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To the Lighthouse: Photograph

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March 2011
Two years before… 

On their third night in LA, they ate dinner at a Mexican joint close to Santa Monica beach. Waiters in white shirts whipped around them with sleeves rolled up, dumping down huge plates of nachos onto rustic wooden tables, faces lit by the string lights dangling overhead. A band was playing out on the patio, some kind of Latin pop that Chloe remembered from Joyce's brief but intense Ricky Martin phase. Chloe still had vivid—too vivid—memories of her mom and dad enthusiastically living la vida loca in their kitchen, two bottles of wine in on her sixth birthday. Even aged six, she'd been appalled. 

But somehow the music sounded better here. A background to the warm hustle and bustle of the place, the hum of wordless chatter and the endless clinking of cutlery. On their table, it was Anne that did most of the talking—jaunty hands and electric smile. Bangles clinked on her wrists and nacho grease glistened on her fingertips as she regaled them with colorful tales of her time as an attorney and her three turbulent marriages. It was hard to dislike Anne. She made them laugh. 

"You okay there, Rachel?" Anne asked after she'd concluded her latest story. "You look a little distant." 

"Yeah, sorry. It's nothing," Rachel said, looking around. "I just… I don't remember this place being so tacky." A jam jar with a tealight nestled inside sat on the table before her. She tapped the glass, the flame bounced. 

The restaurant had been Rachel's idea. A memory of visiting her cousins in Santa Monica as a kid, until her Dad's brother moved his family away upstate when Rachel was twelve. They'd always insisted on coming to this place, she'd said; squash around a table sipping virgin cocktails while waiters mixed up tableside guacamole. In the distance, the flickering lights of Santa Monica Pier. 

If it was tacky, Chloe hadn't noticed, she kind of liked it. Although it wasn't like she had anything to compare it to. The only Mexican restaurant she'd ever been to was the Taco Bell out by the interstate at home. 

"Memories will play tricks on you like that," Anne said. "Funny critters. Although in my case copious amounts of gin never helped." She waggled her virgin mojito. 

"Maybe," Rachel said with a smile. "I guess it's still better than anywhere in Arcadia Bay."

"Is Arcadia Bay really that bad?" Anne asked. "Sera said it's beautiful up there. Right, Sera?" 

Sera sat to Anne's right, elbows on the table and chin resting on her knuckles. She seemed keen to listen, Chloe had noticed. Content to just be there in the moment, watching Anne talk with an affectionate half-smile tugging at her lips, occasionally nodding in agreement or breaking in to either confirm something Anne said or gently correct it. Happy to let Anne work the audience, happy to be the audience. She wasn't the woman James had described that night at the Amber house. He'd painted a picture of a girl who couldn't get enough, a girl that thrived in lights and adoring glances. Who always took center stage. Sera wasn't that girl, not anymore. If she ever had been. 

Sera nodded. "Honestly, Arcadia Bay was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been." 

"I guess we have some good things," Rachel conceded and tapped Chloe's knee with her own under the table. “There's just nothing to do there, you know? I feel like I'm missing out on so much stuff. Like, I'm sixteen already, nearly seventeen. In another sixteen years I'll be thirty-two." 

Anne's laugh rang out so loudly even the band seemed to pause mid-note. "Thirty-two? How positively tragic for you." Her bangles jangled as she laid a hand over Rachel's. "Tell you what, kid, come back to me when you actually turn thirty-two and I'll show you how to start living." 

"You can't be older than that," Rachel said. She had that glint in her eye, the same glint she'd had few weeks back, when she told Joyce she couldn't believe she was turning forty that year and didn't look a day over thirty. Joyce had fallen for it, too. 

"Ha, I like this one, Sera," Anne said with a wink. "Can we keep her?" 

Once their plates had been cleared, Chloe and Rachel slipped outside and around the back of the building, music floating over the white-washed wall. Rachel fumbled in her jacket pocket for a cigarette as Chloe tried to fumble underneath Rachel's clothes. Rachel pecked her on the lips, nudged her away. Not here, dork . So instead they stood there, shoulders touching and fingers entwined. Heads tilted back against the warm brick and exhaling blooms of blue smoke into the Santa Monica sky.

As they walked arm in arm back into the restaurant, they passed two guys by the bar—bland, stubbled faces above crisp, pastel shirts. Typical college guys. One noticed them and asked their names. Chloe would have ignored them completely, flipped the bird if they were lucky, but Rachel stopped. Rachel always stopped.

"Are you girls from around here?" the first guy asked in a light accent Chloe couldn't place. Not American. He was short, shorter than Chloe at least, with the type of sharp, rat-like features some women inexplicably find attractive. 

Rachel leaned back against the bar, propped herself on her elbows. A flash of flirtatious white teeth. "Long Beach." She nodded towards Chloe. "She's from Oregon."

You live there too, now, Chloe began to mumble to no one but herself, when Rat Boy's taller friend stepped closer. He had huge ears with slightly pointed, pink tips. The two of them looked ridiculous together; fucking Dumbo and his friend Timothy Q. Mouse. Dumbo smiled shyly, and Chloe realized he and his buddy must have mentally paired themselves off already—one for you, one for me. Idiots. 

"Do you all have blue hair in Oregon?" Dumbo asked, an accent like his friend's. His sheepish grin suggested it was supposed to be a joke. 

Chloe kept her face and voice as expressionless as possible. "Yeah, every single one of us. They call it the Smurf state."

"For real?" 

"No."

"Only the badasses go blue," Rachel said, dropping an arm and placing a hand on Chloe's back. What was that supposed to be? Support? Encouragement? An apology? 

It wasn't like Chloe was new to this. Whenever they went out, there usually came a point during the night when Chloe would feel Rachel slipping from her, attention caught by the music, the lights, the scrum of swaying bodies, by old faces and new. Sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes for the whole evening. The more Chloe fought to draw her closer, to pull Rachel back into her orbit, the harder Rachel would jerk away, until Chloe knew better than to fight at all. 

That familiar sting hit her as she watched Rachel with her elbows propped back against the bar, chest out, head back and laughing. It had been getting stronger lately—that sting—coming on quicker, too quickly. Like acid pooling in the back of her throat, trickling down into her ribcage. Like she was waiting for something. Not the exciting kind of waiting, not the kind that fluttered her heart as a child the night before Christmas or a birthday, or in the early hours of the morning as she waited in the hallway for her dad to pack the car for vacation. Instead, the thumping in her chest counted down in fitful beats, down and down to what felt like an already inevitable moment—be it beyond the sparks of a bonfire, or in the striplight darkness of a bass-shaken basement; in the fog of weed smoke around the back of the Blackwell dorms or in the crush of bodies at a beer-sticky kegger. Or here. In Santa Monica. To some guy with a face like a rodent and too much hair gel. The moment she lost Rachel forever. 

"Would you like to dance?" Rat Boy asked Rachel with a weird shimmy of his hips. 

She grinned, waggled her eyebrows at Chloe. "Sure. ¡Bailamos! " And she grabbed his hand, pulled him through the tables towards the band.

The awkward friend held out his hand to Chloe. She looked down at it as though he'd just stuck his fingers up his nose and offered her the contents.

" Baila -off, dick hole," she said, and stomped back through the tables, dumping herself back in her chair, arms crossed against her chest.

"Where's Rachel?" Sera asked.

Chloe nodded towards the patio, where Rachel was allowing herself to be tossed around by that asshole. 

"Ooh, dancing!" Anne rubbed her hands together as she looked over towards the growing number of bodies on the dance floor. She turned back over her shoulder. "Your Rachel's a good little mover isn't she, Sera? Almost as good as you." She winked at Chloe. "Hey, you want me to go steal him from her?" 

Rat Boy could dance. Really dance. That annoyed Chloe. His body twisted around Rachel's as he showed her the steps, a huge smile on Rachel's face as she gripped his waist, watched his feet as she tried to follow his lead. Chloe tried not to look but her gaze scraped the space between them anyway. She couldn't not look. Watching Rachel dance was hypnotic.

"Nah," Chloe said to Anne, wrenching her gaze away at last. "I don't dance." 

"Well, I'm dancing," Anne announced, pushing herself up from her chair. "Look at that cutie pie over there standing all on his own." She gestured towards Dumbo who was hovering at the side of the dance floor, eyes fixed on his drink like he'd dropped his magic feather in it. 

Anne flicked her hair over her shoulder. "Watch my purse, girls!" 

She shimmied through the tables and over to Dumbo. Didn't ask, just grabbed his elbow and yanked him onto the dance floor. Opposite Chloe, Sera chuckled low in her throat. 

"You're not dancing?" Chloe asked.

Sera dragged the water jug towards herself. "No," she said, refilling Chloe's glass and then her own. "I only dance on special occasions."

Chloe watched the ice rattle and clink in the jug, plop out into her glass and splash onto the table top. She wiped the droplets across the rough wood with her finger tip, realized this was the first time she and Sera had been alone since that day at the Mill. 

And maybe Sera was thinking the same thing, because she said, "Seems crazy to think nearly a year has gone by since you and I met. I suppose a lot has happened since then."

"Yeah."

"I wish we'd met under better circumstances, but I'm glad we did. I've wanted to say this for a while, but I'm so glad Rachel has a friend like you. I can see how much you mean to her."

Chloe cupped one of the glass candle holders between her hands, the gentle heat warming her palms. But the flame seemed smaller now, diminished. Out on the patio, Rachel let out a cry of delight above the music. 

"Not sure I mean that much." 

Sera's lips curled into a smile around her water glass. She swallowed. "No? Well, I don't think this little show we're witnessing is for my benefit. And it sure as shit isn't for his." She nodded towards the dance floor. "Haven't you noticed how she keeps looking for you? Like she's checking you're still here? That you're watching?" 

As Sera spoke, Rachel twirled back to face them, throwing her hair back behind her like a fisherman casting a net. Her eyes met Chloe's, a beat, and away she wheeled again. 

Chloe felt Sera's fingers tap her own, her voice a low chuckle. "Don't sweat it, kid. You're doing okay. This was my MO, too. Once upon a time." She slid her fingers away, tapped the table top instead. "You know, she's always telling me how genuine you are, how brave." 

The admission that Rachel had talked about her with Sera, stirred something in Chloe's chest. A tiny spark of light in the encroaching dark. "I don't feel brave." 

"You kidding me? I still remember the way you came swaggering around that corner in that burned-out mill; waving that stack of cash in one hand and a knife in the other. Okay, what you did might have been pretty dumb." She tilted her head back and forth as though she were weighing something up. " Really fucking dumb,"—she smiled—"but still brave. You likely saved my life."

"I didn't do shit," Chloe picked at a splinter on the table top, suddenly unable to look Sera in the eye. "All I did was get my head kicked in. Even if I hadn't been there, Frank would've come to find you." 

"You think?" Sera shot a glance towards the patio. She leaned forward, lowered her voice. "If you hadn't been there, you think Frank would've…" She paused, sighed as she sat back in her seat. Whatever she was going to say she'd changed her mind. "Things would've happened differently, that's all," she said at last. "Anyway, do you really want to make your buddy Frank the drug dealer into the hero here? Life's a shitty story, Chloe. You get the chance to change the narrative a little, you do it."

"Ooh la la!" Anne's laugh ricocheted through the restaurant. She was still over on the patio dancing with Dumbo, apparently enjoying it as much as Rachel was. "You know, my name isn't actually French," she was saying. "It's Scottish…" Her voice drifted out, engulfed by the band hitting the chorus. 

"Sera, did Frank kill Damon?" 

Sera's attention had been caught by the dance floor. It was a long time before she turned her head back to Chloe. So long that Chloe thought maybe she hadn't heard, that she'd have to repeat what she'd asked. Until Sera spoke at last: "That's a very direct question, Chloe."

Even then, Chloe thought she should probably drop it there. But she didn't. It felt important somehow. "Did he?" she asked. "I keep trying to remember, but I can't…" 

"What do you remember?" 

"I think… I saw Frank come in. I saw him in the doorway. He was holding his shoulder, it was bleeding, and he called out to me. Then Damon must have kicked me I guess, but I don't remember the blow. The last thing I remember is Frank calling my name. Next thing I wake up and you're free. Like I'd imagined the whole thing. Did I?" 

"No, Chloe, Frank was there." Sera scraped her fingers back and forth across her forehead. "It's a little hazy for me, too. But I… I remember…" She paused, looked up at Chloe, and Chloe would always remember the way her eyes looked just then, shining in the light but expressionless as glass marble. "I remember he chased Damon out. I could hear yelling, a scuffle outside. Then nothing. Frank came back a little later and untied me. He told me he would take care of Damon and if you weren't awake in ten minutes to call 911. He gave me the burner, then he left. I heard the RV start up and drive away, that's it. If he did anything to Damon, I didn't see it." 

She took another sip of water. "I get why you might think that's what happened. Damon showing up dead and buried two weeks later. Frank disappearing. But bigger coincidences happen all the time. Damon was running heroin up and down the coast for a cartel. He thought he was a big fish, and maybe he was in Arcadia Bay, but he was swimming in a tank with sharks. Guys like that turn up dead all the time."

Even then it all seemed too convenient to Chloe. Even before she had time to really think about it. She remembered the article in the paper following Damon's demise: Arcadia Bay Kingpin Found Dead. And underneath: DA James Amber hails a good day in the fight against local drug gangs. 

A good day for DA Amber, too, Chloe thought. Only Damon would have known the full extent of their 'deal'. But what about Frank…? Whatever did happen to that twenty grand she'd taken with her to the Mill? She thought about asking, but Sera's features were already set hard, fingers jittering against the tabletop. 

"James told me Frank turned up a few months later," Sera said, as if reading Chloe's thoughts. "Are you still hanging out with him?"

Chloe wondered if James had cut some deal with Frank for his silence, wondered how much more Sera really knew. Or maybe Frank really had killed Damon there and then. Was that the leverage James had over him?  Could Frank really have done that? Killed his best friend. For Sera? For… Chloe?

"We don't hang out," Chloe said. "I go buy weed from him sometimes, that's it."

"You should stay away from guys like that, Chloe. So should Rachel."

Before Chloe could think on what that meant, Rachel hit the table like a wave crashing against the shore, slamming both palms down on the wood. Her face was pink from dancing, the soft hairs above her ears wet with sweat. 

"Chloe and I are going to the pier with those guys," she announced. "Is that okay?"

Chloe looked up at her. "We are?" 

Dumbo and Rat Boy were already waiting out front when Rachel dragged Chloe onto the street. Dumbo twisting the corner of his shirt in his hands like a fucking five-year-old. 

"They're French," Rachel mouthed in a way that suggested Chloe was supposed to be impressed. "Are you not up for a little je ne sais quois ?" 

Chloe stopped. "Juh nuh—? No." 

"Chloe! We're in Los Angeles! In Santa fucking Monica! We have the whole night ahead of us. God, where's your sense of fun?" 

"Maybe it's just not fun hanging with two skeevy French dudes on the pier."

"Etienne and Amaury," Rachel corrected her. 

"Whatever. Can't we go on our own?" 

"They're old enough to buy us booze! Don't you want a drink?" 

"I have my ID. We don't need them." 

"Your shitty Oregon fake ID is gonna get you nowhere here. Come on!"


Perfect. Sixty degrees every night. You and me on the Santa Monica pier, gorging on food truck food, smoking up, looking at the moon shining on the waves… 

The moon hung like a dead weight over the ocean as the ferris wheel creaked and clattered towards its apex, curving with impressive speed over the Pacific. The greasy stench of food truck food curled up from the pier below, congealing in the back of Chloe's throat, so that she didn't know if it was the smell making her sick or the incessant motion of the wheel or, more likely, the sight of Rachel and Etienne dangling in the car below them, his arm slithering along the backrest behind her. What the fuck happened to she's with me? 

"I think Etienne wants to go to bed with your friend." Amaury sat a safe distance from Chloe in the same car, still playing with his shirt hem. 

"Well, he can fuck off," Chloe said quickly, lancing him with her stare. And then: "She's not my friend, she's my girlfriend. We're together. She's gay." 

The words just sort of tumbled out and even as they fell around her, they seemed so ridiculous, so fucking dumb, that Chloe longed to gather them up, stuff them back in. Because Rachel hadn't actually told her any of those things, had she? 

Below them, Rachel's hand found Etienne's shoulder as she beamed at him, repeated back some words in French with a laugh that cut through all the noise and lights of the pier. Was Sera right? Was this still all a show for Chloe's benefit? Sure as hell didn't feel like it. 

"She's gay?" Amaury asked, one eyebrow raised. "Really?" 

Chloe was starting to feel seasick. "Yeah, and sixteen. So, you know, illegal. They might allow kiddy fiddling where you're from, but here she's a minor, so if your amigo fucking tries anything, I'll not only kick his ass so hard the toe of my boot will exit through his nostrils, I'll also make sure he goes down for statutory rape." She took a deep breath, realized her finger was jabbing straight at Amaury's face. He looked shocked. Until the shock subsided into a good-natured chuckle. "What?" Chloe snapped. 

"Nothing. I believe you." 

Chloe slumped back in her seat. "Good."

"So, you're gay?" His fingers no longer played with his hem, instead he leaned forward, hands between his knees. Chloe's head buzzed as she stared past him and over the ocean, the horizon climbing, climbing into the sky as they continued their descent. Like they were going to ditch into the water at any moment. Was she gay? It was the first time anyone had ever actually asked her. 

She shrugged. "Sucks for you, huh?" 

"You want to know a secret?" Amaury asked, lowering his voice.

"No."

He smiled. "I'm gay, too." He put a finger to his lips. "Don't tell Etienne. He doesn't know." 

"Why not?" Chloe asked as the car rattled towards the pier for the final time. Below them an assistant opened the car for Etienne and Rachel, Rachel clutching tight to Etienne's arm as he helped her out. Chloe looked away. 

"Not the right time," Amaury said as their own car swayed to a halt. "He wouldn't understand." 

"You in love with him or something?" 

Amaury stood up, gestured for Chloe to get out before him but he didn't try and help her. His ears suddenly looked smaller, less pink. He glanced over to where Etienne stood next to Rachel, his friend's feral eyes crawling all over her. "No," Amaury said. "Not anymore." 

 


 

There were already way too many cocktails sloshing around inside Chloe by the time they hit the dollar arcade. Flickering neon slanting down from the ceiling as she tried to concentrate on Whac-a-Mole, those goddamn critters ducking out of sight too fast for her fuzzied reactions every time. Rachel and the French guys groaning in support behind her each time her misplaced hammer clunked against wood. 

She wouldn't admit it, but by then Chloe was kind of enjoying herself. After the ferris wheel, Amaury had taken Etienne to one side and whispered something to him in French, and Chloe had no idea what it was he said, but it made Etienne stand a few feet further from Rachel, so that was fine with Chloe. 

They left the arcade with pockets lighter, pushing through the throng of bodies that crowded the pier. The thick smell of funnel cake followed them down the boardwalk as they dodged the stray burger wrappers that fluttered around their feet, ducked under the outstretched arms of strangers that intermittently shot out at head height, phones gripped in palms and pointing at the bearers in an endless stream of group selfies: Dennis! Dennis! Get in shot! Jenny, look at the camera! Everyone say cheese! 

Rachel insisted on taking their own selfie by the Route 66 sign that read End of the Trail; Rachel and Chloe in the middle of the frame, the two guys tacked on the ends. When Chloe looked at that photo later she'd be surprised by how happy she looked, grinning like a dumbass. It almost offended her. She'd look a lot at that photo in the months that followed, at that sign: Santa Monica. End of the Trail. 

The night ended hanging out by some buskers on the boardwalk. Acoustic guitars thrumming valiantly against the screams from the roller-coaster, the babble of the crowds. Rachel spinning slow circles, a bottle of beer dangling from her hand. Chloe loved to watch her dance, the effortless way her body coiled and swayed in time with each pluck of the guitar string. 

Chloe even joined in for a while. She told herself it was to stop Etienne from leaching on to Rachel again, although he'd kept his distance since the ferris wheel. But if she was honest she just wanted to dance right then. Dance in the salty air, still so warm, even though the sun had long since set over the ocean. The soft breeze rippled across her shoulders as she twirled around like a drunken idiot, kissed the back of her neck with its cotton candy breath. It was good, then. It really was. 

By the time they were saying their goodbyes and Rachel was booking an Uber while telling the guys to follow her on Instagram, Chloe had realized she kind of liked Amaury. They had stuff in common—both liked Daria and coffee-flavored ice-cream, both used to pick Yoshi on Mario Kart as kids. He gave her an open invitation to visit Toulouse, his home town in France. And Chloe had grinned, face flush from dancing and Whac-a-mole and one too many cheap Espresso Martinis, Sure, she'd said, What have I got Toulouse, right? She might even have done jazz hands, and he laughed like he actually found it funny. They would write to each other for some time after that. He would send her thoughtful essays via email and postcards with doodles and life advice, while in return she would send him sketches of tattoo designs and links to her favorite playlists. But she never did make it to Toulouse. Neither she nor Rachel saw those guys again. 

 


 

"Where's Sera?" Chloe asked as they stumbled through the door of the dark, empty apartment. 

"Anne's place," Rachel said, flicking on the light. "She texted to say she has an early shift tomorrow and didn't want us to wake her." She winked, linked Chloe's fingers in her own. "So, it's just you and me." 

She bounded over to the stereo, shuffled through the small pile of CDs that sat alongside it. Rachel wanted to dance. Rachel always wanted to dance. 

She grasped both Chloe's hands in her own as the first beats of an old Blondie song thundered through the apartment, mini nuclear bombs riding surges of synth. Hand in hand, they began to spin circles, their heady laughter whirling around them, weaving around the waves of surf guitar and bouncing off the plain white walls. Notes thumping through Chloe's skull as her socked feet shuffled faster and faster on the tiles, around and around, the taste of bile and espresso martini pooling at the base of her throat. Faster, faster, louder, louder, Rachel's laugh echoing above the music, scorched and breathless. So fast that Chloe was sure if she let go of Rachel's hands they would both immediately clatter to the floor. So she didn't let go. 

Rachel did. 

Chloe flailed, unanchored. The room turning, churning until somehow the sofa came up to meet her. She sank into it with a soft thud, found herself sprawled across it, eyes and body limp from the sudden stillness. From across the room, the click of a light switch, and everything was thrown into darkness. Through a gap in the blinds, Chloe could see dark orchid leaves fluttering against the window pane, stars twinkling in the distant Californian sky. She was still dizzy, still drunk, and the stars beyond the glass hopped and swirled, became spinning constellations on the ceiling, became sparks of light in the corners of her eyes. She squeezed her eyes shut. Opened them again. 

And then… her. 

Only her. 

Rachel, the center of everything, swinging a leg over Chloe's lap, tee and bra already discarded and dangling off the arm of the sofa.

Rachel, blocking out the world; face tilted down towards Chloe in the half light, breath taut and skin glistening. She curled her fingers in the hairs at the back of Chloe's neck, drew her closer. Until she was all that was left. All of her. 

Fire, salt and ocean breezes. 

Afterwards, the hot skin of Rachel's stomach scorched Chloe's cheek as they lay together in the dark bedroom. Up and down Rachel's breath rose and fell, and Chloe tried to time it so they were breathing in sync. Breathe in as Rachel's stomach dropped away beneath her, breathe out as it swelled again, pushing Chloe's cheek up with it. 

"What's it like with boys?" Rachel asked. The question came from nowhere, hacked through the gentle hush of the room like a buzzsaw. 

Chloe turned her head to look up at Rachel's face, rested her chin in the dip of her navel. Rachel's arms were slung over her head and across the pillow, her eyes fixed on the ceiling.

"What do you mean?"

Rachel's gaze slanted downwards, and she hooked a lock of Chloe's hair, twirled it in her fingers. "You know…" 

It might have been right then that the air shifted. Or maybe it happened before. Whenever it was, Chloe felt it, the sweat prickle the small of her back. "Why?" 

"Well, you’ve done it with boys. I was just wondering." 

A car sped past beneath the open window, sent a wave of cool air through the room. The sweat turned cold against Chloe's skin. "I've done it with two guys. And one of them was Eliot. So…" 

"That's two more than me," Rachel said, returning her gaze to the ceiling. "That's why I'm asking." Another car's headlights sent a mask light and shadow fluttering across her face. Unreadable. 

Maybe it was just a question. Like all those innocent but weird-as-fuck questions Max used to ask all the time. Like when Chloe's periods started at thirteen and eleven-year-old Max had been equal parts grossed out and oddly fascinated by that. Or that time when Chloe started shaving her body hair with her dad's razor for no other reason than one of the assholes at school had made a dickish offhand comment about her being hairy. Max had asked all sorts of dumb things, had wanted to try shaving herself, until Chloe came out in that rash… And each time Chloe would just laugh at those questions, shake them off, because it was Max, and she was nosy, and she was just… Max. But Rachel?

"You're not missing anything, believe me. It's not like any of those times were serious. Hella stupid actually. And way fucking gross. That's why I'm so glad you came along to rescue me when you did." 

Is what Chloe didn't say. 

Even though now she wishes she had. It's what she'd say if she ever had that conversation again. Or something like it. Okay, it wouldn't have saved everything. With hindsight, it couldn't. But maybe Rachel would have laughed and pulled her closer, let Chloe fall asleep that night in her arms; maybe it would have saved that trip. Maybe it would have pushed everything back, just a fraction, just enough to stop the dominos falling in the exact same way they eventually did. Or maybe it wouldn't have made any goddamn difference at all. Not that it matters anymore. 

Chloe didn't say that. Instead she said: Seriously, that's what you're thinking about right now? Banging guys? 

And after that, it was what it was. 

It was the soft Oh god… the semi-silent capitulation that Rachel breathed at the ceiling, the way she uncurled the leg that had been wrapped around Chloe's back, nudged Chloe away with her knee.

It was the argument starting the way it always started, with narrowed eyes and sharp intakes of breath. The edges of Chloe's world burning red, hot flames ignited and licking through her. The immediate, scalding feeling that all was lost, all was gone, so why not just let it burn?  

It was Chloe shouting at Rachel's back as she sat hunched on the edge of the bed, fingers scraping through her hair: Were you thinking about fucking that French guy from the restaurant? Is that why you wanted to go with them? You were, weren't you! You were hella fucking friendly, Rach.

It was the ashes of that argument, sparks still fizzing and spitting, settling on the sheets between them, a layer of charred words, the remains of every argument they'd ever had, every fight still to come. 

It was Chloe palms pressed down on the bed, burning herself on those smouldering embers, the pain hissing up her arm, blistering and splitting her fingers. She gripped the sheets, willed it to burn harder: I'm so sorry you had to come back and fuck the consolation prize! 

It was Rachel flipping Chloe the bird over her shoulder and rising from the bed, a growl rumbling in her throat. Whatever, Chloe. It was just a fucking question. 

It was: Do you wish I was a guy?

Rachel stopped as she bent to pick up a tee from the floor. "What?" 

"Do you?" 

"You're out of your fucking mind, I'm not doing this." Rachel scooped up her underwear, stuffed it under her arm with the tee.

"It's true though, isn't it? You wish I was a guy because that would make your easy life even easier."

Rachel's voice was ice. "My easy life?"

The way she looked at Chloe then, jaw tight and eyes raw, it felt like a last chance. A chance for Chloe to try and stop herself, to throw her arms out and scrape her knuckles against the shaft she was tumbling down. A chance to try and stop herself before she hit the bottom. But the bottom was rising up too fast, too close, too enticing. And the faster she fell, the more she longed to pull Rachel with her. She wanted her words to sting, wanted them to hurt. She wanted Rachel to understand. For once, she just wanted her to understand. 

"Yeah! Your easy-ass life with your big house and your two cool moms and your rich dad and all your little friends that hang off your every fucking word. It would just be easier to have a boyfriend you could show off to everybody, wouldn't it?" 

"Fuck you, Chloe." 

Rachel turned away, headed for the door. 

"What are you doing?"

"I’m going to sleep in the living room." She stopped in the doorway."And you know what? Yeah, sometimes I think about banging guys. Happy?"

"Yeah, well, banging guys sucks. Every time sucked a cock ton of ass."

The door slammed shut. 

 


 

That night Chloe dreamed of drowning. She dreamed of treading water in an endless ocean, the waves breaking over her head, the current grasping her ankles and dragging her down from below. But just when she thought the water would take her, she found herself washed up on a deserted beach. Silver sand as far as the eye could see, dissolving into nothing. Her phone lay just out of reach, covered in a thick layer of gray sludge but seemingly having survived the salt and spray in the way dream objects do. The screen was lit, Rachel's name flashing across it. A message: I've gone home. Don't follow me. 

When Chloe did eventually wake to the empty space beside her, the first thing she did was roll over and check her messages. Whenever she and Rachel slept apart there was always a good morning text—a song lyric, a quote from a book, a simple wish you were here xRx . That morning there was nothing—no morning, sleepyhead, no fuck off forever. Nothing but the obligatory daily text from Joyce asking how Chloe was doing and was she remembering to use sunscreen. She left it unanswered. 

Rachel hadn't gone home. She was sitting at the counter in the kitchen, eating cereal and scrolling through her phone.

"There's coffee in the pot," she said without looking up as Chloe stepped out of the bedroom. "It should be still warm."

Chloe padded over to the kitchen, opened several cupboards in search of a coffee cup. At last she found one behind door number four. She took down a mug, it said, Keep calm and find a good realtor. Advice to live by. She cradled it in her hands. 

Behind her, she could hear Rachel chewing, the tap of her fingernail on the phone screen. "I'm sorry I lost my shit," Chloe said. 

Even though Chloe couldn't see her, she knew Rachel's back was still turned. "That’s okay." Rachel's voice was cool and soft—frozen fog on the ocean. An endless pause stretched between them. At last she heard Rachel twist on her stool. "I don't wish you were a guy, Chloe. Not at all. Not even a little bit. I want you to be you. The way you are. I like you ."

"So, who am I?" The question was out before Chloe had even thought of it, and it simmered in the silence for a while before Chloe turned at last, caught Rachel's eyes. They looked tired, lids pink and raw. Chloe wondered how long she'd been sitting there. 

Rachel looked down. "What do you mean?" she asked, slipping from her stool and placing her empty bowl in the sink beside Chloe. 

"You say you want me to be me. But who am I, exactly?" Chloe looked down into the empty mug again, her heart beating so hard against her ribs she felt any moment it would crash through and plop out into it. "To you… Who am I to you?" 

Rachel turned away, opened the refrigerator. The door rattled, clinked. "You're my best friend," she said. A pause. "Do you want an OJ?" 

"No."

Rachel poured two glasses of orange juice, slid one along the counter top to Chloe. "I’m just gonna go catch up on some messages," she said, as if that wasn't what she'd just been doing.

"Okay."

The bedroom door clicked shut behind her. 

Chloe looked down at her glass of OJ. She prodded it with a finger that no longer felt like it belonged to her, pushed the lip of it, just to see if she could, just to see if there was enough of her left for that; kept on pushing until the glass reared up and toppled over. She watched the orange liquid fan out across the counter top. Drip onto the floor.