Two years before…
The weather turned later in the week, cloaked the LA skyline in steel and rust. Rachel dragged Chloe around to see the sights regardless; the stars on Hollywood Boulevard slick with grease and rain, the palms on Sunset Strip blowing gray in the wind. Just like fucking Oregon, Chloe thought as fat raindrops drizzled down the back of her neck, soaked through her pleather jacket.
On the fourth day, Rachel took Chloe down to Long Beach to show her where she grew up: The park on the corner where James taught her how to ride a bike, the swing where she’d been dared her first drunken kiss. She grimaced and nudged Chloe as she said it, told her with a wink that her firsts in Arcadia Bay had been far more exciting. And Chloe didn’t really know what to make of that, but she was still thinking about it as their Uber passed the corner of 15th and Peterson, the scene of Rachel’s great bike race victory against a kid named Brendon who’d stupidly bet twenty bucks that he’d beat her. He hadn't. And as they rode past the gym where Rachel’s team had won the regional cheerleading championships, and towards the pool where she’d picked up another fifty-something glittering trophies, it struck Chloe how many of Rachel's memories were linked to achievements, to success, to things tangible and specific. So different from Chloe's own childhood, where memories were hazily captured in ice-cream flavors and bee stings, in patches of light and color; soft lullabies in the dark, the smell of cedar chips on the BBQ. A past that still felt fresh and… gentle. Everything here in LA, this place of sharp color and contours, these were Rachel's places, Rachel's things. Chloe felt wrong looking at them, they weren't for her. They would never be.
Rachel’s childhood home was a single-story villa with a terracotta roof and a huge palm right outside. She said the new resident was one of her dad's old clients, so she went up and knocked, bold and without hesitation, like it was still her home, like it would always be her home. The woman who now lived there, Greta, seemed kind of surprised, but she gave them coffee anyway, told them they could go anywhere except the study. Rachel showed Chloe her old bedroom, now apparently a guest room, with hastily painted cream walls and mix-and-match furniture. It wasn’t Rachel’s home anymore, hadn’t been for years, but a few faded remnants of her still somehow remained—proof that Rachel couldn’t really be removed from anything: tiny holes in the window frame where she’d once tacked string lights and photos; the faded lines of a height chart still visible on the closet door frame, confirmation that, aged 8, she had been taller than Chloe; a tag on the inside of the closet: nolite te bastardes carborundorum. She said it was a quote from a book and Chloe kind of liked that.
Chloe had been excited to see this place, to see where Rachel grew up and became… well… Rachel. But now she was here, all of it seemed like another world entirely. Like Rachel had pushed open the door onto that world, shown Chloe what lay beyond, before skipping through and slamming the door shut behind her. Rachel had once had a life here in this world, a life that was huge and different. A life without Chloe. Rachel, who made up the stars and the sand, whose breath blew through every swaying tree. Rachel, who was in everything, the reality of everything.
Had a world without Chloe.
"Chloe! Look! Lady Gaga just galloped by on a white unicorn!"
A French fry twirled around and around in Chloe's fingers. It was lukewarm, going soft and grainy. She looked up, but without enthusiasm. "Yeah?"
Anne was sitting beside her in the driver's seat of the parked-up Mustang, tapping the wheel in time to the beat of whatever was creaking through the car's old speakers. "No," she said with a chuckle. "But you've been silently eyeing that fry for the last five minutes, and I'm gonna bet you haven't remembered anything I just told you about the alien invasion we had here last week.”
"Is that what we were talking about?"
Anne laughed heartily. "No, honey. No, it wasn't." She picked up her soda cup from the dash, took a slurp. "What's up?"
They were stopped somewhere high on Mulholland Drive, eating McDonald's under a sign that read No Stopping at Any Time in red capital letters. Chloe liked that about Anne; she didn't seem to give a fuck.
"I'm okay," Chloe said.
It was a lie, but she was used to telling them by now. How could she even begin to tell Anne what she was feeling when she didn’t even know herself.
As if she was two caged beasts in a fight, both about to pounce. But the scene is caught in time, at that split second before propulsion, pure compressed energy: bared teeth, violence, and venom. Eventually, the universe would lurch into life again, the beasts would pounce, tear through skin and fur with jagged claws. But right then, at that moment, there was nothing. Nothing but the waiting; a grey numbness, the outlines sparkling with blind hope and tinged with the taste of gnawed fingernails.
You’re my best friend.
"So, my grand tour of Hollywood isn’t doing it for you, huh?" Anne asked. “You missing Rachel?”
Yes. No. All the fucking time.
Sera had taken Rachel to meet family in Pasadena that day, so Anne had offered to drive Chloe around, show her some of the city. From their illegal parking spot, they could see the Hollywood sign, tiny in the distance across a valley of scrub and freeway. Chloe squinted at those famous white letters, somehow dwarfed by the hillside. "It looks bigger in the photos," she said.
The ice rattled in Anne's soda cup as she sucked up the dregs. "Mm, everyone says that," she said, placing the cup back on the dash. “I've been up there when you could still hike up close. Those suckers are pretty damn big, lemme tell you. But from a distance… I hear you. Is it that the letters are smaller than people expect, or is the hillside bigger?" She shrugged. "Everything looks different in photos. Can I steal one of those?" She pointed to Chloe's swiftly congealing fries.
"So, what do you make of LA?" Anne asked, slipping out a single fry. Chloe passed her the whole box. "Rachel mentioned you girls might be moving down here one day."
Rachel's name said out loud, that dream of LA, like a stone skitting across the waters that gurgled in Chloe's chest. "Rachel wants us to go to school here," she said.
"But you don't want to?"
The question caught Chloe off guard. As though Anne had sensed something even Chloe didn’t know she was thinking.
"It's not that I don't want to. I really want to. It's just… I dunno. I guess I'm afraid I'll fuck it up for her."
"Fuck it up how?"
"By not getting into the same school. Any school."
"Why not? You seem like a smart kid."
"So everyone keeps telling me…"
"Let me guess, Rachel keeps telling you that you just need to work hard and it'll be okay?"
"And life's taught you things aren't so simple?"
Chloe rubbed her thumb against the gap where the window rose from the car door, left her skin smudged with black grime. "Something like that."
"I get it. I've known a lot of kids like Rachel. Hell, I was a kid like Rachel. They have everything there for them, just waiting for them to take it. All they gotta do is put the hours in and want it enough, then it all just… happens. But I'm guessing it isn't the same for you?"
Chloe's laugh burst out louder than she intended, escaped her throat like a bark. "Could say that." She sighed. "I dunno, I mean my mom works hard. She works real hard. But I know she's in big trouble with the bank."
"Been there, kid. It's a scary place to be. I'm sorry to hear that."
Chloe shrugged, stared out over the hills dappled with coarse brush, the arid yellow gold of the landscape cut like a blade against the brilliant blue of the sky. So different to Arcadia Bay, where everything seemed to dissolve into dank clouds of various shades of gray—the sky, the forest, the ocean, the buildings, even the people. Everything except Rachel. But then Rachel wasn't from Arcadia Bay. She was from here. This place of blinding color and contrast.
"Have you always lived here?" she asked Anne.
"I have." Anne finished off the last fry, tossed the empty box in the back. "Had my adventures but never strayed far. Once upon a time I had a real nice life here—a big villa in The Hills, a great career, until I drank it away. Along with two husbands." She shrugged. "Thought that was that. Life was over. But when I was in rehab, I ended up meeting a bunch of women who didn't have the connections I did. A lot of them were estranged from their families, their children. Many were in trouble with the cops for bullshit reasons. So, I started offering legal advice to some of them. Pro bono. It made me feel useful, you know? Far more than corporate law ever did." She snorted, brushing crumbs from her lap and into the footwell. "So when I got clean I set up an organization offering free legal advice to women in rehab. Been going ten years now give or take. That's how I met Sera. Her story touched me. She had no one, except James. And I…" She paused. "Well, I don't really like the way he handles that relationship. Sera was so goddamned determined to find Rachel. So I helped her, we became friends." Anne shifted in her seat to face Chloe, leaned one arm up against the steering wheel. "Chloe, can I ask you a question?"
"What do you think of James?"
It wasn’t the question Chloe was expecting. "Mr. A? Pretty sure he hates my guts."
Anne laughed. "Oh, he definitely hates mine! But that wasn't my question. What do you think of him?"
"I think he's slippery as fuck."
The steering wheel rattled as Anne struck it with her palm, not in anger but victory. She pointed at Chloe. "You strike me as a good judge of character, Miss. Price. We shall get on well."
Miss Price. Chloe wondered how Anne knew her surname until she remembered it had come up on the ride back from the bus station. A ride that already felt like a hundred years ago. She was surprised Anne remembered, guessed it must be a lawyer thing.
"We tried everything to get him to see reason, but he thought he could just dismiss it all with a flick of his hand,” Anne continued. “Eventually, I managed to persuade my ex, Kevin, to represent Sera. He's one of the best family lawyers in the state. Did the Kellerman divorce," she said, as if Chloe should know what that was. "Anyway, James knows of him, of course he does. Got real spooked. Then we did a little digging into where some of his campaign funds came from…" She sat back in her seat, hands up to her chest as though in surrender. "Well, I'll admit, that's when we expected him to give up, not dig in harder."
Chloe remembered back to the conversation with Sera at the lighthouse, the day she first met Rachel. Sera had told them her lawyer had the burner phone. She wondered what else they’d found on there. "You know about what happened at the Mill, right?" she asked.
"Sure I do. Those fucking assholes." Anne looked away, her brow creasing. An audible hiss as her jaw clenched.
"Do you think Mr. A wanted to hurt her?"
"Do I think he meant for that thug to tie her up and pump her full of smack? No. But he put her in danger, tried to undermine her legitimate case by getting her involved with criminals, tried to set her up. She coulda been put back in jail. No matter how he spins it, the guy's a scumbag. But Sera won't hear it, so…"
It was strange seeing Anne suddenly so worked up, the genial smile and easy manner now gone. She seemed to realize it herself, shuffled her shoulders to calm herself like a jay in a birdbath.
"But it's not my place to say all this. Not to you. The whole situation just makes me so mad. He has some kind of hold over her that I just don't like."
"Yeah, looked that way when me and Rach caught them macking under that tree. Weird-ass way to greet someone you haven't seen for fifteen years."
Anne's deep laugh rolled out across the valley, until she caught herself, mind filling in the gaps. "Wait, is that what he told you? That they hadn't seen each other for fifteen years?" She clasped her hands together with a soft clap. "Oh boy… oh, honey…"
For a while she sat still, eyes fixed on the horizon, until at last she turned her gaze back to Chloe. "Okay, well whatever story he's spun on this one, Sera is obviously in on it too, so… Shit... just forget I reacted like that, okay?"
"Does Rachel believe it?"
"I don't know."
"What else did he tell you?"
Anne's stare was heavy. Her eyes were made up, eyeliner caught in the creases of her upper lids. Not beautiful, but striking, as Joyce would say. And persuasive. Chloe wouldn't say it, but she remembered the same look on James's face that day at the hospital, just after Rachel had been stabbed: fighting to keep his expression warm and friendly, his eyes betraying his desperation.
"He told us he and Sera had an arrangement. He gave her checks every month and in return she stayed away. That she'd chosen the drugs and money over Rachel."
Anne sucked in her cheeks, fell back against her seat. "He told you that, huh? Hoo boy… Oh, James…"
"That isn't what happened?"
"Think about it, honey. Sera's an addict, at her worst, she was in deep. If he'd wanted her gone, it would have been easy to wash his hands of her. She had no job, no real family. Chances are she'd have ended up dead or in jail. God knows, that nearly happened anyway. With the best will in the world, back then… Rachel wasn't Sera's priority, her next hit was." She took a breath. “Does that shock you?"
Chloe’s felt her thoughts brush against the image of her own mother, of her singing as she tied Chloe’s shoelaces, rubbing her nose against the top of Chloe's head as she read her a bedtime story, sitting in the dark with her hands folded on the dining table as Chloe once again stumbled drunk through the front door.
"You say that about someone, makes them sound like an asshole, right? But addiction doesn't give a crap who you are; it doesn't care if you're a good person or the world's biggest prick. So when addiction happens to good people, it makes it all the harder for those around them to understand how they can suddenly do such shitty things. Sera was still a good person. But she was a good person doing shitty things. She didn't think she could give Rachel a life back then. She thought James could. She didn't choose drugs over Rachel, not in the way he spins it. She chose to try and protect her daughter. That was the only choice she made. He didn't need to keep her away."
"So, why did he keep giving her all that money?"
"To keep her close, to keep their connection. I guess, in a way, to keep her alive."
"Couldn't he pay for rehab or something?”
"He did at first, more than once. But if an addict doesn't want to get clean… even if they do... It's not that simple. He got more and more frustrated each time she relapsed. As the years went on he must've given up on her getting clean, at some point it made more sense to him to just keep control. So he sent her the checks, gave her the apartment—"
"He pays for the apartment?"
"Honey, he owns the apartment."
Chloe raised her eyebrows, not sure what to say. Adults were weird. “Wow, that sounds kinda fucked up.”
"Mm-hm,” Anne sighed. “Some people just stick with you I guess. Get inside you, hook you and won't let go. Nine times outta ten you'll look back on great loves a few years down the line and wonder what all the fucking fuss was about. I know I do! Been married three times. Fuck knows what I ever saw in any of them. And, yeah, I include the one I'm still married to."
She laughed as tires swished on the gravel behind them. They both turned to see a cop car crunch to a halt behind the Mustang.
Anne looked at Chloe. Mouthed, "Uh-oh."
The cop leaned out of his window, heavy palm tapping the door panel. "You having trouble reading there, Ma-am?" he called over, lifting his thick finger to point at the No Stopping sign.
Anne adjusted herself, elbow propped on the backrest. Flashed him a brazen LA smile. "I'm so sorry, officer. I dropped a cigarette on the seat and we were just searching for it."
The cop seemed to eye the empty soda cup on the dash. "Uh-huh. Well, move along."
"Your wish is our command, officer…" Anne turned her head away, muttered as she rattled the gear stick. “Asshole.” She slid the Mustang into gear and back out onto the road.
"Okay," she said a short time later as the car weaved its way down the Mulholland bends and back downtown. "So Rachel wants to study in California. But what about you? Where do you want to go?"
"I dunno. I mean, I'm okay. LA works for me."
Anne laughed. "Chloe! You must be the first person I've ever met in this town who doesn't want to talk about themselves. Tell me about you. Where would you like to go?"
"You mean to study?"
"Yeah, to study. Or to live, or work, or to... do a little dance, "—Anne gave a little shimmy in her seat— "make a little love. Get down tonight." Her eyebrows waggled above her shades. "There must be somewhere you've dreamed of going."
"My mom always wanted to go to Paris…"
"Again with the other people. Chloe! You!"
Chloe shrugged, looked out over the arid hills rushing by. "When I was a kid I saw this documentary about scientists in Antarctica. That looked kinda cool. All that… space." She grinned at Anne, hooked by the old childhood dream. "And those motor jet sleigh things looked like the shit. I always wanted to go there."
"Antarctica, huh? Well, it wouldn't be my first choice. But it's your choice. And that's important. Make me a promise, Chloe Price."
"Never stop dreaming of Antarctica. Even if I do think you're fucking insane. Brrr." Anne bashed open the glove box. "Here. Take this," she said, pulling out a business card and passing it to Chloe.
Chloe took it. "In case I need legal advice?"
"No. Just if you ever need to talk. I'm as self-absorbed as the next asshole around here, but I can lend an ear if you need it."
Rachel was on her own when Anne dropped Chloe back at the apartment. Chloe found her in the bedroom, kneeling by the bed, a bunch of binders splayed out over the blankets. Each filled with photos.
“Where’s Sera?” Chloe asked.
“Grocery store,” Rachel said without looking up. She beckoned Chloe over. "Come look at these."
"What are they?"
"I think it's her portfolio," Rachel said, turning the pages.
Chloe knelt beside her, looked over the glossy images. Pages of them in color and black and white. All of Sera. Rachel paused on a photo of her mother leaning up against a chair, a cigarette between her red lips, smoke captured in a soft cloud as it sluiced from between her teeth. Her chin was held high so that her dark eyes seemed to look down at the camera. Look at me, the image said. Look the fuck at me. She was beautiful. Not just more beautiful than now but just… Probably the most beautiful person Chloe had ever seen. And, yes, she felt like a traitor for thinking it, even more beautiful than Rachel.
"Your mom was super hot," Chloe managed, tearing her eyes from the image and towards the words below: Serafina Amber. 1990.
Rachel stayed silent, flipping slowly through the pages, eyes lingering for a few seconds on each image. "Why do you think she didn't show me this?" she asked.
Before Chloe could reply, the door opened and Sera appeared in the doorway, a cloth bag full of groceries clutched to her chest. On her face, a smile, until her eyes met the binders on the bed, the smile sliding away slowly like sand through a timer, sifting through surprise and confusion before settling into anger. Her jaw stiffened.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Chloe scrambled to her feet as Rachel sprang away from the binders as though burned by them.
“Did I say you could look at those?” Sera demanded.
Until that moment, Chloe had seen Sera as beautiful but faded, in the way that most women age, but the contrast between the woman now staring at them from the doorway and the girl in those photos… It was the same person but at the same time it couldn’t be, could it? This Sera was too hunched, too colorless, her skin almost yellow: a photograph left too long on the windowsill.
Sera strode over to the bed, threw the grocery bag down on the duvet. A box of donuts slipped free and sprinkled powdery sugar over the dark fabric. She didn’t seem to notice as she slammed each binder closed, visibly shaking as she did so. This was a new Sera, one Chloe hadn’t seen before, and by the look of shock on her face, neither had Rachel.
“Why didn’t you want me to see them?” Rachel asked. “They’re amazing. Those photos are amazing. You should be proud of them?”
“Proud of what?” Sera yelled. She pulled open the closet, threw the binder back into the box it must have come from. “That I was born pretty? I took a good photo. It didn't mean anything. It didn’t mean shit. Didn’t lead anywhere.” She slammed the closet door closed. “Photographs lie.”
“Not everyone takes photos like that,” Rachel said. Her voice didn’t betray her, but Chloe saw her bite the inside of her lip, her hand reaching for her earring. Sera was angry with her and Rachel didn’t know what to do with that.
“Yeah, well, that's what they told me back then too. What difference does it make? That was the past.” Sera’s fingers were at her temples, her eyes closed. She began to breathe deeply, in and out, as if holding back a wave inside her.
“So why keep them?” Rachel asked.
An uncomfortable silence as Sera rattled out a breath, opened her eyes as she exhaled. Her shoulders fell at last, the wave, now broken, retreating back into the ocean within. “I think it’s time I probably told you some things. Do you guys want a soda?”
Back in the kitchen, Sera took three sodas from the refrigerator, placed them side by side on the counter before clambering onto a stool. She pulled a can towards her but didn’t open it, her thumb sliding up and down the wet aluminum as she spoke. “I had opportunities, that's true. There were things I could have done. Could have been. A model. A mother.” She squeezed the bridge of her nose. “I could have been somebody. But I wasn’t. I’m not. I threw it all away.”
She stopped, deep ridges creasing her brow as her mind worked through what she wanted to say. Chloe and Rachel slid onto the stools opposite her. Chloe took a soda can, opened it with a hiss and crack that at that moment seemed so loud it shook the room around them. Rachel stared at her. Chloe put the can down.
“I should have told you this before,” Sera said at last. “But something stopped me. Shame, I guess. At what happened”—she looked up at Rachel—“At what I missed.”
“Because of your addiction?” Rachel asked, her voice careful, measured.
Sera sighed before she started to speak. Her eyes remained fixed on the soda can in front of her, even though Chloe doesn’t remember her taking a single sip. She clasped it like it was anchoring her, barely letting go once. In front of her, Rachel did the same, and Chloe simply watched them, the way they mirrored each other on opposite sides of the counter, heads bowed, gazes occasionally searching for each other, landing, then snapping away.
“It didn’t start with addiction,” Sera began. “Addiction doesn't happen suddenly. Truth is, I don't know when I became an addict. I thought I had it all under control and then I didn't. It’s slow, creeps up on you, It's not a choice. It's a consequence, sure, but it isn't a choice.
“Dad said you were looking for an escape.”
Sera’s laugh was dry. “Is that what he said? I bet he made it all sound so simple, too? Like it was just part of who I was? A fatal flaw in my character, am I right?”
“That's the thing with people like your dad,” Sera continued, not waiting for a reply. “They have a nice life, a decent-enough childhood. Things always go right for them. They can't understand why others look for ways out. But my background, where I came from, in every room you needed to know your escape route. Not because of some desperate call to the fucking wild, but because that's how you survive. That's the only way to survive. You wanna know the truth? Truth is I was smoking pot when I was eleven years old. Guess he didn't tell you that, did he?”
“My childhood was… hard. There were things that went on. Drugs were just a part of that. They were always around the house. My parents, they had problems. Drink mostly but other stuff too. That's why I spent most of my time with your Aunt Casey. But I was smart, you know? I was really smart. Not some dumb kid. And I had my looks.”
She shook her head, a faded smile shadowing her lips. Chloe tried again to search for that girl in the photograph, smoke curling up from between those same lips. Where was she?
“At school I managed to keep most of my problems hidden,” Sera continued. “Created this image for myself. A skin I could slip into like an escape. And it worked, it worked on people. Your dad for example. God, the way he used to look at me.”
Rachel’s gaze slid over to Chloe then, so swift it almost wasn’t a glance at all, but Chloe still felt it land, felt the blush sting her cheeks.
“He wanted me so much. And he was rich. From a nice family. He had everything. He was safe. And he wanted me. And, okay, I know it was because I was beautiful. If I was the fat kid with pimples at the back of the class, he wouldn't have looked at me twice, I know that. But he wanted me. And I… yeah… I wanted him.”
Her eyes closed, a beat as her memories took her someplace unknown, opened again.
“Yes, I was looking for escape at that time. But, honey, what your dad doesn’t realize is that he was my escape. And after he found out about my problems at home, he wanted to fix everything, you know? He wanted to make it better. And he did. For the longest time, he did.”
“So, what happened?”
“We had different ideas of how our lives should be. We got married and he wanted me to be a wife and mom right away, but I wanted to live a little. I was 20 years-old when we got hitched. Seems crazy now how young we were. It wasn' t like he was against me having a career, but he wanted me to have a steady one, you know? Regular hours. A mom career. But I didn’t want to be a soccer mom with a desk job, I wanted to be a model.”
“But you were a model,” Rachel said quickly. Those photos. You made it.”
Sera shook her head. “Not really. But things started okay. I was good at it you know. And James, your dad, he didn’t mind it at first. Stoked his ego. What guy doesn’t want the model girlfriend? But when I started getting somewhere with it, well, that’s when he started getting pretty controlling, always asking me where I was, who I was with.”
Chloe felt Rachel stiffen, mumble under her breath. “Sounds familiar.”
“He didn’t like all the folks I was hanging around with, and truthfully I can’t really blame him. Things did get a little wild, but I wasn't used to being beholden to anyone like that. When I was a kid no one gave a shit about me so I just did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. No one ever blew up my phone demanding I get home. It felt like a new kind of prison. The more he tried to hold me down, the more I tried to break free.”
Sera sighed, looking away and out towards the orchids on the balcony. “I wanted to prove to him. I wanted to prove to him that I was more than just some dumb arm candy. That I could be a success on my own.”
“It didn't take long before all these agents, these photographers, they're offering the world. Telling me I could be anything, anyone. But you’ve got to give them something in return, you know? They make it pretty clear what you’ve got to do to take the next step in your career. I'm not proud of that. It was like a whirlwind, those years. Pool parties, champagne… drugs. A lot of drugs. I thought James… When it all started to go downhill, I thought he was trying to save me, trying to fix me, but it was never about that. It was about fitting me back into my mold, into the wife he wanted me to be. And so I fought against it. I left. But I found that without him I had no anchor. I hadn’t realized I needed that.”
She sighed, looked back down at the can in front of her. “Okay, our relationship was never perfect, Anne keeps telling me all the time that I need to stop looking at things through rose-tinted glasses, but when you’re not used to anyone caring about you and then someone does… Well, you forgive a lot. Without him, I just sank. I’ll spare you the details, to be honest I’ve forgotten a lot of them, but that was a hard time. Between about '90 and '93. A really fucking hard time. The jobs dried up, the agents wouldn’t touch me. I ended up in a lot of shitty places with a lot of shitty people. And James… he came back. Wanted to be my saviour again I guess. White Knight Syndrome Anne calls it. But I just wanted someone to protect me. He put me through rehab, got me clean. Made me that bracelet. I got pregnant. It was a new start. It was the life he’d always wanted.”
“And you?” Rachel asked.
“And me.” Sera shook free a chuckle. “I just wanted to be okay,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t want all of it, not at first. To be honest I never realized I wanted to be a mom until I looked at you. And then…,” she gave Rachel a soft smile across the counter, “then I knew.
The smile faded from her lips, she clasped her hands against her face. “But all it takes is one time. One stupid time," she whispered into the dark of her palms. "The rest I guess you know. Fifteen years of hell.”
Her hands fell away, found the soda can again. “Until Anne. She saved my life. Actually showed me what it’s like for someone to care about you without demanding anything in return. My whole life I felt like I was jumping from one jail right into another. This is maybe the first time in a long time I've felt free.”
She looked up at Rachel then, slid her fingers across the counter to find her daughter’s elbow.
“I’m just…” She smiled, a real smile this time, and for a fleeting moment that girl in the photograph was back. “I’m just so happy to have you here. Say, do you girls want to dance?”
She bounded over to her open laptop as Chloe and Rachel shared a look, eyebrows raised. Rachel shrugged and slid from the stool. “Don't you just love Spotify?” Sera called over, clicking the mouse. Her voice was lighter, airy, as though sharing her story had dislodged a weight within her. “Anne got me into it. I was still playing CDs until a few months ago. When I was your age, we still listened to vinyl and cassette tapes! I remember making mix tapes. I'd sit with my little cassette recorder by the radio, wait for the right song to come on and then quickly press play! It could take hours!” She stopped, shot a huge grin across the room. The change in her, the sudden shift. So Rachel. “I used to make them for your dad all the time. Now all that music is just”—Sera gestured towards the laptop screen—“here. You kids are so lucky.”
“Chloe still makes mix tapes,” Rachel said, giving Chloe a nudge. If she also noticed the switch in Sera, she didn’t show it. “Well, mix CDs.”
“Good for you, Chloe,” Sera said, the mouse wheel rattling as she scrolled down a list of tracks. “A bit more romantic than just sending a link to a playlist.”
Chloe nudged Rachel back. “Exactly!”
“Your dad still has my mix tapes,” Sera said. “But I don’t know if he still listens to them.” She stood, apparently satisfied. “Here we go.”
The first chords of an old Eurythmics song echoed from the speakers and Sera began to drift around the room, soda can dangling in her hand. The sun had long since set outside, but the blinds were still open so that all Chloe could see in the windows was the reflection of that room, the white, simple furnishings, and empty spaces. And Sera, lifting her chin to the ceiling, arms loose at her sides and hips swaying as she let the music flow over her, let it wash the years away until she was beautiful once more.
“I still love the old ones,” Sera said, reaching out her hand to beckon Rachel. “The ones from before heroin. They're the only ones I remember the words to now.”
Rachel took her mom’s hand, smiled as she allowed herself to be twirled around beneath Sera's arm.
“You know, when you were a baby you used to cry all the time,” Sera said with a soft chuckle above the music. “The first two months of your life, that's all you did. The only time you weren't crying was when I was standing up and holding you. I used to dance around the living room with you on my chest, we used to dance together, you and me. To this song. It would calm you down right away.” She reached out to take a lock of Rachel’s hair, let it fall between her fingers with a gentle smile. “You used to play with my hair.”
Chloe watched as Rachel took a step towards her mother and sink her forehead wordlessly onto her shoulder. Sera’s arms gripped tightly around her back, one hand stroking the back of her head. Something caught in Chloe’s chest, and she had no idea what that emotion was, just that it probably wasn’t hers to feel.
Several minutes later, she was alone on the balcony, half a cigarette bobbing between her lips, when she heard the thud, loud enough that it rattled through the glass, followed by Rachel’s cry. Chloe turned to see Sera already on the floor, Rachel sinking to her knees beside her as though in slow motion, hands raised to her mouth. At first, Chloe thought Sera was unconscious, but as she yanked open the balcony doors and ran over, Sera’s eyelids fluttered and she blinked hard, disorientated. She clutched at Rachel’s arm.
“What happened?” Chloe asked, kneeling on the floor as Rachel got an arm around Sera’s shoulders, pulled her up to sitting. “You okay?”
Sera’s hand found Rachel’s cheek, ghostly pale despite her tan. “I’ll be… fine,” she said, her voice brittle as she brushed a thumb up and across Rachel’s temple, not taking her eyes from her face. “But can you do me a favor, girls. Can you call Anne?”
Chloe made the call and Anne arrived soon after, the roar of the Mustang trumpeting her arrival moments before she burst through the door, white face and frenzied eyes. She ushered Sera into the bedroom, closed the door behind them.
Rachel said nothing, lowered herself onto the sofa, trapped her hands between her knees. Chloe sat down next to her and Rachel’s hand immediately reached for hers, grasping it tightly at the wrist. Chloe looked down Rachel's fingers, white at the knuckle, remembered that night in the Amber house and James earnestly spouting all those... lies? From the bedroom, it was possible to decipher hushed snatches of conversation through the thin plywood door: Something about James. Something about the ER. Anne eventually came out, rolling her eyes as she shut the door carefully behind her.
"Is she okay?" Rachel asked. Her fingers dug into Chloe's skin.
"Sure she is, honey.” Anne pointed to the front door. “I'm just gonna make some calls. Let her rest a while. Why don't you girls go grab us a pizza or something?" It wasn’t a request.
The moment they got out onto the street, the muggy LA night enveloping their faces, Chloe realized she’d left her cigarettes upstairs. She asked Rachel to wait—not that Rachel seemed to hear, she was staring listlessly up at the orchid flowers that peeped over the edge of the balcony—and sprang back inside and towards the stairs.
She heard Anne before Anne heard her. Even when Anne spoke quietly, she never really spoke… quietly.
"James, it's me." Chloe heard her say, her voice echoing down from the landing. She stopped at the bottom of the stairwell, one boot left hovering over the next step. The rest of the conversation she heard in snatches, in whispers and frustrated sighs, as Anne paced the landing above: It's happened again…. Yes, I know… Well, sure she saw it, they were here, her and Chloe. They were right here… A sigh. A groan. Last week. She had the appointment last week… Of course I did…. It was Anne’s voice, but not the one Chloe knew. There was fear in it. Well, why don't you ask Dr. Gillman, since you guys are such good buddies?... Okay, fine… I'm taking her to the ER to get her checked out…. Yes, I'll tell Rachel to call.
The apartment door clicked shut as Anne went back inside.
"You okay?" Rachel stepped in from the street.
"Yeah," Chloe said, turning quickly. She looped her fingers around Rachel's, leaned in to kiss her cheek. Her skin was cold and her hand shook in Chloe's, and Chloe so wanted to wrap her arms around her, to protect her from whatever it was she'd just heard, as though something dark and terrible waited for them at the top of those stairs, and if Chloe could just take Rachel away from that, could put her body between Rachel and that dark space and pull her away from whatever waited up there, maybe it would all be okay. Maybe it was okay. Maybe Chloe had heard nothing at all, dreamed the whole thing. She gripped Rachel's hand tighter, guided her back out onto the street. "Pepperoni and jalapeños, right?"
"Hot like me?" There was no humor in Rachel's voice, just the repetition of a line she'd used a hundred times before, every time Chloe teased her about her taste in pizza toppings. But it was the first time she'd said anything flirtatious since their argument after the pier.
Chloe squeezed her fingers. "Sure. Hot like you."
James insisted they travel back immediately, said he’d pay for both their flights. Chloe heard Rachel argue with him about it over the phone, but Sera and Anne seemed to agree so the tickets were booked.
The arrangements were hushed, made the next morning behind closed doors. Rachel tried to talk to Sera, to Anne, to James, his voice tinny on speakerphone, her finger twirling around her earring, faster, faster with every question ignored and rebuffed. Chloe watched the suppressed fear and rage build behind Rachel’s features, knew her well enough by now to know they had to get out.
They went back to the pier.
It was disappointing in daylight. Rachel said they should walk all the way to the end this time, so they could say goodbye to LA from the edge of the world. But when they got to the end of the pier, it wasn’t the end. Not the very end. Turned out the real edge of the world was down another flight of concrete steps and onto a small platform filled with overflowing trash cans. They headed down there anyway. A torn Funyuns packet caught the wind, glinted silver, and flew off across the ocean.
There wasn’t anything to say, so neither said anything. Rachel gripped the railing, rested her chin on her hands, eyes scanning the ocean. Chloe had always expected her to look at home here, but on that day she seemed even more out of place. The West Coast girl with the curious eyes, too perfect for this little life, this mundane place of candy canes, empty chip packets, and discarded burger wrappers. Maybe there was nowhere that Rachel belonged. Maybe that was always the problem.
Chloe followed her gaze, watched the distant cargo ships slink lazily over the horizon. Dissolve out of this space and into another, into a different universe entirely.
Behind them, the sound of footsteps clomping down the steps, voices that didn’t sound American. Maybe British? Chloe turned to see a family who must have been tourists; mom with her lobster pink speckled shoulders, dad with a camera slung around his neck, a couple of chubby, pale kids in Lakers jerseys.
“I don’t know,” the mom said, placing two hands on the railing. “Maybe I just expected more. I can't believe we've come half way around the world just to end up on Brighton pier.”
“Didn't Brighton pier burn down?” one kid asked.
“One of them did," his brother said. "There were two. The other one's okay.”
“Look, kids,” the dad said, pointing out across the ocean. “If you squint hard enough you might be able to see Japan.”
Chloe couldn’t help it, she tried to squint hard enough to see Japan.
The maybe-British family left, leaving them alone on the platform, and Rachel turned to give Chloe a small smile, hooked a fluttering lock of her hair behind an ear.
“It's beautiful, isn't it?” she said, looking back out over the ocean. “How vast it is? All that world out there just waiting to be seen. Don't you just want to see all of it?”
She leaned out over the railing as she said it, the way she’d done that night on the fishing boat. Let's sail away together. Back then it had sounded like a call to adventure. Now all Chloe saw was Rachel always staring at distant horizons. Always straining towards them, as if there were something worth getting to, and not just more ocean.
“Wouldn't it be so cool to have a superpower where you could see over the horizon?” Chloe asked, joining Rachel at the railing. “So you could see all the way around the globe, until you could see your own back.”
Rachel laughed and turned around, waved into the air at the steps behind them.
“What are you doing?”
“Waving at mega-vision you.”
“Kiss me at the edge of the world?”
The question punched through Chloe’s ribcage, grasped her limp heart, and squeezed new air into it. She blinked. “I thought you didn't want to kiss me anymore. You know. After the other night.”
Rachel stared up at her through unblinking eyes. “Don't be a dumbass. I always want to kiss you.” She rolled up onto her tip-toes and brushed Chloe's lips with her own. Not really a kiss, more a peck. But enough to leave behind the trace of her, the waxy sheen of lip gloss. Enough.
She flung an arm around Chloe’s shoulders and whipped up her phone to fit both their faces into the screen, the ocean rolling behind them. Kissed Chloe’s cheek as she snapped the picture.
“Cute,” Rachel said, looking down at the selfie. “Don’t you think?”
As Chloe stared down at the two of them, caught forever in the pixels of Rachel’s phone, all she could think about were the things that weren’t in that selfie, the things lost beyond the edges of the screen: The distant cargo ships, the trash cans, the birds looping high in the air, the chubby kids in their Lakers jerseys, already long gone up the pier. Everything that was there, but wasn’t. All those things left unseen and unsaid. The places left unvisited. Those things a photo could never capture, all lost beyond the horizon.
Chloe looked back over the ocean. Over there, towards Japan. Five-and-a-half-thousand miles around the curvature of the earth, bending, bending, taking it further away.
How big the world seemed then, and yet so small.
Just like Brighton, wherever that was.
Just like home.
They'd reached the edge of their photograph.
End of Part 1