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To the Lighthouse: Photograph

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Let’s take a photograph.

 


 

It’s like waking up from two dreams at once. In one, there is a lighthouse, in the other it is gone. So, when Chloe wakes to the sound of her own forehead clunking the top of the steering wheel, the first thing she does is curl her head up to check the rear-view, to see if the lighthouse is still there.  And for the briefest of moments, maybe it really has disappeared. Until she blinks, rubs her eyes, and, yes, there it is—safe on its cliff-top perch, still visible in the distance through a tunnel of trees. Weird. She doesn’t remember falling asleep.

Her head feels like Bongo’s old scratch post—shredded; the edges frayed and dangling. She rubs a wrist over her clammy forehead, sinks it back down onto the wheel with a groan.

From the dash, her crooning Mr. Bobblehead swims into focus, staring up at her with unblinking eyes, mocking her with his painted, plastic grin. “I feel like shit,” she tells him, words rasping at the back of her throat, dry as ash. “Do I look like shit?” She reaches over the wheel, flicks him with a thumb and middle finger, and his bulbous head nods furiously on its spring. “Thought so,” she says with a sniff. “Well, eat dick, little dude. Eat. Dick.”

The bobblehead says nothing, just watches on as Chloe pats down her pockets for cigarettes she forgot to bring. She shoots off a few muttered curses into the cab and picks among the piles of junk on the dash; swipes aside a crumpled soda can and a pair of sunglasses, brushes some parking tickets into the footwell. Eventually she finds a half-smoked cigarette nestling in a bed of used tissues—yep, that’ll do—and lights it with trembling hands. Fuck, she’d give anything right now for some decent bud. The high from that dry, seedy shit she’d smoked earlier hadn’t even been worth the lighter fluid, had slipped away hours ago, leaving nothing behind but the weed stink and a burning behind her eyeballs. “So,” she says to the bobblehead, paper filter dangling between her lips, “remind me why we’re at this shitpile again?”

Outside the truck, the Blackwell parking lot is still quiet. The last of the calm before classes finish for the day. Before the kids start crawling over the place, jumping in their pimped-up SUVs—windows down, sunglasses on—yelling their phony love yous as they shoot off down the hill into town. She should get moving but she’ll finish this smoke first. She still has time. He can wait.

She takes a drag, slinging her feet up onto the dash, and as the smoke gushes through her teeth and swirls up towards the tattered, yellow ceiling, she finds her gaze lingering beyond the tree line, high on the ridge above Arcadia Bay. Maybe it’s the hangover, or another jumbled memory tossing itself around in her skull, but the sky looks... weird. She closes her eyes, shakes her head, refocuses and... No, still there. Above the trees, the sky burns red—bubbling and distorting before fading outwards into black; like someone burned away the edges of a photograph.

Or started a fire.

Like the one they’d lit three years ago. The one that was only supposed to burn a single photo, not torch the whole fucking forest to the ground; burn one memory, not create a thousand more. The town still talks about the time the ash had fallen like snow, covering everything—cars, houses, sidewalks. How children had gathered it up, thrown it at each other, tried to make ash angels until their eyes had begun to sting and their parents had yelled at them to get inside. How the sky had been red for days.

Chloe holds her cigarette over Mr. Bobblehead, taps the end so the ash floats down over his head, his shoulders and down onto the dash. He doesn’t judge her, just keeps on singing his silent forever-song. She gently wipes the flakes away from his face with her thumb, remembers the glow of streetlights, ash caught in golden hair, a blue feather earring. The most beautiful smile in the world.

They’d never been caught. Everyone had blamed it on stupid kids, and they had been stupid kids back then, hadn’t they? Not that it matters. It’s all in the past now, like everything that came before it and everything that’s happened since. Maybe that’s where Rachel is right now, up there in the forest, starting wildfires. Maybe later, Chloe will go and check.

Her phone belches in her pocket and spews out a violent puking sound, like someone hurling into a sink: Her message tone for people she doesn’t want to hear from, which these days, is almost everyone. Everyone apart from... She had to change it. To avoid that familiar, useless flutter inside every time her phone beeped. To muzzle the inevitable disappointment. In her fragile state the sound is way too raw, and she winces at the muffled splatter of electronic vomit, yanks the phone out.

I see you Price. Stop daydreaming and get over here.

Chloe groans, sliding her boots from the dash. “Let me guess,” she asks the bobblehead, “he’s gonna give me shit about that cash I owe him?” She flicks the little guy once more, and he nods. “Awesome.”  She takes the last couple of drags of the cigarette, grasps at the door handle and flops out into the Blackwell parking lot, kicking the door shut behind her.

The air is warm, too warm for this late in the year. Her pants stick hot and tight to her thighs, sweat prickles the back of her neck. Was it cooler earlier? Not that she mixes up her wardrobe too much anyway, she’s been wearing the same clothes for close to a week. From somewhere to the west comes the dull rattle of a freight train; a reminder that, for some, Arcadia Bay is only ever a place to pass through. Not everyone gets stuck here. Not like her. Not like Frank.

His filthy RV is parked in its usual spot, taking up two bays with its rusted bulk, blue trim long-lost to grime. She’s amazed the thing still runs. Since Frank made that deal with the cops, he’s been so blatant, parking up and doing business wherever he likes. They’ll stop him one day, but right now he seems well past caring, rolls on up and lets the kiddies get in line like they’re buying candy.

Chloe traipses over and thumps the door with the side of her fist. “Yo, it’s me.”

Inside, a dog barks and a heavy voice fills the RV. “Pompidou, pipe down! Pipe down, I said!” A whine, a struggle, followed by an internal door slamming and heavy footsteps. A rough sigh: “Price? Get in here.”

She lets herself in and—holy shit—the smell hits her like a bat to the face: rotting garbage, stale weed smoke, the overpowering stench of wet dog. All of it tinged with something sweet and sticky, the residue of Frank’s latest chemical mystery. He’s getting worse. Chloe’s too hungover for the assault on her senses, holds her sleeve up to her nose. It doesn’t smell much better.

The windows are all covered over with cardboard, allowing in chinks of spidery, late afternoon sunlight that ripple over the dust, the garbage, the piles of shit in this place. Frank sits in the gloom, absently drumming a packet of cigarettes on the table, bars of light and shadow masking his face like a cage.

Chloe closes the door behind her. “S’up, Frank.”

He nods in reply, grunting a short, guttural sound that Chloe takes as a greeting. It’s the best she’ll get. His eyes are sunken and red, his cheeks hollow. Even by Frank’s low standards he looks like ass. She almost feels bad for the guy. Almost.

“You okay, man? Did someone die or something? Like, in here? Because seriously, dude, it reeks.”

Frank ignores her, the packet of smokes turning slow circles in his hand. He leans forward and speaks at last, voice thick, “Your boy wonder flew by.”

“My boy what?” Her brain catches up. “Oh.”

“Yeah, ‘bout 10 minutes ago. Picked up a couple sheets.”

Chloe groans. “Shit, so he’ll be tripping?”

“Not if you’re quick.”

“How did he seem?” Chloe asks, leaning against the kitchenette counter. Her jacket affixes to something with a tiny squelch. She shudders and tugs it away.

“Same as always. Fidgety. Like the little prick’s tweaking.” Frank takes a cigarette from the pack and lights it, sitting back and unfolding his face into a smile, the kind of smile Chloe wants to punch. “I take it you’re not gonna fuck up your master plan this time?” he asks.

She scowls at him. “Second time’s a charm, right, Frank? This time it’s foolproof.”

“Uh-huh? Just as well.” He sighs and hauls himself to his feet, stumbling as he pushes past her to get down the short corridor. He throws open the door onto his filthy bedroom and Chloe can just make out Pompidou, barely visible in the half-light and eyeing her suspiciously from the unmade bed. Even Pompidou looks at her suspiciously these days. She used to love that dog—ungrateful mutt. Frank rummages under a pillow as Chloe looks on in disgust. He must be paying good money to any woman who agrees to be tossed about in those rank sheets. Pompidou seems to sense what she’s thinking, gives her a final knowing glance before he lifts his hind leg and licks his balls.

Frank staggers back, holding something out in front of him. “You want this?” he asks.

It’s a flick knife, bent in two and sitting in the center of his huge palm. His hand is calloused with grimy fingernails and is one of the few things that still gives away his raw strength: huge hands, thick wrists; wide, furry forearms. Chloe has felt that strength before, his huge hand curled around her wrist—the heat of it, the twitch of it, the burn flooding up her arm. She has felt that angry, untamed power over her, and the fear still catches like a fish-bone in her chest.

“Nah, I’m good, dude. I’m not going to fucking stab the guy.” And she wouldn’t, not really. She’s many things, but she’s not violent.

“Suit yourself,” he says and pockets the knife, pushing past her again to get back to his seat. As he lowers himself, the sound of vomiting erupts from Chloe’s back pocket and Frank hovers for a moment, shoots her a what-the-fuck look. She shrugs at him and pulls out her phone, rolls her eyes when she sees the sender.

“Right, dude, it’s been real, but I gotta blow.” She pockets the phone, hesitates. “Um...” She may as well ask, always worth a shot. “Listen, do you have anything? You know, to take the edge off?”

He plops his spent cigarette into a soda can, and it emits a tiny hiss. “Do you have my three grand?”

Chloe glares at him but she’s not surprised, because why would she be? Guy’s an asshole. “Dude, if I pull this off, we’ll both have hella cash.”

“Yeah? So you can buy your weed from me then.”

“I work better when I’m chill.” Chloe holds out her hands in front of her. She doesn’t even have to fake it, they’re visibly shaking. “Seriously, man, look at me.”

He sits back, spreading his arms along the back of the seat. “Looks to me like a break from that stuff would do you good.”

Her teeth clench, her jaw twitches. Typical of Frank to play fucking games when this shit is for his benefit too. She slaps her palms down on the table in front of him. “Well, if I go in there and fuck up and it all turns to shit, then we’ll both know who’s to blame!”

Frank's eyes crease and his face rearranges itself into a half-smile. Cracked, like broken bone. “Yeah,” he says. “You.”

“Fuck you, Frank.”

“Just go and get my money.”

She growls and opens the door. The sunlight and fresh fall air burst in like uninvited guests.

“Oh, and Price!”

She stops short at his words, hovers in the doorway, one foot still inside, the other hanging in space. “Yeah?”

“Move your fucking truck. It makes you look like an asshole.”

Chloe hops down from the RV. Her old pickup sits across the lot, casually slung across two disabled bays. She doesn’t even remember parking it there. “But I am an asshole, Frank.” She flashes him a raw smile. “It’s the nicest thing about me.”

And with that she closes the door on him, heads off towards the school, and her second meeting in a week with Nathan Prescott.

 


 

Blackwell Academy looms up ahead as Chloe takes the steps from the parking lot two at a time. God, she hates this place. When Rachel comes back, they’re going to burn it to ash, but for now it’s still here, towering from the hillside like some despotic, red-brick dildo.

She reaches the top of the steps and passes the bulletin board outside the pool building. A crumpled sheet of paper lies on the ground nearby and she stoops to pick it up. It’s a missing person poster, a picture of a girl.

Rachel.

Five months, two weeks and a day. That’s how long she’s been gone. 19 years-old. 5’5”. 110lbs. Dragon tattoo on right calf. Just facts. Just numbers.

Chloe strokes her thumb across the grainy black-and-white photograph, over a face, over an image, so achingly familiar—every last detail of it—she could draw a perfect likeness from memory: Rachel’s half-smile, her feline eyes, the stray wisp of hair falling across her forehead. It looks like her, but it’s not her. Not really. There’s no color in it, no life. Her blue feather earring is a faded gray, her hazel-green eyes are black and barren; her hair, without all its texture, its caramel and gold—drab, monotone. It’s not her.

There is dirt on the poster’s edge, tracks from a shoe print. Chloe rubs at the stain, presses the poster out flat against her chest, and sticks it back up, right over a flyer for a Bible study group and an anti-bullying notice. Like anyone here reads that shit, anyway. Four identical missing posters already flutter from the board, Rachel’s neutral expression staring from each of them. One has been defaced, a scrawled picture of a dick points towards Rachel’s mouth, cartoon cum splats decorate her cheeks, her eyes, her hair. Chloe claws at the offending poster, ripping her fingernails deep into it and tears it down, scrunching it into her pocket. Assholes.

Chloe knows these posters well. Knows them because she made them, with care and time and a free graphics program; with the public library scanner and a Xerox that's always whirring. She designed them, printed them, hung them here on this board and she’s been plastering the whole goddamn town with them for months. It hasn’t done any good, they haven’t found Rachel. There were a few dead-end leads in the beginning, a few crank calls, but solving the mystery of Rachel’s disappearance was never Chloe’s only reason for making the posters. She had made a promise that Arcadia Bay would never forget Rachel Amber. Even if she has to coat every motherfucking surface in town with Rachel’s image, it’s a promise she intends to keep.

Her pocket retches: U wanna meet or not??? Im waiting bitch. Girls bathroom. Now.

She stuffs the phone back into her pants. Sighs. How can anyone need so few words to sound like such an assclown? She leaves Rachel and the bulletin board behind, more hurried as she stalks across the courtyard where cliques of students are collecting in groups, waiting for buses, waiting for friends, waiting for hookups, waiting for... What are they waiting for? As a student here, Chloe had never stuck around longer than she had to. Even in Arcadia Bay there was always somewhere better to be than Blackwell.

Her presence goes unnoticed as she passes by, head down, hands stuffed in pockets. Some final-year students might recognize her, but to almost every other kid in this place she’s just the scary, blue-haired punk that puts up Rachel Amber posters. Is that all she is now? The last few people who remember her name, who remember the actual person, will all leave, and all she’ll ever be is the crazy poster girl. Like the old, toothless lady down by the beach who spends every day pushing a shopping cart full of grubby baby dolls up and down the boardwalk. Everyone knows the doll lady. No one ever speaks to her. Except for Rachel. Rachel did. She’d stopped the woman once by the bus stop, flashed her easy smile, had asked what the dolls were called. That’s just who she was. Who she is. Maybe she genuinely cared, or she’s attracted to freaks. Either way, doll lady had beamed this huge toothless grin and told her the story of each one. Until the bus had arrived, and they’d had to make their apologies and leave. Eleanor, that was the doll lady’s name. Chloe is probably the only person left in Arcadia Bay that remembers that. She and Eleanor should hang out.

At last, she reaches the main entrance, hauls open the heavy doors and is thrust into the menagerie of the hallway. All around the clang of locker doors, the hum of voices, bodies everywhere—yelling, pushing, preening, bumping, jostling—the tang of teenage sweat. The rank stench of entitlement clogs Chloe’s lungs, congeals in the corridors, clings to these kids who worry about nothing except grades and prom dates and acne. They don’t even glance at the posters of Rachel that pepper the walls here too, just another subject for their gossip. Two geeky-looking guys stand in the middle of the hall, locked in conversation, scrolling through the images on a digital camera. They don’t mean to be in Chloe’s way, but they are. She jostles one hard with her shoulder as she passes: “Get out of the fucking way, jerkwad!” The camera flies from his hands, crashes to the ground, and the boy stumbles backwards, too surprised for a retort.

The girls’ bathroom is up ahead with a handwritten ‘CLOSED FOR CLEANING’ notice stuck to the door. Prescott must have put it there. Rachel once tried the same trick to get exclusive use of the dorm shower block. It didn’t work. Of course, some illiterate dickhead came in anyway; at the best, worst moment. That had been... fun. The memory relaxes Chloe, and she readies herself to go inside. What is it Frank always tells her? Be the bad guy. Even when you’re shitting bricks, always be the bad guy. With the dealer’s eminent words of wisdom echoing in her ears, Chloe opens the door.

 


 

Nathan Prescott stands hunched over a sink, knuckles curled over the white porcelain. He is talking to himself, so deep in conversation with the mirror he barely even notices as Chloe comes in. She shudders at the sight of him—his wiry little body, his pale, tiny hands—as memories of the last time they were together gurgle to the surface. As usual, he’s wearing that creepy varsity jacket, the one Rachel gave him, the one he never takes off.

“So, what do you want?” he asks, barking the question at Chloe’s reflection.

Be the bad guy.

Chloe’s eyes flit over the room. “I hope you checked the perimeter, as my step-ass would say.” She clangs open each of the stall doors to make sure they’re alone; the stench of disinfectant, some unimaginative graffiti, but no one there.

As she reaches the end of the row of stalls, a flash of electric blue catches the corner of her eye and her heart jolts. A feather, a blue feather earring left by the sink. She peers closer. No, not a feather. Not an earring. Not her. But a butterfly, perched on the rim, strands of sunlight glinting off its wings. Glowing. It seems so out of place, yet it’s so beautiful, that Chloe catches herself, just for a moment, before wheeling back to Nathan: “Now, let’s talk business.”

“I got nothing for you,” he says, his watery eyes shining in the glass.

“Wrong. You got hella cash.”

“That’s my family, not me,” he says, knuckles twitching on the edge of the sink.

Be the bad guy.

Chloe comes up behind him, leans her face close to his, so close that his expensive yet sickly cologne stings her nostrils. But his gaze remains glued to the mirror. She stares back at both of them in the glass, sees herself—lip curled, a glint of incisors. Just like she practiced. “Oh, boo hoo, poor little rich kid,” she hisses into his ear. “I know you been pumping drugs and shit to kids around here. I bet your respectable family would help me out if I went to them.”

He’s trying hard to hold himself steady, but she can hear his voice start to un-stitch itself, unravel, thread by thread, “Leave them out of this, bitch.”

Be the fucking bad guy.

“Yeah? Well, I can tell everybody Nathan Prescott is a punk ass who begs like a little girl and talks to himself!” She shoves his shoulder, once, twice. Tries to dislodge him from that damn sink.

He whips around, grabs at his jacket, and is looking her in the eyes at last. Straight at her. Straight down the barrel of a .9mm pistol.

A rush of air, cool and sharp, pierces the sludge in Chloe’s hungover brain. Like throwing open the front door on a frosty morning. Her hands fly up on instinct. What the?

“You don’t know who the fuck I am or who you’re messing around with!” Nathan yells, eyes ablaze, the gun held high and steady.

Thoughts tear through Chloe’s head like shards of ice. What the fuck is this? What is he doing? Prescott’s been known to pull shit in the past, but on a scale of one to psycho, this stunt ranks highly even for him. “Where did you get that?” she snarls.

He takes two steps closer. His face is hazy beyond the barrel, his labored breath escaping in spurts—the only sound in the room but for the thumping in Chloe’s chest. She doesn’t know if she should be scared or laugh in his face. As if the prick has the actual balls to shoot her. He’s just a fucking pussy with a God complex.

Her ass pushes up against something hard and she realizes she’s been moving backwards, is now pressed into the wall. There’s nowhere else for her to go, nowhere to escape to. The door is too far to reach. He steps closer.

“What are you doing?” Her voice is too high, too breathless, and she tries to catch it behind her teeth. He is right upon her now, the gun inches from her face. She flicks her eyes away, avoiding looking at it, at that angry, dark hole with its promise of oblivion. Instead looks at him, his ashen features taut and twisted, top lip bared and jittering, a flash of white teeth. Still he moves closer.

His hand begins to tremble, his finger twitches on the trigger. Is he high? Is he high on that shit he bought from Frank? No. Too soon. Too soon to be tripping on that. Something else? She forces herself to look into his eyes. His pupils are huge, like glistening black marbles in his skull. There is death in them. And the words crystallize like icicles in her brain: He’s gonna kill you.

“C’mon, dude...” She pushes herself up onto the balls of her feet, slides up the wall. Her jacket rides up and the chill of cold tiles stings the sweat on her back. He’s gonna kill you. The wall doesn’t yield yet he keeps on coming. Closer, closer. The gun lowered, the tip pressed up hard and cold against her, digging painfully into her stomach. That heavy chill penetrating through her skin; icy cords curling up through her chest, wrapping themselves around her lungs, pulling, squeezing, tighter, tighter. Makes it so damn hard to breathe.

From outside the door comes the jumbled murmur of voices in the hallway, life going on in the background. Now, now would be a really good time for someone to ignore that sign, a really good time for some dickhead to walk in anyway. Come in, she pleads silently. Please, come in. Please, someone, come in.

“Come on, put that thing down!” she tries to order him, but her throat is so tight the words barely push their way out. Her hand finds his jacket, palm wet and slick as she grips the leather, and tries to push the gun away, but his arm holds firm. She can’t reach the door, she can’t cry for help. She can’t breathe. She can’t fucking breathe. There is no escape. She is trapped.

“Don’t ever tell me what to do!” he yells, his face inches from hers, so close she can see his stubble as it breaks the skin on his cheeks, the sweat ooze down the side of his nose. His breath flows over her, hot and sour. “I’m so sick of people trying to control me!”

Oh God, the thought comes to her, tears stinging her eyes, is it gonna hurt? Is this gonna hurt?

Deep in Chloe’s head there starts a distant hum, not just a sound, but a feeling, like hundreds of spidery tentacles rising up through the base of her neck. Into her skull they slither and probe, spreading through her brain, coiling around her temples. The hum grows louder and louder until it fills her whole head with white noise, like static on TV. And the louder it gets, the lighter her head feels, so that her mind starts to float, leaves her shoulders, is drifting away. The tentacles grip. They pull.

Backwards.

“Nobody would ever even miss your punk ass, would they?” Nathan’s voice breaks over the waves of her consciousness. Not just one voice, but multiple cries, all clamoring over each other to be heard: The voices of a hundred Nathans, a thousand. Echoes calling from the far distance, bursting to the surface, popping then fading away.

A bang. A gunshot. Almost lost to time. Not a sharp crack but a soft thud, like a bag of flour hitting a tiled floor, the paper bursts, the flour explodes in a cloud of white.

The corners of Chloe’s vision fade, burn inwards; from white to yellow, to red, to black. She is somewhere else, someone else, and the fear begins to leave her, flow out of her and float away along thousands of silvery threads that run from her chest; twisting, interlacing, entwining, up, up, towards a bright blue butterfly wheeling and pirouetting through the air by the window, the sunlight dancing on its flapping wings.

“Nobody would ever miss your punk ass, would they?” Nathan’s voice. Again. Like Chloe is listening underwater, like she can hear him once more, drifting back to her from another time, another place. The butterfly is gone. All she can make out are Nathan’s eyes, burning and feral, so close to her own that she’s sure she can see her pupils mirrored in his, and his back into hers, reflecting ever inwards, on and on for eternity.  And still the edges of her vision ripple, distort, bubble and then, like that, she sees him.

They have been here before.

In this moment.

Or another.

 


 

It is dark. Somewhere else. All she can make out is Nathan’s face, waxy and pallid in the pale light, tiny beads of sweat clinging to the soft hair around his temples.  She is lying down—they are lying down—but she can’t move. He is so close to her, breathing into her—short, rasping breaths. His narrow eyes gleam manically, tiny embers flickering; the only light in his internal darkness. There is fear in them, so much fear. It is the present, it is a memory, it is all she can see.

 


 

Somewhere, an alarm sounds.

Chloe feels arms clasping her shoulders, hauling her upwards towards the light. And like a drowning man coming up for air, she breaks the surface. Gasps. She’s back here again, all of her. The bathroom. Nathan. A gun. Trapped.

Not trapped.

“What the—?” Nathan’s attention is taken by the sudden, piercing sound and Chloe shoves him backwards, bringing her knee up hard into his crotch. He falls to the floor with a groan and she runs, doesn’t look back, runs the fuck out of there as fast as she can.

The hallway is empty now. The shriek of the alarm interrupted only by the squeak of Chloe’s boots as she skids around the corner towards the far exit. She bursts through the double-doors and heads right, scurrying across the gravel and through the flower beds at the back of the pool building. Chest burning, she darts around the next corner and stops, leaning back around the wall to check if he’s following. The alarm fills the campus and the few students still milling around shuffle away to their fire drill points. Nathan is nowhere to be seen. Chloe creeps further through the beds, keeping close to the wall, the fingers of her left hand trailing along the rough, red brick. At last she comes out behind the parking lot. There’s her truck, there’s her escape. Time to blow this shit stand...

“Price!” Frank’s voice booms from the door of his RV.

... fuck.

 


 

A glossy, naked breast stares up at Chloe from the table top.  She runs an idle finger through a pile of magazines and papers while Frank digs around in the cupboards behind her. A cigarette end, sucked down to the filter, twitches in her hand, and she clutches her wrist to stop it shaking. What does Frank have here to distract her? Tits and ass. More tits and ass. Envelopes with yellowed, torn edges. A home-made flyer for a meet-up out in Portland. Girls wrapped in vinyl, draped over choppers with headlines like Back in the Saddle Again. Thick-set old bikers in vests and adorned with tattoos, showing off their ‘suped up cruisers’. They remind her of Frank at the repair shop, sitting astride an old bike the two of them had fixed up. He was smiling, bouncing up and down on the saddle to test the suspension.

“You’re such a fucking cliché, Frank!” she had laughed at him.

“I’m a cliché with a fucking Harley! What color should we spray it?”

“Pink with gold sparkles. Like your soul.”

He flipped her off. “Yeah? Fuck you, Price!”

Had they been friends back then? It seems like a thousand years ago, the chopper long since sold to repay debts.

A familiar corner of paper juts from the bottom of the pile, and Chloe slides it out. Another of Rachel’s posters. The ghost between them. He misses her too, she knows that.

A grubby glass tumbler clunks down onto the table, right over Rachel’s grainy photo. Chloe lifts her head to see Frank looming above her, thick hands unscrewing the lid from a fifth of cheap whiskey. He pours out a large measure and Chloe watches the liquor spill out into the glass, distorting Rachel’s face as it swills and settles, coating her in honey and treacle... in amber. Color at last.

Are Chloe and Frank still friends now? Does she even know what a friend is? It’s been so long since she had one and maybe that’s a good thing, they all fuck off anyway. Ducks at the funfair, knocked out of her life, shot down one by one: Pop, pop, pop. Rachel, Max, Steph, Tony. They all go. They all leave. All except Chloe... And Frank. Her whole life she’s lived in this shithole, nineteen years, and the closest thing she has to a friend is this man, this dealer, this addict—almost twice her age, with his trap house on wheels and his shit-eating grin. She downs the shot.

Frank leans back against the counter, arms folded, an unpleasant smile hanging on his face. “You know what, Price? Every day I ask myself the same question: How the fuck are you still alive?”

No, not friends. Chloe closes her eyes, rubs the bridge of her nose. “Not now, dude.”

“Seriously! If an atomic fucking bomb landed on this town tomorrow, there’d be nothing left afterwards apart from cockroaches”—he points at her, still that smile—”and you.”

Yeah, and him. “I dunno, Frank,” she says. “Don’t put yourself down.” She gives him a dirty look as he dumps himself down in the seat next to her, shoving her over with his thigh. There’s nowhere to sit in this dump, not since he ripped out the seats opposite to make room for his goddamn dog. He grunts a laugh and cracks open the bottle again, reaching across Chloe to refill her glass. She winces, tries to shuffle away. Dude stinks like piss. “Do you have anything stronger?” she asks.

The whiskey splashes into Frank’s own glass, the bottleneck clinking against the lip as he tries to keep it steady. “Not for you, sunshine,” he says. “Maybe if your head had been a little clearer in the first place, you wouldn’t have fucked up your ‘foolproof’ plan.”

Chloe grips her glass, stares down at the copper liquid. She’s not going to beg the bastard but, holy shit, she needs to get high. The whiskey will have to do. She downs her second shot, and the warm weight of it flows through her, creeps down her legs, into her toes. Still not enough. “Yeah, well,” she says. “How was I supposed to know he was compensating with a fucking .9mm stuffed down his pants?“

“I told you to take the knife.”

“Dude, you know I can’t afford to get caught with a knife on campus. I shouldn’t even be here with you.”

Frank sighs and looks down at Rachel’s poster. His face softens and Chloe catches that douchey expression, the one he always gets when he looks at Rachel. “You still wasting your time putting up these posters?” he asks, sliding it off the table. Rachel’s face disappears into his hands.

 “You still collecting them?”

He flicks her a look but lets the words slide. “It won’t do any good, you know,” he says. “Just makes you look obsessed.” He bends down, puts the poster in a box underneath the table. Slides it in, like its something delicate. “You gotta let go. You’re getting distracted. She always distracted you.

Chloe watches him push the box back under the table with his foot, wonders how anyone can be such a fucking hypocrite. “So now I’m the one that’s distracted? Don’t lay this all on me, Frank. Last week was your fault.”

“My fault?”

“Yeah, your fault. You sold Nathan that fucking G!”

He rolls his eyes, like this is a conversation he doesn’t want to be having again. “I told you, I watered it down.”

“Yeah? So how come I ended up sucking carpet pile on his dirty-ass floor?”

She reaches out for the whiskey bottle but Frank snatches it away. “Probably because of this,” he says, waving it in her face.

She grabs it back from him. “I’m not that fucking stupid. One beer, that’s all I had... maximum two.”

Frank cuts her off with a laugh that never escapes his throat. “It’s never just one, though, is it, Price?”

“Dude, that asshole drugged me!” Chloe gives him a hard shove, the heel of her palm slamming into the rock of his shoulder. He doesn’t flinch. “With shit that you sold him.” She pours out the whiskey, pissed at how much her hands are shaking. “But that’s okay, right, because you ‘watered it down’? Why the fuck didn’t you call me and warn me, man? You knew I was with him.” Frank says nothing, just looks down at the tabletop, swipes a knuckle back and forth across his pale forehead. Chloe narrows her eyes at him. “It’s because you didn’t want him to catch you tipping me off, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Fuck, Frank! You let him fucking drug me? With a fucking rape drug?”

“It’s not a rape drug. He told me he was using it to sleep.”

“Yeah? That’s why you diluted it, huh? Just in case?” She bashes the whiskey bottle down on the table top. The glasses shake. “You sell that shit to guys like Prescott, it’s a fucking rape drug. You knew exactly what he was doing with it. With me.”

He lifts his eyes to her, and a look of what she could almost mistake for concern shadows his face. “He rape you?”

Did Nathan rape her? An icy chill diffuses through her body, her fingers tighten around the bottleneck. Did he? There’s so little she remembers about that night: The oppressive gloom of Nathan’s dorm room, lamplight shining through the green glass of empty beer bottles, casting emerald shadows across his desk. That creepy-ass video projected onto the wall, girls in black and white, hair covering their faces; lithe, silver limbs... Then darkness. Darkness until Chloe had found herself running from that room as fast as she could, filled with a fear of something she couldn’t place. Like something terrible had happened there, something crouched on the edge of her consciousness, ready to pounce; as if she turned her head she could see it, but each time she does it gets further away. All she can see is a light. A blinding flash of light. Without her truck, she had half limped, half jogged home through dark, silent streets. Locked herself in the bathroom and unzipped her pants. Checked herself, checked for him. Nothing. Not that. Something, but not that.

She shakes her head at Frank. “No, I woke up in time... but that’s not the point.” She starts to pour another drink.

“Yes, it is. It’s exactly the point.” He yanks the bottle from her hand. “That shit I sold him wouldn’t have knocked out a fucking canary. Face it, you fucked up, Price. Because you couldn’t stay sober. You should be thanking me!” He jabs a finger in her face, and she turns away with a grimace. “I’m the one who had that little prick banging on my door at 9 am the next morning, accusing me of selling him water, threatening me with the police, acting all crazy. He’s my best fucking customer. Like I need that shit.”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Your goddamn profits! Well, I’m so sorry you were inconvenienced, man. That must have been real fucking hard for you.” She tries to get up, but he’s blocking her in, and there’s no fucking way she’s climbing over his lap. She hauls herself up to standing on the seat, bumps her head against the overhanging lockers. “Ow!”

Frank stares up at her. “What are you doing?”

She leaps over him, clattering onto the floor of the RV and clawing at the counter to stop herself falling. “I’m going home, Frank,” she says, blowing a stray lock of hair out of her eye. “I nearly got fucking shot just now, okay? I can’t take this shit from you too.”

“Fine. What about my money?”

Chloe throws her head back, top lip curling. “Really, dude? You want to talk about this now?”

“Yeah, yeah I do. I’m guessing you’re not up for round three with Patrick Bateman out there, so where you gonna get it from?”

“I dunno, man. I need to think of something.”

“Well, you better think fast! You told me you’d get it back to me within a week. Well, guess what? It’s been a week.”

“I told you, I’ll think of something.”

“Uh-huh, like you thought about it before?” His voice rises as he attempts to mimic her: “'I have a great plan! I can double your money. I just need to get into Prescott’s room'. Like you were gonna try to seduce him or something?” His eyes crease, his voice creaking into a laugh. “Seriously, look at yourself, Price. Arcadia Bay’s least likely honey trap! You couldn’t even seduce your own right hand.”

Chloe glares at him, grabs his whiskey glass and throws the contents down her throat, her eyes fixed on his. Anger swills inside her, tumbling over with the whiskey in fiery waves. “Actually, I’m left-handed,” she says, slamming the glass back down on the table. And then she grins, her best go-fuck-yourself grin as she brings up her left hand to her nose, sniffs her fingers. “And it always worked on Rachel.” It’s a red rag to a bull, but she doesn’t give a shit. Fuck him and his money. Frank’s eyes darken and he rises from his seat, balled fists on the table. “I’m sorry, dude,” Chloe teases, wanting to see how far she can push him, daring him with her eyes. “I’m sorry I got to fuck her, and you didn’t. I know that must be hard for you.”

“I need that money.” His voice is low, threatening. “I’m meeting my wholesaler at the end of this week and I owe him. I don’t give a rat’s ass where you get it from. Go shake down someone’s grandma for all I care. We both know you’re capable of it. Just get it to me.”

“Wholesaler? Fuck that, Frank.” Chloe picks up an old pen casing from the counter, the ink removed, the inside coated in dark, smoky residue. She waves it at him. “We both know what you’re spending it on. Well, I’m hella sorry my inadequacies have cut into your fucking habit!” Too far. His eyes narrow and he goes to take a step towards her. Chloe fumbles for the door handle behind her.

“Get the fuck out of my RV!”

She gets the door open, jumps out backwards, stumbles, catches herself on the doorframe. “Already gone, dude.”

He slams the door in her face.

 


 

Chloe stumbles to her truck, gets in and thumps her palm hard against the steering wheel, enjoying the momentary pain of it before it fades. She needs to think, she needs to get high, she needs a drink. Another drink. She busts open the glove box, scrabbles around among the detritus inside and pulls out a vodka mini, miraculously still full. She twists the lid, snapping the seal with a crack and downs the contents in one glorious, burning gulp.

Borrowing thousands of dollars from Frank isn’t the first big mistake that Chloe has ever made, but it is the latest. In hindsight, she’s surprised he even agreed to it, but he had been high at the time with eyelids drooping and a goofy smile. Flush after his weekend’s takings, he would have agreed to anything. He had fumbled around for the cash in his bedroom, let her count it, stuffed it clumsily into a reused envelope.

“Double my money, right?” he’d asked.

“Double it,” she’d assured him.

Even stoned out of his skull he had eyed her uneasily, like he didn’t quite believe her. She couldn’t really blame him.

She rolls down the window and tosses out the empty vodka bottle. It hits the asphalt with an unsatisfying clink and rolls away towards the curb. She sighs, resisting the temptation to get out and smash it against the wall.

The murmur of faraway voices drifts over from across the lot, and Chloe looks over to see a couple of kids she doesn’t know, a boy and a girl, chatting next to an old 1978 Plymouth Horizon. Wow, she hasn’t seen one of those in a while. She mentally pats herself on the back for the auto nerd-out. She may not recognize many of the kids around here, but she can always name a car. The boy is leaning back against the hood, the toe of one sneaker pressed up to the grill as he runs a nervous hand through his floppy hair. Chloe vaguely recognizes him from somewhere, probably shared a class with him years ago, but she doesn’t care enough to concentrate on it. There’s a grin on his face, one of those made-for-momma’s-photo grins, about as flimsy as a prom queen’s virginity. Poor kid’s shitting himself. And no wonder, the skinny chick would clearly rather be somewhere else, eyes cast down, playing with the sleeve of a gray marl hoodie. Her face is turned away from Chloe, but... No, it can’t be. That choppy dark hair, the hunched, diminutive frame. It looks like... Kelly? Shit, yeah. She really looks like Kelly.

The boy’s voice rises as he tries to play it cool, “Speaking of hip and fast, we should cruise out in my car to an actual movie this week.” Oh, dude... Chloe’s hand is on the ignition key, ready to turn, when a shadow scurries past in the rear-view mirror.

“Hey, you!” That all-too-familiar voice, shrieking like a train whistle, and then she catches sight of him in the glass: Nathan. She throws herself down into the footwell, cursing through clenched teeth. For several panicked seconds she hides there, hunkered down, breath held, waiting for the thumping on the window. It doesn’t come. Shouts echo in from outside and Chloe slides back onto the seat, lifts her head just high enough to peek out into the lot.

Nathan is yelling at the two kids, his sickly frame pulled up to its full height and backing the girl against the hood of the Plymouth. His hands are all up in the girl’s face but there is no gun in them. Not this time. Chloe’s own hand trembles on the ignition key as she fumbles to turn it. She needs to get out of here before he sees her. No way is she drawing attention to herself again. No way. The key jams, won’t turn, shit, shit, shit.

From over her shoulder comes a shout, a cry, the crunch of bone on bone. She risks a glance, sees the boy with the floppy hair writhing on the ground, hands clutching his nose. Nathan stands over him, shoulders curled, fists twitching. Come on, come on, come on, she pleads with the ignition key, half an eye still on Nathan, making sure his unwanted attention is still elsewhere.

“Leave him alone!” The girl’s voice this time, her tiny arms on Nathan’s back. Chloe watches as he rounds on the kid, grabs her by the neck. God, she looks like Kelly. Chloe has been here before, watching Nathan’s fists curl around Kelly’s throat, saw him scream in her face as a tearful Rachel clung to his arm, tried to pull him away. It’s not Kelly—it can’t be—not this time, but Chloe still feels her grip tighten on the steering wheel, a sharp intake of breath through her nose. Who the fuck does this asshole think he is? The key turns at last, and the engine grunts and splutters into life. She yanks the truck into gear, stamps down hard on the gas, her stomach clenching at the memory of Nathan’s gun, the cold weight of it digging into her, the invasion of his body bearing down against hers. She imagines that body now spread like jelly across her grill and... that image really doesn’t suck. She is just about to kick down harder on the gas, not knowing whether she intends to hit him or just scare the shit out of him, when Nathan pulls the girl around and throws her in front of oncoming Ford.

“Fuck!” Chloe slams on the brakes and the tires screech on the blacktop. She screws up her eyes for the inevitable jolt of soft flesh below her wheels.

Nothing.

The truck judders to a halt. Chloe dares her eyes open and peers out over the dash. There is a clunk of metal as a small hand reaches up over the hood. Arm follows hand, another hand, another arm, a head of choppy dark hair, and then... a face. Peeking up at her through the windshield. A face from a different place, a different time. A face Chloe was sure she would never see again.

“Max?”

 

Chapter Text

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.

 

 

Chapter Text

Fall 2008 – Fall 2009
(Five years before…)

Chloe doesn’t remember the first time she saw Rachel. She remembers that night at The Mill, of course she does. But that wasn’t the first time she saw her. Not even close. The truth is, when it comes to the story that consumed every part of her life for three years, she doesn’t even remember the start.

But memories don’t tell stories; they are shredded images, sensations—jumbled up, turned upside-down, the pieces glued back together but never the same. A laugh in the dark, love-drunk, dripping honey. The scent of jasmine on shower-damp skin. Not stories. Never whole stories.

Stories should start with a moment. One of those moments, so often seen in movies and on TV, when one character sees another for the first time. There is a look, a glance, dramatic music starts to play and something passes between them. Bells ring, fireworks whirr and bang, time ceases. They turn in slow-motion to face each other, across a street, a crowded room, and with a flicker of a smile, the widening of an eye, that’s it. Their lives are changed forever. But for Chloe, there was no such moment. Given what came after, it doesn’t seem right that Rachel should have been able to slip into her life so silently, almost sneak up on her. But that’s what happened. Sometime in early fall 2009, after Rachel arrived at Blackwell; transferred there from some hot-shot private school in LA, Chloe must have passed her in a hallway, or stood in the same cafeteria line, or sat in the same classroom. At some nothing moment, not so much lost to memory as never committed to it, Chloe must have seen her—but not seen her—for the first time. She just doesn’t remember.

The first memory Chloe has of Rachel is a look. She remembers it as a look of pity, although Rachel would later say it was one of veneration. That was the word she chose: veneration. A Rachel word. It came during gym, the only class they ever shared. Chloe remembers just fragments of that class, that day, snippets here and there. How fucking cold it was on the soccer field, how the freezing mud had collected between the goal posts, oozed into her sneakers and between her toes. And she remembers the tree: An old maple with low, twisting branches that grew close to the bleachers, up the banking beyond the chain-link fence. It must have been late fall, not past November, because a few lonely, orange leaves still clung to the branches, a fiery contrast against charcoal skies. Chloe remembers those leaves, those branches. And she remembers wondering how easy it would be to hang a noose from them.

It was a passing thought. A what if. Uninvited, unprompted. Such thoughts no longer panicked her, they just were. What if? And then—

Bam!

A blow, crashing into her nose like a block of ice, whipping her head back, the icy sting lacerating across her cheekbones. The soccer ball ricocheted off her face and plopped into the puddle of mud at her feet.

A screech of buoyant laughter: “Hey! Hopeless Solo! Nice save!”

Through the tiny spots of light that still stung her vision, Chloe saw Ashley Turner—one of Marisa’s goons—jogging away across the field. “Did you fucking kick that at me?” she yelled after her, dabbing at her swollen lips, still tingling from the blow.

Chloe was goalkeeper. She was always the goalkeeper. Because she was tall and couldn’t run for shit, so it seemed like the best place for her. She preferred the bench, but Coach Edwards was an equal opportunities coach—everyone should have an equal opportunity to freeze their tits off and get covered in dirt.

“Just going for goal!” Ashley cooed with no hint of remorse, slinging an arm around another generic blonde, who grinned at Chloe with teeth far too big for her mouth.

“We’re on the same fucking team, asshole!”

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “Are we? We all know you don’t like balls in your face, Chloe. Maybe you’d prefer this instead?” She pointed towards her crotch, swaying her hips a little as she did so, while the other blonde doubled up laughing, guffaws bursting through buck teeth.

“Yeah? Well, if you like balls so much, how about I ram this one down your fucking throat. Bitch!” Is what Chloe yelled. Or something like it. She yelled something as she grabbed the soccer ball from the ground and launched herself at Ashley, tore towards her at full tilt, humiliation, blood and vengeance. And she remembers the moment her forehead slammed into Ashley’s nose, the crack of bone on bone, Ashley crumpling to the ground with a piercing scream. Then arms tight around her shoulders, pulling her back as she strained forward, still yelling. Edwards shouting, everyone shouting, and she remembers… a look. Rachel. Standing slightly apart, hair pulled into a high ponytail, cheeks still flushed from the game. Just looking. And it wasn’t the first time Chloe had ever seen her, it can’t have been, because she remembers thinking, Oh shit, Rachel Amber is looking at me. And that’s all she had time to think before being held down and picked up and hauled away to the principal’s office. So, she must have already known Rachel, or known of her. But the first actual memory she has is that look. Just a look.

 


 

It was a look that should never have happened. Chloe hadn’t even wanted to go to Blackwell. Blackwell was for snobs and out-of-towners. For plastic Barbie dolls with Louis Vuitton pencil cases and muscled meat-heads in varsity jackets. Chloe wanted to go to the local public high school, the school where Max would have joined her had she stuck around. But then a couple of Blackwell jocks got arrested for vandalism at the docks and the inevitable hands were raised at local town meetings. Motions were tabled, mutterings heard, concerns raised about rich kids with no connection to the town swanning around with no respect for anything or anyone. The Prescott Foundation had responded by announcing extra scholarship places for local students. And then Chloe won that damn science fair in middle school and the principal had asked her parents in to discuss a last-minute application.

Later, Chloe would joke that she only ended up at Blackwell because some smartass tagged a cock and balls onto an old fishing boat. Much later, she’d find that pretty funny.

Chloe spent that meeting wedged between her parents on the tiny sofa in Mrs. Seabright’s office. There was a lot of discussion about grades, Ivy League schools and application success rates, the air thick with nervous excitement. Chloe’s mom, sitting bolt upright in her chair, palms flat on her lap, as she’d been taught as a little girl in the South, as though sitting the wrong way could wreck Chloe’s chances. Chloe’s dad, nodding as the principal spoke, leaning forward, fingers entwined between his knees. He had grown up in Arcadia Bay, had his fair share of run-ins with the kids from the High School on the Hill. Oh, all that’s changed, Mrs. Seabright said, dismissing him with a smile and a wave of her hand. It’s a far nicer school these days. They nodded, they agreed. The application would be made. On the drive home, Chloe sat on the back seat, listening to her mother babble without breath. Watched her father drive with both hands on the wheel, hunched forward, as though a part of him knew. As if he knew, despite his obvious pride, that he was about to throw his still naïve daughter to the wolves.

Back then, Chloe loved school. Loved learning, loved the art of it: One fact growing into another like roots spreading underground, branching, exploring, each leading on to something new. The whole world lying there in the dark, waiting to be discovered, dug up and absorbed. In middle school she had been the smart one, the spirited one, the streak of hot energy zipping from classroom to classroom. The one the teachers would praise for her test scores in one class, then yell at to get down off her desk in the next. She was the one with long, wild hair, well-worn Chucks and a voice that carried all the way down the halls. The one who could be found outside every morning, swinging upside-down on the railings, swaying back and forth by the crook of her knees, her coat fallen from her waist and bunched around her ears. In middle school, she was Max’s friend, Joyce’s daughter, she was Bill Price’s kid. In middle school, she was Chloe.

 


 

Chloe doesn’t remember the first time she saw Rachel, but she does remember the first time she saw Marisa. It was that very first day at Blackwell. Or maybe the second. Her locker was just two over from Chloe’s; a dried purple flower pinned to the inside, two magazine cut-outs of Zac Efron and a postcard of a smiling cartoon atom which read: Think like a proton and stay positive. Chloe liked that. And when she lifted her eyes to see who it belonged to, that’s when she saw her: Marisa. White blonde hair and cheekbones carved from ivory. No one warned Chloe not to burn her fingers on Marisa.

“I like your postcard,” Chloe said.

Marisa’s gaze washed over her. Engulfing. “Yeah?”

“Yeah… Uh…” Chloe stopped. She was so pretty. Like an actress. Like she belonged in one of those old movies, where they all wore bodices and silk pumps and chased each other, giggling, through huge echoing halls. “Yeah, it’s like that joke about a proton and a neutron walking down the street…” Marisa’s face didn’t move but Chloe carried on anyway. “And the proton says: ‘Yo, I dropped an electron!’ So the neutron says, ‘Are you sure?’ And the proton’s like, ‘Yeah, dude, I’m positive.’” Chloe gave a tiny chuckle at her own punchline.

Marisa’s face still didn’t move. Until understanding seemed to shine across it, pulling the corners of her mouth into a glimmer of a smile. “Huh. That’s pretty funny,” she said, closing the locker door. “You’re funny.”

Chloe smiled sheepishly, hooking her thumbs underneath the straps of her new-for-school rucksack. “Uh… thanks.”

It was later that day, sitting behind Marisa in chem, watching her nudge shoulders and laugh with the girl sitting beside her, that Chloe decided she wanted Marisa to be her friend. She needed one of those now, right? Now she was new here, and alone and no one knew her name. And it wasn’t like Chloe thought about her in that way. Not really. At least, that’s what she told herself as the weeks wore on. Sure, her stomach would flip when Marisa entered the same classroom, and her mouth would go dry, and any time she was nearby, Chloe would feel her hands shake and heat rising in her cheeks. But what Chloe wanted most of all was to bask in the glow of her, like a cat warmed by the sun on a window ledge. She wanted to be noticed by her, for Marisa to laugh at her stupid jokes, link arms with her during recess, exchange notes in class, watch movies curled up with their heads on each other’s shoulders and share earphones on the grass with the sun on their backs. She wanted a friend—a special friend. A Max.

Because Max was leaving. Chloe had known that before she even started at Blackwell. Before she’d pulled open those huge, double doors for the first time and stepped into those polished-stone halls full of voices and faces she didn’t recognize. Before Marisa had ever opened her locker beside her. She’d known since that day she came downstairs too early, heard her parents discussing it in hushed whispers in the kitchen. It has to come from Max, Joyce had told William. It’s not our place. But it was weeks before Max finally told Chloe. Weeks of Chloe wondering if she’d misheard, praying it would fall through, wondering what the fuck she was going to do without her best friend—without her only friend. Weeks stressing over whether she’d find a new friend and if she even wanted a new friend. Because she didn’t want to replace Max, she wanted her to stay. Weeks spent staring at the back of Marisa’s neck in chem, wondering if she could be a friend, if she’d ever want to be a friend. If she’d want to be a best friend. Or any kind of friend. And asking herself why, if she only wanted a friend, did she like looking at the back of Marisa’s neck so goddamn much.

And then, one day, Chloe’s heart leaped as Ms. Grant paired her and Marisa for an experiment. Marisa leaned in and whispered to Chloe that she hadn’t done the homework, but you got this right? And Chloe glowed a little as she set up the equipment because she did have this. She was good at this. Her fingers flew as she took measurements, scribbling down formulae, as Marisa looked on, chin resting in her hand. It went well, Chloe did well—the best in the class. And Marisa had winked and said, “Good one, Chloe.”

And maybe it was because Chloe was emboldened, maybe it was her fear of losing Max, maybe it was because she wanted to hold Marisa’s hand under the table or because Marisa had said her name. Whatever it was, as they left the classroom, Chloe asked Marisa if she wanted to go for a milkshake at the diner to celebrate. And maybe Chloe’s cheeks were too flush, or her voice shook, or it was because she put a hand on Marisa’s elbow when she said it, but Marisa looked at her, raised an eyebrow and said, “Are asking me on a date?” Something in her voice was sharp, grew claws. “Is that why you keep staring at me all the time? That’s so cute. Disgusting, but cute. Would you be wearing that hideous hoodie?” Then she laughed and her gaggle of friends, always close by, always loitering, laughed and Chloe’s world crumbled inwards and smashed like glass on the floor.

She didn’t know what to do. How would she, in those days when the world was still bright and her fangs still untrained. So she ran. Ran as fast as she could and hid in a bathroom stall. Stayed there until the bell rang and tightened like a leash around her, dragging her to next period.

She told her dad. Told him because she could tell him anything. He pulled her towards him across the sofa, wrapped his hairy arms around her and cradled her head on his chest. He was silent for a long time. “Argh, matey,” he said at last in his pirate drawl. “Yer wants me t’go up there and give them there landlubbers a piece o’ Bloody Bill?”

Chloe shrugged into his shirt, rolled one of his buttons between her fingers. “No…”

“Listen to me, kiddo” he said softly, serious now. He lifted her chin, and she tilted her face to look up at his. “Fact is, there are some people in this world… Well, they want to look down on you so much, they’ll knock you onto your knees to do it. And when that happens, you just got to stand right back up. Tall as you can. Because these kids, they aren’t better than you, honey. Never forget that. You’re better than them.” He grinned. “What are you?”

She rolled her eyes against him, eyelashes brushing against his flannel. “Oh God, Dad. Don’t make me say it.”

“Then I’ll say it.” He kissed the top of her head. “You’re my girl, and you’re price-less.”

“Groan,” she said with a sigh, but she snuggled in tighter anyway, the deep rumble of his laugh vibrating underneath her cheek.

She remembered his words a few days later when Marisa started the rumors about her. Notes fluttering from hand to hand in class, stifled snorts and muffled giggles. Things they thought they knew about Chloe, things Chloe didn’t even know about herself. She remembered his words and scorched away Marisa’s perfectly plucked eyebrows with a Bunsen burner.

And then her dad died. And Max left. And Marisa, the girl Chloe had so hoped would be her friend, her confidante, became the one pulling others away in the halls, whispering in their ears; the one who made a show of leaving as soon as Chloe came near, who insisted on moving seats in chemistry because, Ms. Grant, Chloe staring at me all the time really freaks me out.

So, when Rachel appeared at Blackwell all those months later, Chloe, still bruised and bloody and achingly lonely, didn’t want to notice her at all. Because she was Rachel fucking Amber. And Chloe wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

 


 

Chloe doesn’t remember the first time she saw Rachel, but she does remember the last time she saw her father. It was a Sunday. The Sunday they sent the rocket Falcon 1 into orbit, and it had been all over the news. Chloe had seen it on TV and been inspired, so had spent the morning building a rocket that would send her Barbie dolls at least as far as the ceiling. It must have been the weekend because Max was over and they’d pretended to sort out junk while actually blowing up Barbie dolls and doing one final treasure hunt as Captain Bluebeard and Long Max Silver. And it can’t have been a Saturday because Joyce didn’t work on Saturdays, while that morning she’d gone to the grocery store straight after her shift. So it must have been a Sunday. Yes, it was a Sunday.

She remembers him walking down the hallway, keys jangling in his hand as he chuckled broken promises about salmon for dinner and Never Leaving. That final click of the door that separated their worlds forever. And Max. Max, gripping both Chloe’s hands in her own, and with trembling lips, feeding her some shit about Always. Her dad never did come back. Max’s Always lasted less than a week. And Chloe’s life was changed forever. That was the day, a nothing Sunday in September, when all the lights went out.

Chloe spent the months that followed shut away in the darkness of her bedroom, the only place she felt safe. The rest of the house seemed so empty without him, cavernous, bloated by his absence. Yet he was everywhere. On everything. His ghost in every room, superimposed like a photograph over the most mundane things. Memories like sideswipes, blades shooting from the walls, laying in wait everywhere she went.

The kitchen counter. Swipe. Leaning against it, slurping his coffee, wiping the toast crumbs from his the newspaper and onto the floor.

The table. Swipe. Sitting next to Chloe, shoulder to shoulder and wax crayon in hand, showing her how to draw shapes, how to write her name with a curly kuh, huh, luh, oh, ee.

The sofa. Swipe. Sprawled out with a beer and watching football on TV, one furry arm slung over the armrest, legs crossed at the ankles.

Swipe.

The fall of his death faded into winter. Winter seeped out into a gray spring, and Chloe’s life slowed to a monochrome crawl—an ancient movie reel jittering on a broken projector. Outside her bedroom window, she could hear the muffled sounds of life moving on: The distorted shrieks of the neighborhood kids beyond the glass, the stifled murmur of birdsong. A muted hammer, beating out a rhythm like a metronome as it knocked another foreclosure sign into the damp earth. Knock… Knock… Knock.

In the Price living room, newscasters—powdered and pristine—told about chaos in sing-song voices. Chirping words like subprime, lenders, bankers. Crisis. Crash. Sunk into the sofa, Joyce watched the rolling coverage through dead, unblinking eyes. Chloe didn’t notice.

Joyce began to go out more; left earlier, stayed out later, began to wear perfume. Chloe didn’t notice.

Somewhere in the background, behind it all, the sun made ceaseless journeys across the sky; in the morning it came up, in the evening it went down. Up and down. Up and down. Lying in the dark, on her unmade bed, Chloe didn’t notice any of it. She just stared at the walls, at the grime-streaked windowpane, at the white noise on her untuned TV. A life in static, on endless loop.

 


 

“Chloe!” Her mother’s voice from the kitchen, strained and hoarse. She had been crying again. “Chloe, please come and eat something.”

Chloe ignored her. It was too easy to lie there. To feel nothing. To be no one. Through hooded eyes she watched a moth beating against the inner glass of the window, wheeling and pirouetting in the hazy afternoon light. Watched it loop to one corner of the windowpane, dive down to the other, trapped by its transparent prison wall. She thought about getting up and opening the window, shooing it away, but she couldn’t move. Sleep overcame her, and she passed the afternoon in blackness. When she woke up the moth was dead on the window sill. She stared at it for a short time, then flicked the carcass to the floor.

When she got halfway down the stairs she could see her mother in the kitchen, hands gripping the counter, shoulders shaking. She could have gone to her then but she didn’t. Instead she made straight for the front door, heard it rattle in its tired frame as it swung shut behind her. The day smelled of rain and damp cedar, still a chill in the air. She thought about going back for her jacket, changed her mind, and instead headed for the tree fort.

It had been months since she had last made the short walk up to the top of Cedar and Maple. Months since she found the fort vandalized and no longer her own. As she trudged up towards the tree line, she half expected to find it torn down completely. But there it was, still clinging to its trunk, the boards so weathered they were almost invisible against the mossy bark.

It was the smell that hit her first, even before the voices: Thick, herbal and filling the whole hillside. It was coming from the fort, billowing out through the windows in clumps of smoke that hung heavy in the moist, spring air.

Several pairs of sneakers dangled down from the decking. “Hey!” Chloe yelled up at their owners. “Get the fuck down from there!”

A round face appeared in the window.  A boy, pug-nosed and red-eyed, about the same age as Chloe. “Free country. We got here first.”

“No you didn’t. This is my fucking fort!”

Your fort, huh?” he asked with a lopsided smile and cupped a hand to his ear. “Wait, what’s that? I think that’s your mommy calling. She says it’s past your bedtime.” He sniggered, putting what Chloe half-recognized as a joint to his lips and taking a long hit. “Better run home now!” His face disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Male laughter floated down from above as Chloe’s jaw tightened and her fingers itched. Methods of vengeance seared through her mind. Cutting the rope ladder was too easy. No, she would firebomb them out. Fight fire with fire. She was about to head home to find some matches when another head poked out. “Chloe?” This boy wore a baseball cap and horn-rimmed glasses over dazed eyes. She knew him from Blackwell.

“Justin?”

A few moments later and they had hoisted Chloe up into the fort. She sat squeezed among them, the air so thick with weed smoke she could hardly see their faces. The guy with the pug-nose was Nacho. Another, slightly older than the others: T. J they called him, or was it A. J? He had plugs in his earlobes and a barbell through one eyebrow. Chloe liked looking at him. He looked pretty fucking cool. And finally a younger boy, a friendly face peeking from below a beanie. She recognized him as Trevor from middle school. “Yo, Trevor,” Chloe said, and he flushed in greeting. She had kissed him once, during a game of truth or dare in eighth grade. He’d been a pretty good kisser. Chloe had never minded kissing for a dare, in fact she’d kind of liked it. Back then. When it was all just a game and girls were supposed to kiss boys. She used to like kissing, the way her body coiled in anticipation at the promise of it. Warm breath on lips just before they met. The kisses themselves were usually disappointing, but she sought them out all the same—that feeling inside, that rush. The one that had simmered inside since that time Max got a TV for her birthday, and they’d stayed up until 2am watching weird shit on cable in Max’s bedroom, sound off to avoid detection. They’d stumbled on some channel where two people were curled up in bed together, butt naked among a tangled mess of sheets, doing things that Chloe was definitely aware that people did but had never actually seen. Max had squealed and pulled a pillow in front of her, Ew, gross! Chloe, we can’t watch this! Turn it off! But Chloe hadn’t wanted to turn it off, she’d just sat there and stared at it. That rush getting stronger, until Max had reached across her for the remote and changed it over to an old episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They hadn’t spoken about it again. Max wouldn’t have understood.

They passed her the joint and she pretended she knew what she was doing. She’d smoked cigarettes before, of course she had. The ones she stole from her mom’s purse. The ones Joyce liked to smoke in secret, hidden around the side of the house, as though Chloe were somehow blind to the growing pile of lipstick-stained butts swept away into the shrubs. Joyce pretended she didn’t smoke and Chloe pretended she wasn’t stealing her smokes, and so they danced around each other, as they’d danced around everything else for almost a year. But that afternoon was the first time Chloe ever tried weed.

It tasted like shit. The smoke stung her throat and made her eyes water and the guys had laughed and told her to stick with it, that sometimes it takes a while to hit the first time. And so she coughed and hacked and smoked her way through it and then, and then, and then… It hit. The boys’ voices knocking around in her skull bouncing off her thoughts; like glassy marbles rolling on bone, bumping into each other, into the sides, spinning off in all directions. She felt light, so light. As though that suffocating fog, that nothing, that had choked her for so long was surging out of her, gushing out between her teeth with the weed smoke and just… Floating away. And she thought how awesome it was, to watch those cotton candy clouds unravel out through the window, dissolve into that dirty, lavender sky… Until one of the guys had waved his hand in front of her face and made some lame joke. It wasn’t that funny, but she laughed. She laughed so fucking hard. And she kept on laughing. She laughed at her shitty life, in her shitty town. At her shitty mom, and her shitty school. She laughed, and it felt so good. For the first time since… ever, it felt so fucking good.

When the weed had run out and the evening chill set in, they stumbled down the hill and headed back to Justin’s house to play video games and drink his brother’s beer. Later that evening, Chloe lost her virginity to the dude with the eyebrow piercing on the fold-out sofa in Justin’s basement. She’d hoped it would make her feel something else. It didn’t.

 


 

Chloe met Joyce one night after her evening shift. They went to Up All Nite Donuts like they always used to when Chloe was little and they had something to celebrate. It rained on the walk over and Joyce scuttled through the puddles, gripping her umbrella tight with both hands, her fists twisting nervously back and forth on the wet handle. She had offered Chloe her arm, a dry spot beside her. But Chloe had refused, walked several steps behind, her eyes cast down and shoulders hunched against the rain.

Her hair was still long then, and she shook it out like a dog as they stood in line, splattering water all over the counter. Joyce had chuckled. That insanely irritating chuckle—almost a chirp that never reached her eyes. As if she was trying to remain breezy, pretending she found something funny, pretending to be a mom. Chloe just stared at her, wiped her wet hair out of her face and then picked out the biggest donut they had.

They sat in silence, watched the rain race in droplets down the dark window; little jewels of red and white, reflecting the headlamps of the cars that swished by outside. Chloe ate noisily, messily, making sure to smear chocolate glaze all round her lips. Chewed with her mouth wide open. She waited for her mom to say something, to scold her, as she would when Chloe was younger and they used to come here with him. But Joyce remained immune. She just stared out of the window, rapped her fingernails on the table. Powder-pink. When did she start painting them?

At last she did look at Chloe, clasped her daughter’s hand with her own, and Chloe remembers how damp it was, how cold, how it trembled on top of hers. “How would you feel if I started seeing another man, honey?”

The remains of the donut turned to ash in Chloe’s mouth. She slid her hand away. “How would you feel if found another mom, Mom?”

Nothing more was said. As they left, they tossed their wrappers in the trash. The lid creaked back and forth on its hinge as the door jangled shut behind them.

Chapter Text

Summer 2009 - Spring 2010
(Four years before...)

As the damp spring dripped into summer, Chloe found herself in the fort again, wedged between Nacho and Justin as they shared a joint with the other guys. They showed her how to roll, how to smoke. Another time, someone brought a pipe, and they taught her how to smoke that too, how to angle the lighter, when to release the carb. She learned swiftly, sitting up there in that damp, mossy hideout. And each time she met them, Nacho sat a little closer, stared at her a little longer; placed his hand on the small of her back, a palm on her knee, grazed her fingers with his own as he passed her the pipe. She figured he expected her to bang him, like she’d banged his friend with the plugs, A. J or T. J, or whoever-he-was-J. That guy hadn’t been back since, and she was kind of relieved about that. She wondered if that’s what she was to them, something to be passed around between them like a weed pipe. She wondered if that night in the basement had been around school. She wondered if Marisa knew.

Her treks up to the fort got further and further apart until eventually she stopped meeting them there at all. Instead, she cornered Trevor and Justin at the diner one morning, crushing Justin up against the window as she hopped into the booth beside him. Asked him where she could get hold of some bud. It took some persuading but at last they told her about the guy down by the beach who had good stuff. “Just look for the RV,” Justin said. “And—”

“And don’t go before ten,” Trevor finished for him.

Chloe got to the beach at 10:03. The RV was the only vehicle parked up there: An old seventies Winnebago with blue trim, salt-lashed by the Pacific yet still obviously road worthy. She straightened her shoulders and gave a quick rap on the door. It came out far quieter than she intended. She was about to knock again when she heard someone shuffling around and a grunt from inside.

“Yeah?”

Chloe took a deep breath, got her face as close as she dared to the dirty plastic, “Uh... hi. I—”

The door swung open, coming within millimeters of her cheek, and she sprang backwards. A man loomed above her, tattooed torso and face unshaven. He glared at her through raw, red eyes, growled something indecipherable, and slammed the door in her face.

She thought about leaving but she was already in for another tardy that day. She had time. She knocked again.

He opened the door. “You even started your period yet?” he asked, scratching his unkempt hair. “Fuck off.”

He went to shut the door again, but she pushed against it. “Wait.”

“I don’t sell to kids.”

“You sell to Justin and Trevor, they’re the same age as me.”

The guy’s laugh was like hacking up phlegm. “Those guys? Fucking Bill and Ted? Jesus, I knew that was a mistake. No deal.”

He pushed the door, effortlessly forcing her hand away, and it slammed shut. It wasn’t worth knocking again. Not yet. But, fuck it, Chloe wasn’t ready to face school. She dropped into one of the lawn chairs sitting out front by a rusty fold-out table. Sat there and waited, constructing teetering towers from the bottle caps that littered the sandy ground around her, built them high as she could, taller and taller, until they toppled over, clinking out over the tabletop.

It was about an hour later that the man came outside, this time wearing a t-shirt, a cigarette hanging limp between his lips. He did a double take at Chloe and she sprang to her feet, knocking over the lawn chair.

“You still here?” he asked, lighting up, left hand cupping the cigarette to protect the flame from the ocean winds. “Shouldn’t you be at school?”

“Fuck school.”

He shrugged and traipsed off along the boardwalk towards town. She watched him go until she couldn’t see him anymore. Then lifted the fallen chair and sat back down.

Seagulls screeched overhead as she looked out across the beach, watched the waves froth over that huge expanse of polished wet sand, like beer spilled across a table. The beach lot was like everything else in Arcadia Bay—run-down, jaded. The asphalt was cracked, the slabs along the boardwalk uneven and dirty, strewn with litter. But she liked it here. This was the place where adventure started, here in this lot. A faint residue of the past still corroded inside her, reminded her how she felt each time she visited this place as a child. How she and Max would fling open the car doors the second William rolled to a stop, bolt across those sandy paving slabs to the start of the trail, to the pathway that led up the cliff. Even now she could still hear her parents’ voices, dulled by distance, yelling at them to wait. But she and Max only ever had eyes for the lighthouse. Majestic on its cliff-top perch. All-seeing. Eternal.

Hours passed before she saw the guy returning along the boardwalk, talking on the phone, a grocery bag slung under one arm. He finished his call as he approached and stuffed the phone back into his pants. Chloe didn’t get up this time. She sat there, resolute, hands gripping the arm rests.

“You stalking me now, kid?” he asked. “Get the fuck outta here.” He waved her away. “Go on, beat it before I make you!”

Chloe stayed silent, shook her head. Despite his snarl, she wasn’t afraid of him. His shoulders dropped a little too low when she didn’t respond to his threats, a faint knot tangled his brow.

He sighed, dumping the groceries on the table. “Listen, kid, I know how this goes. I give you what you want and the next day I have your daddy beating my door down, threatening to break my neck. I’m not in the mood for that, okay?”

“My dad’s dead.”

He sniffed and dropped into the chair beside her. “Yeah? Good for you. Mine too.”

“But my mom would kick your ass.”

His face creaked into a smile. An almost smile. There was something awkward about it, as though his teeth and his eyes and his cheeks didn’t know how to work together to create it. They just folded up into something that resembled a smile. He leaned closer and pointed at her. “You’re Joyce’s kid. Joyce from the diner. That’s where I know you from. Well, now I know why you’re so stubborn.” He laughed, pulling a can of beer from the grocery bag and cracking it open. “But there’s no fucking way I’m selling anything to Joyce’s kid.”

“Oh, c’mon, dude. She’s only gonna find out if I tell her.”

He lifted himself from the chair and headed back inside with his beer and groceries. “No fucking way,” he said as he disappeared into the RV, the door slamming behind him.

Chloe groaned and threw herself back in the chair. The sun was low, had begun to erode into the ocean and the sky had rusted orange. She wondered what time it was but had no way of knowing; she didn’t wear a watch and her phone lay lifeless in her bag. An endless stream of her mom’s missed calls and texts no doubt amassed inside it and itching to break free. Chloe knew Joyce was pissed because she’d started re-dialing incessantly. Ring. To voicemail. Hang up. Ring. To voicemail. Hang up. Ring. To voicemail… Chloe had turned the phone off hours ago. She sat and watched the sun sink lower and lower until, at last, the RV door opened and the guy stepped out, another cigarette between his lips. He laughed when he saw her.

“Jeez, kid, just watching you is sad. Fine, I’ll sell you some bud”—Chloe’s heart leaped into her mouth—“But only a gram. And if you go yacking to all your little buddies at school and I get another fucking fetus knocking on my door, I’m gonna hold you personally responsible.”

Chloe jumped up, scrambling for the crumpled tenner she’d swiped from the swear jar that morning. “Thanks, dude. I promise, I take it with me to the grave.”

“You better.” He whipped the money from Chloe’s fingers, glancing around the deserted lot before handing her a baggie of weed. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Chloe.”

“Chloe? Good. I’m Frank. Now off you fuck.”

 


 

July rolled around, and they went out for seafood on Joyce’s birthday. They had a table on the veranda at Old Tom’s Shack, and Chloe sat with her chin on the wooden rail, watching the crabbing boats slink lazily across the saltwater lake just off the Bay. Several of Joyce’s friends were there—Evelyn and Kathy with their husbands, the perpetually single Linda. Then there was some guy, several years younger than the others; looked like a Jarhead with his high and tight haircut and military grade mustache.

It wasn’t the first time Chloe had met David, so Joyce told her later, but it was the first time she wondered who he was. Before then she must have assumed he was one of Linda’s boyfriends, or not noticed him at all. Not even bothered to look at him. And maybe that’s what Joyce had wanted. Chloe wouldn’t have noticed him that time either, except he seemed so damn nervous, clumsy fingers peeling the label from his beer, always looking to Joyce for approval. Always looking, looking, looking. At last, Evelyn’s husband Mike, must have taken pity on him because he started telling David all about his new Mustang. David seemed to perk up at that, the beer label became less interesting. When it came to cars, he knew his stuff… until he went and said something dumb about fuel injection. And, okay, Chloe was no fucking expert on engine mechanics back then, but she remembered fuel injection from an eighth-grade science project. So why not correct him? Because  he had this way about him when he started talking about stuff he thought he knew about. This way that said I know everything, and you know nothing. Or maybe that’s just how she likes to remember it, that she saw it right from the start. Either way, she corrected him. He flushed, looked down into his beer bottle, then carried on the conversation with Mike as if Chloe didn’t exist. When they got home, Joyce told Chloe off for being rude.

 


 

Another summer fluttered into fall. A new school year and a fresh start, Joyce would call it, but there was nothing fresh about it. The same stench permeated the corridors at Blackwell. Except, by then, Rachel Amber must have blazed into Arcadia Bay with all her California swagger. Not that Chloe noticed.

By that time Chloe was hardly attending classes at all. Ms. Grant had pulled her aside one day after chem, asked her to stay and help her put away the equipment. I’m concerned about your grades, she said, gathering up the flasks. She said she was concerned about Chloe’s attendance, concerned she was wasting her potential, concerned that things were difficult at home, concerned that Chloe had stopped seeing the school councilor. As Chloe left, Grant put a hand on her shoulder and Chloe had said, I get it, you’re concerned. But not once had she said she was concerned about Chloe.

Trips to buy weed became a ritual. As soon as Joyce handed over her allowance each month, Chloe would head down to the beach. She’d buy whatever her allowance stretched to, added to the proceeds any spare change she found lying around the house. Coins she collected up and kept in a box in her room and then swapped for notes at the store. Frank always told her to fuck off when she tried to pay him in quarters. Buying weed became the highlight of each month. It wasn’t just the anticipation of the high that excited her, but a feeling she got as she headed onto the beach and approached that RV; like her younger self heading up to the stump during a softball game—heart clattering  in her chest, palms sticky on the bat. Nervous. Excited. Because that’s who she was now, a girl who buys drugs from a guy she called her dealer, while the rest of her class, the Marisas and Ashleys and all those other assholes, sit with their noses pushed up against the rain-streaked windows at Blackwell. She wasn’t like them. She was Chloe Price, Badass.

Until Joyce stopped her allowance. Overnight. Just like that. Said, I’m not an idiot, Chloe. I know what dope smells like . And Chloe had yelled at her that she must be a fucking idiot because no one calls it ‘dope’ anymore. And Joyce said she didn’t give a crap what it was called, because whatever Chloe wanted to call it, Joyce wasn’t going to continue giving her money so she could waste the little they had on it. What's the big deal? Chloe demanded. Dad used to smoke it didn't he? And Joyce had just thrown her hands in the air, swept from the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. Her heels clacking like angry thunderclaps all the way down the stairs. Things had been bad for a while after that.

The first time Chloe stole she got caught. A packet of cigarettes from the convenience store that fell from her pocket as she darted for the exit. The store owner pretended he hadn’t seen it, then called her mom straight afterwards. Called it a delicate matter. He’d known Joyce for years. Everyone knew Joyce in this goddamn town. Said he knew the family were going through a hard time and wouldn’t be pressing charges—this time. That’s what Joyce had told Chloe as she sat opposite her at the kitchen table, skin pulled tight like parchment paper across her face, eyes hollow, thumb jittering against her folded hands : You got lucky this time, Chloe, but it can’t happen again. You hear me? It can’t happen again.

It did. Of course it did. But next time Chloe was more careful. Next time, Chloe didn’t get caught.

Blackwell was always ripe with opportunities; an open bag by a classroom desk, a locker that hadn’t been properly closed, jackets left slung over the backs of chairs. It turned out rich kids were pretty careless with their things. Easy to be careless when it’s just as easy to get more. The best pickings were always found in the girls locker room when Chloe feigned cramps and ended up alone there during gym class. Like the time Jessica Wheeler left a pair of gold hoop earrings on top of her folded clothes. Chloe had nothing against Jessica but dude, they were just there . She took one earring and watched with a thumping chest as Jessica and her friends searched everywhere for it after class; on their knees on the tiled floor, scrabbling in the dust under the lockers, under benches. You must have dropped it, Jess, one of the girls said, climbing to her feet and brushing herself down. It can’t have been stolen. Who steals one earring?

Frank had given Chloe a whole eighth for it.

Around the anniversary of her father’s death, she stole a whole fifth of Jim Beam and sat drinking it on a bench in the cemetery until her head began to roll on her neck and her eyeballs felt like they were melting into their sockets, and it felt really fucking fantastic, until it felt fucking shit. She picked a spot where she could see him through the trees, see the sunlight reflecting off polished stone. But kept far enough away that he wouldn’t see her. She didn’t want him to see her. She didn’t want him to be ashamed of her.

She stumbled home, legs so heavy her Chucks seemed to cut channels through the sidewalk. Sagged against the sink in the bathroom, and watched her reflection float before her in the mirror, two Chloes, three. Swirling, dancing around each other in the glass. She saw her hair—long, unruly, tattered. He always used to love it. Said it was the best part of his day when she was little and she’d crawl up on the sofa beside him, lay her head on his chest so that her hair tickled his chin. That seemed so long ago. Why had she kept her hair for so long? She reached up into the bathroom cabinet and pulled out her mom’s nail scissors, stared at them for a moment, shrugged at her reflection, then cut her hair all off.

It took ages, hacking with those tiny blades. In places she left it long, other patches she cut too close with her drunk, shaky hands, catching her scalp. It looked fucking funny. She laughed, hands gripping the sink, shoulders shaking. Laughed, and laughed until her stomach heaved and her ribs contracted and the Jim Beam—still brown and sweet and sticky—spurted from her mouth, through her teeth, and splattered over the white porcelain; vomit swirling with clumps of discarded hair and slithering down the drain. And then the world turned black.

“Chloe?” the door opened and the sharp edge of it pressed into Chloe’s back, nudging her out of the way. “Chloe, what’s going on in here?” Her mother’s voice somewhere above her, muted, echoing, like she was calling to her through glass. Not accusing. Fearful. “Your hair. Oh Lord, your hair!” The floor tiles were cold and sticky below Chloe’s cheek; she swallowed down the acrid taste of vomit that stung her throat, the back of her nose. “Honey, speak to me, are you okay?” Her mom was kneeling beside her, her fingers grazing her cheek, palm cradling the back of her head. “Oh, my baby girl, what have you done? What have you done?” Arms clasped her, tightened around her as Joyce hauled her up and into her lap. The rough apron fabric chafed Chloe’s face, grew hot and wet with tears. There was the smell of her, just the faint, familiar smell of her—floral perfume, waffle syrup and bacon grease. Lips pressed to the top of Chloe’s head, the warm childhood harbor of her mom's chest.

Joyce’s friend Linda was a hairdresser. The next day she came over to do what she could.

 


 

Sometimes Chloe still went to see Frank. Sometimes he spoke to her. Not at first. At first he was always short with her, only ever spoke to her in grunts. Until that time she turned up drunk with no money and might have offered him a blowjob in exchange for some bud. His eyes sort of caved and his face set hard like granite and he grabbed her by both shoulders, getting all up in her face. “You drunk, kid?”

“Mebbe,” she slurred, batting him off. She was joking. She was just joking. Right?

“You don’t ever do that shit, you hear?” He was serious. Too serious. “Anyone ever asks you for that, you tell them to fuck off.” He pointed at her, his huge index finger just an inch from her nose. “And don’t ever fucking offer.”

“Okay, man. Whatever.”

He stood back, scraped two hands through his hair. “Jesus...”

He fronted her the weed. Kept on fronting her after that. Sometimes he invited her to stay for a while, sitting out on the lawn chairs in front of the RV. She found out he was twenty-eight, that he liked dogs and seventies rock music and TV quiz shows. That a decade ago he had a highschool football scholarship, but he’d tossed it away for—in his words—drugs and pain-in-the-ass chicks. He didn’t give much else away. Sometimes he gave her a beer, always warm, in cans that crumpled satisfyingly in her hand. Sometimes, when he was high, he laughed at her jokes.

Sometimes she tagged shit. Left her mark all over her shitty town—in parking lots, on bridges, on boats, in bathrooms, on the side of buildings. A reminder that Chloe was here. A piece of her—a permanent piece of her—in a place where before she had just been a phantom passing through. Sometimes she’d see people notice her scrawls, with a tsk, a dumb fucking kids, or a shake of the head. Sometimes she kind of liked that.

Sometimes she made out with Eliot Hampden, pressed up against her locker, back arched, struggling for breath as he suffocated her with his too-wet tongue. She hoped maybe Marisa would see. Sometimes she snuck off to Portland with him to watch gigs so she didn’t have to go alone. Sometimes she let him have sex with her.

Sometimes Joyce burst into her room, tears fresh on her cheeks, raging about wasted scholarships and lost opportunities and global recessions and how shitty her tips were and mortgage repayments and how your father left us with nothing, Chloe. We have nothing! Chloe always put her pillow over her head until her mom went away. Sometimes she didn’t go away. Sometimes she grabbed the pillow, threw it across the room with this bestial groan like an injured animal; half mewl, half growl. Stood there for what seemed like forever, her whole body shaking. Stood there breathing, deep and labored, as though her throat were so crammed full with everything left unsaid she couldn’t push her breath out. Like she was suffocating on it. At last, she would turn and leave, shut the door too loudly behind her, go downstairs and pick up the phone. Sniffing, voice cracked: Hi… it’s me . Take the phone outside before Chloe could hear the rest of the conversation. Sometimes Joyce stayed over ‘with friends’.

Sometimes Chloe stole her mom’s cigarettes and smoked them around the back of the pool building instead of going to class; underdressed in a light hoodie and hopping from foot to foot to keep out the winter chill. Not caring if she got caught. Sometimes she lifted her tee and stubbed them out on her stomach.

Sometimes she dreamed about her dad. Awoke at that moment of collision—a blinding light, a distorted screech and crash of steel and broken glass. Sometimes she wished she could stay there with him, curl up next to him in that cage of twisted metal and never wake up.

Sometimes she went to the lighthouse. Sat on the bench staring out over the sea, remembering the games she used to play there as a child with her dad, with Max. Looked out over the bay, watching the few remaining fishing boats sail out over the horizon; out over that vast edge of everything, leaving her world behind. Sometimes she imagined that over that horizon was a whole other universe. Sometimes she wished she could sail out there too.

Sometimes…

Sometimes she noticed Rachel Amber.

 


 

Chloe’s first memories of Rachel are fleeting. Momentary bursts of color, not anchored by place or time, lighting up an otherwise empty space.

Rachel, golden-blonde hair swept up in a messy bun. In the cafeteria, shoulder to shoulder with Juliet Watson, leaning in and giggling as Juliet described making out with her new boyfriend and how he tasted like watermelon gum.

Rachel, bright blue feather earring. Leaning back against her locker, the toe of one pristine white Chuck pushed up against the painted metal. Book held to her chest, head back and laughing.

Rachel, ensconced in cherry-red parka. Huddled with Justin at a table in the courtyard, textbooks open in front of her, jabbing the tip of a pencil at a paragraph she was trying to explain.

Little things. Nothing things. Until, at last, the first time they spoke.

It was around the holidays. It must have been, because the Blackwell pool had been decked out in gaudy decorations ready for the annual Vortex Club party—colored lights and clumps of tinsel slapped around the stands. Chloe sat watching the other kids swim endless lengths up and down, a mass of limbs and spray and red Otter caps .

She was sitting out gym again. For a few bucks Frank had gotten her a note from a doctor he knew. A piece of paper with illegible handwriting that gave her an incurable skin condition and an excuse not to pull on a swimsuit at school ever again. Coach Edwards had taken one look at it, rolled her eyes and just shoved it back in her hand. How convenient for you, Chloe.

Edwards had told her to stay on the poolside where she could keep and eye on her, because I know what you’re like, Price. So she was sitting on one of the benches, pretending to read some dumb play for Hoida’s English class, while actually staring at a life-sized cardboard cutout of Santa, who was waving cheerily at her from the pool office window. He was wearing swimming goggles, a printed greeting jingling across his chest—Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas and an Otter New Year! The worst pun in history. Did it even count as a pun? She was thinking of ways to improve it—Merry Otter-mas? No. Happy Otter Year? Worse—and wishing her dad was there because shitty puns were totally his thing. And then she heard him. A trace of him. Not a voice but a sensation, like warm arms around her—cedar-smoke on the BBQ, the smell of summer on his shirt: Honey, you really otter work on your puns. And and that made her sort of laugh to herself, imagining how he’d laugh and then… Rachel.

She must have come from somewhere. Must have lifted herself from the water, pulled off her cap and approached Chloe. But the memory doesn’t start with that. The memory of Rachel starts there, on that bench, shaking out her damp hair with both hands.

She sat back and turned to Chloe. “What are you reading?” she asked. Chloe was vaguely aware of the book on her lap. Vaguely aware of the book, yet acutely aware that Rachel Amber— the Rachel Amber, as by then that’s how she thought about her, how everyone thought about her, with that emphasis, that something more, that lingering on the —was sitting right next to her. Shoulders almost touching. In a swimsuit.

And before she answered, Chloe must have looked back at that damn Santa, glanced at his greeting again, because she heard her idiot mouth saying, “Don’t you mean otter you reading?”

And Rachel tilted her head and sort of smiled and asked, “What?” as Chloe considered getting up and hurling herself into the pool.

“Never mind.”

But Rachel was Rachel, as Chloe would later find out, so she reached over and plucked the book from Chloe’s unresisting hands. “Oh, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I love that play.” She flicked through several of the pages, and Chloe found her wayward eyes fixated on a single droplet of water, gathering at the tip of a damp strand of Rachel’s hair. Watched it grow heavy and fall at last, run along her collarbone and drop into that dark space at the top of her swimsuit. Because it's always the little things, Chloe would learn later. Always the little things that stick with us. “Spoiler alert,” Rachel said, and Chloe blinked, her embarrassed gaze dropping away. Rachel leaned her face in closer, lowered her voice. “It’s all an illusion.”

Why was Rachel even talking to her? She was the fuckup, the loner, the loser with the bad haircut. This was how it always started, someone pretends to be nice and then… She grabbed the book back. “Yeah, and the dead kid isn’t dead, he was just a figment of the imagination.”

“So, you read it?”

“I read the Spark Notes.”

“You should read the whole thing,” Rachel said, leaning her head back against the tiles. And then she grinned, that lazy Golden Hour grin that lit up her whole face, like the sun burning across the sea. “Otter you got to lose?”

Later, there would be many things that Chloe forgot about that conversation. Maybe it was longer, maybe it was different entirely. She would forget what day of the week it was, what time of day, the pattern on Rachel’s swimsuit, whether they talked about anything else. She would forget how the conversation ended, how Rachel must have gotten up and either returned to the pool or wandered off into the changing rooms. But she’d never forget how dizzy she felt, how nervous. She’d never forget that grin.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the only text she read all year.

 


 

There was a soft knock and Joyce’s head appeared from behind Chloe’s bedroom door. “Chloe, it’s almost midnight. Do you want to come downstairs for the countdown?”

Chloe didn’t take her eyes from her computer screen, the only light in the room. “Is your boy toy still here?”

Joyce sighed. “David is still here. Of course he is.”

“Of course.”

“Are you going to come down?”

There was nothing on the screen, just the desktop, still Chloe refused to look anywhere else. Refused to look at her traitorous mother, clearly drunk and flushed and... happy? She kept her gaze on the tiny mouse cursor, as the blood rushed to her temples, the anger coiled inside her. “Yeah... Because I can’t think of anything better than celebrating the shittiest year of my life, while you and your fuck buddy make googly eyes at each other. Fuck that, Mom. Fuck off.”

Joyce was silent, as if she was trying to think what to say. The outburst should have set her off, but she seemed eerily calm, shrouded in some kind of noxious happy cloud. Chloe just wanted her gone. “Fuck off!” she yelled, turning to face Joyce at last. “Happy fucking New Year!”

Her mom held up her hands, a sign of surrender. “Fine,” she said. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.” She turned to leave. Stopped. Put a hand to the door frame. “Listen, I know you’re angry but you have to start looking forward, honey. You can’t keep looking back. This year could be a wonderful new start. For all of us. I hope that in time you’ll see that.” She shut the door behind her and Chloe thumped the side of her first as hard as she could on the desk.

She took a few moments to breathe, fists balled, fingernails sinking deep into her palms. Waited until the pain in her hands engulfed her anger and uncurled them slowly. Red, crescent bruises like little smiles on her skin.

She clicked on the browser window she’d minimized as Joyce came in, and a Facebook page flashed up on the screen: Rachel Amber.

Rachel in a huge pair of aviators, hair fluttering around her face. Rachel and another girl jumping from a park bench holding hands, captured mid-flight. Rachel, sleepy eyes and drowsy grin, wrapped up in a sleeping bag. Chloe zoomed in on them, rolling the mouse wheel below her finger until the images pixilated, until Rachel became nothing but a muddled mosaic of blocky squares.

Hundreds of photos, hundreds of friends, update after update, comment after comment. Chloe scrolled through dozens of them, heart pounding at the back of her throat. It was just a Facebook page, viewable to any mutual ‘friend’, but looking through it made Chloe feel weird, made her feel dirty. Like she had no right to be peeking in on that life—so full, so vibrant, so far removed from her own. As though she could tarnish it just by looking. She wondered what Rachel was doing for New Year’s. Not sitting alone in her bedroom stalking strangers on the internet, that was for sure. No, she’d be with all those other Blackwell assholes at a party, dressed in a short skirt and designer shoes, making out with some hot guy... Chloe groaned, put her head in her hands and scraped her fingernails through her hair. “You’re such a loser!” she chided herself in the dark. “Fucking weirdo loser.”

She heard a shout from downstairs and a man’s voice cry, “Look, Joyce. Here we go!” David. His gruff Sergeant Major growl counting down in unison with her mom.

“Ten, nine, eight—” She imagined them with their arms around each other’s waists, cheap sparkling wine in hand.

“—seven, six, five, four—” Joyce’s laughter chimed up from the living room, clear and bright. How could she be happy? Chloe had just told her to fuck off to her face. Twice. She should be fucking furious.

“—three, two, one... Happy New Year!” Chloe heard the cheer burst up through the floor, the chink of glasses, the inevitable meeting of lips. She wanted to climb out the window. Run away and never come back.

From the street she could hear the muffled voices and shouts of neighbors, the first strains of Auld Lang Syne. Remembered how she and Max would go outside into the backyard with Chloe’s dad and sing it at the tops of their voices, clutching hands, always getting the words wrong. Then William would light sparklers for them. Try to guess what they were spelling out in fiery letters that fizzed and swirled then melted into the dark.

She wondered what Max was doing at that moment, just as she had on every holiday and special occasion for over a year.

Outside, in Arcadia Bay, in Seattle, and all over the world, it was now 2010.

She clicked out of Facebook, tears blurring her vision, and missed the tiny green dot that told her Max Caulfield was online.

 


 

By the time the Firewalk concert rolled around in the spring, the thoughts, the what ifs, had begun to bubble to the surface with disturbing frequency, ever more detailed. Not quite a plan—no, not yet—but maybe the first stirrings of one.

She found herself rifling through the medicine cabinet, just to see. Just to see if there was anything there. She found nothing but a few aspirins and some hay fever tablets. Not surprising. Joyce had never had a day off sick in her life.

Found herself walking the sidewalk, just a little too close to the curb, close enough so she could just step sideways into the street if she wanted to.

Found herself staring down a freight train outside the Mill, the light in the far distance, the rumble getting closer as she clicked at her lighter once, twice to get a spark. She lit the cigarette, the ground vibrating through the soles of her sneakers, pulsing up her calves. Closer, closer the roar and rush as the train tore up on her, the warm wind clutching her hair and throwing it around her face as she blew a languid plume of smoke down the tracks. She didn’t move. Watched it come. A high-pitched whine, the screeching of brakes as she tossed the cigarette between the sleepers, the train so close it was all she could see; a deafening explosion of fiery sparks and clashing metal blazing into the night. And the light. The light, blinding her, shining right on her, illuminating everything she ever was. Everything she would ever be.

And she could have stayed there, standing on those rail tracks; could have waited for that inevitable moment. But something made her jump away at the last second. Hop away, as though that had been her plan all along. And maybe it had .

And then, from nothing, from nowhere, there was Rachel.

Rachel, fearless. In leather and heavy eyeliner, lip curled as she stared down those skeevy assholes who were threatening Chloe with a bottle.

Rachel, audacious. Dragging Chloe downstairs and into the pulsating crowd of bodies in the mosh pit. Almost wrenching Chloe’s arm from its socket as she pulled her around the corner, blowing a kiss out behind her.

Rachel, wild. Eyes glistening as she thrashed on the dance floor. Swirling limbs and hips and flashes of white teeth, arms held high and gasping for the lights. Keeping her eyes on Chloe, always checking where she was. Little looks, darting glances. She kept taking her hand. Kept taking it as if she thought Chloe might leave. But Chloe wasn’t going to leave. Chloe would never, ever leave.

And Chloe remembers all of it. Every beat-soaked, drum-punched, sweet-slurred last second of it.

How they danced there together like they were the only two people in the place, until long after the riffs from the last song had melted away into the sweat-sodden air and the lights had gone up, exposing their wet faces—beet-red and laughing.

How they’d stolen the rest of the beer from the ice bucket and gasped as they’d stuffed the freezing glass bottles under their clothing.

How they’d sprinted out of there, up the hill to the rail tracks and only stopped when Chloe’s chest started to burn and she’d doubled over and nearly puked and Rachel had laughed and shouted, “C’mon, slowpoke!”

How Chloe caught up to her and opened her a beer with her lighter and they’d drunkenly stumbled all the way back into town, chatting shit, laughing, bumping into each other’s shoulders, accidentally on purpose.

How Rachel had turned to Chloe when they got to the corner where their streets diverged, blown her a kiss with both hands and yelled, “See you tomorrow, rockstar!” before running off into the dark, all leather and studs and panda eyes, her laugh echoing out behind her in a cloud of beer and musky perfume.

And from there Chloe’s memories go from hazy blur to sharp focus. From that point on, Rachel was at the front, back and center of everything.

 


 

The very next day, Rachel set the world on fire. Dropped a lit match into that empty space inside Chloe—the hollow, dark, dusty space that ached to be warmed. A spark that lit the dry kindling of Chloe’s heart and ignited with a roar, an explosion that scorched through every part of her. Made her burn with the wishing, the wanting, the fucking wonder of it; like a million tiny, fiery butterflies, newly hatched, wings beating through her veins…

Fluttering, pulsating through every muscle, every sinew as Rachel stared up at her, eyes liquid-soft in the stage lights, make-up beginning to run around her temples. She’d looked straight at Chloe, straight into her, and promised her all the corners of the world…

Surging, bubbling through every artery, every capillary as Rachel pulled off her bracelet with teeth that gleamed white under street lamps, her fingers warm on Chloe’s wrist as she tied it on and talked about running away. Told Chloe she’d never taken that bracelet off. Told her it always reminded her the world was so much bigger than Arcadia Bay. And when Chloe tried to give it back, told her there was nowhere else she would rather keep it...

A million tiny wings dancing, wheeling through her as Rachel lay beside her, looking up at the glittering canopy of stars that Chloe had made for her, and Chloe felt like the biggest one in the sky. One in a hundred infinities. Someone important, someone needed, someone like Chloe...

Chloe gave Rachel stars, and in return Rachel gifted her the world outside the window. The whole goddamn world. All the promise of it, the curves of it, the depths and the secrets of it. Made Chloe’s world feel like something huge, exciting and hella fucking awesome...

Rachel set the world on fire.

And filled it with light.






Chapter Text

October 7th, 2013

Soft footsteps on the stairs shake Chloe back into the present. The door clicks open, hesitates on its hinges like a question mark, and Max shuffles back into the room.

Chloe doesn’t move from the bed, keeps staring up at the ceiling, into the space that Rachel has just vacated. She misses her immediately. “You get your tools?” she asks.

“I think so.”

“Sweet. You can use the desk.”

The tools don’t seem to help. Chloe watches from the bed as Max struggles to fix her camera, back silhouetted by the drowsy light from the window, elbows beating like wings as she pokes around with a screwdriver. She’s clearly never fixed a thing in her life. Chloe wonders if she should offer to help. She might know nothing about cameras, but at least she knows how to hold a damn screwdriver. There is a groan of frustration from the desk and Max throws herself back against the chair. “I can’t fix this thing,” she says, letting the screwdriver fall from her hand and crossing her arms over her chest. Sulky. Maybe they still have something in common after all.

Chloe slides off the bed and traipses over. Dumps her ashtray next to the broken camera, which lies forlorn and in pieces among the other trash on her desk. The discarded screwdriver has rolled to a stop over one of Rachel’s posters and the tip lines up perfectly with her mouth, making it look like she’s smoking a huge blunt. Chloe smiles at that. Rachel would have liked that.

Several instant photographs are splayed across the top of Chloe’s laptop and she runs a finger over their glossy surface. “Are these your new photos?”

“Yeah, just some I took today,” Max says, and Chloe can feel Max’s expectant gaze locked on her as she glances over them. They’re good. Of course they’re good, they’re Max. The subjects themselves aren’t interesting—a squirrel, a broken window, a bucket, a smiley-face doodle thumbed into the dust; but still they manage to capture something— a feeling, a movement, a flash of color… A flash of blue.

Chloe grabs a photo from the desk. “I’ve seen this before,” she says, staring hard at the image in her hand: A blue butterfly perched on the lip of a bucket, Max’s reflection visible in the metal sheen.

The butterfly from the bathroom.

The bathroom.

Max was in the bathroom.

“No way! When did you take this?” she asks, waving the photograph at Max, who looks away, and Chloe can see her tiny ears glowing pink. “ You took this photo?”

A part of her knows that whoever set off that alarm saved her life. Frank had asked who it was in the RV afterwards and Chloe had shrugged, said she must have a guardian angel. He’d laughed―too hard―said if Chloe had a guardian angel then God needed to give them a fucking raise. But this… This is better than any of that spiritual bullcrap. A burst of warmth floods through her as she stares again at the photograph. It was Max. Max fucking Caulfield all along. Max in there with her, arms pulling her up. Those old fantasies Chloe used to kick around as she dreamed about Max’s return suddenly seem so childish, so lame. This right here, this is the real deal. Okay, Max may have waited five years but, fuck, Caulfield sure knows how to make an entrance.  

“It was you that set off the alarm,” Chloe says, throwing the photo down in front of Max. “That’s why Nathan raged after you!” The heat expands in Chloe’s chest, the warmth of endless childhood summers. Max was in that bathroom. She came back. Max came back . “Dude.” A grin spreads like wildfire across her face. “You hella saved my life!”

Max glances up at her, still shy, but on the edges of her voice is the faintest glimmer of pride. “I was there,” she says, drops her eyes to the floor. “Hiding in the corner.”

“Like a ninja! That is so badass!” And Chloe wants to stop there, she does. She wants to to enjoy this moment, soak in it like a hot bath after a snowstorm.  Live this fantasy that at last came true: Max came back. Max saved her. Max is fucking here .

But then she remembers why she was in that bathroom, what she was doing, what Max must have heard and… Shit. “Did you hear our conversation?” she asks.

“Just a bit… Something about money… drugs… but that’s it.”

She’s lying. Of course she’s lying. There’s no way she didn’t hear every vowel. Confirmation of what a fuckup Chloe has become. Again she senses that chasm between them, feels it widen, falters as the edge of it as it crumbles below her feet. That void of five years―over a quarter of their lives―pulling them apart. She longs to cross it. To jump that canyon, to be her fourteen-year-old self again. Back to when life was fun and uncomplicated and infinitely less shitty. How fucking awesome would it be to ram a pirate hat down over Max’s preppy haircut, scramble out the window together in search of adventure. The way they always used to. But she isn’t that kid anymore. She isn’t the same Chloe Max once knew. She chews the inside of her lip, finds her fingers tracing the lines of her tattoo. “Did you tell anyone?” she asks.

“Absolutely,” Max looks up at last. “Nathan Prescott had a fucking gun on you.”

The words strike deep to the stomach and Chloe’s voice escapes into the room, too brittle, too flimsy: “Gutless prick. Yeah, that was scary.” She coughs, tries to push that fucker back into his box. “Who did you tell?”

“The Principal,” Max says, as if telling the Principal were the most natural thing in the world. “But he didn’t seem to believe me.”

Chloe groans. “The Principal? Seriously? Are you twelve ?”

“I didn’t mention you at all. Swear.”

“Thank God.” Chloe sighs. “Listen, I’ll tell you about it all someday. I seriously owe you, Max.”

She is about to dump herself back on the bed when she catches sight of Max’s camera, still lying in pieces on the desk. And a long-forgotten idea flickers into life like a struck match inside her. It’s a thought that hasn’t entered her head in years, not since the days she used to lie staring up at the ceiling, waiting for the honk of the Caulfields’ horn outside. Back when she still used to plan for Max’s inevitable return, running through ideas of what she could give to Max as a gift when she came home. When she came home.

She smiles to herself and bounds over to the HiFi, rifles through the crap on the shelves below. Behind a pile of dusty DVD cases she finds what she’s looking for: An old Polaroid Spectra that has been sitting, unused, for over five years.

She pulls it from the shelf and stares down at the lens, wipes off dust that leaves a dark smudge on her thumb. “I… uh…” Words—long practised, but never actually spoken aloud—catch like a fish hook in her throat. Isn’t this what she always planned? That Max would come back and she would give her this camera? “I know it was your birthday last month.” She pauses for breath, the camera heavy in her hands. Loaded down, clogged full of the past. As though every image it had ever taken were somehow still coiled up inside; a long, twisting reel of her family’s entire existence. All those moments captured, catalogued, now long buried in dusty albums. Endless memories. Until they did end. Until the film ran out and their story was over.

“This was my dad’s camera…” she says at last. She knows there’s only one person who could do it justice, who could find endless beauty in the simplest of things, just like her dad used to. There’s only ever been one person. She thrusts it at Max before she can change her mind. “I want you to have it.”

Max’s eyes are huge, like a four-year-old handed a puppy for Christmas. Like she can’t quite believe it. “That’s so cool you remembered my birthday,” she says, taking the camera like she’s afraid she might break it, turning it over carefully in her hands. “But I can’t take this, it’s too much.”

“Of course you can take it.” Chloe waves away her protests with a flick of the hand, wonders if it’s that strange she remembered Max’s birthday. She’s remembered it every year for the last five. Another of those dates that rolls around each fall, snags her like barbed wire as she tries to stumble past. Of course she remembers Max’s birthday. Does Max not remember hers? “My dad would be pissed if I never used it,” she says, pushing the question aside. “And now I know it will be used awesomely.” She whips the picture of the butterfly from the desk. “And I’ll take this picture here as a symbol of our reunion. Cool?”

“Yes, of course it’s cool! Thank you.” Max hugs the camera to her chest. “This camera is so sweet.”

And for the first time that day, Chloe sees Max smiling at her—really smiling at her—unfiltered by downward glances or a half-turned shoulder, eyes darting away. It’s a smile she used to give Chloe all the time when they were younger: A smile that says, you just made everything better. And—fuck—it’s been so long since anyone smiled at Chloe like that.

A smile that scrubs away the last five years, and now they’re kids again: Captain Bluebeard and Long Max Silver. Forever. Always. A smile that slings a rope across that chasm between them, high over the swirling rapids below. And Chloe can see Max on the other side. Waiting. Her face shining with bright, unguarded elation, the smiling face of Chloe’s once-best friend.

She bounds over to the stereo. “Right, now that we got the mushy shit out of the way, I feel like stage diving!” she says, bouncing on her haunches as she skips through the tracks, finds some punk rock. “Let’s thrash this place!” Her voice is lost to the sudden blast of a guitar riff as she grabs her joint from the desk and leaps onto the bed.

Max chuckles. “You’re crazy.”

“Yep, I’m fucking insane in the brain!” Chloe yells, lighting up. She knows she’s acting like a lunatic but she doesn’t care. She’s high. Max is back. Max is fucking back . She throws her arms above her head and sways to the beat , whorls of smoke from her joint twisting around her like ghostly arms of the past, thrashing with her to the pumping beat .

From the foot of the bed, Max stares up at her, mouth slightly open. Like she always did when they were kids, back when Chloe was the coolest person in the world; when even the smallest things she did were worthy of Max’s awe. She was Max’s hero then—someone special. Someone worthwhile. And now, here in this room, it’s like traveling back through time.

The discarded shell of what she’s become—Chloe the Fuckup, Chloe the Loser, Chloe the Lame—lies like a husk on the floor, strewn among torn magazines and dirty laundry. Leave it there. Leave it there to rot. Right now, she’s Chloe the Badass, Chloe the Awesome, Captain Chloe Bluebeard, Scourge of Arcadia Bay; her fourteen-year-old self again with her first mate gazing up at her. Glowing in the light from Max’s eyes. “Yo,” she shouts above the music. “Take my picture with your new camera!”

There is a flash as Max takes the shot. A bright burst of light that hasn’t shone in half a decade, capturing Chloe as she was back then. The Chloe she still wants to be. “This song fucking rules!” she yells, looking down at Max. “Can’t dance, hippie? Come on!”

Max seems to hesitate, a panicked doe in the headlamps, but she dances anyway. And when she does, it’s like time stood still. Her moves haven’t changed a bit; awkwardly windmilling her arms, an embarrassed smile trying to hide on her lips. So much for thrashing in Seattle. Chloe laughs. A proper laugh. For the first time since… “Yes! Break it down, Max!”

A door slams downstairs, a bark from below: “Chloe, are you up there?”

The voice smashes through Chloe’s happy high like a bullet through a snow globe, an explosion of white flecks falling all around her. David isn’t at the shooting range. No, he’s here: Stomping up the stairs, pumping out hot air like bellows as he thunders something about needing to talk. He’s early.

Chloe whips her attention to Max, swipes her fingers rapidly across her neck. “Yo, cut the music,” she says, springing from the bed and chucking the last of her joint in the ashtray. “Turn it off!”

The floorboards on the landing creak as Max scrabbles at the HiFi, finding the right button at last. “You have to hide,” Chloe hisses. “My stepdad will kill me if he finds you here.”

“Chloe!” David’s heavy tread right outside. Chloe dives towards the door, throws herself against it, full-bodied. Manages to force the lock closed as the handle wrenches from the other side. “What’s going on?” David yells through the wood.

“Dude, I’m changing!” she lies, pressing her shoulder harder up against the rattling door. Fuck, why today? Why today, of all days, does he have to turn up, unexpected? The guy’s usually a fucking automaton on a timer; Chloe could set her watch by him. If she had a watch. On Monday David always goes to the shooting range after work. Afterwards, he picks up her mom from the diner, and they both get in at 8:09pm. Military precision, every Monday. Just not this Monday.

The door gives a violent jolt. “Chloe, you’re stalling!”

“Gimme a minute! My bra is stuck,” she yells back. Dammit, they were supposed to be safe here, she and Max. Safe to hang out, to chill, to catch up. Safe to pretend, if only for a few hours, that her home was still the one Max remembers and not fucking Guantanamo Bay. Why did he come back early? The handle digs painfully into Chloe’s palm as David tries to force it from the other side, and with a dull pounding in her chest, she realizes he must have noticed the missing gun.

“I’m giving you exactly three seconds to open this door!” she hears David shout, just as something catches in the corner of her eye: A movement, too fast, like the shutter of a camera. Max. One second she is there, the next she is not. The corners of Chloe’s vision dull and an overwhelming feeling of deja vu surges through her like a wave. Like she’s been here before, body pressed hard against the door as it judders in its frame. She blinks and the feeling subsides, looks round for Max but she isn’t there. Gone. Damn, she is a ninja.

Chloe turns the lock at last and the door slams into her shoulder, shunting her aside. And now here he is: Sergeant fucking Slaughter, barreling into the room like a bull entering the ring—all confused, coiled aggression, lumbering first towards the closet, then towards the desk. His eyes dart from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. Looking for something.

“One of my guns is missing,” he says, eyes now fixed on Chloe. “Did you take it?”

Chloe drops onto the bed with a sigh. Here we go… He crowds over her, all mustache. It quivers on his upper lip making it impossible for Chloe to concentrate on anything else. “No, I didn’t take your stupid gun,” she says. There’s a crumb caught in his bristly, black face bush. She wonders how long it’s been stuck there. If she can keep her eye on it, maybe she can keep her voice steady. “You do know I believe in gun control, right?”

David’s nostrils flare and he stiffens, at last seeming to notice the whole room reeks like a hotbox. He stalks over to the desk, grabs what remains of the joint from Chloe’s ashtray and thrusts it out towards her. “Is this grass?” he demands, as though they haven’t been living in the same house for three years, as though he’s never smelled fucking weed before. “Have you been toking up in here again?”

Chloe’s eyes flick up towards the closet where she can just make out Max’s outline behind the slats. So that’s where she is. She gets up, plants herself between David and the barely concealed Max. Tries to make it look casual despite her pulse pounding in her temples. “Oh yeah,” she says, hands on hips, fighting dumb with dumber. “I got it all in here. Guns, weed. You’re trippin’ balls, man.”

She needs him out of here so she can hide that gun, so she can hide Max. It had occurred to her in the truck that Max must know David from Blackwell, that she must already know what a paranoid shit stain he is. Now she knows he lives here. Is right now witnessing how deeply this asshole has burrowed like ringworm into Chloe's home, into her life. And the humiliation, the shame of it, pierces like a hot needle through Chloe’s chest.

“I’m sick of your disrespect!” he shouts, stomping towards her. “Tell me the truth, that’s an order! Whose pot is it?” His jaw is pulled tight, pulsing below his mustache, and he’s shaking, his huge metal watch quivering on his wrist. A beam from the window hits the strap and it flashes. Too bright. Way too bright. Fills the whole room like an explosion. And suddenly the watch strap is right there, a flash of gold as it whips past her eyes. A crack, like thunder in her skull, as his hand slams into her cheekbone.

Except it doesn’t.

She waits for the searing pain to spread through her cheek but… nothing.

When she looks up she expects to see David looming over her, but he hasn’t moved, is still standing several paces away with his arm raised, lips twisted. Too far… too far away to reach her. Her cheek thrums, and she touches it lightly with her fingertips, but there is no pain there. A trace, a faint trace of something, but not pain. A memory. It was just a memory. Holy shit, it felt so real.

A rattle behind Chloe and the closet door slides open. “That was my joint.” Max’s voice, or a version of it—soft but with something firm at its center, like a peach sliced down to the stone. A voice that says, in as Max a way as possible: I’m pissed . Chloe turns to see her stepping out of her hiding place, steely eyes fixed on David who storms down on her without missing a beat.

“Well, well,” he snarls. “I don’t like strangers in my home, especially dopers.” He towers over Max, threatening the police, threatening to tell the school she’s been dealing, and Chloe can see Max’s small frame tremble, sees her reach again for her sleeve. But Max’s eyes don’t leave David’s, a flush of red veiling the freckles on her cheeks. She’ standing her ground. Defiant… Like Rachel. “I’m sick of you losers dragging Chloe down,” David yells. “So you’re bringing drugs into my home now?”

Part of Chloe wants to laugh in David’s face. Make fun of his dumb accusation that Max, of all people, could be a drug dealer. But she remembers Rachel facing him down like this, wrenching her wrist free from his grip, her eyes flashing fire, her voice like ice: Touch me again and I’ll destroy you .

David’s finger jabs into Max’s collarbone, making her stumble backwards, and Chloe leaps at him. “Get the hell away from her, man!” she shouts, grabbing his arm and pushing him away. “Stop harassing my friends!”

“You don’t have any friends.”

His words cut deep but Chloe knows better than to take the bait. Anyway, maybe she does have a friend now. “Like you would know,” she sneers, stepping in front of Max to put a barrier between her and David. “Stop it with this shake-down shit. You’re not even a real cop, you’re a fucking security guard!”

“I was a soldier, Chloe. And, Max, if I see you here again,” he leans round Chloe to jab a finger at Max, “you’ll learn all about real trouble.”

He leaves and Chloe waits until the door slams shut behind him before flipping the bird with both hands. Fucking prick. Relief gushes through her, like she just got away with something. Like something far worse should have happened in this room but didn’t. She hears David stomping around downstairs, slamming the door into the garage—defeated. For now.

Chloe grins across at Max, relief and admiration coursing through her. Did she really just take the hit for that? Did Max just take the fall for her? It’s been so long since someone put their neck on the line for Chloe. Shit, the last time that happened… She blinks. Scattered memories flashing on the back of her eyelids like a burst of gunfire:

Lying face down the freezing ground, chin grazing the blacktop and cuffs clicking on her wrists as a kneecap crushes her back…

The incessant whirr of a tape recorder in that tiny gray room with the green plastic chairs; her thumb running up and down over the ridges of a white, plastic cup as identikit cops barked endless questions…

And eyes. Eyes lost behind a cell door closing at the far end of a corridor—wordless, afraid. The palest blue below heavy, dark brows. Like a wolf.

Her chest hollows out and she winces. No, not that. No time to think about that. Now, it’s time to play.

“Because you are such a badass, Max,” Chloe says, reaching underneath the bed where David’s missing gun lies stashed behind a stack of old science magazines and an impressive collection of dust bunnies. “Let me show you my new toy.”

She slides out David’s missing gun, keeping it hidden behind her back, and sidles towards Max. Hips swaying and face tilted downwards, turning the corners of her lips upwards in a way she hopes looks impish, in control. A Rachel smile. “The name’s Price,” she drawls, arching an eyebrow, “Chloe Price.” And, still high off the weed, still high off Max taking the blame for the joint, she whips the revolver out from behind her and thrusts the barrel straight into Max’s face. “Bang!”

If she’d thought about it, she probably could have predicted the reaction: Max jumping, literally jumping, into the air, the color draining from her face quicker than the battery in Chloe’s shitty old cell phone. But she didn’t think about it. She just did it. Because she was excited. And she always does dumb stuff when she’s excited. Isn’t that what everyone always tells her. Her mom, Rachel…

“Jesus! Put that thing down!” Max cries, hands pushing the gun down and away. Her tone is cut with fear and disapproval and she gives Chloe this look, a look of such betrayal that it’s almost as if Chloe had shot her.

And there’s that heavy vacuum in Chloe’s chest again, making her feel really shitty. Shitty with a bite of irritation.  Why does Max look so scared? It’s not like Nathan had a gun on her . She couldn’t even see it from where she was hiding. Chloe rolls her eyes, lets the gun fall to her hip. Tries to ignore the way Max is now standing, half turned away from her.

“Chillax, sista,” Chloe says with a shrug, but the attempt at nonchalant gangsta circa 2002 doesn’t come off, just makes her feel like even more of a dick. “See, not even loaded.” She waves the gun to prove how harmless it is, to try to make things right. She cocks her head, smiles. “Yet.”

“I thought you believed in gun control,” Max says, her voice still tight.

Chloe flops onto the bed, looks down at the piece in her hands, a Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver. That’s what David had told her one day as they sat at the kitchen table. A green felt cloth was draped over the surface, creases carefully flattened by the back of his hand. On the cloth, his tools, all neatly arranged; bore brushes laid next to each other in ascending height order, a pile of soft rags, a bottle of cleaning solvent that filled the whole lower floor of the house with its sharp, acrid smell: The smell of guns. There were ten of them in all—pistols, revolvers; nickel finish and polished wood, barrels lying parallel, exactly four inches apart. This one’s a classic, David said, picking up the 29 with both hands, clicking open the cylinder with a flick of his wrist. Nineteen-seventy-three this was manufactured. 6 1/4” barrel, .44 magnum. He held up the revolver and spun the cylinder, and she could see his tiny eyes glinting like a kaleidoscope through the empty, spinning chambers. Powerful gun, this one, he continued, crooked smile. Could take a head clean off.

And that had freaked Chloe the fuck out.

The revolver is heavy in her palm. Real heavy. And cold. “Yes, I believe in gun control,” she says to Max. “I believe I should control the gun. It’s the men who need to be checked. You trust Nathan or David?”

Max’s mouth opens slightly, like she’s about to ask why Chloe stole it, and Chloe’s relieved when she doesn’t. Could she even answer that question? Why did she steal the damn gun? She’d tell Max, tell herself, that it was for protection, to make herself feel powerful, to feel badass. Just a tool to level the playing field against all the asshats baying for her blood. But she didn’t take it with her to meet Nathan earlier. No, she just… stole it. Because she could. Just in case. A what if.

But she won’t tell Max that. She won’t tell her how, in the early hours of the morning, she’d sat there on the edge of her bed, just as she sits here now, cradling the weight of the revolver in her lap and thinking about how easy would be. How fucking easy. To just… Until she’d lifted her eyes to see a figure crouched in the corner—red flannel, blue feather earring. Half her face lit by the dim orange glow of the streetlights. Silent, shaking her head sadly from side to side. Like she had nothing to do with it. As if it wasn’t all her fucking fault.

No, she can’t tell Max that. But there are some things she probably deserves to know. “Thanks for taking the heat,” she says. Max still looks unsure and Chloe senses the air between them creak as that chasm starts to open up again. She throws an anxious arm across. “We totally smacked David’s punk ass down, Max,” she says, hoping the reminder will pull Max back again. “He’s no match for you and me now. That was an epic win.”

Max’s eyes seem to soften and Chloe exhales, looks across to the window, at the world looking in. Max is back, and maybe there is still some adventure left in this town. “C’mon, let’s take the window,” she says. “I know where we can go.”

Max hauls open the sash. Yesterdays flutter in on the breeze as two of them clamber outside, slide down the roof, and back into the past.

 


 

They park in the lot down by the beach. Frank’s old Winnebago is back in its regular spot, up at the far end where the blacktop meets the boardwalk. Feeding time at the Blackwell Zoo must be over. Chloe reverses around the corner, out of the RV’s line of sight, and rolls to a halt. Frank is probably still pissed at her over what she said earlier, and she doesn’t need another of her favorite assholes getting his rage on today in front of Max. She’s only been back in her life two hours. She glances at the glovebox where she’d stuffed the revolver, debates whether to take it with her. Nah. It’s not like she’d ever shoot Frank anyway. She tries not to look over at the RV, tries not to draw any attention, as she ushers Max away from the lot and up the trail towards the lighthouse .

The dirt path meanders upwards through huge sweet-scented firs, branches tossed around by the breeze. It’s a trail Chloe has trod countless times, so often she remembers each root, each boulder, each place she would stop as a child to take a breather, sweaty hands on her knees, cheeks red, throat dry. As she looks down the path, she can almost see her dad and a much younger Max marching up behind her, the crunch of pine needles below their feet, Max’s tiny legs doing several knock-kneed strides for every one of his. C’mon, kiddos! her dad shouts, rolling up the sleeves of his flannel as he draws level with the present-day Chloe, as much a ghost to him as he is to her. Race you both to the top! And off he jogs with his long, lolloping strides, not trying, not really having to, the eager Max flapping at his heels, face puckered, desperate to keep up. Chloe sees herself—her old self—tearing past: A tangle of strawberry blonde fanning out behind her, flushed face buoyed by the whiff of competition. She sprints past her dad and Max, just as the trail turns the corner and breaks out of the trees. Storms out onto the flat, grassy platform at the cliff’s edge, arms held aloft in victory. All the way past the hulking shape of the lighthouse and to the wooden bench that sits alongside. I won, I won! she roars, her dad and Max laughing as they jog up behind. They always let her win.

Max always let her win.

“Isn’t this awesomesauce?” Chloe shouts down the trail to a much older Max. She kind of feels like running. “Just like when we were kids.”

But Max doesn’t seem to be interested in racing her up the hill today. She floats along behind like the falling leaves that billow around them, lost in some kind of daydream; the shutter click of William’s old camera echoing through the trees each time she stops to take a photo.

“C’mon, slowpoke!” Chloe tries again, but Max is already lost to the forest. Taking a picture of a squirrel or whatever. Like there weren’t any squirrels in Seattle.

“Hold on,” comes the distant reply.

Chloe sighs and saunters up to the top of the path, kicking up the dust with her boots. Like she can kick out the disquiet beginning to churn inside her, the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. How easily she’d given herself over to Max back there in her room, as though the past were a place she could just return to. Let all her shields down, left herself fleshy and exposed. And for what? Max isn’t a child anymore. Neither is Chloe. The trail up to the lighthouse is no longer an adventure. It’s been five years. Five fucking years.

The bench is still here, tagged in several new places since Max saw it last. Chloe drops onto it, right over the spot where she had spent an idle hour etching RA+CP into the wood with a nail file. She can’t explain why, but she doesn’t want Max to see it. Maybe later. She sprawls her legs out and waits.

Below her lies the bay, an almost perfect U carved into the wild Pacific coastline. Oh, the eponymous Bay, as Rachel had once described it from this very same spot and in typical dramatic fashion. The sun hangs low in the sky, a ball of hot white below a tumult of red clouds; a perfect Golden Hour. That’ll keep Max’s new camera happy—Chloe glances over her shoulder, still no Max—if she ever makes it up here. The rational part of Chloe’s brain tells her that she’s waited five years, asks her why another five minutes should matter? And, as usual, she can’t give it an answer. Except that… it does. She pats down her pockets for a cigarette, remembers she left her jacket in the truck. Goddamnit, she grunts through her teeth, throwing her head back, and finds herself staring up at the lighthouse.

The old heap of faded bricks has been part of Chloe’s life for as long as she’s known. Whenever she reaches back into the deepest chasms of her mind, tries to grasp the strands that lead to those very first childhood memories—long reduced to flashes of color and static images—they almost always take her back to this place…

A first memory, cloudy, like staring through frosted glass: A picnic, up here among the rocks. Pieces of shell from a boiled egg scattered on a red and white checked blanket. Her mom in a blue, billowing dress and slung over her dad’s shoulder, eyes bright and wet with laughter as he twirled her around and around.

Later, more detailed:  The clanging of the iron steps inside the lighthouse as Chloe tore up them with Max. The riddle of the trapdoor at the top. Locked. Always locked. The last barrier between them and the mystical lantern room. What was in there? Did anyone live in there? An old wizard with a knobbly stick, surrounded by shelves full of leather tomes and vials? A lonely princess with flowing golden hair? Chloe and Max would thump the sides of their tiny fists on the wooden hatch, two pirates calling up to the mysterious keeper of the light. It was only much later Chloe would find out that the lighthouse had been automated since the seventies. That all that was up there was an old, dusty lens. But they didn’t know that then.

Much later, like it was yesterday: the warmth of the sun on Chloe’s back as she sat cross-legged on the bench facing Rachel; sharing a bag of chips, sharing earbuds, sharing kisses. Hesitant at first, over time more bold. The flicker of Rachel’s tongue on her own making everything around melt and float away into nothing. Until they would at last pull away from each other, laughing, rubbing their wet mouths on their sleeves; the raw, red skin over Rachel’s top lip the only indicator of how much time had passed.

A shutter clicks behind her. Max is still taking photos but at least has made it to the top of the trail. Her soft tread rustling over fallen leaves, drifting over their old haunt like a ghost of her former self. A part of Chloe is sure that she must be imagining her. That if she turns around, Max will be gone.

So she doesn’t turn around. Instead fixes her eyes on a single fishing boat, bobbing among the waves of the bay, heading out towards the jaws of the Pacific. Chloe watches as it gets smaller and smaller, the reflection of the sky so red on the boat’s hull it looks engulfed in flame. Maybe that’s where Rachel is right now. On that fishing boat. Maybe, if Chloe squints hard enough, she’ll see her waving from the deck.

A small hand reaches out and clutches the back of the bench. A real hand. Max.

“Take a seat, Pete,” Chloe says, tapping the seat beside her.

Max lowers herself down. “You okay?” Max asks. That question again. Chloe shifts on her seat. Is she that obvious?

“Yeah, I’m good.” The little fishing boat is getting smaller and smaller, almost at the edge of the bay. “Seeing my step-douche get played makes me happy.”

Max lets out a quiet sigh beside her. “David is indeed a step-douche,” she says. “Has he always been this way?”

“Pretty much. I’m sorry you had to witness it first-hand.” Further and further the fishing boat sails, its outline now hazy. “Rambo still thinks he’s gathering enemy intelligence.”

Silence. Too long a silence until, at last Max starts to speak: “Chloe… I… when I…” She stops. And Chloe realizes she’s not lost for words, but choosing them. “When I was looking for tools in the garage… I found some stuff… files.”

Chloe slides a glance across the bench, sees Max with head bowed, playing with her sleeves again, pulling them over her palms as she talks. “Like what?” she asks. “Go on, dish the dirt. It’s snuff porn, isn’t it?” She wants to laugh, to tease Max for snooping, but Max’s face is colorless even in the evening light, her voice too serious. Chloe flicks her a wry smile. She doesn’t like where this is going.

“No. Photos of Blackwell students on campus… A lot of them. Like he’s spying on them.”

Chloe rolls her eyes, returns them to the boat—by now almost invisible. She can’t help the trickle of relief that runs through her. How about something she doesn’t know? She wonders if she should tell Max about all the shit that went down at Blackwell last year. The real reason behind David’s hard-on for the truth. Maybe another time. “Dude takes his job way too seriously,” she says. “He still thinks he’s at war or something. Total surveillance fetish.” She barks a laugh. “I seriously worry there are spy cams in the house.”

“Chloe…” Max shoots out a hand, like she’s about to place it on Chloe’s leg, stops. “I knew you didn’t know.”

“Know what?”

“There are cameras all over the house. I… I saw it on a monitor in the garage.”

The leaden weight of Max’s revelation sinks deep into Chloe, gripping her gut, making her feel sick. For ages she’s sensed he’s up to something, but hearing it makes it real. Too real. “I knew it!” she growls, punching her thigh with the side of her fist. “He’s hella fucking paranoid!” Oh sure, he’d tell her that it’s for her own good, that she drove him to it, that he had no choice. Yeah, right. Ever since all that shit happened last fall he’s been hounding her, harassing her, not letting her breathe. She catches glimpses of his car at the junkyard, at the beach. Flashes of metallic blue that follow her everywhere. “Fuck, no wonder I’m so miserable,” she says, falling back against the bench. “Everybody in this town knows everyone’s secrets.”

“Even yours?”

The boat has disappeared now, lost to the horizon; gone while Chloe’s attention was elsewhere. She’s pissed that she missed it. Maybe Rachel was on that boat after all. “Not anymore,” she says quietly.

It’s a while before either of them speaks, until at last Max asks, "So, what secrets do you have on Nathan?" And Chloe can’t help it, his name—those two simple syllables falling from Max’s lips, the way her mouth seems to twist around them, like they’re poison—pulls Chloe right back into that bathroom again, pushed up against the wall, his stinking breath flushing over her face. She winces, resists the urge to get up, to run out of there, sprint out of there and away. If she does that she might never see Max again. And she’s not sure if she wants that. Don’t pull a you, Rachel’s voice in her head. So she stays sitting, grips the seat, drums her fingers on the wood underneath.

Back in her room she’d planned to come up here and give Max the whole story about Nathan. But can she do that? Can she even trust this Max? This Max who left her, who waited five years to come back. And now that she’s here seems so… distant. This isn’t her Max. Not really. Giving her a camera is one thing, but spilling all those secrets…

“He’s just an elitist asshole…” she begins, finds herself giving the vaguest outline of how she ended up trapped in that bathroom with a gun to her stomach. Just the bones of it, licked clean.

Nathan? She tells Max that she met Nathan in a bar—as though they’d been strangers. As though he’d been some random guy slurring his order at the barkeeper while waving a wedge of hundred-dollar bills. As though meeting him there hadn’t all been her idea.

Frank? She doesn’t even mention Frank. Max definitely doesn’t need to know Chloe’s tangled history with him. She just says she owes big.

And the rest… The rest isn’t a lie. Not really. She tells Max how Nathan drugged her, tries to keep her voice steady as she relives the barest outline of that night out loud: “I… I passed out on the floor. I woke up, and that perv was smiling, crawling towards me with a camera.”

Max’s pale face grows paler. “Go on…”

Chloe leans forward, picks at a hangnail. Max is curled in towards her, face and body attentive, like she cares. Like she really does give a shit. “I tried to kick him in the balls,” Chloe says, her voice sounding feeble in her throat. The sound of it pisses her off. “Broke a lamp. Nathan freaked, so I managed to bum rush the door and get the hell out. Max, it was insane.”

She exhales, leans back against the bench. Enough. That’s enough for today. Everything else can wait.

She doesn’t tell Max about the photographs, about the models Nathan pays to do his freaky shots. How it was Chloe who suggested they meet at Howling Lupe’s Bar, offered to pose for him in an attempt to get into his room and steal his stash: Hundreds of pills , she’d heard Stella whisper to a friend in the Blackwell hallway. Bottles full of them.

She wasn’t actually going to pose for him, no fucking way. She’d intended to get him so drunk he passed out well before they got to that. He could never match her shot for shot—she could drink him into the ground. Except he hadn’t wanted shots. He’d stuck to beer. And then he’d called Frank.

After that everything gets blurred—slivers of memories folding in on themselves, an Escherian staircase Chloe can’t find the beginning of, nor follow to the end. She was wasted. Too wasted. Nathan left the room and she must have hunted for his stash. Maybe she couldn’t find anything, maybe she just got bored waiting, but eventually she’d tried to stumble after him. Gotten to the door to find it locked. She remembers a sluggish panic, a fear knotting inside her as she banged the side of her fist into the wood, calling for the bastard to come back. She may even have punched a few random letters over to Frank in a text, fingers thumping clumsily at the keypad, making blurred strings of words that weren’t words at all. She’d later realize she never pressed send. Her legs must have betrayed her first, and she crumpled to the floor. The last memory she has is of an empty beer bottle, lying on its side on the carpet. There was still liquid in it, dregs lolling in the upturned glass, frothing with tiny bubbles. Understanding seeping like treacle through her brain: He put something in the beer. That asshole put something in the fucking beer . And then nothing.

Until… She could feel him before she could see him. That moment before she opened her eyes. The heavy heat of his body pressing down on her, his excitement jabbing into the top of her thigh. His words floating down over her like a veil: Yes, that’s beautiful. She tried to open her eyes but couldn’t, her muscles unresponsive to the scream imprisoned at the back of her throat. As if trapped in a dream, she willed the movement back into her body, into her arms, her fingers, her eyelids; tried to keep breathing as she felt her control return, seeping sluggishly through her like wet loam. Slowly, too slowly. His hand pressing down between her breasts. At last, she felt her eyelids flicker, forced them open and when she did all she could see was a face—a face above her, wild and stricken. Her own reflection. Staring back down at her from the lens of a camera.

She heard him gasp, or was it her that gasped? A split second of surprise as she threw a leg out and must have caught the cable that ran down from his desk lamp to the floor…

A shatter of glass. A thump as she brought up her knee with all the power she had, slammed it into his groin. A flash of white light as the camera shutter clicked right on that point of impact. He fell back, screamed. The camera tossed into the air, smashing onto the floor.

As she staggered to her feet, he’d lain curled up and shaking, clutching at his dick. Don’t tell him , he gasped through rasping sobs, face screwed up, snot smeared down his cheeks. Please… Oh God… Please don’t tell him what I said. Please. I’m begging you. He’ll kill me. Please.

She’d been too scared to reply. Just grabbed a couple of pill bottles from the bedside cabinet, stuffed them into her pockets and stumbled from the room.

No, she doesn’t tell Max that.

She doesn’t tell Max how she went to see Frank the next day. How he’d taken one look at the bottles she’d stolen and knocked them from the table with the back of his hand, scattering their meagre contents across the floor of the RV.

“Dammit, Price, these are worth nothing. Every fucker in town has a script for these! There’s a couple hundred bucks there at most. At most. You promised me six fucking grand!”

She stared down at the little white pills on the dirty floor. Frank was a cheap bastard. He’d be scrabbling around picking them up as soon as she was out of the door. “It’s not my fault Stella is full of shit,” she said.

“Stella?” His eyes widened. “Stella told you about his stash? Fucking Stella is your source? For fuck’s sake, Chloe.”

“But you don’t get it, dude. Before I left he was begging me, all like: Don’t tell him what I said, Chloe. He’ll kill me, Chloe. He’ll kill me. He was really fucking scared.”

“What did he tell you? Who’d kill him?”

“Fucked if I know. I was out of it, remember? His precious Papito maybe? Probably doesn’t want Pops-zilla to know about his pervy photo fetish. Or that he’s running pills in school.” She jabbed at the table with her finger. “The point is, he thinks I have info on him. Something important. He’ll pay up for that. I’ll make him pay up for that.”

But she hadn’t, had she? Frank was right about her. Max doesn’t need to know about that either.

Chloe snatches a glance at Max’s anxious eyes. Sighs. She’ll save admitting how much of a loser she is for another day.

“What if Nathan threatens you again?” Max asks. “I won’t always be there to save you.”

“Well, you were here today,” Chloe says. “You saved me, Max. I’m still tripping on that. Seeing you after all these years feels like—”

“Destiny?” Max reaches out and touches her now—the lightest of feather touches on Chloe’s shoulder, fingertips on bare skin. As if it’s something she’s been working up to, has at last plucked up the courage.

Chloe stands, evading the responsibility of the touch, and walks towards the cliff edge. A sign . That's what she was going to say. It feels like a sign. But of what, she’s not sure. They’re so different now, her and Max. How sharply their paths have diverged: Max, the talented Blackwell student, Chloe…

Chloe’s no hero to Max now. She’s a stranger—a hazy, childhood memory turned jagged reality. Up to her neck in shit Max can’t possibly understand. No, Max won’t always be there to save her, but if she sticks close to Chloe, who’s going to save Max? What if Chloe fucks it all up for her, too?

The distant, red horizon stings Chloe’s eyes as she scans the waves, searching again for that fishing boat. As though she could will it back into existence. And if the boat comes back, then surely Rachel would come back with it. “If this is destiny, I hope we can find Rachel,” she says at last. “I miss her, Max.”

The boat does not come back. The boat is gone.

Max appears at Chloe’s shoulder. She doesn’t say anything, just stands close. Maybe thinking about her own lost things. Chloe looks down over the town sprawled below them, rotting in the light of the decaying sun. “This shit-pit has taken away everyone I’ve ever loved,” she says, tears pricking her eyes. “I’d like to drop a bomb on Arcadia Bay and turn it to fucking glass.”

A gasp beside her as Max staggers backwards, hands flying to her face like she’s just been struck. Chloe’s first reaction is to look for the prick who’s pelting things at them, until Max groans and her legs buckle, and when that happens, Chloe doesn’t think, she doesn’t think at all, she just reaches out to catch her .

Her fingers clasp at the shoulder of Max’s hoodie and find it… wet? And for a beat in time—a beat so short it’s not even a fraction—the world around her goes dark. A biting wind whips at her hair, icy rain slashes her face. And then—

Max falls. “Chloe!” she cries as her legs fold beneath her, crashing onto the grass. Chloe keeps hold of her, clutching Max’s shoulders as she topples with her. Her knees thud onto the ground, and a tiny cloud of dust billows into the warm air. Max’s hoodie is soft and dry in her hands. Whatever weirdness just happened she doesn’t have time to think about it. Max is shaking, eyes polished by tears. “Chloe, you’re here,” she says. “I’m back. Oh, my lord, this is real—it’s real!”

“Max?” Chloe doesn’t let go, grips harder. “What’s going on? You totally blacked out.”

Max struggles free, backing away like a startled animal. “I didn’t black out” she cries. “I… I had another vision. Chloe, the town is going to get wiped out by a tornado!”

Chloe lets out a tiny chuckle. Max got her good there for a second. “Oregon gets about five tornadoes every twenty years,” she says, trying to catch Max’s eyes. “You just zoned.”

“No, no, I saw it!” Max reaches out and grasps Chloe’s wrist. “I saw it! I could actually feel the electricity in the air.” Her hand is slick, freezing. Like she just walked in from the cold.

Chloe doesn’t pull away. Instead a chill rises in her chest, froths and swells like the waves bursting against the rocks below them. Because she knows Max. Even after all this time, she knows her. No, Max isn’t joking. Whatever she thinks she saw, she’s serious. “Come on,” Chloe says. “Take a breath, okay?”

Max’s fingernails dig deep into Chloe’s skin, but she doesn’t try to break free, just places her other hand on Max’s shoulder. “Chloe, I’m not crazy,” Max says, shaking her head, like she’s trying to convince herself as much as Chloe. “But there’s something else I have to tell you. Something… hardcore.”

Chloe waits, framed in that moment. Caught between fear and anticipation as Max takes a deep breath, voice trembling as she exhales. “I had this same vision earlier in class. When I came out of it, I discovered I could reverse time.” Her eyes meet Chloe’s, rims pink, begging to be believed. “Like I said: Not crazy.”

“But high, right?” Except Chloe knows she isn’t high. She knows what high looks like. Max isn’t high.

“Listen to me, how do you think I saved you in the bathroom?”

“By reversing time? Yeah, sure.”

“I saw you get shot, Chloe.” Max’s grip tightens. “Saw you actually… die. I was able to go back and hit the fire alarm.”

Chloe narrows her eyes, remembers the shriek of the Blackwell alarm ricocheting through her skull as she escaped that bathroom. Before that, just seconds before that, a rush of static filling her head, loud and light. Her vision fading. From somewhere in the distance—from somewhere else—the crack of gunfire.

And that butterfly. That goddamn butterfly.

Had he shot her? Had he really shot her? She shakes the memory away. It’s impossible. She was just freaking.

“You need to get high,” she says, more to herself than Max. “It’s been a hella insane fucking day.”

Something lands on the side of Chloe’s nose, cold and wet, and she brushes it away. Then again. And again. She lets go of Max and looks up. Rain? No, not rain. Snow. Millions of tiny snowflakes, curling and drifting around them, melting even before they hit the ground. A cascade of white flecks that fill the burning sky. She jumps up, holding out her hands in disbelief. It’s still at least eighty degrees out. “What the hell is this?”

Max clambers to her feet, looking around her at the swirling blizzard, and when she speaks her voice is stone: “A storm coming.”

Chloe tries to catch the snowflakes in her hand, watches them dissolve the moment they dust her fingertips. The briefest chill then gone. As she tries to untangle the knot of confusion in her brain, a familiar laugh chimes out over the cliff edge: Rich, deep, dirty, fantastic. And over Max’s shoulder, Chloe can see her—golden hair blue feather earring. Red flannel floating around her as she spins joyous circles with arms outstretched, face held aloft to the sky. The snow settles on her, just as the ash did all those years ago, glistens on her cheeks, on the tips of her eyelashes. As real as if she was actually there. As though Chloe could just walk over and touch her, brush the snowflakes from her hair.

A hand on her shoulder brings her back, and she finds herself looking down at Max’s elfin face. Max, a real person. Who just opened herself up to Chloe completely, laid herself bare like an infant, with a blind trust Chloe knows she doesn’t deserve. And as if for the first time, Chloe sees her, truly sees her—the real Max. The way she bites her lip, constantly plays with the sleeve of her hoodie; the deep blue of Max’s eyes reflecting back into Chloe’s own. The shy, nervous child has become a shy, nervous adult. But there is pain in her now. A pain that manifests itself in furtive downward glances, the turning away of a head, fingers picking at frayed stitches on a seam. Hidden in plain sight. And somewhere, somewhere in that vast blue, she is just as lost as Chloe.

Maybe Max is crazy. Maybe she’s spinning, falling out of control, lost to the real world forever. But if Max is crazy—Chloe glances back across at where Rachel still stands, gaze fixed to the sky—then, goddamnit, Chloe is crazy too. “Max,” she says, taking her hand. “Start from the beginning. Tell me everything.”

They stay there for some time, until the last of the day falls into the waves below and the darkness draws over them like a blanket; shoulders touching as they huddle together on the steps of the lighthouse. A clunk high above them as the beam comes on. The lens turns slow circles, light meandering through the black trees—glowing spirits dancing from trunk to trunk—before falling out onto the bay; a shaft of light whipped across the night sky, its reflection trembling across the ocean.

Still Rachel wheels and pirouettes, just on the edges of Chloe’s vision—not really there but never gone. Arms stretched wide, laughing. And all the while the lighthouse beam turns endless circles above. Casting its light everywhere except on them.





Chapter Text

Early Summer 2010
(Three years before…)

Whenever Chloe closes her eyes, memories sweep across her mind like the beam from the lighthouse, illuminating certain scenes with perfect clarity, the rest still swathed in darkness. In those places where the light falls, there is almost always Rachel. Is that why Chloe still expects her to come back? Why she still imagines, even now, that she’ll find her way home? To the lighthouse?

Swoosh…

The beam thrown out across the Bay.

Swoosh…

And back around again.

Swoosh…

 


 

I think I can get away.

4 real?

Meet me at the lighthouse?

omw

“He’s trying to keep me fucking prisoner!” Rachel said at last, unclasping her arms from Chloe’s neck and dropping back against the bench, eyes lost to the grimy horizon. “He’s such a bastard!”

The lighthouse cast a pale shadow on her face—right down the middle—half in sunlight, half in shade. It was beautiful, Chloe thought. She was beautiful. Clearly pissed, but beautiful.

It had been several minutes since Rachel had finally arrived, tossing her rucksack on the ground at Chloe’s feet. It landed in a puff of ash, the remains of the six cigarettes Chloe had chain-sucked as she’d waited, knee jiggling, watching for that head of golden hair to crest the top of the trail. Rachel had stood there in front of her, silhouetted against the sun, and Chloe had waited for her to say something. But she didn’t say a thing, just dropped onto the bench and fell into Chloe’s arms. Chloe had closed her eyes as the warm waves of Rachel's breath stroked her collarbone. Pulled her arms tighter around her and let everything else melt away. The world was better when Rachel was near. It just was.

It had been a week. A week since Rachel was stabbed. A week since they had last seen each other, kneeling on that hospital bed; Rachel rigid, fists clenched, as Chloe tried to hold her, her heart thrumming like machine gun fire against Chloe’s chest. Glare fixed on her father who stood ashen in the doorway, fifteen years of deceit sealed in the dark shadows below his eyes. The orderlies had rushed in past him, around him, through him. Pulled Chloe away, told her she was disturbing the patient. James Amber said nothing, watched on as some neckbeard in scrubs curled a hairy fist around Chloe’s bicep, hauled her through the door. You fucking dickshit , she called back at James from over the orderly’s shoulder. She knows what you did. She knows what you fucking did! They’d closed the door on her, dragged her away, Rachel’s muffled screams chasing her down sterile corridors.

It had been a week—exactly a week—since Chloe told Rachel the truth of what James had done.

“Well, you obviously managed to pull a Shawshank Redemption to make it here,” Chloe said, draping an arm over the back of the bench, trying to play it cool, trying to ignore her heart hop-skip-hopping through her ribs. “How much shit did you have to crawl through?”

Rachel smiled at last, bumped Chloe’s shoulder. “A lot,” she said. “I figure I have an hour, maybe two, before he notices and sends out the fucking search helicopters.”

Chloe looked down at the quiet town, sprouting like stubble from the armpit of the Bay. Ominous gray clouds were starting to gather across the otherwise blue sky, but no helicopters. Not yet.

“Have a look at this.” Rachel picked up her ash-smudged bag from the floor, rummaged inside and pulled out several sheets of paper. “I found these,” she said, shoving them into Chloe’s hands. Web printouts. “About suing my parents. If we can prove what happened up at the Mill, then I think I have a case.”

Chloe stared down at the crumpled sheets. Pages and pages of black and white legal speak that fluttered in the breeze. “Rach, your dad is the DA. Where would you even start? I don’t—”

“He’s a crook, and a liar, and he’s going to pay!” Rachel snatched the pages back, stuffing them into the bag. “That PI got back to me. He thinks he can find Sera pretty quickly. Would cost around five-hundred bucks.”

“Ouch.”

“Did you call Frank?”

That was Choe’s job—call Frank. Find out what had really happened up at the Mill. Her own memory was hazy, locked behind a firewall she couldn’t hack, however many questions she keyed in: What happened to Damon? Who had the burner phone? James Amber’s money? Questions she should have asked Sera while she had the chance, but by the time she’d followed her outside she was gone—slipped away like a ghost into the trees. Did Frank know where she went? But Frank wasn’t around, not seen in town since that day. From up on the cliff, she should be able to see his old Winnebago, made miniature by distance and parked in its regular spot by the beach. But it wasn’t there. It hadn’t been there for a week. “Still not picking up,” she said.

“Shit.”

“So do we have to watch our backs?” Chloe asked, twisting around to look down the trail. “Does your dad have someone tailing you?”

“Fuck him even if he does,” Rachel said, resting her head on Chloe’s shoulder. “He’s not stopping me seeing you.”

Rachel’s hair tickled the underside of Chloe’s jaw, and without thinking about it, the act so natural it didn’t require thinking at all, Chloe tilted her chin and kissed the top of Rachel’s head. A peck. Cigarette lips in clean, coconut hair. Kissed her, like she’d kissed her while she lay sleeping in the hospital. Only this time Rachel was awake. Chloe felt her tense, and for a bottomless moment she worried that it was too much, that she’d gone too far—crossed a line in whatever this dance was between them. Until Rachel reached across and put a hand on her knee.

Chloe pressed her lips to Rachel’s hair again, breathed her in, as a single raindrop, cold and wet, licked the back of her hand.

Swoosh…

 


 

Can you meet me?

anytime anywhere

Dork. How about the junkyard?

rnt u under house arrest?

Just come.

Two weeks. They lay in the truck bed of the old Ford, heads touching, staring up into the milky sky. A breeze creaked through the piles of junk heaped around them.

“A dog found him?” Chloe asked.

“Yeah. Dug him up apparently.”

“Gross! So one minute someone’s out for walkies, the next Fido wants to play fetch with Damon’s femur?”

Rachel laughed. “I don’t know for sure, only that it was a shallow grave in the woods.”

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer asshole.”

“At least it means my dad isn’t so fucking paranoid every time I leave the house.” Rachel scratched absently at the scar on her upper arm. The bandage was off, but she said it still itched. “Apparently it was the Cartel,” she continued. “Dad says Merrick was mixed up with some really shady guys from Portland. Seems the DEA has a ton of files on him.”

Chloe thought of Frank then—his empty parking bay by the beach, still not picking up his phone. Was Frank involved in all Damon’s shit too? Was he even still alive? Her memories of the Mill were still impossible to piece together. She had only shards, fragments, an explosion of broken glass in her skull: A knife. A needle. Frank calling her name… “What about Frank?” she asked.

“Frank? My dad didn’t say anything about him.”

Chloe remembered the files she’d found in James’s office—Damon, Frank, their gang… Sera. What was it they were all mixed up in? Must have been more than just party supplies for Blackwell students. “So, the DEA, huh?” she asked. “The Cartel? Wow… I guess it’s all going down in Arcadia Bay after all?”

“Seems so.” Rachel lifted herself to her knees, stretched out her back. It curved out like a cat’s. “But we still need to escape. Dad still won’t let me see you.”

Chloe propped herself up on one elbow, the metal of the truck bed popping underneath her. She grinned up at Rachel. “No? Well, he’s doing a pretty shitty job at getting what he wants.”

“Or maybe I’m doing a really good job at getting what I want.” Rachel winked and Chloe’s heart revved. “You think this baby can get us to LA?” Rachel asked, tapping the roof of the cab.

“It might.” Chloe shrugged. “If it wasn’t booted. Dickhole David brought it back to the junkyard owner—see?” She leaned over the side of the truck and pointed at a yellow clamp hugging the rear wheel.

Rachel looked down at the boot, scrunched up her nose. “Shit, I didn’t even notice.”

“Yup, so still trapped here for now,” Chloe said, curling her fingers around Rachel’s hand and tugging her downward.

“For now.” Rachel flopped back onto the truck bed with a clang and kicked out her feet in the air above her. Chloe joined in and they both laughed, sneakers kicking circles in the endless sky.

Swoosh…

 


 

Chloe! OMG!

???

Going to Two Whales now. BE THERE!

already here mom feeding me

Stay!

The door jangled as Rachel burst into the diner. She seemed to clock Chloe immediately and dashed over to her booth, launched herself feet first onto the red vinyl seat opposite and hovered there on her haunches, like she was about to pounce, like she’d forgotten how to sit down. “ Ohmygodohmygodohmygod ,” she began, slamming two hands down on the table top.

Chloe gulped down her mouthful of omelet. “Yo, what happened?”

“She called me!” Rachel cried, at last remembering how to fold her legs beneath her and slotting them under the table. “Sera! She fucking called me!” Rachel was fizzing, burst out of herself like a soda can left in the freezer.

“Sera? For real?”

“Can you believe it?” Rachel reached across the table, grabbing both of Chloe’s hands in her own and dragging them towards her, across the half-eaten plate of omelet and fries, smearing Chloe’s sleeves in egg, in ketchup. “I actually spoke to her, Chloe! Heard her voice. It was so surreal.”

Chloe nudged the plate aside, rubbed Rachel’s thumbs with her own in a way she hoped was calming. “What did she say?”

“I don’t remember exactly. My brain was doing fucking cartwheels. But she wants to meet me. Like, soon. She says she’s coming up to Arcadia again.”

“Does your dad know?”

“No way, and I’m not supposed to tell him. Sera says she wants to explain what happened.” Rachel’s grip tightened around Chloe’s fingers. “Will you come with me?” she asked. Her eyes were dewy, like the fizz in her had all spilled over, had sluiced out of her and lay in puddles on the floor. “I’m not sure I can do it on my own.”

Don’t tell Rachel , Sera had said. She can never know. But Chloe had told Rachel, had told her everything. She wondered if Sera would be pissed at her for that. “Sure, I’ll come,” she said, and pushed her plate across the table. “French fry?”

Rachel smiled. “You know me so well.”

Swoosh…

 


 

They agreed to meet at the lighthouse, away from prying eyes and the noise of the town. Rachel said it was to avoid her dad, but Chloe suspected her reasons were more symbolic than that; the setting had Rachel all over it: Where better to meet her birth mother than at the lighthouse? The beam that had at last guided them together, two boats tossed around out there in that vast, dark ocean—both seeking, both waiting to be found.

“What if she doesn’t come?” Rachel asked as they sat facing each other on the bench. She was twirling her feather earring around in her fingers—twisting, entwining, entwining and twisting. “What if she’s changed her mind?”

The sky had turned up for the occasion, draped in a glorious Pacific sunset that reflected back at Chloe from Rachel’s eyes. She looked so serious, but Chloe couldn’t help but smile at her. “For real? After all that shit she went through to find you? Beat a heroin addiction, beat Damon, beat… your dad. You think she’s gonna give up now?”

Rachel ran her hand through her hair, conceded the tiniest chuckle.

“Buuuut…” Chloe continued. “That trail is pretty steep. The road to the lighthouse has claimed many a mortal man. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets halfway up and thinks, ‘You know what, too tired, fuck this.’”

“Fuck off!” Rachel swatted her away but laughed anyway. Her gaze fell back to the ocean. “Seriously, don’t joke,” she said, resting her elbows on her knees and folding into them. “I’m really nervous. What if she’s disappointed? In me, I mean? I don’t… I don’t know if I could handle that.”

Chloe stared at her, how the light shone off her hair, burned around her in a gauzy outline of orange and gold. And she wondered how anyone could ever be disappointed in Rachel. It would be like being disappointed in the sun. “Dude…” she said, sliding across the bench to close the gap between them, clasping her arms around Rachel’s shoulders, resting their foreheads together.

And then she saw her.

She was standing a few feet away, white dress washed pale pink by the sunset; a single bloom clutched tightly to her chest, a flower burning in the evening light. It was unmistakably her—the woman from the Mill, Rachel’s birth mother. Sera.

“Rach,” Chloe whispered. “She’s here.”

Sera stood silently watching them, fingers twisting around the flower’s stem. Her feet shuffled but she didn’t move forward, as though caught there, a single step from turning dream into reality. Like the moment was too much for her, too heavy, crushing her under the weight of it. So it was Rachel who moved first, gasped out a sob as she leaped from the bench. Sped across that gap where fifteen years shrank to a few feet and threw herself into Sera’s arms.

Chloe stood and watched the scene unfold, arms swaying back and forth awkwardly at her sides. She looked for something to do, somewhere to be, as Rachel and Sera, eyes locked on each other, took a seat on the bench. She ambled a little ways across the clifftop, over to the tourist map that displayed the awesome attractions of Arcadia Bay—all fourteen of them. And one of those was the location of a Bigfoot sighting from 1973. Near the top of the map was a skull and crossbones doodled in red ink. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she’d drawn it there, a marker for the old tree fort at the top of Cedar and Maple. Back when the fort was legitimately the coolest place in town. Her heart lolled heavy in her chest as she traced a gnawed fingernail across the skull, criss-crossed the crossbones. She wondered if the fort was still there.

Strands of stumbling conversation floated over from the bench behind her. “I used to think about you all the time,” she heard Sera say, throaty with suppressed tears, so different to the bleak detachment of the Mill. “I’d watch movies, advertisements for toys, things like that. I used to wonder what it was you liked. Whether you were a little girl that liked pink or did you prefer superheroes? Did you like pirates or princesses?”

Chloe turned to see Sera smiling, clutching Rachel’s hands in both her own. “I always thought I’d take you to Disneyland,” she continued. “That if we ever met, I’d take you to Disneyland. All kids like Disneyland, right? We could have our picture taken with Cinderella or whoever it was you liked best. I used to wonder if you’d like that. Have you… Have you been to Disneyland?”

From where she stood, Chloe could only see the back of Rachel’s head, her ruler-straight spine, sitting up to attention like the geeky kid at the front of the class. Rachel nodded at Sera, said, “Yeah, I mean, a long time ago.”

“Well, sure…” Sera’s voice faltered through her tight smile, as though time and reality had caught up with her, black ink stains splashed over an image she’d clung to for years. “I guess it was just down the road for you in Long Beach. And, well, you’re all grown up now. Look at you!”

“But I haven’t been to Disney World.”

A grin broke across Sera’s face, like brilliant sun beams breaking through cloud. The kind of smile that stops people on the street. So much like Rachel. “Okay, well maybe we can go to Disney World,” Sera said. “If you’d like? I’ve never been to Florida.” She sighed, the smile sliding from her face, and Chloe saw her eyes flit down to where Rachel’s hands were still tightly entwined with her own. “I used to send you gifts, you know. For Christmas, on your birthday. I don’t know if you ever got them, but I used to beg your father to give them to you. Say they were from some long-lost great aunt or something like that.”

“Great Aunt Carrie? Rachel laughed. “You’re Great Aunt Carrie?”

“I don’t know…”

“Always got me a gift even though I didn’t have a clue who she was, and Dad was always really evasive about her. It must be you! Wow… I always liked your gifts. You sent great gifts.”

“Really?”

“Really! They were always so imaginative.”

“Well, I didn’t always have much money…”

Sera trailed off and Chloe pretended to study the map again, eyes shifting from the tree fort to the Two Whales. She thought of Joyce, down there in the diner, untying her apron ready to hand over to the evening shift. The tiny spots of grease on her uniform that never washed out, the patches of acne that still broke out on her chin, even though she was a grown-ass woman and shouldn’t still get acne. What if Joyce wasn’t her real mom? Chloe wondered how she’d feel about that. Devastated? Fucking ecstatic? Both? She looked back at Sera, the proud way she held herself, her swoop of immaculate eyeliner and awesome tattoos. Would she make up for lost time by being the perfect mom? She looked pretty cool. Maybe one day, some famous punk rocker would turn up on Chloe’s doorstep, doused in leather and studs and heavy mascara. She’d litter the hallway with cigarette ash and curses before dragging Chloe out of there—demanding in a loud, husky voice that her real daughter be returned—before punching David in the dick on her way out. And Chloe would go and live with her, sit backstage at her shows, smoke weed with the roadies in the trailer. In the evenings they’d sprawl in deckchairs on the roof of her new mom’s penthouse and stare up at the stars, eating ice-cream straight from the carton…

“Chloe, come here.” Rachel’s voice cut through Chloe’s thoughts. She turned to see her reaching out a hand, smile wide and inviting. “Come sit with us.” Chloe did as she was told, sliding onto the bench as Rachel shifted up to make room. “Sera was telling me how she’s only here because of you.”

“She is?”

“Yes, I am.” Sera flicked Chloe a small smile, reached down for her purse which lay on the ground by the bench. Chloe noticed her hands shake, the slightest tremble, as she reached inside and brought out an old string bracelet—dusky blue threads, frayed with age and wear, embroidered around black leather.

Rachel gasped, reached out for it. “My bracelet.”

“I never expected you to keep it all these years,” Sera said, placing the bracelet into Rachel’s hands. “It’s my old recovery bracelet. From the first time I got clean. A long time ago now, before you were born. Your dad made it for me, if you can believe that. Made it himself.” She paused, took a breath, seemed to hold it there behind her teeth, like she was unsure how to go on. “When I… When I left you with your father, I asked him to give it to you. It wasn’t any use to me then, of course, just a reminder of what I’d lost. But I figured if you had it, then if I ever saw it again, saw you again, it would mean I was clean. Because that was the deal between your dad and me—at the beginning—get clean, and then I could see you.”

Rachel’s fingers slid over the bracelet. Fifteen years it had circled her wrist, but she stared at it as though for the first time. “But Dad went back on the deal.” It wasn’t a question.

Sera sighed. “Yes, I guess he did. But a lot changes in fifteen years.” She looked at Chloe. “When you gave me this bracelet… What you said to me… it reminded me of how close I was, how far I’d come. Without that, well, I don’t know what would have happened. It’s thanks to you I’m sitting here with my daughter, Chloe.” She reached across Rachel to put a hand on Chloe’s arm. “I’ll always be grateful to you for that.”

Rachel turned to Chloe and grinned. A grin that made it worth it. All of it. Chloe would take on a thousand asshat dads and psychos with needles, suffer a million kicks to the skull over and over, just for the way Rachel looked at her right then.

“You don’t hate me?” she asked Sera.

“Why would I hate you?”

“Because I didn’t do what you asked. I told Rachel. I told her everything. What he tried to do to you.”

Sera moved her hand away, glanced over towards the sunset. “I can see how it must have looked to you,” she said. “I’ve seen those text messages between Damon and James, I can understand why you drew the conclusions you did. I’m sorry I ran off without explaining more. That was my fault. But both of you should know…” She paused, looked down into the dust. “James. Your father. He would never try to hurt me like that.”

“So, what really happened?” Rachel asked. “What was Dad trying to do? He fed me some bullshit about it all being a big misunderstanding. That Damon completely took things into his own hands.”

“And he’s right,” Sera said, sigh so long it rippled the air. She opened her purse and fumbled around inside. Snapped it shut. “Do either of you girls have a cigarette?”

She smoked one of Chloe’s as she told them her version of events, mostly backing up the story James had already spun for Rachel: Damon was supposed to set her up, implicate her in the activities of his gang in order to derail her custody case. But he took things too far, hoping he could get more out of James. He was never supposed to even sell drugs to Sera, let alone force them on her. That was the gist of it, anyway. It still sounded pretty shitty to Chloe. Less shitty, but still shitty.

“So why did Damon do it?” Rachel asked. “If that wasn’t the plan? Why hurt you?”

“I don’t know for sure. But by the end, Damon definitely wasn’t answering to your dad. I’m not sure he was even answering to himself. My guess is there were others involved, people who wanted more from James than a few grand and a burned glove.”

“Have you spoken to Dad? How do you know all this?”

“The money and the glove I know about because I kept that burner. Your friend here is quite the photographer.” Sera winked at Chloe. “It’s now in the hands of my lawyer. As for the rest, that guy Frank filled me in. Said I needed to give up trying to find you before Damon did something stupid.”

“You know Frank?” Chloe asked. “Do you know where he is?”

“No,” Sera said, exhaling a long plume of smoke towards the lighthouse. “To both questions. I only spoke to him twice. That time you saw me. And once before that.” Chloe remembered Sera stepping out of Frank’s RV at the junkyard, how hard her face had been. There were shades of that hardness now.

Sera’s mouth opened as if she was about to say something else but she stopped herself, sucking at the cigarette instead. “Those were the only times,” she said finally. “And I don’t know where he is. Did he leave town?” Chloe nodded. “I see. Well, it’s probably for the best he’s not around.”

“Damon’s gone too,” Rachel said. “Forever. Someone killed him.”

“I know… I mean, I heard.”

“You don’t think Dad…?”

Sera laughed, almost too airy. “Your dad? Oh honey, no. No way. Your dad can be an asshole, but he doesn’t have it in him to kill anyone.”

“No, he’s just a crook.”

“Rachel, he’s never been a crook. Not in the way you think. He just works in a crooked system. Eat or be eaten, you know?” Sera rubbed at her forehead and Chloe noticed that she was no longer looking at Rachel; her gaze flitted up, flew down, landed out to sea. Anywhere but on her daughter. “What happened to me. Well, he was naïve. Got mixed up with the wrong people, that’s all. James—your dad—he has a good heart, but he’s also a selfish idiot. Like most men.” She stubbed out the spent cigarette on the arm rest, brushed the ash onto the floor. “And plenty of women.”

She lifted her eyes to Rachel at last, “What I did was wrong,” she said, taking a breath. “I… endangered you, that’s true. Your father didn’t lie to you about that. But I was a different person back then. And you have to believe me when I say there isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t regret not being the mother you needed me to be.” She reached out for Rachel’s hand, teardrops glistening in her mascara-heavy lashes. “I want to see you,” she said. “I want to get to know you. I want to be a part of your life. You need to decide if you want that too. I didn’t respect James’s decision because I felt it wasn’t his to make, but I will respect yours. Obviously, I don’t expect you to decide right away—”

“No, I do.” Rachel’s voice was thick, faltering. Not like Rachel at all. “I mean, I do want to get to know you.”

“Take some time,” Sera said with the ghost of a smile, squeezing Rachel’s hand. “If it’s what you want, I can ask my lawyer to talk to your dad. We’ll see what we can do. But let’s keep this between the three of us, okay? For now.”

Rachel leaned forward and sunk back into Sera’s open arms. “Okay.”

 


 

Swoosh…

Clunk, clunk, a knife on a chopping board. Stock sloshing in a jug, onions sizzling. The rattle of rice poured into a pan. Joyce fluttered and buzzed about the kitchen like a hummingbird—dipping from stove to refrigerator, soaring from cupboard to sink. A pinch here, a stir there. A drizzle and a hiss and a cloud of hot steam.

Cooking smells floated over to Chloe where she sat sprawled out across the kitchen table, carrying with them a volley of endless questions: Does she like mushrooms? How about zucchini? Is she coming straight from school? I only have the regular soda, is that okay? There’s a frozen cherry pie for dessert—you finished the last of the ice-cream without telling me so we’ll have to eat it plain. Does she have any allergies?

They bounced off Chloe with shrugs and grunts and a dunno, Mom, I’m not an expert in what she eats. Except she kind of was. She knew that Rachel always brought a lunch to school, a small Tupperware container with a blue lid, usually filled with some kind of hippy green shit that Rose must have rustled up the night before. Perfectly packed, carefully opened, picked at with a fork then washed down with a plastic bottle of mineral water that crackled as she lifted it to her lips. Yet the couple of times they’d been to the diner together, Rachel had ordered a burger the size of her head, stolen half of Chloe’s fries as Chloe had laughed and tried to swat her fingers away. Slurped down a whole peanut butter and Oreo milkshake. Rachel was… weird.

Chloe glanced around at the hastily tidied living room—magazines stacked neatly on the coffee table, the carpet raked over with a vacuum. Not much, but it did look less of a shit-tip than usual. Joyce had even slipped a lonely twenty into the travel money jar. It looked crumpled and kind of sad.

In the center of the dining table stood a vase of Peruvian lilies. Red, orange and yellow; a flush of blazing color in the otherwise faded room. “You didn’t need to buy flowers,” Chloe said. “It looks dumb. Like we’re trying too hard.”

“Maybe I want to try hard,” Joyce said, wiping her hands on her apron. “It’s nice… To see you excited about somebody.” Chloe felt heat rise in her cheeks, but if her mom noticed, she didn’t show it. The wooden spoon twitched in Joyce’s hand as she made long, careful swirls of the pan. “It’s been a long time, since Max left, and your father…” She trailed off. “It’s nice.”

Out in the hallway, the door to the garage crashed open, and David lumbered into the kitchen. Chloe’s heart sank at the sight of him—sleeves rolled up to his elbows, waistband up around his armpits: Military surplus, Grade A prick.

“Mmm, smells good,” he said, bearing down over Joyce and kissing the back of her neck. Chloe pulled a face, gagged. Neither of them noticed.

“Chloe’s friends need to come over for dinner more often,” David said, turning to Chloe with a wink. She said nothing, served up her best death glare with a double helping of fuck you . His face fell and his mustache twitched. What the hell did he expect? A cheery smile and a why thank you, David, for infiltrating our home and ruining my life?

“So how’s my working man?” Joyce asked too brightly. Her gaze hardened as it met Chloe’s, a glare that said: Don’t start . Chloe rolled her eyes, looked away. Her mom on David’s side again. What a surprise. It was even worse now he’d found a job, a shitty security gig somewhere down the coast, and Joyce felt the need to bring it up any goddamn chance she got. Four times already that day. Man Gets Job . Stop the fucking presses.

The extra money meant they’d brought forward the wedding, and what was once a distant maybe-someday-hopefully-never had become a very definite July 10th. Joyce had marked it on the calendar with a heart shape scrawled in red Sharpie—huge and bright and taking up at least five other days around it. Chloe found herself looking at it now, hating the way it seemed to hook her eyes and drag them across the room. She couldn’t look away. Like staring at roadkill, guts spilled all over the sidewalk.

“You gonna just sit there or are you gonna come help your mother?” David demanded, thick finger pointing to the floor. “Come on, in here now!” At least he wasn’t trying to be nice anymore. That always weirded her out.

“It’s fine, David.” Joyce dived in, putting an arm around him.

“It’s not fine. You’re going to all this trouble for her, and she’s just sitting there watching you.”

“I said it’s fine, honey,” Joyce said, glancing down at his hands; stubby fingers lathered black with grime and hovering around her waist. She gasped. “Now, look at your dirty hands!” she cried with a gross, girlish smile. “Get out of my kitchen with your oily, greasy hands!” David held his blackened palms up in mock surrender as Joyce giggled and swiped at him with her stirring spoon. Chloe laid her forehead on the table. If she didn’t look it was easier not to vomit. “No, don’t you dare wash them in the sink with the dishes!” she heard her mom say with a giggle. She was laughing. Really laughing. The way she used to when Chloe was little… for him.

“Go upstairs! Go on, go, go!” Joyce called after David as his heavy steps thudded up to the bathroom. She chuckled, returned to the pan. “Men, huh?”

Chloe shot her mother a tight-lipped smile, a smile that was supposed to say: Men, yeah, let’s shoot them all, since the only one worth anything is already dead. But her mom didn’t get it. She never did. She was humming, fucking humming as she reached up into the cabinet for plates.

Why did she always have to act this way around David? This wasn’t his home, this wasn’t his family, she wasn’t his wife. Not yet. Yet here he was, lodged in tight. Immovable. Like one of those stones stuck in the dirt that Chloe used to try to dig up as a kid; she would skim around it with a stick, scrape around it, dig deeper and deeper, trying to get a purchase, but she could never dislodge the fucker, however long she stayed at it, no matter how hard she tried. That rock was always so much bigger, buried so much deeper than she first imagined. A boulder. A goddamn boulder that immediately took over any room he walked into, took it over and squashed all the life out of it. Chloe pushed back her chair and got up. “I’m going for a walk.”

“You’ll set the table first,” Joyce’s voice echoed through from the kitchen. “Use the matching cutlery in the drawer on the right. I think the nice placemats are in there too.”

Chloe thought back to the Amber household where they seemed to go through this strange charade every evening. Is this really what Rachel expected? Didn’t she want to escape all that? She sighed and went to find the placemats.

It was two days after they’d said their goodbyes to Sera at the lighthouse that Chloe had heard her phone go off. A static buzz in her Hi-Fi speakers that became the rattle of her vibrating handset, the brief glow of the screen illuminating the piles of shit on her desk.

Beep .

And then again.

Beep.

And again.

Beep.

The best sound in the world.

By then Chloe knew it was Rachel. Because even Rachel had to have at least one fault, and back then it was being one of those people who need a separate text for each sentence. Chloe picked up the phone, dopey smile caked across her face. Read the string of messages:

My dad says I can come to your house!

But only if your mom’s there.

Because he’s still a lame asshole.

Chloe fell back onto the bed, thumbed in a reply: epic. come friday?

Beep.

Great.

Beep.

Can I stay over?

Beep.

We can do movie night.

Beep.

I’ll bring popcorn. ;-)

Chloe re-read the last two texts, wondered what the wink meant. Her hands shook as she placed the phone on her stomach. Staying over? Popcorn? Staying over? Wink emoji? Her body grew heavy and warm and she got that… feeling. The same feeling she always got when she thought about Rachel. Like Firewalk had started their soundcheck somewhere deep below her navel; a thunderous detonation of drums, the scream of electric guitars, a roar that made her breath hitch and her whole body tingle and… holy fuck. That feeling.

She picked up the phone, looked again at the last text from Rachel. yea gr8, she wrote, and listening to make sure she could still hear the drone of the TV from the living room, she reached inside her sleep shorts.

Rachel was coming to dinner.

Rachel was staying over.

Rachel was late.

Chloe couldn’t bear to look at them: David sitting back in his chair, one arm slung over the backrest, the other slugging a beer. Joyce, elbows on the table, chin resting on her hands, casting furtive glances at the kitchen where her afternoon’s labors grew more tepid with each passing minute. And the empty chair. The empty place setting. The chair that Rachel should have been sitting in, because only guests sat there now. Usually, when it was just the three of them, they left it empty. Because that’s where he sat. Before. And now there it was—still empty.

A petal from one of the lillies broke free and fell to the table top in a show of morbid solidarity.

Chloe bit at the side of her thumb nail, stared at her phone screen—cold and black on the table top. Rachel wasn’t coming. She knew it. She knew it like the dark space opening up and swirling like a vortex inside her, sucking in this shitty room with its shitty flowers and its fucking empty place settings. Why would Rachel come here, to the world’s lamest dinner party? She was Rachel Amber. Of course she had better places to be, better people to be with. Chloe wasn’t even in the same stratosphere as Rachel, let alone the same league. What an idiot she’d been to read into everything, all those signs, those signals, those little looks—shared glances, lingering fingers, phantom smiles. Suck them in and get high off of them, as if they actually meant something. As if she meant something. All of it just shadows, masks, the lies of a fevered imagination. She screwed up her eyes, tried to swallow down the single image slicing down through her brain. Rachel. Arm draped around some guy, giggling into his ear: Chloe staring at me all the time really freaks me out.

“Chloe, are you okay?” Joyce’s voice from somewhere across the table. Chloe grunted at her, looked away. Rachel had stood her up and Joyce was going be unbearable about it; try to take her hand, stroke her hair like she was four-year-old and all that shit still made things better. Then she'd throw around vapid comments like, it doesn’t matter, honey and there’ll be a next time as she scraped Rachel’s cold portion into a plastic container. And David, David would say all these smug, stupid things like—

“Well, it’s nice to see Chloe’s connected with someone as inconsiderate as she is,” David said and took a long pull of his beer.

—like that.

“David!” Joyce slapped the table top.

“Are you gonna call her?” David asked, turning to Chloe. “Or are we all gonna sit around here like idiots all night?”

“I’m not calling her,” Chloe said. Calling her would be so fucking desperate.

“Do you want me to call her mom?” Joyce asked, pushing herself up to half standing.

Chloe grabbed her arm to pull her back down. “No! Nobody’s calling anybody. Maybe she just doesn’t want to come.”

“I’m sure that’s not true, honey.”

Chloe nibbled further at the thumb nail. Tasted blood. The vortex swirled and spun, faster, darker. Throwing out all those fears that had Chloe had pushed down, buried, for over a month. Eliot had been right all along: Rachel was only using her to find Sera. Chloe had been a convenience, an illicit distraction to pass the time. And now that she wasn't needed anymore... It was only ever about Sera. Right from the start.

“Why wouldn’t it be true, Mom?” Chloe banged both fists down on the table. The cutlery rattled. “Why wouldn’t it? When was the last time I had a friend over for dinner? Max? Nearly two years ago? You ever wondered why?”

“Chloe…”

Chloe scuffed her chair back across the carpet. Got to her feet. “Because I’m a loser, Mom. A fuckup with no friends except for when it suits them. He agrees.” She thrust a finger at David who shrugged at Joyce, all innocent. Another petal fell from the flowers, settled on top of the other. “See, even your fucking flowers agree!”

David scoffed. Chloe screamed. The darkness gushing from her in a scream that scorched through her chest, burned up her throat and spewed out into the room; a dark cloud of humiliation, rage and anguish. She swiped at the flowers, palm broadsiding the stems, sending an explosion of fiery petals into the air. The vase tumbled, landed with a thud on the wood, and water cascaded across the table, carrying with it a flotilla of petals like tiny boats swirling and spreading their fiery color around the plates, the mats, the cutlery. Liquid and flora spilling over the edge in a bright, botanical waterfall. Right into David’s lap.

“Goddamn!” David sprung from his chair as the vase water sloshed over his pants. “Goddamn!”

Joyce closed her eyes, brought her hands to her face.

The doorbell rang.

David gestured wildly at the huge wet patch that soaked his crotch, dabbing at it uselessly with a napkin. Joyce let out a heavy sigh and heaved herself up from the table. Headed out into the hallway.

The room seemed to spin around Chloe, fade in and out of focus as the front door clicked open. She wanted to run but there was nowhere to go, socked feet sinking into the damp carpet. David was yelling at her, thundering something he obviously considered important but to Chloe was all wasted oxygen. The only voice she heard, the only voice she wanted to hear, radiated through from the porch like a current of warm air: “Mrs. Price, I’m so sorry. You must think I’m terrible. What an awful first impression! Something came up at home and… Here. My mom asked me to give you this as an apology.”

“Thank you, Rachel, that’s very kind,” Joyce said. “Please, come in. I’m afraid we had a little accident.”

And there she was, in the doorway like a first bloom in spring, bringing color to that lifeless room, filling up all the empty spaces. She was flanked by Joyce who held an ornate bottle of dark liquor in her hand. Rachel’s eyes danced as they flicked from David, still dabbing at his sodden pants, to the floral water display dripping from the table, and on to Chloe—trembling and uncontrollably embarrassed: The obvious perpetrator.

“Chloe,” she said, smiling as she raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t supposed to destroy the dinner table before I got here.”

 


 

Rachel saved dinner. Swooped in with her expensive bottle of Hennessy XO, bullshit setting turned up to max, bubbling over with compliments and easy smiles; Oh my God, that’s so funny , hand on David’s grisly arm. Joyce, this is incredible, spooning down extra helpings. She helped them mop the floor, despite Joyce’s insistence she take a seat; set the vase upright on the table, scooped up what she could of the stems and put them back in, spreading the blooms with a flourish, like a florist, like she knew what she was doing.

Chloe watched on in awe. Rachel was almost too good at this, she was like a goddamn parent whisperer. The charm offensive’s coup de grâce came over dessert when, between mouthfuls of dry cherry pie, Rachel announced that her dad had pulled some strings with Wells and that Chloe should be getting a letter soon confirming her reinstatement at Blackwell.

Joyce let out a cry of delight, grabbing Rachel’s hand. “Oh, that’s wonderful! Isn’t that wonderful, Chloe?”

Chloe’s jaw fell open, several masticated crumbs of pie dribbled out onto the plate. She swallowed down what was left in her mouth. What was she supposed to feel now? Relief? Joy? Disappointment? Or just intense disbelief? “I thought your dad…” Hated my guts? She scratched that. “I mean, what changed?”

“Let’s say new evidence came to light,” Rachel said, with a sly smile.

They finished dessert. They drank strong, black coffee in tiny cups that Joyce and William had received as wedding gifts and never used since (the first time they’d ever had coffee at home after dinner, but Rachel insisted it was a French thing). David cracked open the bottle of Hennessy and winked at Chloe and asked if she and Rachel wanted a small taste. As though Chloe had never tasted liquor before. Like when she was eight years-old and her dad had let her try beer for the first time. Her mom had made a fuss about it, and it felt like a really cool adventure even though it tasted gross. This wasn’t that time. But Rachel was there so Chloe indulged him, accepted the tiny amount offered and sipped it with a tight smile and a Mm, yeah, that’s strong .

They drank, and they talked and they may have even laughed a bit. Joyce put some music on. And by the time the meal was over, Rachel was wonderful, Rachel was such a sweet girl, Rachel should come again… Rachel was standing next to the screen doors with Joyce, running her fingers through the curtain fabric and discussing home decor options and textile patterns. Joyce looked over to Chloe, gave her a nod and a smile of approval, and Chloe half wondered if she should pretend to be interested in curtains too; if that's all she needed to do to feel closer to her mom—look interested in the curtains and talk about soft furnishings.

 


 

“When women get to a certain age they love talking about soft furnishings,” Rachel explained later when they were both alone in Chloe’s room and Chloe was wondering what the fuck had just happened. “It’s a thing. You can’t fight it.”

Chloe dropped down on the bed. “There will never come a time when I want to talk about soft furnishings.”

“One day, Chloe,” Rachel said, sitting beside her and spreading her fingers wide to indicate time and space. “In the far distant future, we will find ourselves sitting in a knitting circle, clacking our needles and discussing quilt patterns.”

“You’re so lame.”

“And I’ll come over and help you pick out your curtain fabric like I did for your mom.”

Then Chloe opened her big, dumb mouth and said it. Maybe because Rachel was sitting so close. Maybe because she was here in Chloe’s room and would be staying here in Chloe’s room until morning, the whole evening spread out ahead of them like a distant shimmer on a summer blacktop. Whatever the reason, it came out, all of it; the whole goddamn sentence, before Chloe could catch it: “Or how about we live together and then I can give you free rein over all that shit.”

Inside, Chloe took a baseball bat to her own rib cage.

Rachel just smiled. “Deal,” she said, slapping Chloe’s leg and standing from the bed, leaving Chloe dazed, the trace of Rachel's handprint branded on her knee.

“Right,” Rachel said, throwing a leg over Chloe’s desk chair and sitting astride it backwards. “Let’s play a game.”

“A game?” The last time Chloe had had a sleepover was with Max, when the games had all been board games in boxes and magic tricks and making pillow forts under the blankets, telling horror stories with flashlights held under their childish grins. Chloe doubted Rachel meant any of that, but a flush of unwanted thoughts consumed her all the same: of Rachel, of pillow forts, of warm spaces under duvets. “Uh… Sure. I mean. What game?”

“Secrets.” Rachel rested her chin on the chair’s backrest, kept her eyes on Chloe’s. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

Chloe’s hand found the back of her neck, scratched at it, wished she’d never thought about goddamn pillow forts. “My secret?”

“Uh-huh.” Rachel smiled, a smile that made the room shrink and blur around them, leaving just her face, her eyes, that Cheshire Cat grin. Did she know? Could she see through Chloe that easily, to all the feelings jostling and shoving and scrambling for air inside her. I want to kiss you. I want to kiss you all the fucking time.

Chloe said nothing, she couldn’t say that. She didn't say that. Rachel spoke first: “Yeah, come on. What was with the whole water feature in the living room when I arrived? You okay? Dickhole David being a dick again?”

The unexpected question slammed into Chloe's thoughts, sent them spinning in different directions like billiard balls. She blinked. “Oh, that?”

“Of course, what did you think I meant?” Rachel asked, palms drumming on the backrest. “C’mon, spill. Again.” She laughed at her own joke.

The corners of Chloe's lips hooked up into a shaky smile. Watching Rachel laugh always made her smile. Always would. But her thoughts from earlier tugged at her, opened up that black space inside. Shadows and masks. But Rachel was here, wasn’t she? Here, staring at Chloe: Expectant. Like she cared about what had happened, like she cared about what came next. Like she cared about… Chloe. But Chloe had doubted her, and now the warmth of Rachel's gaze made Chloe feel hollow, grubby, like something rotting in the sun.

“I dunno, I overreacted I guess,” Chloe said, picking at the duvet. “It was nothing. Just something dumb.”

“So dumb you threw a vase of water over David's junk?”

“It wasn’t really aimed at him. He was in the way.”

Chloe shifted on the bed, her discomfort scorching through her cheeks, and Rachel must have noticed because she asked, “What? You feel bad? Don’t look so guilty, it was only water. You have nothing on me in the table destruction stakes, Price. Nothing.”

“Yeah? Maybe Mom shoulda made a salad.”

Rachel threw back her head, laughed at that. Stopped abruptly. “Wait, it wasn’t because of me, was it?”

Chloe couldn’t look at her. Couldn’t look at her yet she seemed to take up the whole room, leaning this way and that, trying to catch Chloe’s eye. “God, it was!” Rachel said. “I can tell by your face. Did you think I stood you up?”

“No. I mean… I dunno. No.”

She expected Rachel to laugh at her but she didn’t. Her face creased, an expression Chloe couldn’t place. At last she said: “I wouldn’t do that.”

“I know… It’s just… well, you did it to Taylor that time and—”

“Taylor?” Rachel looked confused, like she was trying to place the memory. Her brows unraveled as she found it. “Yeah, but only so I could go to Firewalk! That’s totally different. Taylor wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to me.”

“I thought you guys were friends.”

A laugh burst from Rachel’s mouth but the edges of it trailed off into the room, her smile dissolving with it. “No, she isn’t my friend. None of those plastics are. They’re just people I hang out with sometimes.”

That made no sense to Chloe. “If they aren’t your friends, why hang out with them?”

Rachel’s expression darkened, like she’d been caught out and was quickly rearranging her thoughts, her face, the words on her tongue. She shrugged. “Maybe I didn’t have anyone else to hang out with. Until you.”

Their eyes met and Chloe found her thoughts scrambling to find purchase on those words. Until you?

“So,” Rachel said, climbing from the chair and picking up her rucksack from the floor. “Do you want to know my secret?”

Until you? “Uh. Sure. Hit me.”

“Actually, I have two. The first is this…” Rachel unzipped the bag and pulled out a bottle of expensive-looking bourbon. Held it up like she was hawking it on one of those all-night shopping channels. “Popcorn.”

The world felt better again. Until you . Chloe lay back on the bed, propped herself on her elbows. “Popcorn, huh?”

A theatrical waggle of Rachel's eyebrows. “Indeed. Distilled popcorn. Stolen along with the Hennessy.”

“I thought your mom gave you the Hennessy?”

“Like fuck she did. I swiped it from the drinks cabinet. They won’t notice. There’s a fuckton in there. Gifts Dad must have received in blood money from his high-class criminal friends. Cocktail?”

“Fill’er up, barkeep.”

A pack of soda sat on the desk, taken from the kitchen after dinner. Rachel popped open two cans and took a deep pull of each, cracked open the bourbon and glugged in the copper liquid until it started to spill out over the top.

“So, what’s your second secret?” Chloe asked.

"Well, that’s actually the real reason I was late,” Rachel said, taking both cans in her hands and stepping up onto the bed. She dropped down next to Chloe, the hastily created cocktails sloshing out over the duvet. “Sera called my dad.”

Chloe took one of the cans. The sides were wet and sticky. She licked her fingers. “No shit?”

“Yes shit!” Rachel said, her hand grabbing Chloe's knee. “Why else do you think he’s done an epic one-eighty and let me stay over? He finally decided to tell me tonight, before I came here, and I was asking so many questions I totally lost track of time. She told him everything that happened at the Mill. How Damon could have killed her if it hadn’t been for you…”

She smiled. Smiled at Chloe like she was something worth smiling at as her finger traced circles around the torn denim on Chloe's kneecap. Chloe stared down at it.  “He knows now,” Rachel continued. “Knows how close he came to fucking everything up. How close he came to…” She stopped, her finger lay still. She took a sip from her can. “Anyway, he must be feeling guilty or something, because not only is he letting me see you again, he’s also agreed to supervised visits with Sera.”

“Dude, that’s awesome.”

“Right?” Rachel shifted to face Chloe, clasped her arm. “I still can’t believe it. I mean, I can but I can’t, you know? I always knew my life was fake. Like a photograph. Dad, Mom. We all gave our biggest smiles for the camera but it was never real, none of it. Like I’ve been playing a role I didn’t know I was playing my whole life. And now, now it feels real. Sera feels real. I feel real. Because of you.”

Her smile was huge and happy and warm and Chloe couldn’t help but bask in it. “All this is happening because of you,” Rachel said. She leaned over and kissed Chloe’s cheek, lips still wet from the whiskey-soda. “It's all because of you.”

And in Chloe’s chest something pumped and pulsed and pushed against the inside of her rib cage, like it couldn’t be contained. Glowing, hot and bold: Her heart.

 


 

It was Rachel that suggested they go out on the roof. The night is young and so are we, Price. And after a can of definitely-not-soda, how could Chloe argue.

Rachel clambered out first, nudging the sash higher with her shoulder as she crawled underneath. The shingles were still warm under their hands as they scrambled up, soda cans and the bottle of 'popcorn' clinking in the rucksack on Rachel’s back. She was heading for the very top, to the ridge where the two halves of the roof leaned into each other, became one. Chloe smiled like a dork as she climbed up behind.

It was still light out, but the air was getting cooler, the brightness of the day wilting to a bruised blue. Rachel reached the ridge at last, shrugged the rucksack from her back. “Don’t you just adore being outdoors?” she asked.

Chloe clambered up next to her, snatched a glance at Rachel’s profile as she unzipped her bag—the curve of her nose, her lips, her chin; down to her exposed shoulder where her flannel had crumpled around her arm.

“Yeah…” Chloe said, her thoughts soupy from liquor and bare skin. “Outdoorable.”

Rachel snort-laughed. “That’s terrible.”

“Thanks. I try.”

Rachel locked a soda can between her knees, unscrewed the bourbon. “I’ve always hated being indoors,” she said, pouring a new cocktail. “Ever since I was little. I know it sounds dumb, but whenever I see a wall, I always wonder what’s happening on the other side.” She handed the full can to Chloe, prepared another. “Walls always make me feel so boxed in… I want to see things, to feel them. To… I dunno, be at one with the elements.” She laughed, wiping the hair from her face and taking a swig.

Chloe glanced behind them where the charred timber skeletons of Rachel’s last brush with the elements were still visible on the hillside. “I dunno, Rach,” she said. “You and the elements seems like a dangerous combo.”

“Burn, baby, burn?” Rachel’s tone was light, but she didn’t turn around.

“Seriously, dude, it still makes me feel kinda bad that we did that.”

“No one died, Chloe.” The sound of a zipper as she did up the rucksack.

Chloe turned back to face her. She looked kind of serious, playing with the feather in her ear. “Yeah?” Chloe said, nudging her shoulder. “Tell that to the squirrels.”

Rachel conceded a smile, shoved Chloe back. “Don’t…” She looked behind her at last. “It’s almost beautiful, don’t you think? Desolate. There’s a kind of beauty in that.” Chloe gazed back at those dark, bare trunks; rows and rows of huge black needles straining for the sky. “Sometimes you need to burn something down so something new can grow in its place.” Rachel said. “That’s nature. Like a phoenix rising from the flames.”

“Wow… that’s…”

“Poetic?”

“I was gonna say one of the corniest things I’ve ever heard but, yeah, poetic works too.”

An incredulous scoff burst from Rachel and she lifted her palm to Chloe’s bicep, like was going to push her away, but instead she curled her fingers around it, pulled Chloe in close. Her forehead rested on Chloe’s shoulder and she stifled a giggle. “Bitch.”

Chloe draped an arm around her, and Rachel's warm fingers immediately reached up to link with hers. Chloe felt something stir, ruffle; a pair of huge, blazing wings, feathered with fire, uncurling slowly inside her. A phoenix. She threw her head back to laugh at the sky. Yeah. A fucking phoenix.

A silence settled between them, punctured only by a distant voice yelling at some kid to get inside, the swish of faraway cars. Around them the evening was closing in, dark at the edges, like a vignette filter on the day; long dark shadows cast along the street by a pale yellow sun. The earthy scent of cut grass drifting up from the front yard. The smell of summer nights.

“It’s great up here,” Rachel said at last, head still resting on Chloe's shoulder. “You must come out here all the time.”

“I used to,” Chloe said, taking a long pull of her drink. Instant head rush. “We used to come out a lot.”

“We?”

The moon was out. A full moon against the last of the blue sky. Chloe held a hand out towards it, squinted as she pinched it between finger and thumb, watched it dance in and out of focus. All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth. “Me and my friend Max,” she said. “She was always too chickenshit to climb to the top, though. We used to sit down there, right outside the window. I haven’t been out here in months.”

“I’d be out here all the time,” Rachel said. “You can see the whole damn town from here.” And you could. Almost. All the way down to the far-off beach. To the rocks, rising like sea monsters from distant, dusky waves, the tiny lighthouse perched on its cliff.

Rachel bumped her soda can against Chloe’s. “To us,” she said, like she was giving a toast. A slight slur to her words that made Chloe chuckle. “The two brightest lights of Arcadia Bay.” She waved her hand like she’d changed her mind. “Nn-ope, no, scratch that. The only lights of Arcadia Bay. To you and me, Price.” She sucked the dregs from her can, and Chloe followed, aluminum beating against her teeth as it shook in her hand.

“To you and me,” she echoed, the biggest, dumbest grin she’d ever allowed to settle on her face parking up and pulling out the lawn chairs.

 


 

It seemed like no time at all they were sitting up there side by side. Seemed like no time at all but it must have been hours as they watched the night roll down over the Bay, their skin kissed with goosebumps, the cool breath of the faded sky.

They… talked about plans for the summer and what they wanted to do now that Rachel had been released back into the wild (her words), and Chloe said she definitely wanted to freight hop again because that had been awesome, and Rachel had agreed that, yes, it had been hella awesome, talked about gigs they could sneak in to and movies they could go see.

They… raced their empty soda cans down the shingles. Cheered them on as they rattled downwards, plunked off the guttering and flew out onto the driveway, lost to shadows. A muffled clang as one of Rachel’s must have hit the roof of David’s car, and they both whooped and Rachel awarded herself an extra ten points for that one. When all the empty soda cans lay scattered over the driveway they sipped bourbon straight from the bottle, eyes watering, throats stinging, grimacing after every gulp.

They… played the new Firewalk album on Rachel’s phone with its tinny speakers, and when the volume wouldn’t go high enough, they sang the songs themselves, voices flooding the empty street. Rachel always sang too low and Chloe too high but they met in the middle to create a harmony, of sorts. Or at least that’s how it seemed to them. Their only audience a raven sitting high on a telephone pole. They must have sung too loud; it flapped its wings, soared with their voices off into the night.

They… lay down after Rachel said she was feeling a little dizzy, and Chloe laughed and called her a lightweight but they shimmied down the roof anyway, stretched out with the rough, still-warm shingles at their backs. Rachel rested her head on Chloe’s shoulder, threw an arm across her chest, and Chloe wondered if she could feel her heart beating. Still huge, still hot. How could she not? It thundered so fast that each beat left traces of movement in the air around them.

Chloe looked out over the town, across to the lighthouse (when did the beam come on?) and for the first time in years, she found herself looking beyond the walls of her home, looking forward, as though out there, on that distant horizon, there was finally something—someone—worth sailing towards.

Her.  

That’s where Chloe’s memory of that evening should end, with that moment. Where it would have ended, if memory were a movie reel and she had got her fade to black; the first strains of some cheesy song drifting over the credits. But it isn't a movie, and it doesn't end there. Not quite. Instead, Rachel said: “Guess what?”

She was going on a family vacation to England. An attempt by her dad to make up for his mistakes by throwing money at them. She was going over her birthday. She would be gone for Joyce’s wedding. She was going. She would be gone. She said it so casually, as though going to Europe was something people did all the time. As though it wasn’t on the other side of the fucking world. It’s not for that long, she said. Only for three weeks , she said. Nearly a whole month, Chloe thought.

Rachel propped herself on her elbow, curled her finger through Chloe’s lock of blue hair. Leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I wish you were coming too,” she whispered. Chloe waited for her to pull away but she didn’t. Her face lingered there, too close, the hot smell of bourbon on her breath. Chloe’s heart lurched, her breath hitched. She reached a hand up to Rachel’s cheek, and—

Chloe?”

The soft crunch of slippers on the driveway.

“Chloe? Are you out here?” Joyce’s voice from below, cutting through the moment like a chainsaw.

“Fuck!” Chloe hissed as Rachel rolled away from her. Both scrambled to sitting. Beyond the edge of the roof, Chloe could see her mom’s head and shoulders appear, housecoat wrapped tightly around her.

“Fuck!” Chloe snatched the bourbon bottle from Rachel’s hand, hid it behind her back.

Joyce looked up. “Chloe? What in God’s name are you doing up there? You know you’re not supposed to be up there. Wh—” She took a step backwards and her heel knocked a soda can. Sent it skidding off into the street. She looked down. “Why are there cans all over the driveway?”

“We were gonna pick them up.” Chloe stuttered, a little too loud. Half her mind on trying to sound sober, the other half on what else her mom might have seen.

“Uh-huh.” Joyce replied. Dead-pan, hand on hip. “You haven’t got alcohol up there, have you? What’s that behind your back?”

Chloe’s grip tightened on the bottleneck lodged against her spine. Usually, she wouldn’t give a shit about her mom finding her with booze. But Rachel was here and Joyce would probably go tell the Ambers. Then Chloe would be grounded. And Rachel would be grounded. And they’d be kept apart again. And no way. Fuck that.

“Nothing.”

“Show me your hands, young lady.”

“N—” Chloe began to say before an arm clasped her shoulders, pulled her into a side-hug. Rachel.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Price. It was all me,” Rachel said, smiling down at Joyce and leaning her head into Chloe’s. She sounded almost sober. Holy shit, she really could act. “I begged your amazing daughter to let me see the view. It’s so beautiful. Especially at night.”

Maybe it was the dark, maybe it was the distance, but Chloe could have sworn something shifted in her mom’s expression; her eyes met Chloe’s, and she looked… happy? Like Chloe had finally done something right, and Chloe really couldn’t remember the last time her mom looked at her like that.

“Yes, I’m sure it is, Rachel,” Joyce said with a trace of a smile. “But it’s still dangerous and you shouldn’t be up there.”

Fingers trailed down Chloe’s back, twisted the bourbon bottle from her grip and pulled it surreptitiously away. Chloe threw Rachel a look. Rachel, genius. She waved her empty hands theatrically towards her mother. “See, officer? Nothing here. We’re clean.”

Joyce rolled her eyes. “Get down from the roof, girls. It’s late. And Chloe,” she poked an empty soda can with her toe. “Come down here and tidy these up.”

“But, Mom, you’re standing right there. Can’t you?”

She expected what she got: a glare and a quirk of Joyce’s eyebrow. But Chloe was still pretty sure she saw her smile as she disappeared from view. The door clicking shut as she went back inside.

 


 

Rachel used the bathroom while Chloe went to get the cans. One had rolled all the way to the mailbox where it lay nestled in the grass underneath. Another two had made it as far as the street. She picked them up, tossed them in a black garbage bag. Took them back into the kitchen. She paid no attention to what she was doing. Her head was full of cans rolling down roofs, ravens on a telephone poles, distant charcoal trees. Things that were beautiful. Because Rachel made them beautiful. She made everything around her beautiful, and now she was going to go and make a far-off country on the other side of the world beautiful. Somewhere that Chloe wasn’t. And while she was gone everything here would be shitty again. A can would just be a can—she rinsed the empties under the faucet—a roof just a roof—placed them by the side of the sink—blackened trees on the hillside would just be… something dead. And as she made her way up the stairs it occurred to her that wherever she was, inside or outside, even the widest space didn’t feel like freedom without Rachel in it. And if she was honest, she’d happily crawl on hands and knees into the tiniest crack in the floor, however dark and cramped and suffocating, as long as she was there, too.

Chloe got back to her room expecting to see her there, feral grin, ready with some other scheme for prolonging the night’s adventures. But instead Rachel had crawled underneath the blankets and gone to sleep. Chloe nudged the initial sting of disappointment aside, smiled. Lightweight.

The bottle of bourbon sat open on the desk—Rachel’s one for the road. Chloe screwed the top back on and placed it in Rachel’s rucksack, zipped it up as quietly as she could. She took off her pants, folded them over the back of the chair and swapped her tank for a clean tee. Turned the light out and padded over to the bed. Rachel lay on her back, arms splayed above her head as though in surrender. In the way Sera will later say she slept when she was a tiny baby, in the same way Chloe will see her sleep so many times over the years, right through until the end; until she doesn’t see her sleeping anymore. As though she had laid herself out for Chloe to look at, chest moving lightly up and down, breath escaping through parted lips. Making that shitty bed beautiful.

Chloe slipped in beside her. She wanted to touch her, lay a hand on her arm, her stomach, but Rachel wasn’t awake to ask if that was okay. Instead, she lay her fingers on the pillow between them, stroked the fabric as she listened to the gentle rhythm of Rachel’s breathing, until at long last, she too felt the tug of sleep.

Swoosh…




Chapter Text

Mid Summer 2010
(Three years before...) 

The room spun around Chloe, draped in silver and sequins, fluttering in perfumed silk. Rachel blew around her like a whirlwind, pulling a seemingly never-ending line of clothes from her bedroom closet, draping them around Chloe, a cock of the head, a pout, then tossing them onto the bed. Fingers beating against her chin in thought.

It reminded Chloe of when she was a kid, those rare special occasions—a wedding, a christening, a trip to Grandma’s. Her mom’s voice, pulled tight with irritation: Oh, honey, but you’d look so pretty in a dress, as she wrestled rough fabric, pockmarked with flowers, over Chloe’s resistant shoulders. The incessant ksh, ksh, ksh of swishing lace, scratching the back of her calves as she walked. She always hated getting dressed up. She still hated it. Even for Rachel.

“Do you have anything I can wear with pants?” Chloe asked.

“I thought you wanted a dress.” The hangers in the closet clattered as Rachel rummaged through what remained. Chloe glanced at the shimmering mountain of discarded clothing on the bed behind her. How come Rachel had so many dresses, anyway? When did she even wear them? For whom? 

“Ah-ha!” Rachel pulled out something satin and blue that looked way, way too short and way, way too shiny.

“No, I said my mom wanted me to wear a dress,” Chloe said as Rachel stepped up behind her and threw the latest offering over Chloe’s shoulder. It tumbled down her chest, a sequined splash of blue vomit, as her reflection stared back from the closet mirror, all knees and elbows and pale spikey bits. She looked ridiculous. 

She could see Rachel standing behind her, face popping up from over her shoulder like a far more beautiful conjoined twin, head tilted, brows creased. “Hmm…”

“I look like a reject from Dancing with the Stars.”

“Not true,” Rachel said, gaze finding Chloe’s in the glass, the warmth of her, the shape of her, pushed up against Chloe’s thin tank from behind. Rachel winked, pressing her lips against Chloe’s bare shoulder and—holy shit—why did she do that? Why did she always have to do things like that? Like it was nothing. Chloe tensed, dropped her gaze to avoid the mirror, to avoid the hot, beet-like stain spreading across her face.

A pause. A silence. “Okay, no dresses,” Rachel said at last, whipping away the blue satin number and tossing it with the others onto the bed. She returned to the closet, twirling her feather earring between her fingers.

Chloe watched on as Rachel's hands flicked through hangers, settled on her hips in thought, ran through her hair. Her eyes drifted over the arch of Rachel’s neck, and she wondered what would happen if she walked over and kissed it, like Rachel had kissed her shoulder. Just like that. Would that be okay? Was kissing a thing they were doing now? She wondered if Rachel would lean into that kiss, turn and melt into her; fuse their bodies together before throwing Chloe down on the bed where they’d sink as one into that soft, silken pile. Or would she step away, say nothing, leave Chloe adrift in the glow of another enigmatic smile?

Chloe’s body ached to find out. Her mind was scared shitless.

It all seemed so simple in her head, telling Rachel how she really felt. Yet the moment Rachel was there and in front of her, words turned to mulch in her mouth, dissolving like ink on wet paper. Like that afternoon in the junkyard, back when they'd first met, and she'd had that perfect opportunity to tell her everything. The words had been there on her tongue, ready to spill, ready to serve up her wasted heart on a plate—still hot and raw and beating. But she’d stopped. Bitten down on what she longed to say, too afraid to be left alone again. Instead, called what they had a real friendship . And so that’s what they had now, wasn’t it? Maybe there was another universe where Chloe hadn’t been so chickenshit, another universe where, right at that moment, they were making out on a pile of silk and sequins. Or another entirely, where she had spewed out the truth like an idiot and Rachel had freaked out, turned on her heel and run, lost forever in a cloud of dust. 

The truth was, Chloe still had no idea what was going on between them. Even though they’d been seeing each other almost every day for weeks now. Weeks of hands finding each other under tables, on sofas, at the back of the bus, on dark, sticky armrests at the theater; weeks of heads placed in laps and hands stroking hair; of hot breath whispered into ears and mouths pressed against cheeks in greeting, every so often straying too close to each other, lips grazing lips as if by accident, the fleeting, waxy sweetness of lip balm. A real friendship. Whatever one of those was. 

So different to Max and the easy hugs of their childhood; the roughhousing when Max would squirm and giggle underneath Chloe on the living room floor. But she hadn’t wanted to kiss Max, had she? She began to drift off into one of her daydreams, the one where she’s roughhousing with Rachel, lets Rachel pin her to the ground and straddle her, hair falling around her flushed cheeks. Lioness smile. She leans down over Chloe, face getting closer. And then…

“So,” Rachel addressed the room, hangers still rattling. “Something to go with pants that can be worn to a wedding…” 

The wedding. Chloe curled her lip, the reminder of why they were there cooling all the heat in her like an ice bucket sloshed over a campfire. 

“Who are we channeling here?” Rachel asked, pulling out two blazers and holding them up in each hand. “Cute Keira Knightley?” She raised something floaty and elegant. “Or fuck-‘em-all young Patti Smith?” She held up the second blazer: Oversized, thick, cuffs turned up and buttons pinned to one lapel.

“Fuck-‘em-all is hella tempting…”

“But…?” 

Chloe shrugged. “I dunno. I promised my mom I’d wear something”—she paused on the next word, screwing up her face like it tasted bad—”nice.” 

“Chloe,” Rachel said, letting her arms fall to her waist. “Your mom is knowingly marrying a man you detest. A man who makes you feel bad every chance he gets. Wear whatever the fuck you want.”

There was a knock at the door. “Girls?” Rachel’s mom, her other mom—Rose—slipped into the room, eyes peeping over the top of an overflowing basket of laundry. “Can I come in?” 

“You’re in,” Rachel said in the too-breezy tone she always used with her parents—sunlight glancing off the edge of a blade. She turned away to continue her search.

Rose caught Chloe’s eye and smiled. A not-quite-smile, like a hairline crack spreading across her porcelain face. Chloe raised one shoulder in a sympathetic shrug. She kind of liked Rose. She especially liked her steady supply of cookies and the way she always knocked when the door was closed. But something about her made Chloe uneasy. Something in her eyes, her darting glances that never quite landed. She reminded Chloe of Max’s old hamster, Gus-Gus. He used to live in a cage in Max’s bedroom, and whenever Chloe stayed over, he’d always wake her in the early hours by gnawing at the metal bars, an incessant rattling from deep across the room. The moment she stirred, he’d stop, stare at her. Dead still. His tiny currant eyes gleaming in the moonlight. It used to freak Chloe the fuck out. 

One day he escaped. For ages, they kept finding his droppings all around the house, always in the strangest places. Max was sure he’d come back if she kept leaving out enough carrot sticks in the cage. Then even the droppings disappeared, and Chloe had consoled Max by telling her he’d run away to find a better life, that he was somewhere having an awesome time with all his hamster homies. And maybe she believed that herself, a little, until the day she overheard Vanessa telling Joyce they’d found his mummified corpse down the back of the dryer. Chloe never did tell Max that. 

When Rachel first told Chloe that Rose was super smart, that she used to be an English professor at some Ivy League school in California and had even had a couple of books published, Chloe had laughed. It seemed ridiculous—Rose was way too much of a Stepford Wife for that. But since then, in those moments when she’d see Rose lifting a cake from the oven or doing the washing up, eyes staring off into empty spaces, her mind lost on things unseen… Yeah, then Chloe believed it. 

At that moment, Rose’s eyes were fixed on the ever-growing mountain of clothes piled up on the bed. A flicker of panic, insofar as Rose seemed capable of panic, darkened her face. “Are you taking all that?” she asked.

“I told you, Mom.” Rachel was still turned towards the closet, but Chloe could hear the eye-roll in her voice. “I’m helping Chloe with her wedding outfit.”

“Okay, well perhaps sort some things for yourself, too, sweetheart. We’re flying tomorrow.”

“Mom, I know !”

Rose must have known better than to probe further. She just raised her eyebrows, left the room; left Chloe alone with Rachel, and a single word skittering through her head like a rock skimmed across a lake: Tomorrow. The rock sank, heavy in Chloe’s stomach, a reminder of what she knew but had spent all afternoon trying to forget. Rachel was leaving tomorrow. Three whole weeks.

Rachel whirled around, a long belted blazer in her hand, the glowing grin of victory planted on her face. “How about this?”

 


 

You’ll look super-hot! Rachel had assured her, but three days later, as Chloe stood wearing that blazer in front of her own mirror, she felt anything but.

There was a space behind her where Rachel should be, peeking over her shoulder, telling her it would be okay. The hole she’d left behind ached like a missing tooth—a raw, fleshy space Chloe rolled the tip of her tongue around, where something should be but wasn’t. Nothing there but the throb of absence.

The day before Rachel left, Chloe had stayed for lunch at the Ambers, and the two of them had sat out on the decking in the backyard, sharing a bag of chips in the sun. Rachel had held Chloe’s hand and told her the time would fly. Well, of course it would for her. She’d be in England, doing whatever it was people did in England, visiting castles and shit. It was Chloe who had been abandoned, adrift here in her tiny town that now seemed even smaller without Rachel in it. On today of all days. The day her mom married David. 

They’d decided on a simple backyard ceremony: Rented chairs and a cold plate buffet. The caterers had arrived to set up that morning, and Chloe had watched some fat dude with his stomach hanging below his white tee heave her dad’s old rusted BBQ across the patio. To make space for the tables, they said. Around the corner, out of the way… out of sight. She hadn’t been able to watch anymore after that.

The guest list was small, mainly David’s relatives—all local—although a few of Joyce’s family had also made the trip. They hadn’t come to Oregon for William’s funeral but for David… Oh, what a beautiful man! one of Joyce’s aunts had cooed, grabbing David by the cheeks as Chloe had looked on, horrified. You’ve done well for yourself with this one, Joycey. What a doll! Chloe wondered if she’d said the same when Joyce married William. If she’d bothered turning up to their wedding at all? 

Chloe knew what her mom’s relatives had thought of her dad, had heard her parents argue about it often enough. She remembered her dad in the kitchen, wagging his finger, imitating Grandpa as he did so often: Joycey you cannot marry that man. Goddamn socialist, don’t know the value of the dollar in his back pocket. He’s nothin' but a hippie, Joycey. A good-fer-nothin’ hippie not worthy of my daughter. And William would wink at Chloe and say, well, he was right about one thing, then get down on his knees and kiss Joyce’s slipper, repeating over and over: I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy of this beautiful goddess! Joyce laughing and telling him to get the hell up, flicking his back with a dish towel. 

Now Joyce’s family had David. David, one of them. Like all the men Joyce had grown up surrounded by—silent, sun-lashed, bristly men with chapped hands and sandpaper cheeks. God, guns and country. Joyce used to laugh that William was her escape from her conservative upbringing. But if William was an escape, David was the return to its comforting fold.

Chloe could hear them all downstairs as she stood there, staring herself down in the mirror. Heard them milling around, happy voices raised, glasses clinking over a background of soft jazz. She watched her top lip curl in the glass, her eyes narrow. Were any of them thinking of William at all? Her chest tightened, anger boiling up in her stomach, hissing down into her fingertips, making them itch to strike a blow. Of course they weren’t thinking of him. They all loved David now. 

Her mom loved David now. 

A shriek of laughter escaped up the stairs—Joyce’s friend Evelyn. She’d been at the funeral. She’d sat in their living room, less than two years before, dressed all in black and sobbing softly into a mug of tepid coffee. Now she’d moved on, like they’d all moved on. As though William had never existed at all. As though they weren’t all sitting in his fucking house!

Chloe tore Rachel’s blazer from her shoulders. The closet door screaming on its rails as she flung it open, reached inside…

It was one of her uncles who noticed first, as Chloe stomped down the stairs and into the living room. One of those uncles she hardly saw, who must have thought he was funny: “Hey there, Chloe. Oh boy, did you get the wrong invitation? This is a wedding, not a funeral!” He laughed; a big, bloated belly laugh. And some others around him laughed too. But Evelyn, who saw Chloe next, didn’t laugh. Sitting close by and clutching a glass of wine, Evelyn, for once, didn’t laugh. And the other friends and relatives, the ones who had said their goodbyes to William that day two years ago, they didn’t laugh either, they just turned pale. 

David didn’t laugh. His cheekbones flushed blood-red and his mustache twitched and he thundered at Chloe to get changed. 

And Joyce. Joyce, the last to see. She didn’t laugh. She closed her eyes—a beat too long—and left the room.

And soon after that, Chloe found herself curled up on the floor of her bedroom, shaking with sobs, wearing the same pant suit she’d worn to her father’s funeral.

There were knocks on the door. People tried. Evelyn tried, coaxing gently. David tried, fists heavy on the wood, bellowing something about respect, until someone dragged him away. The idiot uncle tried—tried to make a joke of it, tried to tell her that her dad would be happy. Bullshit. Even the fucking chaplain tried. Fed her some crap about love triumphing and finding solace in beautiful things.

Joyce didn’t try. Chloe waited, but Joyce didn’t try.

“Chloe, honey?” Evelyn’s voice from the landing. “The ceremony’s starting in a few minutes. I know your mom would like you to be there.” 

Chloe ignored her, pulled her knees tighter to her chest and put her hands over her ears. Tried to block out everything. 

Tried to think about Rachel. 

She imagined Rachel sitting beside her, stroking the bangs from her forehead. Tried to concentrate on her, the softness of her fingertips, the faint trace of jasmine on her clothes. Her voice, her laugh… It didn’t work. She was gone. Until, at last, a voice did come. A voice that wasn’t Rachel’s at all: Why don’t you call her, kiddo? 

Him.

She could smell him before she saw him, smoky cedar chips on the BBQ. His outline at last blurring into focus through wet, sticky lashes. He was leaning back against the desk, hands clasped in front of him and legs crossed at the ankles, a soft smile on his lips. 

“I can’t call,” Chloe told him, desperate to get up and touch him, to feel his safe arms around her. But she knew it was useless, that if she got up, if she moved her head, blinked her eyes, lost concentration even for a second, then he would disappear. So she didn’t move. Concentrated. Kept him with her. “It’s too late to call,” she said. “It’s the middle of the night over there.”

“Excuses, excuses. Don’t be afraid, honey. I bet she wants you to call. Or text. Isn’t that what you kids are crazy about these days?” 

“I think you’ll find texting’s been around a while, Dad.” He smiled a shrug as she flicked her eyes away from him and towards her phone, screen black and lifeless on the floor nearby; a glance that lasted only a fraction of a second. Shit. When she returned her gaze to where her dad had been, she hoped she’d still see him, but he wasn’t there. Just the resonance of his voice in her head: Call her. She looked back at the phone, and wiping her tears away with the back of her hand, she picked it up, typed in a message: rach?

She didn't really expect a reply. It must have been well past midnight in London. 

Her heart leaped as the phone beeped almost immediately: Hey you

u awake? Chloe typed back. Dumb question.

Again, within seconds: Only for you. What’s up?

A weight drifted from Chloe’s shoulders. She took a deep breath and typed, i think i wrecked my moms wedding

Oh. 

A pause before the phone beeped again: Is it bad? 

kinda

Chloe's fingers were hovering over the keypad, wondering how to elaborate, if she should elaborate, when Rachel beat her to it : Did you get drunk and puke all over the cake?

The hint of a smile tugged at Chloe’s lips . no

Run topless down the aisle?  

She rolled her eyes. uh… no

Sacrifice the page boy on the altar?

The smile grew a little wider as Chloe typed. Rachel was such an idiot. no page boy no altar… so no

Get caught screwing one of the bridesmaids in the bathroom?

Maybe she’d have blushed a little at that, wondered what Rachel meant by it, if the bridesmaids hadn’t been the same age as her mom and known Chloe so long they used to wipe her ass as a baby. noooooooo

The groom?

And now she was laugh-snorting all over the screen. ewwwwww! NO! now i need to vom

Sorry . Chloe suspected she wasn’t that sorry. So how bad can it be?

Her smile faded, fingers drifting over the keys. im a dick

It took a moment longer for the reply this time, the phone wet in Chloe’s sweaty palm. She stared at it until the screen lit up at last:

You’re not. A beat. You’re beautiful.

Another pause and then: Whatever you’ve done, I still love you.

Chloe stared at the screen for a long time, letting her eyes flow over every word. Let each one gush up inside her like a hot spring, making her eyes sting and her face crumple and her heart roar, like she wanted to cry and laugh out loud all at the same time. Rachel was perfect. And in that moment nothing else mattered, nothing else could matter. The whole world in one text message. Rachel loved her. 

The phone beeped again: And so does your mom . Probably .

Chloe’s hands trembled as she fumbled at the keypad, at a loss for what to write. Should she say it? Should she say it back? luv u 2 , she typed out, but when the words were there on the screen, written and real, her thumb hesitated over the send button. Did Rachel mean it? And should she use whole words? Rachel always used whole words. Did it mean more with whole words?

Chloe held her breath. Pressed send. 

She rested her phone against her mouth, bit the top. Her whole body trembled, her head a foamy spindrift of emotions—utterly beyond her grasp but somehow making her feel… good. The handset buzzed against her teeth, vibrating up into the tumult of her skull. She looked down at the screen. It said: Miss you x-R-x.

She sprung to her feet, grabbed Rachel’s jacket from the floor, and headed downstairs.

Later that evening, Chloe found herself standing on her own by the fence in the backyard, sipping stolen wine from a soda can. Around her the reception was in full swing: drunken dancing, the clinking of cutlery and glasses, the sound of laughter fizzing like a bath bomb up into the boozy, yellow sky. He was there too. She could see him moving between the tables, beer in hand, apologizing as he tried to maneuver his big frame between the guests. Oh, I’m sorry, buddy. Hey, mind your back there, Jack. He pulled up a chair next to Evelyn’s husband, sipped a beer as he listened to their conversation, laughed at their terrible jokes. No one talked to him. Of course they didn’t. She wondered if that made him sad. At last he lifted himself from the table, gave a salute in goodbye that no one returned. She watched him saunter across the patio, and maybe he looked at her, maybe she saw him smile, maybe… before he turned the corner around the side of the house, fell out of sight. She followed him then. She wanted to ask him how he felt about everything. If he was okay.

But by the time she got there, he was gone.

 


 

The empty expanse of those remaining three weeks stretched on into eternity. Chloe spent much of it lying in her bed, listening to Rachel’s favorite song on endless repeat; festering in the fug of her duvet like a lost apple core lodged down the back of the sofa. A shadow existing between texts and Skype calls and the occasional postcard of somewhere beautiful: Wish you were here! Rach xxx. The bright little sparks in the otherwise endless flow of dull days. 

Time dripped. Minutes, hours. Like droplets from a faucet, forming slowly on the limescale lip, getting bigger, expanding, bloating until at last— plunk —they plopped into the bathwater. 

A day— plunk.

A week— plunk. 

Two weeks— plunk. 

Plunk

Chloe watched the drops from the far end of the bathtub, her chin submerged below the warm suds, and thought about Rachel.

As those weeks crawled past, Chloe thought about Rachel all the time. She thought about her in the morning when she first woke up, in the evening, as she was drifting off to sleep, in the shower, in the tub, in the junkyard, in the bathroom stalls at the diner; She thought about her pretty much any time that her mom and David weren’t home, when she’d think in all sorts of places and even saved some of her best thinking for the garage because she knew how much it would freak David out. She wondered if Rachel knew how much she was thinking, and what about, and if she was thinking the same as Chloe, as much as Chloe. 

About Chloe.

 


 

A few days before Rachel’s return, Chloe was woken by the sound of a car horn, honking up from the driveway. 

Max? 

She rolled over, rubbed her eyes. The car honked again. Awake now, she mentally shunted away the childish fantasy. Of course it wasn’t Max. Rachel? She wasn’t due back until Friday, but could it be?

“Chloe!” Her mother’s cry from the hallway. “Come down. Come see!”

Chloe rolled out of bed, grabbed a pair of pants from the floor, stumbled into them and headed downstairs.

Her mom stood by the front door, holding it open, a huge smile on her face. “Go see!” she said, ushering Chloe outside.

The sunlight stung Chloe’s sleepy eyes as she stepped out onto the porch, blinking into the bright morning. 

“What’s going on?” she asked, hooding her brows with one hand and peering down at the driveway. Not Max. Not Rachel. 

David. 

David with an odd smirk cracking his face, one bristly arm rested up against the bashed-up old Ford F-150 truck from the junkyard.

“Morning, soldier.” He jangled the keys in his hand. Held them out to Chloe.

“What? What’s going on?”

Joyce’s arm curled around her waist. “David spoke to the junkyard owner, honey,” she said. “After everything that’s happened…” She paused. “Well, we thought you might like it as a project. A wedding gift, if you like?”

“Whatever it takes to get you out of that goddamn bed,” David interjected. He shifted from foot to foot and Joyce shot him a glance, like he should have said something else. He cleared his throat. “I… uh…He slapped the top of the cab. “I was impressed,” he said at last, pulling himself straight and puffing out his chest, entering full sergeant-major mode. Not quite looking at Chloe, instead staring at a point just past her ear. “It can’t have been easy to get this thing running. That was no simple job. You clearly have a talent for this sort of thing and it would be a great shame to see that go to waste.” He exhaled at last, blowing free the wasp he’d obviously been chewing on through his whole little speech. 

“So… this is mine?” Chloe asked, strolling towards the truck. She was screaming inside with excitement but there was no way she would let it show. 

“You have use of it,” David corrected her. “Your mother and I will tax and insure it for the first year. After that it’s up to you.”

Chloe’s hand trailed across the rusted hood. It was a busted up death trap on four wheels. It was the best gift she’d ever received. It was freedom. 

“Thanks,” she said, images of her and Rachel cruising along palm-lined highways dancing though her mind. “For the truck.” She looked at David, and in that moment, possibly for the first time ever, she didn’t totally hate him. It felt weird. She plucked the keys from his hand. Grinned. “You’re a doll.”

 


 

u back in Oregon?

Just landed.
Were you tracking my flight?

mebbe

Lol! 
Stalker much? 
Meet me tomorrow night?

how bout 2nite?

Tempting. 
But jet lag makes for shitty company.
Tomorrow.
I’ll make sure it’s worth the wait.

Across the dark water, at the far end of the dock, a pale fire flickered from the deck of an old fishing boat. 

Harbor tonight, Rachel’s text had said. Don’t be late . So there Chloe was, throat dry, pulse beating in her ears and early for the first time in her life. Rotting wood creaked beneath her as she hurried through a shadowy corridor of looming shapes—trawlers lolling like old drunks on their moorings. There weren’t as many these days, not since the Prescotts shut down the port. Not like when Chloe used to come here as a kid and watch the boats come back into harbor, the burly cries of the fishermen, decks shimmering silver with the day’s catch. Tonight the place was silent, dead, shrouded in black.

Apart from that light. An orange glow in the distance, like a beacon. 

Oily water sloshed between the planks under Chloe's feet, throwing up the smell of seaweed and rot and diesel. Gurgled like the emptiness in her stomach. She hadn’t eaten all day. How could she? Rachel was back. Rachel was here. She was going to see Rachel.

As she got closer, she made out the source of the flickering light: lanterns, dozens of them, tall and short, lined up on the bow of a rusty trawler like a glowing line of crooked teeth. A shadowy figure stirred between them as Chloe approached.

“Avast ye landlubber!” the shadow cried in a ridiculous attempt at a pirate’s growl. Mainly it sounded like Rachel. She came into view then, Anne Bonny of Arcadia, stood high above Chloe on the bow of the trawler, foot up on the iron railing. One hand sat on her hip, the other brandished a child’s toy cutlass, which she used to push up the tricorn pirate hat on her head. “She be here at last, aye!” 

A grin seeped hot across Chloe’s cheeks, warm molasses. Here she was at last. Rachel. Chloe’s three week purgatory ended in a blaze of lanterns. 

“Yo,” Chloe said, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, hands stuffed in her pockets to keep them still. “I mean… uh… Yo ho-ho?”

Rachel laughed, hopped down from the bow and bent down to help Chloe clamber up on deck. “You’re early.” Rachel said, pulling Chloe up and over the side. “I haven’t even finished lighting my lanterns.” She gave Chloe a gentle nudge with her shoulder, but she didn’t let go of her hand, just stood there holding it, staring up at Chloe with one merciless eye. The other was covered over with a patch, embroidered with a skull and crossbones, and above her top lip she’d penciled on a thin mustache with what looked like eyeliner. She still looked beautiful. Chloe glanced down at Rachel’s hand, still wrapped in her own, and her heart fizzed like a shook soda can. What should she do? Should she say something? Hug her? She wanted to hug her. She wanted to hug her and never let go. “So what do you think?” Rachel asked, slipping her hand from Chloe’s and pulling at the lapels of her huge leather coat.

“Did one of your pirate raids include the drama closet?”

“Can you tell?” She did a twirl, the coat fanning out around her like a gown as the deck clattered underfoot. She stopped. Took Chloe’s hands in both her own. “So, are you happy to see me?”

“I…” Chloe stuttered, sure she’d never been happier to see anyone in her entire life. “I am crazy happy to see you.”

“Good!” Rachel said, lifting herself onto her tiptoes and pecking the corner of Chloe’s mouth, leaving behind a flush of perfume and the slick of lip gloss. She drew back with a smile, draped herself against the railing. “That makes all the effort worth it.”

Chloe tried to ignore the thumping in her chest, the burn in her cheekbones, the big dumb smile cemented across her big dumb face. “Whose boat is this?” she asked.

“Fuck knows,” Rachel said with a shrug. “I picked it out because it has our initials. See?” She bent over the bow to point out the number with her cutlass and Chloe leaned over to look. Candle lamps illuminated the rusty iron below and the peeling paint of its faded number: RC1081.

“No shit!” 

Rachel stepped back up onto the bow where she sat down against the railings, tapped the deck beside her. “Take a seat, Pete.”

Chloe lowered herself down as Rachel opened up a large orange box by her side—the emergency kit from her bedroom. “So, what’s the emergency?” Chloe asked. 

“It’s my treasure chest,” Rachel said with a wink. “Practical, waterproof and spacious. And it has handy compartments.” 

“Spoken like a true scourge of the seven seas.”

“You know it.”

“So, what’s with the whole pirate theme, anyway?” 

“Well… that was one of the first things you told me,” Rachel said. “That you wanted to be a pirate as a kid.” She pulled a woolen blanket from the box and draped it over their laps. “You asked me to be your first mate. You don’t remember?” 

Chloe’s thought back that morning in the train car: Cold wind rushing through the fabric of her sneakers, and Rachel’s feet dangling alongside hers. Little kicks, little nudges as they rattled along. “I remember.”

“Plus, you have that hat in your bedroom. So, I dunno, I figured you like pirates.” 

Chloe rapped the top of Rachel’s hat with her knuckles. “Yeah, okay, you got me. I like pirates.”

“Good,” Rachel laughed, batting her hand away and re-adjusting her tricorne. “Because I have a whole fucking theme going on here.”

Chloe couldn’t help it, she remembered Max then, as she stared at the skull and crossbones on Rachel’s eye patch. They used to have a flag like that, she and Max. Used to hang it from the swing set in the backyard. And as she was thinking about it, her brain was making words, making whole sentences, and it wasn’t until dozens of them had already escaped her lips she realized she was saying them out loud: “Me and my friend Max, we used to play pirates all the time when we were kids. I was Captain Bluebeard, and she was Long Max Silver. We used to pretend my swing set was a pirate ship because we were such fucking geeks. And we had a fort that my dad made us. Just up the street from our house. Used to go hide up there with our telescope and take turns playing look-out. And then my dad used to join in. Bloody Bill, he was, Scourge of the Seven Seas. He’d pretend to sneak up on us. Put on this dumb pirate laugh and tell us he was coming to plunder our ship and steal our treasure, and we’d to hurl water balloons down at him, and—” She stopped. Rachel’s head was resting on her arms, looking up at Chloe through that one big eye. “Yeah, anyway…” Chloe finished, feeling like the biggest dork on Earth. Images of her dad’s soaking shirt, flecked with the vibrant colors of balloon shells, still warm in her mind.

“Don’t stop.” Rachel said with an encouraging smile. “I enjoy hearing about what a young rapscallion you were.”

A rapscallion. It had been years since Chloe last heard that word. “That’s what my dad used to call me,” she said, picking at the blanket on her knees.

Rachel sighed, resting her head back against the railings. “Your dad sounds great… I don’t think I remember a single time my dad ever played with me.”

“I thought you were the apple of his eye.”

“I guess I am, but that never extended to looking up from his newspaper. I was like one of his crazy expensive paintings, you know? Something he could show off to his friends, something he could say he had. A photo of a cute kid to put in his wallet. But he never spent time with me. He still doesn’t. Even after…” She looked away into the distance. “Even now.”

Chloe found Rachel’s hand with her own. It seemed like something she should do. Rachel clutched at her fingers, squeezed them tightly, before letting go to rummage through the box again. She pulled out two cans of soda and handed one to Chloe. Rachel had never spoken about her childhood before. It occurred to Chloe that she had no idea who Rachel Amber was before the age of fifteen. “What about Mount Hood?” she asked.

“Assigned family time.” Rachel rolled her eyes, popped her can. “It was so dumb,” she said, taking a pull. “We’d rent a cabin every year, always somewhere different. But wherever we were, my dad would spend the whole time outside yelling into his cell phone and my mom would hide herself away with her laptop in one of the bedrooms writing her papers, and I… Well, I could always do what I wanted. Take walks, read, watch TV. Whatever.” She sighed and Chloe took a swig from her own can, not taking her eyes off Rachel, just… listening. “That day on Mount Hood… my mom sent me and Dad out so she could get some peace. Up until I broke my arm, Dad spent most of the hike complaining he had no signal.” Rachel’s voice grew thick, her uncovered eye raw and far away. “I dunno… I guess a part of me fell on purpose.” She looked at Chloe. “Does that sound fucked up?”

Chloe found Rachel’s hand again, shook her head. “No.” And what else could she say? Parts of Chloe fell on purpose all the time.

The blue feather earring twirled in Rachel’s fingers. “He only flew out for a week to join me and Mom in England. Spent the whole time on calls.” She trailed off, fell silent, fingers still twisting around the blue feather. Her eyes, her mind, elsewhere. Like she was shuffling through a deck of cards inside her head, searching for the right hand. “Anyway,” she said at last. “Let’s not ruin tonight talking about him.”

“So, what was London like?” Chloe asked. 

The right card must have landed, and the change in Rachel was instant. Like she’d slotted her father back into the pile, face down, stacked away for another conversation. “It was fucking amazing!” she said with a grin, slapping her palm down on Chloe’s knee. “I love Europe. We’re definitely going to live there one day.”

Something inside Chloe went pop. She gulped. “We?”

“Of course.” Rachel’s face sparkled, and she prodded Chloe’s foot with her own. “Why? You don’t want to?” 

“Sure, I want to. I just can’t imagine being that far away.”

And it was far away. Europe. London. 4947 miles as the crow flies, give or take. If a crow could fly that far. While Rachel was gone, Chloe had looked up the distance online and then headed to the beach, taken off her sneakers and socks and stood looking out over the ocean, wet sand squelching through her toes. And she’d wondered, if she squinted hard enough, could she see 4947 miles? She couldn’t. It just made her eyes water. And then she realized she was looking the wrong way. That even if she had some superpower that would let her see 4947 miles over the curve of the Pacific, she’d just end up staring at some yurt in Mongolia or something. So she kicked the sand under her feet, turned around. And then all she could see were trees. And there was no way she could see 4947 miles through them.

“I can totally imagine it!” Rachel said, throwing off the blanket and springing to her feet. “It would be amazing!” She clattered along the deck, to the end of the bow, and for a moment Chloe thought she would stand there, arms outstretched, like that chick from Titanic, but instead she hauled herself to the top of the railings. The soles of her boots—new boots, Chloe noticed, punk boots—see-sawed wildly on the rusted metal as she wobbled up off her haunches, like a surfer rising from a board. Nothing between her and the churning black water below.

“Dude, be careful.” Chloe stumbled to her feet, legs getting caught in the blanket. She kicked it away, took a step towards Rachel, waiting for the splash. “I’m not coming in there after you.”

Rachel straightened at last, grinned down at Chloe with knuckles on hips, dimpled smile and white teeth triumphant. “Chloe Price telling me to be careful? You’ve changed.” She held out a theatrical hand, beckoned Chloe closer. “You do realize you’re talking to an eighth-grade Long Beach cheerleading champion? I have the balance of a—” She meant cat. At least, Chloe assumed she meant cat. What she actually said was, caaaAAAAToshit! as the trawler rolled beneath them and she veered backwards, arms clutching at nothing. Chloe lurched towards her, air frozen in her lungs, hands flailing uselessly and too far away until, right at the last, incredibly, Rachel rallied. With a curl of her back and a jut of her hips she remained standing. Just. A chuckle and a glimmer in her eye as though she’d totally meant it. “See?”

“You peaked in eighth grade too, huh?” Chloe said, shaking free a relieved laugh and holding out her hand. 

Rachel grabbed Chloe’s outstretched palm and jumped down with a clang, sending vibrations through the deck. “Au contraire,” she said, adjusting her hat, smile wide below her pencil mustache. “My ascent has only just begun.” 

Chloe rolled her eyes as Rachel spun away to look out over the water, coat trailing ocean winds in her wake. “God, I just want to sail away on this thing, don’t you?” she asked, grabbing the railings and leaning out into the imaginary breeze. “Just hit the ocean waves, feel that salty wind in our hair.” She twirled back to Chloe. “Let’s do that one day, Price. You and me. Let’s sail away somewhere. Anywhere. Just the two of us.” 

She shone. In the way she always shone back then. Doused in candlelight; smile bright and fantastic, promises playing in her eyes. Sail away with Rachel. Chloe couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do. 

She still can’t. Even now.

Rachel clutched an arm tight around Chloe’s shoulder, used the other to span the distant, dark horizon. “What a ship is,” she began in an accent that made her sound kind of drunk and a bit… British? “What the Black Pearl really is”—she put her lips close to Chloe’s ear, breath warm in the night air—”is freedom.”

Chloe laughed. “That your best Jack Sparrow?”

“Aye, mate.”

“Me and Max used to love that movie.” She made her own attempt at his accent. “But… but where is the rum gone?”

“I thought you’d never ask!” Rachel hopped back over to the emergency kit, pulled a fifth of dark rum from within and waved it in the air like a prize. “You didn’t think I’d forget the mixer, did you?”

“Another heist from the liquor cabinet?” 

“Plundered contraband. Naturally.” Rachel’s huge leather coat creaked as she slid down the railings and onto the deck. 

Chloe sank down next to her. “So what else do you have in that thing?” she asked, nodding towards the emergency kit. 

“Well…” Rachel leaned over to rifle through the contents. “I have a torch, and some Twinkies…”

“Important.”

“Cheetos…”

“Ooh, hand ‘em over.”

Rachel tossed over a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Chloe caught them with a with a crunch. So Rachel liked hot food? Figured. She burst open the bag as Rachel reeled off the rest of her list: “Scissors… Bandages… Tape… Antiseptic wipes. This boat reeks of tetanus.”

“The last girl scout, huh?”

“I was a girl scout.” Rachel’s face was a milk-and-water mask of mild amusement. Chloe never could tell when she was joking.

Chloe scoffed. “No, you fucking weren’t.” 

“I was!” Rachel held up three fingers in a gesture Chloe vaguely recognized from somewhere as the Scout salute. “Be prepared!”

“Bullshit.”

Rachel grabbed a Cheeto from Chloe’s hand, shoved it in her mouth and delivered a perfect, powdery grin of brightest red-orange. “Was too!”

“Ha! But can girl scouts do this ?” 

The bag crinkled as Chloe whipped out a whole handful of Cheetos with her best watch-this smile. Stuffed them all in her mouth in one go. She didn’t think about it, just did it. And that was a mistake. She felt nothing at first as she crunched down on the powdery mass in her mouth. One bite, then two. Until a fiery heat seemed to rise from the back of her throat, scorched the inside of her nostrils, and Chloe understood with grim, searing clarity why they called them flamin’ hot. Her eyes began to stream as acrid fire sludge filled the inside of her mouth, burning like a furnace until she couldn’t feel her tongue. She yelped a gritty yelp and Rachel’s face bloomed and burst into laughter, grew blurry through a film of hot, sticky tears. Chloe coughed at last, spraying a burst of vermilion dragon fire into the night. 

“You idiot! What are you doing?”

Chloe swallowed what was left, the burning sludge ripping down her esophagus. “Fuck…” 

“Oh my God, you’re such a dork!” Rachel’s eyes shone wet with glee. And that definitely made the pain worth it, Chloe thought, as she watched Rachel dab at her sparkling eyes. Worth it to see her laugh like that. Chloe stuck out her savaged tongue, cooled it in the salty air. “It’s bright red!” Rachel chuckled, handing Chloe a soda.

Chloe chugged it in one gulp, hid a burp behind her palm. “Dude, they’re fucking hot!”

“You’re hot.” 

It was the way Rachel said it: Eyes soft, no longer laughing. And Chloe thought about reaching over to her then, closing the gap between them and planting a flamin’ hot kiss on Rachel’s orange lips. Maybe she could have. But she didn’t. She just sat there staring at her like an idiot, until her body couldn’t handle the stillness, the nothing, of it anymore. She sprang to her feet, rubbing her hands together, rocking back and forth on her toes. 

“You okay?” Rachel asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Yeah, just stretching.” Chloe bounded over to the emergency kit, bobbed on her haunches as she looked inside. “What are these?” she asked, pulling out a small parcel wrapped in aluminum foil. There were several more inside.

“Sandwiches.”

Chloe picked up a perfectly wrapped parcel. Affixed was a neat little paper sticker, jotted over with Rachel’s swirly handwriting. “They’re labeled.”

“How else will we know which are jelly and which are cheese?”

“You label your sandwiches?” Chloe laughed. “Holy shit, you were a girl scout. Seriously, dude, who the fuck are you?”

For the briefest moment Rachel’s expression faltered. She gave a quick shrug before reapplying her artful grin. “Before you continue to pour scorn on my—frankly delicious—sandwiches, you haven’t seen the best part.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out a baggie and waved it in front of Chloe.

“Weed?” Chloe snatched it from her fingers. “I thought you didn’t smoke weed.”

“I don’t, but you do. I want to try it.”

Chloe had been surprised when Rachel told her she’d never smoked weed. A lifetime of being told drugs are for losers, Rachel had said with a dismissive wave of her hand. My dad makes Nancy Reagan look like Hunter S Thompson. I guess now I know why, what with my mom and all… And Chloe had just pretended to get the reference, left it there. It wasn’t like she could get hold of any weed, anyway. Not with Frank out of town. 

But it wasn’t just that, was it?

Rachel wanted to get high for fun. Chloe knew other kids smoked weed for fun. Kids like Justin and Trevor. They talked about it incessantly, slurring over the awesome highs they’d had down at the skatepark—scraped knees, shaking shoulders, laughter ringing out into the early hours. But Chloe didn't smoke weed for fun. She smoked it to fall into the depths of it, like a corroded coin tossed into a well; for the rush it gave her as Frank’s calloused fingers shoved a fresh baggie into her hands. Heart pumping as she disappeared around forgotten corners to roll up alone, taking her time to pack the joint just right, reveling in the precision, the artistry of it. And that first hit, the hiss and crackle, when the world dissolved into that swirling cloud in her chest; like the lost traces of a lullaby, sung beyond a wall. Even those few times with the guys in the fort, she’d never got high just for fun.

She opened the baggie, shuffled the nugs into her palm. Vibrant green, slightly sticky, that familiar earthy musk. “This is good shit,” she said. “Where did you get it?

“I called in a favor with Justin.” 

Justin? Chloe knew for a fact that Justin was all out; buying cheap brick weed off that kid Nacho and stealing what he could from his brother. Unless… She looked out in the direction of the beach, towards the lighthouse. Could Frank be back? There was no way of seeing his RV from here, hidden beyond the dark, hulking shapes of the harbor buildings. 

Rachel’s hand waved up and down beyond Chloe's nose. “Uh… hello?” she said, drawing Chloe back. “I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure you have to smoke it before you zone out?”

“Sorry.” Chloe stared down at the nugs in her palm. “Wait, how are we gonna smoke these?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you bring anything to roll it with?”

“No, don’t you have anything?”

Chloe laughed. “You think I carry around rolling paper and a grinder with me at all times? Like for weed emergencies?”

“What about a pipe?” The slightest flicker of irritation shot across Rachel’s eyes. A rare, tiny window on what churned inside. When Chloe knew Rachel better, she’d come to understand how much time Rachel spent planning that evening, how her mind must have shuffled through every eventuality. Cause and effect. Effect and cause. That she could have missed something so basic… 

But Chloe didn’t know that then, so she just bent over and laughed, tapping the pockets of her skinny jeans. “Where would I keep a pipe? You thought we’d just chew it?” She pushed the brim of Rachel’s hat down over her eyes. “Noob!” And then, as Rachel lifted her hat with a roll of her eyes, Chloe remembered that time in the fort when Nacho had shown them how to make a pipe-in-a-pinch from tin foil. “Yo,” she said. “Pass me one of those sandwich wrappers.” 

Chloe unpacked a jelly sandwich—shoved it in her mouth, it was delicious—and brushed away the crumbs from the foil. Watched Rachel and her huge coat unfurl to standing and stoop to grab the rum from the deck. 

“It may surprise you to learn this about me, Chloe,” Rachel said. “But I was kind of a square… until I met you.”

“Yeah, right.” Chloe ironed out the foil with the back of her hand. “I’ve seen your Facebook.” 

“And? What does my Facebook show you?”

Her words were too sharp, made Chloe nervous. Had she offended her? “I dunno,” she shrugged, pulling out her Sharpie and rolling the foil around it to make a stem. “Just that you’re popular, I guess.”

Rachel sighed, took a long pull of the rum. It must have been too much because she screwed up her face and spluttered before speaking at last: “You don’t need life experience to be popular, Chloe. Look at the most popular kids in school. Sure, they all run fast or they throw a football well or they wear perfect makeup and nice clothes or whatever… But it’s all a facade. They haven’t actually done anything except spend a lot of their parents’ money. They’re all scared fucking shitless of real life.” The bottle flashed through the air as she swung it around like a drunk giving a sermon. “High school, it’s like acting in one big play. It’s all fake. All of it. The real kids… like you… the other kids are terrified of you. Because you see how fake they are. You can call them out. You actually do ditch and drink and smoke and get stoned and”—she paused, let the fevered bottle hang loose by her side—“other stuff… stuff that scares the shit out of them. Because they’re all pussies without the balls to try anything.” She squatted down in front of Chloe, put a hand on her cheek. “I don’t think you realize how brave you really are.”

Chloe took hold of Rachel’s wrist, kept her hand there, hoped the sudden heat in her face wasn’t burning through her palm. “I don’t know if its bravery or just… you know”—she waved the finished foil pipe—“doing dumb stuff because I don’t give a shit.”

“You’re the bravest person I know. You went after a fucking psycho drug dealer. For me. You were supposed to go to my dad’s office to pick up a phone number.”

“Yeah, says the girl who smashed that same dealer in the skull with a 2-by-4.”

Rachel slid her hand away. “That was different,” she said, rolling back on her heels and gazing intently at the rum bottle in her hands. “That was spur of the moment. Sometimes I get angry and can’t control myself. That’s… not bravery. That’s nothing like what you did. You saved Sera’s life. My life.” Her eyes fastened on Chloe’s as she eased the makeshift pipe from her fingers. “You’re my hero. Really.”

“And your MacGyver?”

Rachel gave a soft laugh, the foil pipe crinkling as she slid her fingers along it. “Yes, and my MacGyver”

Chloe did her best breaking up the nugs with her fingertips and a pair of first-aid scissors. They left behind a green, sticky residue that she wiped across her jeans after packing the pipe. “You ready?” she asked, pulling her lighter from her pocket.

It took a couple of false starts. The foil was hot and harsh, burning even Chloe’s throat and sending Rachel into a fit of coughing so violent that her hat fell off. And Chloe found that fucking hilarious. She giggled as she told Rachel to hold the smoke in longer, tilted the lighter for her and told her to inhale. At first, Rachel seemed to take it so seriously, brow pulled tight, lips pursed. Even as her cheeks turned gray, and she choked out glugs of smoke and saliva. And Chloe draped her arms around her shoulders and laughed and laughed and laughed. 

And then Rachel started to giggle, shoulders vibrating, the tremor of her forehead against Chloe’s collarbone. “I think it’s working,” Rachel said, lifting her eyes to Chloe’s, a lazy grin settling on her face like silt drifting onto the seabed below. “Holy shit, it’s working.”

Time passed in a fantastic blur, veiled by a cloud of rum and weed smoke. Chloe couldn’t tell you now how they spent those hours. She remembers only moments, stitched together in time, a patchwork blanket of warm memories, there to wrap around herself in those times when life gets cold:

Hanging by her knees from the railings and dangling down the side of the boat, oblivious to the black waves below her. Blood rushing to her head as she looked out over the topsy-turvy horizon, where the stars were sea and the sea was stars. Rachel, encouraging, passing her the rum. Chloe tried to drink it upside down but most of it spilled out all over her chin and the rest went up her nose, and—holy fuck that stung! She choked, convulsed, Rachel catching her leg to stop her from falling, and the almost-full rum bottle plopping into the sea. Rachel grasped Chloe’s arm with a squeal, hauled her back up, and Chloe flopped down on the deck, hacking, groaning, clutching at her burning nose. And ohgodohgod what a head rush. They both burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Scrolling through pictures of England on Rachel’s phone, huddled up together under the blanket. Lots of pictures of Rachel posing in front of castles and the graves of long-dead poets. Her Hollywood smile beaming next to the old dude in the weird red costume from the gin bottles. A bridge. A red bus. An old-looking building that Rachel said was Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. A picture of Rachel on one knee, arm outstretched on the stage . More castles, more graves, more Rachel, who sat flicking through the images with her chin resting on Chloe’s shoulder. There were hundreds of photos. Chloe wished there were more.

Opening a gift box Rachel pushed into her hands. It was a silver skull ring that Rachel said she'd bought in a punk store in London. It looked expensive, and in that moment, the coolest thing Chloe had ever seen. The ring was too big. It only fit on her middle finger. Rachel said that made perfect sense. Chloe gave Rachel a mix CD of songs she’d made for her birthday, apologizing for the shitty present. Rachel said it was the best thing anyone had ever given her, and Chloe thought that was almost certainly bullshit but it was good to hear it anyway. 

Watching Rachel as she rolled across the deck on her side, toes pointed, arms clasped above her head. I can’t help it! she cried as she barreled along like a big, leather rolling pin. The boat’s moving too much! The waves are pushing me! And Chloe had shouted back, You’re pushing yourself, dumbass. The boat’s hardly moving.  

And Chloe thought she’d be laughing forever.

“Fuck,” she said, sprawled on the deck some time later, the last of her high diffusing out into the night. Stars blinked above. “I haven’t had this much fun with anyone since Max left.”

Rachel propped herself on her elbows. “Tell me about her.”

“About who?” Chloe asked, almost forgetting what she’d just said. “Max?”

“Uh-huh.”

Chloe reached for the railing. Heaved herself up to sitting. “Nothing to tell. She was my friend and now she… isn’t.”

“Don’t lie to me, Price.” Rachel’s tone was caramel—soft, sweet and sticks to anything. Impossible to brush off.  “You’ve mentioned her three times tonight already.”

“Yeah?” Chloe rubbed her eyes, tried to adjust to being upright. “Huh. Well, only cuz of the pirate thing. Yo, what are you doing?”

Rachel’s phone was in her hands, finger swiping back and forth on the screen as she said, “Checking something.” And then: “Is this her?”

She turned the phone to Chloe and there was Max, taking up half the screen. Except it wasn’t Max. Not really. It was Max’s hand holding the moon. 

Chloe suddenly felt very sober. “Rach!”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Rachel grinned and crawled over to sit next to Chloe, head lolling onto her shoulder. So it had happened: Rachel staring at Max’s Facebook page, Rachel staring at Max. Chloe blinked a few times, tried to process it. “How did you find her?”

“I just looked through your friend list. Shall I send her a message?”

“No!”

“Okay…okay.” She must have felt Chloe stiffen, snuggled deeper into her side with a soft giggle. And Chloe hoped she’d leave it there, but she didn’t. She was Rachel. “So, let’s play a game.” Rachel said. “Two truths and a lie. Max…uh…”—she flicked a finger up the screen in search of a surname—”…Caulfield edition. You tell me three things that only you would know about Miss. Caulfield here and I will deduce from the…um…”—she swiped up and down a bit more—” limited information available on this Facebook page, which are truths and which is, in fact, a heinous lie.”

“I dunno, dude.”

“Come on, put me to the test!”

Chloe groaned. Even in her happy haze this was all too weird. And like Rachel herself had said, what could you really find out about someone from a Facebook page, anyway? What had she learned from Rachel’s that she knew was true? Where she lived, where she was born, her birthday…

She stopped. 

Rewound to that day in the train car: I’m a Leo. I’m from New York. I’m ambidextrous. Or Amber-dextrous as she put it in her bio page. That game… It hadn’t been about how well she could read Chloe, it was about finding out how much Chloe already knew about her. 

Rachel was saying something about how awesome Max’s photos were. “Mm-hm,” Chloe managed. She felt like she’d watched a TV show years after everyone else and had only just gotten the plot twist. She had no idea what to do with the information. Just… Oh.

“Come on!” Rachel said. “Think of something! But not that she’s into photography because that’s kinda obvious.”

Chloe usually tried to stop Max slipping into her thoughts around Rachel. Bringing them together didn’t feel right somehow. Like they were two rail tracks winding off into the distance, side by side but never touching. Chloe the cross tie bolted to each of them. Now that Max had permission to enter, she was strangely absent. Chloe churned the vat of childhood memories in her head but nothing immediately rose to the top.

“Come on, you must remember something.”

“Uh… okay.” Chloe stopped, let the memory come to her. “So, when Max was super little—like five or six—my dad gave us this old camera to play with. Like, this thing was busted to shit, didn’t work at all, but my dad told us it was a special magic fairy camera. That it only worked for taking pictures of fairies. So, Max being Max, she believed him because she always believed everything my dad said. She was so goddamned determined to get a shot of a fairy. Spent hours in the backyard hunting for the little fuckers. So eventually my dad takes pity on her, took up to the lighthouse where there's a fuckton of fairies, so he says—well, he didn’t say fuckton but you know what I mean. He had this little tube of glitter with him and when Max’s face was glued to the viewfinder he’d be like, ‘Max! Max! Look! A fairy!ʼ and toss the glitter into the air. And she’d spin around and look and see this little cloud of glitter and think it was a fairy cuz she never saw him throw it. So she’d snap a photo real quick. It was too funny. She was taking all these photos of nothing with this busted camera and having the fucking time of her life. Anyway, the next day my dad Googles these pictures of fairies, prints them out on glossy paper. Tells her they’re her photographs, that the fairies developed them for her. She totally fell for it.”

Chloe took a breath. The words had gushed from her like water from a hose, leaving her feeling spent. She hadn’t thought about that day in years. Rachel’s head was on her shoulder, so Chloe couldn’t see her eyes, but she could feel her staring up at her. “That’s… detailed," Rachel said. “But hella cute. If it’s not the truth, I’ll be disappointed. So how come you were in on your dad's scam?” 

“I was older, already like seven. Plus, fairies.” Chloe wrinkled her nose. 

“You weren’t tempted to tell her?”

“Nah. She was having so much fun. Why would I do that?” 

There was a pause. “No, why would you?” Rachel said softly, as though her mind was elsewhere. She shifted her weight, shuffled closer. Her voice returning to normal as she said, “A big, fat Truth. Next!” 

“Okay, fine. So, Max is… was… probably still is… really shy. Like painfully shy. I was the only person she wasn’t shy around. This one time my dad took us both to a thrift store, said we had five dollars to buy whatever we liked. Go wild with it. So Max picks out this army surplus camouflage vest. It was huge, adult guy size. Totally drowned her. And also the most un-Max get-up you could imagine. Like she was gonna whip out an Uzi any second.” Chloe laughed at the memory. “But she was so sure that’s what she wanted. She was always pretty stubborn once she’d made her mind up. So anyway, my dad asked her in the car afterwards why she wanted the vest, and you know what she told us? She said she wanted the camouflage so she could be invisible during recess.” Chloe delivered the end of the story like a punchline but even as she did so, the smile drifted from her face. “I guess that’s kinda sad, now I think about it.”

“She wanted to be invisible?” Rachel glanced down at the phone. “You’re making this too simple, Price. There’s like one picture on here of her actual face. Of course she’s shy. Also truth.”

“You haven’t heard the last one yet.”

“This one better challenge me.”

“So…” Chloe hesitated, took a deep breath. And she still doesn’t remember why she said it. Only that she did. It just came out. All of it: “On the day my dad died, just after he left to go pick up my mom, Max told me we’d always be friends, that she’d always have my back. That was the exact word she used: Always . I remember it because it was so fucking weird, you know. The way she said it. Holding my hands super tight, telling me she’d never abandon me. Almost like… like she knew… Like she knew what would happen to Dad. Which I know is so, so dumb.” She sighed, her eyes drawn to a lantern on the deck, one of only a few still flickering. The flame was dying. Blue sparks at the wick. 

“And I believed her,” she went on after a pause. “I believed her when she said she wouldn’t abandon me, because why wouldn’t I? But then she left for Seattle. On the same day as my dad’s funeral, and she… never came back. Stopped returning my calls, my texts. Just—poof—disappeared.” Her fingers were picking rapidly at the blanket on her knees and Rachel slid her hand into hers. “And it’s not like I don’t know she’s okay because, y’know, Facebook.” She gave a tired chuckle, eyes still fixed on the sputtering candle and clutching Rachel’s hand a little too tight. “She just… doesn’t want to speak to me anymore.”

“She never said why?”

“No.”

“You never asked?”

“I wanted to. But… It’s just… I don’t…” A tiny growl slipped through Chloe's teeth, words lost in her throat. She scraped a hand through her hair, frustrated she couldn’t find the right ones. “I guess… I guess I’m just afraid to hear the answer. Does that make sense? Like, I get it, she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore. Why else would she ghost me? But it’s like… If I hear it then it makes it real, you know? I can feel it inside.” She thumped her chest with her palm. It sounded hollow. It felt hollow. “And I know it, I know it, but I just don’t want to ask the question because the answer… the answer would hurt too fucking much.”

Rachel squeezed Chloe’s fingers, fell into her side. “I know,” she whispered. “I know what you mean. I’ve felt that way about my mom—Rose—my whole life.” 

The candle went out in front of Chloe’s eyes. A final blue hiss and then darkness. Just like that. 

“Hey,” she heard Rachel say. “You okay?

“Yeah.” Chloe pulled her hand from Rachel’s grasp, kneaded her eyes with the heel of her palms. “Her loss, right?”

“Fucking right!” Rachel said, planting a wet kiss on Chloe’s cheek. “So… I wish that third one were a lie,” she said, leaving Chloe surprised they were still playing the game. “But you wouldn’t lie about something like that so…” Rachel’s eyes flashed. “I think you cheated, Chloe Price. That was three truths. You monster!”

Chloe managed a smile. “A wise woman once told me winners make their own rules.”

“Truth.” Rachel plucked the pirate hat from her head, tossed it out over the railings. It soared in an arc across the night sky before ditching into the harbor. 

Chloe turned to watch it bob away over the dark waves. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Dragging up shitty memories with the whole pirate thing.”

“They’re not shitty memories, they’re just… memories of good things that I don’t have anymore.”

“So, I guess we need to find you some new good things.” Rachel wiped her sleeve across what remained of her eyeliner mustache. It smeared all over her top lip. 

Chloe laughed. “It’s still there.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, you look like David.”

“Ew, gross!” Chloe grinned as Rachel rubbed harder. “Now?”

“Nope, still there.”

“Quick, get it off. Get it off!”

Chloe rubbed at the eyeliner, at Rachel’s top lip, with her thumb. That lip brushing lightly against her skin. And then she looked up, saw Rachel’s eyes fixed on hers, gaze so soft. So soft and yet on fire, like a flame reflected in molten wax. And her eyes said, kiss me. So Chloe did.

Cautious at first, as though she were afraid the moment was something she could break. Their lips brushed, and she heard Rachel’s breath hitch, felt the tremor in it, hot and wet, the bitter trace of smoke, the sweetness of rum. And then suddenly, forcefully, Rachel’s mouth was pressed hard against her own. Rachel was kissing her back. 

She’ll remember it as thunderbolts and fireworks. As cascades of stars. Like it was a fucking work of art; the two of them posed against infinity, the purple nebula of the milky way tearing through the sky above. That’s how she remembers it, now. Even if that wasn’t how it went at all. Their gums and their teeth probably got in the way, and they weren’t all that sure what to do with their tongues, and Chloe definitely didn’t know what to do with her hands, and looking back, she must have been terrified that her breath tasted like shit or that Rachel would suddenly stop and pull away. Maybe the milky way hadn’t even been visible that night; and to anyone watching, they’d just been two kids making out in the dark on a rusty, abandoned trawler. Two tiny figures in a tiny town on the edge of the world. And maybe that really is all it was. But that’s not how Chloe remembers it. To Chloe, it was perfect.

“You okay?” Rachel whispered, breath rasping, hand hot as she held the back of Chloe’s neck. “You’re shaking.”

And she was. She really was as she traced a trembling thumb across Rachel’s flushed cheek. A soft smile: “So are you.” 

It was then that Chloe noticed it, a shift in the darkness through the corner of one eye. The faintest prick of light. She turned her head as the trawler lurched below them, the waves larger, water disturbed by something just out of sight. The rumble of an engine close by… getting closer. “What’s that?” she whispered.

Rachel turned to look in the same direction, squinted out into the night. A dark shape materialized at the entrance to the harbor, as though slipping through a velvety black curtain, slinking through the waves towards them. Another boat. Cloaked in darkness but for the pale beam of a single flashlight. 

Rachel opened her mouth to speak just as the flashlight threw a shaft of light out across the moorings. Landed on them.

“Hey, you!” A deep voice bellowed out towards them. A dog barked.

“Shit!” Chloe grabbed Rachel’s hand, and they scrambled to their feet, the light following them as they clattered across the deck, threw themselves down the ladder and sprinted away down the dock. Rachel’s coat slapping at their legs as they ran, hollow footfall clomping on wood. “Come back!” the cry behind them as they scurried around the corner of the harbor buildings and flattened themselves into a doorway. “Shit!” Chloe gasped again, hands on knees, drinking in the air.

“Goddamn kids!” came the distant voice, already fading. 

Rachel laid a hand on Chloe’s back. “Who the fuck was that?”

“I dunno,” Chloe said honestly. “Davy Jones?” Rachel giggled as Chloe risked a glance around the corner. The guy with the flashlight was nowhere to be seen, but at the far end of the harbor, an SUV had pulled up. Two burly guys climbing out, leather jackets and pitbull faces. For a heart-stopping second, Chloe thought they might head towards them, but instead they turned away, went off in the opposite direction along the dock. “Come on, Skipper,” Chloe said, turning back to Rachel. “Let’s bail.” 

“Wait, we can’t,” Rachel said. “My emergency kit.”

“Can’t we come back for it?”

“If anyone finds it they’ll know it’s mine.”

“How?”

“It’s got my name on it.”

Chloe snorted. “Of course it does, geek.”

“Shut up.”

“Lemme guess, with permanent marker?”

Rachel pouted, punched her shoulder. Hard. “Shh.”

“And underlined?”

“Seriously, shut the fuck up.” 

Maybe Chloe would have if Rachel hadn’t been laughing so much. Instead, she said: “Make me.”

And there it was again, Rachel’s tongue finding hers, her body pushing Chloe backwards into the rough brick. And that time was pretty perfect too. Afterwards, they staggered up the road and back into town, arms around each other's waists, leaning into each other like they were meant to fit together—a perfect jigsaw puzzle—their muffled laughter trailing behind them and out into the night.






Chapter Text

Late Summer 2010
(Three years before…)  

Just the two of them…

Just the two of them, that night they rode the truck out to Portland to sneak into a Firewalk show. Broke down on the interstate on the way back and had to call Rose to come and pick them up. Rose, because she was the one least likely to lose her shit. So up she’d rolled after midnight, in her red Carrera that always smelled of new car, even years after it was a new car. Turned up all bleary-eyed and kind of pissed but still offering hugs and snacks. Rachel was drunk, had fallen asleep as they rode home, splayed across Chloe’s knees on the backseat, and Chloe remembers Rose’s eyes in the rear-view: Looking, always looking. They’d left the truck just off the highway. Chloe went to pick it up the next day with David. He didn’t offer hugs or snacks.

Just the two of them, Rachel’s swift, feather fingers moving over Chloe’s face as she did her eyeliner. Music thumping in the background, thrumming through Chloe’s enlivened skin. Music they both said they loved. Rachel began to dress more like Chloe, or did Chloe begin to dress more like Rachel? When Chloe teased her about it Rachel had laughed and raised an eyebrow. It’s because we both have impeccable taste, Price. 

Just the two of them, sitting up on the water tower at night, sneakers kicking out into the cool, thin air. The lights of the town spread out below them like a luminescent blanket. They flicked their cigarette butts to the ground; watched the cherries fall, two single sparks tumbling down into the blackness. One night, they hauled up a couple of watermelons in a rucksack. Got to the top then chucked them down onto the distant rail tracks ‘for science’. Threw their arms up with a roar of victory as the soft pulp burst free of its exploded husk, chunks of blood-red flesh, seeds and juice scattered across the ground below.

Just the two of them, bodies pressed against each other in dark corners. Ash-tasting tongues. The bite of perfume and sweat on Rachel’s neck. Learning the shape of her as they made out on Chloe’s bed; jumping, giggling at every creak on the stairs. 

Just the two of them, when they stole David’s car. Took it that week he spent down the coast working nights. It’s not like they planned to, Chloe was just pissed that he’d used her dad’s ashtray for his keys again. Rachel plucked them out, held them up and jangled them from her fingers: This is a gross violation of your rights that needs to be punished to the full extent of the law, she said with a wink. I say we confiscate. They waited until the sun went down, when the night was theirs. Headed south on the 101, along endless, empty highways. Radio full blast. Rachel leaned out of the window, cried out the words of songs she loved into the dark blur of fields and farmland as they blitzed past. The pale sprinkle of town lights in the distance and the occasional passing semi the only other signs of life. She leaned so far out Chloe was worried she might fall, golden hair and blue feather earring buffeted by the wind. Chloe reached her own arm out the window, let it float there on the rush of warm summer air.

Just the two of them, lying in the truck bed, looking up at the expanse of stars in the night sky. Chloe took a deep breath and explained that, actually, what Rachel said before about the stars wasn’t right, they aren’t all dead. She’d looked it up online. And Rachel nudged her, said: Go on. So she did go on and on, weaving and winding tales of Orion, Andromeda, Deneb and Canis Major. And anyway, Chloe concluded after a breath, for every star you see that really is dead, there’s another that’s already been born somewhere but we can’t see yet. Rachel propped herself on her elbows and looked down at Chloe with an admiring smile, rapped her gently on the forehead with her knuckles. Holy fuck, Price. Check out the brains on you! You looked all that up ? Chloe nodded and Rachel kissed her on the lips, wriggled closer into her arm . That’s actually pretty hot. Tell me something else

Just the two of them, watching lazy clouds roll in clusters across the perfect blue above. They lay in a patch of soft purple-green grass, just up the rail tracks from the junkyard where daisies grew in scattered clumps. Rachel had arranged herself among them like a painting; dappled sunlight dancing across bare shoulder blades as she lay on her front linking daisy chains. Chloe lay on her back beside her, head hot and sloppy from shitty weed and three bottles of warm beer. A daisy chain landed on her face. Hey, Price. You’re zoning. Chloe dragged her gaze across to Rachel who wore a crown of daisies on her head, hair honey-touched by the sun. A late-Sixties hippy queen. I’m not zoning, I’m thinking. Rachel’s lazy smile: About what? Petals of smoke curled above Chloe’s head, plucked by the wind, floated off into the brilliant sky. That I’m happy. I’m happy here. Rachel rested her cheek on her hands, smiled up at her. Yeah? What else are you thinking? The sweetness of summer pollen as Chloe crushed the daisy chain against her nose and grinned. I’m thinking that my whole life I never realized daisies smell of honey.
They do?
For real. Here, smell.
No shit! 
See?

Just the two of them. Rachel and Chloe. Chloe and Rachel. One plus one equals—

 


 

10?

Ish.

who?

You, me, some other guys from school. 
Does it matter? 
I’ll look after you.

i dunno dude. i hate parties. i dont do people. 
cept u obvs

You do me, huh? 
Ooh la la! 
;-*

shit u know what i meant

I’m just sorry I missed it.

shut up

;-*

quit it

;-* ;-* ;-* ;-* ;-*

i hate u

You love me. 
Have you been to see Frank yet? 
Can you get some green?

 


 

Chloe’s new-old Ford heaved and choked into the beach parking lot, rolling to a stop a little ways from Frank’s RV. He was sitting outside, stretched out on one of his lawn chairs in a sleeveless tank, beer in one hand and face lifted towards the last of the lingering sun. One curious eye creaked open as Chloe rattled up alongside him and hopped down from the cab.

"S’up, Frank?" she said, shoving the door closed behind her, trying to sound chilled, trying to sound like the last time she’d seen him hadn’t been nearly four months ago—his pale face in that doorway, clutching at his bloodied shoulder. 

"Well, well, well," he said. His face was ruddy from the sun, small beads of sweat clinging to his forehead. "Chloe Price."

"Your favorite customer."

He laughed, that strange laugh he had—a hissing through his teeth, like a kettle. "That your wreck?" he asked, nodding towards the truck.

Chloe pointed at his RV. "That yours?"

He laughed again, deeper in his throat this time, took a pull of his beer. Baked, Chloe thought. Definitely baked. Relief washed over her. It had been weeks since she’d found out he’d returned. Weeks that she’d stayed away. A small part of her wondered if he blamed her for the whole Damon thing, a huge part of her hadn’t wanted to find out.

She stepped over, dumped herself in the empty lawn chair next to his. Drummed the arm rests with her palms. "So, how have you been, man?"

He stretched out his arms, a languid shrug. "Hey, life’s a beach, right?" Laughed hard at his own shit joke.

Chloe wondered if he was high enough to front her a bit extra. "Yeah... beachin’."

He liked that, broke into a grin; the lines on his face spreading outwards, like a stone chucked into a lake. "Good one, Price!"

Behind them, the door to the RV flew open, clattered back against the wall to reveal a woman framed in the doorway. Legs, all legs in five inch stilettos. A tumbling mass of hair curling down past her bare shoulders. An old rock track, mellow guitar and crusty vocals, floated out from behind her, hung on the ocean air. "Frank!" she called over to him. He tipped his head back to look at her. "Where is it?" she asked.

"In the back. In that place. Same as always." 

The woman disappeared back inside.

"Suzie," said Frank by way of explanation, closing his eyes, nodding his head in time with the tune. Chloe didn’t probe further.

"Where?" Suzie's yell from deep within the RV. Frank grunted in frustration as he hauled himself to his feet, disappeared in after her. 

Chloe waited, drummed the arm rests, finished with a roll and a flourish. She could hear footsteps inside the RV, Frank growling, go on, Boy, get outta here. Paws scrabbling. The door nudged open, and a dog hopped out. Bigger than Chloe remembered him. Four times the size even. Pompidou glanced at her, wagged his tail before loping off towards the beach. She watched him for a while as he ran huge circles, sniffing the wet sand, chasing his own ass. She kind of wanted to join him. 

"Who’s the girl, Frank?" Suzie’s voice drifted through the open door, apparently unconcerned that Chloe was sitting right there. She sounded different where Chloe couldn’t see her. Her voice was expensive. Reminded Chloe of those girls in movies, perfect posture and power suits; designer heels reflected in marble floors. A voice that didn’t match her barely-there get-up at all. 

"Who? Chloe?" she heard Frank ask. "She’s just a client."

"How old is she?"

Frank appeared in the doorway, packing a bowl. "Dunno," he said, looking at Chloe. "How old are you, kid?" 

"Twenty-one," she replied without missing a beat. 

He smiled. Winked at her, and yeah, that was weird. "There you go," he shot back into the RV. "You heard her. Twenty-one."

Suzie appeared at his shoulder, snaked her hips to shimmy past him and out of the door. Heels clicking on the blacktop. Her glare hit Chloe full force—a double-shot of malt slammed onto a bar top. "Twenty-one?" she asked with a wry smile. "Yeah. Sure."

The lawn chair creaked as Frank dropped back into it. "You workin’ tonight?" he asked as Suzie came up behind him, scraped long, manicured fingernails through his hair. 

"Yeah," she said. "I got that gig up at the Arcadia Club, remember?"

He tilted his head back to look at her. "Those rich assholes? Tell ‘em to go fuck themselves."

"It’ s good money, Baby." Her lips met the tip of his nose before she straightened, tossed the curls from her face. "A real woman doesn’t work for whiskey and weed. "

He laughed, reached up and took her hand. Curled his thick palm around hers, as though he wanted to keep her there a while longer. 

She squeezed his fingers in return but wriggled her hand free. Called to Pompidou who bounded over. The dog rested his head on her knees as she crouched on her haunches to ruffle his fur, cooing goodbyes in his ears. Her skirt rode high—too high—up her thighs and Chloe quickly dropped her eyes. Raised her eyes. Dropped them again. Blushed. 

Why did she keep noticing things like that? Ever since she and Rachel had gotten closer, it kept happening all the time. The noticing. Things felt… different. A constant longing inside her like a fly—a goddamn fly—trapped in her chest, buzzing frantically to be set free.

"Later, Frankie," Suzie said, rising to her feet. "And Chloe." She lowered her sunglasses over her eyes and set off down the boardwalk towards the town. 

Pompidou dumped himself next to Frank’s legs, pink tongue lolling out of his mouth as Frank, unthinking, ran idle fingers through his fur. The three of them watched Suzie go, the way her ass swayed from side to side as she strode away along that sand-swept path. The way some women walk, the way Rachel walked, with the calm authority of someone confident everyone is watching.

"Girlfriend?" Chloe asked after a pause. 

"Old friend." 

"She’s hot." She felt his gaze slide across to her. "I mean, objectively."

"Yeah," he said, leaning over the armrest to pass her the pipe, laughter playing in the creases around his eyes. "She is." 

The weed was good. It always was when Frank decided to share, which wasn’t often. Chloe watched him crumple back into the chair with a lazy smile. Figured he must have got laid. Isn’t that how it went? People get laid they’re all relaxed and happy after? She wouldn’t know. She took a hit from the pipe, memories of her last time with Eliot intruding on her oncoming high: Lying there in silence as he grunted and heaved on top of her, wondering if she should go jerk off in the bathroom afterwards, although she hadn’t been turned on enough even for that. Thank god he’d been quick. Several frenzied thrusts and a high-pitched moan before dropping onto her chest, wet, heavy and spent. He peeled himself off, looked down at her with expectant eyes and breathing hard, sweat running down the side of his face: Did you come? he asked. She snorted. Pushed his arm away and rolled out from underneath him, collecting her scattered clothes from the foot of the bed. If you didn’t, then I can try something else. Just tell me what you want me—  She held up a hand to stop him, turned her back as she clasped her bra. Dude, what I want is to go home and have a shower. Silence. The snap of shriveled latex behind her. 

She shuddered, wondered if she’d ever feel good after fucking. Lie there with a shit-eating grin like the one that was still glued to Frank’s bristly face. She couldn’t help it, she thought of Rachel then. Hot skin under her palm as they made out on Chloe’s bed. Eventually, Rachel would always pull away, a languid smile fluttering across saliva-stung lips. That was really nice, she’d say softly. As if that was the end of it, and it was time to do something else. And every part of Chloe would be on fire, screaming that it couldn’t be the end that there’s no way it should be the end. But it always was. Which made her ask herself, what if one day it wasn’t? What if, one day, Rachel wanted more? How would she feel if she and Rachel…? The question made her chuckle to herself, or maybe that was the weed. She didn’t have an answer to it, not yet. Not then. Even though she’d thought about it a lot. Like that question was a room locked up inside her, a room with curtains drawn, doors still closed. All she knew was that she really wanted to put her nose to the glass, her ear to the door, to look inside. 

A part of her knew it had always been that way. Ever since stumbling from the fog of childhood, she’d always found something deeper in the soft lines and sunlit smiles of certain celebrities; young women with glossy hair and bands of pretty teeth, who strutted across her TV set, arched eyebrows and wet-look leggings, making her feel things she wondered if she was supposed to feel. And all those times she’d lain on her back, adolescent eyes staring at the ceiling of her bedroom night after night, it had never been the faces of boys that floated before her as the bands on her stereo sung about love.

She took another hit from the pipe, fuzzy thoughts growing fuzzier. Handed it back to Frank. "I heard about Dam—"

He cut her off. "Yeah." 

"Sorry, dude."

"Don’t be. He had it coming."

"Where did you go, man? I thought… well…"

Frank’s eyes were still locked on the boardwalk where Suzie had been and now wasn’t, long lost to the bend beyond the lifeguard tower. "I was layin’ low is all," he said with a sigh. "Damon had his fingers in a lot of pies. I figured those motherfuckers would come sniffing. Wasn’t about to get caught with my ass in the air."

"The feds?"

"Yeah. Them too."

He shifted in his seat, pulled his eyes from the boardwalk at last. "So, your mom still seeing the Jarhead?" he asked, gesturing with his fingers for Chloe to return the pipe.

A conversation? He must have been stoned. Chloe scoffed, handing the pipe back. "Dude, she married him."

"Blows."

"Yup. So now Sergeant Ball Sack is my fucking step-dad."

"I had a step-dad," Frank said, sitting back and taking a hit. "Right up until he ran out on my mom for a younger model. But he left us plenty of scars to remember him by, if you know what I mean. He was nice like that."

"I wish David would find someone else."

"He beat you?" 

The question took Chloe by surprise. Almost as much as the look in his eyes. He wasn’t laughing at her anymore. "Nah," she said. "Dude’s all bark. Y’know. Yap, yap, yap" 

"Does he make her happy? Your mom?"

"Dunno. I guess. I mean, she married him."

Frank nodded thoughtfully but said nothing more. Sat there in silence, just long enough for it to grow awkward. "So," he said at last. "I guess you didn’t come here to make small talk. You gonna tell me what you want?" 

Chloe told him how much weed she wanted and he whistled, hauling himself up from the chair. "You? Miss. Do-You-Take-Quarters? Right." 

"Hey. Maybe I’ve gone up in the world since you’ve been away."

He scoffed but stepped into the RV anyway. Came back out a few seconds later, baggies rolled into his fist. 

"You rob a bank or something?" he asked as she yanked out a pile of scrunched-up notes from her back pocket, tenners Rachel had somehow collected and stuffed into her hand earlier that day. 

"I’m buying for some friends," she said. That word, friends, dry on her tongue. Friends. A friend. Friends of a friend. A more-than-friend. Whatever. 

Frank took the cash with a terse look around him, slipped the baggies into her palm. "You selling it on?" 

"No."

"Then you’re an idiot." He laughed, chucked himself back down in the chair. "You ever wanna make a few bucks on the side, Price, you come to me." 

"Dude, I literally just got back into school. At least give me a chance to fuck up on my own." 

He was still chuckling like an ass as she got up to go, dusted the sand from that grimy chair off her pants. Two baggies of Frank’s finest crinkled in her pocket and the promise of an evening with Rachel lay ahead of her. Yeah, life was good. 

"Hey, Price!" Frank yelled as she hauled open the door to the truck, handle still hot from the sun. 

"Yeah?"

"That woman... Sera. Did she ever meet her daughter?"

It seemed strange, then. To be reminded of how desperate she’d been to find Frank. Find him for Rachel so he could tell them what he knew about Sera. But Chloe supposed it didn’t matter anymore. Rachel had all the answers she needed. "Yeah," she said, climbing up into the truck. "Yeah, she did."

"That’s good."

"I knew you’d go all warm and fuzzy at a happy ending, Frank."

His face cracked into a smile as she slammed the door shut on him. "Go on," he said. "Get outta here, kid. Fuck off."

 


  

It was the night where everything went wrong. It was the night that everything went right. And when Chloe remembers that evening, she always remembers it backwards. 

Takes the thread of that memory in her hands, lets it run, silky and soft, through her fingers, buzzing and pulsing, glowing like something alive.

Follows it backwards from that moment, that moment that everything will always come back to—where it glistens in that room like a single strand of a spiderweb, shining in the darkness. It floats over them: The tangle of limbs in her bed, skin made milky by moonlight. Sheets creased beneath their bodies like midnight waves. Down over the discarded ball of the duvet, across the tank thrown over the desk, another shed by the door. 

Follows it carefully, silently down the stairs—padding with socked feet, hand gripping hand, flinching at every creak. It winds itself around the bannisters, looping in and out, past the shoes left by the front door—Chloe’s boots kicked halfway down the dark hall… hers neatly resting side by side, left foot, right foot. 

Opens the front door with a whisper, closes it with a shh ! The thread winds and wheels over to the truck that waits on the driveway. Haul the door open, cringe as it squeaks. Voice cracking: Can I stay here tonight? Engine rumbles, lights glare. Gone. 

The thread shimmers in front of her, swoops and bends, reflecting the glare of the headlights, disappears into the darkness of the road beyond. She follows it through those empty streets, blacktop still slick from the storm. All the way to the beach parking lot, and up through the looming canopy of trees to the lighthouse. 

Always to the lighthouse. 

 


 

It was the distant hum of voices and music she heard first, drifting down through the firs, mingling with the sweet smell of burning cedarwood and the chill of the oncoming fall. She was alone as she tramped up that path to the lighthouse in the quickening dark. Got a ride with Dana, Rachel had texted her. Meet you up there. 

The voices grew louder as she neared the trailhead, the glow of firelight crackling between the trees; a reminder that Rachel wasn't there alone. Chloe hadn’t lied when she told Rachel she hated parties. She'd always avoided the rare ones she got invited to—pity invites or those earnest ones, formally folded on patterned paper, from kids who always invited the whole class in the hope at least one person would show. Chloe never did. Not anymore. The only parties Chloe remembered were the ones from her childhood: Neatly wrapped gifts and parents lurking in corners. Clumps of balloons, and candies in favor bags, gobbled down in fistfuls on the backseat of the car on the ride home. She doubted this party had any of that. Maybe balloons. She’d once found Frank with an inflated balloon in his mouth, asked him what the occasion was. He’d laughed and laughed and laughed. 

The path flattened out at last, opening out onto the grassy plateau of the clifftop. Chloe saw them all at once, all way-more-than-ten of them, huddled together on logs, on cinder blocks, spilling out over the rocks; their flame-washed faces stung orange by the fire pit. A boy Chloe didn’t recognize held a guitar on his lap, was strumming a few tuneless chords, notes lost to the thump, thump of EDM echoing through a pair of shitty speakers. A thrum of noise crackling up into the sky among the burning sparks of ash. 

And in the center of them all, glowing, as though lit by her own internal beacon, was Rachel. She was sitting high on the rocks like a queen perched on a throne. Juliet on one side of her, swaying her shoulders to the music, on the other, a familiar sheaf of slick blond hair and eyes like ice-picks: Nathan Prescott. He was pressed up against Rachel’s hip, hand resting on the rock just below her ass. Her elbow draped over his knee. 

Before Chloe could process what that meant, a warm weight knocked into her side, arms clamping her shoulders. A squeal: "Ariel!"

"Dana," Chloe stumbled for balance as Dana squeezed up against her like they were the best of friends. She smelled like beer and vanilla, eyes already sweet and mushy as roasted marshmallows. The party must have been going on a while. 

"So good to see you!" Dana said. "Rachel said you were coming bearing gifts."

Chloe glanced at Rachel who shot her a wide, white smile, lifted her hand in greeting. But as Chloe tugged her own hand from her pocket to wave back, Rachel looked away. Back to Nathan. Feather earring flashing brilliant blue in the firelight as she twisted it round and round in her fingers. Chloe’s half-begun greeting hung uselessly in the air. She stuffed her hand back in her jacket, hoped Dana hadn’t noticed. "Uh… bearing gifts?"

Dana’s conspiratorial elbow dug into Chloe’s ribs. "You know, the weed?"

Chloe dug around inside her pocket, plastic baggies crinkling in her fingers. "Oh yeah, I’m like the Three Kings and shit," she said. Dana looked confused. "You know, gold, Frankincense and herb?"

A tiny chime of a laugh leaped from Dana’s throat, and Chloe couldn’t decide if it was genuine mirth or pity. She shrugged, pulled out the baggies and handed them over. 

"You’re a doll, Chloe!" Dana lifted her mouth to Chloe’s cheek, left behind a waxy ring of pink lipstick as she whipped the weed away. She floated back to the group, handed the baggies over to some jock who started packing a bowl.

Chloe looked back at Rachel. Nathan’s hand had now moved up from the rock and onto Rachel’s hip. Apparently that was okay. The air around Chloe pulled tighter, scrunched up, like the loop of a drawstring bag. 

"Yo, Rach... " she began, stepping into the circle of firelight. She immediately felt like an idiot, standing there swinging her arms as all their eyes fell on her, Nathan’s scowl. Rachel looked up, winked, brushed Nathan’s hand away. And that’s when Chloe expected her to get up. Expected her to get up and throw an arm around her like Dana had, to kiss her on the cheek and tell her how good it was to see her. Pull her into that circle, tell the others to make a space so they could sit together. But she didn’t get up. Her lips pulled upwards into one of those enigmatic half-smiles that would always drive Chloe crazy from that moment and ever onwards. A smile that could mean everything and nothing all at once. No, Rachel didn't get up. Instead, she said, hey! She said, glad you made it. She thanked Chloe for the weed and then pointed to an empty space on a log across the bonfire. She asked, why don’t you sit down? 

Rachel didn't get up. So Chloe sat down, too. 

She shoved her way onto the log next to the guy with the guitar, dug her hands deep into her pockets and wondered why her chest felt so cramped. It’ll be fine, Rachel had said that morning. I’ll look after you. We won’t be there for long. I just need to make an appearance and then we can go do something more interesting. Just the two of us. Chloe pulled her hands back out from her pockets, stared down at them as she clenched and unclenched her fingers, remembered those words: Just the two of us. The way Rachel had said them, brows waggling above sparkling eyes. She sighed. All she had to do was sit here for a while and wait…

Through the flames she watched Rachel, dazzling in her natural habitat. How easily she controlled that circle, effortlessly flitting between conversations, just like she’d done at dinner with Joyce and David. A subtle shift of tone, a flick of her hair, a tilt of her head each time she turned her attention to someone new. One by one she pulled each of them towards her, into the glare of the stage lights, always remembering the right lines. For Dana, who adored compliments, Rachel gushed over her newly manicured nails. For Juliet, who loved gossip, Rachel leaned over, giggling whispers in her ear. And for Nathan, who wanted contact, who couldn’t get enough of her smile. For Nathan a gentle nudge here, a tap on the knee there, a grin each time she looked at him. She pulled on each new skin like a silken glove. A Rachel for everyone. 

The guitar guy nudged Chloe’s shoulder, pressed a bottle of vodka into her hand. The glass was warm and slick, the residue of sticky palm passed from sticky palm. She sighed, put her nose to the lip; smelled fumes and heat and sour breath. Gross.

Another hand pulled the bottle away. "Can I sit down?"

"Dude..." Chloe began. No fucking room. But before she could finish her sentence, she found herself looking up at the familiar face of Steph Gingrich, who was peering at the vodka in her hand, nose scrunched up to her brows. She passed it on without taking a pull.

"Uh… sure. Take a seat." Chloe said, shifting herself along the log as far as she could go. Her shoulder jabbed hard into the guitar guy and he glared at her. She ignored him. 

Steph slid in beside her. "You look fucking miserable," she said, leaning in close so Chloe could hear her above the music. Trust Steph to cut right to the chase. "Not your scene, huh?"

"Yo, I live for this shit," Chloe said, ducking to avoid the guitar’s headstock.

"Mm-hm. I find that hard to believe. You here with Rachel?"

Chloe looked across the bonfire at Rachel—still laughing, still talking, still looking everywhere but at her. "Yeah... What’s your excuse?"

"I had drama lab this afternoon with Rachel and Dana. They dragged me up here."

"Drama lab? School hasn’t even started yet."

"Just tossing around ideas for which shows we’re gonna do this year. Keaton wants to do Othello." She rolled her eyes. 

"And that’s bad because…?" 

"All the women get killed by dudes."

"Oh… Can’t you just make all the dudes into chicks again?" 

Steph laughed. "I’ll float it." She nudged Chloe. "I hear you’re un-expelled by the way. Friends in high places?" She nodded across at Rachel.

"Yeah. Something like that."

"The place wouldn’t be the same without you," Steph said with a smile. "I mean, like, literally. You know, your bathroom enhancements have gone down in legend."

"Yeah? They're still there?"

"Sadly not. But everyone I know took a picture. That was some seriously cool shit." 

Chloe couldn’t help but smile. "Yeah?" 

Steph bumped her shoulder. "Yeah." 

Across the circle, Chloe found Rachel’s gaze at long last. And in that moment, a sudden charge in the air between them, like rapid sparks zinging back and forth along a glowing thread. Rachel was looking at her now. All the time. Looking, as Chloe chatted with Steph about the summer, about her new truck, about how much she didn’t want to go back to school but knew it was probably for the best. Chloe felt that thread vibrate as she raised her voice, just a little too loud, and when she heard herself laugh, just a little too hard, as she and Steph chatted D&D campaigns, Skyping Mikey in Eugene, and the reincarnation of Barb the Elf Barbarian. Felt it whip and sting as Rachel took a long hit from a weed pipe that only a few weeks before she hadn’t known how to use. That Chloe had shown her how to use. 

Every so often Rachel would look over and smile. But Chloe had no idea what that smile meant. A nothing smile. The kind of smile you’d give to a stranger, accidentally locking eyes on the street. As though they barely knew each other. As though they hadn’t spent that morning locked in a bathroom stall at the Two Whales, the taste of waffles still syrupy on Rachel’s tongue.

When the pipe eventually reached them, and Steph admitted to Chloe she didn’t know how to use it, Chloe had grinned and shown her. Explained how and when to cover the carb, placed her fingers over Steph’s as she’d run the flame of her lighter over the bowl , wait, wait, now inhale... yeah, that’s it. And, at that, the thread pulled so tight, Chloe imagined she could reach out and pluck it. But instead she ran her gaze along it, across to Rachel, whose dark eyes danced beyond the flames. And they stared at each other. As though Steph had gone. As though they’d all gone. As if it really was just the two of them. 

"The fuck, Nate?"

The thread sliced in two as Rachel whipped her head towards Nathan who had unzipped his rucksack, pulled out a little orange bottle full of pills and was shaking them at triumphantly at the group. Rachel's eyes narrowed, she reached up and snatched the bottle from his hand and said something to him, her voice low, inaudible—an acrid whisper as she tried to stuff the pills back into his bag. 

 "Something going on there?" Steph asked. 

Chloe thought of the photo in Rachel’s bedroom—hung on the wall, pride of place. Nathan and Rachel. Chloe had never asked what their deal was. Now she wished she had. "Dunno," she said truthfully as Nathan pulled the bag from Rachel’s grasp, reached back inside. 

Steph tapped Chloe’s knee. "I’m gonna get a beer. You want?" 

"Uh…" Rachel’s hand was gripping Nathan’s arm now, trying to pry the bottle away. She looked pissed. "Nah, better not." Chloe managed a darting glance at Steph. "I’ve got the truck." 

Steph raised an amused eyebrow as she got up, stepped away. Just as Nathan climbed to his feet with the pill bottle in his hand, a rattle of victory as he shook it in the air. "So who wants to party?" he yelled. 

Rachel glared up at him, tried to grasp his hand to pull him down but he ignored her. He leaped to the ground, tapping Hayden and some other jocks on the shoulder as he passed, a follow me. They moved away from the rest of the group towards the looming bulk of the lighthouse. Rachel stayed on the rock, called Nathan’s name to no reply. 

It seemed like a good moment for Chloe to get up then. To put an arm around Rachel’s shoulders, ask her if she was ready to go. And maybe Chloe would have gotten up, except right at that moment the world turned dark and glassy and kind of blurry: A bottle suspended right before her face. 

"They have soda," she heard Steph say somewhere above it. "It’s warm. But drinkable."

"Thanks." Chloe took the soda to reveal Rachel once more. Juliet’s arm tight around her. 

A flurry of laughter burst over from the lighthouse where Nathan, Hayden and several others were huddled around near the door. Chloe watched as they took it in turns to crouch over the concrete steps, bending low to snort whatever had been in that pill bottle through a rolled up bill. Rachel must have been watching them too because she got up then, disentangled herself from Juliet and marched over. She grabbed Nathan by the shoulder and pulled him away, out of sight behind the maintenance hut. 

Chloe put down her soda, mumbled something to Steph about needing the bathroom, and followed. 

When she found them they were alone in that dark space between the hut and the edge of the cliff, lit only by the moonlight and the ever-rotating beam of the lighthouse above. Nathan’s back was pressed to the cinder block wall, arms outstretched against it, grinning like a little kid. Rachel stood before him, arms folded, hair tossed by the breeze. Her face was hidden from Chloe, but her back looked mad. 

Veiled by the undergrowth, Chloe kept her distance. Far enough that they wouldn’t see her, close enough to listen. "I’m worried about you, okay?" Rachel was saying. "Those pills are supposed to help you. You shouldn’t be railing them and handing them out to your friends like fucking Skittles."

His head hung heavy, swayed on his neck like a September sunflower. He sniffed. "S’cool. The doc’ll just write me a script for more." 

"That’s not the point. You need to look after yourself." 

He managed a sloppy grin, brought his arms around Rachel’s waist. "Can’t you look after me?" 

"I do." She grabbed his wrists, tried to pull his arms away, but he was too strong for her, kept them clamped around her hips. Chloe felt her stomach twist. 

"You know what I mean," Nathan drawled. He pulled Rachel around and backed her into the wall. And now Chloe could see her face. She looked pale and furious, trying to twist herself away from him. "You and me, Rach," Nathan said, pushing his body into her, leaning his face in close. "It makes sense. We could rule this fucking school, this whole town." 

And that’s when Chloe would have crashed out from her hiding place, grabbed Nathan by his jittering shoulders and slammed his pretty-boy nose against the wall. Or she’d have tried to, if Rachel hadn’t pushed him away at last and wriggled free. "You’re wasted," Rachel said. "And you have a girlfriend." 

"Not anymore. It didn’t... It didn’t work out." He tried to lean into her again but she dodged him, let him fall cheek-first against the side of the hut. "It’s you I want," he said, staggering to keep himself upright. "It’s always been you." 

"No, Nate."

He slid down the wall onto his haunches, letting his head wilt against his chest. Rachel regarded him for a long moment, as if caught in two minds, before she dropped down opposite him. Said nothing, just placed a hand on the back of his neck.

Chloe backed away, not sure what she’d just seen. Only that it felt wrong for her to have witnessed it. Like that time she got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, heard voices from across the landing; the open bathroom door and the light on inside. David, huddled in the bath, pink as a newborn and knees pulled tight to his chest. Damp head bowed and shaking. And her mom, perched fully clothed on the side of the tub, a comforting hand stroking the back of his head. She’d lifted her gaze to Chloe, and their eyes had clashed—only for the briefest of moments—before Joyce had gotten up and silently closed the door. 

Back by the bonfire, the wind had picked up, catching the incessant thump of the music, tossing it around in the night air where it throbbed, dense and smoky. Most people were dancing now, glowing bodies pressed up against each other as they spread themselves over the clifftop. Chloe watched Rachel. Or a version of her. A Rachel who seemed to have shrugged off her confrontation with Nathan and was now dancing with all the others. She flitted around each of them, a moth bobbing and floating from streetlight to streetlight. A-not-quite-Rachel. A not-her-Rachel. 

At least Steph was still there. For a while. Until she stretched her arms into the air and said she had to leave, asked if Chloe wanted to come with. Chloe shook her head and Steph had given her this look. Lifted her eyes to Nathan, who was zipping through the group, shooting rapid volleys of words over the music—loud, senseless, obnoxious. Steph’s look asked, are you sure? The way the other girls in gym class used to look at the captain if she picked Chloe for their team, even though there were still other options still available. That look. Chloe shrugged. Steph shrugged, and then she left. 

And then Chloe was alone, staring down at the dregs of her long-forgotten soda. A silent space around her in a sea of noise. The way it always was. The way she always seemed to be. Rachel somewhere close but still far away, separated by a barrier of bodies and fire. She tried to tell herself it would be okay. That any minute Rachel would come over and take her hand, lead her away, just the two of them… any minute now. 

Chloe lifted her head, caught sight of Nathan beyond the bonfire, steadying himself against a tree stump and folded in two like he was about to vomit. But he wasn’t vomiting. He was reading. "Hey, what's this? Max and Chloe Pirate BFFs 2008?" He blew out a malicious laugh. "Holy shit, that’s so lame!"

The tree stump. Their tree stump. Chloe’s chest froze. 

"Let’s torch it!" she heard Nathan slur as he picked up a  bottle of vodka from the ground, sloshed it over the wood. 

"Hey, asshole!" Chloe sprung from the log, dropping her soda bottle into the dust. Not the stump. Not that stump . She scrambled through cinders towards him. "Get the fuck away from there!"

Understanding seemed to gleam in Nathan’s eyes as he extracted a lighter from his jacket. "This is you?" He laughed, blinking rapidly. "Who’s Max? Your boy friend? Gotta say, I’m surprised." He went to nudge Hayden, miscalculated the distance and almost toppled over. "Know what I’m saying, H?" 

Hayden winced as Nathan snapped the lighter into flame. 

"I said get the fuck away!" Chloe's whole body coiled, a viper ready to strike. But before she could, she felt a firm hand grasp her arm.

"Nathan, stop it." Rachel, cool and controlled. Like she was talking to a child. She gripped Chloe’s arm tighter. The familiarity of her touch warming her, soothing through the thick denim of her jacket.

The lighter went dark. Nathan’s face fell. "S’matter, Rach? I thought you liked burning stuff?"

Chloe felt her brows tug inwards. He doesn’t… How could he?

Rachel didn’t flinch. "Put the lighter away, Nate." She let go of Chloe, stepped towards him and wrested the lighter from his hand. His resistance was limited, he just seemed to lean into her, resting his forehead on her shoulder. "Go home and sober up," she said, one hand on his chest, pushing him away. "Hayden, take him home."

Everyone was looking now, listening to Rachel, her voice icy and furious above the music. Hayden obviously knew better than to argue, sloped an arm around Nathan who struggled against him briefly before deciding that he, too, was beat.

No one really watched them go, the show was over. Rachel was looking down at the carving on the tree stump, as if seeing it for the first time, and maybe it was. She looked back up at Chloe, gave her another nothing smile. 

"Thanks," Chloe said, clutching a tentative arm around Rachel’s waist, pulling their bodies towards each other, just as she’d done so many times over the last few months. 

But Rachel stiffened at her touch, threw a darting look over her shoulder before shrugging herself free. "Stop," she said, face and voice expressionless. That single syllable searing with a hiss into Chloe’s chest. "Ignore Nathan," Rachel said, pushing the lighter into the top of her shorts, as if nothing had happened. "He’s a fucking asshole when he’s high." 

"So, why are we even here?" Chloe asked, too fast, too fractious. "I don’t get it. I thought we were only staying for a while. Are we gonna leave this shitfest now or what?" The words tumbled out, trapped behind her teeth for hours, stumbling over each other to reach freedom. 

They were shot down as soon as they hit the air: "Not right now," Rachel said. "No." She lowered her eyes as she brushed past. 

Chloe stepped out of her way, watched her slump down next to Juliet again, lift her face briefly to the sky, and then, instantly, effortlessly, readjust the mask. "Hey, Dana!" Rachel yelled with a grin. "Where’s that motherfucking vodka? A girl’s gotta drink, right?"

Everything in Chloe stung. Her head, her chest, her eyes. She was about to leave, to get the fuck out of there, when she noticed a man, standing in shadow by the corner of the maintenance hut. He was leaning on the wall, in that easy way he always did. He smiled, beckoned her over and then disappeared around the corner.

By the time she made it around the side of the hut, he was sitting on the ground, stretched out on a picnic blanket, red and white checkers.

"Hey, kiddo."

She smiled despite herself, dropped down next to him. "Yo." The blanket was covered in egg shells. She brushed them away. "You coulda brought a clean blanket."

He chuckled. "So could you." He picked up a piece of shell, rolled it in his fingers. "You remember when we used to come up here? Your mom always packed the same lunch. Boiled eggs, hotdogs and—"

"—Jelly sandwiches." She grinned. "Yeah, I remember."

"I think you used to have more fun then."

"Why is she acting so weird, Dad?"

"Maybe she’s scared, too."

"Scared?" She scoffed. "Rachel isn’t scared of anything."

"Really? Maybe that’s what she wants you to think. Didn’t she once say the same thing about you?" 

Chloe shrugged. "So what's she scared of?" 

"You know, sweetheart, when two things collide, it's normal for them to break apart. Go spinning off in all directions. Pieces flying everywhere and totally beyond control." He crumbled the eggshell in his fingers, tiny pieces scattering over the blanket. "But sometimes, they find their way back to each other. All those pieces come together." He placed his hand palm-down on the blanket. Lifted it again to reveal a whole, perfect egg. "They make something new." 

Chloe picked up the egg, surprised at how solid it felt. "I don’t remember you being this cryptic when you were alive," she said. "Seriously, what are they teaching you up there? You take Philosophy 101 for ghosts?" 

He laughed, that warm rumble of a laugh. "You better go," he said. "Or you’ll miss it." 

"Miss what?" 

 


 

By the time she caught up with Rachel she was already halfway down the path, stomping down the hill into the darkness, flannel billowing out behind her on the heightened breeze. The air was damp, that smell before rain. 

Chloe jogged up beside her, tried to keep her voice light. "You leaving without me, Amber? Now that’s just rude." When Rachel didn’t look at her, didn’t stop, Chloe threw a laugh into that ever-growing space between them. An attempt to fill it. But it strangled in her throat, came out more of a wheeze.

"I thought you’d left," Rachel said at last. 

Maybe she’s scared too, her dad had said . She didn’t look scared, she looked mad.

"You’re hot when you’re angry," Chloe tried again, hooking her arms around Rachel’s waist and pulling her around to face her, hoping she might react differently now they were alone. 

She didn’t. Rachel’s eyes flashed. She pushed Chloe away. "Don’t… " 

"Did something happen?" Chloe asked, the first cold, hard splashes of rain stinging her shoulders. "Did I do something?" 

"No, Chloe. Just drop it, okay?" 

And off she darted into the gloom, fading into the long shadows. Chloe stumbled along a few paces behind, her brain a tumult of why? and what? and please don’t go. Her mind shuffled through everything she’d said that day, that week, that month, anything she may have said or done, whatever link in the chain she needed to solve what felt like some kind of impossible equation: How x came to equal right now . She watched the back of Rachel’s head bob before her, hair colorless in the inky light. 

"Why are you leaving without me?" she asked the head. "What have I done?" 

Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go. 

"Why do you assume you’ve done anything, Chloe? Why does this have to be about you?" 

"Because you’re mad at me. Why else avoid me all night?" 

"Avoid you? Seriously? I just want to be on my own right now, okay?" She rubbed her temples with her fingers. "To think. Is that okay with you?" 

The rain began to beat faster, soaking through Chloe’s beanie and into her scalp as they scrambled in silence down that trail they had walked so often before. A trail that now seemed so different; twisted and distorted, swirling with ghosts. The rain punched down heavier and heavier on their backs, Rachel several paces ahead, Chloe pretending not to follow. The darkness suffocating. 

Relief when, at last, they turned that final corner, came out onto the path across the beach. The truck parked in the lot up ahead. They had scurried half way across the wet blacktop before Chloe plucked up the courage to ask: "Am I giving you a ride or not?" 

"I’ll get a cab," Rachel said, stopping and folding her arms. Mascara running, hair soaked through. 

"Don’t be a dick."

Rachel flinched. "Haven’t you been drinking?"

"Only soda," Chloe said, pulling her keys from her pocket. And it wasn’t a lie. That had been the deal with her mom and David, just one DUI and the truck would be confiscated. Not that she needed to be told. The idea of putting Rachel in danger, of losing her like she lost him… 

She was trying so hard to keep her voice level but it was her shaking hand that gave her away, keys jangling in her fingers. If Rachel came with her, there was hope. Hope that this would all be okay. The rain was beating down now, forming puddles on the sandy blacktop, gushing through cracks and gullies, and down to the beach. Rachel stared up at the sky, half-growled, half-sighed and hauled open the passenger door. Slammed it shut behind her. 

Over the top of the cab, Frank’s RV loomed like a damp, glassy shadow. Chloe could make out the shape of him, standing under the awning and watching them, the cherry of his joint a tiny, orange spark. She sighed and looked away, jumped up into the truck just as a blast of shrieks ricocheted across the beach. Kids sprinting down the trail from the lighthouse to escape the squall, darting across the lot with jackets held over their heads, their soggy grins blurred by the splashes on Chloe’s windshield. The guitar guy dashed in front of the truck, his Fender bouncing on his back. Behind him, Juliet and Dana ran giggling hand in hand, heads bowed against the deluge. 

Chloe started the engine, and the headlights flickered on, catching Dana’s attention. She scampered over to the truck, flip-flops slap-clapping through the puddles. "Chloe! Rach!" she cried, yanking open the driver’s door. "A group of us are going back to Juliet’s place. Her parents are out of town. You guys wanna come?" She was breathing hard, leaning in to look across the cab, aiming her question at Rachel. Her tee was soaked through, plastered low on her chest and, fuck, Chloe hated herself for noticing that. She pulled her gaze away, shot the briefest glance at Rachel who sat glued to the far window, saw Rachel’s fingers twitch on the door handle… 

She knew that what she did then was a dick move, but she did it anyway. Like it wasn’t even her doing it. Like she didn’t have control over anything. "Nah," she said to Dana. "We have plans." And she banged the door shut and hit the gas, leaving the ghost of Dana’s confused shrug hanging in the side-view mirror.

Rachel’s reaction was instant. "The fuck, Chloe?" she yelled, as the truck swerved out of the lot, scattering a group of bedraggled party-goers. "Maybe I wanted to go!" 

"A minute ago you wanted to be alone." 

A pause. Infinitesimal. "That’s up to me!" 

Chloe’s hands gripped the wheel as she tried to see through the driving rain that battered the windshield, completely defeating her shitty wipers. Swish, they tried forlornly. Swish swish. She didn’t dare look at Rachel. She couldn’t. "I thought you and me were gonna go hang out," she said. "Now you’d rather be with them?"

"I’d rather make my own fucking decisions. Stop the truck."

But it wasn’t Chloe driving. It couldn’t have been. Not Chloe, dead eyes fixed on the road, jaw clenched, shoulders shaking. Not Chloe hissing out that single syllable that still makes her shiver: "No."

Rachel’s voice hardened. "I said, stop the truck. I’m going to Juliet’s."

"So you would rather be with them?"

"Right now? Yeah!"

"You told me you only needed to put in an appearance. Well, some fucking appearance! What happened to getting out of there as soon as we could? What happened to just the two of us?" 

"You don’t get to fucking decide what I do, Chloe. Where I go. Nobody does! I’m going to Juliet’s. Maybe you should go home." 

"No! You don't get to keep leaving!" Panic numbed Chloe’s mind, made everything go blank. Every thought thrown aside, lost to the dark, like rain flung across the windshield: Swish, swish, swish

A dangerous silence fell between them until Rachel’s voice cut through the space like a scalpel. "Stop the goddamn truck now or I’ll fucking jump!"  

The passenger door flew open, a gust of damp wind rushing through the cab. "Fuck!" Chloe turned to see Rachel hanging out of the open door, one leg already dangling over the rushing road below. "What the fuck are you doing?" she yelled, thumping at the brakes on instinct as Rachel stumbled against the dash. "What’s wrong with you?"

She swerved up onto the side of the road, throwing Rachel like a rag doll against the seat. Rachel shouted as she grabbed at the air. Her words lost in an explosion of expletives and the spray of gravel.

The second the truck bumped to a halt, Rachel was out of the open door, Chloe only a beat behind. 

"Tell me what I’ve done," she called out to Rachel’s back as damp flannel disappeared into the rain. "Why are you acting so fucking weird?"

" I’m acting weird?" Rachel stopped, looked back, her wet shirt pulled tight around her. "You have no fucking right to do that, Chloe! You hear me? Don’t ever try to fucking control me!"

She looked so furious that Chloe was sure they’d go their separate ways that night. That any second Rachel would turn and run into the dark, and they’d never see each other again. Despair rose like a tidal wave inside her; made words rush and tumble out over each other—a storm, destroying everything. Just like she always destroyed everything.

"What the fuck is going on with you?" Chloe shouted. "Did I do something up there? Why didn't you want to speak to me? Or sit with me? Like, I get it, I’m not exactly someone you wanna show off to all your friends, and I know you have your Little Miss Perfect Popularity to maintain and all that bullshit, Rach, but... Fuck. I don’t recognize you when you’re with them. It’s like some fucking show you’re putting on." 

Rachel’s hand found her hip. "A show?"

"Yeah! A show. An act. That girl up there, whoever the fuck she was. She’s not you. I’ve seen the real you. That wasn't her."

"Oh, you’ve seen me, have you? You think you’ve got me all figured out? You don’t know shit." 

"I know you." 

"No. You don’t. No one fucking does." She looked down. Kicked at the gravel. "I'm allowed to spend time with other people. You’re not my only friend, Chloe. Just like I’m not yours."

"The fuck’s that supposed to mean?"

"You spent the whole night talking to Steph." 

"Yeah, while I was waiting for you." 

Rachel was breathing hard, her brows crumpled, as though something inside her was fighting against what she wanted to say, or maybe against what she didn’t. Either way, she then said it, yelling it across the space between them: "Not just her."

"Then who? Go on, enlighten me. Who are my legions of invisible friends that I must have somehow forgotten about because they—you know—don’t fucking exist!" Rachel opened her mouth like she was about to speak, but Chloe jumped in first. "I’ve only ever had one friend," she shouted over the wind. "Before you. You fucking know that. My entire life. I had one friend. One person my own age who gave a shit about me." She held up a single index finger. "One. And then everything went to shit. And she left. And she never came back."

Chloe closed her eyes, let the rain wash over her eyelids. No knock on the door. No tires on the driveway.

She never did come back. 

The memory jolted inside her, forced her to turn away, to grip the side of the truck bed to hold herself steady. Was this it? The night she lost Rachel, too? The way she always lost everybody? Inevitable. This would be the night where it all ended—those four months of stolen touches and laughter and kisses. Of feeling alive. This was the night Rachel would turn and run away from her. Turn away and never came back. All those promises of escaping Arcadia Bay together dissolving with her into the storm. 

Broken promises. 

More broken promises. 

Chloe screwed up her eyes, remembered Max’s tiny hands in her own as they stood in the hallway on that day, that day when everything changed. So clear she could almost feel it, hear her own dumb, naïve voice: We’ll be best friends forever. And when we grow up, we’re taking over the world.

She’d believed it. Believed in it. Believed in it so much she’d built her whole future up around it. Because there would always be Max. They’d be roommates in college together, grow up and have families with houses next door to each other, sit side by side in their easy chairs at the old people’s home together. There would always be Max. Always. Until there wasn’t.

Like an idiot, she'd been building new dreams of a future with Rachel. Dreams built on sand, now blowing away. All she’d ever been was just another part of the show. A minor supporting character up on the stage of Rachel’s life, lit up by the lights when called for her scenes, thrown back to the darkness of the wings when the time came to give way to others. Eventually the curtain would fall, the stage would empty, and Rachel would leave to take the starring role somewhere else. Leave Chloe alone among the dust, the cobwebs, the scuffed, discarded props. And like the loser she was, Chloe would wait for her. Wait for her to come back. Just as she’d waited before. 

She gripped the wet, rusted metal of the truck bed until it dug into her palms. Swollen, guttural sobs wrenching at her throat. In her headーMax’s voice, faint as the raindrops on the back of her neck: Whatever happens, I want you to be strong. Even if you feel like I wasn’t there for you... because I will never abandon you, Chloe. I’ll always have your back. Always.

Always.

Liar. Liar. Liar. 

"Liar!" Chloe screamed, kicking her boot against the tire rim, hot pain immediately slicing up through her toe.

"Chloe? Wh—" 

Chloe ran. Because she had to be the one to run first. Because if she didn't run first she'd be the one left behind. Again. So she ran away as fast as she could up that road, the pain in her foot screaming up through her boot, making her limp like an asshole. Rain dripped from the front of her beanie, down her face and into her mouth. She tasted tungsten. Salt and gun metal on her tongue. 

She doesn’t remember how long she stumbled. Several cars had already swished past her, sending road spray up her calves and earning themselves a mumbled fuck you , until the choke and rattle of a familiar engine limped up the road behind her. The hood of the truck pulled up at her shoulder, chugging along at walking pace. The passenger door was still open, flapping out into the road like a broken wing. Behind the wheel was Rachel. 

Her legs didn’t quite reach the pedals, so she was perched right on the edge of the seat, chest pushed up against the wheel like an eighty-year-old on her way to Sears. The truck jolted where Rachel couldn’t hold the clutch, flopped and jerked alongside Chloe like a stranded salmon on the shore. Afterwards, Chloe would find that mental image pretty funny. They’d both laugh about it, like they’d laugh over that whole fucking dumb argument. A do you remember that time… But right then it seemed like the end of the world. So Chloe kept hobbling, right towards the end of the world, searching for the edge of it as though if she kept walking, eventually she’d fall off it and then that would be it. At last. Over. 

"You want to know why I got mad?" Rachel’s voice above the wind and the storm and the tire squeaks and the rumble of the engine. Finding Chloe. "You told me it was our place. At the lighthouse. You told me it was our place." Chloe stopped and Rachel braked next to her, the truck jolting to a halt as the clutch slipped again. "But it isn’t though, is it? It was your place with Max."

Chloe would later spend hours chewing over those words. The way Rachel had said them, eyes intense, face pale in the dull light from the streetlamps. Over the years she’d affix a hundred different emotions to them, a multitude of meanings, but at the time she didn’t know what to say. Just that the words were there, between them, waiting for her answer.

"Yeah," she said, pain and rage shunted aside by confusion. "It was our place when we were kids. It’s the lighthouse. It’s everyone’s place."

"Everyone doesn’t carve their names into a tree stump." 

"You’re mad about the tree stump?"

"I’m not mad about the stump. I’m mad because you… misled me."

"Misled you? Misled you how? You think I never went up to the lighthouse before I met you? I’ve lived here my whole life, remember? My whole fucking life. My earliest memories are of the goddamn lighthouse. My parents…" She paused. Swallowed. "My dad. Sure, I used to hang out there with Max. And after she left, I spent hella days there on my own. So, yeah, maybe it’s not just my place with you, but it’s not just my place with her either. It’s my place, you know? It’s just… my place."

A car drifted around the bend in the road towards them. Let out a long blast of the horn as it swooped past the truck. The driver's roar through his open window —No parking, asshole! —swept away by the night. 

"Fuck off!" Chloe and Rachel yelled as one at the disappearing tail lights. Looked at each other. Wry smiles. 

Chloe took a step closer. "I want the lighthouse to be our place," she said, leaning into the cab. "I want to share it with you. I— I want to do everything with you. It's not like I wanted to spend all night tonight talking to Steph. She’s cool and all, but I wanted to be talking to you. I wanted to be with you. Not for you to leave me up there with a tree stump and the ghost of yet another person who abandoned me." 

Rachel sighed, leaned her head back against the seat. Her gaze drifted across to Chloe. A shift in her eyes. Like she wanted to say something but didn’t know what to say, so instead she asked: "Can you… Can you just drive?"

Chloe climbed in through the driver’s door as Rachel slid across the seat to let her in, up to the far side of the cab where she rested her forehead against the window.

"Seriously, no one ever carve your name on a stump?" Chloe asked, heaving the door shut.

"Plenty of people."

"Obviously." Chloe winced as she pressed down on the clutch pedal with her bad toe, hauled the truck into gear.

"But no one I gave a shit about."

Rachel shot a glance in Chloe’s direction as she said it. A glance that said, it’s okay. We’re okay. And in that moment, despite everything that had come before it, despite all the questions left unanswered, that was enough. Relief coursed through Chloe's wet, frozen limbs like new blood. 

"You want me to carve your name on a stump?" she asked. "I mean, I can. We could go back up there. I still have that nail file. Okay, it’s kinda blunt and it might take the rest of the night and we’ll get hella soaked in this storm, but fuck it, let’s do it." 

Rachel smiled into the window, head slightly turned so that Chloe only caught the edges of it. But it was a smile. Definitely a smile. "Chloe, I don’t want you to carve my name on a stump."

"You sure? Because you kinda seem like you do."

"Just drive."

"Where to?" 

Rachel shrugged. A sudden tingle up Chloe’s spine as she said, "Your place?" 

 


 

The truck bumped up onto the driveway and Chloe killed the engine, headlights sputtering out. Outside, the rain had almost stopped, leaving the town glistening with a damp moonlit sheen. They sat there in silence but for the gentle patter of raindrops on the roof of the cab. Stared up at the dark windows of 44 Cedar Avenue.

"We broke curfew by one hour and 57 minutes," Chloe said, checking her phone on the dash, looking for something, anything, to say. 

"Will your mom be mad?"

"Nah, looks like they’re already asleep."

In her boot, Chloe’s toe was ablaze. Broken, she’d realize the next morning when it had swollen to the size of a golf ball, and Rachel would gasp and giggle, kiss it better as Chloe winced with pleasure: you dork, Price! How on earth didn’t you notice? She had noticed. Of course she had. She just didn’t pay it much attention. Not then. Not there in the truck. How could she when that damn fly was buzzing in her ribcage, beating against it so hard she thought it might explode. She ran a dry tongue across chapped lips, darting glances across at Rachel. Prayed she wouldn’t change her mind and ask Chloe to take her home. 

"I’m sorry," Rachel said suddenly. "I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you."

Chloe’s palms kneaded the steering wheel. "Yeah, me too." She flushed. "I— I mean I’m sorry too. For losing my shit. And, like… trying to kidnap you."

A flicker of a smile on Rachel’s lips, in her eyes. She shook loose a raw chuckle into the cab. "No, I deserved it. I mean... It’s just… Oh God." She trailed off with a little moan, put her hands to her face and leaned over the dash. A noise, an action so unlike Rachel that Chloe couldn’t help but be surprised. 

Rachel exhaled at last, lifted her head and ran her hands through her hair. "When I was away. In London. I missed you, Chloe. A lot more than I expected to. Like, really fucking missed you." Her fingers reached for her earring. "I thought about you every day, you know. I thought about you all the time. All the time. From the moment I woke up until I went to sleep. I remember one day, I was standing across the river from Shakespeare’s Theatre. Shakespeare’s fucking Theatre! A place I’d wanted to see my whole life, and… and literally all I could think about was you." She looked away. "I guess… I guess I’m still trying to work out what that means. Because I don’t know what the fuck that means. And everything’s just so fucking weird and I don’t know what anything means anymore. Do you… Do you ever feel that way?"

Chloe placed her hand in the seat between them, palm up. As if her heart sat nestled inside it. "Yeah," she whispered. "All the fucking time."

Rachel’s fingers found hers, linked them in her own. "I wanted you there tonight, Chloe," she said. "I know maybe it didn’t seem like it. But I did. It’s just… It’s hard to explain."

"Like two things colliding?" 

Rachel seemed to consider this. Nodded. "Yeah."

Again Chloe felt that thread zinging, buzzing between them. Pulled taut and pulsing through her, an electric tingle shooting down every nerve; the last of the static before the storm. As though something huge were about to happen—would happen, would always happen—tumbling across time and space and into that tiny cab with its mildew infested seats and the rusty hole in the footwell. Like everything was about to change. 

Everything.

Rachel lifted her eyes to meet Chloe’s. "Can I stay here tonight? With you?"

Chloe nodded, barely able to speak through the thunder of her heartbeat. "Sure." 

 


 

Follow that thread as it winds and wheels over to the front door. Opens it with a shh!, closes it with a whisper. 

Past the shoes left by the front door—Chloe’s boots kicked halfway down the dark hall… hers neatly resting side by side, left foot, right foot. The thread winds itself around the bannisters, looping in and out. Carefully, silently up the stairs—padding with socked feet, hand gripping hand, flinching at every creak.

Into the bedroom. One tank shed by the door, another thrown over the desk. 

A duvet tumbling from the mattress. 

Follow it to that moment. That moment that everything will always come back to.

… Just the two of them.







Chapter Text

It starts the way it always starts. Again. Chloe in the Two Whales Diner, pushed up against the window in her usual booth, watching raindrops race down the greasy glass. She selects her watery runner. That one, bulbous and bejeweled—the whole street reflected within it like a tiny snow globe of Pacific Avenue, Arcadia Bay; the gray beach, the colorless sky. Yes, that’s the droplet she wants. That one, already weighed down by the entire world inside it, it’s sure to drop fastest down the pane.

She always used to make this mistake with Max, back when they played the same game as children, on those wet days they couldn’t go outside. Bare knees pressed against the rough carpet of the Price living room, racing droplets down the glass of the sliding door. Chloe always picked the largest one, the heaviest. Max? Max always picked the small ones, the cunning ones, the ones that ran into the channels of the bigger droplets, entwining, merging, devouring, then dropping like stones to the sill. Max always won. But still Chloe wants the biggest one. That one.

She watches it fall, wills it downwards and then...

Bang.

It comes from outside. Not just a bang. It could never be just a bang. It starts with a screech, the squeal of rubber on asphalt. There is panic in that sound. Then a crunch, metallic. Like something strong and dependable bending in on itself, creaking in on itself and folding away into nothing. Glass smashing, spraying over the blacktop, and a single side mirror soaring through the frigid air, landing with a clunk and rolling into the curb. 

So much to happen in less than a second. Too much. Too much for one world to end and another to begin in just that tiny fraction of time.

That’s when Chloe looks up. The diner is empty and silent, but for the faint sound of scrabbling behind her, like an insect crawling over a microphone. So faint she assumes it must be in her head. She turns anyway, sees a cockroach scuttling down the jukebox, tiny legs scurrying across the glass. Music starts to play, but there is no melody to it. The song, if that’s what it is, hops and bends and twists. Out of tune. Not right. It takes Chloe a moment to realize the track is playing backwards. Weird. 

Is everyone else outside? Did they all leave when they heard that bang? She slips from the booth and makes her way to the door. Dread hangs heavy in her footsteps, loading the soles of her boots. She knows what she will find out there, but she heads towards the exit anyway, an invisible hand on her back pushing her onwards. She leans into the door, hears it jangle as she steps into the street.

Outside, the world has stopped. Cars sit stagnant, nestled up against the curb, the faces of their drivers lost behind shadowed windshields. A boy cycling along the sidewalk has stopped; let his bike fall to the ground and now stands watching. The toothless doll lady, clattering her old grocery cart down the street, has stopped; the glassy, lifeless eyes of her plastic children staring out into the gloom. A fisherman, handing out his flyers, has stopped; a single page flaps from his hand and off into the breeze. It floats through the sky, past the huge red semi, folded like a jack-knife in the center of the road, and settles on the hood of the car—what used to be a car—that pokes out from beneath. 

Chloe doesn’t want to look, but she does. Doesn’t want to approach, but she does. No one stops her. They stand like statues all around as she stumbles across the street, reaches the car and splays both hands on the mangled hood. It is wet from the rain, still hot from the engine. Warm water pools between her fingers. She can see a figure behind the wheel, thrown back against the seat, unnatural, like it’s been placed there. No longer a person, but a body—gray lips parted, red eyes open but not seeing, blood caked down one side of its face. A tumble of golden hair. A blue feather earring. Not him. Her.

Legs buckling beneath her, Chloe staggers around the car, keeps her hands on the hood to steady herself. She knows she’s screaming. Can feel it, so deep in her chest that it burns up her throat, but as it hits the air, the scream falls silent. She reaches a hand towards the body, falls to her knees. A buzz in her pocket as her phone goes off.

It’s okay, Baby. It’s not me. See?

Chloe looks up, her vision stutters. And like that she is inside the car, her own hands gripping the wheel. She shakes her head, blinks, tries to get her bearings. In front of her, the bobblehead wobbles on the dash. Grinning, always grinning. She’s not in that car. Not that car. The truck. Through the windshield she can still see Pacific Avenue, winding off along the coast and into the distance. But the crowd is gone, and the sun is shining. Shining on… destruction. All around her the town is in ruins: Telephone poles snapped and fallen across the street, held up by their cables like a line of drunks draped over a fence, mountains of debris and rubble piled up where they fell. The Two Whales Diner, a charred husk with blown-out windows, the lights on the sign still flickering, flashing the letters DI… E…

There is a thump as a hand hits the hood. A small, smooth hand. Another thump. Another hand. And then a face.

“Max?”

This time Max looks through Chloe, blue eyes scorched black. A single sliver of blood shines red below one nostril. She heaves herself onto the hood. Collapses.

“Max!” Chloe fumbles for the door, tries to kick it open. At last she falls out onto the blacktop, but by the time she struggles to her feet, Max is gone.

Again, her phone buzzes: You know where I am, Baby. Come and find me. I’m still here.

Behind Chloe, a camera shutter clicks. “Max?”

Not Max. Chloe spins around to see two figures across the street, nestled below a mangled gas station sign, bright orange and blue letters offering four dollars a gallon: A man and a woman. Golden hair fluttering in the wind. She is posing for him, back arched and resting on her elbows, one knee bent, head thrown back and laughing. Naked, but for a blue feather earring. She turns to Chloe, a wide, white smile. Alive. Intense relief mixes with nausea as Chloe runs towards them, towards the photographer. He has his back to her, but he seems familiar somehow. Bastard. Until he turns. Turns and gives her a huge grin. It’s okay, kiddo, it’s me. We’re together now. She’s obsessed with me.

No! Chloe drops her head, squeezes her eyes shut. When she looks back, they are gone.

Another text: You know where I am.

Yes, she knows. She knows. She’s always known. Chloe glances at her wrist, sees a tattoo. Not her own, but a five-point nautical star. It gives me direction, she hears a voice whisper from far away. It’s my way out of the dark. Back to you. Because we’ll always find each other, Chloe. Always. 

When Chloe looks up, she is on the trail that leads to the lighthouse. She knows Rachel is there, is sure of it. If she can only get there. She begins to run but the air around her tightens, smothers her, pulls at her legs, like running through quicksand. She struggles forward, on and up into the fading light. To the lighthouse. To the lighthouse. To the lighthouse.   

It ends the way it always ends. Again. Somehow she always gets to the top; emerges from the trailhead to see Rachel on the cliff edge, silhouetted by the dying sun. Her outline is gauzy, flutters like silk, as though she is only half there. She turns, her face in profile. 

You came. I’m glad. 

 


 

A fly. It’s a fly that wakes her, buzzing loudly in her ear. She whips it away, and it lands on her nose, goes to brush it off and almost falls out of bed. Full consciousness returns gradually, the edges of her vision sparkling inwards. She is hanging half off the mattress, her head and one arm dangling down, knuckles grazing the floor. Her ashtray swims into focus, and she makes out the roach of her last joint, nesting in a pile of ash along with three cigarette butts and a couple of toenail clippings. The stale smell of it smacks her nostrils as she breathes in and she flops onto her back with a groan. 

Fuck, she hates that dream. She slings an arm over her eyes, takes a moment to sort out the mess in her head; like a box of crayons strewn across the floor, scattered everywhere, a jumbled heap of color. She searches for each of them in turn, places them back in their box: Her dad is not Rachel’s somebody else. Goddamnit, she hates her fucked up brain for that one. Her dad died in 2008. Chloe wasn’t there, she didn’t see it. Arcadia Bay isn’t rubble, it’s still standing. Sadly. Rachel didn’t die in a car crash. Rachel… disappeared. Rachel is not at the lighthouse. Rachel is gone. 

Every morning is the same. Every morning, in that moment before waking, Chloe believes Rachel is still there. In the dream she always finds her, in the dream, she is always waiting. Then Chloe opens her eyes, lets the world rush in like icy water spilling over her chest, the cool drip, drip of reality. But there was something different about the dream this time. Something new that she can’t put her finger on. What was it? 

She is suddenly too wired for sleep. Her face feels taut, drum skin stretched over bone. Her eyes sting and her throat is dry, but… There is something different about today. 

She reaches for her cell, in the same way she does every morning. She always checks. Just in case. In case one day she’ll roll over to see a text or a missed call. But there is never a notification, only that familiar golden hour grin shining up at her. A grin that once promised forever, now forever reduced to pixels on a phone.  

There is no notification. So Chloe checks Rachel’s social media accounts, like she does every morning. Just in case. Familiar words haunt the screen, the same final updates Chloe has read through a thousand times, words already stale, devoured and sunken into obscurity. Is it only Chloe that reads them now? Over and over. Every goddamn morning. 

She always lingers on Rachel’s last Instagram post, a black and white image of a girl standing on a dock, arms folded across her chest and staring out to sea. A quote from some book Rachel liked superimposed on top: To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

This morning, like every morning, Chloe swipes away Instagram, opens her texts to read through some old ones. No longer to search for answers or clues; the tired words on the screen were long ago stripped bare of all that, but to feel instead the warm comfort of them. A reminder of what was. But when she looks at her messages, something is different. This morning something is different. 

This morning, there is Max.  

The memory floods through her. Max came back. Max was the something different in her dream. Max is here in Arcadia and Chloe has the texts to prove it. Maybe there is something worth getting out of bed for today after all. She rolls onto her back and punches in a message: u there mad max? 

A tightness in her chest as soon as she presses send, memories of all those times she sent similar texts to no reply. And in that moment she thinks maybe she got it wrong, that none of it is true; all of it just the residue of a half-imagined yesterday. But her phone beeps almost instantly: Like I said. Always for you. ):):):) 

A smile hooks Chloe’s lip. NO EMOJI!!!   

Several more messages whip between them, Chloe’s fingers working quickly, as though by themselves, as though they never stopped. At last she finishes with an order to meet at the Two Whales in forty minutes. Looks at the clock on her phone. 7.38am. Still early. Did Max hardly sleep, either? 

She shunts the duvet away, shuffles to the edge of the bed. The fly that woke her, or maybe another entirely, is busy walking circles on the window pane. Beyond it, the sky buzzes red; cloudy and pale but still red, like Cherry Crush soda poured into milk. Deep in Chloe’s brain, in the dark recesses she doesn’t dare pick at, something calls to her—muffled and barely audible, like a whimper behind a gag—tells her the sky isn’t right, that it should seem strange. But it doesn’t seem strange, it just makes her thirsty. Her throat feels like she's been gargling talcum powder, but there is nothing here to drink. A few green beer bottles litter her shelves, her desk, but the only thing in them now is mold. 

Forty minutes. It seems like an ocean of time, stretching out into the morning. Should she start getting ready? It’s been so long since she got ready for anything, for anyone, she has no idea how long it even takes her. Is forty minutes a lot, or a little? She wonders what Max is doing, if she’s already pulling another hipster hoodie from her closet, brushing her teeth (with her own toothbrush), smoothing her bangs in the mirror. But then she supposes Max has all the time in the world, now. Being able to rewind it and all. Chloe shakes her head with a smile. How dumb that all sounds in the bizarre light of day.  

She should probably get ready. But first, she needs to get high. 

There was a time when wake and bake was the best part of everything. Those mornings when Chloe would reach over a warm, slumbering Rachel to grab her fully loaded bowl. Or better, when she'd wake to that crackle and fizz, the smell of her favorite strain engulfing her. Open her eyes into the soft glow of Rachel's lazy, good-morning smile, her lips curling around a pipe. When did that mellow buzz to start the day slip into a craving, tumble into necessity? Now the need for it picks at her brain every morning, like a pack of angry seagulls all fighting over the same piece of rotting flesh. When did it become this way? Chloe doesn’t know, no longer cares. She looks in her tin but it’s empty. All she has is that single joint smoked down to the roach. She grabs it from the ashtray, lights it up anyway. Flops back against the sheets. Thinks about Max.

It was past eleven when she’d eventually made it home last night. After she and Max had picked their way back down the trail from the lighthouse in the pitch dark, both still lost in their thoughts. And as they'd crunched along that carpet of pine needles, the hollow smell of fall in the air, it had seemed to Chloe like something had opened up in front of them: A crack, a fissure in those lost years. So that if they could both just squeeze through it, they would wake up, find themselves pirates again and twelve years old, cutlasses thrust out in front of them—crinkled aluminum wrapped around cardboard—running, roaring, through the wild night.  

She'd dropped Max off outside Blackwell first. Watched her small frame scuttle up the stairs, hands clamped to her bag strap as she scurried across the courtyard, around the corner. Gone. Watched her until she could watch no more. Then she’d dropped the truck into gear, skidded off the curb and driven home. 

Joyce and David were waiting up for her in the dark, rigid shapes at the dining table. Joyce’s hands splayed over the wood, eyes fixed on her knuckles. David, ram-rod straight, staring down the door like a sniper. They made Chloe jump as she stepped into the hallway, sitting like that, lit only by blocks of moonlight seeping in through the sliding doors. How long had they been there? She turned around, went to head up the stairs. 

“Chloe!” David—of course David—as her foot hovered over the second step. 

She kept moving. “No way,” she called back into the living room. “Whatever little intervention you have planned, I’m not listening to it.” 

“You’ll get in here now, young lady.” 

“David says Max Caulfield is back in town.”  

At the sound of her mom’s voice, Chloe stalled again, clutching at the bannister. She let out an extended sigh she hoped was audible from the table and slunk back down the stairs. Paused at the entrance to the living room to arrange herself against the wall, arms folded, the sole of one still-booted foot pushed up against the paneling—a slouch that said, come on, do your worst . “Yeah?” she asked. 

“He also says Max was selling you drugs in your bedroom. Is that true?” 

Chloe blasted a laugh at them. “Mom... come on!” 

“Looked clear to me,” David said. 

“Clear to you? You lose your eyes as well as your precious gun?” 

“Chloe! I’ve explained to David who Max is but we’re concerned…” 

“Oh please! You know Max, Mom!” Chloe kicked herself off the wall. “You should be happy she’s here, asking me how she is, what she’s been up to. Instead you’re letting Sergeant Sniffer Dog here accuse her of being the next Walter fucking White!” 

“She said it was her weed,” David said.  

Chloe hesitated, let the story mold itself as the words tumbled from her mouth. “Yeah... it was. But she got given it by some stoners at school for… uh… helping them with some shit. She doesn’t even smoke. I just offered to take it off her hands for a while because she was shitting herself carrying it around.” 

Joyce shook her head. “You’re a saint, Chloe.” 

“The point is, Max is still Max, Mom. She’s not into drugs. Really? Max? You think she got a fucking lobotomy in Seattle?” 

“People change, honey.” 

“Not that much they don’t.” 

“Don’t they?” David asked quickly. They all knew who he meant. Chloe’s jaw clenched.  

“Look, I’ll bring her by the diner tomorrow morning. Just talk to her, Mom. You’ll see she hasn’t changed a bit.” 

“How... how is she?” Joyce asked. 

David grunted, outnumbered. Lifted himself from his seat and stomped away down the hall, throwing a dangerous glare at Chloe as he passed. She shot a sneer at his back, sat down in the chair he’d just vacated. 

“She’s good,” Chloe said, leaning over the table with a weary smile. “Max is… doing good. Got into Blackwell on a photography scholarship. Her photos... They’re awesome.” 

“Chloe, was it your weed?” 

Chloe flopped back in her seat with a groan at the ceiling. The moment she thought they were having, lost.

“I know when you’re lying to me, honey,” Joyce continued, unmoved. “This is important. Have you been seeing Frank again?” 

“No,” Chloe addressed the ceiling with a roll of her eyes, stared at the shadows cast across it. “I haven’t seen Frank in weeks. I got it from some guys in town.” 

“Chloe…” 

A growl rippled between Chloe’s teeth, and she let her head fall into her hands. “Listen, I need something , Mom. Otherwise, I can’t... Ever since... It’s not from Frank, okay? I’m not mixed up in his shit anymore.”

“This stops. Immediately. Tonight. No more using drugs in this house. Do you understand? If you need help we can look into…” 

“Don’t. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”

Joyce reached out, put a hand on Chloe’s shoulder. “Chloe. I’m glad Max is back.” 

Chloe shrugged her away. Me too, she thought, but she didn’t say it. Just clambered to her feet and headed towards the stairs. 

And Chloe is glad Max is back, isn’t she? She’s getting ready at least, finished what was left of her shitty joint and dragged her ass into the shower. Joyce would be pleased about that. The water cascades down over her shoulders, so hot it’s scalding, makes her skin fizz. Max is back and today feels… different. She closes her eyes under the stream, lets it scorch her hair, run down her face and into her mouth—hot, metallic, bursting on her tongue. Listens to the beating in her chest, the tingle in her fingertips. Yes, there is something different about today. 

She thinks about what Max said yesterday, about her vision of the storm and being able to reverse time. Chloe still doesn’t know how much of it she believes. Last night she hadn’t pushed for details. Max had seemed too shaken, curling up against her on the lighthouse steps, shivering like a baby bird fallen from the nest. So they’d talked about other things, bland stories of Seattle. Both of them sidestepping all those bigger questions, those dark paths that connected them—nightmares, destruction, time lost and regained… the ghost in red flannel still spinning slow circles in the periphery of Chloe’s vision. They didn’t talk about how they were both lost and dangling, fingertips gripping the very edge of reality, struggling to hold on. How both their minds hung over that abyss. Because they were both crazy, right? Both just batshit insane. 

As usual, there is no shampoo. One of David’s bottles is the last on the shelf, an image of a rearing black horse printed on the side. It is called Stallion. Its label promises natural masculine virility for Chloe’s hair. She stares at that bottle for a long time. Sighs. Rubs it into her scalp anyway. 

Back in her room, she searches for clothes. None of her tanks are clean so she picks one that smells the least offensive. Sniffs at it as she shrugs it over her shoulders. Her clothes stink, and somehow that feels important. Normally she wouldn’t give a shit about smelling like a beguiling blend of weed smoke and David’s Stallion shampoo: Eternal Fuckup by Chloe Price , get it in stores now . But there is something different about today. 

She scans the top of her dresser for something to mask it, something to douse herself in. The surface is still covered in Rachel’s things that Chloe doesn’t dare move in case she comes back. Because she might need them when she comes back. A plastic Hello Kitty compact, an eyeliner pen, a couple of lipsticks, an old roll-on (long-since dried), a button that had fallen from her shirt and Chloe later found on the floor under the bed. A single, silver hoop earring. All lined up neatly. The only things in the entire room with any semblance of order. Rachel always liked—likes—things neat.  

Among them, some little glass vials of the oils Rachel sometimes dabbed behind her ears instead of perfume. Chloe twists open the closest one, lifts it to her nose. Immediately the memories envelop her, those nights she would lie behind Rachel, nose pressed up to that warm space by her ear lobe, breathing her in. Even after the wildest parties there would always be the fading hint of something—sometimes sweet, sometimes musky, always her. Scents Rachel had mixed up herself when she was into all that hippie shit; blending up essential oils and giving out dream-catchers as gifts to everyone she knew. She could yack on for hours about fucking base notes and florals. Back then, Chloe would yawn and stretch, ask Rachel with a wink if she had anything more interesting to talk about. She’d give anything to hear her talk about it all now. A couple of vials are placed slightly apart, oils Rachel had made for Chloe the summer before she… It’s been months since Chloe last opened them. She unscrews one now, smells cedar, pine needles and sunshine.  

“It smells like trees,” she’d said to Rachel.

“It’s supposed to,” Rachel had replied, taking Chloe’s hand, interlocking their fingers. “There are only two good things about this place—the smell of the forest in summer… and you. Now I can have you both together.” 

At the time, Chloe had taken the compliment, cheeks burning, big dumb smile. Now she shudders at it—to be as much a part of this place as the trees, the forest, the sky? Hadn’t Rachel wanted to run from them too? 

She screws the lid back on the vial, places it carefully next to the others. Sniffs a few more before picking out something that doesn’t smell too much like Rachel, that doesn’t smell too much like Chloe, and rubs virtually the whole damn bottle into her neck and wrists. That’ll do. She pulls out her phone. 8:08am. Wow, she won’t even be that late. Her jittering fingers fire out a string of messages.  

max

food  

two whales

c u there

The reply comes back: Don’t hurt your fingers texting. 

Chloe grins. 

As she goes to leave the room, she sees that fly again, buzzing by the window. Buzz —it flies circles on the frame. Tap —it dives into the glass. Buzz-Tap. Buzz-Tap . She goes over, hauls the sash open with a grunt and watches the fly zip out into the open air. 

When she gets downstairs, David is sitting at the counter, hulking so low over his cereal he looks like he's  reading the bowl its rights. He looks up as Chloe swings around the corner into the kitchen, milk dripping from his mustache.  

Her eyes swish over him, from his dumb little guard’s cap pulled low over his ears, down to his combat boots, polished to a sheen. She heads straight for the refrigerator, trying to ignore his eyes on her, the way the air tightens. “Shouldn’t you be at work?” she asks, pulling open the door.  

“I wanted to catch you before you went out.” She hears him slurp at his coffee, swill it around in his mouth like it’s fucking mouthwash. It makes her feel sick. 

“Yeah?” she asks, holding the refrigerator open. She knows what she wants, can see it, the little carton of strawberry milk in the door. But she pretends to scan the mostly empty shelves anyway. She knows how much it annoys him. “Well, it better be quick. I’m in a hurry.”  

His tone bristles. “I’ll be notifying the police about the missing firearm.”  

“And?”  

“And if you have it you need to tell me now.”  

She is about to deny it again when she remembers Max’s words at the lighthouse. The cameras. He must have caught her on camera. She grabs the milk, slams the refrigerator closed. “Is that what your little voyeur-cams told you, David? You been spying on me? Watching me stealing guns?” She rips the straw from the carton, tears the plastic holder with her teeth. “Getting dressed?” 

She’s pretty sure there are no cameras in her bedroom. One of the first things she’d done when she got home last night was to check everywhere, and Max said she hadn’t seen one. But still she enjoys watching his face go pale, the way his jaw sets.  

“Those cameras are for your protection!” he thunders, slapping his palm on the counter.  

Exactly what she knew he’d say, but his discomfort gives Chloe life. Like he’s that kid in the schoolyard who’s just been found out, the creeper with the peephole into the girls’ locker room. She leans back against the refrigerator, punches the straw into the carton and takes a long suck. “My protection, huh? Does Mom know about them? You have a camera in your bedroom, right? Is that how you get off?”  

He throws his stool back, pushes himself to his feet. “I don’t need to stand for this! You forced my hand!”  

“I did? I forced you into becoming a sicko peeper?”  

“After everything that happened, you expected me to just let you carry on? Bringing those low-life scumbag dealers into this house. You were dealing in our home, Chloe! You wanted me to let you end up like Rachel?” 

She slams the carton down on the counter. Strawberry milk spurts from the straw, runs down the back of her hand. “You know jack shit about Rachel!”  

“I know enough. I know what she was up to, who she spent her time with. I know why she took all that time out of school, where she was.” 

“Yeah? You been going through her school files, too? I’m sure Wells would be real happy to hear that.”

“She’s not the person you thought she was.” 

“She’s exactly the person I think she is, David. This conversation is over.” Chloe avoids his gaze she strides from the kitchen.  

“I saw you take the gun.” His yell follows her down the hallway. “Give it back now and I won’t call the police.” 

“Too late, dude. I sold it.”

He lumbers up behind her as she struggles to pull her boots on over a pair of furry ski socks she’d found down the back of her drawer that morning. The only goddamn socks she could find clean. “I don’t believe you,” he says. 

“Then don’t.”

She forces her feet into her boots at last, winces as they crush her toes, and grabs her keys from the sideboard. 

“Come back here!” David shouts as Chloe pulls open the door. “If I go to the cops, there’ll be no leniency this time. They’ll come down hard. Is that what you want? A criminal record? Jail time? James Amber is looking for any excuse to put you away.”

“James Amber is a lame duck DA,” she shoots back at him. “He can’t do shit. His pockets are overflowing with so much dirty money that if he tries anything he’ll be going down with me.” 

“That’s not how the world works, Chloe, and you know it.” 

She goes to slam the door in his face, but he catches his boot in the gap, forcing it back open. His hand shoots out to grab the top of Chloe’s arm, thick fingers burning into her skin. His grip twitches and tightens around her, and the strength of it sears through her bicep, takes her back to yesterday in her bedroom: The flash of his watch strap, the blow to her face that didn’t happen. That couldn’t have happened. Could it? Shit… Did Max… rewind time?  

She spins on him with a hiss. “You fucking touch me again, asshole, and I’m telling mom everything.” 

His grip loosens, something in his face shifts. “Whatever you’re planning to do with it, it’s not worth it,” he says. “I’ve been there. When you think there’s no other way. There is. You need to think about your mother.” 

He drops her arm, but not his gaze. His eyes bury into her, making her flinch, as if he’s forcing himself to look at her, forcing himself not to break eye contact and the effort of it plays on his features, his mustache jittering on his lip.  

“I sold it.”  

She throws the door shut on him, his ashen face turned to blocks behind frosted glass.  

When she gets into the truck, she sees her hands are shaking. She takes several breaths, remembers she has somewhere to go today. Max. 

But first, the liquor store. She needs to calm the fuck down.

 


 

She proved it. With a panda key-chain, a scrunched-up parking ticket, seven crumpled cigarettes and eighty-six cents. 

Fucking proved it with a mug smashing on the floor, the wail of a police siren, the familiar note of Joyce’s irritation and a cockroach crawling down the jukebox in a way that feels somehow familiar. Fucking proved it. 

A smile radiates out from the center of Chloe’s chest, creeps its way up slowly until it’s spread wide across her face. As though someone wrapped up the world in crazy and threw it hard against the wall, shattering it into a million tiny, glorious pieces. It feels fantastic. She hasn’t been this excited for months. 

Max sits opposite her, looks shy and proud all at the same time, like her heart is swelling in her chest but she's trying hard not to let it show. Chloe wants to pat her head, to ruffle her hair, but they’re not at that stage yet, are they? Instead she just grabs Max’s elbows, feels her friend's skin prickle at her touch and bows theatrically down over the table. “I pledge allegiance to Max and the power for which she stands.” 

The rational, logical part of Chloe’s brain, the part she rarely uses, just left to fester somewhere under a cabinet in Blackwell Lab 2.B some time in her freshman year, tells her there must be an explanation. That Max must have cooked this up somehow. Maybe with Joyce, who could have checked Chloe’s pockets that morning, given the word to the cop, okayed it with a sly nudge at Justin and Trevor, and slipped that asshole trucker a few dollars to smash his cup. Okay, the cockroach was a clever touch—where had Chloe seen that cockroach before?—but even all that planning and organizing and reliance on chance still had to be more likely than actual time travel. But Chloe shunts those thoughts aside, kicks them back into the dust under that 2.B cabinet. Today isn’t a day to be rational. Today’s a day to have fun. There’s something different about today. 

Max looks uncertain, gaze darting to the window and the unseasonably sunny day melting into Pacific Avenue. “This isn’t a toy, Chloe. I have to be careful how I use it—” 

There’s something in her voice, like Joyce when Chloe puts an empty milk carton back in the refrigerator. Or like… Chloe shudders at the memory: That’s not a toy, Chloe, it’s an antique. Please put it back. That single word please strung so long and tight you could hang the fucking laundry on it. Vanessa. Long, pale fingers massaging the bridge of her nose as she spoke. 

Five years away and Max has turned into her mom? No way, that shit can go swivel. Chloe grips Max’s elbows tighter. “Screw that!” she cries. “Of course it’s a toy! The best toy ever!” Her mind races with all the possibilities; imagines every setback, every failure, every dumb thing she’s ever said or done taken away in an instant. No more mornings where she wakes with a grimace and twisted regrets of the night before. No more consequences. To anything. And for some reason, her brain tugs at that string of texts she knows she has on her phone, all from last weekend’s latest liquor-induced loss of judgement. “Just think,” she says. “You could bang anyone with no strings attached, rewind time, and boom”—she smacks her palm down on the table, the plates shaking in a clatter of crockery—“it’s like it never happened!” 

Max’s face tells her that isn’t what she’d use it for. She stiffens and her eyes flick away. “Grow up.”  

Chloe wonders what Rachel would make of it. In the off-hand way she wonders what Rachel would make of everything. Rachel would want to have fun with it, that’s for sure. Who would Rachel bang and then pretend it never happened? Chloe? Didn’t she used to do that anyway?  

“Hey, maybe you made a move on me and I would never know!” Chloe says with a waggle of her brows.  

Max rolls her eyes but a smile flickers below them. “Yes, obviously that’s what I did.” Her tone is deadpan, but her complexion gives her away, just like it always did when they were kids. A soft pink spreading among her freckles, starting from the tips of her cheekbones, radiating down her face. She looks back to the window.  

Chloe always enjoyed making Max blush, but this time her satisfaction is nudged aside by curiosity. Is Max still a virgin? Her eyes fall over Max’s tiny frame, folded up into that red vinyl seat, thighs clamped fast together. Rachel would always say you could never tell for sure, but Chloe knows Max, and she is totally still a virgin. She stifles a laugh, her default setting moving towards merciless ridicule, but she stops herself, realizes she doesn't want to make fun of Max, not for that. Max still going red at the mention of sex is strangely comforting; one less thing that’s changed. But still the thought widens that chasm of years between them. What would Max think if she knew all the places Chloe had been and with whom? All those lost nights spent in dark places. About Rachel…  others? She supposes it’s a conversation that will come up between them eventually. But no, not today. Today, there are more interesting things to talk about. There is something different about today.  

“You can rewind time, Max,” Chloe says, gripping the side of the table. “That’s fucking insane. We have to play!” 

“I don’t have time,” Max says with a sigh.  

“You did not just say that.”

Chloe drops back against her seat. Tries to mask the disappointment in her voice, the fear that maybe it was just a joke after all, or worse, that Max is going to be all sensible and Vanessa about it, ignore whatever this is completely and go on about her day as if nothing's happened. And she can't do that. She can't. Because Chloe needs this. She needs it like those last two shitty hits she managed from that roach earlier; that first swirl of morning smoke beneath her sternum, more precious than air. She needs it like those bottles of beer she swiped from the cooler at Tony’s Liquor Store, winking at the clerk on the way out (he always did have a crush on her) and then sunk in a few long pulls in the truck. Needs it like the pictures on her phone and their sunny grins full of memories, that feeling before waking when it’s all still okay. Needs it like the sweet smell of cedarwood; the salt wind that slashes her face when she steps outside, looks up at the stars and remembers you can see Orion from anywhere in the world. Wherever she… Wherever. She needs it—that rush, that escape, that pure sliver of hope. To be a child again. To feel new again. To imagine that out there is another world, another universe, something bigger and brighter and beyond all this shit. She needs this. She needs something. 

She needs Max to play.  

But before she can say anything else, a drop of blood, dark as red wine, drips from Max’s nostril and slithers in a tiny rivulet down her philtrum, gathering at her lip. “Uh... Check out your nose,” Chloe says as Max’s face goes pale. And because it makes Chloe nervous, and she always makes dumb jokes when she’s nervous: “Too much blow?”  

Max’s startled fingers find her nose, rub the blood away, like she’s been here before. Like she knew it was coming.  

“Hey, are you okay?” Chloe asks, but Max seems to shrug the moment away.

“Too much excitement,” she says. “See what happens when we hook up again?”  

“Then let’s go to my secret lair and fully test your power,” Chloe says, leaping from the booth, ignoring that tug in her stomach that tells her something's not right. “You need a sidekick to guide you.” 

Yes, there is something different about today. Today it’s time to play. Chloe strides for the door, her head a tangle of thoughts and ideas and schemes; a thrill, a buzz that's been slowly ratcheting up inside her all morning, like she’s in the first car on a coaster, getting higher and higher, towards that pinnacle, heady and dazzling. And now she’s soaring downwards, rushing with the wind. Unstoppable. Her arms thrown into the air, yelling out to the upside-down sky… So when Max’s phone rings, Chloe barely even registers it, just keeps heading for the door, barking at Max not to answer. Because why would she answer? She’s Long Max Silver, off on another adventure with Captain Bluebeard. With superpowers. With motherfucking superpowers. Max is back and they’re together again. Max is back. Something different. Today is time to play. Today— 

She turns. Max isn’t following. She’s darting glances between Chloe and her phone screen, wide eyes brimming with panicked apologies. “It’s Kate Marsh,” she says as if that should mean something. “From Blackwell.” 

Chloe stops. The coaster shudders to a halt, brakes thrown on, leaving her helpless, limbs dangling the air. She knows that look in Max’s face, or a version of it. That look Rachel used to give her in the moments before she bailed. I’ll make it up to you later, Chloe, I promise. I’m sorry. Later, Chloe. Later… 

Never. 

Right until that final moment, when Max flicks her another embarrassed look, turns away and puts the phone to her ear, Chloe is sure Max will do as she asks, that she won’t answer. But she does. "Hey, Kate. What's up?" 

And there it is. That fear. Juddering up through Chloe like a freight train.  

“Kate Marsh?” her voice rings out across the diner. Words aimed straight at Max’s retreating back, at shoulders which shudder under the blow of each one. “Big whoop! You don’t call me once in five years and now you’re chatting up some bitch from Blackwell?”  

Max glances back, but she doesn’t hang up, just steps further away. Away from Chloe. And now Chloe wants to hit something. This isn’t her Max. This girl on the phone, whoever the fuck she is, she's nothing more than an imposter with a familiar face, a face that’s starting to look way too much like Vanessa’s. No, this isn’t Max. Chloe's Max—her best friend—is gone. Her best friend is gone. 

The clack of familiar heels on linoleum tramples over her thoughts. “You fighting with Max already?” Joyce asks as she approaches. She flicks her order pad at Chloe with a weary smile, but Chloe still recognizes the exasperation behind it. 

“Mind your own business, Mom.”

“Kinda hard to, honey. The whole diner heard you.” Joyce nods towards Max. “Don’t keep pushing people away,” she says. “You always do this. Pick fights, push nice people away.”

“Nice people? Yesterday you thought she was a fucking drug dealer.”

Joyce’s tongue clicks but she at least has the decency to look embarrassed. “Enough of the cussing,” she says, scrambling to change the subject. “You keep it down in here. This is my place of work. You want to keep your free breakfasts, you’ll watch that mouth.” She heads back around the counter. “And don’t think I can’t see where you’ve parked that truck, young lady. Right under a no parking sign? You trying to get a ticket? Because I ain’t paying for it.” 

Chloe stomps outside. Pauses only to glance at the missing poster of Rachel stuck to the door. Calm down, those eyes seem to say.  

They say, Shhh.  

Joyce wants to take those posters down, says after so long they’re making the customers uncomfortable. But Chloe can’t imagine not seeing Rachel here, here where she was so often. So, each time a poster ‘accidentally’ falls down, or ‘unintentionally’ gets covered over with other flyers, Chloe replaces them, the audible sigh in her mom’s eyes following her around as she does so.  

The smell of rotten seaweed hits her as she leaves the diner. Mixes with the greasy cloud of bacon fat seeping from the kitchen, the stench of diesel from the gas station opposite. Another beautiful day in Arcadia Bay. She waits for Max at the bottom of the steps, lights up one of her seven cigarettes. Across the street the truck is still sitting where she dumped it. She would have parked in the lot but Frank's RV is there, taking up half the spaces as usual, and she can't be fucked dealing with him this morning. Joyce was right about the no parking sign. Weird. Chloe hadn’t even noticed. 

The back of Max's head is visible through the windows, phone still glued to her ear. Chloe sucks on the cigarette. She could wait in the truck but she doesn’t want Frank to see her, so she strolls over to the corner by the battered newsracks, looks up at the town, clinging to the hillside beyond the diner. From here she can make out a cluster of expensive houses, scattered among the trees just north of Blackwell: Rachel’s neighborhood. Those houses must have stood on that hill Chloe’s whole life, but she never used to pay them any attention. Not when she was a kid. Not until Rachel. Now, Chloe looks up at them all the time. Every time she finds herself here, standing on this street, waiting. She can’t see the old Amber house itself, blocked as it is by several huge firs and the roofs of neighbors. But still she imagines she can make it out. It connects them somehow, even if she hasn’t been up there in months. A little part of the world that once held Rachel inside it.

Behind her the door jangles, and Max steps out. 

Chloe blows out a plume of smoke towards her. “If you’d rather chill with Kate Marsh, don't let your best friend stop you,” she says, and even in her own head it sounds obnoxious.  

Kate Marsh. The name is familiar but she can’t think how she knows it. One of Rachel’s hangers-on probably.  

“You’re ridiculous,” Max says, hands on her bag strap as she hops down the steps like a little kid. “I’m chilling with you.”  

Something inside Chloe softens. Let Blackwell keep Kate Marsh. Chloe will keep Max.  

“For now,” she says. “Let’s rock.” 

 

Chapter Text

November 2010
Two and a half years before… 

"So, Chloe. Rachel tells me things are going well at school?"

Chloe glanced up from her attempts to tangle spaghetti around a fork, saw Rose staring at her from across the dining table, winding her own pasta with perfect precision, without even looking. Without a spoon. When Chloe was little, her dad had taught her how to twirl her spaghetti against a spoon, like this, honey. Let's get that bite just right. Chloe wished she had a spoon. "Uh, yeah," she said. "Things are going fine, I guess."

"More than fine," Rachel said from beside her, placing a hand on Chloe's arm. "Chloe's super smart."

Strands of spaghetti slithered off Chloe's fork, slid back onto the plate. She didn't feel all that smart as that pasta stared up at her, the way everything in the Amber house stared at her: The brand new—very solid—walnut dining table; the huge antique grandfather clock with its incessant pendulum swing, that cavernous clunk-clunk-clunk ; the pretentious oil-on-canvas artworks and leather-bound books; the sparkling, made-for-each-measure glassware. Everything here was expensive, dripped money and status and images of evenings hosting dinner parties, cigars held between teeth, sherry poured from crystal decanters. A world Chloe occasionally had permission to slip into but from which she always felt impossibly distant. As though Rachel's family life was all just an exhibit, trapped behind glass in a museum. She'd once asked Rachel what it was like to be rich. Rachel had laughed, screwed up her face in genuine confusion: you think I'm rich? Fuck, Chloe. Remind me to take you up to the Prescotts’ sometime if you want to see what rich looks like. Chloe had thought about all the Final Notices stacking up in the letter tray at home. The ones Joyce always ignored for weeks, until those days when Chloe would find her mom heaped over the kitchen counter, letters ripped open in front of her with warnings stamped in scarlet—red on white, like the scene of an autopsy. And Chloe had wondered, if Rachel wasn't rich, what exactly that made her. 

The spaghetti (if it was spaghetti, it looked like spaghetti but Rose had called it by some other name entirely) still mocked her. Maybe she should just shovel it in? Had she been over for dinner enough times to give up and shovel? At least James wasn't there to watch her. His seat—because it was always, most definitely, his seat—was empty, and the room seemed so much bigger without him, without his outstretched arms gripping the sides of the table, spewing forth whichever sermon he had planned for that evening: The importance of family and learning, the dangers of drinking, of drugs, of driving with a busted tail light. His voice was clipped, his hair expensively shorn, but there was still something wild about him, like a bear in a suit, narrow eyes always fixed on Chloe like she was a lost fish flapping in a shallow stream. Where's your dad? Chloe had asked when she'd arrived earlier that evening. LA, Rachel had replied tersely. Stopped with a glance to Rose who was busying herself in the kitchen. They all knew what LA meant. He'd been spending a lot of time there lately. 

"Well, I could tell you were a smart cookie from the first time we met." Rose's voice cut through Chloe's thoughts. "I hope you're giving them hell up there at Blackwell, Chloe."

Chloe gave up and loaded the pasta onto her fork. "You know me, Mrs. A," she said, feeling their amused mother-and-daughter gazes on her as she heaped that motherfucking spaghetti to the size of a football. "They never knew what hit 'em." And she crammed the forkful into her mouth with a shiny, tomato-smeared smile.

 


 

They never knew what hit 'em. That had been the fantasy, hadn't it? To burst through those double doors on the first day back at Blackwell like the star in a music video. Eyes hidden behind a huge pair of Ray-Bans and a cigarette dangling between her lips. To stride down that hall in studs and tight leather biker pants like she owned the place. Like they owned it. Because Rachel would be by her side, the other students gaping at them like goldfish in a tank as they all turned to look. 

But that isn't how it happened. Instead, she’d woken up late on that first morning, and Joyce had given her a lecture on the importance of opportunity and second chances while shoveling eggs onto her plate because apparently Sugar Bombs weren’t enough. Then David had given her a ride because the fucking truck wouldn't start. So, instead of bursting through the doors with Rachel, she'd scurried through them alone and ten minutes late, slipped into the back of Math with the inevitable new school year, same old Chloe Price sigh from that bitch Mrs. Terry. Chloe had flipped her the bird as she'd turned to write on the board, and somehow those goddamn freaky swivel-eyes had caught it. Chloe had spent the rest of the class sitting outside Wells' office, before being called in to yawn through another lecture on opportunity and second chances. And then she'd realized she'd forgotten her lunch.

She did have biker pants, though. A pleather pair Rachel had picked out at the thrift store and matched with some dangling old-dude suspenders. You look so fucking badass, she'd said, running a finger over the curve of Chloe's ass as she brushed past, making Chloe's heart leap from her chest and land somewhere among the basket of tattered hats at the other side of the store. They were tight, those pants. And kind of sweaty. And they squeaked as Chloe slid in next to Rachel in the cafeteria during lunch. The first time they'd seen each other that day. 

Rachel shifted to make room for her, eyes flowing over Chloe from top to bottom, from the ratty beanie Chloe wore most days now, to the pair of William's old cowboy boots that she always pulled on without thinking, slopped around in even though they were two sizes too big and made her feel like a kid wearing grown-up galoshes. "I waited outside for you for ten minutes this morning," Rachel said in a way that suggested ten minutes was a long time and waiting wasn't something she normally did. "And then you get sent to Wells first period? Seriously?" 

It wasn't the hello Chloe was expecting. "Yeah… How d’you know that?" 

Rachel didn't answer. She pushed her salad around with a fork as Chloe tried to explain about the truck and Mrs. Terry's weird lizard vision. She'd expected Rachel to grin that approving grin, call her badass, place a hand on her knee under the table. After all, didn't Rachel like Chloe the Doesn't Give a Fuck ? Wasn't that the whole point of their friendship? But Rachel seemed more interested in staring at her lunch. Chloe swiped the juice box from her tray, punctured the foil with the straw. Sucked it until the box crumpled, eyes fixed all the time on Rachel. And usually that would make Rachel laugh, but she didn't laugh. She just picked up her tray with her half-eaten salad and walked away, leaving Chloe alone, sucking loudly on air. 

Chloe decided to skip next period. Suddenly nothing that day seemed worth it. She was flinging her second-hand textbooks into her locker, the satisfying clang of book on metal taking her mind off her mostly Rachel-shaped thoughts, when she felt a shift in the air, a figure out of the corner of one eye, a voice she hadn't heard in months: "Wow, Chloe Cut-Price." 

Marisa. Surrounded by her usual crowd of off-the-shelf plastics and staring hard at Chloe with that love-me glare. Marisa. Beautiful as starlight on a frozen lake, and just as fucking cold. She'd mostly avoided Chloe since the incident with the Bunsen burner in freshman year, but there were still times when she would come and hover around her like a phantom; a pale, elegant manifestation of every insecurity Chloe had ever had, all wrapped up in a Gucci cashmere shroud. 

Chloe looked away, threw her chemistry book into the locker. It made an extra loud bang. "What do you want?" 

"I was just going to say, you look…" Marisa began, her voice climbing with a coo of enthusiasm like she would finish with an amazing or a fantastic or an incredible. But Chloe had been here before. 

"Like trash." Marisa finished to absolutely no surprise at all. But her minions laughed anyway, and Chloe noticed Victoria Chase among them for the first time, laughing the hardest of all. "I like that you've gone full-on syphilitic hobo," Marisa continued. "It's bold."

Chloe slammed the locker door, was about to show Marisa just how bold she could be, when Rachel appeared at her shoulder. From nowhere. Like she'd been waiting off stage, like this was her cue. 

"Marisa, don't you have a class to go to?" she asked. Marisa stared at her, the way the popular girls always stared at Rachel. Chloe had no idea what the stare meant, only that it must be some bullshit high school hierarchy thing; Morse code clacked out by mascaraed lashes. 

"Careful, Rachel," Marisa said at last. "You don't know where she's been. We wouldn't want you to catch anything." And she swung away, dragging Victoria and her other followers behind her—bobbing, chattering like tin cans on a wedding car. 

"What do you have next period?" Rachel asked Chloe as they trailed out of sight. 

"Uh..." Chloe opened her locker again, rifled around for her schedule. She felt Rachel draw up to her shoulder—close, real close, warm breath glancing off the back of her ear—and reach around her into the locker. Rachel's hand nudged Chloe's out of the way, her fingers closing around a crumpled class schedule. She whipped it free. 

"English," Rachel said, taking a step back and glancing down at the paper in her hand. "Upstairs in 211 with Hoida." She teased the gum from her mouth, catching it deliberately in her teeth so it stretched between her lips and fingers like a thin, pale green tongue; stuck that gum to the back of the schedule and then tacked it to the inside of Chloe's locker door, pressing down hard with her thumb with a wry look that said, don't even pretend to mind.

Chloe didn't mind. She was kind of turned on. "Hoida?" she asked. "Fuck that shit, I'm going out for a smoke instead. You wanna join?" Rachel's amused expression went flat, set like concrete. "Uh… joke?" Chloe added quickly. 

"I've got to go to the pool. Walk with me?"

They made their way down the hall in silence, Chloe's long legs sweeping slowly, a few steps behind Rachel, who always walked that bit faster despite their difference in height. They headed out through the double doors, skirted around the edge of the courtyard where the fading leaves drooped on their branches, heralded the end of summer. 

"Are we okay?" Chloe asked as they reached the pool doors. 

"Sure, why wouldn't we be?" 

"It's just… I dunno."

"I notice Marisa has a new friend," Rachel said quickly. "All those little bitchy comments she kept making last year about me hanging out with Dana and Juliet, just because they're in the grade below. And now there she is with Victoria." 

"Well, you know Vicky. She has ambitions. She wants to be the biggest bitch on campus, so now she's learning from the best." 

"You shouldn't start fights with Marisa, you know." Rachel's voice dropped, in the way Joyce's always did when she was pointing out whatever it was Chloe had done wrong. 

Chloe's own voice blasted up through the octaves. "I didn't! She started a fight with me." 

"You looked like you were about to punch her."

"I wasn't," Chloe protested. She paused, catching the disbelieving look on Rachel's face. Held up her thumb and index finger an inch apart. "Only a little punch."

"I'm being serious," Rachel said. "It's your first day back. You've already been to Wells' office. Now you're joking about skipping class and getting into fights?" 

She looked so serious, standing there with her arms folded across her chest, a frustrated pout on her lips. Chloe had no idea what to say. "Uh…"

"I need to go." Rachel pulled open the pool doors. 

"I thought you said we're okay?" 

Rachel released the handle, the door swung free. She let out a heavy sigh. "I did. We are." 

"So why are you being weird?"

Rachel took a quick glance around, grabbed Chloe's arm and dragged her over to the other side of the nearby notice board as a group of students jostled past them into the pool. She stared up at Chloe, the light glancing across her eyes. They flashed. "Chloe, my dad put his ass on the line for you."

Chloe took a step back. Rachel's dad? This was about her dad? "I don't understand." 

"I don't expect you to understand, it's just…" Rachel sighed, her hand finding Chloe's arm. "I need you to try, okay? Just fucking try."

Before Chloe could seize the threads of her unraveled thoughts, a gleeful cry blared across the courtyard: "Amber!" 

A girl was striding towards them, hand raised in greeting, and Chloe immediately recognized her from the lighthouse party—Hollie? Hayley? Whoever. The girl jogged up to them, spray-on smile aimed straight at Rachel. Hey, babe, I missed your face!, arms around Rachel's neck and kisses on both cheeks. 

Chloe watched as Rachel returned her kisses, noticed how easily Rachel's hand rested on her waist—just as it had rested on Chloe's in the shower yesterday morning after David and Joyce had left for the diner. And the submerged feelings from that party up on the clifftop, the ones Chloe had pushed down and crammed in and buried deep down inside herself, started to bob to the surface like dead fish in a toxic lake—rancid and sour. How shitty Chloe had felt up there by the lighthouse, eyes stinging with tears and locked on the flames of the bonfire, her ass aching on that goddamn log. How totally lost she'd felt in that circle of strangers, trapped on the outside of Rachel's life looking in. Is that what this was? Is that what it would be like at school now, too? 

"I'll see you later," Rachel said to Chloe. "You better go or you'll be late for Hoida." And she disappeared into the pool with the other girl, elbow linking elbow. Together. Connected. 

Chloe watched the heavy doors beat back and forth on their hinges. And in that moment they may as well have been a portal to another universe—Rachel lost to one side, Chloe left alone and floating in darkness on the other. She felt her jaw clench, scraped her beanie back and forth on her head. Inside her, that impossible itch burned and scratched at her chest, a sting running up her toes and tingling into her calves; that familiar, all-consuming urge to run. 

She gave in. Dove down the steps into the parking lot, only remembering at the bottom she'd gotten a ride that morning, that her truck was still at home. She darted through the lot anyway, still scratching at her beanie, legs on autopilot, until she side-stepped into an empty parking bay between a silver Lincoln and a red Ford SUV, and crumpled to the ground. 

Her palms beat against the blacktop. Fuck this place. Fuck Hollie-Hayley-Whoever-the-fuck. Fuck Rachel's dad. Fuck Marisa and English and Hoida. And most of all, fuck fucking Blackwell. Fuck it 'til it's raw.  

She knew that to anyone watching she must look like a goddamn crazy person, writhing down there in the dirt, but fuck them, too. She needed the ground beneath her, the cold gravel etching her forehead, like she was lightning in a cage—twisting, sparkling, crackling—clawing for the earth. Because everything was supposed to be different. It was supposed  to be different at Blackwell this semester. Different now she had Rachel. Not like before. Not like the last two years, and the dread that had weighed her down every goddamn morning as she'd slumped off the bus and trudged up those stone steps. Waited to be crushed by that pile of noxious red brick that collapsed around her, suffocated her, each time she approached the doors. 

She'd run up those steps this morning. Sprinted up them like a jackass. Not only because she was late but because, at last, it felt like there'd been something—someone—inside worth rushing for. Because just knowing Rachel was there had made that place seem brighter, newer—somewhere worth being. She'd run because it was supposed to be different. But it wasn't. 

Blackwell hadn't changed at all. It was still full of the same assholes, the catcalls down halls, whispered comments behind cupped hands, even the teachers who eyed her with thinly veiled contempt. Blackwell was the same alright, it was Rachel who had changed. She'd poured back into her old life like liquid sloshing, settling, changing its shape to fill a bottle. No longer the Rachel who, only yesterday, had flirted with the clerk at the grocery store; distracted him while Chloe pulled two beers from the cooler and stuffed them under her jacket. Not the Rachel who'd downed those beers with Chloe at the junkyard afterwards, who'd shotgunned weed smoke—mouth to waiting mouth—as Chloe fumbled at her fly. She'd said it was hot the way Chloe flipped the bird at authority. Now she was pissed because Chloe had flipped the bird at authority? Rachel. Just one more person for Chloe to disappoint. 

My dad put his ass on the line for you. What the fuck did that even mean? Rachel hated her dad. Chloe pushed herself up onto her knees, palms stinging as she brushed them on her pants. She stared down at them, at the pink honeycomb pattern left behind by the gravel. A forgotten memory of a huge pair of hands around hers, fingers gently brushing away dirt and grit from scraped skin. Don't worry, honey. Every time you scratch yourself your skin grows back a little tougher, a little stronger. The prickle of his stubble as he'd kissed her grazes. She'd looked up at him through tear-glazed eyes, asked if one day her hands would be as strong as his. For sure, he'd laughed. 

Her dad always had such strong hands.

Those same hands gripping a steering wheel. Knuckles white. The blast of semi horn. 

Not strong enough. 

Chloe's forehead sunk back against the ground, the pain shuddering through her like it always did in these moments. That blackness that explodes inwards with blast inverted, suffocating her anger, suffocating everything. Everything becomes nothing, that nothing becomes everything; shock waves cannoning in on themselves into something pure and intense and terrible. A bomb detonating inside a black hole.  

Her phone beeped. 

Sorry. 
Meet me in the library after class?

Sure, Chloe managed to reply, as if that single word could convey all she felt in that moment—grasping for that sliver of light in the dark. She rubbed the tears from her eyes with the heels of her stinging palms, climbed to her feet and trudged back up the steps, to room 211 and English with Mrs. Hoida. 

When she got to the library an hour later, Rachel grabbed her by both hands, pulled her between the shelves of Modern Foreign Languages where there was no one else around. She tasted good. Like peppermint.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling away, keeping her fingers entwined with Chloe’s. “I'm being a bitch again."

"A little," Chloe leaned down to kiss her neck. Her hair was still damp from the pool, smelled of chlorine and vanilla—ice-cream cones by the public pools in summer. "But this makes up for it."

"It's just school, you know?" Rachel said, her fingers finding the back of Chloe's head, pulling her closer. Leaning in to those fevered kisses. "This place is suffocating. Plus, I got the whole lecture from Dad. About keeping you in line.”

“He wants you to keep me in line?" Chloe pulled back, laughed. "He has met us, right?”

"Wells called him this morning after you flipped off Terry. So, of course, Dad then called me…" 

"Shit. Sorry." 

"No, it's okay. It's just now he seems to see you as his responsibility."

“He had to suck serious dick to get me back in, huh?”

“Chloe! He’s my dad. For better or worse. It matters to me. I know that might sound fucked but it just… It matters."

Rachel wriggled free, took a few steps away, fingers trailing absently along the dust-jacketed spines of those long rows of books. She didn't talk about her dad often, but when she did, this was usually how it went; Rachel drawing into herself, shrinking, the cogs in her brain almost audibly whirring as though she was struggling with some complex puzzle deep inside. Chloe knew to give her time, to wait and let her change the subject—which she always emphatically did—when she was ready. Sometimes, in her more morbid moments, she wondered how different things would be if Rachel's dad had died before that day at the Overlook: The day they'd found him making out with Sera under that oak and Rachel's life had changed forever. If she'd lost him before then, like Chloe had lost her own father. Would he have died her hero? Forever idolized, a warm, fuzzy memory of bear-like arms carrying Rachel in the rain down Mt. Hood? Maybe after everything, there was still something residual there—something that couldn't be removed completely. In some way maybe those bear-like arms still gripped her. 

"We need to escape this place," Rachel said, spinning back to Chloe at last. "I mean it. This time next year we'll be putting in our college applications. We could go together. UCLA. You and me riding those Californian waves." And there she was, eyes bright, grasping Chloe's hands again. "That is what you want, right?" 

"Sure I do, more than anything." 

Chloe must have sounded unsure because Rachel's expression deflated. "But?" 

"Rach, my mom can barely afford the extra fees for this place. UCLA? People like me don't go there." 

"They do if they're smart enough. You could get a scholarship. If you work at it, I'm sure you could. Imagine the looks on all their faces—Wells, Terry, Marisa. Don't you want to show them?" 

Chloe honestly didn't give two shits what any of those assholes thought. The only face she cared about was staring up at her right now with an expression of such excitement, the dream lighting up her eyes, that Chloe couldn't help but ache for it too. Joyce would probably want to do a backyard BBQ, like they had when Chloe got into Blackwell. Max had been there. Then. Shaky grin slapped from ear to freckled ear, clearly torn between pride for her best friend and terror at facing the rest of her school days alone. Joyce, bubbling over, frothing with imagined futures—the last time Chloe had ever seen her mom look proud. And another face, shining brighter than any of them. The one that would never see her get into UCLA, or anywhere. Ever again. 

"Okay. But you gotta help me," she said, trying to force the memory away. "Don’t fucking blank me like you did today. Everybody here already hates my guts. They’re just waiting for me to fail."

"Everybody doesn't hate you."

"Sure as fuck feels like it."

"I don't hate you, I love you." 

Those words. The first time she'd said them. They flowed off the end of Rachel's sentence without special emphasis, as though she'd given no thought to them at all. Rolled like an easy wave up and through the o-v-e , crested over the you. Just words, just sounds, just breath in the air. But they crashed over Chloe like the whole ocean. The whole goddamn ocean. 

Before she could say anything, before she could think at all, Rachel grabbed her hands and pulled her around the corner into American History. And kissed her again.

 


  

Chloe had fought the spaghetti and won. Casualties were minor—maybe some pride and a splodge of sauce on her tank. The tomatoey remains of the enemy left scattered in red flecks on the Ambers' huge, green dining plates like the fallen over the fields of Gettysburg.

After dinner, they carried their plates into the kitchen and Chloe offered to do the dishes, despite Rose telling her not to worry, that she was a guest. But Chloe found that she liked feeling useful here, with Rachel and Rose. Even in some small way. Unlike at home when she only ever did chores under the threat of losing her newly reinstated allowance. And even then she always did a shitty job on purpose. 

"So when do your play rehearsals start, Rachel?" Rose asked, pouring out three glasses of red wine and sliding one along the counter to Rachel. Another waited for Chloe, who still hadn't got used to the easy way Rose always poured them a smaller measure of whatever she was drinking. Apparently it was a European thing.

"Next week," Rachel said.  

"I'm so glad you're doing a proper Shakespeare play this year." 

"Yes, Mom, we all know how much you hate The Tempest." 

"I don't hate it, I just think Shakespeare can do better." 

"Can do better. Make sure you get that on his report card." Rachel leaned back against the counter, took a sip of wine. "Anyway, whatever. I'm not feeling it this year." 

"I know you didn't get the part you wanted, honey, but don't let that spoil it for you." 

Chloe stared down at the pile of dirty plates and glassware on the counter in front of her, right above the shiny stainless steel dishwasher. Why did rich people insist on spending money on dishwashers and then fill their cupboards with stuff that was apparently too 'nice' to go in them? She wondered what her mom would say about that. She could imagine Joyce staring down at that pile, knuckles on hips, one foot tap-tapping. And then she'd have an opinion. It was the kind of thing Joyce had opinions about—dishes. That's probably why they didn't talk often. Conversations with her mother usually left Chloe comatose, dribbling with boredom. 

She shooed Joyce's image away. "Keaton should've changed the name of the play to Othella," she said to Rachel. "Then you could have had the starring role." 

Rachel scoffed. "No, not this time. Othello doesn't work as a woman, anyway. Especially not a white one." 

"Why doesn't Othello work as a woman?" Rose asked, leaning over the counter, fingers tickling the stem of her wine glass. "One could argue a female Othello works well for a modern audience."

Rachel crossed her arms, smiled in preparation for the duel, and Chloe had been here often enough to know the conversation no longer included her. She turned on the faucet. 

"One would be wrong," Rachel said. "A woman wouldn't go so crazy over something so dumb." 

Rose clicked her tongue. "That's not an argument, Rachel. Come on, elaborate. You know if you make a statement like that you should back it up."

The bottle of dish detergent in Chloe's hand roared out a fart noise as she squeezed, green gloop slipping out onto the sponge. Silence behind her, just for a second, before Rachel continued.  

"A female Othello completely undermines the role of women in the play," Rachel said, putting on that voice; the voice that suggested whatever was coming next was so right-on in its right-on-ness that anyone with any kind of different opinion should just shut the fuck up, give up, and go home immediately. A James Amber voice. "Othello is a general. He commands armies. If you give a female character that role then you're giving her agency in a play where the whole point is that women don't have any power except in their desirability. Their currency is their innocence and purity and all that bullshit. And that all fits in with Othello's demise. The core of his tragedy" —she said the word so sarcastically Chloe could hear the finger quotes in the air—"is that he's an insecure, violent a-hole who's way too quick to believe that his wife is a slut." 

Rose laughed, not a laugh of derision or approval, but a light chuckle, like the one a soccer player might give when the ball unexpectedly lands at her feet. She launched her counter attack, but by that point Chloe was no longer paying attention. 

She busied herself with the dishes as Rose and Rachel verbally prodded and parried behind her, locked in some intense literary debate. It all sounded like pretentious horse crap to Chloe, but they were both clearly getting a bizarre kick out of it. Typical weird-ass Amber 'fun'. Like when Max and Vanessa used to dance around their living room singing the Clean Up song from Barney, stacking Max's toys and drawings neatly in boxes. Out of sight. The way things always were in the Caulfield house. Even aged seven, Chloe had never understood why Max got such a kick out of cleaning up. But then it was the only time Vanessa ever made a game of anything, so maybe that was why. As she listened to Rachel do battle with Rose, a part of Chloe wished there was something she and Joyce had in common, something they could spar over without it ending in a cacophony of slammed doors and words she couldn't take back. She stood in silence; watched the soap suds slither from the backs of her hands, slip down into the sink.

 


 

They got to know all the hidden corners of Blackwell that fall; those dark spaces between walls, tucked up against crude tags on red brick, or backs branded by the criss-cross of a chain link fence. Shrouded by bushes, obscured by tar roofs and bleachers, their soles crunching across broken bottles and baggies, over the damp corpses of shriveled cigarettes, as they sought new places to be alone. Some of those places Chloe knew well, others she hadn't visited as often—the bathroom stalls in empty locker rooms; the supply closet at the back of the library, pressed up against textbooks stacked far too precariously on dusty shelves; and her favorite, the room at the back of Ms. Grant's lab that day they volunteered to clean out the petri dishes. Places they could hide in that teeming ant hill of hundreds. Places for fleeting moments, for gasps and muffled moans, hands pulling at shirts and fingertips finding skin. Until footsteps or approaching voices or the shriek of the bell pulled them away and apart. 

So, when Chloe got the text: Come to the gym. I've found a new place. There was only one thing that meant. 

She headed straight there after Chem, pace only slowing as she reached the gym doors and heard voices wafting through from inside. She raised herself on tiptoes to look through the wired glass window, made out a bunch of students, their bright costumes a mottled splodge of color up on the stage. 

"Wonderful!" Mr. Keaton's voice rattled through the double doors, flounced out along the hallway. "Simply, divine!" 

Chloe usually tried to stay as far away from drama rehearsals as possible, mainly because every time she crossed paths with Keaton, he would call her my dear and wave his arms about excitedly like he was trying to induct her. On some level she kind of liked it. He was one of the few teachers at Blackwell who genuinely, if somewhat misguidedly, seemed to think she had talent. But there was no way she was ever getting on stage again. Not ever. 

The door let out a traitorous creak as she pushed it open, and she stopped, waited for that moment when all eyes would fall on her. But she didn't need to worry; all the attention in the room was already trained on some tall hipster dude in thick-rimmed glasses. Familiar, like she'd seen him before in a picture. He was standing over by the stage, flanked by a flushed Keaton and ringed by a swarm of buzzing students like wasps circling a jelly sandwich. 

"Well, I'm certainly glad I came by to watch you rehearse," the tall guy was saying. "Blackwell students obviously have many gifts."

"Indeed they do, indeed they do," Keaton replied, slapping some kid on the back with way too much enthusiasm. The kid stumbled forward, grimaced. "It's such a blessing to see you take an interest in our little troupe. From one artiste to another, of course." 

The guy laughed, warm and grainy, like hot sand shifting. "Of course. I'm a great fan of the theater. After all, acting is rather like photography don't you think? The attempt to uncover fundamental truths buried within lies."

"I'm sorry?" 

"Fiction, Mr. Keaton. Illusion. Photographs are, by their very nature, little deceptions. We tease the eye into believing what we want it to see, obfuscate those parts we don't. The lens will tell any story you want it to. And most photographers are happy to show you just that—stories. The truth, however, is far harder to come by. Obtaining real truth in photography is more or less impossible. Even the greats rarely achieve it."

"Well, I'm sure if anyone can, it's you, Mr. Jefferson."

The guy laughed again, that easy, sandy laugh, trickling over to where Chloe stood watching with one eyebrow raised. "I do my best, Mr. Keaton," he replied. "I do my best." 

Steph was perched on the tech desk at the back of the gym, her legs crossed at the ankles and swinging underneath her. She seemed lost in some problem hidden among the pages of her notebook, stared down at it with tangled brows. 

Chloe sidled up to her. "Yo," she whispered. 

"Oh, hey." Steph lifted her head with a smile. "Listen, if you were thinking up an alternative setting for a play based around racism, jealousy and misogyny, what would you go for: the police force, Wall Street, high school…?"

Chloe looked around, no sign of Rachel. She shrugged. "Narnia?"

Steph's laugh echoed through the gym, earning them a couple of sideways glances, and then she stopped. Blinked. "Fuck, Chloe, that's… pretty clever."

"It is?"

Steph scribbled furiously in the notebook, while Chloe waited, thumbing a folded piece of paper in her jacket pocket. Yesterday's assignment for Ms. Grant, the words Excellent, Chloe. Well Done! written in Grant's looping handwriting at the bottom of the page. She didn't know why she'd kept it. It wasn't like she would actually show it to anyone. She'd thought she might show it to Rachel, but the closer she got to seeing Rachel, the dumber it felt. It wasn't like it was a big thing. For Rachel, words like that were so everyday. And she definitely couldn't show it to Joyce, she'd only start developing expectations. So she just carried it around. For herself. Even if she did feel like a dick. 

She hopped up onto the desk next to Steph, leaned over to see what she was writing. Steph nudged her away, snapping the book shut. "Hey! Nosey much?" But she didn't look mad. She was looking down at their legs and it was only then that Chloe realized their knees were touching. 

"So, who's the pretentious asshat?" Chloe asked, sliding her knee away and jutting a thumb towards the group by the stage. 

"Mark Jefferson? You know, the famous photography teacher? The reason Blackwell is becoming a senior-only arts school?" 

"For real? Since when?" 

Steph gave her a look. "How did you miss all this? It's all anyone was talking about at the end of last year."

"Wasn't here, didn't care." 

"So you didn't notice there are no new freshmen this semester?" 

"Now you mention it... So, what's his deal, anyway?

"Took a lot of photos in the nineties, wrote a couple of books."

"That it?" 

"Puts Arcadia Bay on the map, apparently." 

"Must be a small map." 

Steph chuckled, looked back down at her book. "You looking for Rachel?" she asked. 

"Yeah. Where is she?" 

She found Rachel backstage, sifting through a box of props behind a heap of piled-up tables.

"Lo you, here she comes!" Rachel said, still in Shakespeare mode, and looked up at Chloe with a wide smile that shone even brighter than the stage lights above. Or so it seemed to Chloe. 

"This your new place?" she asked, arms encircling Rachel's waist from behind. "I thought we'd already done the whole making out behind the props thing? Not that I mind doing it again." 

Rachel swept around, a flashlight in her hand and held below her chin. She flicked it on, light and shadow blazing across the lower half of her face. "Come with me," she said with a grin. She grabbed Chloe's hand, dragged her across the back of the stage. 

"So, are you hot for teacher, too?" Chloe asked, glancing at the curtain separating them from Mark Jefferson and the buzz of chattering students on the other side. 

Rachel laughed. "I assume you mean Mr. Jefferson. Quite the fan club he has, right?" She shrugged dismissively. "I mean, he's okay. Likes the sound of his own voice way too much. I get enough of that at home." She clattered down a short flight of wooden steps and stopped by a dark, musty drape that hung down the back of the stage. "You’re hotter," she said, rolling onto her tiptoes to give Chloe a kiss. "Here, look at this!" 

She pulled at the heavy drape, dragging it aside to reveal an old wooden door. "Everyone sees what happens on stage," she said with an enigmatic smile. "The performance in front of the curtain." She pushed open the door onto a dark, spiral staircase, the sudden funk of dank air. "No one knows what goes on behind... Come on!" And before Chloe could say anything, Rachel had disappeared down the steps, the beam of the flashlight bobbing a pale light in front of her.

"What's down there?" Chloe called. 

"Come see!" the echoing laugh floated up from below, the light from the flashlight now gone.

Down the winding steps Chloe followed, one hand trailing the wall for balance, damp plaster crumbling on her fingertips as she headed into the pitch black. The further she descended the cooler it got, a draft blowing through the musty air. She could hear dripping, creaking, smelled the tang of rust and damp. "What the fuck is this place?" she called into that void, feet finding the bottom of the steps at last. Something metallic clunked overhead, reverberating with a shiver down her spine. "This isn't some paranormal bullshit, is it?" 

A few feet away, the flicker of a flashlight bulb, quick as a camera flash. For the briefest moment it lit up Rachel's face, shadowy features contorted into a manic growl, incisors bared. Chloe stumbled backwards, tried to hold the gasp in her throat but it escaped into the blackness before she could catch it. 

Rachel's amused laugh mingled with it. "OooOOOooo," she called out, like a ghost, leaving behind the echo of a giggle that drifted with her as her sneakers scraped away across the concrete floor. 

Chloe's heart flipped back into beating again. "Shit! Don't fucking do that! I'm freaking here. Just so you know, this is hella not romantic."

"Romantic, huh?" Rachel's footsteps got closer until Chloe could sense her without being able to see her, a hint of perfume, the gentle tumbling of her breath. Warm fingertips brushed Chloe's stomach, walked up her tank, and hooked the chain around her neck, pulling her head downwards. "You and your one-track mind, Price," Rachel whispered, the heat of her breath tingling Chloe's lips, and suddenly Chloe didn't care where they were. She leaned in further, searching for Rachel's mouth with her own when another loud clunk rang out above. And Rachel must have felt her jump as she laughed that throaty laugh again. 

"This place is hella creepy," Chloe said. "What's with all the freaky noises?" 

Rachel flicked on the flashlight, sweeping the beam around them. "Pipes," she said. "It's the boiler room." In the narrow light Chloe could make out the hulking shapes of huge steel boilers, linked by a network of dusty, corroded pipes and lathered in a sticky cloak of ancient cobwebs. 

"Gross," Chloe said, following the beam around with her eyes. "Has Spiderman been watching porn down here or something?" 

"What?" Rachel laughed. That deep laugh that told Chloe she knew exactly what she meant. "Pretty sure that's not how Spiderman's web shooter works, Chloe." 

"Pretty sure it is."

Rachel flicked off the beam, her laughter once again dissipating into the darkness, footsteps pattering away. "C'mon!" she yelled. "Come and find me!"

And so Chloe stumbled after her, listening, waiting for the brief glare of the flashlight when Rachel must have sensed she was getting too far away. Little sparks in the dark for Chloe to follow. Until Rachel decided the game was old and let Chloe touch her at last. Above their heads, the muffled shriek of the bell and the thundering of feet along the Blackwell hallways, as the boilers churned and clanged their chorus for no one else but them. 

 


  

"Your mom has some strong views on Shakespeare," Chloe said, closing the door to Rachel's bedroom behind her, fingertips still soft and spongy from dish detergent. 

Rachel shrugged, flopped her school bag onto the desk. "They’re not necessarily her views, she’s just testing me," she said, slipping out her textbooks. "She knows she could rip me to shreds on this stuff if she wanted to, but she's playing devil’s advocate, encouraging me to formulate my arguments. It’s like a game." 

"Fun game," Chloe said, throwing her own bag onto the bed. It sank deep into the comforter. "So even when your mom is disagreeing with you, she's still agreeing with you?" 

"Something like that." 

"Maybe that’s what my mom’s been doing all these years and I never knew." 

"How are things at home?" Rachel asked. 

"Oh, you know, shitty." 

"Wanna vent?" 

"Nah. I’m in a good mood." 

Chloe flopped onto Rachel's bed, face first into the comforter—heaven, the smell of her—breathed a contented sigh into that feather-soft fabric. Fuck, she loved that room. The smell of clean laundry, the lingering hint of a scented candle. There was always something new here to discover; a new poster, a new accent, something that told Chloe more about her. Another addition to Rachel's story. Over time, Chloe had memorized all the books on the shelves, the notes and little sketches on post-its, the handmade ornaments and photographs, the CDs in the rack. It was the second or third time she'd visited that she'd studied Rachel's album collection, trying to imagine what each of those songs, those lyrics meant to her. She'd once read that you could tell a lot about a person by the music they were into, but she wasn't sure it was true. It wasn't about the type of music someone liked, it was how they liked it. Her mom treated music like wallpaper, a means to fill the background of a room; meaningless decoration. Her dad had always played music in the foreground, blaring out through the speakers in the living room as he sang along in his enthusiastic baritone. Even though most of it was objectively terrible. It was the soundtrack to his life. 

"I thought you were punk?" Chloe had said to Rachel, running a finger down the rack. "There's a disturbing number of power ballads in here."

Rachel had just laughed. "I'm a drama queen, Chloe Price. Of course I love a power ballad."

"Cher?" 

"That's my dad's." 

"Sure it is,” Chloe slid out a CD, waved it at Rachel. “Uh... Britney?" 

"Oh, come on. Tell me Britney wasn't the sound of your youth."

"Britney was not the sound of my youth."

"Bullshit."

"But me and Max did make up a dance routine to Toxic once."

"Oh my God! You have to show me!"

"I hella fucking don't."

"Show me!"

“No!”

Rachel had won, because Rachel always won. But she had that way of winning that always made Chloe feel like she was sharing in her victory, even as she'd bounced around on Rachel’s bed like an idiot, flailing her arms around to fucking Britney, as she tried to recall long-forgotten dance moves she’d devised with the only other person in the universe who she could do that sort of stuff with and not feel like a total dork. And then Rachel had put her hands on her waist, told her she had rhythm, that she could be really good at this shit if she wanted. And Chloe had tumbled with her back onto the bed, wiped the sweat and bangs out of her eyes, and told Rachel that if she was looking for a backing dancer, she’d have to look elsewhere. Rachel had laughed again, sprung to her feet and continued the routine. 

Rachel lived music. Whatever song it was, she lived it, breathed it, let it take over her whole body and writhe like a spirit within her. And when a song came on that she really liked, she'd fall into it, submerge herself in that river of notes, that current of chords, and let it sweep her away to somewhere only she could go. She lost herself to it. She always would. 

The rush of a fan as Rachel switched on her computer hauled Chloe back into the present.

"I’ve got my first unsupervised visit with Sera in two weeks," Rachel said, sitting down at her desk. "I'm going to LA with my dad over Thanksgiving."

Chloe lifted her head from the comforter. "For real?" She knew how long Rachel had been waiting for this, so she tried to make her tone sound light, but still she couldn’t help the sharp pull of disappointment. Another Thanksgiving alone.

“I didn't want to mention it in front of Mom,” Rachel continued. “She gets all weird about it.”

The full story of what had happened between Sera, James and Rose seemed to be an unspoken mystery among the Amber family. Chloe had collected clues here and there, like a puzzle game where everything eventually slots into place, one spilled piece of information linking to the next. She knew that Rose had moved in when Rachel was still less than a year old, right after James had taken Rachel from Sera. She'd found out that James and Rose knew each other through mutual friends before Rachel was even born, that Sera and James had split up for a while after college and that Rachel was the product of their reconciliation. But Chloe still didn’t have enough for a complete picture. Rachel seemed unwilling or unable to fill in the blanks, so Chloe didn’t ask. She figured it wasn’t any of her business, anyway.

“Is Rose going with you?” she asked, pulling herself to sitting. 

The computer screen flickered on to Rachel's obsessively uncluttered desktop. Her wallpaper was one of those artsy photos she'd made Chloe take with her; each of them creating half a heart shape with their thumb and index finger, then putting them together to create a whole, silhouetted against a salmon-pink sunset. And, yes, it was cheesy as fuck but seeing her hand up there on Rachel's computer screen still made Chloe feel a certain type of something. “No, she's not coming," Rachel said, clicking on one of the folders. Chloe's hand disappeared behind it. "She’s going to stay with my grandparents in Sacramento. So it’s just me and Dad… and Sera.” 

“But the visit's unsupervised, so your dad won't be there, right? You get to be with Sera on your own?”

"Yeah, for the visit. Dad's never been present, he's not allowed to be. Not yet. There's always been a supervisor in the room before now, apart from that one time with you. But it's still been hard to talk properly. With someone else sitting there."

"You think they report back to your dad?" 

"No. They're all neutral. Sera’s attorney was clear about that. Dad wasn’t allowed to appoint them. It’s just...” She paused, swiveled in her chair to face Chloe. “This time it'll just be me and her. Like, totally on our own. Not stuck in that room anymore. We can go out for a couple of hours, take a walk on the beach, get a milkshake or whatever. I should be excited, and I am I guess, but I’m worried it won’t be what either of us are expecting, you know?”

Chloe slipped off the bed, draped her hands over Rachel’s shoulders in a way she hoped was comforting. “So, you’re worried you won’t have much in common?”

Rachel’s fingers found Chloe’s. “I dunno. Maybe. I’m hella nervous.”

“What can I do to relax you?” Chloe asked, stooping to kiss Rachel's cheek. 

She didn’t mean it to come out in the way it did. Rachel laughed, grabbed the back of Chloe's head and planted a kiss on her lips before nudging her away.

“Dork. You can let me do my homework. And you do yours.”

Chloe flopped back onto the bed with a groan. But she unzipped her rucksack anyway, turned it upside down and let the contents tumble out onto the comforter, earning her a sideways glance as she quickly tried to gather up the old scraps of paper and crumbs that had escaped alongside her textbooks. 

It had always surprised her, how seriously Rachel took her schoolwork. Right from the very first time Chloe set foot in this room, found that planner on her desk—meticulous handwriting and color-coded index tabs. A plan for everything. It was easy to assume that anything Rachel did was effortless, from her 4.0 GPA to her starring roles, her position as Blackwell's Most Fuckable Junior on some dumb list the jocks kept on their Facebook wall (which Rachel said it was hella gross, but she still kept checking the damn thing anyway); from the arch of her eye-brows to her neatly trimmed nails, the straightness of her hair to the gap between her thighs that she measured nightly with a ruler. None of it was effortless. None of it. In fact, it looked exhausting, and Chloe never understood then, just as she still doesn't understand now, why any of it was necessary. Rachel would still have been beautiful, would still have been smart. And who gave a shit if some dumb, sweaty jocks wanted to bang some other chick slightly more than they wanted to bang Rachel? Chloe would always want her. She didn't need to make herself perfect—she already was. 

Chloe grabbed her physics textbook from the pile in front of her, flicked to the page they’d been studying that day in class. She rifled through her crumpled pile of notes, sifting them from the pages of scribbles and doodles, but none of the notes made any sense. How could she concentrate on the difference between longitudinal and transverse waves when she was sitting on Rachel's bed, legs crossed on her duvet, picking at the ripples of fabric that flowed from underneath her? That bed—Chloe's favorite place in the whole world—with its down comforter that felt heavy and soft at the same time. So clean it positively crackled. It flumped. It was flumpy. Those mornings when they'd giggle underneath it, mottled light breaking through the feathers, and breath warm on each other's faces. A soft, warm shell.

But Chloe understood Rachel well enough by now to know that, until Rachel's assignment was finished, those textbooks were the only company she would get. On the open page of her physics book was a diagram of light refraction—one line of white light entering the prism, splitting out into a vivid rainbow. Chloe let her gaze blur, watched the colors dance and merge in front of her eyes, until everything swirled on the page into one big prismatic mess. She threw the book across the comforter and lay down on her side, stared at the back of Rachel's neck, at the soft strands of hair at the base of her ponytail, as her head bobbed from notes to computer, computer to notes. Studious Rachel. Ambitious Rachel. Rachel with a plan. Just one face among many. Rachel the prism, casting a different color for everyone. The only subject Chloe wanted to learn. 

The Rachel in red flannel that whipped out behind her as they sprinted from the gas station, stolen smokes stashed in pockets; a Rachel who thrashed to punk music in leather and studs. 

Another Rachel, laid out on her stomach on the orange rug in her parents' living room, pencil clicking between her teeth as she conjugated Latin verbs with her mom. 

Or the Rachel with the stick-on, sunbeam smile—illuminating the sky brighter than the fireworks bursting behind her, as her squad led the cheer at the homecoming game. Yellow pom-poms flashing under stadium lights. What a pro, honey! her dad calling out to her from the front row of the stands as she jogged from the field, sweat dripping down her flushed cheeks. Smile still glued in place. 

A Rachel with hazel-green eyes, endlessly scanning distant horizons, or flashing, cat-like, from across a room. Curious eyes. Reflected in mirrors as she checked her hair, her figure, sought the perfect flick with her eyeliner, the huffed groan of frustration each time she failed. 

The Rachel with nervous fingers, winding and twirling around a blue feather earring. Around and around. A tiny, unthinking gesture, that despite the glare in her eyes, the confidence in her voice, always gave her away. 

And finally, the Rachel that Chloe knew best, a face glowing soft indigo and violet in the light from her star lamp, constellations rotating into infinity on the bedroom ceiling above, their gazes fixed only on each other. 

But that Rachel wasn't at school with Chloe. She'd realized that on the very first day back, when they'd made out behind the shelves in the library. Rachel's hand slipping from hers as they'd turned the corner out of American History and back into the common area. A group of kids were sat round a table, laptops and textbooks out in front of them. Kids they didn't even know, kids not even looking at them. Kids who, for some reason, mattered. No, Chloe's Rachel was saved only for those moments when they were alone.

 


 

"Fucking Victoria!" Rachel's growl ricocheted across the Blackwell campus as she burst through the main doors and down the steps, Chloe following close behind. "I can't believe they gave her Desdemona. She's completely wrong for Desdemona. Completely!"

"So the audition sucked then?" Chloe asked. 

Rachel said nothing, shot her a sideways glare as she strode across the grass towards the parking lot, new trench coat clasped tightly around her. The heavy October air draped them both in damp, as soft and mulchy as the fallen leaves that had been raked into neat piles around the campus. Mounds of orange, yellow and gold, like soggy little bonfires burning into the wet gray of the early evening.

"Apparently Keaton thought it would be a good idea to let Mr. Jefferson do the casting because reasons," Rachel said at last. "He's a fucking photographer. What the fuck does he know about Shakespeare?" 

Leaves sprayed in all directions as Chloe kicked up those fiery piles, tried to keep her huge boots from flying off her feet. "C'mon, Rach. It's Victoria. She probably beat him off backstage to seal the deal." 

"Chase? Get her hands sticky? I doubt it. No, there's more to it than that." 

"Haven't you been the lead in, like, the last four plays?" 

"And?" 

"And maybe they're giving someone else a chance?" 

Rachel stopped, pinned Chloe with a long look. "The best person for the job should get the job, Chloe. In real life no one gives you anything just because you want it a lot and have been waiting a long time." She sighed, and Chloe couldn't help feeling she'd heard those words before, probably at the Ambers' dining table, just after James had laid down his fork, cleared his throat and wiped his mouth with a napkin, just so everyone knew they should listen to the very important thing he was about to say. "Anyway," Rachel continued. "Of all people, I hardly think Victoria Chase is lacking in fucking life chances.”

"So, who got Othello?" Chloe asked, trying to sound like she gave a shit, because this was Rachel's thing, and she felt like she should give a shit. 

"Nathan." 

"Nathan? Like, short, white dude Nathan? I mean, I don't know shit about Othello but…" 

"I know right? Apparently it's okay because of the dumb fantasy setting they've cooked up. He's gonna be a faun. I mean, seriously? Whose fucking fucked up idea was that? 

"Um…" 

"I guess that's one of the perks when your dad's paying for the production. Everything gets changed to fit around you." 

Rachel seemed smaller in that moment, almost frayed at the edges, with her arms hugging that coat even tighter around herself. And Chloe felt an overwhelming need to make it better. She glanced around—a few people scattered here and there but it was long after school hours—and risked a loose embrace around Rachel's shoulders, waited to see if Rachel would lean into her or nudge her away as she often did at school. She sighed with warm relief as Rachel's arms closed around her waist, her head falling against her shoulder. "So, maybe that's how Victoria got the part, too," Chloe said. "Her millionaire daddy got out  his checkbook, and of course, Wells spread his legs wide and let those greenbacks fly on in." 

Rachel's laugh reverberated against Chloe's collar bone but she didn't pull away. "Do you ever think about the mental imagery you inflict on others?" 

"Sure I do. That's the best part. But look on the bright side, you don't have to act being married to Nathan." 

"Asshole. He's supposed to be a friend. I can't believe he didn't do anything." 

"Like what?" 

"Like speak up."

"To demand you got Desdemona? You really want to get a role only thanks to Nathan?" 

Rachel's arms fell away. "No. But that's not the point. He's supposed to…" 

"He's supposed to what?" 

"Nevermind. Any costume ideas yet?" They were standing by one of the noticeboards, and Rachel's finger was suddenly tapping a poster for the Vortex Club Halloween Party. As though they'd been talking about that party the whole time. 

It always freaked Chloe out, how easily Rachel did that—changed the subject from nowhere, from nothing. Leaving Chloe mentally floundering and wondering if she'd imagined whatever conversation they'd been having just moments before. When they were first getting to know each other, Chloe would assume Rachel had been distracted, that her mind was simply zapping, zinging from one thought to the next, neuron sparking neuron. But now she knew she wasn't distracted. She did it on purpose, when things got too intense, when she couldn't give words to something anymore, she just… changed. Changed the subject, her expression, her demeanor: Everything. Like a curtain falling and then immediately lifted, a brand new Rachel behind. 

"Halloween Hootenanny?" Chloe asked, glancing at the poster. A clumsy photoshop of zombie cowboys. "Wow. 28 Days Lamer. You're serious about going to this thing?" 

"C'mon," Rachel said, punching Chloe's shoulder. "It'll be… a hoot." 

"Ouch." Chloe said, not sure which was more painful, the punch or the pun. She read further down the flyer. "A haunted hayride? On what? Samuel's mower?" 

"I was thinking of going as Princess Leia," Rachel said. "But I'm not sure it fits the theme." 

Chloe laughed. "Are you high? Star Wars is totally cowboys in space. Plus you'd look hella cute with those buns on your head." And then she said it, because inexplicably, fatefully, in that moment it felt like a totally natural thing to say: "I could be Solo." 

A look of uneasy surprise shadowed Rachel's face. "No," she said too quickly. 

Chloe's index fingers were already raised in two pathetic finger guns. Duds that now dropped limply to her side. "You don't think I'd look hot in a vest?" 

"You hella would, but…" 

"You don't want it to look like a couples thing." It wasn't a question. It didn't need to be. Rachel sighed, her brows creasing as she went to speak, but Chloe cut her off. "It's cool. I get it."

They walked in silence down the steps and across the lot, both climbing into the truck and hauling the doors shut before Rachel's voice broke through the dead air between them. 

"I'm not… ashamed," she said, staring out through the windshield, as though there was something to see out there except the shadows of endless black trees and sky. "If that's what you're worried about. It's not like I'm ashamed of you."

The key shook in Chloe's hand as she fumbled with the ignition. Waited for the but. There had to be a but. One dumb joke about Han Solo... "I'm not worried," she lied, an attempt to fill that awkward silence before Rachel could. And then, because the quicker this conversation was over the better: "I get it. Don't sweat it."

"I know sometimes I'm weird with you at school," Rachel said. "Please, don't think it's you. It's not you. It's just…" 

The but. Chloe gave up on trying to start the truck, her hand dropping into her lap. Her heart pounded in her ears, cold and hollow as Rachel took a breath. Like this was something she'd rehearsed. Like it was something she'd been waiting to say. It's not you… 

"Do you remember last year when Steph was dating that girl, Amy, from Arcadia High?" Rachel asked, gaze still locked on the night beyond the windshield. 

"Yeah." 

"She told me that when they hung out, guys could be hella gross about it. Bugging them all the time. Asking if they were fucking and what they did in bed. Asking them to kiss for them. All that bullshit." Rachel's sigh filled the cab, and it was a moment before she spoke. "There are so many people here who could make things so fucking hard, Chloe. For both of us. I don't want to give them ammunition, you know?" She looked at Chloe at last, reached across that gap between them to grasp her hand. "Whatever this is going on between us, I… I want us to figure it out together. Just the two of us. I want this to be just for us. Without any of those assholes ruining it. And then, one day, we'll get out of here and we'll go somewhere, away from everything and everyone, and it'll be different. It'll all be different. It's just this place and these people and all this… shit." She dropped Chloe's hand and slumped against the seat, the heels of her palms kneading her eyes. 

"I get it," Chloe said, not sure if she did or not. 

Amy had been Steph's first girlfriend. Her only girlfriend so far as Chloe knew. And, yeah, Chloe remembered her saying they had to put up with some shit. That all the usual assholes had been... well, assholes about it. But Steph had also said that dating Amy was one of the best things she'd ever done, that she'd found out who she was. That everything had finally fallen into place. She'd said that everyone who mattered had been awesome about it and everyone else could fuck themselves. 

Chloe often thought how cool it would be, to hold Rachel's hand in the hall at school, to kiss her by the lockers, to not give a fuck about what anyone thought. And she didn't, not really, not anymore. At least that's what she liked to think. But her mind always dragged her back to freshman year: The scrawled notes that Marisa and her faceless friends had passed around, stifled laughs and whispers; the scars of this place that still gnarled and knotted inside her. 

"How about Pris from Blade Runner?" Rachel asked, throwing her hair up on her head so it fell down around her face like huge bangs, and Chloe's brain took a moment to realize they'd flipped back to a conversation about costumes. Just like that. 

"Didn't you once describe Blade Runner as the most boring movie ever made?" Chloe countered. 

"I did." 

"And refused to watch it all the way to the end?" 

"I did." 

"Even the director's cut?" 

"What's your point? Pris is a good costume. I thought she was your favorite character?" 

It was a good costume. And the thought of Rachel wearing it made everything inside Chloe tingle. "With the stockings?" she asked. 

Rachel shrugged in a way that definitely suggested stockings.

Chloe knew at the time how it would go. How it did go. Rachel turning up to that party in her barely-there skirt and stockings (after getting changed at Chloe's house so her dad wouldn't see) and everyone would turn to look at her, everyone would want to be seen with her, pulled into her orbit, given her attention if only for a moment. The Marisas and Victorias would narrow their eyes as Rachel walked in; the jocks would paw at her waist, try to rub themselves up against her, and some of it Rachel would love, and other parts she would hate, and then she'd go home with Chloe. 

It still didn't seem real. None of it. Especially since they'd started back at Blackwell and Chloe had been reminded of exactly who Rachel was. The Rachel Amber: Once a crush so dumb and distant that it hadn't been worth more than an idle thought in passing. Now Chloe shared her bed almost nightly, bare legs entangled, falling asleep with her nose pressed up against those downy hairs at the nape of Rachel's neck. She had no idea how she'd got there, how she'd got her, just that she had. And it was perfect. Did anything else even matter? Wasn't that enough? 

"So, what do you think?" Rachel asked. "Pris it is?" 

Chloe pretended to consider this, head cocked to one side, fingers tapping her chin. At last she said, "Nah, you're too short." 

Rachel thumped her shoulder. "Bitch." 

 


 

For what felt like forever, Chloe had been sitting cross-legged in the center of Rachel's bed, textbooks and notes fanned out around her like she was a bird in some weird academic nest. The clock read 9pm. Rachel's attention had been taken by her assignment for nearly two hours, her fingers occasionally ceasing their tapping on the keyboard to flick through a book on her desk, make a note here and there, or take a sip from her water bottle. Chloe had long since given up on refraction, was instead clutching a notepad in her lap, sketching a tattoo design of a dragon in flight, swooping tail and breathing fire… At last she grew bored with that, too. She slipped from the bed, strolled over to the desk and leaned back against it. 

"I've nearly finished," Rachel said, not even looking up, without even breaking flow. Words flew across her computer screen, filling that white space with dizzying speed. 

Chloe picked up the book from the desk. "Gatsby? I remember not reading that in ninth grade." 

"It's for 20th Century Lit this semester," Rachel said, words still zooming. "One of my mom's favorites. Although, she always says high school students are too young to really get it. Not bitter enough more like." She ended her paragraph with a flourish, punching the period key and sitting back, satisfied. "But I do get it," she said. "It's about never achieving your dreams, the light always receding as you battle against the current. I guess Mom knows all about that."

Chloe thought of Joyce, then as she fanned through the novel's pages. The look of pure excitement on her mom's face when she'd been accepted onto that teaching course, just two weeks before William died. The book Joyce had been reading in preparation left discarded on the nightstand, lying face down on the last page read. It had stayed that way for weeks, the next page never turned. "Yeah," Chloe said. "I guess." 

"That's why dreams aren't enough," Rachel said, starting to type again. "You need goals. Actual steps, a pathway from A through Z." 

Chloe rolled her eyes, hopped back onto the bed and flicked through Gatsby, reading through some of the passages Rachel had underlined. It was all the same spoiled rich people in big houses doing dumb things she vaguely remembered from two years before.

"Hoida told us the moral of the book was like, don't bother having dreams because people who already have a shit ton of money will just fuck everything up for you," she said to the back of Rachel's head. 

Rachel sighed, but she didn't stop typing. "All fiction is open to interpretation, Chloe. A book read by a thousand people is a thousand different books." 

Chloe leafed through a few more pages, but there was nothing there to hold her interest. It wasn't that she hated literature, she just preferred the technical, the scientific; things which were tangible, with rules and structure and formulae. True or false. Things that either existed… or didn't. 

On the nightstand next to the bed was a shoe box, decorated with spotted craft paper and stacked full of postcards. Chloe dropped Gatsby on the bed and brought the box onto her lap. "What are these?" she asked, sifting through the cards: Some from exotic places—Rome, Paris, London—others from far closer to home. 

Rachel slung over the briefest glance. "Postcards from my many lovers," she said matter-of-factly. When Chloe didn't respond, Rachel laughed, draped an arm over the back of the chair and looked over with twinkling eyes. "Go ahead and look if you want, Price. I know you well enough by now to keep my real secrets hidden far from your prying eyes."

"Whatever." Chloe ignored the jibe, flipped some of the cards over to read the backs. "Wait, these are all from you. You send yourself postcards?" 

"Yeah, so I remember where I've been." 

"I get collecting postcards, but why send them?" 

"I send them to lots of people, I just include myself." Rachel shrugged. "I dunno, it's something my mom used to do with me when I was little. Like a family tradition I guess."

"You sent yourself a postcard from Portland?" Chloe laughed, waving a card bearing an image of the Hawthorne Bridge. 

"When I first moved up here, yeah." 

"Why?" 

"Because it was somewhere new."

"O-kay…"

At the bottom of the box was a small collection of photographs. Among them the picture of Rachel and Nathan, once tacked to her wall, now long since replaced by that selfie of Rachel and Chloe at their first Firewalk gig. Chloe lifted Nathan's image from the box, stared at it a while. He and Rachel… they both looked so happy. An image slipped into her brain—Nathan and Rachel, arm in arm at the top of a marble staircase. Rachel dripping diamonds, Nathan in black tails—bib bleached white as his waxy face. Is that what James had planned for Rachel? Is that what Rachel had planned for herself?

Chloe knew she could never give her any of that, and so she tried to avoid thinking of the future. Futures were things that other people freaked out about, things they planned and slaved over and hung their dreams on, only so everything could go to shit, anyway. You girls are all future, Joyce had once said with a chuckle as she poured them coffees in the diner, Rachel's voice mining a rich seam of plans and schemes. At your age all you have is future. Then one day you'll turn around, realize it's already been and gone. But if Chloe was all future, she didn't want to think about it. She tried to stay in the present, in her life, right here, with Rachel. To pull it around herself like a thick blanket, protected from the chill of the past, hidden from the threat of change. All she knew was that if a future did exist, then she wanted Rachel in it. Rachel had to be in it. Otherwise what was the point in any of it? 

But even if Chloe had no future mapped out, Rachel definitely did. Of course she did. She planned everything. Where those plans included Chloe, Rachel would elucidate them with microscopic detail, setting the scene like a like an enthusiastic stage director; lighting, mood, theme. All the things that would be. But the threads of those stories were never sewn past college. Chloe had never asked what came after that. She couldn't. What if she wasn't part of Rachel's future? Was never meant to be? What if she was only ever a temporary distraction until the next stage of Rachel's big adventure? Her brain picked at the thought like a frayed stitch in a seam, knowing that if she continued to pick at it, eventually it was all unravel completely. But she couldn't help it. Still she picked. 

"Finally!" Rachel said, striking through the name of the completed assignment in her planner. "Me thinks the Blackwell gods are sated until the morrow upon the fruits of my labor." She whirled to Chloe with a wild grin. "Let's do something way more interesting." The grin dropped from her face as she noticed the photograph in Chloe's hands, and she climbed next to her on the bed, shoulder to shoulder, pulled the photo away.

"You never told me what went down between you guys," Chloe said, feeling Rachel stiffen. "Were you two like a thing?" 

Rachel glanced at the picture before tossing it back into the shoebox. "No," she said. "He's just a friend, never more than that." She dropped back onto her pillow, flinched as she dragged one of Chloe's textbooks out from beneath her. "Nathan was one of the first people I met when I moved here. Sean, Mr. Prescott, was one of my dad’s major backers. He put a lot of money into his campaign. So we’d get invited to all these functions at the Prescott Estate or up at the Arcadia Club. Hideously dull. Just a crowd of politicians and businessmen grinning at each other over cocktails while simultaneously stabbing each other in the back. The first time I went up to the Estate I was introduced to Nathan. He was having about as much fun as I was. We got on. He’s a good guy… mainly."

Chloe slid down next to her. "Prescott? A good guy?"

"He has some issues."

"Like being madly in love with you?"

Rachel rolled onto her side to face Chloe. "That’s probably the least of them, but, yeah, I suppose. We made out. Only once. At one of those parties. Stole a bottle of champagne and ended up behind the pool house. It was just a bit of fun. For me it ended there, but for Nathan… He’d like it to be more, yeah." Rachel reached her fingers to Chloe's face, stroked her bangs from her eyes, trailed a thumb across her cheek and— holy shit —she was so close. 

Chloe wriggled closer, hooked Rachel's leg with her own. "But you prefer me?"

"I prefer you." Rachel's smile was soft. "But even if it weren’t for you, I still wouldn’t… Nathan needs attention I can’t give him. Help I can’t give him."

"He needs help alright."

"Seriously, Chloe. Just stay away from him, okay. Don’t pick fights with him. Don’t talk to him about…"

"Us?"

"Yeah." 

Rachel slid off the bed, padded over to the door and leaned out onto the landing. She hung there in the doorway, balanced on one leg—half in, half out—listening for the drone of the TV drifting up from downstairs. Satisfied, she closed the door with a click. Turned back to Chloe. 

"Mom's still in the living room," she said. "I think her show just started. We have an hour." And she pulled off her tee, unhooked her bra. Climbed back onto the bed. 

 


 

December 2010
Two and a half years before…  

They'd planned to steal the tree. To head down to the lot in the dead of night, haul that hulking shape over the fence and into the back of the truck, then tear away from the scene like Bonnie and Clyde on a Christmas Rampage. But in the end they didn't need to. When they crept up to the fence, they noticed the gate was open, the seller still there, wrapped up in faded down jacket and half hidden among the foliage, grimy fingers wrapped around a limp cigarette. He looked surprised to see them. They were surprised to see him. 

"Late to the party, huh?" he asked, the smoke from his cigarette mixing with his frosty breath in a billowing cloud around him. "Well, take any one you want for a dollar. One less for me to dump later."

They made a show of traipsing between the sparse remains still on sale, the runts and cast-offs, the great unwanted—fronds already drooping and singed a bitter brown. And Chloe thought about how shitty it would be to be a Christmas tree at 9.25pm on Christmas Eve. How they'd all been chopped down while still so young and hauled away from their family in the forest. Forced to sit in a freezing lot for weeks, watching as others were selected ahead of them, one after the other, day after day, by smiling families who wanted to dress them up in glitter and give them a new home. And how, each time that gate creaked open and a new customer stepped through, all those little Christmas tree heads would rise as one, wondering, is this it? Is it my turn now? None of them knowing that it was only temporary, anyway. That even the biggest, bushiest trees would all end up dumped by early January—yellow and broken, slumped against the mailbox at the end of the driveway, their needles lost on some distant carpet, nothing more than vacuum food. Chloe looked around at those desolate specimens, for whom she and Rachel represented a last and final dying hope, and she couldn't help feeling really fucking sad. She was about to tell Rachel they should take all of them, do several trips in the truck if they had to, when Rachel caught her arm, lit up the icy night with a shimmer of laughter and said, "Oh, my God, Price! You're so fucking fried!" 

"Huh?" 

"You've been standing there zoning for ages." 

Rachel grabbed the nearest tree, and its branches seemed to zing green with happiness at her touch. "C'mon, this one will do. Let's blow. It's fucking freezing!" 

They propped up the tree in a corner of the shack at the junkyard. Chloe built a hobo stove out of an old rusty drum while Rachel floated around her, singing loudly to the holiday hits fighting their way through the static on their little radio. She reminded Chloe of Mariah Carey in the All I Want for Christmas video, wrapped in that big dorky red ski jacket—Rachel never did like being cold—and that seemed fitting since Rachel had an appreciation for Christmas songs Chloe hadn't known since her dad was alive. She roared the lyrics to each one up into the frozen sky; sparkled like the frost that had furred the junkyard white, that hid the rust, the rot, the lost and forgotten; turned all that trash into something beautiful. 

They decorated as best they could, with whatever they could find; paper chains from the torn pages of a moldy porn mag, cuttings of stars and cheesy grins from a 2001 fall/winter JC Penney catalog, cigarette butts and empty miniatures tied on with blue twine—the tiny faces of Captain Morgan, little Johnny Walker and the Jagermeister stag bobbing between the branches. 

While they were hunting for kindling for the fire, Rachel had flipped over an old store sign, let out a squeal of triumph, and Chloe knew it must be good because suddenly she was quoting Shakespeare. 

"Foul-cankering rust the hidden treasure frets," Rachel said in a sing-song voice, pulling out a musty box filled with cracked glass baubles, strands of limp tinsel and—to her obvious delight—a twisted knot of string lights. She grinned that dimpled grin. "But gold that's put to use, more gold begets." 

Chloe managed to hook the lights up to a car battery, earning her a beaming smile of approval as those tiny bulbs flickered on, bathed the shack in a rainbow of color. 

"Oh my God, Price, you are so fucking awesome!" Rachel cried, clapping her hands together. She grabbed the decorations box, squatted down to reach inside and as her hand pulled out a string of tinsel, something in Chloe's memory jolted, like a flash of light. Her dad's hand reaching into the Christmas decorations box in their living room, holiday classics playing in the background. Turn that up, Joyce! Chloe and I can barely hear it over here. And he'd draped a long, soft string of tinsel around Chloe, winding it around and around. What do you mean, you're not the tree, honey? You look like the tree to me! Oh, that's the tree. What, that over there? Are you sure? No, I think you're definitely the tree.

Chloe stepped past Rachel and towards the tree. Kneeled down on that cold earth in front of it and stared into the branches, beyond the cuttings and the minis and the porn mag paper chains, right into the center where the string lights cast a gentle glow around the trunk. 

"What are you doing?" Rachel asked, kneeling down beside her.

"I'm looking for fairies."

"Fairies? Oh, Price. You are hella high." 

"No, I mean, I just remembered something. About my dad. When I was super little, he told me that fairies live in the center of Christmas trees. So I used to try to find them. I'd kneel by the tree like this for ages and I'd wait to see one. Fuck… I'd forgotten all about that."

She felt Rachel's arms around her neck, warm words whispered into her cheek. "Are you okay?" And it was only then she realized she'd been crying, wiped the tears away with the back of her sleeve. "Yeah," she said. "I'm good. It feels… It feels like I just got a little part of him back."

They spent the rest of the evening there (until the fire started to splutter and the cold eventually forced them home), huddled together on the old car seat they'd dragged into the shack back in the summer, passing a joint back and forth. Chloe nestled her head in the soft pillow of Rachel's down jacket, felt the warmth of her, burning through like a furnace. The rise and fall of Rachel's tumbling heart, beating underneath. Beating for her.

Through the shack's tiny window Chloe could see the lighthouse on its distant cliff, beam turning slow circles through the silver night; sweeping away the lingering last days of 2010. Ahead lay 2011, the rest of that still-new decade, the rest of their still-young lives. Everything before them. And right then, Chloe thought she understood what it meant to want a future. Because in that moment, it seemed possible to believe in anything, in everything, in any goddamn future she wanted. As that distant beam circled the Bay, shining its light on Chloe at last. 

 

Chapter Text

October 8th, 2013

It was winter when Chloe and Rachel found the doe. It must have been winter because Chloe remembers the way the leaves glistened white with frost, crunched under her boots as she dragged that heavy carcass by the hind legs up the ridge beyond the rail tracks, puffing and spitting out curses because what the fuck was she doing hauling that dead-ass doe up there, anyway? But, wait, she's getting ahead of herself, the dragging came after. First, they found it. 

It was Rachel who saw it first. Tucked up underneath the old trawler in the junkyard. Like it was sleeping there in the ice. Oh, the tender surprise in her voice before she realized it was dead. Then, Oh God! Oh gross! Chloe! Ew! 

There was a single, neat bullet wound in its shoulder, so they figured it must have been shot by hunters; had managed to scrabble down the hillside and into the junkyard before succumbing under the old boat where Rachel would later tag that line from Hamlet— sleep perchance 2 dream— in her curly script, like some calligraphic eulogy. It looked so peaceful, that doe. Couldn't have been dead for long. Rachel said they should bury it, got pretty upset when Chloe told her not to be so dumb, that a coyote or something would soon be along for a free meal, or the hunters would come for it, and anyway, it was the size of a fucking person so how in fuck's name would they bury it? But Rachel insisted. 

Turned out digging a grave was hard work. Required a good shovel and soft earth, neither of which they had. So they went back to Chloe's for a couple of shovels, waved away the questions Joyce had shot through the half-opened garage door. In the end, it wasn't much of a grave. The constant prang of rocks and gnarled roots on their shovels meant they didn't get down too deep. But they managed a hole of sorts in that packed, freezing earth. They dug it a little ways up the ridge, on the other side of the railway tracks. So the doe’s spirit could run back into the trees and back to freedom (that’s what Rachel said, anyway).

Chloe hauled the body into that hole, limbs thumping floppy limbs, and they laid the doe to rest. They didn't say any words, because it was a doe, and that seemed kind of dumb. But they did wish it happy running in the afterlife, or bounding, or whatever it was a dead doe did. They called it Jane Doe, which was Chloe's idea and Rachel seemed to find funny. She laughed anyway, and that always seemed worth anything. To make Rachel laugh. Made the aching shoulders and blisters and cracked, freezing fingers seem like nothing at all. Rachel's laugh: The best sound in the world. 

Poor Jane Doe, Rachel said, the laughter drying in her throat. She looked down at the grave, stared down at it for a long, long time. Poor Jane Doe. 

It was two winters later that Rachel dug that doe back up. Well, a part of it. Just the skull. It was only bones, she told Chloe with a wide, wild smile that seemed to crack her own skull in two. It's not like there was some zombie deer down there, just old bones. She handed the skull to Chloe, and Chloe’s face must have looked as grossed out as she felt, because Rachel said, What? I thought you liked skulls, Price? It's a gift. So Chloe took it, not knowing what else to do. It felt brittle, hollow; grimy earth still lodged between the teeth, nestled in its eye sockets. She never told Rachel, but she went back to bury it with the rest of Jane a few days later. 

It was a strange thing for Rachel to do, dig up that skull. But that was later, when Rachel sometimes did weird shit like that. 

All that came after.

 


 

Now the doe is old bones and Rachel is gone. Instead, here is Max. Max, like rolling waves out on the ocean—blink, and the view is different, but never really changed. Max, caught in time, face scrunched up as Chloe offers her a bottle of lukewarm beer, saliva still glistening on the rim. "Drink?" 

Max pushes the bottle away, her look of disgust silhouetted against the rusted red sky over the junkyard. "Yuck." 

"You're so cute," Chloe laughs, taking a swig. "You haven't changed a bit. Okay, let's do this. Can you find some bottles while I prep the shooting range?" 

Raw and rough, Max had said when they'd gotten here, gaze flitting between piles of rotting junk—mounds of the lost and forgotten, the worn-out and discarded. Dirty, tired and scattered. It suits you. 

Yeah. 

Chloe wonders if that's how Max sees her, now. Is she scared by how much Chloe's changed? The way all those changes in Rachel used to scare Chloe? She wonders if people really change, or do they just keep their old selves hidden away, build over all those old, defunct versions of themselves with newer incarnations, layer upon layer, like Russian dolls? 

"Beer and guns?" Max asks as Chloe pulls David's revolver from her pants, spins it around her finger. "Nice combo."

Chloe stares down at the Smith and Wesson. A forgotten girl with tangled, strawberry-blonde hair buzzes inside her, buried several layers below Chloe's busted, beat-up exterior; bashes with hard, tiny fists against the inside of her ribcage. The girl wants to play. Raps harder. As though at any moment she'll burst out, shatter this new Chloe into jagged pieces as she springs free and sprints off across the junkyard, yelling at Max to follow, to explore, to have fun. Yeah, the old Chloe would love this. The old Chloe would be having a fucking ball. 

"You can handle it," Chloe says, stuffing the revolver back into her pants and pressing her palms together in mock prayer. "Now go find us some bottles? Pretty please?"

As a range, it is rudimentary at best. Just a plank set across two barrels under a heap of old junkers. It takes Chloe less than a minute to haul that plank into position, another to curse and chew out the splinter it leaves in her thumb. Less time than Max seems to need to find a few bottles. It's not as if Chloe hasn't left enough of them lying around. 

Chloe sighs, props herself against her handiwork. The range wobbles precariously beneath her as she takes another sip of beer. On the deck of the old trawler, a couple of jays are fighting over scraps; their squawking the only sound but for the breeze rushing through the leaves overhead, the gentle creaking of metal. Chloe watches them for a while. "Shiver me timbers," she chirps under her breath. "Squawk the plank." 

As if on cue, the jays take flight and Max appears from around the back of the trawler, soft footsteps headed towards the junkyard shack. Chloe watches her step inside. It was weird yesterday, seeing Max in her bedroom, at the lighthouse, in the diner. But those were old, familiar places; places where the ghost of Max still clings like glue to the walls, lies like dust in the corners—undisturbed for years and on the edges of everything. In those places, she had seemed like a newer, sharper image, brought into focus and superimposed onto her childhood self. Here, in the junkyard, she is completely new. This place doesn’t know her. It seems to bend around her, fold in on itself, distorted by her presence. Chloe's old life meeting her new one, or is it the other way around? Time curves inwards here. Figures.

Chloe's fingers drum the beer bottle as she waits for Max to come back out. She knows Max won't only go digging for bottles in there, knows exactly what Max will find: The graffiti that tells her who was there, the score tallies below the dart board (a permanent testament to Chloe's shitty aim), the flyers and leaflets like tattered what ifs, the photographs and entwined hers-and-hers bracelets; the mix-CDs, the scrawled notes and doodles, the I love yous, the I'm in love with someone else, the fuck you, yes you. 

Is that what Chloe wanted when she brought Max here? Isn't that exactly what she wanted Max to find? 

"Is she looking for bottles, or me?"

 The voice fills Chloe's head—soft yet sugar-sharp, like liquor trickling through velvet. She’s not surprised to see Rachel here. She always sees her here. That’s probably why she still comes by so often. The ghost is standing beside her, shoulder to shoulder, skin warm through her flannel where it brushes against Chloe's jacket. It's easy to conjure her in these places they once shared, in these moments already lived: Rachel sitting astride Chloe's waist in her bedroom, or dancing at the lighthouse with arms outstretched; Rachel at the junkyard. As though the very rocks and trees, the towers of rust and junk themselves, had captured her image within them, recorded all those moments spent here, and are now projecting them like a hologram that only Chloe can see. They must have stood here before like this, in this place, Rachel’s warm smile angled towards the sun. It's not an apparition. It’s a memory.

"Well?" Rachel asks again. "Which is it? Bottles or me?" 

"Why does everything have to be about you?"

"You tell me."

Chloe rolls her eyes, lets them land on Max who has left the shack and is heading away from them, parallel to the rail tracks and up towards the meadow, disappearing behind a pile of scrapped cars. Chloe sighs, relieved. She's usually careful to keep her conversations with Rachel for when she's alone. Even if she doesn’t actually speak , does she? During their most intense discussions, an observer might see Chloe stomping around, gesticulating in frustration, words half formed on her lips. Lately, she's been letting things slip. Has caught Joyce a few times, pale face staring at her from behind the sliding doors in the living room, watching as Chloe rocks back and forth on the backyard swing—drunk or stoned or both—busily conversing with no one, mouth moving in rapid whispers. Chloe doesn’t want Max to see that. But Max is across the junkyard, bottles forgotten, taking a photograph of what appears to be an empty patch of grass. "I think she’s just looking for the perfect shot," Chloe says with a smile. 

"Do you remember the doe?" Rachel asks. 

"Sure I do. I nearly got a goddamn hernia dragging that thing up there." Chloe juts her chin towards the ridge. "On my own. Because someone was too grossed out to help."

"You know I don't like dead things."

"Princess."

Rachel snorts a laugh, slips the beer bottle from Chloe's fingers and takes a pull. "To sleep, perchance to dream," she says, bouncing the lip of the bottle against her chin, because even though she's not real she still can't help it with the Shakespeare shit. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…?"

Chloe shakes her head with a glance to the sky. Rachel used to quote those lines all the time. 

"Do you think Hamlet was right?" Rachel asks, gaze fixed on the meadow where Max is crouched, Polaroid held up to her face like a mask. "That death is just an endless dream?" 

Chloe looks down. The beer bottle is still in her hand. Has been all the time. "I think Hamlet spent too much time on the sauce." 

"What dreams met our friend, do you think?" Rachel asks, as Max pushes herself to her feet. "Poor Jane Doe." 

"You're hella weird," Chloe says as the ghost gives a delighted giggle. 

Max has taken the photograph, is now dawdling back towards them. She stops, stares up at a bottle on top of a refrigerator. And she seems to move. A flicker. A shift. Her outline shimmers, and Chloe is sure that she's now a foot to the right. Or maybe not. Maybe it's just the light. Or her fucked up brain. How can she trust anything anymore when Rachel stands beside her, as real as if she were truly there, shuffling her feet in the dirt, the heady scent of jasmine? 

"Do you think it’s real?" Chloe asks, as Max drags a crate over to the base of the refrigerator. "This time travel stuff?"

"Do you want it to be?"

"Fuck yes! Imagine the possibilities. I could bust a cap in Nathan’s ass and then rewind it. And David. And Frank." She fingers the three bullets on her necklace, flicks them off one by one. "Boom. Boom. Boom." 

" She could."

Max climbs on the crate, grabs the bottle. 

"Whatever. Same thing."

"Not really. You wouldn’t get to see it." 

"Okay… well, I could have her describe it to me. In vivid detail."

"Is that really the only benefit you can think of?" 

Chloe shrugs.

Rachel glances down at the range. Pats it. "You’re showing off. And you’re testing her."

"Of course I’m testing her. I need to see what she can do. What if it’s not just an instant rewind thing? What if it's more than that? What if she could go back to April…"

"Well, presumably she can't—or she hasn't—otherwise we wouldn't be standing here having this conversation right now. Unless she did, and all three of us are lying on a beach somewhere in a parallel universe, catching rays with a Pina Colada in one hand and a great big blunt in the other… " Rachel pokes Chloe between the ribs. "But you're stuck here, trapped in one of an infinite number of strands of time all looping through and around and parallel to one another like tossed spaghetti in the huge bowl of creation. And—"

"Never talk science."

"I'm not," the ghost says with a wink. "You are. Yawn. Anyway, that's not what I meant by testing her. You’re not testing her powers, you're testing her to see if she’s changed, to see if she’s still the Max you remember."

"I'm not. We're hanging is all." 

A snort. "Oh, please. You're desperate to know if she's still your bitch. To see how much dumb stuff she'll let you get away with out of guilt for ghosting you. Just don't. Remember how all that does-she-love-me shit worked out with me?"

"I never tested you." 

"You tested me all the time. It was fucking exhausting." 

"Is that why you left?" 

The ghost clicks her tongue. "Chloe, we've been over and over this." 

They haven't. Of course they haven't. Chloe has been over and over it. Alone. The ghost just stands there, mute and impassive as Chloe throws accusations at it. Unable to answer. Unable to answer anything. 

"Play nice, Chloe Price," Rachel says, and as silently as she arrived, she is gone. 

Max approaches, bottles clinking in her hands. "You're serious about this?" she asks, holding them out to Chloe, who whips them from her grasp, sets them on the range. They look good like that, green glass glinting in the sunlight. Something beautiful about to be destroyed. Or made something new. 

"One more for the road," Chloe says, slurping down the dregs from her own bottle, bitter froth on her tongue. She bangs it down on the plank. "Done! We're going to shoot all these bottles without wasting a single bullet," she says, wiping her palms on her jeans and yanking the revolver from her back pocket. "Max, you have to help me aim." She struts back what looks like five yards, lifts the revolver. 

"Aim a bit to the right," she hears Max say. But she doesn't need to say it. Chloe's aim moves of its own accord, as if she already knows, as if she's been here before, staring down those bottles that sparkle green beyond the sight. She fires. A single bottle bursts like grin across Chloe's face, emerald shards spit into the sky. "That was so fucking cool!" Chloe yells, hopping from foot to foot. Her younger self knocks again, harder and harder.  

More bottles fall as easily as the first. The muscles in Chloe's arms sizzle, a tingle running through her biceps, curling and twisting, following the vines and thorns of her tattoo, down into her fingertips where the feeling sits there, hums beneath her skin, dancing through her trigger finger. Power. Control. Like she's a character in a movie, darting between cop cars, ducking and rolling, finding her target instinctively. Perfect aim every time. 

She shoots randomly. But her aim isn't random. One bullet hits a wheel rim and ricochets off, smashing the next bottle. Another bursts the tire of an old junker which topples, teeters, then plunges into the range, the remaining bottles shattering everywhere in a sparkling green cloud of glass and dirt. The junker tips on its hood, pitches forward and then crashes down before them with a crunch and squeal of rusted metal. 

Chloe jumps backwards, waves away the resulting billow of dust. "Ubercool!"

Her untamed grin finds Max, a shadow in the haze thrown up by the junker. Chloe expects to find her as excited as she is, but Max is still, thoughtful, pulling at her sleeves. The revolver melts into Chloe's palm, grip slick and sticky. Like it belongs there. Except Chloe knows it doesn't. Objectively, she knows she can’t shoot for shit. David took her to the range once, back when he was still trying to impress Joyce. Some bullshit bonding thing. One of his asshole friends had been there, had laughed at Chloe's countless failed attempts to hit the target, announced to everyone present: And this is why we don’t let women loose with guns, am I right? Chloe had flipped him off. David never took her back after that. 

How many times has Max had to mess with time to turn Chloe into a crack shot? How many duds did she have to wipe from history—the ones that thudded into the dirt or soared into the sky? How many times has she lived the last five minutes?

The cloud settles and Max catches Chloe's gaze at last. And Chloe must still be grinning like an idiot, because Max's own face breaks out into her own sunlit smile. It’s real, that smile says, freckles shifting to make way for it. It's all real. 

The girl inside knocks harder still, bashing on the underside of Chloe's skin. And Chloe's sure if she looks down, she'll see tiny fissures on her arms, spreading across her chest, like hairline cracks snapping through crumbling ice. That girl about to burst free at last. She dives across to Max, slamming their palms together in a high-five that almost knocks her old friend over. "I cannot believe this is for reals!" Chloe cries. "My best friend is a superhero!"

"I don't know…" Max begins, and stops. Stumbles. Two slivers of dark red emerging below her nose. Chloe grasps at her shoulders—quivering bone beneath her shirt—as Max's knees buckle and her small weight tumbles against Chloe. "I don't feel so super…" 

The blood gushes freely, a stream of scarlet down Max's ashen features. "Max!" Chloe cries, but Max doesn't seem to hear. She falls limp into Chloe's arms as they both crumple to the ground.

"Shitshitahitshitshit…" Panicked curses jitter through Chloe's lips as she pats down her pockets for a tissue, for anything to soak up all that blood, but all she can find is that goddamn parking ticket. She tries Max's bag, throwing open the flap and digging inside with a trembling hand. Score. Of course Max has tissues. But Chloe's fingers fumble as she tries to extract one from the plastic packet, ends up tearing open that fucker with her teeth, pulling out all the tissues in one handful. Pushes the whole stack of them under Max's nose.

"Should I call somebody? An ambulance or something?" she asks the air, dabbing at Max's cheeks, her chin. 

Blood splatters across the tissue like a grisly Rorschach test, inkblots of brilliant red.

Rachel steps forward. Crouches next to Chloe. "Out here? With your record? They'll think you sold her something."

"Shit…"

Max’s eyes are rolling in their sockets, just the whites visible, her eyelids fluttering. Chloe cradles the back of her head. Can't look at her eyes. Concentrates on dabbing. "Is it a seizure?"

"She’ll be okay," Rachel says, stroking a thumb across Max's pale forehead. "I think she's just… somewhere else." 

"Somewhere else? Yeah, you'd know." Chloe taps Max's cheeks. "Hey!" she calls down to her. Voice shaky, not her own. "Come back, okay? Don't fucking leave. Don't you dare fucking leave!"

"You need to let her ride it out," Rachel says. "Get her onto the hood of that car." She points to a Cadillac Eldorado, the one they always used to sunbathe on in summer because of the huge hood; blue paint now red with rust and Chloe’s graffiti. "Keep her warm. The ground’s too cold here." 

It isn't exactly superhero-like, but Chloe manages to heave Max off the ground, limps with her over to the old Eldorado, all the time trying to ignore the way Max's head lolls back over her arm and bobs lifelessly in the air. She shunts Max onto the hood, climbs up herself and lifts Max's head onto her lap, checks her airways are clear. The flow of blood from her nose has stemmed to a light trickle, her eyes no longer white, but closed. Ragged breaths rattle up through her chest, collapse on her lips, and Chloe's hand finds her cheek, thumb stroking the bangs from her damp forehead. Rachel watches them, face like a mirror. Chloe can’t tell what she’s thinking. Except she can’t be thinking anything. She’s not real. 

It’s been too long. Chloe is about to call 911 and fuck the consequences when Max stirs. Coughs. Her eyelids flutter open and Chloe almost laughs with relief at the sight of those pale blue irises peeking out from below her dark lashes. Max sits up with a groan, rubs her face where flecks of blood still cling to the underside of her nose, the top of her lips. 

"You freaked me out there," Chloe says, hand on Max's shoulder, keeping Max steady. Keeping herself steady. "Do you feel any better?"

"Yeah, just give me a minute." Max's smile is shaky but reassuring. "This is kinda fun," she says, apparently unaware just how long she was unconscious. "Scary and stupid, but fun." 

She slides from the hood and Chloe watches her trudge back into the meadow, steps unsteady, mind clearly lost elsewhere. I think she's just… somewhere else. Chloe wonders where that somewhere else could be. Will somewhere else eventually take Max away, too? She lies back on the hood, lifts the revolver into the air. Watches white clouds drift lazily in and out of focus at the end of the barrel. This is where she should stop the game. She knows that. That's what the girl inside is telling her—the old Chloe who was once Max's best friend, who just came so close to breaking free. She should stop the game, take Max back to Blackwell, let her rest. They have to stop now. For Max. 

But even as those thoughts come to her, she can't help but crowd her younger self out—wrap her in barbs and thorns, knots and chains, push her back down into that dark prison inside her. Because what the fuck does that kid know about anything, anyway? It's only a nosebleed. So Max fainted? It's no big deal. Chloe's seen far worse. Dealt with far worse. No, the game can't end. It can't be over already. Chloe needs to know. Needs to see it. Needs to see how far Max will go for her. And as the girl beats harder, screams harder, so those thorns dig deeper, pull tighter… Why do you do this? Joyce's voice now, not once but a thousand times. Why do you try and hurt me, Chloe? Why do you want to see me suffer like this? The door slams, her mom's heels clatter downstairs. Chloe sighs into the pillow. Because how else would I know that you give a shit? 

The hood is warm against her shoulder blades. She wonders what would happen if she shot straight up. Could she cut through the clouds? How far would the bullet fly? And if she got the angle just right, a perfect 90 degrees into the blue, would it come straight back down again? Hit its apex and the hurtle back down to earth, right on top of her. Straight through her? Or would the wind take it, blow it off course? Make it land somewhere else entirely, on someone else entirely? Could she accidentally shoot Max? It’s irrelevant, there are no bullets left in the gun. She’ll need to go get more from the truck.

Chloe clambers down from the hood as Max approaches. "Looks like you're ready to lock and load," she says. 

Max pulls at her sleeve. "I don't know about this…"

"You afraid of getting in trouble?" Chloe asks, forcing the revolver into Max's hands. 

You tested me all the time. It was fucking exhausting.

"Oh, boohoo, Max is afraid! I know you can handle this."

Why do you try and hurt me, Chloe? Why do you want to see me suffer like this?

"And I'm here to guide you. Make me proud, sista!"

 


 

Chloe's sure she can smell Frank even before she sees him. The stench of chemicals corroding the air, sweet and rotten like the forgotten tangerine behind the sofa. He saunters out from behind a pile of old junk like he's just risen from it, arms held out wide in mock greeting. The same way Chloe's dad used to hold up his arms when he came home from work, ready for her to run into. This isn't that. 

"Hey, it's Thelma and Louise." Frank's voice seeps like sludge, catches in his smoke-stained teeth. "Or is it Bonnie and Clyde?"

He's been drinking. Sways as he lurches towards them. His eyes are feral and vicious like a weasel caught in a pen, hair matted in sweaty clumps around his forehead. Whatever fix he needs this morning, he hasn't found it yet. By the reek of him he's been making do with some bud and a bottle of Jack. Strung out and drunk, just the way Chloe hates him. 

"Excuse us, Frank," she says. Because of course he'd show up now. 

"Oh, sorry, Chloe. Don't let me get in the way of your bonding." He leers at Max, who is clutching the revolver, hiding it behind her back with shaking hands. He staggers closer. "I heard the gunshots and the breaking glass. It's cute that you're playing with guns. Just like me at your age."

Chloe stares him down, at the skin pulled over his cheekbones like crumbling hide over carrion, the piss stains on his pants. Chloe's changed, that's true. But not as much as him. "We're not anything alike, man." 

He snorts. "We both need money. In fact, you need it so bad you owe me a shitload, don't ya, Chloe? Huh?"

How long has be been here, watching them? Following them? His old Winnebago is nowhere to be seen and Chloe never heard it approach. Pompidou isn't here either, and that means the RV must be parked close by, out of sight. He's stalking them on purpose. Asshole. 

She would ask him what he's doing here, but she already knows. He must have seen what went down with Nathan in the parking lot yesterday, caught sight of her and Max at the diner earlier. Now he wants to know who Max is, wants to belittle and intimidate Chloe in front of her, get all up in her shit like he always does. He knows she doesn't have his goddamn money. Is about to tell him as much when he jabs a cracked, yellow finger at Max. 

"What're you hiding there, girlie? Let me see!"

Max takes a step back, the revolver trembling in her grip like she's about to drop it. And it's only when Chloe moves to cover her, putting herself between Max and Frank's outstretched arm, that she notices it: An old string bracelet tied around Frank's wrist; dusky blue threads embroidered with black leather. Sera's old recovery bracelet. 

Rachel's bracelet. 

Time stops. Surges inwards and suffocates. The world fading to gray, collapsing into nothing but those frayed, blue threads, fluttering in the breeze, dangling from Frank’s heavy wrist. The wrong wrist.  

She left without her bracelet? 

"Where did you get that?" Chloe demands, words escaping through clenched teeth. 

"A friend," Frank says defensively. As if he's not wearing the goddamn thing on purpose. As if he didn't mean for Chloe to see it there. "And it's none of your goddamn business."

"That's Rachel's bracelet!" Chloe rushes him to get a closer look. Because it can't be. It wouldn't be. He whips his arm out of her way. "Why the fuck are you wearing her bracelet?" she yells. 

"Calm yourself, alright?" His acrid growl washes over her. "It was a gift."

It surprises Chloe, how deep it cuts. The sight of those familiar blue threads stretched over Frank's pale wrist; dark hairs curling over them like pubes on a bar of soap. It was a part of Rachel once—that bracelet. As much a part of her as her red flannel shirt or her blue feather earring. Part of her story, of all the things that made her her. Even though she hadn't worn it for years. Not since… Not since it all happened. But to leave without it… To give it to Frank? That bracelet had encircled Rachel's wrist the day she and Chloe first met, the first time they kissed, the first night they were really together—the tingle of trailing threads brushing over Chloe's skin, Rachel's arms above head as she'd slept, Chloe running her fingertips over those embroidered strings in the moonlight. Not only a part of Rachel's story—a part of theirs. 

"Like fuck it was a gift!" Chloe shouts at Frank, makes another grab for it. "You stole that shit! Give it to me right now, asshole!"

The switchblade is in her face before she even sees him reach for it. And she'd give him kudos for that—the fact he's swaying like a tree in the wind but still able to draw a knife in a heartbeat—except all those times she's seen him draw a weapon before, it's never been on her. Not once. Not even at his worst. Not even last fall. 

"You better step back before you regret it," he snarls. His red eyes twitch. "I mean it. You want me to cut you, bitch?"

Chloe's stomach twists as she watches that knife blade dance before her, just inches from her face. It glints silver, pushes her back into yesterday, into the bathroom, down the black barrel of Nathan's gun. Now here's another asshole with anger issues waving a fucking weapon in her face. Two in two days. Three if she includes David's little weed tantrum and his flailing fists. And people still ask her why she's not into dudes. She takes a step back, hands raised. But today… something feels different. Her eyes snatch a glance at Frank, the familiar grainy swoop of his cheekbones, the way his eyes don't quite look at her. Then she realizes: She's not scared. Not just because it's Frank, and he's not going to fucking stab her, not really. Not Frank. But because even if he did… 

She has Max, now. Couldn't Max just… rewind?

"Please... please step back." Max's voice behind them, so soft it's almost lost to the breeze. 

Chloe's eyes widen as she turns to look at her. Max Caulfield. Holding the revolver out in front of her, whole body trembling like a baby bird in an abandoned nest. She's aiming right at Frank. If you could call it aiming. The gun is shaking so hard in her hands that the bullet could just as easily pitch into the earth as soar into the sky. If there was a bullet. 

"You're kidding." Frank lumbers backwards in surprise. "Put that thing down." And for a moment he actually looks scared, hands held out in front of him like the guy who's just realized he brought the knife to the gunfight. 

Chloe drinks the scene in. Maxine Caulfield holding a gun on Frank. If the world hadn't already tumbled into hella crazy over the last twenty-four hours, there's no way she'd believe it. Yet here they are. Full-on parallel universe shit. 

The younger Chloe wants to run to Max in that moment, throw protective arms around her quivering shoulders and tell her not to be such a dork, that Frank's all front, and anyway, there aren't any bullets left in the gun. But Chloe doesn't run to her. Max is threatening to shoot Frank. For her. And Chloe needs to know if she will. 

Frank flicks a glance at Chloe. Must read her well enough to know he has nothing to fear, because he grunts out a laugh, lurches towards Max. "Come on, girlie," he says, slapping his chest. "Shoot me."

Chloe wills her to do it. Silently begs her. As if she could reach over with her mind and help Max pull that trigger. You don't need to be scared, she wants to yell. You can rewind, remember? Shoot him and find out there's no bullet. Just fucking shoot! And the more she cries wordlessly at Max, the more she realizes how much she needs this. Even as she hates herself for needing it. Hates herself for Max's pale face, for her wide, terrified eyes. It makes her feel high and sick at the same time. Icarus soaring close to the sun, choking on the fumes from his singed wings, but still refusing to descend. Even now, after everything she's done, everything she's seen, she still gets off on it. Is this really the Chloe she's become? 

She holds up a hand, tries to speak, but before she can, Frank has twisted the gun from Max's unresisting fingers. 

"Oh, Christ. You're more like Abbott and Costello," he laughs, holding up the revolver for a better look. "Nice piece." He turns to Chloe, who throws her glare elsewhere. Unable to look at him. Unable to look at Max. 

"I'll consider this interest on your loan," he says. "You have until Friday to pay me. Or I'll track you down with this interest." He chuckles, waves the revolver in her face. "Have a good play, kids."

And now, if only for now, he is gone. 

"You really stood your ground," Chloe says, arms folded across her chest. Still not daring to catch Max's eye. She can't look at her because then she'll feel guilty and fuck that. Max can rewind goddamn time. Why didn't she do it? What's even the point of this thing, this gift, this… whatever the fuck this is, if she's too chickenshit to use it? 

"I freaked," Max says. "I don't like guns."

"It'll be hard to keep Nathan off my ass…" Chloe's voice twists lower, loaded, lashes out with broken claws. As if heaping guilt onto Max can somehow relieve her of her own. "My step-shit will have his other guns sealed in an electrified bunker by now."

"Sorry, Chloe. I've never held a gun on a human being before. Not cool."

Chloe stares at the dirt at her feet, at the hole she's kicked with her toe; remembers Frank sitting beside her in the RV, stroking his thumb slowly along the barrel of his old pistol. You ever see a man shot at point-blank range, Price? I have. Makes one hell of a goddamn mess. 

She sighs, scrapes the dirt back into the hole with her heel. "Come on," she says at last. "Let's go. My secret lair didn't seem so secret today." And she turns away from the junkyard, heads up the slope and towards the rail tracks. 

 


 

Funny how things work out. For years, Chloe used to stand on these tracks, facing North and thinking about Seattle. She'd dream about jumping on a train up there, going to see Max in her new place. Vanessa had sent Joyce a picture of it once, back before she stopped sending anything at all. Looked fancy, with a big porch, double garage and a red-brick chimney; Vanessa and Ryan in the front yard, waving white grins into the camera lens. Chloe figured Max must have taken that photo. Looks nice, Chloe had said. Maybe we could go visit some time. And Joyce had sighed and picked up the picture, slipped those grins away into a drawer. I don't know, honey. Maybe. Joyce never did take her, so Chloe would have to make her own way there. On that train. She'd hop up those porch steps, knock on the door, yell 'Surprise, sista!' when Max opened up, or some dumb shit like that, and obviously she'd chew Max out for ghosting her, but Max would be all apologetic about it. Because there'd be a good reason why she'd done it. And then they'd go inside and play Nintendo or something, because they were Chloe and Max, and it would all be okay. 

But she never did go visit. Just in case it wasn't. 

Then she met Rachel, and they really had jumped on a train. Together. And ever since then, Chloe had always stood on these tracks looking South, towards LA. First hand in hand with Rachel, then standing slightly apart. Lately, with only an empty space beside her. But she'd never looked northwards again. 

Now, after all this time, the North has come to her. Shot out of the trees and back into her life like a cannonball. Just like that. Just like Rachel did all those years ago, right when Chloe needed her the most. Only this time with superpowers. With motherfucking superpowers. And maybe all this really is part of someone's grand plan (if Chloe believed in such things, which she doesn't think she does), which is why she doesn't have that gun anymore. But, fuck, she'd liked carrying that piece around. 

"I can't believe you basically gave him my gun. ‘Here ya go, Frank’," she says, hopping up onto the rail, flinging out her arms for balance. 

"You can't keep getting mad at me," Max says, stepping up onto the other rail. "Especially for stupid shit,"

"I'm not mad. It adds up in my mind as people letting me down. And I just liked having that gun, man."

They teeter along the rails―right foot, left foot―side by side; along metal worn to a shine by the juddering weight of a thousand journeys. South, towards the water tower. 

"Now you have me to protect you," Max says, and as she does so, their outstretched hands brush together, palms folding into one another, like magnets pulled across that narrow divide of timber ties and stony ballast. Finding each other at last. 

Chloe tries to concentrate on the warmth of Max's fingertips, how familiar they feel against hers, even after all this time. Swallows down those last bitter traces of irritation. 

"I'm glad you were here," she says, giving Max’s fingers a squeeze as she let's her palm slide away. And she is glad. She really is. Even with Frank’s unwelcome interruption, today feels like a return to something. Or the start. Maybe both. She flings a glance at Max, whose face still looks too pale, her eyes cast down on the rail at her feet as she takes each unsteady step. 

"Chloe, why the hell are you hanging around scary losers like Frank?" Max asks after a pause. "It's weird."

Chloe sighs. "Okay, let's take a break and I'll talk."

A mellow morning sun glimmers beyond the hulking silhouette of the water tower. Throws criss-crossing shadows across the train tracks and down the shallow slope into the trees. If Chloe looks up, she's sure she'll see Rachel up there—leaning out over the railings like a pirate queen in a crow's nest, red plaid shirt bright against the tank’s peeling white paint. Come on, slow poke, the words will float down, joyous and full of life. Get your ass up here! So Chloe doesn't look up. Doesn't look up to find her not there. Another place she should be but isn't. 

The water tower stands over the old interlocking, where the rail tracks switch onto two separate lines—one that winds down the hill to the docks, the other cutting through the trees to places far away—to California, to LA, and on to who knows where. 

Chloe passes the tower, draws level with the path that leads up to the crumbling maintenance shack. She hops off the rail and takes another five long strides up the center of the tracks. Stops. This is it. This spot. She doesn't tell Max the significance of it, but still she lines it up perfectly. Visualizes that day three and a half years ago, how they'd run down the hill and past the shack, past the switch lever, hit the ballast at a sprint and then three strides—one, two, three—before leaping into the air, scrambling aboard the moving boxcar. The stench of engine oil and timber, rough wood splintering Chloe's hands. The edge of the car crashing against her chest, winding her as she threw herself against it. Rachel’s warm grasp, pulling her up by the wrist. This spot. Right here. Chloe drops between the rails. 

" Feels like a different world, huh?" she says, folding her arms behind her head as Max lowers herself beside her, top to toe. It's quiet here. Still. Starlings flock over the distant hillside, hundreds of them swirling and rolling like a shoal of fish in the milkshake sky. They swoop into undulating shapes—a snake, a whale, a butterfly—surge together to form a dark circle, like a black hole in the air, before exploding outwards in a fevered flurry of wings. Chloe sighs. "I wish we could stay here forever…"

She tells Max about Frank. The bits she needs to know, anyway: That he's not as scary as he fronts, that they used to hang out and—no, gross—not like that. That all he cares about is his cash, stash and mangy dog. Most of the details she keeps to herself. No doubt the bloated remains of her history with Frank will bob to the surface eventually. That Max will eventually find out everything seems inevitable—David, or Nathan, or any one of those dickholes up at Blackwell will no doubt take great pleasure in filling in all the gaps. But even though Chloe knows she should get in there before them, still she can't bring herself to tear into the blood and bone of that rotting carcass. Not yet. 

But Max doesn't prod further. "We have to be careful," she says. "And keep an eye on this guy. Without him eyeballing us, okay?" 

This guy. Chloe stifles the scoff in her throat. It's so strange to hear Max describe Frank that way. This guy . As if he were nothing, just a random dude. Irrelevant to everything. And maybe he is, now. At last. Fuck him. 

"It's so weird talking to you about this insane crap," Chloe says, shifting her back against the rough cross tie and closing her eyes. The breeze whispers against her eyelids, carries with it the sweet smell of cedar. "We haven't hung out this much since we were tweens... and it's like no time has passed."

All that time… How did they let it slip between them like that? Chloe idly wonders how different things would have been if she and Rachel had kept riding that day on the boxcar. What if they'd swept right past the Overlook, leaving all its secrets uncovered—bound in roots and buried forever, hidden beneath the ancient white oak that Rachel would never then scorch to ash? What if they had stayed on that train all the way to Seattle? Scoured the streets for the house with the red-brick chimney, climbed the steps up to the porch? Knocked on the door…? 

Chloe had felt so brave that day. So full of hope. She might have even done it. With Rachel. They could have found Max. "I wish Rachel could have met you," she says. 

The ballast scrapes under Max's toe as she scuffs at the gravel. Her tone switches, probing. "Do you think Rachel and I would have been friends?"

Chloe glances across at her friend, at the way the sun slants across her cheekbones, lighting up every freckle. Of course Rachel would like Max. It suddenly seems so obvious that Chloe wonders why she ever doubted it before. Is that what distance does? She'd always been afraid of bringing Max and Rachel together, even though Rachel suggested contacting Max a couple of times. But now it feels inevitable, necessary. The two edges of Chloe's life, looping around like the ends of a piece of string, coming together to make her story whole. Yes, she'd like that. 

"You're not that different," she says. "Rachel had— has a great eye for images and for art. Plus, she's a smartass like you." Chloe squints up at the sky, wonders if Max could protect Rachel, too. Thinks how free Rachel would feel in a world without consequence. Free to be herself. At last. "We would all be hella best friends forever."

"I know she must be as cool as you are. I have no doubt we'll meet soon."

Cool. No one's called Chloe that for a while. Yet somehow, when Max says it, she can almost believe it. She turns her smile southwards. Stares as far as she can down the tracks. The distant metal shimmers into the sky, illusion melting the two rails together into a single point. "Railroad tracks always make me feel better," she says. "I have no idea why."

"Kerouac knew," Max says, staring past Chloe and up at the water tower. She tilts her head. "It's the romance of travel and movement. The sound of the train whistle at night."

It's such a Rachel thing to say, such a Rachel way to say it—almost as an aside while lost to other thoughts—that Chloe can't help but laugh. She takes a swipe at Max's thigh. "Look at the beat poet here," she says. 

"I'd rather be a good photographer." Max lifts herself to her feet. Whatever she's been looking at has now taken her attention completely, her gaze fixed on the sky beyond the ridge. 

"You are… " Chloe begins, but Max is already out of ear shot, stepping past Chloe and up the path towards the maintenance shack. The buckles on her bag clink as she reaches inside for her camera. Chloe sighs, says what she was going to say, anyway. "You just have to stop being afraid…"

 It's not long before the ghost appears. She drops onto the rail opposite Chloe, knees pulled to her chest. Her not-quite-eyes regarding the reclining Chloe with a sideways smile. "I'm a smartass, am I?"

"You know it." 

Rachel curls a loose strand of hair behind her ear, tilts her head towards Max. "I have to admit, I am enjoying the beautiful irony of watching you, Chloe Price, telling someone else to be less chicken shit."

"The fuck does that mean? You saying I'm a pussy?" 

"You know it."

Chloe grabs a stone from the ballast, throws it at Rachel. It bounces off the dust, scatters down the slope into the trees. They both watch it go.

"You'd have shot him," Chloe says. 

The ghost shrugs. "Mm. Maybe. Although the last time I took on a guy with a knife to defend your honor it didn't end well."

"Like Frank would ever stab you," Chloe says with a snort. And then, picking up another stone and turning it in her fingers, "Not with a knife, anyway." 

These are the moments when Chloe longs for a reaction. That was always how she could read Rachel—a pointed comment disguised as a joke, bringing forth a complicit laugh or a flick of Rachel's eyes; a burning flash of irritation or a theatrical gasp and a gentle slap of Chloe's thigh; or—most telling of all—her hand reaching for her earring...

But the ghost says nothing, betrays nothing. Just sits there looking past Chloe and watching Max. The distant click of a shutter tells Chloe exactly what Max is doing. "Do you really want Max to be like me?" Rachel asks. 

"I just want her to be less afraid is all." 

"Be less afraid of literally ripping apart the fabric of time and space? Yeah, not scary at all. Plus the bonus ball chance of an aneurysm."

"Oh, please. If you were really here, you'd have such a massive lady boner right now for all this Time Lord shit. You'd totally be planning our first bank heist."

They look at each other. "I think I've already stolen enough. Don't you, Chloe?"

The gauzy light around Rachel's eyes—that veil of lost memory that usually obscures them—shifts and settles. And for a moment, Chloe can see them again. Sees them the way they were that night they broke into the Amber house; eerie green-blue light seeping through the stained glass door and casting long, sickly shadows through the dark hall. Rachel's face, as pale and expressionless as marble. And her eyes—glinting, darting, searching. Not hers. Even then, even when she was standing before Chloe all flesh and blood and trembling hands. Not her eyes. Not right. 

Chloe looks away. "Fine. Well, I guess one crazy-ass bitch in my life is enough, anyway." 

The ghost's laugh tinkles, scatters like glass. "In mine too," she says with a coy smile, poking Chloe's leg with the toe of her sneaker. She nods towards Max, who is crouched up by the water tower, aiming her lens up through its stilts and towards the sun. "Was she always scared of things? When you were kids?"

"Pretty much."

"Maybe that's why she didn't contact you." 

"Because she was scared of me?" 

"Or scared of making things worse." 

"By being there for me? In what universe could that possibly have been worse than ghosting me completely?"

The ghost looks at Chloe now, rests her cheek in her palm. That sort-of smile. "Maybe she was scared of saying the wrong thing. Of being so far away when you needed her and not able to get to you. She thought it wouldn't be enough, that she couldn't be enough." Rachel drops her gaze. "And maybe, sometimes, not being enough is scarier than being nobody at all."

Chloe thinks on that, rolling the stone between her thumb and index finger. Feels the edges press deep into her skin. 

"Speaking of nobodies," she says at last. "You gonna tell me why Frank has your bracelet?"

"Chloe, I haven't worn that bracelet for years, " Rachel grumbles, flicking her hair back over her shoulder. Dismissive. Chloe still remembers that one. 

"Not the point. Was it a gift?" 

"Maybe. Maybe not."

"But you still left without it… You wouldn't leave without that bracelet. Any more than you'd leave without… ," Chloe can't bring herself to say it. The stone digs deeper into her fingertips. "He always had a weird obsession with you," she says, tossing the stone down the slope after the other one, careful to miss Rachel this time. "The way he collects those goddamn posters, all those creepy little trophies he has. Doesn't that freak you out?" 

"Clearly not as much as it does you." Rachel nods over towards the water tower. "I think Max is coming back," she says as Chloe cranes her neck backwards to follow her gaze. "She looks braver already. Like she's becoming somebody at last. That must be quite the rush, don't you think? After thinking for so long that you're nobody?" Rachel unfurls herself to standing in one effortless movement. Brushes down the backs of her thighs. "Stick close to her, Chloe. Nothing can hurt you anymore." 

The sky beyond Rachel buzzes red—rust and gold. Ripples and blisters above the tree line just like it did yesterday in the parking lot, like someone took a lighter to the paper edge of the horizon. But today it's brighter. Too bright. Chloe has to hood her eyes to see, even though she knows the sun is behind her. Seriously, what is with the goddamn sky? The ghost stands silhouetted against it, hair lashed by a sudden wind.

"What do you mean nothing can hurt me?" Chloe asks, squinting up at her. 

The ghost turns away, hops up onto the rail. "You're about to find out." 

A flash of brilliant blue hooks Chloe's gaze. Flutters on the rail by her feet. She sits up to get a better look. 

"Rach, you left your…" She leans forward to pick up the blue feather earring, slipping her foot between the switch rails for purchase. A sudden vibration shakes through the tracks. The butterfly takes flight, wheeling away into the air. Chloe watches it flap away. A blue butterfly. But she was so sure it was… "Your earring." Her voice trails off into the air. 

Another vibration surges through the rails, reverberates through the cross tie below her. The stones on the ballast hop and tremble. Chloe doesn't need to look to know what that means. A train approaching. She goes to stand but the with each tremor, her foot sinks deeper between the switch rails. It doesn't occur to her to panic at first. She just needs to turn her ankle, right? But her ankle won't turn, the heel of the boot catches on the rusted bolts of the rail joint, refuses to come free. 

"Max?" she calls out, breath catching at the back of her throat. She turns her head northwards, knowing what she'll see. That pin-point of white light, rushing at a gallop through the trees. The North coming to her. Again. This time in an unstoppable, juddering roar of approaching metal. 

 "Max!" she yells, louder this time, trying to twist her foot free from the boot, but she can't loosen it. Goddamn fucking ski socks! "Max! Max?! Help! I'm stuck!" 

The train thunders closer. The tremor builds beneath her, buzzes up through her legs, up her spine and coils inside her skull. A static hum in her temples, like the white noise of an untuned TV channel, fusing with the rush of the freight train, the wind soaring through the trees, the screeching of birds. All swirling, whooshing into one deafening roar. 

"Max?!" She screams, but no sound comes out. Panic where her voice once was. The wall of metal is upon her now. So huge and dark it covers the whole sky. She twists around, contorts her body as best she can to see where Max is. 

Max can rewind. 

Max won't let this happen.

Where the fuck is Max? 

Chloe's vision swims, a throbbing through her eyeballs. The edges of her sight burning, collapsing inwards, from black, to red, to yellow, to white… She thinks she glimpses Max by the lever. Blinks. Gone. In the shack. Too fast. All at once and not at all.

The fu—

She feels it. The pieces of herself shatter. Not pain. Pain is a beginning. This feeling is an end. It is every layer of herself—layer upon layer—exploding one by one to expose the next. Every Chloe that ever was and the ones that will never be; an infinite Russian doll of endless Chloe's bursting outwards in a blast of splinters. And for a fraction of time, the old Chloe, Max's best friend Chloe—the Chloe of sleepovers and midnight pillow fights, of grazed kneecaps and backyard pirate adventures, of blown-up Barbie dolls and tales of The Rat King— that Chloe feels her bonds broken at last; shrieks with delight at her longed-for freedom, before she, too, collapses from within.

The static roars louder, louder, curls around every last broken piece of her. 

Pulls. 

The train stops. The static stops. There is nothing. Nothing but the stillness all around. Nothing but flapping electric blue wings of a butterfly against the burning red sky. 

"Chloe!" Max's cry cuts through the silence and all at once the world floods back in. A towering wall of hot sparks and flashing light, of churning metal, the blasting screech of a horn. The switch rail shifts, letting Chloe's boot free. She doesn't think. She moves. Tumbles forward, throwing herself across the tracks and out of the train's reach as it blares past her, so close the wind cuts like an icy blade across the back of her neck, slices down her limbs and into her finger tips. Still her limbs. Still her finger tips. Alive. 

"Chloe?" Max again, but much closer now and Chloe can't remember the last time she was so relieved to see anyone. She throws her arms around Max's shoulders, feels their bodies touch. Realizes this is the first time they've embraced in five years. She holds Max tighter, breathes her in. The faded scent of fabric softener, Max's hair brushing against her chin. Her Max. Here. Home at last. 

"You okay?" Max's breath is warm on Chloe's shoulder, her whole body trembling in Chloe's grasp. Or is it Chloe who's shaking? 

"You saved me again!" Chloe says. "Crazy... Now we're totally bonded for life!" 

"Damn, that was close," Max says, taking a step back as Chloe releases her. Her fingers betray her as she lifts them unsteadily to her nose, checks the tips. Checks for blood. There is none, but Chloe feels the blood in her own veins contract and squeeze. Max rewound. She knows that. The static in her head, that terrible sensation of shattering over and over. Yes, Max rewound. But how many times? How many times did Max hear that bang, that clunk of flesh on roaring metal that told her Chloe was no more? Did she see her crack open? Watch her body dragged beneath the train? The last of her dripping like watermelon pulp between the cross ties? Chloe stares at Max's face, tries to read the answer. The way Max chews at her lip, plays with the sleeve of her hoodie, tells Chloe all she needs—all she wants—to know. 

Now you have me to protect you. 

Max was right, she will protect Chloe. From Frank, from Nathan, from David… from Chloe. In less than a day she's saved her from all of them. Whatever happens—however dumb, however scary—Max will rewind, will put it right. Max will keep Chloe safe. 

The feeling is too big, thrums in Chloe like the first slab of an avalanche fracturing inside her. "Aren't you glad I took you away to a nice quiet, desolate spot?" she asks with a nervous laugh as she slings an arm around Max's shoulder. An attempt to keep herself steady. 

She holds it there as they head back towards the junkyard, feels Max's own arm wrap around her waist, small hand clutching tightly at the hem of her jacket. And Chloe knows this means something. All of it: Max, her powers, that vision. Even though Chloe's not sure what it means exactly, and is almost totally sure she doesn't deserve to be protected like this—isn't worthy of any of that shit Max just went through back there. And even though there's no explanation for any of it, and the world feels like it really is hurtling under Chloe's feet at a thousand miles an hour, catapulting her forward into something unknown and amazing and insane—this is real. It means something. And maybe that means Chloe does, too. 

"It was cool to spend time in your lair," Max says, leaning into Chloe's side. "But I have to get back to school before my next class." 

And Chloe is about to laugh, to tell her not to be so dumb, that badasses with superpowers don't need to go to class; none of that shit matters anymore. But instead she looks up, sees a figure up ahead—red flannel and strands of golden hair fluttering in the breeze as it hops from rail to rail. 

"Since you're the mysterious superhero, I'll be your faithful chauffeur and companion," Chloe says. 

"My powers might not last, Chloe." 

"That's okay—we will..." 

A deer flashes from the trees, darts across the tracks right in front of Rachel and shoots into the junkyard. Gone almost as soon as it appears. The ghost gasps with delight, spins to Chloe with hands clasped together; face bright and filled with wonder, like a child's. Did you see that? her expression asks. Did you? Did you?

Chloe grips Max tighter. 

"... Forever."



Chapter Text

March 2011
(Two years before…)

They did make it to LA. 

Took the Greyhound down from Portland during spring break of their junior year. The Greyhound, because Joyce insisted on paying for Chloe's ticket—a birthday treat—and didn't have the money for a flight. The Greyhound, because Rachel said it would be more romantic on the open road, and they both knew the truck would never make it. 

And it had been romantic. Kind of. Started romantically, anyway; Chloe squashed up in a restroom stall at the Portland bus terminal with her hand down Rachel’s pants. Hot, shaky breath on her neck and the cherry of Rachel's joint crackling in her ear. Enough to ignore the stench of piss, the glops of toilet paper glued to the floor that faded to nothing as Rachel gripped her shoulders, nails scratching deep into denim, as she shook against her. Chloe didn't even notice her own hair burning until they could both smell it—sweet and sulphurous—infused with the pungent smoke from the joint that had lit it. Oh my God, Chloe you're on fire! Rachel tossed the roach into the bowl, palms flapping around Chloe's head as Chloe struggled to free her own hand from beneath Rachel's fly. Holy shit! Chloe! I'm so sorry! At last Rachel grabbed at those singed strands, put them out with her sleeve before they both looked at each other… and dissolved into laughter. 

The trip took nearly twenty-four hours, stopping off in tiny towns and rest stops for bathroom breaks and cigarettes. They documented it with photographs of gas stations and sunsets, of endless forest and sky; the blurry blue of Welcome to California as they rushed across the state line and left Oregon behind; with a selfie in Weed, CA where the Greyhound pulled in for a rest stop in the quiet depths of the dark morning. They'd jumped off the bus to smoke the contraband joint they'd smuggled across the border, because it was an opportunity they couldn't miss, even though it was 3am and the icy mountain chill seeped right through into their bones. Shivering grins and peace signs for the camera before crunching out the roach into the gravel. 

Chloe spent much of the journey sitting by the window, forehead resting on the cool glass and staring out at patchworks of lights twinkling in the distance. Even now, she still takes long drives in the dark, as far out of Arcadia Bay as her truck will take her. Searches for flickering lights on distant horizons. Anything to remind her of those glorious twenty-four hours with Rachel's head on her shoulder, mouth slightly open in sleep. The warmth of her, the smell of her, fighting against the funk of the Greyhound. The scenery didn’t matter. All Chloe needed was inside that bus. She slept only in fits and starts, in nods of the head and unintended forays into unconsciousness. She didn't want to sleep. Sleeping would make the hours pass too quickly. So instead she sat there, earbuds in, listening to her favourite songs as I-5 flew past. She could have stayed there forever.

It was just before dawn when the mountains spewed them out north of Redding. The dark hills, lakes, and forests giving way to vast plains and neat rows of almond trees; a flat expanse all the way down through Central Valley, bordered by the blue shadows of the distant Sierra Nevada melting into the sky. Beyond those peaks, a young sun emerged through wisps of flamingo cloud, feather brushstrokes of pink and gray over the jagged horizon. It was so beautiful, one of the most beautiful things Chloe had ever seen. She pulled her marker from her pocket, wrote out the only lines of Shakespeare she knew onto the window—lines she'd tried to memorize from The Tempest last year, the ones Rachel said were her favorite. She'd never told Rachel she'd learned them, but the way Rachel had said them that night, up on that stage, had taken Chloe’s breath away:

Our revels now are ended…

She struggled with some of it, got it as close as she could. But the last line, that one she knew:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

When she finished she nudged Rachel awake, asked her what she thought of those words, now etched with permanent marker on that grimy glass, on the backdrop of that blazing pink sky. And Rachel had looked up at Chloe, blinked, smiled a drowsy smile.

“Do you like it?" Chloe asked. "I probably fucked it up…”

Rachel’s smile widened as she kissed Chloe’s shoulder, and the kiss said, yes, yes you did, but it doesn’t matter.

“It’s perfect,” Rachel said, reaching across to run her fingers over the writing. “You’re perfect.” 

And Chloe liked that, yes she did. 

 


 

The day had already stretched out well into the afternoon by the time the coach pulled into Los Angeles Bus Station. Sera had texted to say she’d pick them up one block over on Wilson, so Chloe and Rachel had slung their bags over their shoulders and headed outside, blinking into the low California sun. That's what Chloe noticed first—the hot sun on her back as they left the terminal building. In Arcadia, they’d left behind a bleak fifty degrees and rain; but here the air was dry, crisp. It was March. How could it be this warm in March?

They found a spot to wait by the curb, pushed their backs up against a chain-link fence. The noise and dust of the city drifted down the street. It wasn't anything like Chloe had imagined. She'd expected new, shiny, big, bold. But the buildings opposite were boarded up and peppered over in tags. Weeds curled up through the cracks between curb and sidewalk, and the faint smell of burger grease and sewage tinged the air. Rachel was bouncing against the fence like a puppy wanting to play, kept twirling her phone in her hand, hopping from foot to foot like she needed to piss or something. 

“Isn’t this amazing?” she asked, grabbing Chloe’s shoulder. “I can’t believe we’re here. I have so much to show you!”

Chloe was just about to shush her with a kiss, when an engine revved up the street and an old, cherry-red Mustang convertible roared around the corner, jolting to a stop beside them. Top down and some kind of retro rock pumping from the stereo, two women in the front seat. 

“Rachel! Chloe!” Sera sprang up from the passenger seat, arms waving. Chloe hardly recognized her; she looked so different here, on her own turf—huge aviators and a biker jacket. Her blonde ponytail whipped out behind her as she sprang out onto the sidewalk, threw her arms around Rachel. She looked like she belonged here, in this place. So much more alive than she’d appeared in Arcadia Bay. Maybe Arcadia Bay just had that effect on people. 

“Oh my Gawwwwd !” The driver, another woman around Sera’s age, killed the engine and burst from the car; a whirlwind in red-rimmed shades and a floppy Fedora, and a voice that carried halfway down the street. She was suddenly on top of the startled Chloe, grabbing her face with both manicured hands. “Oh my God, look at these cuties!” the woman cried, tapping Chloe’s cheeks. “Sera! You did not warn me how adorable they are!” 

“Girls, this is Anne,” Sera said, popping open the trunk as Anne engulfed Rachel, too. “Please don’t let her scare you.”

“Oh, stop it!” Anne said, slipping the bag from Rachel's shoulder unasked and slinging it in the back of the Mustang. “I’m just excited to finally meet you guys! Sera never stops talking about you!”

She held out her hand to Rachel and then Chloe. Her grip was iron, silver bangles jangling on her wrist . “Anne Lamont, Attorney at Law,” she said as Sera rolled her eyes, not without affection. Anne waved her away. “Hey, I was a real hot shot around here!" she said, draping an arm around Rachel's shoulders. "Well, until I ended up in the drunk tank, singing Moonage Daydream with one of my firm's biggest clients.” She shrugged. “I lost that account.”

Anne swished away to help a struggling Sera cram the bags—mainly Rachel's bag—into the Mustang's shallow trunk. Chloe leaned closer to Rachel. "That's Sera's lawyer?" she whispered. 

"No," Rachel answered. "Her sponsor." 

"Her what?" 

"C'mon, girls, get in," Anne said, opening the driver's door and flipping over the front seat so Chloe and Rachel could climb into the back. "Or are you too embarrassed to ride with two old fuckups in a Ford Mustang?" 

"Are you kidding?" Rachel said, shimmying across cream-colored leather. She stretched her arms wide across the backrest, aimed her smile at the sky. "You've just described, like, every second car in the city." 

Anne's mouth opened in protest. She paused. "Third, actually."

"It's a cool car," Chloe said clambering through into the back to join Rachel. 

Sera twisted around from the passenger seat, covered her mouth so Anne couldn't see. "It's a rental," she whispered gleefully. 

"Shh! Sera!" Anne exclaimed, clunking the front seat back into place and slipping behind the wheel. "We have a tourist among us. Don't kill the dream!" 

Sera shot her a grin as she pulled her belt across her shoulder. "You mean I shouldn't tell them you usually drive a Prius? —ow!" Anne swatted her arm, but they both laughed.

Anne gave herself a quick once-over in the sun visor mirror and tightened the scarf under her chin. “Come on, ladies," she said. "Time is memories. Let's go!" 

Sera and Anne had known each other almost three years, Chloe found out, as Anne pummeled her with words like the wind battering her face. But Chloe barely made out any of it. Just that Anne was a lawyer, but not Sera's lawyer, Sera’s actual lawyer was Anne's ex-husband. Or something. Chloe let Anne's voice flap around her as she pushed the bangs from her eyes, stared out at the endless eight-lane highways, at the palm trees, the sunlit vastness of this place that Rachel once called home. 

Beside her, Rachel was leaning forward, draped over the seatback to talk to Sera; sunlight dancing in her hair as those golden strands fluttered around her blue feather earring. She looked so perfect in that moment. Like a girl in a music video—shades on and beaming smile bursting through the rippling air around her. The sight of her made Chloe's blood flow thicker, her breath hitch in her chest. And she thought that however long she lived, even if by some miracle she reached a hundred or more, she would always remember how Rachel looked right then, in the back of that car.

Would remember it, just as she remembers it now, after everything.  As if her memory had photographed that image and imprinted it forever. 

"You okay?" Rachel mouthed, catching Chloe's stare. Chloe nodded, too fast, too enthusiastic. Like her Mr. Bobblehead after she'd given him a flick. Rachel smiled, drawing a stray strand of hair from her mouth, and turned her attention back to Sera, who's hand was draped around Rachel's wrist, fingers playing with the threads of that old bracelet. The two of them seemed so easy with one another, despite the limited time they'd had together. Watching them caused Joyce to intrude in on Chloe's thoughts. When was the last time Chloe had been like that with her own mom—clutching the seatback to laugh in Joyce's ear while her mom held her hand? There must have been a time. But if there was, Chloe couldn’t recall it. The gauzy sunlight settled around Rachel and Sera as they laughed together, blurred them like an old movie filter—a flickering film reel of someone else's life. From the driver's seat, Anne's scarf fluttered out behind her. Chloe drummed her fingers on the door frame, looked away and back out over the highway. 

And then they stopped. Lurched to a standstill so quickly that Chloe thought an animal must have run out in front of them. But when she looked up the road, all she could see for miles ahead was a sea of traffic stacked bumper to bumper, where before there had been clear highway. 

"LA." Rachel shrugged. 

  “You need a pair of sunglasses, honey,” Anne said, eyes catching Chloe's in the rear view as they waited. She must have caught her squinting into the low sun. “Rachel, did you not tell poor Chloe how to pack?”

Rachel looked across the back seat, eyes hidden behind her own Ray-Bans. She grinned. “I don’t think Chloe has any,” she said. “We don’t get much sun in Oregon." 

“Here,” Anne said, reaching over to knock the glove compartment open with her fist and pulling out a spare pair of shades. She passed them over to Chloe. They were big, tortoise shell. Rachel laughed. 

“Are you Russian, Chloe?" Anne asked. "You look a little Russian, or Polish or something.”

“Um… I think I'm just American.”

Anne’s red-rimmed shades jiggled in the mirror as she laughed. “Oh, honey, no such thing! Everyone's from somewhere else you go back far enough. There's definitely a Slav in those cheekbones, I'm telling you. What's your last name?”

“Price.”

“Hmm. Well…What was your mom?”

“Jameson.”
“Really? Like the whiskey? Oh boy, your mom and I would have gotten on swimmingly! And Scottish, too!"

"Jameson's Irish," Sera interrupted. 

Anne stopped mid-flow, threw a glance at Sera, who smiled. "Well… Yes. The drink. But the name is Scottish. Anyway,"—Anne waved her hand dismissively—"here's the interesting thing; you'd think my name—Lamont—is French, wouldn't you? You know, 'The Mountain' or something like that, but actually it's Scottish. And not only that, it means law man. Or in my case law lady. Isn't that great?”

Sera chuckled. “She's insanely proud of that.”

“Is that why you got into law?” Rachel asked.

“No, I found out years after! I guess some things are just meant to be, you know?" The traffic started to move up ahead and the Mustang jumped underneath them as Anne hit the gas just a little too hard.  "Hey," she said as if something had suddenly occurred to her. "I’ve got an idea. Let's ditch the traffic and make a pit-stop!” And she dragged the steering wheel sharply over to the right as they passed the next exit, flying off the highway to a blaze of horns behind her.

 


 

From the Griffith Observatory they could see the whole city, laid out below them like something out of a sci-fi movie. The sun was almost down over the ocean and downtown was lit up in an incandescent sprawl of glass and metal. 

Chloe hadn’t seen many cities, but she remembered the first time she'd seen the Portland skyline as a kid; a gaggle of high-rises sprouting up through the murky grey on the other side of the Marquam Bridge. After Arcadia Bay, even that had seemed like something magical, otherworldly. But this… this was something else. 

As they approached the edge of the viewing platform, Rachel spun to face her, arms spread wide, the whole of LA her sparkling backdrop: “Some day, Price, all this will be ours!”

“Fuck. That is... big," Chloe managed, looking out over the low stone wall that separated them from the edge of everything. She caught Rachel's sideways grin. "What?”

“Nothing." Rachel said. "It's just... I've been up here a million times, seen this skyline a million times. But I've never seen you looking at it. Your whole face is… amazing." Her fingers found Chloe's where they clutched the warm stone, curled around them. "You're amazing. It's like seeing it again for the first time." 

She looked up at Chloe then, eyes burning beneath dark lashes; and behind her, that sprawling city of dreams seemed to blur, to fade into nothing, until all that was left was Rachel's face in the gathering dusk, the carpet of lights that stretched all the way to the ocean reflected in her stare. Chloe reached up a hand to touch her, to gently stroke the sweep of her cheekbone with her thumb, brush the bangs from her face. The way she always did when Rachel just looked too beautiful and Chloe couldn't think of anything to say. And usually Rachel would lean into her, press her cheek against Chloe's cupped palm with a drowsy smile, find Chloe's hand with her own. And for a moment that's what she did this time, too. Her eyes closed and a soft sigh left her lips, until she flicked her eyes open, shot a glance towards the parking lot to where Sera and Anne waited by the Mustang. 

Chloe said nothing, felt that familiar contraction in her chest as she slipped her hand away; looked back at the view as it flooded back into full focus, lights flickering in the dark orange of the dying sun. “So the first of our four corners, huh?” she asked. “No wonder Arcadia Bay feels like a cage after this.”

“Yeah…" Rachel put both hands on the wall and leaned out over it. "I've been so lucky. I've seen so many incredible sights. London, Paris, Rome…” 

“Attack ships burning off the shoulder of Orion…”

Rachel's laugh hung in the warm air like the chime from a bell. “C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.”

Chloe's heart stopped. “You watched it?”

“Of course I watched it. It's your favorite movie, dummy.”

"But you said it was hella boring."

"It is. But it means something to you." Rachel looked back up at Chloe, her fingers finding the tip of her feather earring. "You can quote me Shakespeare," she said. "And I will finally do justice to the words of Ridley Scott."

"Hampton Fancher and David Peoples." 

"What?" 

"Ridley Scott was the director. He didn't write it." 

"Whatever. Geek."

Chloe jostled Rachel's shoulder with her own. "I can't believe you finally watched Blade Runner for me," she said. She tried to make it sound like she was teasing even though her heart was on fire. 

“It wasn't all bad. Deckard is super hot.”

It seemed a weird thing to say, Chloe thought later. In that moment, the two of them alone, staring into each other's eyes. Even if the statement wasn't wrong exactly. Deckard was kind of hot. Objectively. It was just… A weird thing to say. But at the time, Chloe didn't analyze it. She let the words drift off down the hillside, dissolve into the lights below. 

“Word," she said. 




 

Sera lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Mar Vista, a leafy neighborhood not far from Santa Monica, with trees lining the streets and detached houses in sun-bleached pastels. Her building was two storeys and russet red, a heap of vines and little purple flowers plunging down over the balcony railings. Kind of fancy from the outside, Chloe thought, although Inside was basic—an open-plan living room with minimal furniture and no real accents, all white and 90° angles. It looked like the kind of place someone existed, not lived. Hastily tidied papers had been shuffled into piles and pillows straightened on the simple fold-out settee. Efforts betrayed by the dust bunnies in the corners, the stained rings on the counter under the coffee maker, the stale tang of cigarettes. It reminded Chloe of her own mom's attempts to tidy up for visitors. 

“Sorry it's not very cozy," Sera said, throwing her keys down on the counter. She looked small, suddenly. Like the emptiness was too big for her. "I bet Rose does a much better job of all that kind of thing. I don’t have much stuff. Just what I need. All the stuff I ever cared about I sold at one time or another.” 

Rachel placed the pizza they had picked up down the street on the counter, eyes skimming over everything. Impossible to tell what she was really thinking. "It's cool," she countered at last, and Chloe realized it must be her first time here, too. "It's a really cool space."

Sera flicked them an accommodating smile as she stepped over to the balcony doors, snapped up the clasp and slid them open with a grunt. “The one thing I do have is my orchids,” she said, slipping out onto the balcony, which was alive with at least a dozen orchid plants in clay pots of all colours. “You know how many of these things I killed in the beginning? Kept watering them too much. Then I realized you just need to leave them to do their thing. Since then, they just don't stop flowering!" She looked over the balcony, held up two fingers. Chloe guessed it was at Anne who they had left downstairs, parked up in the Mustang. "Two minutes," Sera called down and came back inside. "You girls will have to excuse me. I have to go out this evening, just for a couple of hours, but I'll leave you guys a key."

She opened the door into the bedroom, flicked on the lightswitch, and gestured Chloe and Rachel inside. It looked a lot like the living room; not much in there except a bed and a built-in closet. A couple of generic poster prints on plain, white walls. On a small nightstand stood a lamp and two photos in silver frames—a recent picture of Sera and Rachel that must have been taken during one of Rachel’s recent visits, and another, a close-up of a small baby with huge dimples. Rachel.

“You girls can take the bedroom,” Sera said as Rachel slipped past her into the room, dropping her bag by the door. Chloe followed. “So I don’t have many house rules. But just no drugs or booze in here, okay?  And don’t think I couldn’t smell the weed on you when you arrived. You get caught with drugs here and your dad will make sure you’ll never be back. Smoke as many cigarettes as you like, God knows I do. Just make sure you open a window." She paused. "Although smoking's bad. Obviously. Is that a mom thing to say?" A tiny laugh trailed from her lips as she scurried over to the nightstand, straightened the lamp, wiped down the surface with her palm. Straightened. "Anne told me to warn you that I can be a little… forthright sometimes. I can speak out of turn. Just ignore me when that happens. I don't wanna scare you. I'm just nervous. Can you tell I'm nervous?"

A horn beeped up from the street below, bursting through the balcony doors and through into the bedroom. Anne's voice  called up after it: “Sera, you coming?”

"What's a sponsor?" Chloe asked a couple of minutes later, after Sera had swept up her keys and bag from the counter, given Rachel a squeeze and hurried outside, leaving Chloe and Rachel hanging over the balcony watching the old Mustang tear away down the street. 

"A sponsor's like another addict who's been a long time in recovery," Rachel answered, stroking orchid petals between her fingers. "A bit like a mentor."

"You never met Anne before?" 

"No, but Sera's mentioned her a few times." 

Rachel was still staring off down the dark street. 

"You know where they went?" Chloe asked. 

"Narcotics Anonymous," Rachel said as her phone began to hum in her pocket. "She doesn't miss them." She looked down at her phone screen and rolled her eyes. "Well, that didn't take long," she said, waggling the phone at Chloe—three letters lit up on the screen below a smiling picture of James in a navy polo shirt: Dad . Rachel clicked her tongue and put the phone to her ear as Chloe closed her eyes, tried to fight down that wave of nausea, that yearning to see her own dad's scuffed grin on her phone screen. He hadn't lived long enough for her to hate him. That didn't seem fair. 

"Hi," she heard Rachel say blankly as she padded inside. "Yeah. Uh-huh. Everything's fine." The bedroom door closed behind her. 

Chloe headed back into the living room, pulled up a stool next to the counter and flipped open the pizza box. Pepperoni with extra jalapeños, Rachel's favorite. She pulled out a slice, grease running down her thumb as she folded it between her fingers. Took a bite and immediately winced at the heat of it. It seemed weird for Sera to drop them off and run on their first night there, but Rachel had warned her that Sera was a creature of habit, a keeper of lists—every segment of her day, her week, carefully outlined. There was a calendar affixed to the refrigerator with a lighthouse-shaped magnet, spidery handwriting indicating where Sera needed to be and when. On that day, the calendar said NA Meeting, 8pm . So that's where Sera was. 

From the bedroom, Chloe could hear Rachel's muffled, monosyllabic replies to James, the floorboards creaking as she paced the room. She still had no idea how Rachel had persuaded him to let them come down here unsupervised. Even though it had been one of the first things Chloe had asked when Rachel had announced the trip, seconds after bursting through the door of Chloe's bedroom and pinning her to the bed with a whooping, we're going to LA, bitch! But when Chloe had suggested James must have been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by a cyborg because seriously, that's the only way your dad would ever let you go to LA alone with me, Rachel had just shrugged, tapped the tip of Chloe's nose. Who cares? We're going! And then she'd kissed Chloe so hard that Chloe definitely wasn't going to think about James anymore after that. 

In Sera's apartment, the door to the bedroom clicked open. "Prick," Rachel whispered to herself as she stepped back into the living room. She caught Chloe's eye and the frown slid from her face, thawed into a mischievous grin. "Let's go out," she said. 

 


 

They took an Uber down to Santa Monica pier. Headed down to the beach because they didn't have much cash on them and Rachel said the pier was a rip-off and looked better from a distance anyway. They pulled off their sneakers and strolled down the sand where they could still hear the screams from the roller coaster cut with the forever-drone of the ocean. The lights of the pier shone in a blazing glow before them,  soft wet sand rippling neon against the night. 

“Race you!” Rachel swiped Chloe across the ass with her sneaker—hard, way too hard—and took off at a sprint. Chloe spluttered curses and ran after her, but Rachel streaked ahead, just as she always did when they raced, the gap between them growing larger the closer they got to the water. Chloe's lungs were already bursting as the soft sand between her toes gave way to cool sludge where the beach dissolved into the black Pacific. Rachel waited for her, several steps out into the surf, the waves lapping at her knees and her rolled-up pants soaked through. 

"Okay, Usain, you win," Chloe said, wading out to join her. It was warmer than the ocean up in Oregon, but still fucking freezing. 

“Tag!” Rachel yelled just as Chloe drew level. She bent to scoop up the water, threw an armful into Chloe's chest. 

Chloe gasped as the icy water hit. “Oh, you're gonna die, bitch!”

Rachel threw her head back and laughed, the ocean spraying up around her calves as she splashed back to the beach. Chloe sprinted after her, chasing her in circles around the lifeguard hut, the sand kicking up so high it stung her eyes and gritted her tongue. She caught her at last—or Rachel let her—tackled her to the ground, both of them gasping with laughter as they hit the sand. They grappled for a while until Rachel got the upper hand, flopping Chloe over onto her back and straddling her waist. Her grin was huge and white, the lights from the Ferris wheel glowing behind her head like a neon halo.

“Give up?” Rachel asked, breathing heavily as she gripped Chloe's wrists. She looked down, and a silence settled between them, so that all Chloe could hear above the tumbling waves and distant screams of delight from the pier was her own heart thumping in her chest. Rachel bit her lip, didn't take her eyes from Chloe's. And then she leaned down and kissed her. 

It took Chloe by surprise at first, that kiss. Rachel didn't kiss her in public. Not like this. Salt and sand on her tongue, tumbling coils of ocean-wet hair rough against Chloe's cheeks. 

Chloe let Rachel end it, felt Rachel's smile widen against her own before she eventually pulled away and curled back up to sitting. Rachel grinned up at the stars, looked like she was about to say something, but Chloe bucked her hips, throwing her off into the sand. 

“Give up?" Chloe laughed as Rachel swore and flicked sand at her. "Never!”

Still they ran. Up and down the beach under the lights from the pier. Footprints left behind in the wet sand, until the waves broke over them, filled them with swirling water and erased all traces. Imprints existing only for seconds, but etched into eternity; fleeting memories that said: If only for now, if only in this moment, we were here.

 


 

It took less than five minutes for Chloe to decide Venice Beach was the coolest place on Earth. The chaos and color of it—ramshackle buildings spray-painted with vibrant murals, bricks lost beneath layers of art, slogans and signs. Even the palm trees were doused in graffiti. 

It was the next day and the mercury was already tipping 90 as the crowds jostled for space on the boardwalk. It smelled of fast food and salt and sun, if the sun had a smell. It seemed to soak into everything, heat dripping from the concrete like candle wax. Scorched Chloe's shoulders as she bounced along under the endless palms, hopping from paving slab to paving slab and a cigarette wobbling between her lips as she sang under her breath, “Don't step on the cracks or you'll break your momma's back.” 

“Do we have to sing that song?” Sera asked with a laugh. She was walking several paces behind, arm in arm with Rachel. “You're making me nervous!”

Chloe stopped, pushed the pair of heart-shaped shades she was wearing onto the top of her head. Shades she had just bought from one of the hundreds of stalls a few meters back; she and Rachel trying on endless pairs of all colors and shapes—flamingo wings and gold dollar signs—sticking their tongues out at each other and posing in the tiny mirror until the vendor had started to growl and Sera had dragged them away. So Chloe ended up with a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses with red plastic rims, and until two days ago she would have died before wearing shades like that, but Rachel said they looked cute and that kind of made it okay. 

"Don't sweat it," Chloe said as the others drew up next to her. "I got this." She steadied herself. Coiled her body ready to spring. "I—" she said, hopping over the next crack. 

"Never—" Another hop. 

"Step—" A jump. 

"On—" A leap. 

"Cra—" 

As she took off, a woman in too-tight leggings, jetted past on a pair of rollerblades. She knocked Chloe's shoulder and disappeared into the crowd with a raised hand and a high-pitched soooory! Chloe stumbled, looked down at her feet; the intersection between paving stones criss-crossed perfectly beneath her sneaker. She shrugged. "Well, I guess that means my mom's fucked.”  

“Do you get along with your mom?” Sera asked as Chloe fell into step beside them. It seemed strange, to think about Joyce right then, all the way back in Arcadia Bay. Joyce was for cold weather and painful memories and an aching, gnawing sensation deep down that Chloe had no words for, and no desire to try and find those words. Joyce was… Joyce. It was the first time Chloe had thought about her that day. “I did,” she said. “Until she married a Nazi pig.”

Sera looked confused. “Chloe isn't fond of her step-dad,” Rachel explained.

“I see," Sera said. "Well, never judge a woman by the pig she's sleeping with, Chloe. You'd do well to remember that. I'm sure she misses you.”

“Nah,” Rachel said, stopping by a rack filled with postcards and turning it slowly, glossy images of surfers, palm trees and golden sand flashing in the sunlight. “With Chloe out of the state it'll be wild, animal sex with David every night.”

Sera chuckled. “She's a lucky woman."

Chloe glared at Rachel who was staring intently at the postcards with a roguish grin. “Um… Yo," she said. "I'm like right here! And barf!”

“What does she do?” Sera asked. 

“You mean apart from sigh a lot and be disappointed in me? She's a waitress. At the diner. Well, sorta the manager.”

“Good for her.”

“Not really. I mean, she does a manager's job on a waitress's salary. Kinda sucks but it's not like there are any other jobs in town, so…”

"Ooh, how about this for our hideout?" Rachel said, a novelty plastic Los Angeles plate flashing between her palms.

They bought a couple of postcards to send to themselves back in Oregon, stopped for ice-cream at the next stall before heading on further past the motley crowds of artists and hawkers, rollerbladers and look-at-me's . Body builders doing pull ups in nothing but baggies and blindingly bright hi tops. Some of those guys were huge—blue-cheeked and blown up, like that kid from Willy Wonka who got pumped into a giant blueberry. Chloe idly wondered what would happen if she stuck a pin in those muscles. Would they go pop? Shrivel up into nothing like their dicks?  

Jutting out onto the beach was the famous Venice Beach Skatepark. They pushed their way through the tourists to the railings where they could see guys—mainly guys— in cargo shorts twist circles through the air, landing their boards with a clank against the concrete slopes, wheels swishing and shoulder blades pumping as they coiled for their next trick. One guy flew right by them, flashed them a white smile as he whipped past. He was shirtless, woven bangles bouncing on his wrist and a tribal tattoo hugging his shoulder; kind of generic, Chloe thought. She would barely have noticed him if she hadn't glanced across to catch Rachel staring, her body crushed up against the railings and eyes fixed on the dude's wiry back as he rolled away towards the other side of the park. 

“So what would you like to do when you're older, Chloe?” Sera asked, appearing at Chloe's shoulder, tongue curling around her vanilla cone. 

“Huh?" Chloe snapped her eyes away from Rachel, wiped the melted ice-cream from her chin. "I...uh. You mean like a job?" 

"Like a job." 

"I dunno. I haven't really thought about it," Chloe said. And it wasn't a lie. She really hadn't. Even though her grades were better and everyone now seemed to have an opinion on what she should do 'in the future'. As if the future was a country you could just travel to. If you wanted to. Just get on a plane and go there. Buy your ticket. And she figured maybe some people did just buy a ticket. Maybe it did all work out for them the way they planned. But not Chloe. Chloe was pretty sure she'd never even make it to the goddamn airport. "Dunno," she said with a shrug. And because she couldn't think of anything to say, and her mind was still fixed on the way Rachel had eye-fucked that skater, she just did what she normally did, said something dumb: "Maybe a gangster. Maybe a pimp. Drug dealer to the stars…" She heard it as soon as she said it. Heard it and cringed so hard she thought her teeth might break. "Shit. Sorry. Sorry.”

If Sera was offended she didn't show it. She waved the blunder away. 

“Chloe's going to be a scientist,” said Rachel, squeezing Chloe's hand. As if Chloe becoming a scientist was something they'd discussed before. Which they hadn't. It always made Chloe wonder, when Rachel said things like that, had she planned out Chloe's life, too? Had she thought about who Chloe would be and what she'd do? What they'd do? Did she think about that? Chloe had read somewhere about how free will was an illusion, causal determinism and all that. Did it apply to everyone, she wondered. Was everything really part of the universe's grand scheme, or did that just apply to those with a Rachel to guide them? A will so free it could overcome physics itself. In any case, Chloe kind of liked it, felt comfort in it: Going along with Rachel's plan. Whatever it was. Because if Rachel had a plan for Chloe, that meant she had a plan for them , right? Together. All Chloe had to do was not fuck it up. 

"Yeah," she said. "I guess."  

“You still want to be an actress, Rachel?" Sera asked as they strolled along the path that curved around the skatepark. "Or is your father still determined to turn you into a lawyer?”

"You know he got me a copy of Aristotle's Rhetoric as a Christmas gift?" 

Sera scrunched her nose. "Uh-huh, sounds like James." 

“All that can wait, anyway," Rachel said, looping her arm with Sera's. "I want to see the world—that's the number one priority. And you know I love to act, so I thought maybe an international theater troupe for a few years.”

“High brow, huh? You must get that from Rose.” Sera's expression clouded, and she looked down, flipped open her purse in search of a cigarette. 

Rachel's brow twitched. “ Maybe. I don't know. Mom isn't much of a performer.”

Sera offered Chloe a smoke. Pulled it from the packet as the irony of that statement fell around the three of them like a fog. But before it had a chance to settle, Rachel had hopped up onto the railings next to the path, lowered her voice into a sultry, southern drawl. “He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl," she began. A few people turned to look, but not many. As if even Rachel blended into the background here. Rachel swung on the railing, gave Chloe a wink. And like that, it wasn't Rachel anymore. It was whichever character she was imitating up on that make-shift stage. Chloe would never get over how she did that, changed like that. Totally and completely. 

"When I was sixteen," the girl who had been Rachel continued, "I made the discovery— love . All at once and much, much too completely." Rachel's eyes met Chloe's, breaking the spell just for the briefest moment, until she clasped her hand to her chest, and once again effortlessly shifted into character. "It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that's how it struck the world for me. But I was unlucky. Deluded.”

She was still looking at Chloe as she said it, and a heat crept up Chloe's neck that wasn't only the blaze of the LA sun.

“Hey, that's that movie with Vivienne Leigh," Sera said . She sounded impressed. "Not Gone with the Wind , the other one."

“A Streetcar Named Desire.” Rachel, the real Rachel, dropped down from the railings. 

“Well, I may not know shit about theater, but I've lived in LA my whole life," Sera said. "I know movies. You're really good". 

A stranger's voice called out: "Hey, you want a picture?" 

They turned to see a woman with a buzz cut and huge hooped earrings sitting surrounded by pencil-shaded caricatures of celebrities; stylized, cartoon sketches layered up and stuck over each other—the gap between Madonna's teeth, the mole above Marilyn's lip—some with ripped, yellowing edges that looked like they'd been wheeled out many times. Chloe looked at Rachel, because the woman must have been talking to her, and Rachel herself took a step forward until the woman instead fixed her stare on Chloe. "Twenty bucks for black and white, thirty if we include that awesome blue hair."

If Rachel was surprised, she gathered herself quickly. "Yes! Go on, Price. I'll pay!" And she pushed Chloe down onto the fold-out stool next to the artist. 

"An extra ten bucks for a bit of blue paint?" Chloe said afterwards, as they left the stall and walked back over the grass towards the beach. She held out her completed, and seriously terrible, caricature at arm's length so she could properly appraise it. Apparently her cartoon self was very… pointy. "That's more than I spent on the actual dye." 

"I like it," Rachel said, looking down at her own picture. She had gotten one, too—a sketch which was basically all eyes and dimples. "Why didn't you want one?" she asked Sera, who laughed and took the drawing out of Rachel's hands for a better look.

"My modelling days are well and truly behind me," Sera replied. 

"Dad said you used to be a model.”

Sera scoffed, handed back the drawing. "I wouldn't go that far," she said. "James always had a way of stretching the truth." 

"So what is the truth?" Chloe had seen that look in Rachel's eyes a thousand times before, the one that always craved answers. "Tell me." 

"I wanted to be a model," Sera said. "I even had a few portfolios done, got some good feedback but, well, then I made some bad decisions and we all know how that turned out." She dug around in her purse for another smoke. "Dunno if I'd have made it. Probably a little short. In those days they wanted you to be an amazon, like Cindy Crawford." Her laugh was shallow as she put the cigarette to her lips, took a couple of goes to light it. The lines on her face were sharp, skin pulled tight around her cheekbones, crows feet hidden behind a pair of dark shades and her white smile capped by veneers. But it was obvious she had once been beautiful. From a distance, in the right light, she still was. Chloe remembered that first time Sera and Rachel had met up at the lighthouse, the hazy orange glow of the evening masking her imperfections like a camera filter. So, she'd wanted to be a model… That made sense. 

"Back then, every girl in LA wanted to be a supermodel," Sera continued. "You have no idea how famous they were in the nineties—bigger than the pop stars, the movie stars. They were incredible. Everywhere. On every billboard, on the cover of every magazine. Who wouldn't want a piece of that?"

They wandered over the lawn that separated the boardwalk from the beach, grass dappled in shade from the palm fronds above. Nestled under the trees was a cluster of igloo tents, their canvas worn and washed out by the sun. The corner of a threadbare sleeping bag poked from one, next to another stood a cart stacked with full plastic grocery bags, their handles knotted at the tops. Not trash, Chloe noticed, but belongings. 

Sera's step seemed to quicken as they passed. "I never made it," she said, shooting a glance at the tents. "I think a part of me will always regret that."

"There are so many tents," Rachel said as they turned down onto the beach and walked out towards the ocean. "I don't remember there being so many homeless people here before." And there really were a lot of tents. Chloe turned to look at them—a long line hugging the side of the boardwalk, their faded domes popping up like fall mushrooms from the grass. 

"That's because there weren't so many," Sera said. "It gets worse every year. Some are addicts, some come from out of state. Many just couldn't pay the rent on time. There's a lot of folk around here only one lost pay-check from the streets. That's the reality of it. This time last year a lot of these people had homes just like the rest of us."  

Chloe thought of the final demand notices stacked up on the shelf at home. There had been fewer since David got his job, but she'd still hear him and Joyce argue about it, voices raised when they thought Chloe's stereo was too loud for her to hear, or maybe they just didn't give a shit if she heard at all. Is that where she'd end up? Sharing a dirty igloo tent with her mom and David behind the Two Whales diner? She shuddered. 

The beach was so vast that the ocean didn't seem to get any closer, however far they walked. Half-way up the sand, a group of people were gathered around some musicians playing tin drums—metallic chimes beating out a tune Chloe recognized from somewhere but couldn't place. The scene reminded her of the parties she'd been to down on the beach in Arcadia, gaggles of teens swaying to a beat that most of them would never listen to at home. But here in LA, the crowd looked a lot warmer, beach shorts and floaty floral dresses instead of the traditional Oregon beachwear—a beanie and a ski jacket.

Sera eventually came to a stop a little ways up from the surf, where the sand was still dry and hot. She sat down, Rachel and Chloe folding down next to her. Music from the tin drums floated over, broken only by the purr of the waves and the intermittent shrieks of the swimmers jumping among them, bare limbs slapped pink by the freezing surf. Tourists, Sera and Rachel both said. Chloe stretched her legs out in front of her. They sweltered in her biker pants, the black faux leather assaulted from both sides by the sun from above and the sand burning up from below. Rachel had offered to lend her a pair of shorts before they went out, but Chloe hadn't worn shorts since she was fourteen and she had no plans to start now. Not here. Everyone here was so… bronzed. Including Rachel, whose nut-glossed legs shimmered against the pale sand, deep tan lines already formed around her toes where she'd kicked off her sandals. No, LA was definitely not ready for the polar glare off Chloe's calves. 

Sera slipped off her pumps and dug her feet into the sand, magenta-colored toenails delving below the surface and then dipping back up like painted dolphins playing in the surf. On her ankle was a faded tattoo of a five-point star. A stick and poke, Chloe thought. And not a recent one. Her gaze moved upwards, landing on Sera's arm and her floral sleeve tattoo; intricate blooms of red, purple and blue that wove their way down her left shoulder, winding around her bicep and curling beyond her elbow. Chloe had noticed it before of course but never seen it this close up. The colors were so vibrant, so smooth. Like it was a part of Sera, like she'd been born with it. It was all Chloe could do to stop herself reaching out to touch it. 

"Your tattoo is hella awesome," Chloe said, sifting hot sand between her fingers. "I really want a sleeve like that, but my mom would totally freak."

"Fuck it. Do it anyway," Rachel said, lying back with her hands behind her head.

That's what she'd said before, too. When they'd talked about tattoos and how they’d both definitely get one when they were eighteen. Rachel often found ideas she liked online, would ask Chloe to draw them on her with a Sharpie to see what they looked like. One rainy afternoon, Chloe had drawn a huge, gnarled cherry blossom over Rachel's back, interlacing branches that swooped all the way from left shoulder blade to right hip. She'd spent ages on it, jiggling the Sharpie lid between her teeth as Rachel lay on her stomach reading a novel, kicking her feet up in the air. Afterwards, Rachel had stood topless in front of the mirror, body twisted and head craned over her shoulder to see as much as possible. Holy shit, Chloe, that's so fucking good!

  Now it's your turn, Chloe had said with a grin, pulling off her tank. 

You want me to beat that? Rachel asked. Okay. She grabbed the Sharpie, threw Chloe backwards onto the bed, and in the center of Chloe's chest, on the side of her left tit, she drew a heart shape. Inside it she scribbled words that Chloe couldn't make out, even when she pushed her chin deep into her neck to try and read them. The letters were written backwards. Take a look, Rachel said with a giggle, pulling Chloe to her feet and twirling her around to face the mirror. And there it was, Chloe's new tattoo; the words, now reversed and readable in her reflection and right over her heart. The ink would fade in a few days, she knew that, but still those words seemed to burn down, scorch down through her skin, leaving her branded like fire through flesh—Rachel Amber 4 Ever. 

"If you get a tattoo, make sure it means something to you." Sera's voice broke through from the present. "Tattoos are the stories of your life, each one is a memory. Pick the ones you want to be reminded of."

"What do yours mean?" Rachel asked, propping herself up onto her elbows. 

"Which one?" Sera countered with a smile, holding out her arms and looking down over the various tattoos inked into her skin. 

"The flower sleeve," Rachel said. 

Sera trailed a finger down the blooms on her arm. "Well, it didn't start as big as this. I've added to it over the years. The flowers… they're anemones. The ancient Greeks said they sprang from Aphrodite's tears as she mourned the death of Adonis. Or something like that." She shook loose a small laugh. "That's what the artist told me, anyway. I told him I wanted a flower that represented loss. Each one of these blooms is for a lost friend." She sighed, looked away. "I've had too many of those."

"What does the star mean?" Chloe asked. 

"The star…" Sera looked down at her ankle. "That was the first one I ever had done. Did it myself, actually." She looked across at Rachel who was now sitting cross-legged beside her. "The star was for you, Rachel. It's a nautical star, to guide the way. To remind me to keep following it and one day it might lead me back to you." Rachel smiled, leaned her head against Sera's shoulder. "It was a long journey, but we got there," Sera said as her hand found Rachel's knee. "We got there, didn't we?” 






Chapter Text

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.



Chapter Text

March 2011
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.

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.

“I guess.”

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.

"Sure."

"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?"

"Yeah."

"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?"

"Sure."

"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?"

"Anne?"

"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.

"A little."

"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."

"What?"

"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?”

Rachel flushed.

“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?”

“No.”

“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.

She couldn’t.

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.”

“Dork.”

“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?”

“Sure.”

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