want you to have…” She sighs. “Fuck. I don’t want to have to see you seeing it.” She looks embarrassed. “Is that… totally selfish?”
The meaning of Chloe’s words sinks in slowly. “You… You think I’m going to regret my decision?”
Chloe doesn’t respond verbally, but the agonized expression on her face is eloquent enough. She should never have to look that way. She should never have to doubt her worth in Max’s eyes.
Max steps forward slowly and with caution. “Chloe, I want you to listen to me very carefully.” Chloe’s eyes flicker toward Max then slide guiltily away again. She gives a small nod. She’s listening. Max reaches out and gently closes her fingers over Chloe’s hand. “There is no amount of destruction that would make me sorry that you’re alive. None.” Max trembles slightly under the weight of her conviction.
“None. I’m sure…” Max takes a deep breath to steady herself. “I’m sure that it won’t be easy. I’m sure that you’re right, and it’s going to be a waking nightmare out there. And maybe I’ll break down and cry, or I’ll flip the fuck out and start screaming about how unfair it all is or how guilty I feel about it, but no matter what - no matter what - I won’t be sorry that you’re alive. That just isn’t going to happen.” She squeezes Chloe’s hand. She can feel some of the tension easing out of it.
“And if I do break down,” Max continues, “that’ll be hard for you to see. I hope you don’t have to go through that. But, Chloe, I can’t stay in here forever. Eventually, I’m going to have to go outside.” She offers Chloe a gentle smile. It only shakes a little. “Besides, if you’re working on the truck you’ll be gone for hours, and I don’t want to let you out of my sight for that long. Or, you know, at all.”
Max rubs her thumb against the side of Chloe’s hand, then pulls back and takes one of the granola bars from it. “So let’s eat. Then we’ll go out to the truck. I’ll take it nice and easy on the way down, I promise. If I get too tired, I’ll rest. I’ll be fine. And then you can fix up the truck, and I’ll just sit back and admire you while you butch it up under the hood, okay?”
Chloe pushes out a strained chuckle at that, then heaves a resigned sigh. “You’re really not going to back down on this, are you?”
“Nope. If you walk out that door without me, I’ll follow you down on my own. And then you’ll have to worry about an angry Max stalking you down the hill.”
“A… mad Max, would you say?”
A genuine smile spreads across Max’s lips. “I’m sure you would. So, what’s it going to be? We walk down to the truck together and you get to impress me with your mechanical prowess, or you try to lock me away like some damsel in distress and I go Mad Max on your punk ass?”
“Well, when you put it like that…”
Max makes short work of her granola bar while Chloe works her way through hers with uncharacteristic slowness, actually chewing before swallowing for once. Max tries not to show her impatience with Chloe’s obvious heel-dragging, instead busying her hands with tidying up their bedding, organizing their handful of remaining supplies, zippering her hoodie to keep out the lingering chill after the storm, dislodging the chair that holds the broken door fully closed. When Chloe finally finishes her breakfast (and disposes of the wrapper in the appropriate bin at Max’s insistence), Max is already waiting for her at the door, ready to push it open.
What remains of the shack right outside the lighthouse door is the first thing Max sees when she steps outside. She had braced herself to see total devastation, but this…
This is not what she expected.
“Holy shit,” she breathes, her face drawn tight with alarm.
Chloe’s hand falls to her shoulder. “I know, it’s pretty fucked up. But, you know, it’s not like it was that structurally sound to begin with,” she tries to reassure her.
“No…” Max shakes her head and takes a step forward, hardly noticing as Chloe’s hand drops from her shoulder. “It isn’t that. It’s… WRONG.” She turns to look at Chloe with searching eyes. Chloe seems nonplussed. “You don’t see that?”
“I… see that it’s pretty flattened, yeah.”
Max’s face contorts with disbelief. “It’s flattened. That’s what you see.”
Max takes another hesitant step forward. “You… That’s really all you see?”
Alarm creeps into Chloe’s voice. “What do you see? Max?”
Another step forward. She doesn’t know how to put what she sees into words. The building is razed to the ground. Rubble. Bits and pieces sticking out at odd angles, broken glass, crumbled concrete, twisted metal…
But it also isn’t.
The building is standing, its structure stable, untouched by the storm.
It’s broken but whole, shattered but sound. It shimmers like a mirage, like something impossible. Like something caught between worlds. Between moments.
Max remembers the strange flickering of the stairs at the top of the lighthouse the night before and the way Chloe had flipped out and hauled her over when she tried to step onto them. It hadn’t looked quite right, but it had been easy enough to dismiss as a trick of the dying light and an exhausted, distressed mind. But the light is sharp and clear today, and there’s no mistaking what she’s seeing.
But what she’s seeing is impossible. She thought she was feeling better, but could she be hallucinating? Seeing double? She reaches out her hand and walks toward the flickering building.
“Max, what’re you doing?” Chloe follows after her, her voice pitched high and strained with nerves. “Be careful, okay? There’s a lot of broken glass, and I know I’m pretty hardcore and everything but I don’t think I can stomach giving you stitches.”
It’s solid, but it wavers. It’s here and it isn’t. “This looks right to you? It’s just… wrecked? Just a wrecked building?”
“Of course it is. What’re you--”
Max touches her hand to one glimmering, flickering wall.
--what Max feels isn’t pain, exactly--
--it’s more like…--
--a profound disorientation--
--she can hold onto--
Max falls onto her back with a hard thud, crashing into Chloe’s body. The air rushes back into her lungs as soon as her hand separates from the building. She gasps as if she’s been drowning, and maybe she has been. They’re sprawled on the dirt in front of the shack, Chloe’s hands clamped onto her shoulders.
“What the fuck was that?” Chloe sounds near hysteria.
Max closes her eyes. The world is solid again, but nausea swims in her stomach temporarily.
“Max! What happened? Talk to me!”
“I’m okay,” she heaves. “Fuck.” Chloe’s grip on her is so tight it hurts.
“Don’t tell me you’re okay! You just fucking collapsed!” Chloe turns Max around and stares intently into her eyes, checking her pupils. “What was that, Max? Did you faint? Did something… Fuck, I don’t know, hit you or bite you or…?”
“I don’t know. I’m okay, though; I feel fine now.” Max tries to brush Chloe’s hands away.
Max’s words clearly do nothing to calm Chloe; if anything, she looks more upset. “You don’t know what happened? Was that a seizure? Did you, like, black out or--?”
“Chloe, it’s fine, really.” It isn’t fine, really. The truth is that Max wants to know what happened just as badly as Chloe does. But more than that, Max wants Chloe to stop freaking out, so she puts on the calmest face she can manage and smiles at her bravely. “I must’ve tripped on a piece of wood or something. I’ll be more careful. Let’s just--”
“Nope.” Chloe’s eyes are hard as steel. Max can’t look away from them. “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. A whole fucking planet of nope.”
“Chloe, seriously. You’re overreacting. I tripped; I’m fine.”
“Fuuuuuuuuuck no. I know what it looks like when people trip. That was-- I don’t know what that was, but it was not you tripping over something. I’m not stupid, Max.” When Max tries to dodge her eyes, Chloe touches her chin and guides her back until they’re eye to eye. “What did you see?” she asks, more gently. “Right before you collapsed, you were talking like you were seeing something weird. Something I couldn’t see. What was it?”
Max shifts uncomfortably under the intensity of her gaze. “The shack,” she mumbles.
“What about it?” Chloe glances over at it. “What do you see?”
“It’s still there. Only… it isn’t, is it?” The shack shimmers and blurs at the edges of Max’s vision. “You can’t see it. The storm destroyed it.”
“But you still see it.”
Max nods reluctantly.
“You tried to touch it. That’s what you were reaching for? And you almost passed out.”
Max nods again.
“Okay, fuck this shit. I know you say you feel better, but clearly you’re not okay. Please, Max, please go back in the lighthouse and just sleep for the rest of the day. This adrenaline high’s been fun and all, but I’m about tapped out. If you collapse again, I don’t know if I can carry you. I’ll fix up the truck, or I’ll find another working vehicle, and then I’m taking you to the hospital so you can get checked out by someone who actually knows what they’re doing, because this is way above my level.”
Max places a hand over Chloe’s, still gripping her shoulder. “Chloe, I know it sounds weird, and I don’t know what’s going on either, but I’m not staying here alone.” She sees Chloe open her mouth to protest and cuts her off. “If you can get the truck up and running today, you can go right ahead and drive me to the hospital. I’ll go happily! But I’m not sitting around, twiddling my thumbs, and waiting for you. I mean, what’re you going to do if you do fix the truck? You gonna drive it up through the woods to the lighthouse so I don’t have to go outside?”
Chloe frowns, obviously annoyed. “If I have to.”
“It’ll never make it through the trees and you know it! Are you gonna carry me down the hill? It’s at least a mile down, and it’s steep. You’ll only throw your back out and probably drop me a dozen times. Look, you said so yourself last night: there aren’t any first responders. Nobody’s coming to save us. The only way I’m getting out of here, to the hospital or anywhere, is on my own two feet.” Max lets go of Chloe’s hand, rises to her feet, and starts walking resolutely toward the trail. “So deal with it.” Max calls back to Chloe without looking, “Are you coming with me or not?”
There’s a moment of stunned silence followed by a flurry of scuffling noises and grumbled profanity as Chloe scrambles to join her.
Thanks again for your patience! I’m hoping to get this story back onto its monthly schedule now, so updates should be coming more frequently. There’s some good stuff coming up that I’m excited to share with you, so stay tuned!
Chapter 6: 1.6 Repairs
Chloe tries to repair things. Results are mixed.
10/12, the day after the storm.
As the plot picks up steam, I’m starting to feel that content warnings may be appropriate and helpful. I know some people don’t like them because they can contain spoilers. As a compromise, I’m linking to the content warnings for this chapter here so that you can choose to read them or not.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Act 1: Dawn of Time
Ch 6: Repairs
Chloe curses her hands, and not for the first time. She glances accusingly at the open repair manual, its pages streaked so black with greasy thumb prints as to be practically useless. An unlit cigarette dangles slackly from her lips, as much for comfort as anything else. She’s trying to ration herself, since once she runs out of her emergency smokes she’s not sure if there are any stores left in Arcadia Bay to sell her more, and she’s pretty sure Max would be furious if she actually lit up over the exposed, oily inner workings of the truck. Or she would be if she caught her doing it.
Chloe steals a peek at Max, poking her head around the open hood. A smile of grim satisfaction crosses her lips at the sight of Max’s sleeping face as she lays curled up on the driver’s side, her head propped against the door and one thumb resting just next to her lips as a reminder of a youthful sleeping habit she hasn’t indulged in since she was eight but apparently never quite kicked all traces of.
If truth be told, she’s really much happier to have Max where she can see her. If Max had stayed in the lighthouse, Chloe’s pretty sure she’d be too busy worrying about her to make any progress on the repairs. Not that she’s making much progress even so.
She dumps a wrench back into her dad’s old toolbox with a frustrated sigh. Car repairs always go better with a beer. Or at least some music. She tosses the unsmoked cigarette through the open passenger side window onto the dashboard. She reaches in through the window and opens the glove box. Max stirs dreamily at the sound. “Mmfph.”
Chloe freezes until Max resettles in her seat and her breathing evens out again. She digs in the glove box as quietly as she can manage, but her oily fingers stumble on everything she touches. She bites her tongue against another curse. Finally she gains purchase on the small solar-powered emergency radio and begins to pull it free. It slips through her fingers, falling onto the bench seat and ricocheting to the floor with a sound she estimates to be roughly equivalent to a marching band comprised entirely of elephants. “Shit, fuck!” she hisses through her teeth.
“Wha-hm?” Max stretches and rubs her eyes.
Resigned, Chloe opens the door and gives Max a sheepish look. “Didn’t mean to wake you. I’m just being a klutz.” She scoops up the radio from the floor. “You can go back to sleep.”
Max shakes her head. “How long’ve I been out?”
“Couple hours? I don’t have a watch.”
“Shit. I’m gonna have a hell of a time falling asleep tonight.”
“Nah, I’ll tell you a bedtime story and you’ll be out like a light. We’ve had enough sleepovers by now; I know how it goes. You think you’ll be up all night, and then you’re out cold before we can even get through a whole midnight movie.”
Max chuckles, but the sound fades quickly as a faraway look overtakes her.
“So,” Chloe continues, clearing her throat. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve had a rough week. I don’t even want to think about what you’ve put your body through, honestly, let alone your brain. So you should get lots of rest. Dr. Chloenstein’s orders.”
“Mm, yes, and what’s Dr. Chloenstein’s doctorate in, again?”
“Kicking ass. I also minored in taking names.”
Max laughs at that. “Okay, seriously, though, I don’t want to nap all day.” She puts a hand on her stomach. “For one thing, I’m getting hungry. For another, my legs are getting cramped from sleeping in this position. And for another, I need to pee.”
Chloe stands back and holds the passenger door open wide so that Max can shimmy through. She closes the door behind her and sets the radio down on the front of the truck next to its gaping hood. “There’s toilet paper in the zombie kit. Don’t wander too far, okay? I’ll get lunch ready.”
Max walks around to the truck bed, where the kit sits open near the edge. “You really are going to keep calling it that, aren’t you?” she says, her voice laced with amusement.
“Hey, you can never be too ready for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.”
While Max attends to her business in the woods, Chloe takes stock of the food remaining in the kit. She sucks her teeth and makes a disappointed sound. If they’re conservative, they’ll have enough food to get them through the rest of the day and tomorrow as well. Beyond that… Chloe wonders how long she can keep cutting her own rations before Max notices.
“So, have you figured out the problem with the truck yet?”
Chloe jumps out of her skin, then immediately attempts to look nonchalant. “Uh, yeah, narrowing it down. Pretty sure it’s either the fuckamajig or the shitamabob.”
“Hmmm… Have you considered the titsburator?”
Chloe snorts. “Believe me, I’ve considered it.” She hands a pouch of stew to Max, along with a camping spork.
“Oh, I know you have. I’ve seen your bedroom.” Max scoops out a dollop of what could charitably be described to look like high grade dog food. She pauses, glancing at Chloe. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“Ate while you were peeing.”
Max narrows her eyes and glances down at Chloe’s dirty hands. “Probably should’ve cleaned up first,” she says flatly.
Fuck. Chloe belatedly wipes her hands on her pants. The only noticeable effect is the gummy, black smears on her jeans; her hands seem no less coated with muck. “Forgot. I’ll do that next time.”
“You’ll make yourself sick.”
Chloe walks back to the raised hood of the truck, avoiding making eye contact with Max as she passes her. “Mind if I put on the radio? I was going crazy without any noise.”
Max turns and leans against the side of the truck, watching her as she picks up the small radio and starts turning the crank on its side. “Will it work?”
“It’s made for emergencies, so it should.” The radio obediently crackles to life. “The question is whether it’ll pick anything up.” Chloe twists the dial, tuning it to the local station. Static. “Nothing coming out of Arcadia Bay. Guess that’s not surprising, all things considered.”
Max chews quietly and doesn’t respond. She’s staring out at the ocean. Chloe wonders if she’s thinking about why there isn’t a local signal. She twists the dial again, searching for any kind of a signal. Music abruptly punctures the static and she nearly drops the radio in surprise. She tinkers with the dial until it’s coming through clear and strong.
Goddamn Katy Perry never sounded so good.
Relief hits Chloe hard, taking her by surprise. She laughs, and there’s a desperate, almost hysterical edge to it. She has to wrestle with it to keep it from turning into tears.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Chloe manages, still hiccuping with laughter, shoulders still quaking. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just… It’s really good to know there’s still music playing somewhere in the world.” She sets down the radio and braces her hands against the truck. “Fuck.” She wipes at her face, not sure if there are actually tears or not, leaving trails of grease behind. She grabs a screwdriver from the toolbox and gets back to work.
A minute later, Max appears at Chloe’s side, holding out a sporkful of food. It’s utterly unappetizing, but her stomach growls embarrassingly at the sight of it anyway. She wants to protest, double down on her story of having already eaten, but even if her stomach hadn’t betrayed her she can tell by the look on Max’s face that it wouldn’t do any good. She opens her mouth and accepts the food. As she continues to clank around under the hood, Max stands by her side and alternates between feeding herself and feeding Chloe. When the pouch is empty, Max returns to the cab of the truck, folding her arms over the door where the window’s been rolled down and resting her head on them to watch Chloe while she works.
It’s nice, in a weird sort of way. The music isn’t anything she would normally listen to or even tolerate, but it’s music, and it’s a sign of life. Proof positive that they are not alone in the world, even if they might be alone in the Bay. Hunger isn’t gnawing at her stomach, and even though she’s not at all sure she’ll be able to get the truck up and running that day or possibly at all, she feels like she’s at least making some kind of progress with it. And Max is there. Watching her like she’s the most interesting thing in the world. She feels, irrationally, like dancing.
She’s startled out of her reverie by Max’s voice. “I remember being here with you.”
Chloe peers over at her. Max is gazing out at the waves, and for a moment Chloe isn’t sure if she knows she’s spoken out loud.
“I guess that was only a day or two ago. It was the golden hour, and everything was so beautiful. I mean, maybe the beached whales weren’t, but… I guess in a really tragic, fucked up way, they still kind of were?” Max glances at her, then back out at the water.
Chloe wracks her brain but can’t find the memory. Was this something Max rewound? A moment she once lived through but no longer had? The last time they were on the beach together was, shit, only yesterday, and there was nothing beautiful or golden about it, though tragic and fucked up definitely covered it. It was storming and Chloe was pretty sure that she was about to die. She’d just spilled her guts to Max, all but pledged undying love to her, figuring there was little point in holding back if she was going to die anyway. Not that either of them have mentioned that since.
“You were so different then…” Max smiles like it hurts. “Only not at all, not really.”
A thought takes root in Chloe’s mind. “Wait, was that…” Her lungs ache suddenly. “That was when you went back? When you…” When you saw my dad again, she doesn’t say.
Max nods. Her stare is so many miles away that Chloe wonders if she’s seeing directly back into that other reality, looking through this one like a window. Chloe’s stomach clenches into a fist. Max’s voice is dreamy and soft, as far away as her gaze. “We hung out on the beach and just… talked. And it was weird, but it was good. It was good weird.” Max closes her eyes. “Your life was so different. Her life. You were in so much pain. You… She…”
Even though she’s outside in the open air, Chloe feels like she can’t breathe. “Jesus, Max…”
Max opens her eyes and looks at Chloe like she misses her. A tiny smirk plays on her lips, suddenly. “You were still very you.”
“I mean, even immobilized from the neck down you still made suggestions so obscene I didn’t even know how to respond.”
Chloe blinks rapidly. “Wait, really? I hit on you in an alternate reality? What did I say to you?”
Max opens her mouth as if to answer, then turns red and shakes her head.
“Oh, come on! It can’t be that bad.”
Max only shakes her head harder, a silly grin spreading across her face. “It’s embarrassing,” is all she’ll say.
Chloe huffs and returns to her work. A wave of jealousy that she knows deep down is utterly unreasonable and irrational washes up over her and settles in her gut as a burning sensation. Even though she and Max have had plenty of moments, even though she’s the Chloe that Max chose, she can’t help but feel jealous that this other her - this other Chloe - had memories with Max, too. Memories that she herself can’t access.
She doesn’t feel like dancing anymore. She wants her cigarette back, and she wants to smoke it down to nothing and let the ash spill where it may. But Max is still watching her, and she doesn’t want to see the admiring look in her eyes turn to disapproval.
“So, uh… D’you think it could be the dickstributor cap?” Max suggests, her tone deliberately light to diffuse the cloud that’s settled over Chloe’s features. Chloe chokes on a laugh. This is all the encouragement that Max needs. “Maybe it’s a problem with your ball bearings. You should try a boxer engine. Or it could be your fluid levels! Maybe you need a lube job?”
Chloe snorts. “You asking or offering, there?”
Max plows ahead, and even though Chloe’s attention is directed under the hood she can still hear the grin in her voice. “How about the weather strippers? Have you checked for excessive moisture?”
Chloe finds herself grinning back. “I checked the lights and the floor, but I didn’t check the seats. Feeling a little wet there, Max?” She glances into the cab and is delighted to find Max blushing and giving her an exaggerated look of mock offense. “Hmm,” Chloe adds thoughtfully, rubbing a smear of grease onto her chin, “it could be that my gaydiator is overheating.”
“Why don’t you take off your timing belt and see if that helps? Oh, have you tried checking your buttplugs for carbon deposits? I’ve heard that that can be a real problem. Or maybe there’s a problem with your crapshaft?”
Chloe chuckles. “Not too bad, Caulfield, but crankshaft already sounds dirtier than crapshaft. Nice try, though.”
“Oh, wow, you’re right. Unless--”
“Hey, could you pass me the duct tape? There should be a roll of it in the glove box.” The silence that follows her request is long enough to make Chloe concerned. “Max?” Chloe leans to look into the truck and is alarmed to find Max sitting rigidly in her seat, face white as chalk. “Max, what’s wrong?” The anxiety in Chloe’s voice seems to shake Max out of her daze.
“Oh…” Max’s eyes twitch over to Chloe’s, but they’re unfocused. They’re open so wide it looks like it should hurt. For a second, Chloe stands frozen. The memory of this morning is still fresh in her mind, the way Max’s eyes looked when she-- But, no, this isn’t quite the same. The way she stares is similar, but she doesn’t look surprised or confused this time. She looks scared. Max raises a hand, but it halts before it can reach into the open glove box. If nothing else about Max’s behavior was cause for concern, then the amount of shaking her hand is doing would be more than enough.
Chloe rushes to the passenger door and pulls it open. “Max, talk to me, what’s going on?” She fights to keep her voice as calm and gentle as possible.
“I c-c-can’t…” Tears spill down her face but she makes no effort to wipe them away; Chloe suspects she doesn’t feel them. She’s breathing too shallow, too fast; she’s going to pass out if she doesn’t get it under control.
“Listen to me, okay? I think you’re having a panic attack. I know it’s hard, but I’m going to ask you to try to do something for me. Okay?”
Max is gasping so much that Chloe’s lungs burn in sympathy. She’s staring at her hand like it’s the only thing that she can see. Chloe leans in front of her to try to draw her focus. She reaches behind herself and clicks the glove box shut as discreetly as she can.
“Can you take a deep breath for me? One deep breath, nice and slow. Can you do that?” Chloe takes a deep breath in and lets it out slowly to demonstrate. “Nice and slow. See? Can you do that for me?” Tentatively, she touches Max’s outstretched hand. Max doesn’t seem to react beyond a distant flicker in her eyes that may only be a trick of the light. “We can do this together, okay? You breathe with me, and I’ll count for us both.” Chloe takes another deep breath and counts out loud as well as she can, “1… 2… 3…” Max doesn’t quite manage to keep pace with her, but the breath she draws seems a little slower. Chloe exhales, counting, “1… 2… 3… 4… 5…”
Max’s breath stutters and shakes, but it’s slowing. Tears keep rolling down her cheeks and Chloe feels like she might cry herself.
“You’re doing great, Max. You’re doing so, so great.” She rubs her hand gently. “Keep it going, nice and slow. I know it’s scary, but you’re going to be okay, I promise you. I’ve got you.”
Gradually, Max’s breathing evens out to something resembling a normal rhythm. She blinks furiously and wipes at her face with the hand Chloe isn’t holding, looking disoriented. She closes her eyes and leans her head back against the seat. “Fuck,” she pushes out, her voice high and raw.
The relief that Chloe feels is so strong she wants to wrap Max in a bear hug that’ll bury her at least a foot deep into the seat, but she restrains herself. She gives her hand a light squeeze instead. “How you doing, Super Max?”
“Kinda light-headed,” Max admits. She flexes her fingers and Chloe lets go of her hand. “My hands went all numb.”
“It’ll wear off,” Chloe promises her. There’s a question on Max’s face when she looks at her, wrapped around what looks suspiciously like pity. Chloe’s glad when she doesn’t ask. “Here, close your eyes.” Max does, but not without a flicker of confusion. Chloe opens the glove box and rummages for the small bag of sucking candies she keeps in it. She checks to make sure Max isn’t looking, then she grabs the duct tape and tosses it out of sight under the hood before closing the glove box. She’s not certain if that’s what set Max off or why, but it seems probable. She doubts she can bring it up right now without pushing Max back over the edge, and she has no desire for that. She has her suspicions, anyway, and the thought alone is enough to make her blood boil; hearing Max confirm it would only make matters worse. “You can open ‘em,” she says, unwrapping a candy and holding it out for Max. “It can fuck with your blood sugar,” she explains as Max takes the candy and pops it into her mouth.
She snatches the cigarette off the dashboard and lights it up. Fuck it, she’s earned this one. Rationing is all well and good, but she’s going to run out eventually no matter how much she deprives herself before then. Might as well make the most of what she has. Let it be a problem for Future Chloe to deal with.
Max is watching her again. Her look isn’t disapproving. Chloe isn’t sure what it is, exactly. She’s pretty sure she’s never seen this look before.
“Okay,” Chloe announces after a few minutes of silence, exhaling the word in a cloud of smoke. “Here’s the plan. Lemme know what you think.” She gestures with the cigarette as she speaks. “You’re probably gonna be shaky for a bit. I’ll keep working on the truck until you tell me you’re feeling steady again. When you’re ready, we’ll grab some supplies for the night and go back up to the lighthouse; I wanted to get back before dark, anyway. We’ll take it nice and slow up the hill. We can rest whenever you need. We get up to the lighthouse and take it easy for the rest of the day. Bust out some dinner rations after sunset.”
“Will you eat yours?” Max interrupts her.
“Yes,” she replies firmly. “Then we cozy up and get a good night’s sleep. The truck’ll still be here in the morning.” Hopefully it won’t be there for too many more days, she thinks ruefully. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get it up and running tonight even if we stayed down here til dark. So. Good plan?”
“You sure you trust me to get all the way back up the hill without breaking? We could spend the night down here. Have a camp out.”
The thought isn’t an unappealing one. They could scrounge up some dry wood, have a campfire on the beach, tell ghost stories… It’d be like old times, when the two of them had make-believe camp outs in her living room. Except without a blanket-tent. Or a sleeping bag. Or her dad.
And with way too many ghosts.
She chokes a little on her next inhale and waves the idea away along with the smoke. “Nah,” she says between coughs, “Too cold out here at night.” She eyes the cigarette as she clears her throat. It’s only half-smoked, but her throat is chafed from choking. “All our dry bedding is up in the lighthouse. Plus our, um. Our backup clothes.” She stubs the cigarette out on the side of the truck, careful not to crush it, then tosses the remaining half back onto the dashboard. Max wrinkles up her nose in distaste but doesn’t complain. “And… Yes. I trust you not to break.”
Max gives her a dubious look.
“What? You’re hella badass, Mad Max.”
Max’s eyebrows disappear under her bangs. She crunches loudly and deliberately on her sucking candy.
Chloe rolls her eyes. “Look, after everything you’ve been through this week, I’d’ve been more concerned if you didn’t have a panic attack. Doesn’t mean you’re not a badass. It only means you’re human. So, do we have a plan?”
Max nods and lets out a sigh. “Yeah, okay.” Max settles back into the seat to rest and Chloe returns to her repairs. When she’s done with the duct tape, she peeks into the cab to make sure Max’s eyes are still closed before stashing the roll under what’s left of the flyers in the truck bed. As she walks back toward the front of the truck, she pauses and looks in again. For all that she’s weathered over the past few days, Max looks surprisingly peaceful stretched out across the bench seat. It’s a relief to see her relaxed and not shaking or crying or collapsing or…
Fuck this day.
Fuck this whole week, actually.
Chloe returns to the inner workings of her beast of a truck with a heavy sigh. She should’ve paid more attention when her dad taught her how to fix things. She should’ve taken better care of her truck all along, not let the damn thing fall into such a sorry state that it’s hard to tell what damage was caused by the storm and what was caused by her neglect.
Doesn’t matter. She’ll get things up and running again. One way or another. And then she’ll get Max somewhere safe. Somewhere she can get help.
Max saved her fucking life (over and over and over and). Maybe she can’t do much for her in return, but… she can do this. She can--
The radio clicks off and Chloe turns to see Max holding it in her hands. “I do not need to hear Wrecking Ball right now,” she declares in answer to Chloe’s puzzled expression.
Chloe laughs. “Okay, sure. I get that.”
Max nods in the direction of the hill. “Ready?”
Chloe glances her over, trying not to be too obvious. Max is still a little pale, but she’s not wobbling or anything. Chloe tosses the screwdriver back into the toolbox. “Yeah, I’m good to go. Grab us some dinner rations and water?” She closes the hood and starts vigorously but ineffectively wiping her dirty hands on her pants. “Breakfast for tomorrow is probably a good idea, too.”
Max ties up some food and water in her hoodie. She pulls her bindle out of Chloe’s range when Chloe reaches for it. “Nuh-uh! You’ll stain my hoodie. Besides, it isn’t heavy. You said you trust me not to break, right?”
“...Yeah, I trust you.” Chloe trusts her, all right. Trusts her about as far as she can throw her, and right now all she wants to do is scoop her up and never let her go. Instead, she settles for grabbing Max’s hand when she tries to walk ahead. “What?” she says when Max gives her a mildly annoyed look. “We always have better adventures when we hold hands, don’t we?” And this way if Max stumbles into any other weird fucking time-stuff like the not-quite-shack up by the lighthouse, Chloe will be able to yank her away from it at a second’s notice.
Max looks for a minute like she’s considering pressing the matter - Chloe’s well aware her excuse is too weak to fool a toddler, much less her best friend - before she gives Chloe a smile and an affectionate shake of her head. “Alright, Chlo. Whatever you say.” She gives Chloe’s hand a squeeze. “But if we run into any punks on the way up, I’m totally gonna tell them you’re a massive goop and screw up your punk cred.”
Chloe laughs. “Oh no, not my punk cred! Whatever will I do? D’you think they’ll take away my membership card?” She returns the squeeze and starts walking toward the path, careful to shorten her strides so that Max can keep up without struggling. They chat and kid all the way up the hill, swinging their clasped hands between them.
It feels strangely nice to walk together like this, the two of them hanging out without some sort of nightmare mission in front of them. No trying to solve horrible mysteries. No trying to find a way to save their town from destruction. No clock counting down to the apocalypse.
The worst has already happened. All they need to do now is keep surviving and then leave it all behind as quickly as possible.
Even so, Chloe can’t fully relax and enjoy the hike up to the lighthouse, even as she appreciates the relative peace and the comforting warmth of Max’s hand in her own. The whole way up the hill, she can’t help but watch the path ahead extra carefully, scanning it for obstacles she cannot see.
Thank you to everyone for sticking with this story even though this chapter came out much later than planned. I won’t bore you with a full description of all the reasons, but as a brief summary: head injury with mild concussion symptoms, helping parents move, more revisions than expected, beta was busy for longer than expected. Feeling better now, moving process is ongoing but should be over in a couple of weeks, and next chapter *should* require fewer revisions, so fingers crossed for a smaller gap between posts next time around.
P.S. I still know absolutely nothing about trucks or how to fix them, and it probably shows. Sorry about that.
Chapter 7: 1.7 Leaves Me Reeling
Max is finding it harder and harder to keep the laughter in. And by ‘laughter’ I mean ‘feelings.’
10/13, two days after the storm.
Happy 24th birthday, Max Caulfield! Also, happy one-year anniversary to this fic! Also, oh dear god I started posting this fic a year ago… Thank you to everyone who’s been sticking with it for this long, and welcome to anyone just joining in! No content warnings for this one, but this chapter will require some suspension of disbelief. Chapter title is lifted from the Hannah Telle song Could It Be.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 7: Leaves Me Reeling
The next morning, there’s no argument: Max is going down the hill with Chloe, come hell or high water. It’s obvious by the tense pose of Chloe’s shoulders that her feelings haven’t changed on the matter, but somehow she manages to hold her tongue.
The shack is still there when they leave the lighthouse, exactly as it had been the day before. It shimmers like a mirage in the morning sun. Max doesn’t acknowledge its presence, instead lets her eyes skim over it as if it’s a pile of rubble and nothing more. She catches Chloe tossing her a little look as they walk past as if she wants to ask but doesn’t want to push her.
Max is extra careful as they pick their way down the path through the carnage of battered tree limbs, since she’s honestly not sure which of the branches in her way are actually there and which might knock her world off its axis. She follows closely on Chloe’s heels and pays attention to where she steps so she can match her course.
The whole way down the hill she can feel Chloe’s worry for her radiating out from her body like it’s a physical thing.
Max wants to reassure her that everything is fine, but it tastes like a lie on her tongue and she can’t quite spit it out. She’s never been good at lying, and Chloe’s never been good at being lied to, so it’s probably for the best if she just doesn’t say anything.
Besides, she’s worried, too.
The things she sees aren’t visions. She’s pretty sure of that. Or if they are, they’re of a completely different sort than the ones she had before the storm. Those visions had blotted out everything that was real and actually happening in the moment, completely invading every inch of her mind for their duration. They took over her reality, transported her to another place and time, and then they left as quickly and completely as they came. Whatever it is she’s seeing now is much more localized and much less hit-and-run. Everything looks normal... except for the things that don’t.
It’s as if those things are existing between conflicting states of being. They’re there and they aren’t; they’re real and they’re not; they’re present but they’re absent and none of it makes any goddamn sense to her. And she is so sick of things not making sense.
It might help if she could put it into words, but she can’t. If she could explain it to Chloe in a way that she could understand - that they both could understand - then maybe it would be okay. It’s the loneliness more than the worry or the fear that bothers her. If she can’t share something with Chloe, is it even real? What if this is all in her head? What if she’s just fucking lost it?
These thoughts plague her all the way to the truck, churning fruitlessly in her mind. Even after Chloe pops the hood and starts working, Max sits sullenly on the passenger side, chewing the inside of her cheek and overthinking.
Chloe can read her mood, same as she always could. And because she can read Max’s mood, Chloe is being her most Chloe: throwing every possible distraction her way to bring her out of it. Bad puns, worse innuendos, toilet humor and profanity that would make a pirate blush, funny faces and rude gestures that nobody over the age of twelve could possibly find amusing (and yet Max laughs), sleight of hand magic tricks she hasn’t practiced since fifth grade. Even, perhaps as an act of desperation, actual juggling. She’s not terrible at it, either. Which is a good thing, since the tools she’s juggling may not be the biggest or the heaviest but they would definitely still hurt if she caught herself in the head with one.
It’s all irresistibly ridiculous. There’s a moment when she’s juggling and the light hits her just right, glinting off the metal tools as they float between her grease-stained hands, where Max’s hands twitch in search of an absent camera. It’s a moment worth capturing, and for the first time since Jefferson caught her in his lens she feels the impulse to capture it.
These moments seem to follow Chloe around. There could never be enough film in the world to preserve them all. Max finds herself thinking that that might be a challenge worth taking on. Certainly the look on Chloe’s face is one worth holding onto: amused and self-satisfied, eyes lighting up because she’s sure that she’s finally succeeded in her mission of bringing Max out of her funk.
“When did you go to clown college?” Max teases, unable to hold onto her silence any longer.
“Pfft, like I need to go to school to learn cool shit? It’s a natural-born talent,” Chloe smirks in reply, sounding obviously pleased with herself. The triumph in her eyes glows brighter. “It makes a great party trick, especially for impressing the shit out of stoners.”
“You would know,” Max scoffs.
“Big hit with the ladies, too. Obviously.” Chloe’s grin broadens and she waggles her eyebrows suggestively. It’s completely over the top and Max suspects she should probably feel offended or something, but all she can really think about is wanting to leap out of the truck and kiss that obnoxious grin off her face.
Max laughs a little too hard, turning her head in the hopes that if she stops looking at Chloe maybe she won’t start blushing too blatantly. Part of her wants to ask herself “when did Chloe get so fucking cute,” but if she’s honest she knows that this is a drumbeat her heart has been playing for much, much too long to pretend she’s never heard it before.
“Ah, shit!” A small socket wrench clunks to the ground exactly where Chloe’s foot had been half a second before she jerked it away. She bobbles the other two tools but, impressively, manages not to drop them.
“That’s what you get for goofing off instead of fixing the truck.”
Chloe sticks out her tongue and bends to pick up the wrench. Max swallows a noise she catches rising in her throat. It’s something she’s gotten used to pushing down over the years, this feeling that’s been bubbling up inside of her like a laugh, the kind of laugh that always comes up at the worst possible moment: in the classroom, at dinner with her parents, at a funeral.
“Back to work, then, I guess.” Chloe pretends to bonk herself in the head with the socket wrench and Max winces. “You wanna put on the radio? I could use some tunes.”
Max picks up the solar radio and turns it on. “Think we can find a news station?” she asks.
Chloe frowns and raises an eyebrow but disappears behind the raised hood of the truck without commenting.
Max scrolls slowly through the stations. Most are weak and full of static. Music jumps into focus here and there before sliding once more into the static between stations as she continues to search.
“C’mon, Max, pick something already. It’s giving me a headache.”
A voice bursts forth from the static: “--gest storm to hit the area in 14 years.”
Max rocks forward in her seat. “Holy shit.” She cradles the radio in her hands and listens intently. Chloe stops clanking around under the hood, but she doesn’t come around and join her.
“Originally predicted to be a super cyclone, when the storm made landfall yesterday on the Odisha coast it was reduced to a Category 4, with winds reaching 125 miles per hour.”
Max’s face scrunches in confusion. “Odisha coast?” she murmurs to herself.
“The evacuation of roughly one million coastal dwellers in anticipation of Cyclone Phailin makes this the largest storm evacuation in India’s history. Unfortunately, communications have been cut off by the severity of the storm--”
“It’s… They’re not talking about Arcadia Bay?” Max stares at the radio in her hands as if she can will the news she seeks out of it if only she looks hard enough.
“Another sizeable storm made landfall early yesterday--”
Max’s hands tighten on the radio, her fingertips whitening.
“--Typhoon Nari hit the northern Philippines in the early hours, causing significant damage--”
Max has never paid such close attention to a news report before, her palms sweating and her hands shaking as she continues to cradle the radio between them. Her brow furrows when the report shifts away from storms and into updates on the government shutdown without a word about the fact that a small town in Oregon has been wiped completely off the map by a mysterious storm that no meteorologist had predicted.
“--will be reached within the next week. Looking ahead to tonight, your own Portland Timbers will be taking on their rival Seattle Sounders at--”
“Change the station, Max.”
“They’re not going to talk about it. This is pointless.”
“But why not?”
Chloe throws a tool into the box with a jarring clang. “Because nobody gives a damn about this shitstain of a town, obviously. Fuck, I don’t know. Just change it.” Her voice is a rubber band stretched too taut, on the verge of snapping. Max twists the dial, sliding through stations until she finds music that seems tolerable. She turns up the volume and sets the radio down on the dashboard, settling back into the seat. She closes her eyes and her mind starts to wander.
“Okay, no.” Chloe comes back into view, wiping her forearm across her forehead and leaving a black smudge of grease in its wake. Her tank top is badly stained from where she’s been futilely wiping her hands on it. Fuck, Max wishes she had her camera.
Chloe leans in the window and grabs the radio. “Enough of this sad hipster shit. I want real music, Caulfield!”
“There’s no fake music, Chloe.”
Chloe snorts derisively. “Spoken like someone with absolutely no taste in music. I want something I can move to, Max! Not something that’ll just bum me out more.”
By ‘something she can move to’ Chloe apparently means ‘something loud and fast,’ because that’s what she settles on. She plants the radio next to the hood and turns up the volume. The Elvis bobblehead on the dashboard wobbles as if in agreement with the sentiment. “I’ve got a good feeling, Maximus Prime,” she says loudly, over the music. “I think I’ve got this truck situation about handled. We’ll be on the road in no time.”
When Chloe disappears behind the hood again, head bobbing in time with the music, Max rests back against the seat and stares out at the ocean. Chloe’s moods are so infectious, she feels like she might actually be enjoying the music herself. Who knows, maybe Chloe’ll make a punk rocker of her yet. Max chuckles to herself at the thought.
Max and Chloe hit the road... It sounds good. Almost dangerously good, like she’s getting away with something. Which, she considers, she basically is.
She’s pretty sure she doesn’t deserve to feel as excited as she does right now. Not with her hometown a waterlogged pile of rubble by her hand. Not with the persistent oppressive feeling in the air as a constant reminder of the terrible thing that she’s done. But even though she can’t actually see Chloe she can hear her rattling around under the hood of the truck, singing under her breath and occasionally muttering curses. She can smell her - sweat and engine oil and stale cigarette smoke - not only in the air but in the seat, in the truck’s cabin, everywhere. She can feel her, not just in the jostling of the truck as she works on it but in her bones, in her blood, like she lives there.
Chloe is here, right here with her, jumping to too-loud music as she dedicates herself to bringing her truck back to life, curling up next to her at night and breathing into her hair, saving Max’s life with every breath she takes, and honestly everything else can go fuck itself. Guilt and fear and anger and everything else that tries to choke the air from her lungs: it can all go to hell.
Max is startled from her thoughts by Chloe appearing suddenly at the open passenger window and tossing her truck key into Max’s lap. “Alright, moment of truth. Scoot over and give it a whirl.”
Max shuffles into the driver’s side and slots the key into the ignition. She takes a deep breath and turns it. The engine roars to life.
“Fuck yeah!” Chloe crows. “It’s alive! It’s aliiiiiiiiive!!” She leans in the window and reaches for a high five. Max slaps their palms together. Chloe whips the door open and climbs in beside her. “Alright, now, how much juice is left in this beast?” She frowns as she leans over Max’s shoulder to study the fuel gauge. “Fuuuuuck, that’s what I thought. Note to self: next time gas up before the apocalypse.” She flings herself bodily back into the seat.
“At least it’s not totally empty?” Max offers. “We can get… probably pretty far on an eighth of a tank of gas, right?”
Chloe huffs through her nose with grim amusement. “If this beast weren’t such a gas guzzler, maybe.” She reaches over and turns the key. “If we’re lucky, we might be able to get to a gas station in a neighboring town without having to get out and push.” She runs her hand over the dashboard in a soothing gesture. “Don’t worry, buddy, we won’t abandon you. We’ll figure this thing out.” She answers Max’s raised eyebrow with a mock glare. “What?”
“Nothing. You talk to your car. It’s cute.”
“First, she’s not a car, she’s a truck.”
“She?” Max interrupts, the word almost a giggle.
“Second, we’ve been through a lot of shit together. This isn’t the first time I’ve pulled her back from the brink of destruction, and she’s saved my ass her share of times, too. Third, shut up, I can see you laughing at me even if you’re not doing it out loud. Fourth, don’t act like you’ve never had an emotional attachment to an inanimate object. I know of at least one teddy bear who would be desperately upset if you denied it.”
Max buries her face in her palms, grinning in a way that only Chloe can make her do. “Aw, no, don’t rat me out to Captain.”
“I rest my case.”
“So,” Max says, trying to force a straight face. “Does she have a name?”
“Hmm, I don’t know if you’re on a first-name basis with my truck, yet. Some privileges have to be earned.”
“And how do I earn this illustrious privilege, then?”
Chloe gives Max an evaluating look that makes her pulse quicken. “I haven’t decided.”
“But you’ve got some ideas?” She almost manages to make the words sound casual. Almost.
A tiny smile teases at the corner of Chloe’s lips. “I mean, I’ve always got ideas. I just never seem to know which ones are any good.” She slides back over to the passenger side and eases herself out the door. “Speaking of which, I wonder how much gas is in that car.”
Max follows her gaze to the only other vehicle in the lot. “You mean the upside-down one? The one that is currently literally on its roof?”
“Why, do you see another car around?” Chloe puts her hands on her hips and leans against the truck. “I’ve never siphoned gas from a car that’s upside-down before. I wonder if I could flip it over?”
Max pokes her head out the passenger side. “You know how you said you don’t know which ideas of yours are good ones? I’m pretty sure whatever idea you’re having right now is a bad one. For what it’s worth.” She clambers out of the truck as Chloe grunts in agreement and starts walking over to the car anyway. “Chloe, really, don’t. You’ll hurt yourself.”
Chloe stops abruptly, spine ramrod straight. “Did I?” She spins around on her heel, face stricken. “Did I hurt myself?”
It takes a few seconds for Max’s brain to catch up. “Shit, um, no, I mean… I don’t know? I didn’t… I haven’t rewound anything. You haven’t done it yet.”
Chloe’s body relaxes, but only slightly. Max can see her mouth trying to work its way around a question.
“I haven’t rewound anything since the storm,” Max adds. She hasn’t even tried. She’s not sure what would be more terrifying, finding out that she can still do it or finding out that she can’t.
Chloe nods slowly, processing. “So you don’t know, then.” This seems to be enough for her to return to her plan. She approaches the car with perhaps more than usual caution, making a couple of careful circles around it before getting close to it. “It looks alright. Some broken glass. I don’t think anything’s going to burst into flames or anything. Probably would’ve happened by now if it was gonna.”
Max chews her bottom lip as she stares at the overturned car. It isn’t a vision. It’s not even quite as bad as the lighthouse or the shack. Most of the vehicle itself looks solid enough, upside-down though it may be. It’s mainly the car’s windows - the way they flicker between broken and unbroken - that make her uneasy. Simultaneously cracked and unblemished, both real and surreal, almost sheets of light or the skin of a bubble rather than glass.
Chloe doesn’t seem to notice the phenomenon, which isn’t surprising. Max winces when Chloe steps up and braces her hands against the trunk, half expecting Chloe to get knocked flat the second her hands make contact. She doesn’t get knocked flat. She doesn’t even flinch. If there’s anything wrong with the car, it doesn’t seem to have the slightest impact on her.
Chloe strains up against the trunk with all of her strength and… nothing happens. A slight rocking, nothing more. “Damn it, I was afraid of that.” She looks over her shoulder at Max. “Help a sistah out?”
Max shakes her head vehemently. “You think my puny muscles are going to be what tips the scales?” she jokes weakly to cover her anxiety. “You’re living in a dream world, Price.”
Chloe looks at her like she doesn’t quite buy it, but she accepts Max’s refusal without further comment. She gives the car a few more good shoves, resulting only in a little bit of rocking and a whole lot of sweating and swearing. She backs up a few feet and charges it. The car groans but barely moves. “Fuck,” she mutters, rubbing her shoulder. “Okay, fine, change of plans.” She walks over to the driver’s side of the car and ducks down to inspect the window. Popping back up to her full height, she strides past Max back to the truck and starts digging in the big red box of emergency supplies.
“Chloe, what’re you--?” Max’s eyes widen as Chloe marches back toward the car, a wooden baseball bat clenched in one hand and a rag wrapped around the other.
“Gonna have to get creative here.” She squats next to the car and jabs the bat at what’s left of the window a few times. It sputters and staggers like a hologram being disrupted. Max can hear glass tinkling to the ground. The window looks different now, but it still doesn’t look right. Shimmering light still hangs over most of it, missing pieces gaping around the edges. Chloe runs the bat around the edges, then lets it fall to her side. Max shudders when Chloe plunges her wrapped hand straight through the shimmer without hesitation, leaning into the car and angling her arm up towards the floor. A soft popping sound is followed by the fuel door releasing and swinging open slightly. Chloe is brimming with excitement when she extricates herself from the car and hops back to her feet. “Phase one is a success!” she boasts, letting the rag drop from her hand. “Now for phase two.” She grabs the bat and stomps to the rear of the car, opening the fuel door wider and drawing the bat back over her shoulder. “Hey, did I ever tell you about my time as an elf barbarian?”
“Your time as a what now?”
Chloe grins. “Don’t worry about it. You ready for your world to be rocked, Max?”
“You’re out of your mind,” Max giggles as Chloe’s reckless enthusiasm overtakes her senses.
“I thought we established this already? Anyway, you might want to cover your ears or something. This could get loud.” She tosses Max a wink when she obligingly places her hands over her ears. She cocks the bat back further, then swings hard at the fuel door. The impact is violent and knocks the door to an uncomfortable angle. It takes a few more swings to break the small door free from the car completely. “Fuck yeah!” Chloe shouts as the door clatters to the ground. “Home run for Chloe Price!” She kisses the bat with an exaggerated “Mwah!” before flinging it aside.
“Oh god, seriously, there could be broken glass on that!” Max groans into her hands.
“Get used to it, Max Attack, I’m fucking invincible!”
Which she isn’t, as Max knows all too well - knows better than anyone else how very breakable Chloe Price actually is - but as she struts and preens with a look of absolute victory on her face she looks for all the world like someone who could never be hurt. Chloe swaggers back to the truck. “So. You gonna help or just stand there ogling me like a perv?”
“I wasn’t ogling,” Max mumbles, following her. “What do you want me to do?”
Chloe presses an empty gas can into her hands. “Carry this.” She winds a length of tubing around one of her own arms and grips a funnel in her hand. “And help me find something to make a seal with. We’re gonna MacGyver this bitch.”
“What do you mean, ‘make a seal’? What’re we doing?”
“Never mind, got it!” Chloe holds up a folding camping knife.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of making a seal.” Max nervously follows Chloe back to the car, clutching the empty gas can.
Chloe reaches back into the front of the flipped car, dragging out a floor mat that had flopped to the ceiling and shaking the glass out of it. She unspools the tube from her arm and tosses it down near Max’s feet. “Open up the gas can and stick this in there, wouldja?” She lays the funnel over the floor mat to take its measure, then opens the knife and begins cutting into its thick rubber flesh. When she’s finished, she fits the resulting ring of black rubber around the wide mouth of the funnel and affixes the other end of the tube to its narrow end. “You ready for this shit?” She rests her fingers on the gas cap and grins excitedly at Max. “Stand back. This is gonna be messy.” She hefts the funnel in her other hand eagerly. “You remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? I’m gonna have to swap this for the idol.”
So many objections crowd Max’s mind that she can’t actually get a single one of them past her lips before Chloe’s twisting the cap off and slamming the funnel into place over it. She does a small backwards hop - keeping her hand firmly on the funnel - to avoid the spurt of gasoline that spilled out in the fraction of a second before the funnel was clamped into place.
“Well, you didn’t get crushed by a boulder, anyway.”
Laughter rushes giddily from Chloe’s lips. “Holy crap, that actually worked! I can’t believe that actually worked!”
“Why would you do that if you thought it wouldn’t work!?”
“Oh my god, this is so fucking cool! MacGyver can suck it; I am officially the best.”
Max can’t really argue with that. “You so are. But if you even think about smoking before you’ve gotten every drop of gas out of your clothes, I will personally kick your butt.”
Chloe rolls her eyes. “You can’t stop me from thinking, Max. But seriously, thanks for thinking I’m that dumb.”
“I don’t think you’re dumb. You’re just… a little reckless at times.”
“Whatever.” She pulls the front of her tank top toward her nose and sniffs. “I don’t even think I got any on me.” When Max opens her mouth to argue, she continues, “Still not gonna smoke ‘til I’ve cleaned them. I swear. Jeez, have a little faith.”
Whether the splash of gasoline got on her clothes or not, there’s no denying that Chloe smells strongly of the stuff as she struts back to the truck with the loaded gas can. Max suspects she’s not smelling too great herself, so she doesn’t bring it up. She may not trust Chloe to always make the safest decisions, but she does trust her not to go back on her word.
“Alright,” Chloe says as she feeds gas into the truck. “We’ve got working wheels, and we’ve got enough gas to get us out of town. Road trip is officially on. We should celebrate.”
“Oh yeah? What’d you have in mind?”
“Shit, I don’t know. I’m still kinda keyed up from going all barbarian on that car. I’m surprised I’m not shaking.”
“Wowser, you weren’t kidding about liking to break things.”
“Chloe smash,” she agrees with a manic grin that really shouldn’t be so charming. “You know,” she goes on, setting down the now-empty gas can and replacing the gas cap, “we could just keep wailing on it. Not like that car’s ever gonna drive again. You ever hit anything with a bat before?”
“Other than a softball?”
“Other than something you’re supposed to hit with a bat, yeah.”
“Uh, no, but I don’t think I want to. Also, I don’t think we should mess it up any more than it already is. It could be dangerous.”
“Spoilsport. Well, how about this, then?” Chloe winds her way back around to the passenger side and turns up the radio even louder. “If I can’t smash, I wanna thrash.”
“Oh, god,” Max laughs as Chloe starts to dance, “you really are ridiculous.”
“You know, I think you’ve mentioned that before. Once or twice. So are you gonna dance with me or not, hippie?”
“Hard pass.” When Chloe gives her a kicked-puppy look, Max clarifies, “I have no idea how to dance to music like this! I wouldn’t want to ruin your punk cred by making you dance with a hipster dork with zero moves.”
“Jesus, Max! This isn’t some stupid high school movie! Besides, I like dorks. Dorks are the greatest.” She beckons with both hands. “C’mon, you act like I’ve never seen you dance before. You know I’m not gonna make fun. I just wanna dance with you.”
Chloe is almost impossible to resist, and that more than anything else is what makes Max nervous. The way her eyes shine adrenaline-bright, the way the music moves through her limbs like water, the way she grins like she knows she’s already won and it’s only a matter of time before Max crumbles; all of it has that dangerous, inappropriate laugh rising up in Max again. It doesn’t matter that Chloe’s hands are smeared with grease as they invite her to fall into her orbit, or that she’s shining with sweat and reeking of gasoline. Shy or not, bad dancer or not, Max wants nothing more than to do exactly as Chloe asks. It takes every ounce of self-restraint that she can muster to hold her ground. She doesn’t deserve this. Whatever this is, she doesn’t deserve it.
“Are you just gonna creep on me from a distance all day? Seriously, Max, what’s it gonna take to get you to shake that bony ass already?” Chloe makes a face. “Ugh, you’re not gonna make me put that sad hipster shit back on, are you? Please don’t tell me that’s the only music you’ll dance to.”
Max shakes her head, not quite able to keep a smile from her face.
“Because,” Chloe says with an exaggerated sigh, “if that’s the only way to get you to dance with me, then I’ll do it. I’ll fuckin’ do it, if that’s what it takes.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Chloe smiles. “So you’ll dance with me, then.”
Max makes the mistake of meeting Chloe’s eyes. And it’s all over. Chloe’s out of breath and beautiful and holding out her hand, and before Max’s mind can catch up with her body she’s already dancing with her. Max suspects she should be embarrassed by her total lack of dancing ability but with Chloe so close it’s hard to focus on anything else, and god she is so close. It isn’t a slow song and it isn’t a slow dance; there’s no need to be so close. Max can feel the warmth radiating off her body. She can feel the suspenders Chloe wears dangling brush against her legs with almost every move she makes. There are a dozen little touches - dancing touches, plausibly innocent - and each time Chloe’s hand is so hot on her skin it makes Max shiver, which doesn’t make any damn sense but honestly nothing does anymore.
“Hells yeah, check out your moves! I knew you had it in you. Give me time; I’ll make a thrasher of you yet.”
Max has to clamp a hand over her mouth to keep the laughter from bubbling out. She suspects it would sound hysterical if it escaped.
“What’re you doing, hippie?” Chloe gently pries Max’s hand from her mouth, and her touch burns like fire. The dam breaks: laughter rushes out of Max in a flood, so intense that she can barely keep her feet. “Woah, woah, there…” Chloe reaches out her other hand to steady her, but it only makes her laugh harder. “Okay… Okay, uh, maybe I should turn the music off?”
Max bunches her hands into fists and bites her lip, still dry-heaving laughter even as she manages to silence the sound of it. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. Chloe’s hands are still burning through her arms. If she stops looking at her, maybe she’ll be alright.
“You sure?” Chloe asks skeptically. Max nods. The heaving slows to a stop, but her chest still feels like something waiting to break open. She feels suddenly exhausted. She sags against Chloe’s shoulder, staggering her back a step. “O-okay, well… How about if I put on something quieter, then? We should probably both, uh, chill a bit.”
Max nods again. Steadying herself against the side of the truck as Chloe turns to pick up the radio, Max risks a glimpse at her. Her face is redder than Max expected, more red than the exertion of dancing would merit. She turns down the volume and finds a station with a less pulse-rattling energy. “This work?”
“Mhm.” Her nerves aren’t quite so on fire anymore, but Max still doesn’t really trust herself to open her mouth. She takes several slow, deep breaths.
“You feeling okay?”
“Mhm. Yup.” She takes another deep breath. “I’m not used to feeling good anymore, I guess.”
A pained look flickers briefly over Chloe’s face. She leans against the truck next to Max, close enough their sides are touching. “Yeah,” she agrees. “I get that. But… Sometimes you’ve gotta give yourself permission to feel good even when things are fucked up, you know? Trust me, you’ll lose your mind if you don’t.” She lifts an arm and drapes it over Max’s shoulders, pulling her closer. “Believe me, I know.” Her fingers brush back and forth against Max’s shoulder in a soothing motion. Max sighs and allows herself to relax into her. “Feeling better?”
“Little bit. Sorry I sucked all the fun out of our celebration, though.”
“S’alright. This is nice, too. But, since you mention it…” Chloe eases away from the truck, sliding her arm loose from around Max. “How about one last dance before we call it a day? Slow one. We’ll take it easy. Cool off a little.”
Max takes the hand that Chloe offers and allows herself to be drawn gently into her arms. The music is soft, but Chloe is softer. Max leans into her.
It’s not that different from how they’ve been sleeping for the last couple of nights: arms warm around each other, bodies pressed so close together that it’s hard to tell which heartbeat is her own. Chloe’s breath grazing the top of her head. Her lips so recklessly close to Chloe’s neck.
Whoever’s heartbeat it is, it’s fast.
Max tilts back her head and all she can see are Chloe’s eyes, so endlessly blue and so tender they make her ache. “Is this okay?” she asks in a whisper, her words a warm and gentle breeze against Chloe’s skin. Chloe shivers.
“Is what okay?”
“This,” Max answers but she barely manages to get the word out, her hand already cradling Chloe’s cheek almost of its own accord, Chloe’s fingers already pressing gently at Max’s chin to guide her, and suddenly they aren’t dancing anymore.
Oooooooh! Smooching cliffhanger! Don’t worry, that’s nowhere near the worst cliffhanger you’re going to have to endure in this story.
Apologies to anyone who knows anything at all about trucks or… physics. No idea if that gas siphoning thing would work, but my beta/partner and I gave it our best shot. I had the idea for it and she did her best to figure out if there was a way to do it, so if it seems remotely plausible she gets full props for that. Thanks to her also for her research on the world news for October 13, 2013.
Thank you again to folks for sticking with this story even with large gaps between chapters. Again, I won’t bore you with details, just life and mental health shit getting in the way. Next chapter is one of my favorites, so fingers crossed for a shorter gap between chapters this time.
Chapter 8: 1.8 My Love is a Plague
Chloe has major self-esteem issues.
10/13, two days after the storm.
Yes there is kissing, but there is also angst because that’s just how we roll around here. This is my most content-warning warranting chapter to date, so for those who wish to be forewarned of potentially triggering content please click this link before proceeding. And since it’s been several months since the previous chapter was posted, here’s a recap of the story so far for those who need a refresher.
Chapter title is from the Gaslight Anthem song Ain’t That a Shame.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 8: My Love is a Plague
Chloe isn’t sure how this started - whether Max leaned up first or she leaned down - but it started and it’s happening. Max’s hand is on her cheek again, and it’s just as startling as it was on Wednesday morning but this time she doesn’t falter. Max’s lips are on hers again, and it still does alarming things to her heart but this time she doesn’t back away. She doesn’t question it. She sinks into it. She lets herself have this one good thing.
And for these few moments, everything is okay. Everything is warm, and gentle, and good. The entire world is only her and Max, and she loves the entire world. The banshees in her brain, the fire in her blood, all of it is - for once - silent and still.
When they pull apart, Chloe feels like she’s opening her eyes on a new life in a new world.
And then suddenly Max is dissolving into shrieking laughter again, biting down on her hand to try to stifle it. It’s even more disturbing this time, because this time it feels like it’s Chloe’s fault.
“What? What’s…?” Panic, anger, and fear return from their banishment in a rush, filling in the places in Chloe’s mind they had so recently vacated and overflowing them. Is Max having a nervous breakdown? Is she freaking out? Is it because she kissed her? “Max, talk to me, please!”
Max, perhaps hearing the sharp edge of panic in Chloe’s voice, wrestles her laughter into submission. She stares at Chloe, shoulders still trembling with restrained laughter, mouth still trying to twitch into a smile even as she attempts to force it straight. “I just…” She giggles, then bites her lip to hold it back until she can speak. “I cannot believe I just kissed someone who used to pick her nose and eat it.”
After a moment of horrified silence, Chloe bursts into laughter that’s almost hysterical with relief. She collapses into the side of the truck, still roaring, and Max lets go and joins her. They laugh until it hurts, holding onto their aching sides, tears sliding down their cheeks from the force of it. “You…” she pants as she tries to still the last spasms of laughter, “You… hella... snob!” She swats Max’s arm, sending her into a renewed fit of giggles. “Like you didn’t do it, too!”
Max snorts. “I was younger than you!” she protests, wiping her face. “You were a bad influence on me.”
Even though she knows logically that Max is teasing her, Chloe can’t help but feel guilty because she knows it’s true. She’s the one who talked Max into breaking into Principal Wells’ office, into the Blackwell pool (what was she even thinking?!), into letting her steal the goddamn handicapped fund. Any one of those things could’ve gotten Max as expelled and disgraced as her - if not arrested - had they been caught. And she can’t imagine Max would have done any of them without her there, egging her on. Pressuring her.
What other fucked up things in their lives only happened because she pressured Max?
The wine stain on the carpet; for sure, that was her. That one had cost them two weeks of sleepovers. Max’s sprained ankle when she dared her to climb the big tree in her backyard. The time Max got grounded for breaking into the lighthouse after hours with her. The other time Max got grounded for breaking into the lighthouse with her. Basically any time Max ever got grounded, honestly. Anytime that something bad ever happened in Max’s life it could probably be put down to her pushing Max to do something reckless and not in her best interest.
Fuck, this whole past week. Max wouldn’t have had to endure any of this if she’d just left Chloe there to bleed out on the girls’ room floor like anybody else would’ve done.
The storm. The destruction of Arcadia Bay. All those people… It doesn’t matter that when the storm was bearing down on them she’d tried to convince Max to go back and let her die; all week long she’s been pushing Max in a thousand different ways to take her back into her life, to give a shit about her in a way that so few people ever have. No way would Max have made that decision otherwise.
And their kiss, just now? Was that really something that Max wanted, or was it just another thing she’d pressured Max into? Yet another reckless thing not in Max’s best interest?
She’s a bad influence, and Max is always the one to suffer the consequences.
“Yeah,” Chloe says a little shakily, pretty sure that too much time has passed between Max’s joke and her response but equally sure that she needs to say something, “I know, I’m the worst.” She’s joking back, playing along, only actually not at all.
Max gives her a surprisingly soft look before shoving her shoulder. “No, you’re the best.”
And then they’re kissing again, but it’s different this time. Chloe’s back is pressed hard up against the side of the truck and even so she’s grasping at Max for balance, twisting her hands in the back of her gray hoodie to hold herself steady. Max’s hands are in a dozen different places at once; Chloe can’t keep track. They’re cradling her face one second, digging into her shoulders another; they’re grabbing her hips, tangling in her hair, sliding down her sides, cupping the back of her neck. More than once, they’re gripping her suspenders and tugging them like reins, pulling her into Max with enough force that when they’re released she slams back into the side of the truck with a grunt.
Chloe stops thinking. There isn’t room for thought when all that she can do is feel.
Max doesn’t laugh when they part this time. She leans against Chloe instead, trying to catch her breath. Her fingers keep trailing up and down Chloe’s bare forearms, whisper-light but raising goosebumps wherever they touch. Chloe’s afraid to move, afraid to say anything. She doesn’t want to break the spell of… whatever this is.
Max is the first to break the silence. “We really suck at cooling off.”
That threatens to send Chloe back into a laughing fit. “Yeah,” she agrees, nuzzling her cheek into Max’s hair and tentatively wrapping an arm around her waist, “we really do.” She sighs in contentment when, instead of pulling away, Max burrows more firmly into the crook of her neck and keeps stroking her other arm.
“...So now what?”
There used to be a time when Chloe could read Max easily. It was almost like having a direct line into her mind; sometimes she didn’t even have to see her face or hear her voice to know exactly what she was thinking and feeling. She just knew. But in the past five years, Max has changed. Chloe has changed. Everything’s changed. Not for the first time this week, or even this day, Chloe misses being able to read Max like that.
“Now, we…” Now, we what? Now, we ride. Now, we get the hell out of Arcadia Bay. Now, we confess our feelings. Now, we forgive each other. Now, we pretend like this never happened. Now, we bone in the back of my truck. Now, we fuck everything up. Now, we talk about what the fuck just happened, what the fuck that was, what the fuck that meant.
Max’s fingers still. She peers up with what might be curiosity, but Chloe’s not sure anymore. Maybe she’s nervous. Maybe she’s pissed off. It’s anybody’s guess. “Chloe? Are you okay?”
That’s an even harder question to answer, so she dodges it. “Now, we should probably eat something. Then, we should head back up to the lighthouse and grab our stuff. Maybe camp up there tonight and head out in the morning; it’s getting late.”
“Oh…” Max moves away and Chloe’s arm drops back down to her side. “Yeah, that makes sense, I guess.” Is she disappointed?
“Or if you want to go tonight, you can wait down here and I’ll get our stuff and bring it down.”
“Mm.” Max’s back is turned to her, but Chloe can see that she’s moved into that defensive body posture she remembers so well from their childhood and especially their early adolescence: arms drawn across her body protectively, holding onto her shoulder with one hand. She’s got her shield up. Chloe knows that’s not a good sign, but being able to recognize the familiar gesture is perversely comforting.
Recognizing it doesn’t mean she knows how to respond to it, however. She tries to channel her younger self, to think of what she would have said or done in this situation, but they were never really in this situation before. Her younger self would’ve probably been freaking out too hard about making out with her best friend to even notice Max’s body language, much less respond to it. She’s honestly still a little freaked out by it, not because Max is a girl - she crossed that bridge years ago - but because Max is Max. Kissing Max is kind of like finding out after all of these years that, oh shit, Santa Claus is actually real.
It’s sort of a headtrip.
It would’ve been confusing and incredible enough without the relentless shitstorm that this week has been: Max is amazing; she’s always been amazing; she abandoned her and hurt her like she’d never felt before, but she’s still amazing. And now, after everything… She’s got superpowers, for fuck’s sake. She’s a goddamn superhero. She’s magic.
Chloe steps toward her awkwardly, wondering if it’s okay to touch her. When her own defenses are up, she’s inclined to fly off the handle if somebody touches her. Rachel is - was - a lot the same. But Max, she’s pretty sure, used to like to be held even when she was upset. It helped to calm her down. Although maybe that’s changed, too. Chloe reaches to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but she hesitates. Her hand hovers there, suspended in the air, and she realizes with a surge of disgust how filthy it is. Grease, oil, gasoline, rust, mud, muck, crud, grime... Her whole hand is coated with it. It’s packed deep under her fingernails. It goes almost up to her elbow. It stinks.
She steps back, horrified. The back of Max’s hoodie is filthy with the stuff, smudged black and creased by the grasping of Chloe’s greedy, revolting, unworthy hands.
How can she touch Max with these hands? How did she ever dare?
“Fuck, um, I… I sh-should…”
Max turns at the sound of her voice, a curious expression on her face. And, oh god, her face. Her… everything. Chloe had been so focused on Max’s hands that she hadn’t even registered what her own were doing. Apparently, they were busy. And they left marks every place they touched.
There’s a black smear on Max’s chin, and Chloe can just barely remember putting it there, gently guiding her face up to kiss her (shitshitshit, maybe she was the one who initiated). There’s a sizeable black smudge on either side of her face; Chloe doesn’t remember grabbing her by the face, but clearly she must have. The stuff is everywhere: one ear is badly smudged, there’s a swipe along her collarbone, gross handprints all along her sides, her hips, her arms, her shoulders (fuck, there’s even one on her chest, what the fuck); it’s fucking everywhere.
“I sh-sh-should, um…” Chloe wipes her hands on her pants, but really that just makes it worse. She turns her head. She can’t look at Max anymore: all she can see are the marks. She’s a goddamned plague. She’s contagious. “Y-you get the food out, ok? I’m gonna… I’m gonna go wash up.”
“Chloe, are you--”
Max lifts a hand like she’s going to reach out for her, but she’s already walking away. “I’m gonna go,” Chloe repeats firmly, taking long strides toward the water. When she steps off the asphalt, her boots sink into the sand. They make her stumble, so she pulls them off and leaves them where they fall. She does it without thinking, the way she does everything, and she barely even notices. She drops to her knees where the sand meets the water, and she scrubs at her arms and hands furiously. She scrubs until it hurts. She rubs wet sand onto her arms and scours. Her skin turns pink beneath the oily black and gray. She digs under her fingernails, trying to scrape it out. The water is cold, and it stings when her cuticles tear and she starts to bleed. It stings when she scratches too hard at her arms and bleeds again.
She needs soap. Pumice soap, something abrasive. She needs a sponge, or a cloth, or something. She needs sandpaper. A fucking sandblaster. She needs a new pair of hands.
She pulls off her tank top and uses it to wipe and scrub at her skin. It helps a little. Enough. The shirt turns gray and pink.
She realizes she’s shaking. “F-f-fuck,” she hisses through her teeth. She drops the tank top into the sand and sinks back off her knees onto her butt, hugging her legs to her chest and forcing herself to breathe.
It’s too much. Max is going to freak out when she comes back and she’s bleeding.
Chloe closes her eyes, and she counts, and she breathes. When she’s finally steady, she opens her eyes and inspects the damage. It isn’t as bad as she feared. She’s hurt herself worse than this before. She’s got a few nasty-looking welts on her forearms and one of them has a thin red line where the skin is broken, but it isn’t bleeding openly. There’s blood around some of her nail beds, but they look like they’re already clotting. Her skin is bright pink and sore-looking, but that’ll subside. There’s still a bit of a gray sheen in places, but there’s soap in the lighthouse. It’ll be okay. She’ll be okay.
She takes a deep breath and pushes herself to her feet. She glances back toward the parking lot, where she can just make out Max standing next to her truck. She wonders how badly she’s fucked things up this time. Max is still there, waiting for her, so that’s something. Although realistically where else could Max go? Chloe shivers. Her arms are wet; her pants are soaked through from the wet sand; her shirt is a soaked mess on the ground. It’s October.
Fuck it. She’s come this far.
Chloe dumps out the contents of her pockets into the sand, and then she wades quickly out into the water before she can talk herself out of it. The water is cold as ice, slicing through her legs as it passes her ankles, her knees, her hips. It’s the same dark blue-gray of Max’s eyes. It’s beautiful, somehow, even now. Even after everything she’s seen. Even with the memory of the storm hovering so close to its surface.
The Bay greets her like an old friend. Her oldest friend. It lifts her up and takes her into its arms. Its embrace is cold but strong. It’s just like old times, like nothing’s changed.
The waves are rough, but that doesn’t bother her; it never has. She rolls with them, lets them tumble her head over heels, lets them hold her head underwater until she’s not sure which way is up, lets them dump her back into the sand and wash over her. She gets up and does it all over again. Her mouth fills with salt water. Her nose burns with it. Sand is gritty on her tongue and between her teeth. It tastes like her childhood. She jumps in again and again.
“Wowser, now that’s a throwback.”
Chloe cranes her neck a little to see Max standing over her as she rests on the sand and tries to catch her breath. Max is smiling and her face is pink for some reason, but there’s a hint of concern in her eyes.
“Oh, yeah?” Chloe pants. She coughs wetly into a sand-encrusted fist. Another wave washes over her as she lays there, pushing and then pulling at her body as if beckoning her to dive back in. She tries to pull herself into a sitting position and is startled when her arms buckle under her weight. “Woah.” She manages it on the second attempt. Her muscles are more tired than she’d imagined. When she shifts to get a better look at Max, she notices some sore spots on her body that are probably going to turn into bruises. Max is carrying her boots and her jacket. The jacket puzzles her for a second until she remembers that her tank top is in a wet pile on the sand, and she realizes then that that’s probably why Max is blushing.
“The fearless Captain Bluebeard, battling the Kraken. Never thought I’d see that again.”
Chloe snorts. “And Long Max Silver, watching from the safety of the shore as usual. Ya landlubber.”
“Hey,” Max objects with a grin, “I’m keeping a watch for enemy ships. You’re welcome, by the way.” Even though Chloe chuckles in response, Max’s smile falters after a moment. The concern in her eyes deepens. “Did I… Did I completely freak you out back there?” she asks quietly.
“Did you-- What? Max, no.”
“I just-- I keep remembering that morning in your room…” Max chews her lower lip, holding Chloe’s boots and jacket close to her chest as though for protection. “You stepped back so quickly, and I just… I don’t want you to think that you, I don’t know, that you have to…” Her words trail off into incoherence.
“No-no-no-no-no, Max, I…” She could laugh, it’s so absurd. “Max, you didn’t do anything wrong. I freaked myself out.”
Max looks like she wants to believe her, but her eyes are heavy with doubt.
“Seriously,” Chloe presses when Max doesn’t respond, “I’m fine.” She reaches out a reassuring hand and Max winces when she sees the bloody beds of her fingernails.
“Uh-huh.” Max’s voice sinks like a stone. She takes Chloe’s hand anyway and carefully sits beside her.
“Okay, maybe I freaked a little. But it’s not your fault. I’m, like, the queen of overreacting to shit.”
“Does it always end up… like this?” Max holds up their linked hands, turning them to show Chloe her own fingers.
“What, topless and holding hands with a cute girl? If only.”
Max laughs in surprise. “With you bleeding, smartass.”
The concern in Max’s voice cuts through Chloe’s bravado. She desperately wants to lie, but she suspects Max will be able to see through it. It’s not like her cutting scars are invisible. In fact, they’ve seldom felt more obvious. “Not always,” she says as neutrally as possible. It’s technically not a lie, but she sees Max’s eyebrow cock anyway. Max’s hand slips away. “...Sometimes?” Chloe admits around the lump that rapidly forms in her throat.
Max looks consumed by guilt. After a painfully long silence, she stiffly moves to drape Chloe’s jacket over her bare shoulders. “It’s cold,” she explains flatly.
Chloe nods and draws the jacket closer around herself. She tucks in her arms and hides her hands under the fabric. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t want to,” she says quietly. When Max turns to her with a look of confusion, she clarifies: “Kissing you. So don’t… You know. Don’t guilt trip yourself over that.” She sees Max’s eyes glide down toward her shielded arms. The neat rows of thin, faded scars hidden beneath her jacket feel like a glaring neon sign flashing boldly in front of her friend’s face. She made the first marks the day that Max left. The day of her father’s funeral. With the way that Max’s guilty eyes seem to stare right through her to the pain she tries so hard to hide, she has to wonder if, somehow, Max knows this.
It’s possible, she realizes. Not likely, but possible. Max has those crazy fucking time-bending powers, after all. She was able to go back to the day he died, five whole years ago. Who’s to say she couldn’t go back to any fucked up moment in Chloe’s life and move the pieces around? Or even just peek in, see what kind of a mess Chloe was making of her life without her there? Maybe she was there when Chloe cut for the first time and then rewound herself out of Chloe’s memory. Maybe she was there every single time. Maybe she--
Chloe forcibly derails her train of thought. Max wasn’t there. But Max is here. Max came back. And Max gave up everything to keep her safe.
“It’s… It’s still beautiful, isn’t it?” Max hesitates, then edges a little closer to Chloe and leans against her. “Like… I can still see the storm. I can still hear it.” She shudders. “I can still feel it. But the bay still looks beautiful. Like nothing bad could ever happen.”
Chloe nods, relieved for the change of subject. “Yeah. I was thinking the same thing. It’s the same as it always was, even after… everything.”
The corner of Max’s mouth quirks up into a partial smile. “Same as ever. Kraken and all.” She rests a tentative hand on Chloe’s knee. “Looking at it, it’s hard to believe that only a couple of days ago, it was…” She makes a violent swirling gesture with her free hand. “Ripping everything apart. It was… terrible. A monster out of a horror movie. And now it’s just the bay again.”
“For reals. Like, last week it was spitting out dead whales and now it’s hella chill again, waiting for surfers or something. It’s fucking surreal. Kinda hard to trust it.” She gives Max a gentle nudge. “But I kinda do, though. Is that dumb?”
Max laughs, and this time it actually sounds like a real laugh. “No, I don’t think so.” She pushes herself up to her feet, then pauses in thought. “Shit, I really hope not.” She brushes the sand off her jeans, then reaches out for Chloe. “You ready to eat?”
Chloe takes her hand, but not without hesitation. If her battered fingers still upset Max, she doesn’t let on. She wipes at her pants and her skin, trying to get as much sand off as she can. “Damn, I’m a mess.”
“Who isn’t?” Max smirks. “Anyway, you’ve got a change of clothes in the lighthouse. You’ll just have to endure some minor chafing on the way home.” An awkward look crosses her face. “Er, on the way to the lighthouse, I mean.”
“Lighthouse sweet lighthouse, huh? You gonna miss it?”
“I mean, it did give us shelter from, well, everything.” Max holds out Chloe’s boots to her.
Chloe shakes off her suggestion. “Nah, I’ll just fill them with sand.” She grins. “It’s also the first place you got me naked, so it’s got that going for it, too.”
Max splutters. “First place I got you naked? Are you-- Never mind, whatever. Let’s just have a nice meal like civilized people, okay?” She turns and starts walking back up the beach towards the parking lot.
“Ah, yes, eating from a pouch with a collapsible spork. The height of fine dining. Truly, we are civilized.” Chloe gives a startled laugh when Max flips her the bird over her shoulder. “That a promise, hippie?” She laughs harder when Max briefly turns around to hold up both middle fingers, her face flaming red, before continuing her march through the sand.
Still chuckling, Chloe bends and rinses the sand from her arms before snaking them through the sleeves of her jacket. The thin fabric clings to her wet skin, immediately damp, but it’s better than nothing. She scoops up her tank top and wrings it out as well as she can, water pouring out of it and cascading - salt and cold - over her hands.
There’s something about the gesture, the sensation of the water on her hands, the smell in the air, the feeling in her skin... A memory comes to her suddenly, clear as a photograph, of a warm night not so long ago on this same stretch of beach: drunk on gin and Rachel’s lips, naked because Rachel had dared her, Rachel naked because she just fucking wanted to and so, so fucking alive. They ran into the waves, dove too deep and kept coming back for more, laughing like idiots the whole time. Rachel was so beautiful, it was like she was made of gold. Too beautiful to touch, and yet somehow Chloe did. She was laughing and swimming and dancing and breathing.
Another memory hits Chloe just as quickly and just as hard: Rachel in the junkyard, no longer beautiful, no longer golden, no longer breathing. Chloe with dirt on her hands, dirt on her knees, mud in her mind. And the smell, so strong she thought she’d never get it out of her nose. Rachel always smelled so good no matter what; it was a cruel joke, a cosmic insult, that this horrible stench should be the last memory Chloe would have of her.
Chloe reels, suddenly unsteady on her feet. The fetid smell invades her nose again at the thought, overriding the salt of the bay. She doubles over as though punched in the gut and retches into the sand. She hasn’t eaten much, so it’s mostly bile. It burns her throat.
She spits a couple of times, trying to clear out her mouth. She glances toward the parking lot. Max has almost reached the truck. Her back is still turned. Chloe kicks sand over the small puddle of vomit and hurriedly makes her way toward Max, fastening her jacket as she walks swiftly up the beach.
Sorry about that, oof. Is it fucked up that this is kind of my favorite chapter of this story (at least as far as I've written)?
I’m so far off the monthly chapter update schedule at this point that it seems silly to keep apologizing for it. You’re all human, you get it: life is a thing. I’ve also been submitting original stories to lit mags and stuff lately, which takes time away from the fanfic but please keep your fingers crossed for me anyway! Thank you!
Chapter 9: 1.9 Cooldown
Max and Chloe spend one last night in the lighthouse. Some rules are broken and minor wounds are tended.
10/13, two days after the storm.
Enjoy the penultimate chapter of Act I! A bit of a soft landing after all the angst. Still some content warnings, though, so please check out this post on my tumblr if you wish to be forewarned.
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 9: Cooldown
Lighthouse sweet lighthouse. Max knows that Chloe was only teasing when she said it, but when she pushes open the heavy wooden door with its broken lock she can’t deny the warm feeling that wells up inside of her. She knows the lighthouse isn’t a long-term living solution; she’s not that naive. She saw how little food was left in the emergency kit when she grabbed their supplies earlier, for one thing. For another, there’s no bed, no shower, no kitchen - none of the amenities that make for comfortable living. No pillows, and the blanket is barely adequate. Only one change of clothes for each of them, and her backup outfit is… less than ideal.
Still, she’s a little sad at the thought of leaving their lighthouse sanctuary behind. This place protected them through the storm - through her storm. It kept them alive, probably. Gave them a place to keep warm - warmer, anyway - and dry when she might have died from the cold and wet. Sheltered them from violent winds and swirling debris. She owes it a lot. And it’s been nice, in an odd sort of way, to have a place where she and Chloe can just be. No worries about Blackwell drama, no worries about parents (or step-dicks) barging in; just a place to exist. They haven’t really had that since their treehouse pirate fort.
Chloe lingers outside for a few minutes, finishing her cigarette. Even though Chloe’s clothes don’t smell like gasoline anymore after her swim, Max still can’t help but worry that she’s going to burst into flames. She doesn’t mention that. Chloe’s been acting a little off ever since they kissed: quiet and fidgety, wearing her shoulders too high. She still jokes but the punchlines are weak, lacking enough conviction to bite. Her smiles look brittle, as if one wrong word or touch might break them. So Max doesn’t push her. She says nothing when Chloe lights her cigarette. She laughs gently at Chloe’s jokes. She talks to her only about inconsequential things, nothing that might slip and cut too close to the bone. It gets them up the hill without breaking. That’s something.
Max leaves the door ajar and smoke filters in. It doesn’t make that much of a difference; everything Chloe touches smells like cigarettes sooner or later, and they’ve been living in this room for days now. Max is surprised by how quickly she’s gotten used to the smell of it. A week ago, she couldn’t stand the smell of cigarettes. She’d considered it a deal-breaker, couldn’t imagine ever kissing a smoker. It’s funny, she thinks, how quickly the rules changed as soon as Chloe reentered the picture. Suddenly, smokers weren’t off the table anymore. Or pot-smokers, or drinkers, or a dozen other different things Max used to think she was strongly opposed to but which abruptly ceased to matter when she found out that Chloe did them.
Max wonders if Chloe’s got her own list of rules. She wonders if she’s the exception to any of them, the way that Chloe is to hers. She goes into the small washroom, mentally reciting this theoretical list as she sits on the toilet. No hipsters. No dorks. No girls who can’t dance. No girls who don’t party. No girls without piercings. Ugh, no flat-chested girls. No girls without hips. No girls that aren’t even pretty. No boring girls. No inexperienced nerds who don’t even know how to kiss, much less… anything else.
By the time she starts to wash her hands, the frown on her face is so comically exaggerated that it startles a laugh out of her when she catches it in the small, spotty mirror over the sink. She leans in closer to her reflection to inspect it, turning her head this way and that, a grin spreading across her mouth as she does. Either Chloe doesn’t have a list of rules or else Max is breaking them, if the dark smudges all over her face are anything to judge by. She examines each grimy mark on her skin in turn, trying and failing to pinpoint the exact moment when each was made, a sensation swelling in her chest that feels something like pride.
She suspects she’s been in the bathroom for too long; she can hear Chloe wedging shut the outside door and shuffling around inside the lighthouse. A little reluctantly, she splashes the cold water on her face and pumps out a small quantity of soap. They’re already running low, so she tries to be conservative. Toilet paper is getting low, too; it’s a good thing they’re leaving in the morning, even if she will miss the place.
She washes her face carefully, scrubbing to get the dark smudges of grease off. It’s sort of a shame, really. She actually likes having them there. They’re her proof that that really happened, that she kissed Chloe and Chloe actually kissed her back, that Chloe really touched her, that maybe this stupid teenage crush she’s been nursing since she was twelve years old isn’t completely hopeless. Although with the way that Chloe’s acting now, maybe it is. It would make things easier if they could have an actual, grown up conversation about this, but Max has always had a bad habit of putting off difficult conversations even under the best of circumstances, and the sight of Chloe’s bloodied fingers made it pretty clear to her that these aren’t the best of circumstances.
She peels off her hoodie, smiling again when she takes stock of the smudges covering it. That won’t come clean as easily as skin, and it’ll have to wait anyway because she’s not about to go soaking her hoodie until she has an alternative that didn’t belong to Rachel Amber. She gets to keep that evidence for now.
She tugs at her t-shirt and gives it a sniff, making a face. She pulls the shirt off and washes under her arms as well as she can, daydreaming hard about how good a hot shower would feel. A nice, steaming shower with shampoo and body wash, maybe one of those shower poof things to really scrub off the thin layer of grime she can feel coating her skin. A razor might not be a bad idea, either, she muses with a grimace when the stubble under her arms chafes her hand. She hasn’t shaved since, what, Tuesday? Her underarm hair is already starting to soften, it’s getting so long. She pats her armpits dry with her shirt because she really doesn’t have anything else handy and doesn’t want to waste toilet paper, then puts it back on.
It’s at least a modest improvement, she hopes. Her clothes still smell sweaty (ugh, why did Chloe have to make her dance? Now she looks like a dork and she smells bad) and she still hasn’t showered in days, but she feels just that tiny bit cleaner. She combs her fingers through her badly tousled, dirty hair, working out the knots as much as she can. It’s a bit embarrassing to think how gross it must have felt when Chloe put her hands in it, not to mention the way Chloe practically buries her nose in it at night.
That hot shower moves higher up on her list of fantasies. She’ll stay in for at least an hour, until she feels like herself again. Until she’s washed off all traces of the storm, all traces of these last few days of unwashed hair and unbrushed teeth and no deodorant.
Chloe could probably use one, too. It wouldn’t really be fair to make her wait her turn, not to mention the water that would be wasted if they took two separate hour-long showers. They could share. It would be the environmentally friendly thing to do.
Max splashes her face with cold water again. She braces her hands on the sink and takes a deep breath to clear her mind before she snatches up her hoodie and opens the door to find a half-naked Chloe toweling off her hair with a moderately soiled chamois.
“Oh! Shit, uh, hey.” Chloe chuckles and puts her hand over her heart. “Damn, girl, you almost gave me a heart attack.”
Max wants to make a flippant comment about how she could say the same thing, but with the way her heart is hammering at her ribs it feels too true, too revealing, so she just stutters out, “S-sorry.” Logically she knows that it shouldn’t be a big shock that Chloe is standing there wearing nothing but a backup shirt and underpants - it’s not like she’s been sleeping in her skinny jeans the last few nights, and it’s getting close enough to bedtime - but that doesn’t stop her brain from momentarily short-circuiting at the sight of her.
Chloe waves off her apology. “It’s cool. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know where you were. I just wasn’t expecting the door to open so suddenly.” She tugs at the hem of her shirt in an uncharacteristically self-conscious gesture that makes Max feel guilty for looking at her even though she really doesn’t know where else to look. Chloe tilts her head curiously at her. “What happened to your shirt?”
“Oh, uh.” Max tries to think of something less awkward to say than, ‘I rubbed it on my wet armpits.’ “Just, um…” She makes a vague rubbing gesture in the air with her hand. “Washing up. You know.”
“Ooooh, washing up sounds good.”
That’s the most genuine enthusiasm Max has heard in Chloe’s voice since before they kissed. She laughs through the blush that rushes to her face as she shoves down another daydream of a long, hot shower. “Didn’t you already take a bath in the bay today?”
“Uhhh, my point exactly. I smell like fish, Max. Not to mention all the sand I’ve got in weird places. There’s only so much you can do about it without washing.” She points toward the bathroom. “Did you leave me any soap?”
“Huh?” Max shakes herself. “Um, yeah, of course… Soap. There’s soap. Still. Yes.” If she could stop staring at Chloe’s (long, bare, so long) legs, she might be able to string together a coherent sentence. Chloe walks right up to her, and Max stares at her dumbly for a second before realizing that she’s blocking the bathroom door and steps out of Chloe’s way, mumbling more apologies.
It’s a little easier to think once Chloe isn’t standing in front of her without any pants, but not much. Max had thought that kissing her would release some of the pressure in her chest, soothe the urgent jangling of her nerves, but if anything it’s worse now. She takes a few slow, deep breaths to steady herself and starts walking around the room, hoping that movement will distract her. She scoops up the band-aids and ointment packets still pooled on the ground where Chloe dumped them days ago and packs them back into the first aid kit. It’s too soon to really pack up in earnest since they’re still using the Jolly Roger as a bottom sheet, but she starts gathering items together to make it easier in the morning. There isn’t really much to get together, honestly, but it gives her something to do with her hands while Chloe splashes around in the bathroom.
Chloe’s clothes from the day are hung over the bannister, wrung out but still dripping slightly. Max hopes they’ll have enough time to dry properly before they get bundled up with everything else tomorrow morning. She grazes her fingers lightly against the ripped denim of Chloe’s jeans. The fabric is all clotted with sand. The tank top is even worse: sandy and wet and lightly stained with blood. She hopes wherever they end up they’ll be able to find a working laundromat. Clean, dry clothes are near the top of Max’s list of priorities for when they get out of Arcadia Bay, right under showering and brushing her teeth. She casts a glance at the metallic blanket on the ground and mentally adds sleeping in a real bed with real pillows and real blankets to her list. She stretches her back with a grunt.
Rachel’s clothes are already folded into a neat pile on the stairs. Max hesitates then reaches out to touch them, rubbing the collar of the flannel shirt between her thumb and forefinger. The material is soft and inviting. But she’s made things awkward enough with Chloe for one day; no matter how tempting it might be to change into clothes that don’t stink, she doesn’t want to make things worse. She can still feel the way Chloe recoiled from her when she wore these clothes, the way she folded in on herself and shrank away to nothing, the way she couldn’t even look at her at first. The way she looked through her later.
She much prefers the way Chloe was this morning: clowning around to make her smile, teasing and flirting and joking and dancing. She was confident and excited and seemed like she was actually having fun.
And then Max had to go and stick her tongue down her throat and make shit weird between them. Had to make Chloe all quiet and withdrawn and afraid to meet her eyes again. Max should’ve known it was too much, too soon. She should have said something first, should have talked about this, should have been patient. Chloe’s still in mourning for Rachel, for fuck’s sake. Plus they’ve both been through the wringer this week, and who knows what horrors await them when they finally leave their cozy little nest here, what other casualties they’ll have to mourn. They’re in no state for this. The timing is all wrong.
“Packing up, huh?”
Max nearly jumps out of her skin at the sound of Chloe’s voice. “Holy fuck!”
Chloe snickers. “Guess I’m not the only one on edge tonight. You okay, Max Attack?”
“Fine! Totally fine.” Max cringes at how shrill her voice comes out.
“If you say so.” Chloe finishes wiping her hands on the shammy and lets it drop to the floor.
Max follows the motion of her hands. They look a lot better than they had earlier, but the raw, red edges around her fingernails still make her stomach clench guiltily. “Hey,” she says gently, regretting the words even before she says them, “Could I help you with that?” She gestures at Chloe’s hands when Chloe gives her a confused look. “I think you might still be bleeding a little.”
“Oh.” Chloe grimaces, then buries it under a neutral expression. “Nah, it’s fine. Must’ve reopened when I washed up. It’ll stop pretty quick.” Her hands disappear behind her back.
“You sure?” Max taps the first aid kit next to her. “We’ve got all of these band-aids and stuff.”
Chloe pushes out a chuckle. “I saw you cleaned that up. Bringing it with us?”
Max smiles sheepishly. “Figured it couldn’t hurt. I know it’s not much, but it seems like a waste to leave it behind. It might come in handy.”
“Yeah, true. I guess we could come across someone with a scraped knee; you never know.” Chloe doesn’t mean for her quip to stick between Max’s ribs like a knife, but she notices when it does. “Shit, I didn’t mean--”
“No, you’re right,” Max cuts her off. “It’s stupid. If we find anyone, they’re gonna need a lot more than some…” She rattles the first aid kit in frustration. “Some fucking band-aids. Ugh, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“You were thinking you want to help,” Chloe says, walking over to her but stopping short of touching her.
Max snorts angrily. “Sure. Yeah. With my dumb little first aid kit, I’m just gonna fix everything. After everything I--”
“Max.” Chloe’s hand is warm on Max’s forearm. It’s her touch as much as her voice that stops Max mid-sentence and dissolves the cyclone of self-loathing that had been tearing at her insides. “Don’t. You don’t… It’s...” Chloe sighs and works her mouth silently for a few seconds, trying to piece her thoughts into words. She gives a small shake of her head and tries a different angle of approach. “You know what? I changed my mind. Still wanna help me?”
Max eyes her suspiciously.
“No, really. They’re bugging the shit out of me.” Chloe gently pries the first aid kit from Max’s hands and flicks up its latches. “I mean, I can do it myself if you don’t want to, but it’s a pain in the ass putting band-aids on your own fingers.” Setting the first aid kit on the ground, she crouches down and pulls out a fistful of band-aids and a packet of ointment. When she starts to tear open the ointment with her teeth, Max sighs and drops down next to her.
“No,” she says as she plucks the packet out of Chloe’s mouth. “Are you a literal toddler? That’s so unsanitary. Just… let me.”
Chloe manages to keep a self-satisfied grin off her face as she watches Max’s focus shift from her guilty conscience to total absorption in the task at hand. She holds out her hands obediently when Max gestures to her, letting Max tenderly dab antibiotic ointment onto her torn up cuticles with a Q-tip. “Good thing there’s no hydrogen peroxide. That shit used to sting so bad.”
Max snickers. “God, you were such a baby about it.”
“Only because you were such a sadist with it!”
“Oh, please. I was gentle as a lamb and you know it. Not my fault that under that tough skater persona there was a total wimp with zero pain tolerance.” Max knows that Chloe’s doing this on purpose. There’s a comfort in the familiarity, in letting muscle memory guide her through the motions as she tends to Chloe’s injuries. They’ve sat together like this over dozens of scrapes and cuts over the years - bruised knees, bloodied elbows, split lips, dislocated fingers. She tears open a band-aid and starts carefully winding it around a fingertip as she tries to stay in the moment, willing herself to remember only the minor injuries she used to patch up regularly and not the injuries so large she had to rend time itself in order to mend them.
“Yeah, yeah. Gentle as a lamb with a penchant for pouring liquid pain on open wounds.” She smirks. “Seriously though, you were a hell of a field medic. Pretty sure I was the envy of every skater bro at the park.”
Max feels a warm blossom of pride in her chest. “Oh, yeah?” She secures a final band-aid around a fingertip, checking to make sure it’s snug but not tight enough to cut off Chloe’s circulation.
“Hell yeah. Those chumps had to go crying to their moms if they wanted someone to take care of them. I had my own personal Doctor Caulfield.” Chloe flexes her bandaged fingers. “You’ve still got it, Max. You should go to medical school, really.”
Max’s eyebrows shoot up. “With my grades? Fat chance.”
“Enh, you’re right. Fuck school; who needs it? You’re a natural.” Chloe winks and stretches herself back up to her feet. Max clicks the first aid kit shut and sets it on the stairs by their clothes. Chloe lets out an exaggerated yawn. “You about ready for bed? It’s been a hella long day, and if we’re roadtripping tomorrow we should get a good night’s sleep.”
“Yeah… Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Max watches as Chloe crawls between the Jolly Roger and the emergency blanket, automatically turning down the other side of the blanket for her. She stops to pick up and fold the discarded shammy as she walks over to join her, prompting Chloe to roll her eyes.
“We can take care of that stuff in the morning, Max. C’mon, it’s chilly. Where’s my hippie hot water bottle?”
Max snorts and shakes her head. “You’re impossible.”
Chloe’s smile takes on a peculiar edge. “I mean, yeah, sort of. But I’m here anyway, and I’m cold, so get over here.” She pats the makeshift bed next to her. When Max kneels to climb in, Chloe raises an eyebrow. “Sleeping in your jeans, Caulfield?”
“Oh! Right.” Max straightens up again.
“I mean, it’s cool if you want to; it just seems uncomfortable.”
“No, no, I just wasn’t thinking… I’m sorta zombified, I guess.” Max reaches to unbutton her jeans and smiles fondly when Chloe closes her eyes and turns her head to give her privacy without any teasing. It’s silly, probably, since they’re going to be sleeping next to each other anyway, but it’s still kind of sweet. She folds her jeans and slides under the blanket next to Chloe.
The floor is cold, hard, and lumpy. The thin fabric of the pirate flag does virtually nothing to temper that. Max can feel the grittiness of the dirt and tiny pebbles that coat the stone floor right through it. Sleeping in a real bed moves to the top of her list. A sharp twinge in her lower back seconds the motion.
“This floor sucks,” Chloe murmurs as if she’s reading Max’s mind. “Can’t wait to get out of here. Sleep someplace warm and soft.”
Max opens her mouth to agree, but she slams it shut to cut off a surprised whimper when Chloe suddenly draws near, pulling her into a cuddle.
“S’better,” Chloe mumbles drowsily into Max’s hair, curling into her side. She sighs against Max’s temple. “Shit, I miss my bed.”
“We… We had some pretty killer sleepovers in that bed,” Max offers over the too-loud drumbeat of her heart. She really hopes that Chloe can’t feel it through the arm she’s got draped across Max’s chest.
“Fuck yeah, we did.”
Max can feel Chloe’s lips curve into a smile against her skin. She takes a deep breath, slow and quiet, trying not to be obvious about it. They’re supposed to be relaxing. They’re supposed to be sleeping. But Chloe acted so distant after Max crossed the line with her, and now here she is closing that distance back up like it was never even there, and Max has never felt more awake in her life.
“That was a good idea, washing up. I feel a little more… I dunno. Human.” Chloe’s thumb is rubbing slowly against Max’s shoulder as she speaks, her voice a low, soft rumble just above her ear.
“Thanks… Sorry I still smell gross.”
“Shut up, you smell awesome.”
Max has no idea how to respond to that. “So,” she says evasively, “Pretty exciting you got Diane up and running, huh?” She can actually feel the confusion that ripples through Chloe’s expression.
“I got who the fuck? What?”
“Your truck. ‘Cause of the Twin Peaks plates?”
Chloe groans and it vibrates against Max’s skull. “Are you for real, Caulfield? You’re seriously trying to pull a Rumpelstiltskin on me right now?”
“I mean, it’d be quicker if you’d just tell me her name,” she teases. “There are way too many women on Twin Peaks; I’ll be up all night listing them.”
“And you went straight to Diane, for fuck’s sake? She’s, like, barely even a character!” Chloe protests, laughing.
“I don’t know, seemed your style to pick someone really obscure.”
“Oh, no, no.” Chloe pokes Max in the side, making her squirm. “That’s straight-up hipster nonsense. I’m not the heirloom tomato-raising, antique bicycle-collecting Zoe Deschanel wannabe here.”
“Pfft, okay, Johnny Rotten. Aren’t punks basically just proto-hipsters? Like, they were hipsters before it was cool.”
Chloe gasps in mock horror. “Bite your hipster tongue!”
Max giggles. “Make me, punk!” She writhes and shrieks when Chloe digs her bandaged fingers into her sides, tickling her furiously. “Ah! No fair!”
“All is fair in love and tickle war!”
Chloe’s got a natural advantage on Max with her long limbs and greater body mass. She’s got Max’s hips caught between her thighs, and as hard as Max tries to keep Chloe’s wiggling fingers away from her sensitive ribs Chloe somehow always manages to easily swat Max’s hands aside. She’s winning the tickle war easily, same as she always has, but Max doesn’t mind. Losing feels a lot like winning when it means that Chloe is on top of her. Especially when she’s cackling and grinning and looking genuinely happy again.
“Say it! Say I’m not a hipster!”
Max can barely squeeze the words out through her unrestrained laughter. “You’re… You’re not a… h-hipster!”
“Say punk’s not dead!”
“P-punk’s not - ah! - Punk’s not dead!”
Chloe pauses to look down on Max, radiant in her triumph. Pinning Max to the floor with her body weight, she leans in close until their noses are almost touching, a devious and gloating smile on her lips. Her fingers trail lightly over Max’s ribs, not quite tickling but keeping the threat of it alive. Max’s heart gives an awkward lurch.
“Say, ‘My name’s Maxine and I’m the Hipster Queen.’”
Chloe smells like salt water, cigarettes, and cheap liquid soap. Max really, really wants to kiss her. She wants to drag her down by her tangled blue and lilac hair and suck every ridiculous, teasing word from her tongue. She wants Chloe to keep her pinned to the ground there forever, keep her squirming under the warm heaviness of her body, keep it so that every breath Chloe takes compresses Max’s chest and whispers against her lips like a promise. She wants to topple Chloe over and press her into the ground and kiss her until everything else fades away. She wants to kiss her like she’s allowed to want this.
Max really wants to kiss her, but she also really doesn’t want to ruin this moment. She loves the playful look in Chloe’s eyes, the eager anticipation in her smile, and she doesn’t want to see that all melt away just for the sake of scratching a selfish itch.
Chloe’s finger prods her side gently as a reminder. “Well, Max? You gonna say it or not?”
“You’re the one who’s hung up on not being a hipster,” Max reminds her. “I’ve made peace with who I am.”
“Then you shouldn’t have any problem saying it.”
Max sticks out her tongue in reply, almost catching Chloe’s chin with it.
Chloe jerks her head back, laughing. “Oh, you asked for this.” Max yelps and tries to wriggle out of Chloe’s clutches as Chloe resumes her assault on Max’s ribs. “Say it! I can do this all night if I have to!”
“My - eek! - n-name’s M-M-Maxine, and I’m the ha-ha-H-Hipster Queen!” Max stutters out, her whole body quaking with laughter. She continues to spasm and shake when Chloe abruptly rolls off of her with a satisfied chuckle. Free to move again, Max’s body folds up like a jackknife, arms wrapping around herself as she attempts to fight down the last lingering waves of hysterical giggles. “Wh-wh-what the hell, C-Chloe!” Max pants out giddily.
“Man, I think you actually got more ticklish.” Chloe wiggles her fingers at Max. “That’s good to know.”
Max gives her a playful shove, pushing her arm away. “Now who’s a sadist??”
“Better a sadist than a hipster is all I’m sayin’.” It’s hard to tell in the dim glow of the emergency lights, but it looks like Chloe’s face is a little flushed. Certainly she’s out of breath. Max dismisses the quick flare of excitement in her gut. It takes a fair amount of effort to hold a squirming person down, Max imagines. There’s no reason to assume that there’s anything more to it than that. Just because her own face is on fire and she knows her own jagged breathing is from more than mere exertion doesn’t mean that Chloe feels the same way.
“Okay, sure, whatever. Next time you need someone to make you a perfect pumpkin spice latte, don’t come crying to me.” Max smiles to make sure Chloe knows she’s not actually mad, then shifts her weight back onto her back and stares up at the ceiling so she doesn’t have to keep trying and failing to read Chloe’s eyes.
“That will literally never happen, so I think I can live with those consequences.” There’s a pause, then Chloe’s arm snakes its way back across Max’s chest and Chloe’s chin comes to rest on her shoulder. Her breath tickles against Max’s ear, and that’s almost harder to ignore than the deliberate tickling of her fingers had been. Max suppresses the urge to squirm. “You don’t actually drink that shit, do you?”
“Dog, no. Plain black coffee. I don’t mess with the classics.”
Chloe huffs out a laugh into Max’s jaw. Max shudders. “Okay, that might actually be the most hipster thing you’ve ever said. Do you take it deconstructed, Max? Do you grind the beans yourself?”
“Shut up,” Max whines, pinching Chloe’s arm. “I thought you were done torturing me.”
“When did I say that?” Chloe teases. “Okay, okay, we’ll call it a truce for the night. Tomorrow’s a long day.”
“Mm.” Max covers her eyes with her borrowed beanie and tries to focus on the weariness in her muscles. Chloe’s breathing soon becomes slow and even, but Max’s blood keeps stirring restlessly. “Maybe tomorrow I can get you a damn good cup of coffee. And some damn good cherry pie.”
“Shush. We called truce. It’s sleepy time now.”
“...Is her name Audrey?”
“Good night, Max.”
“Is it Donna? Laura? Josie?”
“It’s the fucking Log Lady. Go to sleep.”
“Is it really??”
“It’s not anyone from Twin Peaks, okay! Good night, Max!”
“...Well, that just raises more questions than it answers.”
Chloe snorts. “And you call me impossible?”
Before Max can formulate a snarky response, Chloe hauls one of her legs over Max’s, surprising her back into silence. The sharp bristles of blonde stubble on Chloe’s leg scratch, but she doesn’t protest. She bites her lip to keep from saying anything that might spoil this. If she turns her head just a little bit, she could plant a soft kiss on Chloe’s lips. Would a goodnight kiss be so bad? No pressure behind it; it wouldn’t have to mean anything. She bites her lip harder and tries again to focus on sleep.
Chloe releases a long sigh and brushes her fingers gently through Max’s hair. “Once upon a time,” she mumbles drowsily into Max’s ear.
Max gives an embarrassed laugh. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Mm, I know, but it’s so effective and you’re so fidgety,” Chloe shrugs. “Once upon a time, there were two pirates…” Her voice is a low, droning hum, so soft that Max can just barely make out the words. “An’ they sailed… on the good ship Log Lady. Seeking… hmmm… treasure, an’ adventure…” She grins sleepily. “An’ booty. An’ their very…” She interrupts herself with a yawn. “Their very existence… was a middle finger… to the world…”
If there’s more to the story, it’s lost on Max as she rides on the gentle waves of Chloe’s voice into unconsciousness.
Chapter 10: 1.10 Dreaming of a Destination
Chloe has been dreaming about leaving for years. She never thought it would be this hard.
10/14, three days after the storm.
Act I: Dawn of Time
Ch 10: Dreaming of a Destination
Chloe has been dreaming about this moment for years: the moment when she finally gets behind the steering wheel of her truck and drives the fuck out of Arcadia Bay for good.
She’s been dreaming about it since before she even had a steering wheel to get behind. Ever since the day her father was lowered into the ground, the day Max fucked off to Seattle and left her alone with nothing but her grief and a mother too consumed by her own to even talk to her. That was the first day she knew that there was no one and nothing in Arcadia Bay she wanted to stay there for.
It started as daydreams - and sometimes actual dreams - of tracking Max down in Seattle. First to rekindle their friendship but eventually, as Max’s silence grew longer and the wound of it grew deeper, to demand answers. To find her former friend and scream at her and shake her until answers fell out of her.
After a while, the fantasy became more abstract, something urgent but directionless. She just wanted to go, to not be here, and she didn’t care where she went or what she did or who she was with.
It wasn’t until Rachel came into her life that the dream took a concrete form again. Every single one of Rachel’s wanderlust fantasies sounded perfect to her. Chloe didn’t care where they went as long as they were together and out of this godforsaken town. If Rachel had told her she didn’t want to go to L.A. anymore and wanted instead to go to the North fucking Pole, Chloe would’ve been fully on board.
But even with all of the hours she’s spent imagining this scenario, it’s never looked quite like this. Not even in her ugliest adolescent imaginings did she think that she would be leaving behind an Arcadia Bay so utterly annihilated. And she certainly hadn’t dreamed that it would all be her fault.
It sucks a lot of the excitement out of it. Even having Max by her side - loading up the truck and making deliberately cheerful small talk - can’t quite cut through the numbness she feels.
“You ready for this shit?” she says with a forced smile, hand poised on her key as it sits in the ignition.
Max nods eagerly, and Chloe can almost believe her enthusiasm is real. “Max and Chloe hit the road. I can’t wait.”
Chloe turns the key and her truck roars to life. She feels a small surge of pride at the sound. It’s good to know she can fix things sometimes instead of just breaking them. She pats the steering wheel affectionately - ignoring Max’s amused eye roll - then flicks on the radio. Static blares loudly from the speakers, causing them both to jump. “Okay, not off to a great start,” she mumbles apologetically, fiddling with the tuner. “Good thing you made me turn the music down on the ride here. That wouldn’t’ve been fun at full volume.”
“Wowser, that’s it turned down? How do you even still have eardrums?” Max clicks her seatbelt into place. Her tone is light, but Chloe doesn’t miss the uncomfortable look on her face. For a moment Chloe assumes that it’s the jumbled radio signals causing her discomfort until she recognizes her uneasiness as something all too familiar.
“Oh, right… You, uh, weren’t you. I guess.” She gives an awkward chuckle. “That’s… kinda really fucking weird, huh?” She finds a station that comes through clearly enough. It’s playing classic rock; not really her jam and probably not Max’s either, but it seems like it should be inoffensive enough to both of their tastes. “This work for you?”
Max nods absently. “Sure, it’s fine.”
Chloe channels every dreg of enthusiasm into her voice that she can muster. “Well, then, let’s fucking set sail! Anchors aweigh!” Chloe throws the truck into drive and gives Max an expectant look.
“Aye aye, Captain,” she replies, her smile returning.
“That’s the spirit!” Chloe hits the gas and they lurch forward so quickly that Max grips the seat for stability. Chloe peels out of the parking lot at a reckless speed, relishing the freedom of movement after days of being cooped up in a small room.
“Chloe, be--” Max interrupts herself with a shrill yelp when they hit some debris and she gets bumped an inch into the air before her seatbelt slams her down onto the seat. “Be careful!” She grabs the oh-shit handle over her door with one hand and grips the seat harder with her other. “Seriously, the road’s probably going to be a mess.”
Chloe grunts and slows down. Max is right, of course. Given the state of things in the parking lot, the roads in Arcadia Bay are, at best, going to be scattered with fallen tree branches. Very likely they’ll be much, much worse than that. “I know, it’s just… I can’t wait to get out of this place, y’know? Fuckin’ finally.”
Once they make it out of the parking lot and reach the road, Chloe has to drive slowly out of more than deference to Max’s wishes. The street isn’t exactly flooded, but some of the puddles look perilously deep. Branches - sometimes whole trees - obscure parts of the road. There are other vehicles here and there, none of them any more drivable than the overturned car in the lot had been. Roof shingles and broken glass litter the asphalt. Chloe finds herself having to drive on the wrong side of the road, sometimes even up onto the sidewalk, to avoid the nastier obstacles.
It’s all so much worse than Chloe ever could have imagined. Nothing that she had seen, either from the top of the lighthouse or in the surrounding area, had prepared her for the extent of the damage to the town itself. Trees ripped up whole, their roots dark with dirt exposed to the air, had been hard enough to look at. The flattened shack, the crumbled top of the lighthouse… Those structures, at least, had been uninhabited. It’s a different thing altogether to drive through the town and see the houses. Shattered windows dark like empty eye sockets, roofs caved in like ravaged skulls. Streets empty save for the overturned cars and toppled lampposts.
She wants to shoot through the streets at top speed, get out of this nightmare as quickly as possible, but they’re so littered with debris that she has to pick her way carefully through them, crawling at a snail’s pace.
She can’t help but notice that on the seat next to her, Max looks like she’s having a particularly bad acid trip. Her hands are balled into white-knuckled fists; her eyes are wide and darting around, anxious and unfocused and seeing things that Chloe can’t. A thin sheen of sweat glistens on her paler than usual forehead. Her lower lip has disappeared completely into her mouth as she works it between her teeth almost hard enough to draw blood.
“Music bothering you?” Chloe says, just to say something. It fails to snap Max out of whatever trance she’s fallen into. “I can change it. Turn it down. Turn it off?” Still no response. “C’mon, Max,” she pushes in what attempts to be a gently teasing tone but in fact shows an honest edge of desperation, “don’t leave me alone here, okay? I’ll lose my fuckin’ mind without you, I swear.”
That, Max seems to register. She blinks her transfixed eyes slowly. Her lower lip reappears, raw and slightly swollen. “Sorry…” She wipes at her face, but she isn’t crying. “Sorry,” she repeats.
Her apology makes Chloe irrationally angry. Her emotions have always lived precariously close to her skin, but today she feels stretched even thinner than usual. She feels like all it would take to set her off would be a single wrong word or a shift of the wind. Anger is always the closest to the surface: it’s easy, it’s familiar, and it’s never in short supply. She can deal with the messes it creates, or at least she can live with the consequences.
But she doesn’t want to be mad at Max. Especially when Max hasn’t actually done anything wrong. “S’okay,” she says, swallowing the anger down. “Just… It’s kind of a lot, you know?” she admits. She steers around a particularly large tree that occupies not only the right lane but enough of the left that she has to carefully bump the truck halfway onto the sidewalk as she navigates around it.
Max still has that delirious sort of look in her eyes that gives Chloe chills. She remembers what Max said the first time she set foot outside after the storm, that she saw the shack that was no longer there. She remembers the way Max completely went to pieces when she touched something Chloe couldn’t even see. The look in Max’s eyes is more than horror, she knows. It’s more than guilt, more than regret. She’s still seeing it, whatever ‘it’ is. Only now it’s everywhere. Chloe doesn’t have to ask; it’s obvious. Max looks utterly overwhelmed by what she’s seeing, not only emotionally but physically as well. Another reason to get the fuck out of Arcadia Bay as quickly as possible.
“So, hey.” Chloe clears her throat to buy herself some time, since she opened her mouth without any real plan beyond ‘distract Max.’ “I don’t know about you, but I think our first order of business should be a hot meal.”
Max stops staring out the window in a daze long enough to give Chloe a dubious look. That’s promising, so Chloe pushes on.
“When we get back to civilization, I mean. Well, maybe get gas, too. I guess we could technically get hot food at a gas station, but enh.” She makes an exaggerated face of disgust. “I should probably be happy for anything, gas station hot dogs or McDonalds or whatever, but after three days of fucking granola bars and cold soup in a bag, I want a damn steak or some shit. And hey!” She takes one hand off the wheel to pat her pocket. “I’ve still got that wad of cash we snagged from Wells’ office! We can hella do steaks, my treat.” She actually feels excited now that the idea’s in her head.
Max chuckles. “That’s what you’re thinking about? Steaks?”
“Or burgers, if you want to save money. I’d eat the fuck out of a burger right now.”
Max shakes her head and her eyes go back to the windows. “Can’t believe you’re thinking about food right now,” she says, a faint smile on her lips. Her stomach gives a loud growl, undercutting her words and sending them both into a round of quiet laughter. “Okay, okay, I guess I can believe you’re thinking about food.”
“Gotta think about something, right?” Chloe veers into the oncoming lane to avoid a massive puddle. Honestly, it’s only out of habit that she’s been driving in the right lane; she could probably drive wherever she wanted without running the risk of hitting anyone. “Gotta, I don’t know, focus on the future?”
Max lets out a genuine laugh at that. “As long as the future’s on a plate, huh?” She tears her eyes away from the carnage of the street to look at Chloe again. “I shouldn’t tease. All I could think about yesterday was a hot shower. I guess a hot meal is probably a higher priority, all things considered.”
“Hey, we’ve all got our fantasies. Shower’s a pretty good one; I could go for that. Pretty sure I’ve still got sand in my hair. Among other places. So, where do you want to go?”
Max blinks at her in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Chloe gestures expansively. “I mean, where do you want to go? The world’s our oyster and all that shit. Or, at least, the continental U.S. is, anyway. This truck’s built like a ship, but I don’t think she’d actually get us across an ocean.”
“Oh.” Max looks vaguely startled, as if she hadn’t considered that they were actually going toward anything rather than away. “I mean… Seattle, I guess. That makes sense, right? My parents are probably worried sick, and we’d have a place to stay…” She sits up straight abruptly. “Shit, do you have GPS in here?”
Chloe snorts. “Is that a joke? Look at my truck, Max. I rescued her from a fucking junkyard. GPS didn’t exactly come standard.”
“Well, my phone’s toast. I assume yours is, too?” Max’s face falls when Chloe nods. “Fuck.”
“Chill out, First Mate. Your Captain wouldn’t let you down like that. There’s maps in the glovebox.”
“You’re amazing,” Max says, and Chloe actually glows. Max reaches for the release of the glovebox then balks.
“It’s cool,” Chloe assures her. The duct tape is still hidden away under the flyers moldering in the truck bed where she stashed it after Max’s panic attack. She doesn’t elaborate on what she means, but Max must get it because she visibly relaxes. She opens the glovebox and starts pulling out maps.
“And you call me a hipster,” Max teases. “What is this, the ‘90s? Who keeps actual paper maps in their cars anymore?”
“Pirates,” Chloe answers with a toothy grin.
“Y’know, you’ve actually got some pretty useful stuff in here. More first aid stuff, travel tissues, flashlight…”
The smile feels frozen on Chloe’s face as she listens to Max cataloging the contents of her overstuffed glovebox, her voice fading into white noise as she rattles on.
Seattle, then. It makes sense. That doesn’t make it feel any less weird, though. Chloe’s not sure she wants to see the house Max lived in for the past five years while she was ignoring her texts. The bed Max slept in while Chloe was lying awake all night thinking about her dead father and wishing Max would just return her calls. She’s really not sure she wants to see Ryan and Vanessa again, and she’s even less sure that they want to see her.
Max’s voice is serious again, pulling Chloe out of her thoughts. “What?” She steals a glance over at Max. She hasn’t even opened the maps; they’re just spread all over the seat and her legs. She’s fussing with her fingers and giving Chloe a guilty look that makes a dull panic rise in Chloe’s chest.
“Um. Maybe we should...” Max casts a nervous look out the windows again. “Do you… Do you want to, um. Before we leave town… we should...”
Chloe’s stomach gives a queasy twist. “No.”
“Max, look at these houses. There’s nobody left. There’s nobody to look for.”
“On this street, but you don’t know for sure… Maybe Joyce--”
“Max, stop. Seriously. I mean it.”
Max resumes chewing her lip for a long, painful minute before words start spilling out of her mouth again. “Chloe, it isn’t right. She’s-- She’s your mom. We have to at least--”
Something ugly bursts in Chloe’s chest. “Look, I know you don’t remember, or you weren’t, like, really you you, or what-fucking-ever, but you told me, alright?”
Max looks pale and small as she withdraws against the door of the truck, a frightened woodland creature waiting and hoping for a hungry hawk to pass it by without swooping.
“You told me what happens to her if you’re not there to stop it. What happens to… everyone. Your Blackwell friends. Frank.” Her voice catches. “My mom.” She can’t look at Max anymore. She can barely look at the road. Her vision is swimming. “You told me what would happen, and then you let it happen anyway.” These words are so quiet - pushed through teeth clenched painfully tight - that they barely make a sound. She hopes they get lost beneath the music. Max feels guilty enough as it is. Chloe’s supposed to be protecting her, not heaping more blame on her shoulders. It’s Chloe’s fault, not Max’s, that she wedged herself back into Max’s heart deep enough to convince Max her life was worth the cost.
“Maybe…” Max begins after enough time has passed for her to regain her tongue. “Maybe it didn’t happen?”
Chloe scoffs coldly.
“No, really, maybe… Maybe my being there the first time changed things? Maybe without me being there, it went differently? She could have survived. They all could have… Couldn’t they?”
“Max. I saw it happen. I saw the explosion. It’s been, what, three days? And still no ambulances. No helicopters, no nothing. Even if she did somehow survive the explosion… By now, it wouldn’t matter.” Chloe laughs drily, a painful thing that scratches her throat. “We actually tried, you know? When you read it in your journal, when you told me… We tried to warn her. We tried to convince her not to go.” Chloe shakes her head bitterly. “And she calls me the stubborn one.”
Chloe startles when she feels Max’s hand come to rest gently on her forearm. She jerks her arm away without thinking, as if Max’s touch were made of fire. “I’m fine,” she snaps. “What’s done is done. And believe me, the diner is fucking done.” She makes the sound of an explosion, demonstrating with her hand. “Biggest fireball I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something.” Something wet drips onto Chloe’s arm. She glances down in annoyed confusion. More drops fall when she blinks. Max holds out a tissue to her without saying anything, purposefully avoiding eye contact. Chloe hesitates, scowling, then accepts the tissue and scrubs it across her face. “So, no,” she continues as if nothing had occurred. “I don’t want to go to the goddamn diner. It’s pointless. It’s a fucking smoldering crater. And I don’t want to see it up close. Thanks.”
“Okay.” Max says it with calm, simple acceptance, and that’s that. It feels wrong. The way Chloe’s blood is squalling in her veins, she wants an argument. She wants Max to push back, to insist. She wants Max to yell at her, call her an ungrateful daughter unworthy of Joyce’s sacrifice, because it’s true. She meant every word that she said before Max tore up that fucking photograph. Joyce deserves better than to die in that fucking diner. She deserves a better daughter. Deserved better.
Really what Chloe wants is an excuse. She wants an excuse to get mad, an excuse to yell, an excuse to push Max away, an excuse to ruin what little she has left to hold onto because she knows she doesn’t deserve anything good.
She definitely doesn’t deserve to have Max sitting patiently by her side, calmly weathering her bullshit without so much as raising her voice. There were so many times this week when Max should have just ditched her worthless ass. Should have left her to bleed out, should have left her dead, should have gotten fed up with her raging and stopped returning her calls, should have just fucked off and left her alone again. It’s only a matter of time before Max comes to her senses. The longer it takes, the more it’s going to hurt when it finally happens.
Why not Seattle? That seems as good a place as any for shit to fall apart. She figured out quickly enough that she was better off without Chloe last time. Having Chloe actually there with her, it’ll probably take her even less time to get sick of her. Being around her parents probably will speed things along; they barely tolerated their friendship when they were younger. They’ll probably get one look at who Chloe grew up into and send her packing. Thanks for returning our daughter, fuck you for breaking her, now fuck off and don’t let the door hit your queer ass on the way out.
That’s assuming they make it that far. And given the way that anger keeps swelling up in Chloe’s chest and begging to be let out, they probably won’t. Probably Max will come to her senses once they’re clear of this hellhole. Once she sees the living world again, sees another human being that isn’t dead or hopelessly fucked up, she’ll remember that she’s got options.
Chloe grunts wordlessly in response. Her muscles are drawn so tight they feel like they might snap. She can’t even open her mouth to speak. She silently begs Max not to touch her, because if Max touches her she’s going to break, one way or another.
Max’s hands twist around each other in knots in her lap. “Please… Let’s talk. About literally anything. I don’t care what. I just… I can’t take the silence right now. Let’s talk about the burgers you’re going to destroy when we get out of here.”
Emotions swirl sharply just under Chloe’s skin, and for a horrifyingly confusing moment Chloe isn’t at all sure which one will come out on top. Then she finds herself chuckling, and the look of intense worry on Max’s face softens a tiny bit. “Sure, okay,” she says, her jaw starting to unclench. The boiling in her veins eases its way down to a simmer, and she manages to grab hold of the life preserver that Max has thrown her. “Let’s talk about the burgers, because you are going to be appalled. It is going to be disgusting.”
A relieved smile washes over Max’s face and she leans back into the seat, closing her eyes. “I don’t know, could it really be any worse than that time Billy Novak dared you to put ketchup in your pudding?”
Chloe lets out a surprised laugh. Nostalgia smothers the remaining embers of her anger like a fire blanket. “Shiiiiiiit, I can’t believe you remember that.”
“How could I forget? You kept raising the ante! Mustard, mayonnaise, sweet relish, horseradish; I mean, for cereal, what kid willingly puts horseradish on anything?”
Chloe groans. “They really shouldn’t have had so many condiments available in the school cafeteria.”
“That’s true. Not with the queen of the gross-out food dare around, that’s for sure.” Max wrinkles her nose. “You puked for, like, hours.”
“Yeah, but I got my five bucks, so.” She shrugs. “Hella worth it. Plus,” she adds with a smug little smile, “you always got so cute about it when I did food dares.”
Max’s cheeks pink slightly and she opens one eye to peer at Chloe out of its corner. “Yeah? How so?”
“I dunno. Just… Your eyes would get so big. Like, so disgusted but also kinda fascinated, like you didn’t want to look but you couldn’t look away.”
“I was scared you were going to get food poisoning! I thought if I looked away you’d, I don’t know, keel over and pass out or… or do something crazy. Like keep adding condiments!”
“Yeah, sure, probably. But you were also impressed; don’t deny it.”
“I mean, it was kind of impressive in a really gross way,” Max admits grudgingly.
“I knew it!” Chloe pumps her fist in the air. “So, speaking of condiments, what d’you think--”
“Chloe, stop,” Max interrupts, one hand flashing out to grab Chloe’s shoulder. The sudden urgency in her voice, coupled with the sharp grip of her hand, has Chloe’s foot slamming on the brakes before her mind can even process words. They jolt in their seats, and then Max is unfastening her seatbelt and opening her door.
“What, what’s happening??” Chloe shoves the parking brake on and kills the engine, fumbling with her seatbelt while Max is already growing small in the rearview mirror, walking purposefully along the edge of the road as her door hangs agape like an open mouth. “Max? Where are you going?” Chloe’s voice hits the kind of shrill that would make her cringe if she weren’t too preoccupied with concern to hear it. She slides across the bench seat and out Max’s open door, and once her boots hit the pavement she is running.
She freezes when she sees it.
Sees… him, maybe? Or her? It’s hard to tell exactly what she’s seeing. Movement in the woods by the side of the road. A blur of color in the shadows between the ravaged trees, the right size and shape to be a person. And Max, stepping off the road and heading towards it.
“Is… Is he alive?” It’s a stupid question, probably. He’s moving, after all. Not in a way that that seems right for a healthy human being, but definitely moving with more intention than an inanimate object caught in the wind. He must be alive. And yet, there’s something palpably wrong about him, about everything that’s happening right now. “Max, wait.” Max is way ahead of her, already walking through the trees, but she’s still near enough that if Chloe could only force her legs to move she could catch up with her in just a few swift strides. Chloe raises her voice. “Hey! Uh, sir? Ma’am? Are you okay?”
He’s moving. He’s human. He’s alive. There’s no reason for Chloe’s heart to be pounding like this. She should be ecstatic. Another survivor in the wake of this monster storm is a goddamned miracle. And Max doesn’t seem afraid, so why is she? Why is she fucking terrified?
“Max, wait for me, okay? This… This isn’t right.”
Max doesn’t respond, and she doesn’t stop. Chloe drags her feet off the pavement and starts down the muddy slope toward the edge of the woods, moving as quickly as she can to close the distance between them, her boots sliding in the thick mud. “Seriously, Max, just… wait a minute!” She skids near the bottom of the slope, losing her balance in the mud and almost falling over.
The closer Chloe gets to the stranger, the more clearly she feels how wrong everything is. She remembers the feeling Max tried to describe to her the other day; Max seemed to feel it so strongly then, this pervasive sense of things being wrong. Chloe couldn’t feel it then, but she thinks she can now. It feels like the air is being sucked out of her lungs and replaced by mud, cold and heavy. It feels like her stomach is twisting itself inside out. It feels like every nerve in her body is sounding an alarm at once. It feels like everything is horribly, horribly wrong and like it’ll never be right again.
She wants desperately to turn around and run. She wants to jump back into her truck and drive as far and as fast as she can and never look back. The only thing she wants more than this is to make sure that Max is safe. And Max isn’t turning around. Max isn’t running away. Max is walking forward. Max is reaching out her hand to the stranger. Max is touching him.
Max is going suddenly rigid as if she’s been electrocuted. Max is crumpling to the ground.
Chloe is screaming.
“Keep some sorrow
in your hearts and minds
for the the things that die
before their time.”
- Counting Crows, Mercury
end Dawn of Time.