Max wakes up before Chloe, as usual. What isn’t usual is Rachel lying beside her, naked and awake, hand softly stroking her arm.
“Hey,” she murmurs, her hazel eyes shining in the dawn light. She smiles softly, like she’s in a pleasant dream.
“Hey,” Max offers, smiling back.
“Feeling okay? Last night...that was okay, wasn’t it?” Rachel’s voice is quiet, a little shaken.
“Yeah. It was.” As much as it can be right now, at any rate. But things will change eventually.
“Good. I really...I didn’t want to mess it up. I, um, I kinda asked Chloe before we did anything...” Rachel admits, biting her lip, her smile turning apologetic. “She had to, uh, let me know some of my ideas were wrong.”
Max takes a second to process that, but... “That’s actually really sweet,” she says, rolling over and kissing Rachel’s forehead.
Rachel lets out a little laugh. “Glad you think so, because I felt like a huge perv.”
“You are a huge perv,” Chloe mumbles sleepily, cuddling up against Max’s back. “What are we talking about?”
Rachel and Max laugh, their fingers twining together. Max holds tight to Rachel.
“So...when can we do that again?” Rachel asks.
Max sighs happily. “I’m sure we’ll find the time.”
Max looks over her stack of college letters. Rejection, acceptance, rejection, rejection, acceptance. Rachel, laying on her bed across the room with her own paperwork spread out in front of her, sighs dramatically.
“Well the only one that we actually match for is WSU,” she says.
“We don’t have to go to the same college,” Max replies uneasily. “If...if there’s somewhere you’d rather go—”
“I’m actually kind of sick of the elitist shit you get in these fancy schools,” Rachel interrupts. “I wanna go somewhere with a lot of people, a lot of different people. I wanna do clubs that are about more than partying, and keep up the volunteering, and just...I wanna live. And I wanna do that with you and Chloe.”
Max tries not to let the warm feelings that Rachel’s words just gave her distract her from the task at hand. “I...yeah. Okay. If that’s cool with you. It’d save my parents a lot of money and we could, um...save up for something.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed, Max.” Rachel looks over at her. “I want you to be happy. We could get an apartment in Pullman, you could get surgery in summer, and we’d be there to take care of you.”
“I just...I don’t want either of you to give up your future for me.”
“Chloe’s future is you,” Rachel retorts. “And I don’t know what my future is yet. But I want to be with you while I figure it out.”
Max covers her face with her hands. “Rachel, you’re being too romantic right now, I actually can’t deal with this.”
Rachel lets out a high-pitched laugh. “What’s life without a little romance? We’ll make it. I know we will.”
Max jumps at the knock on her door. Her nerves are still a little rattled from class today. Varte had very carefully tiptoed around the reasons Max didn’t want to show the rest of the class her contest-winning collage, and she’d felt people staring at her as she left.
She hopes it’s Rachel, or maybe Chloe coming to congratulate her. But when she opens the door, it’s Victoria standing there, hands on her hips.
“If I’m going to lose, I should at least see what I lost to,” she complains, stepping into Max’s room without so much as a can-I-come-in. “Show it, Caulfield.”
Max folds her arms. “I don’t have it with me. I gave it to Varte.”
“Hmph.” Victoria turns up her nose. “You know I live in Seattle, right, Max? I’ll just go down to that gallery when it’s on display and see it for myself then. Don’t tell me it’s just because it’s got Chloe’s tits in it or something. That’d be really disappointing.”
If Victoria was ever going to be further involved in Max’s life, Max might be worried. If she wasn’t surrounded by people who love her, exactly as she is, she would be afraid of Victoria telling everyone exactly what she’ll see in that gallery.
But Victoria was right on prom night. High school’s over soon. A new part of her life is about to begin, and she might be tired of hiding, anyway.
So all she says is, “Well, I live there too. If you want to talk about it, give me a call once you’ve seen it.” She smiles, hoping her grin is as sinister as Chloe’s is. “I’m sure you’ll find it really interesting.”
“Don’t pull the manic pixie girl shit on me, Max,” Victoria warns. “I’m calling your bluff. Expect a call.”
Victoria turns and leaves, closing the door behind her. Max sits back down at her laptop and re-reads Varte’s email again, still kind of amazed that she just did everything she did this week.
Your submission to the Growth contest was incredibly brave. I had no idea you were trans! Using yourself as the canvas is a time-honored tradition in photography, and you still show such a strong grasp of how to use that little instant camera of yours — and I’m sure that I’ll have to pick your brain about what you did to the film to get these results. Your submission is the best, no question in my mind. But I know how personal it is, and you might not want me to share it with the rest of your classmates. I only want to go ahead if I have your complete and unconditional permission.
I am proud to have been your teacher this year. If you need any letters of recommendation in the future, consider them written and sent.
All the best,
The final movie night of the year has a melancholy tone to it, not at all helped by the choice of Grave of the Fireflies (seriously, Warren?) and the fact that everyone’s done with finals and they’re just waiting for tomorrow, when everyone goes home. Most of them won’t come back.
Once the movie’s over (and Kate has wiped her face on Dana’s shirt) talk turns to where it was always going to.
“So where’s everyone going?” Brooke asks. “I got into MIT.”
“You’re just asking us so you can brag about it,” Chloe accuses.
“Okay, so maybe a little bit, but come on. This is our last day. I don’t wanna just totally lose track of everyone.” Brooke puts an arm around Warren in a rare public display of affection.
“Kate and I are going to go to Oregon State,” Dana says, squeezing Kate close. “We’re roommates in the dorms, we already signed up.”
“Now that’s how you game the system,” Brooke says approvingly. “They probably wouldn’t let me and Warren do that.”
Kate laughs to herself. “That’s one advantage, I guess...”
“We’re going to WSU, before you ask,” Max says. “Me and Rachel. Chloe’s coming too, she’ll be our cook.”
“I can find some crappy service job. Or maybe I’ll do tattoos, I’ve been thinking about it,” Chloe says, stretching out her sleeved-up arm. “We’ll figure it out.”
“You guys seem to be good at that,” Brooke says, smiling.
“You’re the weirdest group of friends I’ve ever had,” Warren says suddenly. “But, like...it’s been pretty great this year. Don’t forget about me just because I’m gonna be stuck here all alone, okay?”
“Don’t worry, little baby nerd,” Chloe says, leaning forward and ruffling Warren’s hair. “I’ll keep an eye on you. You know my Facebook comment game is on point.”
“My grandma called me up, like a real phone call, to ask who that ‘rude girl’ who kept talking about lesbians was,” Warren says, narrowing his eyes.
“Yeah, like I said. On point.” Chloe relaxes and puts her arms around her girlfriends’ shoulders.
“We’ll keep in touch,” Rachel promises. “Max will make us.”
“I do not have a good track record, don’t listen to her,” Max warns.
“Max, you’re supposed to be the responsible one,” Rachel chides. “”If you start slacking like me and Chloe we’re never gonna get anywhere.”
“I’m keeping an eye on you three just to see if you explode next year,” Brooke says. “But...thanks, guys. Really. It’s been a good year.”
“Amazing year,” Rachel sighs. “None of you get to disappear on me.”
“I won’t,” Kate says quietly. “Not ever.”
Max sits on her bed, staring around at all the packed boxes, phone on her lap. She packed the last of her things away this morning. By the end of the day, she’ll be back in Seattle.
She already did her crying last night, nestled between Rachel and Chloe in Chloe’s bed. She should be fine. She knew this was coming. But the room looks so bare and empty now, her photos down from the walls, her posters sealed up, all the signs of this incredible year tucked away. She’ll never come back here. It’ll never be like this again.
She wipes her eyes. Come on, Caulfield. Chloe’s getting off work soon and then you and her and Rachel will have one last outing together. A text lights up her phone.
Are you leaving soon?
My parents should be here to pick me up around 3
Would you mind if I stopped by for a minute? I wanted to tell you something.
You don’t have to ask
A knock comes to her door a second later, meaning Kate was probably standing outside the whole time looking nervous. God, Max will miss her too.
She lets Kate inside, sitting with her on the edge of the bare mattress. She takes a few seconds, looking down at her hands.
“I just wanted to thank you,” Kate says at last. “A-all of you. You, and Rachel, and Chloe. If it hadn’t been for you, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me at that party.”
“Kate, you don’t have to—”
“That was the worst night of my life. But you three came together and helped me, and you stuck by me ever since.” Kate’s voice shakes. “And you just...you helped me realize I love Dana, and you’ve given me something I, I don’t think I’ve had before. I’ve never felt so...so accepted and at home and I didn’t want you to go without telling you how much you mean to me.” Kate sniffs. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
Max gives her a long, silent hug, because what can she even say?
“I’ve never had friends like you before,” Kate admits. “And just...God, I practiced this, but I can’t say anything other than thank you.”
This girl is entirely too cute. “Anytime, Kate,” Max whispers. “We’ll keep up on Skype, okay? Just like during Christmas break.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds nice.” Kate lets out a long breath. “Home’s going to feel like a nightmare after the last couple months.”
“You’ll make it through. You’re strong, Kate.”
“I’m glad at least one of us thinks so,” Kate says with a wet laugh, pulling back and wiping her eyes. Max’s phone buzzes again, Rachel telling her that Chloe’s arrived.
“Chloe’s here,” Max says quietly. “You have a good summer, okay?”
“I’ll try.” Kate rubs her nose as she stands up. “I was supposed to help Dana pack today, anyway. I just...I had to catch you.”
“I’m glad you did.”
Chloe takes them to the junkyard after one last meal at the Two Whales, the mood somber between the three of them. But Chloe has something she wants to show them, and won’t tell them what it is.
She leads them into the hideaway, taking a Sharpie out of her pocket and handing it to Max. She points at two lines of graffiti on the wall.
CHLOE WAS HERE
Rachel was here.
“You were here too,” Chloe says, elbowing her. Max smiles, crouching down to add her name to the list. Rachel embraces her from behind as soon as she’s finished, making her drop her pen. Chloe puts her arms around both of them, tries lifting, fails, and grunts.
“Obviously I gotta hit the gym more. Need to carry one girl over each shoulder,” she says, kissing Max’s cheek. She pulls them over to the seating, well, what can generously be called seating considering it’s really just junk with flat surfaces on the floor, and sits between them.
“So, uh, I got one more thing before you leave.” Chloe reaches into her jacket, and Max remembers a very similar moment from a few months ago, checks Chloe’s neck, and...yeah.
Chloe pulls out a necklace with just one bullet as its pendant, handing it to Rachel. Rachel’s eyes widen, her mouth dropping open. She swallows. “Chloe...”
“I had three,” Chloe says with a soft smile, reaching for Rachel’s hand. “Come on. Put it on.”
Rachel does, still looking awestruck. “Chloe, this is...I thought...”
“You’re just as important to me as Max,” Chloe says firmly, grabbing Max around the waist and pulling her against her side. “And I just...we should all have one. So we’ve got like, a connection, no matter where we are.”
“You are so cheesy and you don’t even admit it,” Max accuses as Rachel snuggles up against Chloe’s side.
“So? What are you gonna do about it?” Chloe challenges.
“Nothing. Stay like this forever.”
“I think I can do that.”
Cuddling in this little corner of the world isn’t the most comfortable thing. But it makes Max think of how Chloe and Rachel must’ve done it a lot, when they needed to escape the rest of the world, and now she’s a part of that experience too.
They stay there, until they have to leave.
Max doesn’t like being on the passenger side of the car, with only Rachel against her instead of both of them. But Rachel’s flight leaves soon, and Chloe will have to drive her to the airport as soon as they drop Max off.
She leans against the door, stomach permanently dropped, eyes watering. It feels cold, despite the oncoming summer heat.
They’d talked, of course, about meeting up sometime in summer, finding some time that worked for all of them. But that’s so far away right now. She just wants to stay.
The truck pulls into the Blackwell parking lot, perhaps for the last time. Chloe parks, staring straight ahead until Max unlocks her door.
“See you in Washington,” she mumbles, and then Chloe utters a quick “fuck” and quickly gets out of her side, running over to hug Max close as soon as she drops out of the truck.
“I love you,” Chloe murmurs as Rachel slides out and joins the group hug. “I’ll text you every day.”
“Me too,” Rachel adds. “We’ll be okay. It’s only three months.”
“I love both of you,” Max says, choking on her words. “I’m gonna miss you like crazy.”
“I know,” Rachel says with a laugh. “Have a good summer, Max. We’ll be there when you come back.”
They separate themselves from Max, each of them giving her a long kiss to remember them by before piling back into the truck. Max watches them go, watches the truck recede into the distance, Rachel turned around and waving at her until they’re out of sight entirely.
Max turns and clambers up onto the wall that divides the parking lot from the quad, dangling her legs over the side and staring at her shoes. It’s not long before her parents show up, parking in the same spot Chloe did and calling her name.
She hops down into her mother’s arms, feeling her squeeze tightly. “Ready to go?”
Not really. But she has to, so Max nods.
Her dad comes up from behind her, patting her on the shoulder. “Had a good year?” he asks, looking down at her. That, she can answer easily.