Chloe’s heart thudded uncontrollably as Max sat up and looked around the room.
Max grasped at the sheets of Chloe’s bed, the dampness of her skin seeping into the cloth. “Where . . . weren’t we at the junkyard?”
Possibilities raced through Chloe’s mind. Had she fucked up with getting her powers to work? Was this a dream? Or maybe this was the start of a vision. But if that were the case, was this Max a figment of her imagination or . . .
Real or not, there was so much Chloe wanted to say. And she had no idea how to say it. It had only been a few hours, but already she’d missed Max so much. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she threw her arms around her best friend.
Max’s hands nervously wrapped around Chloe’s body. “What’s going on? That felt so real—or did we just wake up now?”
Then, a sound as warm as the air around them floated through the dream-house. Someone downstairs was singing an old country song that Chloe had forgotten the name of. Her heart ached harder as she realized who it was.
Max pulled away and stared in shock, taking a moment to listen to the sound. “William? That can’t . . .” She brought a hand to her head as if to think harder, but then her fingers brushed against the wound in the center of her forehead. Her eyes went wide. “Chloe—did I—are we—”
“You are,” Chloe said. “I’m not. Me and Rachel got away.”
For an extended moment, Max looked away, processing Chloe’s words. She brought a hand back up to her head.
Her fingers brushed the bullet-hole again.
Max jerked her hand away with a gasp. “Fuck!”
Footsteps thumped on the stairs, startling them both from their thoughts. A knock came at the door.
“Chloe? Max? Are you slackers up and about yet?”
“Dad?” Chloe asked, right as Max said, “William?”
“Well? Am I alright to come in, or are you kids . . . indecent?”
Max turned back to look at Chloe. “What’s . . . what is this?”
Jesus fuck. Chloe swallowed. “I’ll explain in a bit.” Then, she faced the door and called, “Decent.”
“Well alright then,” his warm voice came through. William swung open the door and stepped inside. He wore the same white t-shirt, gray flannel, and jeans that he had on the day he died. The same clothes he wore every time Chloe saw him. “Great to see you lovely ladies have decided to grace the morning with your presence,” he laughed. “I’ve got some food for you downstairs.”
“Rachel . . .” Max breathed.
“Oh she’s going to sleep through all of this.” He gave them a comforting smile. One that squeezed at Chloe’s heart. “She’ll be alright. Promise. Cross my heart, and all that jazz.”
Chloe shot Max a nervous glance before sitting up all the way and crawling over Rachel to get off the bed. Their sleeping love didn’t even stir. The sheets rustled behind her as Max slid out as well. When Chloe approached the door, William swung his arm over her shoulder. She leaned into his body, and he twisted around to ruffle Max’s dripping hair before the three of them started downstairs.
“By the way,” her dad said as he walked, “I want to thank you for trying to save me, Max.” Chloe’s thoughts drifted back to the timeline where he lived and she ended up paralyzed. Part of her, and a big fucking part at that, would rather be paralyzed and dead if it meant her dad could live. But in that timeline, Rachel still died.
As if reading her mind, her dad continued, “Although if I had to choose, I’d much rather let Chloe live her life. But it means the world that you cared enough to try and fix things for us.”
“Uh, yeah.” Max didn’t respond past that. Chloe wondered what she was thinking. Maybe about injecting morphine into her veins. Killing Chloe with her own hands. The memory of the cool liquid flowing through her body swept through the living girl’s mind. So cold, and then so, so warm. As if the air itself was hugging her. What a way to die.
Chloe shuddered. She hoped she never had to feel like that again.
Her dad squeezed her shoulder and smiled.
Chloe and Max sat at the kitchen table as her dad brought forth several plates with bacon, eggs, and pancakes. Then he brought three glasses of orange juice and sat with them to eat. The girls eyed the food nervously. Would dream food help at all?
“Eat up,” Chloe’s dad prodded. “You’ll need your strength for what’s to come.”
Chloe clenched her teeth. “And what is to come?”
With a shrug, her dad said, “Well, I’m not entirely sure. But it’s important to face it head-on with full tanks.”
Chloe and Max traded a look before the two of them started stacking their plates with food. As they did, her dad folded his hands, bent his head down, and closed his eyes, praying to something. It only lasted a moment before his head shot back up and his grin returned.
“Eat up,” he said again.
Chloe brought a forkful of eggs to her mouth. And she almost cried. Her mom’s cooking was delicious. It always had been. But it had been years since she’d tasted her dad’s recipes. And his food always had a strange touch, something special that made it taste different. He’d always insisted it was love, but Chloe knew he’d added something to make it taste unique.
Max seemed to taste it too, as she closed her eyes and scrunched her brows together.
After their first bites, they wolfed down the rest of their food, both suddenly famished. Chloe’s dad watched, almost protectively. A guardian in the chaos.
As they ate, something remarkable happened—Chloe almost dropped her fork when she saw it. The hole in Max’s head slowly knitted itself closed, her clothes and hair seemed to dry, and her pale skin and blue lips regained their natural color. Max didn’t seem to notice at first. Not until she saw Chloe staring. She blinked for a moment, touched her now-dry hair, touched the smooth skin over her forehead.
Chloe murmured, “How—”
“A little help with adjusting,” her dad said. “I don’t know if you remember, Chloe, but the first few times you saw me, I always reeked of gasoline.”
“But you were never . . . you died in a car crash, but you never looked—like that.”
“I did, though. A few times, actually. Though it was quite a bit ago.” Then he cocked his head and said, “You never saw me after the crash. And it was a closed-casket funeral. So I look, smell, and sound like you imagine me. And since you saw Max the way she was before coming here, she looked, smelled, and sounded like you remembered her.”
Max set down her fork and licked her lips. “So, are we real? You and me?”
Chloe’s dad rested his head on his hands. “Who’s to say? We’re definitely aware. And we have a certain say over things in here. As for whether we’re the real Max and William? I don’t know. Never did.”
As she took in his words, Chloe chewed the corner of her tongue. There was a lot to process from that. But first, something else. “You’re being way less vague than usual.”
With a hearty laugh, he said, “Yeah it’s nice to finally be straightforward with you. I can only say as much as you’d understand. Properly, you know? Now that you know where you are and what’s going on, I can be a lot clearer.”
“But where are we? What’s going on?” Max asked.
Chloe’s dad nodded toward her. Right. It was probably her turn to explain things. “We’re in my dreams—or visions, or whatever. Out in . . . the real world, we jump-started my power. We were trying to—” Ah shit. “Fuck! I need to look into the past!” Then she blinked. “Do I have to put a dollar in the Swear Jar, Dad?”
A look of alarm painted Max’s face. “Wait, what about the past?”
“Right! The Prescotts! They’re behind everything! But Nathan’s trying to help us now, and, uh . . .” Fuck, there was so much to explain and no time to explain it.
“Never fear, Super Dad is here!” William announced. He leaned forward and poked Max in the head. Her body jerked hard, her eyes glazed over for a moment, and then she came back to herself, panting.
“What did you do to her?” Chloe asked in fear.
“Nothing dangerous,” her dad said. “I’m only jump-starting a few things. We’re here because you’re sustaining this place, Chloe. So anything you need us to know, we know.”
Max managed to get her breathing under control. “Holy shit.”
Chloe’s dad cleared his throat.
“Right, Swear Jar,” Max said.
He laughed again. “It’s definitely a lot. But,” he stood from the table, “now you girls are at one hundred percent.”
In the blink of an eye, the three of them were standing by the front door. The hazy orange light from the sun shone through the windows, though Chloe couldn’t see what was outside.
“Now you two be safe,” her dad said. “Don’t be afraid if people in here look at you but think about what you say before you talk to them. And make sure you stay together, no matter what.”
The door closed behind them before Chloe was even aware they’d stepped outside. She turned back to look at her house. It stood in a sea of darkness, lit by some unseen source. Her dad stood on a ladder propped up against the side, continuing the paint job he’d never had the chance to finish in life. He gave the girls a friendly wave before turning to focus on his work.
Aside from the house and the lawn, there was nothing. Just blackness.
“Where do we go?” Max asked.
Chloe opened her mouth, prepared to say she had no idea, when a pale asphalt path appeared, stretching out from the driveway into the empty void. “That way, I guess.”
Max took Chloe’s hand and squeezed so hard it almost hurt.
Everything in her chest ached. “Please don’t leave me.”
“Never,” Max breathed. “I’m never leaving you.”
They took their first step on the road. It stretched on past Chloe’s vision with no landmarks in sight. Occasionally it curved and bent, but it seemed to be heading in one general direction. That only made Chloe wonder what it could be bending around.
She absently kicked a stray rock off the path. Chloe didn’t know what she expected to happen. Maybe to find the bottom of whatever it was that surrounded them. Instead, the moment the rock fell from the road, it vanished.
“Jesus,” she muttered, pushing herself and Max toward the center of the path.
“Any idea where this goes?” Max asked.
Chloe shook her head. “No fucking clue. I’m kinda shooting from the hip here.”
“Your dad warned us about people here, but I don’t see anybody.”
“I know.” Was there some logic to this? Chloe had been trying to picture the Prescotts in her head, but nothing was happening. At this rate she’d even take the weird cat-owl thing from her last dream-trip. Then again, it’d probably be cryptic and unhelpful.
“Did you hear that?”
Chloe whipped her head around to look at Max, who stared out into the darkness with wide eyes.
Chloe bit her tongue to stop any other words from escaping.
“. . . ʎǝɥʍ uoɔ ǝɐɹnɐ. . .”
Fuck. They definitely sounded like words. But she couldn’t make them out.
“. . . ɥʇoן ɥbnoɥʇ ǝsıʇobǝ . . .”
Chloe risked a step closer to the edge, straining her ears.
“. . . ǝsnoɥʇɥbıן ǝɥʇ oʇ ob . . .”
Wait, did it just say—
“—go to the lighthouse . . .”
Max gripped her hand. “Did you hear that?”
With a nod, Chloe said, “Yeah. Yeah I did. But,” she looked around, “where’s the lighthouse?”
A light in the distance pierced through the darkness. And the road seemed to lead to it.
“Okay then,” Chloe said.
The two kept going. Whispers drifted through the air, but neither of them could make out what they said. Beyond that, there was nothing but the lonely darkness.
The air creaked and groaned like an old wooden boat heaving through heavy seas. The road beneath them shook, pebbles falling off into the nothing. Chloe released Max’s hand and grabbed her arm to hold her close.
A massive shape of fur and flesh and arms and eyes lifted over the road and drifted back beneath it. The eyes turned toward the girls for a few extended moments before looking away toward some unseen destination. Chloe stumbled back and fell, pulling Max down with her. Somehow, being closer to the ground felt safer. It was an illusion of safety, but it helped.
The thing moaned and breathed, then disappeared into the night.
Both girls released their held breaths, and Chloe noticed that her skin was covered in goosebumps. “What the fuck was that?” she breathed, not daring to speak any louder.
“I think . . .” Max paused. “I think it’s from the town. Before the town was here, I mean.”
“Something that lived there before people came along.”
Well that wasn’t unsettling at all. “How can you tell?”
“I just have a feeling,” Max said. “I understand.”
“Does it want to hurt us?”
“Not that one.”
Chloe gritted her teeth. That one.
“Come on,” she said, pulling them both to their feet. “Let’s keep moving before another one shows up.”
“Right,” Max nodded.
They continued. The closer they got to the light the more things began to appear. Some were like whales swimming up above them, surfacing from some invisible sea as they drew lower and sinking back up. Others flew around them and the road in dark shapes with a dozen wings. One with several deer-like ears and six thin limbs pranced through the dark as though it weren’t an empty space that swallowed everything up. None of them paid the girls much regard. And none of them stepped onto the road.
Don’t mess with us and we won’t mess with you, they seemed to say.
And then the road turned to dirt and grass. And then there were trees sprouting up from the black, their roots extending down into the void. And then they were at the foot of the lighthouse.
Chloe chewed on her tongue for a moment before stepping up and trying the door. Locked. She looked around. A few paces away sat the bench that would have looked over the bay if the bay were there. Chloe walked over and sat down, half-expecting something to appear out in front of her. But nothing did. She then looked up at the lighthouse, half-expecting the owl-cat thing from her old dream to come. But it didn’t.
A flash and a snap from behind her. She turned around to see Max holding a camera that she didn’t have before, a polaroid sliding out. Chloe stepped up and around to come to Max’s side and look. The image formed. There was Chloe, facing the darkness, and nothing ahead of her. Nothing at all.
Max gazed into the photo with panicked intensity. What was she looking at?
“Chloe, I think—”
“I think this is a trap.”
The air shattered under the weight of the lighthouse’s horn call. The girls grabbed at their ears before the force of it could do any damage. The lighthouse reared back as though it were a curling spine, then shot forward, uprooting itself from the ground. It curled up and around, unnaturally bending and twisting to get a better view of its prey, until its light faced Chloe and Max. The spinning light hummed and buzzed every time it passed by them.
It pulled back, stone and wood groaning at the effort.
“Oh my God,” Chloe breathed.
It was going to come down on them.
There was only one direction to run. The girls took off back down the road in a mad dash.
“Fuck!” Chloe yelled.
“I know!” Max called back.
The lighthouse lunged down. The road was too small. It couldn’t fit all three of them.
There was nowhere else to go but down.
“Max, jump!” Chloe yelled. She braced her feet on the edge of the road and plunged into the abyss.
She heard Max cry out, “Chloe wait!”
Darkness swallowed her.
She was standing in the girls’ bathroom.
She was lying in a wheelchair.
She was staring down Jefferson’s barrel.
She was shoving at Nathan’s shoulders.
She was laughing at Max’s jokes.
She was raising David’s gun.
She was pushing Nathan away.
She was asking Max for death.
She was watching a bullet come closer.
She was crumpled on the ground.
She felt morphine through her veins.
She felt it touch her brow.
Chloe Price was dead.
Chloe Price was alive.
Chloe Price persisted.
Chloe Price found Rachel Amber.
Rachel Amber found Max.
Rachel and Max found Chloe.
Chloe Price was alive.
She was lying on her back. Nothing below her. Nothing above her.
“What am I?” Chloe asked the abyss. “How many times have I fucked up?”
The abyss did not answer.
“Am I just a fuckup? Do I die no matter what?”
The abyss did not answer.
“Max is always saving my ass. Am I unable to do anything without her?”
The abyss did not answer.
“Am I that useless?”
The abyss did not answer.
“And now Rachel’s fucked too! She was always the one leading me around. How am I supposed to do that for her?”
. . .
“I should just give up.”
. . .
“I’m going to get us all killed again.”
. . .
“Max is dead. If we keep going, Rachel and I will die again too.”
. . .
“Just like always.”
. . .
“How will this be any different?”
The abyss considered.
“I mean, all three of us are together now, aren’t we?”
This was true.
“But Max is dead now.”
This was also true.
“But I’m alive.”
“Because Max brought me back.”
“Because she thinks I’m worth something.
“Because she thinks I can do something.”
“And in a world where I’m alive, we’re guaranteed to win.”
And that’s why
“Which was why Max brought me back.”
She knew you could do it.
“Because she knew I could win.”
Because she knew that when she’d inevitably lose
“So I have to win.”
Chloe Price would persist.
Chloe Price was alive. She sat on a chair in the darkness. Max sat on a stool across from her.
“Are you Max?” Chloe asked.
“Are you the Max I was with before?”
Max stood up.
“You needed to see some things?” Max asked.
“Then you can see them.”
Chloe stood up.
“Because Chloe Price can win.”
Chloe reached into the darkness. It became like a fog that her hand passed through.
“Because Chloe Price is so headstrong.”
Chloe stepped forward.
“That not even the universe could keep her dead.”
Chloe stepped inside.
She was standing in an old, ornate room. The furniture was expensive and fancy. Chloe thought it looked like something out of a Gatsby movie. In a chair by a fireplace sat an old man. Across from him stood a younger man.
“And the entire land and people will be destroyed?” the younger man asked in alarm.
“Unfortunately,” grunted the older man.
“Unless we torture and kill some poor girl?”
“I know, son,” the older man said.
“And force our own boy to die?”
“I told you, I know.”
The younger man leaned against a wall and placed his head in his hands.
“It could work,” the young man breathed.
“It just might work.”
The young man was now an old man, looking at a familiar boy.
“Our family has a destiny,” the old man said.
“I know, Dad,” the boy said.
“We have a great dream.”
“I said, I know.”
The boy was now an old Sean Prescott, looking at a young Nathan Prescott.
“Our family has a destiny,” Sean said.
“I don’t understand,” Nathan said.
“I have a dream.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The now-old man, Sean Prescott, and little Nathan stood together. Nathan was holding a gun. And he was sobbing.
“Our family has a destiny,” Sean said.
“Dad, please!” Nathan begged.
“I have a dream.”
“Son, you don’t have to do this,” the old man said.
“Stop!” Nathan screamed.
“Kill your grandfather.”
I have to torture and kill some girl.
And let my own boy die.
It just might work.
They stood in front of Chloe. The old man, the young man, Sean, and Nathan. Sean and Nathan’s eyes were closed. The other two looked into Chloe’s soul.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“To save Arcadia Bay,” the old man said.
“From decay,” the young man said.
“What does that mean?”
“The heart of the land will die soon,” the old man said.
“And when it does,” the young man said.
“A hole will open up.”
“A hole of nothing.”
“Other beings will come for the nothing.”
“Things that will consume the land—”
“—and the people.”
“Unless we take it first.”
“It will be ours.”
“It will thrive off our will.”
“It will be a monstrous existence.”
“And we shall reap its rewards.”
She was standing on a road.
It was asphalt and gravel. And it stretched forward. Out and out and out. Farther and farther and farther away.
Chloe walked forward.
She was alone this time. No Max. No creatures. No lighthouse.
Only Chloe. And the road.
There was nothing to do but walk. There was nowhere to go but forward. But Chloe soon realized that forward did not mean straight. The road was bending, curving ever so slightly that she hadn’t noticed at first. But why did it curve?
Chloe looked further ahead. She could see the bend more clearly now. But the end of the road was not in sight. It disappeared behind something hidden in the void.
The road was wrapping around something. Something massive.
Chloe stopped in her tracks and looked off the side.
There was nothing to see. But she knew it was there. And it was looking at her.
Chloe reached out her hand. Her fingers faded in the darkness as she stretched them forward. They brushed against something smooth.
There was the town. There was the hole in the town’s heart. There was the massive darkness inching towards the hole. Thunder cracked, though there was no light. The air around Chloe roared and howled and whipped.
She was standing at the foot of the lighthouse. Where the town should have been, there was the darkness. And in the bay was a tornado. It ripped at the darkness like a violent animal, clawing and tearing at it until there was nothing left. And when they both were gone, the hole remained.
With Sean Prescott looking over the edge.
Chloe Price wouldn’t let that happen.
Chloe Price would persist.
Chloe Price would win.
Chloe’s head buzzed as she struggled to open her eyes. Someone was holding her hand. And something was rumbling around her.
The bed jerked. Max’s body pressed into hers.
The RV. They were moving.
With a herculean effort, she managed to peel her eyes open. Rachel was still at her side, gripping her hand tight. But she was looking toward the front of the vehicle, worry staining her face. In the other room, Chloe could hear Victoria’s muffled voice.
“Rach . . .” she murmured, struggling to find her voice in her exhaustion.
Rachel whipped her head around to look at Chloe. “Hey,” she breathed. “Guys, she’s awake.”
“Fucking amazing,” Frank yelled from the opposite end of the RV. He must have been driving.
Chloe fought back her grogginess and managed to sit up. “What’s going on?” she rasped, her throat still dry from the drug.
“Yours truly just saved all your sorry asses,” Victoria announced, walking into the bedroom and making a pointed effort to not look at Max. She had an old flip phone in hand—one of the burners. “You can thank my parents for that.”
“Nathan’s dad isn’t the only one with money,” she said with maximum smugness. “I told my parents that the richest asshole in town was trying to use me to get to his son, that he had the police in his pocket and was coming after us in full force. My dad got on the phone with our lawyer so fast that all those cops will be out of a job by tomorrow. Take that, Chris Rossi.” She dramatically flipped the phone shut. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Right, like I didn’t do shit,” Frank yelled back. “Not like I’ve been driving a maze through town for the past thirty fucking minutes.”
Nathan and Warren stepped inside.
“But—” Chloe frowned, fighting against the haziness in her head to put her thoughts in order, “can’t his dad mind control them into stopping?”
“He has to do it in person,” Nathan said.
“And my parents are in Seattle,” Victoria added. “I’m sure they’ll come here as soon as they can, but until then they’ll tie up Nathan’s dad in so much red tape that he’ll discover a bondage kink.”
“Can’t he just keep coming after us and cover his ass later?”
“Not if he wants to stay out of the limelight,” Nathan said.
Victoria crossed her arms and cocked her hip out. “My parents are making a scene. Everyone on the West Coast is about to learn the name Sean Prescott.”
Nathan nodded. “And the more people learn about him, the harder it’ll be to control anybody. He uses his power to get what he couldn’t legitimately. But he tries to make it seem like he’s just flexing his cash, because he can only control so many people. If too many find out what’s going on in Arcadia Bay, they’ll put two and two together and see he’s buried in illegal shit. Then the only way out would be to use his power on everyone above him. People will figure out he’s not normal. They’ll figure out he has powers. So he needs to ‘cover his ass’ now before things spiral out of control.”
“He could still weasel his way out of it, though,” Chloe said. “He could get himself out of trouble, get people to erase his record, and then make them forget.”
“Not if there are more people who know than he can control,” Nathan rebutted.
“Our only way out of this is to overwhelm him with numbers,” Victoria said.
“And the more people know about him, the more likely he’ll have to go up against someone with stronger will,” Nathan said.
Oh shit. It had happened before, even if only briefly. When Max shot Jefferson in the other timeline, it was enough to break him out of Sean’s control. And then there was Nathan. I wanted to stop more than he wanted me to obey. He’d already overpowered his dad once. If he could do it again, and if more people did the same, Mr. Prescott would be powerless.
“We can beat him,” Chloe breathed.
Rachel looked at her and swallowed. “Did you find what we needed?”
Chloe cocked a grin. “Yeah. I did. And Sean Prescott had better watch out.”
“Because I’m going to fucking win.”
A furious roaring sound—like a jet engine—enveloped Max’s body. Icy rain and sleet struck her face like needles shot from a gun, and the wind threatened to tear her from the ground. She forced herself to her feet.
She was surrounded by Maxes at the lighthouse. A Max kissing Chloe in the rain. A Max being crushed by the head of the lighthouse. A Max staring at a newspaper in confusion. A Max staring at the newspaper while crying.
A single Max standing at the edge of the trail stared into her eyes.
Something hot trickled down from her forehead to her nose.