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To the Lighthouse: Photograph

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October 7th, 2013

It has been five years since Max and Chloe last saw each other; faces reflected in the polished wood of William Price’s casket. Unable to speak, not knowing what to say, as he was lowered forever into the ground on that mild October afternoon.

Five years, since Max Caulfield rode out of Chloe’s life, her small hand pressed up against the back window of her parents’ old sedan as they rattled out of the cemetery gates, away from Arcadia Bay to Seattle. Never to return.

Five years, since Chloe lost her childhood best friend, her only childhood friend, on the same day she buried her father.

In those first empty months after Max left town, Chloe had clung to the same fantasy: Lying in bed, she would hear the crunch of tires on the driveway and the loud honking of a horn. She would run to the window and there they would be: The Caulfields. All three of them, sitting in their yellow Chrysler, windows rolled down and waving up at Chloe with huge smiles on their faces. She would dart from her room, clatter down the wooden stairs, throw open the front door… And there she would be—Max—waiting for her with arms outstretched.

Back then, it wasn’t so much fantasy as expectation. Of course they would visit. Of course they would come back. It was only five hours away: Of course they would come back.

When Chloe was seven and Max nearly six, Chloe’s dad had built them a tree fort. Nothing fancy, just a way to fill a lazy weekend—William humming as he worked, the girls playing skittles on the ground below with pinecones and his empty bottles of beer. Hot sun on their backs, laughter on the summer breeze. They had hoisted a couple of 2x6s up a tree and nailed them into the bark for a base, added smaller timber for decking and walls. A giggling Chloe had liberated an old rope ladder from a neighbor’s dumpster while Max stood lookout. They’d built it at the end of the street, on the tree line, where the asphalt meets the forest at the edge of town. Where Chloe’s Cedar Avenue met Max’s Maple Lane. Where C met M. Literally, figuratively… Always.  

Over the summers they’d added to it—an extra plank of flooring here, a little spy hole there, a retractable tarpaulin roof for the constant threat of Oregon rain. It had been their escape, their sanctuary, their fairy castle in the trees and their pirate ship tossed about at sea. After Max’s departure, Chloe would sit up there alone, knees pulled up to her chest to protect herself from the chill of the oncoming winter. Sit there and stare at the mementos of their friendship she had used to re-decorate the place; their old scribbled comic strips; the immortal jawbreaker they’d never had a chance to conquer; some of Max’s photos, pinned on a string and draped from one corner of the fort to the other: Pictures of better times. Not much. Just things. But things that reminded Chloe that Max was real, that she did exist, that she would come back.

As the months passed, and Chloe’s life—both at school and at home—became more intolerable; as the texts, calls and messages from Max became fewer and farther between, the fantasy also changed. Gone first were Max’s parents: Fuck them. Fuck them for taking Max away. Fuck them for never bringing her to visit. Fuck them and their single Christmas card in all that time: Dear Joyce and Chloe… Too formal, written too far over to the left, as though they’d forgotten there were only two names now. They’d signed it The Caulfields—no Ryan, no Vanessa… no Max. Not even a message. The pre-printed Happy Holidays! sitting adrift in the center of the white card, its excited exclamation mark hovering like a dagger. Joyce had tossed it straight in the trash.

In Chloe’s new fantasy, Max would arrive alone—a runaway, dusty from the trail, smudged and sweaty after hitchhiking and freight surfing her way down the state. This was a Max who would have done whatever it took, whatever it took, to get back to her old friend. Because it must be her parents keeping them apart. Her parents who had poisoned Chloe in Max’s mind for some unknown and imagined misdemeanor—for being too poor, for being a bad influence. But Max would fight, she would get back, and when she did Chloe would fall on her knees before her, press her head into Max’s stomach as her friend’s hands cradled the back of her neck: “It’s okay,” Max would say. “I’m here now. It’s okay.”

But still she didn’t come.

Chloe’s visits to the fort became fewer and fewer. Got shorter and shorter. One day she climbed up there to find the neighborhood kids had moved in. Memories lay scattered, the comic strips charred, the photos tugged down, many flung to the ground below. The gobstopper was gone—beaten at last. In its place, a Coca-Cola can used as an ashtray, the carcasses of dead flies in the corners, the stench of male piss. Chloe scrunched up her nose against the smell. Guys were such jerks. Why would they piss in here? Marking their territory or too stoned to climb down? They had tagged the wall with a huge, anatomically incorrect vagina; two cartoon legs splayed at either side. In the very center, a would-be artist had later added a smiley face in red marker pen, as though the original scrawl was giving birth to a tiny emoji. Chloe tried to feel angry, to feel something, but on that day it just felt like an end. She salvaged what she could that was still hers—still theirs—and clambered down the shaky rope ladder. It would be months before she returned.

Once the texts and calls from Max had stopped completely, Chloe would still sometimes check in on her; scroll through the Facebook page Max had set up before her departure and had sworn to keep updated, although she rarely did. There were a few nothing comments about hockey games, a picture of Max and her dad under a tree. Most of Max’s posts were straight-to-Instagram, artsy images that barely showed Max at all. One was a picture of the moon, visible in the day against a bright blue sky, and a hand—Max’s hand—reaching out towards it, like she was clutching it in her palm. Superimposed below was a single line of text: All photographs are accurate. None are the truth—Richard Avedon. Chloe had looked across her desk, at the photograph of her and Max as pirates, still pinned to her bookshelf. “That photo says best friends to me,” Chloe snapped at the glossy, grinning Max. “So, I guess that really wasn’t the truth, was it, Max?” She ripped the photograph down, stuffed it into the desk drawer. A couple of days later she took it out to look at it. Pinned it back.

Had their friendship ever been the truth? For Chloe it was the only truth she’d ever known: She needed Max. Right from the very day Max left, she needed her. That afternoon she arrived home from the cemetery, back to the sickly stench of lilies, the hubbub of well-intentioned insincerity pounding in her ears and a huge, empty space where her dad had once been.

She needed arms around her in the months that followed, as that empty space grew more terrifying, more suffocating, threatened to suck her in and swallow her whole. Needed arms that didn’t belong to the hollowed, still-living carcass of her mother, who so repulsed Chloe in her grief, who remained alive, while he died, because she didn’t want to ride with her fucking grocery bags on the bus.

In those moments, in those dark moments when Chloe would find reminders of him everywhere; his name on letters stacked up in the hall, his favorite song played in a store, one of his old, dusty socks found behind a dresser. When her stomach would plummet and the pain became physical, choked her, sent her chest into spasm so she could only curl up in a tiny ball, screw up her face and groan into the wet patch where snot and saliva mingled on the fabric of her pillow. In those moments, it was still Max’s familiar and comforting embrace she wanted to sink into. Max’s arms she wanted to pull her up, away from the pain, away from that place where her father should be yet wasn’t.

But Max was just as absent as he was.

She never did come back. No tires on the driveway, no knock at the door.

She never did fight.

Then Rachel came and set everything on fire. Set the world alight and left the ashes of Chloe’s old life strewn on the ground around her. Ashes picked up by the wind, some lost forever to the breeze, soaring off into the sky, and others, like Max, left to flutter and settle in the corners of things, a light film of dust in places just out of reach. Still there, still always there…

A song that Chloe once knew all the words to, but now barely remembers the tune.

 


 

Just minutes ago, Max had been something put aside—an old pirate hat in a closet, kindergarten scribbles in a box in the attic: A yesterday, a before, a never to return. Now, suddenly, here she is. Max. Scrambling up onto the passenger seat of the truck, slamming the door behind her in a cloud of childhood memories and fabric softener. Chloe floors the gas, peels out of the Blackwell parking lot and leaves Nathan Prescott behind, his impotent screams drowned out by the screech of tires.

It is Max—her Max—now sitting beside her, hands on the door panel, head twisted to look back at the road as it disappears behind them. Chloe glances in the rear-view but there is nothing there, just the empty blacktop winding back through the trees. “Yo, it’s okay,” she says at last. “He’s gone.”

Max flops back into the seat, lets out a long breath. “Wow, Nathan Prescott is messed up!”

“You’re telling me.” Chloe says, still feeling the residual weight of cold metal digging into her stomach. She winces, whips her mind away. “Oh, and thanks, Chloe!” she prompts, stealing a glance at her unexpected passenger. It’s her, definitely her: A ghost, sitting with eyes cast downwards, playing with the sleeve of an ugly, gray-marl hoodie. And Chloe can feel it, the depth of it—the chasm of years on the seat between them. “After five years you’re still Max Caulfield,” she says and Max turns away, shrinks lower, like she’s nervous. Like she’s scared. Chloe mentally laughs that off. Since when was Max ever scared of her? “C’mon, don’t give me the guilty face. At least pretend you’re glad to see me.”

She hears Max’s breath hitch, and when she speaks her voice is earnest, the way it always was. Smooth, soft—warm milk on a rainy afternoon: “Chloe, I’m seriously glad to see you! And thank you. It makes perfect sense I’d see you today.”

“Yeah,” says Chloe, almost to herself. “It’s been that kind of day.” She squints out through the windshield, the low-hanging sun stings her eyes, bathes the cab in a surreal haze. How many times did she imagine this: the return of Max Caulfield? How many times did she roll it around in her head, laying in her bed unable to sleep, dozing at her school desk unable to stay awake, drifting forward and back on the swing in her backyard, sneakers dragging twin channels through the dirt beneath her? How often did she chew through every last detail of it—every last kink and crease of it—pick it up every so often and blow the dust from it; imagine what she would do, what she would say, how she would feel? And now, from nowhere, the moment is here. It’s here. And somewhere, deep in the singed wasteland between Chloe’s ribs, a distant but familiar song begins to play.

Ahead of them, the road weaves its way out through the dense trees. Chloe isn’t sure where she’s headed, she just drives. Tries to concentrate on the road as her mind, still fuzzy from liquor, attempts to unravel a thousand tangled thoughts. What is Max even doing here? Why was she at Blackwell? Does she go to school here now? Why didn’t she call?

“So I guess Seattle sucked hard?” Chloe asks, searching for an opening.

Max is still staring down at her hands, pulling her sleeves over her palms and then pulling them back out again. “I guess,” she says. “It was cool, but…” Her hands fall still and she exhales slowly. “I felt kinda lonely, out of my league.”

So, she was lonely too? The grubby parts of Chloe glow a little at that.

“I would think you’d fit right in with the art school hipsters,” Chloe says with a fleeting smile and catches Max looking at her, almost for the first time. She still looks so young. Below the hipster haircut peeps a small, smooth face—delicate and freckled like a duck egg. She’s not beautiful, that would be the wrong word, but there is an inner calm there, something gentle and soothing. As though, at some previous point in time, she was captured in a flash of light and has never grown older. It’s not her thirteen-year-old face still, of course not; it’s longer, the angles more pointed, but the kid is still there, in her wide eyes, in the flush on her cheeks.

“Right. And you look like the cover of Hipster Girl dot com,” Max says, and Chloe can’t be sure, but she thinks she sees the hint of a smile on Max’s lips. In Chloe’s chest, the song grows louder, the beat familiar, the words teasing the tip of her tongue. Could she and Max be friends again? Would she finally have a friend again? Could it be like it used to be? Could they be like they used to be? They could go home, grab some beers, head up to the tree fort and—

Images of the last time Chloe saw their tree fort cut through her hazy nostalgia like glass. Crushed beer cans, dead flies, a sixteen-year-old girl with tears in her eyes and her knees held to her chest. She left me, Chloe reminds herself, Max left. She’s only back for school.

A click, a jolt. The song stops.

“So, I guess you came back for Blackwell Academy?” she asks. It is a trap, deliberate. And Max springs it.

“Of course. It’s one of the best photography programs in the whole country. And for the teacher, Mark Jefferson.”

Her voice is too honest, too enthusiastic. An acute resentment, whetted on five years of broken promises, scythes down the warm feelings budding in Chloe’s chest. So Max is here for Jefferson? She remembers Rachel going on about him like he was some kind of fucking celebrity. “So, you came back to Arcadia for a teacher, not your best friend?”

Max is visibly thrown. “Don’t you think I’m happy to see you?”

Why didn’t she call?

“No,” Chloe says, the all-too-familiar taste of rejection pooling at the back of her throat— thick and sticky, coating every word. “You were happy to ghost me for five years. What happened to writing and talking all the time, huh? You just forget?”

She needs an excuse, any excuse. Something from Max to explain away that silence. To justify all those unanswered texts that Chloe scrolled through for hours each night, searching for something, anything she might have said wrong. To explain away those evenings spent staring at a blank computer screen, waiting for promised Skype calls that never came. It doesn’t even have to be the truth, does it? Does she even care about the truth? She just needs Max to make it okay. But the excuse doesn’t come. Max seems to shrink away, plays again with the cuff of her hoodie. At last, manages an understatement so heavy it seems to weigh the truck down around them: “I’m sorry. I know things were tough on you when I left.”

Chloe’s jaw pulses, saliva acrid in her mouth. “And how would you know, exactly? You weren’t even here.”

No knock on the door. No tires on the driveway.

Max’s head turns away and when she eventually speaks, there is something on the edge of her voice, a tinge of something metallic. Not an attack. A defense: “I didn’t order my parents to move specifically to fuck you over, Chloe.”

She never did fight.

Chloe’s grip on the wheel tightens, and she grapples with the temptation to stop the truck, to kick Max out, yell at her to fuck off and get the hell out of her life forever. Max didn’t come back for Chloe, she came back for Blackwell—that shit-stain on the hill. For a fucking teacher! When did school start? A month ago? Max would have known since the summer that Blackwell had accepted her, applied in the spring. How long before that did she intend to apply? A year ago? More? For over a year Max had been planning her return to Arcadia, and… nothing? Not a text, not a call… Fucking nothing?

The road ahead is slick with sunlight, blurred, moving faster and faster under the truck as Chloe pumps at the gas. She scratches at a patch of acne on her chin. Why is she even surprised? Of course Max didn’t call. She must have sensed what a loser Chloe's become. Maybe someone at her fancy school told her. Chloe knows she looks like shit—greasy hair stuffed under a ratty beanie; stained, unwashed clothing. She must reek of weed and stale sweat, of vodka. Yeah, Chloe Price is a real fucking prize—an uncomfortable past Max must have spent weeks avoiding while she forges a different future with her shiny, new rich friends. The thought of Max being back here since school started, being poisoned by those Blackwell cunts, leaves a bitterness like a crushed pill on the back of Chloe’s tongue. “You’ve been at Blackwell for almost a month without letting me know,” she spits. “Enough said.”

Max turns away, gaze lost to the window, to the fir trees flashing past. “I wanted to settle in first and not be such a shy cliché geek,” she says softly, almost a whisper. “I totally would have contacted you.”

A click in Chloe’s head. A cassette player whirring. A familiar, gentle voice made dull by magnetic tape: We’re always together, okay? it had said. Even when we’re apart. We’re still Max and Chloe. Except they weren’t, were they? The voice had lied. A voice Chloe had trusted more than anything, a voice that belonged to her best friend in the whole world… Even that voice, that Max, had let her down. Even that Max hadn’t contacted her. Why would this one?

“Yeah, right. I bet you don’t use those pathetic excuses on your new friends. Don’t use them on me.”

At Chloe’s words Max slides lower down the seat, shoulders hunched, a bird desperate for flight. Parts of Chloe want to push further, to land the final blow; the venomous, vengeful parts of her, the barbed knots she’s built around herself like a scaffold, holding her up, locking her in. Those parts. They long to prod at that wound, to sting, to hurt. The arrow cocks on the end of her tongue, pulled taut, targeted.

Then she sees Max’s face. The arrow dissolves.

It is a look she has seen before, so long ago the memory is almost lost to time. She remembers a picture, a child’s scrawl of red crayon on white craft paper: A circle for a head, an oval for a body, wobbly lines as limbs, two dots for eyes and a huge curve for a smile—a picture of Chloe. Behind the drawing she sees Max’s face, the round cheeks and wide eyes of a young child, staring up at Chloe and clutching her kindergarten masterpiece. She looks proud, expectant, seeking approval from her older, more worldly, six-year-old friend.

“It’s dumb,” Chloe had said.

She hadn’t meant it to hurt. She’d been angry at Joyce because she couldn’t have a second cookie, or for some other grave insult she doesn’t remember. But she remembers Max’s face, how it had fallen, crumpled, how her eyes just died. And Chloe’s chest had grown both heavy and hollow. A feeling she would later know as guilt. That was me. I did that. Head bowed, Max had carried the drawing away to Joyce, who had cooed and patted her head and told her it was lovely, then chided Chloe for her insensitivity. The scolding was unnecessary, Chloe had never called anything Max did ‘dumb’ ever again.

The late afternoon sun fills the truck, rolls shadows like film reels over Max’s ashen face. And that same hollowness once again weighs heavy in Chloe’s chest. I did that.

It is Max that eventually breaks the silence, fumbling in her bag for her camera and turning it over in her hands. Broken. It needs special tools, Max says, and Chloe senses an opportunity. She doesn’t know yet if it’s an opportunity she wants, but an opening nonetheless. “Maybe you can fix it at my place."

 


 

Chloe’s childhood home sits about halfway up Cedar Avenue, a quiet street to the east of town, lined on both sides by neat two-story, timber-framed houses. Number 44 stands out from the rest; it is shabbier, neglected, as though life here stopped some time ago. Stopped, while all around everything else has moved on, moved up, leaving only this house behind. The roof tiles have been dislodged and need replacing, the grass on front lawn has been burned yellow by the hot summer and bushy weeds sprout from cracks in the driveway. But most noticeable is the siding: the upper half painted deep blue, while the lower section has been left a pale gray, splintered in places and darkened by mildew. As though, one day, the painter put down his paintbrush and never picked it up again. Went for lunch but never came back.

And five years ago, he never did.

There aren’t really any happy endings, someone once told Chloe. Real life always finishes mid-sentence. For William Price, it finished mid-paint job. In the months following his death there had neither been the money nor the will to finish painting the siding. Since then, David has made plenty of noise about completing it, but Joyce has always found some reason to stop him. She will say there are more important things to spend money on, that painting isn’t a priority. But Chloe secretly thinks—hopes—that her mom’s reluctance is fueled by a desire to keep something of William about the place. A reminder, each time she arrives home from a shift at the diner, rounds the corner from the bus stop and catches sight of their house from the street: He did that. He did that with hands that were alive. He was alive when he did that. And so, the two-tone paint job remains; the blue of their home’s upper siding now a faded memorial to a task—a life—left unfinished.

Chloe rolls the truck up onto the empty driveway. No David yet. He must have gone straight to the shooting range from work. She gets out and hops up the porch steps to the front door. Behind her, Max tries to close the passenger door of the truck like she’s worried about hurting its feelings. Her small brows furrow deeper and deeper each time it bounces back open. Chloe sighs, is about to tell Max to give it a kick, when Max works it out for herself. She throws her whole, albeit limited, body weight behind the door and it slams shut with a loud thump. Chloe permits herself a small smile. Yep, still Max. “Come on in,” she calls down. “Don’t be shy.” She turns the key in the lock, holds it there for a second and takes a deep breath. “Home, shit home.”

Max has been here before, hundreds of times, but Chloe still feels a familiar stab of shame, nervous at the imminent reveal of what lies within. Like the first time Rachel was here. Back then, she’d been desperate to keep Rachel from seeing where she lived. After the satinwood and stained glass of the Amber House, 44 Cedar Avenue seemed so lame: Her dad’s half-finished paint job left to fade, weeds running riot on the front lawn. Inside, a film of dirt coating each skirting board and old flowers left to rot in their vase—a decaying reminder of how scarcely flowers changed hands in this place and how treasured they were when they did.

She hadn't kept Rachel away for long. Only until that wet afternoon when they'd sprinted down the hill from the lighthouse, jackets pulled over their heads in weak defense against a freak rainstorm. Rachel had insisted they go back to Chloe’s for hot chocolate and dry clothes. She hadn't taken no for an answer.

When they got inside, Rachel bounded up the stairs first, as though she were the one who lived there. “Which one is your room?” she asked, grinning down from the top step.

“First on the right.”

Rachel stepped inside, pushing her way past a discarded article of clothing that had gotten jammed between the door and the floorboards, and strode into the middle of the bedroom. She looked around, took it all in, before spinning back to Chloe, mussed hair falling about her still-damp shoulders. Like a fresh breeze blowing through the stale air. Too perfect. Too perfect for that shitty bedroom.

“Price, your room is amazing! It’s so you!”

“You mean a mess?” Chloe kicked away the accidental door stop—an old tank—into a dusty corner.

“No,” said Rachel, looking around her at the posters, the tags, the trinkets, the trash that decorated the place. “I mean it’s really cool. Your house is cool.”

Chloe’s brow creased and her hand went to the back of her neck. “Yeah, right…”

“What’s wrong? Are you worried I’ll think less of you because you don’t live in some dumb Real Housewives of Arcadia mansion?”

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

“Meaning who? Marisa and the Morons?” She rolled her eyes. “Since when did you give a fuck what they think? A gilded cage is still a cage, Chloe, believe me.” She stepped up to Chloe and took her hand. “I adore your room,”—kissed her palm—“I adore you.”

Chloe’s heart had galloped through her chest as Rachel pulled away with a wink and an easy smile and turned her attention to looking through Chloe’s things.

Three years later, and now it is Max who drifts around the room, eyes darting this way and that. Over the torn magazine pages and overlapping posters that douse the walls; the dusty knick-knacks on shelves, the internet-philosophy graffiti. All the chaotic remnants of passing years.

Chloe watches Max from the bed, rolling up a joint from her last good bud, so eager for the high her fingers itch. She remembers asking Max to put on a CD, and she’s pretty sure she gestured towards the shelf as she'd said it, the one where her CDs are stacked in a haphazard pile of dusty, plastic cases. Not neat, but still kind of obvious. But Max seems lost in a dream world, gaze resting on everything as she takes her own trip down memory lane. Chloe’s lips stray into a smile and she shakes her head as she breaks up nugs between her fingers, flecks of green falling onto the paper. She remembers teasing Max when they were little, trying to impress her by paraphrasing Einstein: Only two things are infinite, Max, the universe and your capacity for nosiness, and I’m not sure about the first one. Max had stuck her tongue out, pushed her away with a grin. But she hadn’t denied it.

Does Max remember the last time she was here? Chloe wets the rolling paper with her tongue, lets Max keep snooping around. It had been the day before the funeral. Max’s parents had brought her over to say a final goodbye since, things will be pretty hectic tomorrow, honey, you might not get a chance. Chloe had sat next to Max on the edge of her bed, an unbearable silence heavy between them. She was so angry. So angry that Max was leaving. So angry that she had to leave the next day, on that day. So angry that he was gone. So she’d said nothing, grunted when Max tried to talk to her, pushed her away when she tried to clasp her trembling shoulders. It was only much later she came to regret it, asked herself over and over if that’s why Max never called.

Now, five years later, Max stands over by the window, face softened by pale shards of light, dust motes playing in the gauzy haze around her head. Chloe gives the joint a final roll between her fingers, watches as Max roots around the desk for a CD. Sees her pick things up, almost with reverence, place them back exactly as she found them. Cautious. Mindful. Like a little kid who’s been told not to touch. It’s kind of sweet but also a reminder of how much between them has changed. Chloe rolls over onto her stomach in search of her ashtray and catches sight of herself in the tiny vanity mirror on the dresser. Bloodshot eyes stare back at her, their ‘whites’ a tepid pink. Even a liberal coating of mascara can’t detract from the dark circles around them. They’re eyes that could be beautiful, and maybe once they were. Didn’t Rachel always tell her she had beautiful eyes? Now they’re as jaded as the rest of her, like they’ve seen far too much. Shit, when did she start feeling so old?

She tumbles onto her back, lights the joint and takes a long toke. The smoke floods into her mouth, down her throat, into her lungs, and immediately smooths the serrated edges inside. She glances over at Max again, her gentle face and hipster haircut. Still playing with that sleeve. Should she offer her a hit? She pauses, remembers that Max used the phrase are you cereal? in the truck. No, she’s not about to waste the last of her good bud. Even for Caulfield.

Especially for Caulfield. While Chloe is lost to her thoughts, and before she can stop her, Max reaches under the bed and pulls out Chloe’s stash box. Opens it like its nothing. Chloe leaps up, spraying ash all over her duvet. The fuck, Max? She reaches Max, who is holding a photograph in her hand. The one of Chloe and Rachel in Frank’s RV last year. The one from the missing poster. “Hey, give me that!” Chloe yells, snatching the photo away.

Max stumbles backwards, caught in the cookie jar. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be nosy.”

Chloe flashes a glare at Max before looking down at the photograph in her hands. At that image she has stared at countless times, rippling on posters as they flutter from walls and trees or floating with the wind along the sidewalk.  A face she’s seen emerge on endless loop from the Xerox at the public library—born anew over and over. The eyes come first, then nose then mouth. Then the face—her face—sliding out onto the catch tray, until with a whirr and a click, an identical copy drops on top. Another, and another. Again and again.  Yes, the image is imprinted on the inside of Chloe’s eyes, but seeing it now still sets alight that coal, ever-burning in her chest. This photo isn't like those copies. There is color in it. Light.

“Obviously she was a good friend,” she hears Max say.

A 'good friend'? It makes her sound so everyday, like a good TV show or a good cup of coffee. If only. Chloe sighs, settling herself cross-legged on the end of the bed. “That’s putting it mildly,” she says.

Max perches next to her. A safe distance. “So, who is she?”

Chloe lifts her eyes, and for a moment the world bends inwards, tumbles inwards, and shatters on the ground all around. Such a simple question: Who is she? But the answer? How does she answer that?

Who is she?

She is…

She is.

She’s that click of the stereo before the music starts… yes, that’s it… that last good hit before the end of each joint. She’s in windows and reflections, in crowds, where Chloe catches fleeting glimpses of her in the half-turned faces and sloping hips of strangers. She’s the anticipation each time a door creaks open, and the soft sigh of disappointment as it closes. She’s the space on the pillow that Chloe keeps empty every night, the sweet split-second before waking when she’s still there beside her. She’s the force behind every throw, every punch, every hit and the delicious release that follows. She’s the center of the lighter flame Chloe stares at until her fingers burn; the darkness on the highway, just beyond the glare of the headlamps, where the blacktop dissolves into oblivion. Always unreachable however hard Chloe hits the gas. She’s the stillness in the air before a thunderstorm, the pinprick of red light on the horizon as the sun is consumed by the sea. She is—

“Rachel Amber,” Chloe manages at last, still unsure how to condense all that Rachel is into anything that would make any sense. “My angel.”

The picture has been folded up the middle, a groove that separates Rachel’s smile from Chloe’s snarl. Sometimes Chloe folds it outwards so that they’re looking away from each other from opposite sides of the photo. Always apart. Sometimes she folds it inwards, so their faces are together. If she keeps folding it, eventually the photo will break in two completely. This time she doesn’t fold it at all, but drops it on the bed next to Max, unable to look at it anymore. “We were gonna kick the world’s ass,” she says, eyes fixed on the floor. “You’d laugh at how different we were. She wanted to be a star.”

“She looks like a model.”

“Yeah, that was her plan. Our plan. Get the hell out of Bigfootville and go make it in Los Angeles.”

“When did she disappear?”

Chloe picks at a flap of torn leather on her boot. “About six months ago. She just left town. Without a word,” She flicks her eyes towards the window. “Without me.”

“What about her parents? Aren’t they looking for her?”

Not where they should be looking. Not asking the questions they should be asking. Chloe scoffs. “They’re in denial, Max. I know something’s not right. I know she’s missing.”

She’d tried to tell them, she had, but they’d been like everyone else—all too willing to accept that damn police report: No foul play suspected. The evidence shows the subject left town voluntarily and traveled to Los Angeles. So that’s where they think she is, in LA. And that’s where they’re looking. The only place they’re looking. Chloe knows James Amber has private investigators combing the streets out there day and night, asking questions, trawling under bridges and underpasses, as though in a city of four million people you could find someone who doesn’t want to be found.

The last time Chloe saw James was a few weeks after Rachel went missing. Joyce must have let him in. He had come flying into Chloe’s room, spittle and puffy red cheeks, his usually perfectly groomed hair hanging in ridiculous tufts over his forehead. He’d launched himself at a surprised Chloe, grabbing her by her shirt and pushing her backwards. Liquor hung on his breath.

“Where the fuck is my daughter?” he yelled as David came barreling up the stairs behind him. “Where is she?”

Chloe looked on, dazed, as David’s arms clamped around James’s shoulders, pulling him away. “That’s enough!” she heard David shout. She was high—really high—her head light on her shoulders as she watched the two men grapple before her in a slow-motion blur. “I dunno, Mr. A. I dunno,” was all she could manage, stumbling backwards, hands up in defense.

James wriggled his arm free, thrust his finger at her. “I know you planned all this together, Chloe. Don’t think I don’t know. The police say there must be somebody else involved. She couldn’t have acted alone. It’s you, isn’t it? If I find out you’re hiding her from me, if I find out—”

“James, you need to leave right now.” Joyce’s voice from the doorway, low and stern.

James was raving, thrashing like a fish in a net, trying to untangle himself from David’s grasp. Flecks of spit bubbled from his lips, glistened on his chin. “I should have put you away when I had the chance! But I kept letting Rachel’s strange little infatuation with you get the better of me. Well, you better pray she’s okay or I’ll make sure you rot!”

“Okay, Mr. Amber, time to go,” David huffed, heaving the other man out of the door. Chloe closed it behind them, leaned her forehead against the wood as she listened to their raised voices, their heavy footfall on the stairs, and the front door, at last, slam shut.

Back here with Max, she stares out at the reddish sky beyond the window. As though, months later, she can still hear James’s curses exploding like gunfire from the driveway.

Somebody else. She wishes he’d been right. She wishes that somebody was her, that they had planned it together. And they had, hadn’t they? Before the somebody else. She turns her head to Max. “Not long before Rachel left, she said she met somebody who changed her life. Then, poof.”

“And you haven’t heard anything from her since?”

“Like everybody in my life. My dad, you… now Rachel. Gone.” She sinks backwards onto the bed, picks up the ashtray and balances it on her stomach. Exhales long plumes of smoke into the cold, empty space around her. “Can you put on some music now?”

Max takes the CD from the stash box, the one full of tracks that remind Chloe of Rachel, and puts it in the Hi-Fi. Chloe thinks about stopping her but doesn’t. She feels her eyes start to sting, an overwhelming desire to be alone.

“Anyway,” she says. “You can find tools to fix your camera in the garage.”

Max takes the hint. She gets up and shuffles towards the door, but as she reaches for the handle she pauses, turns back. “Chloe, are you okay?”

The question catches Chloe off-guard. It’s the first time in months anyone has asked her that. Her mom has given up trying and nobody else gives a shit. She’s not okay, of course she’s not okay. “Sure, I’m awesome,” she says. “I just want to blaze and be alone for a moment.”

Max cedes a sad smile, a momentary acceptance of the lie, and leaves.

Alone again, Chloe takes another deep hit, closes her eyes and tries to lose herself to the gentle song floating across from the Hi-Fi.

Another hit.

Another…

The smoke expands and burns inside her, billowing down through her chest and into her solar plexus; a cloud on which she, at last, floats gently into the high. Time distorts, her fingers tingle and, when the music reaches her favorite part, she allows the chords and the lyrics to flow through her, milky and smooth, the notes rippling like waves, so she can hear the notes between the notes, the beats between beats.

“Your friend seems nice.”

It’s a voice without form, made of air.

Not quite right.

Chloe rolls it around in her head for a bit. Over time, she has learned to fine-tune it—intonation, expression, depth, lilt. She stops trying to concentrate on it, lets it come to her. Ah, there it is: “Your friend seems nice.”

She opens her eyes. And sees Rachel.

She is sitting astride her, palms resting on Chloe’s stomach. It’s so real that Chloe can almost feel it, Rachel’s body weight pressing down into her navel, her bare thighs brushing against her hips. She is dressed as she always is—torn-off denim shorts and a red and black flannel shirt. Loosely buttoned, flashes of sun-kissed skin. Her face is fresh and smiling, the way it was the first summer they met. That’s how Chloe likes to remember her, when she was at her most beautiful, at her most alive. Before all the rest of it happened.

Rachel’s face is curious, and she tilts her head, raising an eyebrow. “So that’s the famous Max?”

Chloe traces her thumb across the skin of Rachel’s stomach. “Yep, that’s the famous Max. And yeah, she’s nice. I guess.”

“You don’t seem sure.”

“She ghosted me for five years and then—boom—landed back in my life, like, less than an hour ago. So, no, I’m not sure. I dunno… I dunno what to think.”

She stares back up at the smoke-yellowed ceiling, takes another hit. In the background, the same wistful lyrics  ripple through the room, melancholy acoustics. This song always reminds Chloe of Rachel, of Santa Monica. “I just… I wish it had been you,” she says, tears stinging her eyelids. “Does that sound crazy? All that fucking time I spent thinking about her, missing her, and she finally turns up out of nowhere and… And I feel like I want to be happy, like I should be happy, like I have no right not to be happy but… fuck. I miss you.”

Rachel leans her face down close to Chloe’s, nuzzles the end of Chloe’s nose with her own and then… bites the tip. Just a nip. Enough to hurt.

“Ow!”

Rachel laughs. “Jesus, Price, don’t be so fucking maudlin!” she says, grabbing Chloe’s wrist and pulling the hand holding the joint up to her lips. She takes a hit, and Chloe feels all of it, the crackle as Rachel breathes in, the cherry scorching her palm. “Look on the bright side for once,” Rachel continues, enveloping Chloe in a chimerical cloud of smoke. “You have your friend back! She came back! And she seems nice and is obviously happy to see you, and—more importantly—she’s here right now, downstairs, in your fucking house. And you’re upstairs sulking, getting high and talking to yourself.”

Chloe jerks her hand away. “To you.”

“To yourself.”

“To you. I’d give myself more sympathy.”

Rachel laughs again and Chloe lets the sound of it gush through her like a warm wave—rich, deep, dirty, fantastic. She can’t imagine ever forgetting that laugh.

The spirit is Chloe’s creation, she knows that. Rachel in form, but lacking her crazy unpredictability; a series of things Rachel could say and do, not what she would. Sometimes, like now, she arrives on demand; at other times, she is just there—standing in corners, down corridors, by the side of the road, on benches under trees. A flash of flannel, a blue feather earring.

Chloe could once conjure her dad as easily, but now he exists only as static outlines, like photographs scattered over a table, single images, well-worn sounds—a hey, kiddo, a Chloe, honey. Occasionally, the smell of him, wafting from the garage or from a stranger on the street, hitting her like a cinder block in the chest. Things that were, now gone. She lost him. She dreads losing her.

Rachel’s eyes are lost already, her eyes that now give her away. Chloe was never sure what color they were even when she was… even when she used to see her all the time. Were they green? Hazel? Both? And the shape of them, the shape of them is hard to recall. Curious eyes, was how Joyce had once described them. Pretty, but curious. However hard she tries, Chloe can’t get them back. So she looks past them. She still sees something there looking down at her, not quite a blank space, not yet… but, no, not quite right.

“I am sympathetic,” Rachel is saying. “But you need to play nice. Just don’t pull a you.”

“A me?”

“Chloe, you know you can be a colossal bitch when you want to be.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“Touché,” Rachel smiles, raking a thumbnail slowly across Chloe’s forehead, brushing the bangs from her eyes. “All I’m saying is don’t give her a reason to run straight back to Blackwell and all the assholes up there.”

“Speaking of Blackwell assholes, your psycho ex pulled a fucking gun on me today.”

Rachel’s eyes—her sort-of-eyes—flick upwards. “Not my ex.”

“Whatever.” Chloe is silent, and the spirit waits patiently. It always waits patiently. Another clue it isn’t her. “Do you think he’s trying to kill me? Over that stuff he thinks I know?”

Rachel sighs. The outline flickers, almost imperceptible. She can’t answer that. “Chloe, did you really bring me here to talk about Nathan?”

“No…” Chloe reaches over and extinguishes the half-smoked joint.

“She’ll be back any minute.”

“Fine.” Chloe’s fingers reach underneath Rachel’s shirt and find her waist, still hot to the touch, just like it always was.

She closes her eyes. Peels back flannel, searches under layers, reveals only memories.