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Angel of Babylon

Chapter Text

Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd.

And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her.

When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”

So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother.

Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people.”


October 11, 2013

"I see you, Frank Bowers."

Frank froze in his tracks. He had just started walking away from that row of headstones on his way out. The place was clear - or had been. This speaker had popped up out of nowhere, like something out of a nightmare. The red tint of the golden rays beaming through the trees beyond suddenly felt like they were being captured in windows stained with blood.

He turned, hand near his pocket. Pompidou was watching him. Everything was brown and black and red and gold, as he spied a silhouette amidst the crosses flecked with patches of light coming through the shadow of a tree. The deer on her pendant seemed to dance with the wind.

It was that quiet creepy girl.

"What the fuck do you want?"

What she was high on, Frank had no idea. Not from anything he sold her, not directly anyway. That first call to him had been cold, dead, determined. When he first saw her in the shadows he was expecting a fight; but as she stepped into the light, it seemed like the instant her facial expression registered in his mind it changed again and she softened up. Sad, shaken, scared but still not going anywhere.

The weird part was that the change (if indeed it was a change) was instant: no flinch, no shuffling about, no look of surprise. Frank wasn't even sure if human facial muscles could move like that. Not without chemical enhancement, anyway.

Frank left his own expression at his initial scowl. Pompidou tilted his head at the creepy girl. They waited for her to speak.

"I— I don't want to hurt you." What the fuck. "We... we both knew Chloe. I know what you've"—she covered her face in her hand—"fuck, I really made this awkward for myself"—yup, high as a kite—"I can only imagine what you're going through now, losing both her and Rachel. I..."—she lowered her hand and looked at Frank again—"I just feel it's wrong to leave it just like this between the two of us."

Between... what!? Frank's hand moved a bit closer to his pocket. Pompidou still wasn't barking. Why wasn't he barking.

She took another step forward. Frank didn't even realize his knife was out before his arm raised the blade and it briefly reflected the sun back at him. "You stay right where you are, girlie. You don't know me, and you damn well don't know anything about Rachel, or Chloe, or anything that was going on between any of us. I'd appreciate it if you got your nosey entitled Blackwell ass out of my business, do you hear?"

A second of nothing happening. Frank could hear the faint rumble of the other attendees' cars somewhere in the distance. He wasn't sure Samara here even heard him.

After another second that lasted a fucktillion eternities she lowered her head - and looked ready to start bawling right there and then.

Frank sighed and put away the knife. Might as well talk - it wasn't like she was going to pull a gun on him or anything.


Max couldn't do it. It would have been so easy, just push every button on that stab dispenser, let that knife go right through, lie down and think happy thoughts about that week with Chloe as it all faded away. No need for pills, or a rope, or that godforsaken Prescott Dormitory roof. Together with Chloe and Rachel and William at last, while Frank would take the whole blame and Arcadia Bay's drug scene would see a timely and much-needed collapse. No one would miss Frank's drug-dealer ass now, would they.

The knife was touching her throat before she rewound. She wondered if it still left a mark.

She could have rewound all the way, turned around and never seen him again. But that wouldn't have been right either. Would've been the same old chickenshit not-right-in-the-head Max, the one who never went through That Week... Frank lying in a pool of his own blood, Chloe searching his pockets as she stands by like an idiot and does nothing - again... Frank squirming in the blood-stained sand, handing over the list as Chloe snatches it away before Max could think to take it... Frank calmly handing over the list, and yet again Max forgets to take—well, not that it mattered by that point...

The first time Frank pulled that knife she watched it like a blade of grass, like nothing. Just like the nothing that that entire version of events now was. So why did this second time nearly make her shit herself?

That exasperated sigh and "Alright, fine, kid, make it quick" was a choir of angels.

She waited for him to put the knife away before speaking. "Look, Frank, I'm sorry. I just—I know you and Chloe go way back. She and I do too. I just... need—hoped there might've been someone around to talk to. Someone who knew who she really was and not... you know," she gestured vaguely in the general direction of the other "entitled Blackwell asses".

Another moment of silence. The next words that came out of Frank's disgusting scabby mouth made Max wish he'd been stabbing her. "Waitaminute - you're Max, aren't you? Yeah, Chloe mentioned you a few times. You're that 'friend' that left town after her dad died, ghosted her for five years and then sat there like an idiot while that Prescott punk shot her!"

I had you shot for less, Frank Bowers. And yet he said nothing but the truth.

In her mind, Max went right back to Plan A. Called him out that it was his drugs that killed Rachel, his failure to protect her and treat her right that sent her to Jefferson, his relentless pressure on Chloe that got her killed every goddamn bit as much as Max's own inaction, all this the work of a depressed slob who wasn't man enough to own any of the damage that he did to everyone else for his cash, stash and stupid fucking mangy dog. Tore him to pieces right there before Pompidou did the same to her.

One more sleepless night, perhaps, and Max would never have known if she had only fantasized all that or if she really had done it only to rewind a second time.

"Yeah. I was." Max looked at her shoes and considered letting Frank respond, then continued when she thought the better of it. "We—" she looked out onto the still-golden sunset, out onto the orange-black pines and the relentless columns of their approaching shadows—"we met up for a little while before she died. We caught up on a lot. About us, about all the fucked up shit going on in this town, about Blackwell, about... Rachel." From the corner of her eye she could see Frank shift his weight, hand in pocket making a clacking sound. Might as well go all in. "She was her angel, Frank. Saved her life when I couldn't. When none of us could. And now she's gone."

And now she's gone.

Max tried to sit down on the grass to face the sunset. It was not working in that dress with her bag. She got back up and brushed the grass off; better to just stand anyway. Sitting in the corner, unable to do anything as the scene unfolded just a few feet away... "Fuck, why am I even talking to you? We've never even met. Never—no, that's not right, I—"

She sat back down and buried her face in her hands. No one spoke for a long time.


Now Frank was really confused. The girl was obviously hiding something. Everything she's said Chloe could've told her, so that checked out. Did she think he was going to try to shake her down for the money Chloe owed him? Was she somehow involved in Prescott's shit, and that's why she couldn't do anything in the bathroom?

Shit, was she a cop?

He sighed. "Hey, kid, while you're enjoying the sunset me and Pompidou are gonna head out. I don't expect to ever see your face again, so" - he paused and made a frown that Max couldn't see - "I might as well say I don't blame you for freezing. Nobody should be forced to be ready for that crap, not anyone who isn't in this kind of business." There were two possibilities: this girl is a cop, and the whole bathroom thing was made up from the start to try to trap Frank in something, in which case he was not going to take that fucking bait; the other, the girl really was just another spoiled little Blackwell shit, but even so she did have the balls to touch base with the armed drug dealer her dead friend owed money to, so she deserved at least that respect.

After a few seconds Frank started hearing sobs and began to walk away, then suddenly stopped and turned back as Max started speaking. Her mascara was a wreck. "Thank you, Frank. I... I guess I just wanted someone here who could understand better just who it was we were mourning today. And..." She turned her gaze back to the sunset. "We have met before, but the way we did you wouldn't have remembered. God, that feels like a lifetime ago now..."

Frank squinted at Max's shoes: plain dark-coloured flats, not at all stompy. His eyes scanned her dress, her bag, her pendant, looking for any sign of a gun or badge or body cam. He could not articulate a single thing he was seeing about this girl that suggested she was a cop pretending to be Chloe's long-lost friend. And Pompidou didn't bark or even look nervous: he'd taught him a while back to smell cops and this was not the reaction he'd be giving. No way the pigs could come up with anything so elaborate anyway. "Alright, fine, Riddler. How did we meet then, since you so obviously badly want me to ask?"

Max ran her hands over her face, but this time in frustration. "Actually I didn't want you to ask. You wouldn't believe me if I told you. But since we're on the topic of what each of us knows"—she looked up and made sure she was looking him in the eye—"you know why Chloe borrowed that three thousand, right?"

Frank's finger was touching the knife, ready to flick it out in a tenth of a second. Pompidou barked once. Max stayed seated and looking up at Frank, and his rational thought eventually overcame his three years' worth of ill-begotten habits when it came to discussions about who owed whom money. He leaned back, crossed his arms and scowled at her. "No."

Max got up, fishing around her bag for something. She found it and handed it to Frank. It was an instant photo of a mechanic's invoice. "Rachel was always talking about her dream of skipping town and making it big in Los Angeles. Chloe died trying to repay you, Frank."

He almost wanted to laugh, at himself, at Chloe, at Max, at how fucking stupid and pointless it all was. They could have taken a cab to the airport, flown to L.A. and gotten a hotel room on the money he'd lent her, but damn that girl loved that truck. Like she loved... so many things.

He let his scowl soften - slightly. "Yeah, I suspected it was about Rachel. I was jealous of what they had between them, and now that I think about it I guess that was part of why I was so willing to lend her the money at all, just so Rachel would know it was me and I was still there for her, whatever place she might end up in - and why I was so hard on Chloe about paying it back, when nothing happened after and Rachel was still gone." Frank looked out at the sunset and sat down on the grass where he had stood. "Fuck... she had the balls to blackmail the Prescotts like that... gotta be the stupidest and craziest thing that's happened in this town all week... but all that time she was man enough to actually do something while I... aw, fuck, Rachel..."

They sat there and said nothing for a while. Pompidou went over to Max inquisitively and she gave him a nice long scritch-scratch behind the ears.

Max's phone went off. It was Warren. He, Kate and Justin were waiting for her by his car. "I guess that's my cue. See you in another reality, Frank. And you too, P— Frank's dog."

"Yeah. You take care of yourself. Try not to get roped into stupid shit like Chloe did." Max didn't stop walking away, and Frank couldn't tell if her "Too late for that" was actually meant for him to hear.

After a few steps she looked back at him over her shoulder. "Francis Bowers, you take good care of that bracelet. For Rachel. For all of us."

Frank opened his mouth to ask her how the fuck she knew about that, but all he saw when he stood up was headstones, trees and grass - shadows ever reaching east to return to the growing sea of blue.

Chapter Text

Friday, October 11, 2013

The blue-grey dimness of the cemetery parking lot resounded with a loud, sharp BEEP! as Warren's hand slammed the steering wheel and missed. He turned wide-eyed and slack-jawed towards his passenger in the back seat. "No way! You've got to be kidding!"

Justin turned to face her as well, nodding slowly with a big stupid grin; he knew she wasn't kidding. The focus of their attention kept smiling but cringed a little at his approving "Wickeeeeeed!".

Kate looked at Max next to her. Her head was still propped up against the window, her whole body slumped against the side of the car, her whole structure seemingly only held up by her seat belt, as it had been for the past however long it was the group had been debating where to go next. After a second of silence Max blinked and breathed out a "Wowser" that sounded genuine enough to Kate for her to conclude it was better than nothing.

It was all she could do to try to shock Max out of her newfound stupor - and conveniently finally get rid of this bud she'd been too scared to leave in her dorm. How did she even let Frank talk her into that!? Something about calming down after the thing she'd actually gone to him for? No, if anything he'd told her not to take them both on the same day, he deserves some credit. That, and at least he was willing to take back what Kate hadn't paid for when she asked for a refund.

"I've got some", she repeated, "but just enough for one joint to pass around."

Of course it was originally Justin who'd floated the idea of them smoking one in Chloe's memory, which made it extra ironic that he forgot to bring any. Kate knew she could trust everyone in this car not to "narc" on her, but deep down she didn't feel like she cared. Ever since all the horrible business with Nathan and Mr. Jefferson came to light, Kate had felt this vague sense of invincibility all week, as though providence had declared that nothing should hurt her again for all of October. At some points in the week she felt like she could jump off a roof and be caught by angels - which of course she didn't test.

All because Chloe died.

What an insane week. The scary rich kid shoots a dropout in the girls' bathroom, who turns out to be the head of security's stepdaughter, which leads to uncovering a twisted conspiracy between rich kid and the school's rockstar art teacher involving some creepy fetish photo-rape-room in which they turn out to have overdosed the most popular girl in school and buried her in a junkyard. And in the middle of all this was Kate, herself their latest and hopefully last ever victim.

The police let her see the pictures. It was an odd relief to know just how bad it had gotten, instead of leaving it to her imagination, even if the images featured prominently in her nightmares afterwards and she had no idea how to get them out of her head.

They couldn't find any drug in her system - expected, since it had already been almost a week. The police officer who interviewed her tried her best to coax some memory of her of what the person she heard in the room with white lights might have looked like: by that point she'd already heard from Alyssa about Mr. Jefferson being arrested, but she really honestly had no memory of any face at all, so there was no temptation to let that influence her.

They never found out who those other people were in that video. Kate had watched it herself, of course: she didn't recognize any of them and had no memory of the events. There wasn't even any reason to believe they were necessarily Blackwell students.

Kate felt dirty all over again. Warren turned on the ignition and they started driving for the beach.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kate looked for the darkest, thickest piece of fabric she could find in her room. She stepped sideways, one tiny slow silent step at a time, her eyes focussed on the wall, a picture, Alice, anything but the mirror hanging to her left behind her. Twisting her waist she slowly reached over behind her with one hand, felt for a wall, felt for the nail. Scrunching her eyes shut and reciting Psalm 23 quietly to herself, she turned around and used both hands to drape the shirt over the mirror.

She opened her eyes. Nothing stared back at her through the now-concealed glass. Not her own reflection, not... it. That acid phantasm, that leering pale horror that drove her to near madness earlier that afternoon, reaching out through that window between realities with its baleful glare, among other sights she was thankful she remembered little more of than the fuzzy discoloured dread that even now ineffably lingered just behind her eyes.

She started breathing again and went to her computer. Someone had posted something on Facebook. Not much, just an ostensible C.S. Lewis quote in fancy lettering. She got curious and looked up what the wording was supposed to be:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight. ...

That was a lot more helpful than the garbled fragment. Kate got herself a glass of water to steady her nerves, then pulled out of a file in the back of the bottom of her drawer three small foil rectangles. She popped out the remaining pills one by one into a sandwich bag, then returned everything to the folder and the folder to the drawer. She set a phone reminder to herself to come back tomorrow during lunch when no one would be at the dorms. She could then scoot over to the bathrooms and flush the rest of the pills before anyone could notice.

That was $120 not well spent. She'll talk to Frank later about ever letting her do something so stupid again - some doors of perception were better off locked.

Why was the prospect of actually going to a Vortex Club party making her feel so inadequate and unprepared, anyway?


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Hey Kate, do you know where Nathan Prescott's dorm is?" She sounded friendly, but the way Chloe spat out Nathan's name told her that she was definitely not happy.

Kate froze in her tracks. "S-sorry, Chloe, I wouldn't know. He might have something written on his slate that could tell you."

Chloe grunted in disgust as she stuck a missing person poster over a Vortex Club party poster and half of the abstinence poster that Kate had strategically placed right next to it. "Ugh, that means I have to search. Really don't want to be in the boys' dorms one attosecond longer than I need to. Thanks anyw... huh." She realized she was talking to empty space. "Don't worry, Chloe, I'm Kate, I'm the nicest person in Blackwell, I won't bail on you without warning in a simple basic conversation like everyone the fuck else in this shithole town bails on Chloe F—"

Her sarcasm was cut off by the sound of a toilet flushing and a faucet running - much sooner than any human being could expose an orifice to the bowl, expunge its contents, wipe, and dress.

Kate came out looking relieved. "Sorry about that! I just really had to—"

"Flush your stash of acid down the toilet?" Chloe smirked. The smirk was quickly wiped out by a slack jaw and raised eyebrows as she saw the pale horror on Kate's face. "Holy shit, Kate, really!?"

Kate frantically gestured with her hands for Chloe to keep her voice down while looking around. "Not so loud!" she hissed. "How did you even know!? Come on, let's talk in my room!"

And so the squeaky clean Christian girl dragged the blue-haired tattooed lesbian punk girl into her room and slammed the door behind them.


And now she's dead, and the secret is safe. Good for you.

That's a terrible thing to say!

Good, because you're a terrible person!

Shut up! I don't need this from you!

But you deserve it.

I'm going to open my eyes now and I'll have my friends around me and you'll be gone.

The shadow in her head held her phone to her face, pantomiming a selfie while blowing her a kiss.

Kate opened her eyes and watched the last rays of the golden sunset through the trees as they drove towards the beach.

She looked over at Max. Her eyes were closed and her eyebrows angrily furrowed; then she opened her eyes and raised her head slightly, and her brow went from angry to sad and consternated. Kate reached out and put her hand on Max's shoulder; she looked back at her and her expression softened somewhat, almost to a smile. Max looked like she'd just been dealing with a nasty shadow-voice in her head too.

They parked at the beach. Frank's camper was parked on the other end of the lot, but Frank himself was nowhere in sight. As they got out of the car and wandered past on their way to the beach itself, they heard music playing from inside; but instead of the usual trashy 90s metal it was... Mozart's Ave Maria? Kate knew Chloe and Frank were on pretty sour terms ever since Rachel disappeared, though neither of them would tell her why; she guessed maybe after this miserable week Frank was finally looking to change his ways. Playlist today, tomorrow... one baby step at a time.


Blue light met blackness as Justin poured out a Pepsi onto the sand. The week had been too sleepless for anyone to want alcohol that evening, even if any of them had thought to get some. Kate silently recited some prayers for the departed, casting them over the sea towards the setting sun. She had no idea what Chloe believed in, or if she'd ever been baptized, so a few of the prayers seemed inappropriate; but they were what she had, and should not the Lord of all, in His perfect remembrance of all things in and out of time, judge right in the end?

Kate turned back towards the group. Max was taking a - long - drag of the joint, cradling it in both hands, staring out into the blood red glow and the vast blue infinity beyond. Right next to Max, Warren and Justin were geeking out about movies. Something about dinosaurs, then...

"Yeah! Chaos theory, like The Butterfly Effect and shit..." Justin trailed off, then started as Max nearly dropped the joint, caught it, and nearly singed her hand on the lit end. "Hey Max, are you okay?"

"Y... yeah, I'm fine." The jittering shadow of her thumb cast by the joint suggested she was not fine.

"So," Kate said, perhaps a little too loudly and cheerily, "any other movies you guys have seen lately?"

Warren glanced over at the sunset and perked up. "Hey, now that you mention it, I did see Blue Sunshine the other day..."

Kate didn't really hear the rest of that conversation. She was too busy hoping nobody had noticed her flinch.

At one point, while he was describing a particularly colourful scene in some movie about mutant insectoid murderers, Warren shifted his weight and closed the gap between himself and Max, putting his arm around her. Max made no objection and just kinda stared out at the ocean, but she certainly hadn't asked either, and Kate could practically feel as well as see her body tense up as soon as Warren's arm had reached over.

Without another thought Kate put her hand on Warren's reaching-arm shoulder from behind, positioning her face between theirs, and asked if Chloe had ever joined that sci-fi club he started before she got expelled. Warren withdrew his arm back to himself at her touch so he could scratch his chin in thought. Justin took all this sudden motion as his cue to pass the joint over to Kate, who leaned in between the other two to reach over to him to take it. She remained standing between them as she inhaled and let them make space for her.

While Warren was trying to remember who was in the club way back in 2010, Kate shot a glance over at Max. She smiled amusedly and mouthed a "thanks" at her, Max's backlit face not quite visible past Kate's eyes at this point in the blue hour.

It was honestly getting a bit cold, though, and Max crossed her arms. She was still looking only at the dim rosy light dying on the horizon, though she did throw back a few witty interjections and corrections about the movies the boys were talking about.


They parked at Warren's usual spot on campus. Kate felt vaguely guilty about stopping Warren when she realized Warren as the driver didn't get any of the joint, except secondhand. That mean version of her own voice said something nonsensical about Hypocritical Little Miss Fucking Perfect Slut-Bitch ruining everyone's fun.

Max spoke for the first time since they had started walking to the car. "Hey. I gotta head back to my dorm right now to get some work done. Thanks for coming to the funeral, guys. It was really sweet. Chloe would've appreciated it. You're all awesome." Hugs (telegraphed, consented to and reciprocated) all around.

"Thanks for the compliment, Max. See you around." Justin did not take his leave at this point, nor did Warren who gave his own goodbye to Max but kept leaning against his car. Guess they were hanging out here for a bit?

Kate watched Max go across the lot, up the steps and onto the path. She herself wasn't in a rush to go, couldn't think of any pressing reason to leave, so she watched Max go past Jeremiah Blackwell and then turned back towards the boys who were now sharing some anecdote about Chloe's secret weed stash. A week ago she would have thought nothing of chatting with Warren and Justin for a while before heading out, but now... in this dark secluded area... alone with two guys... lit only by these very white fluorescent lights...

Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the group. It was Max. "Hey Kate, I need you for something." How did she even get back here so fast? She waved goodbye to the others as she half followed, half was dragged by Max up the parking lot steps and across the main campus.

Hello again, Jerry B. "Max, slow down! What do you even need me for?"

Max stopped, let Kate go, spun on her heel to face her and smiled. "Nothing. You just looked like you needed an excuse to get some space."

Kate returned the smile. "Y... yeah, I did. Thanks."

Max stood next to her and offered her hand, and they walked side by side, hand in hand, the rest of the way back to the dorms.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Hey Max, I was wondering if you'd be interested in tea later—" Kate froze and furrowed her brow as she caught a glimpse of the person she was talking to.

The door was still ajar from the last time she and Alyssa had tried to prod Max out of her cocoon. (It had not been successful, though she didn't yell at them that time so it was an improvement.) Kate peered inside to find a figure seated on the bed, blanket wrapped around her like a literal cocoon, staring at a wall of photographs.

In the very middle was a single photograph, crudely taped to the wall, obscuring a few others and generally looking awfully out of place. Most of the image was a pattern of brushed grey metal, with some blurry reflections here and there of other things. In the foreground were the outstretched wings of a bright blue butterfly.

A few seconds of nothing happened. Then the figure suddenly gave a start, jerked its head backwards and shuddered for a moment before looking back at the wall. The figure turned left and right, and for a brief moment Kate could catch Max's wide, dark-rimmed eye frantically taking in the room that she had not left in eighteen hours.

Another few seconds of total silence as the figure looked back at the wall. Then Max curled up on the bed and began weeping bitterly.

No, she was not interested in tea.

What were those brown stains on that blanket?

And did that photo shift position slightly?

Chapter Text

Max woke up duct taped to a chair. Her arms were by her sides, since this wasn't the Dark Room chair but that old classroom chair on top of the boat in the junkyard. The chair had been turned around to face the firing range Chloe had made that Tuesday morning; sure enough, there it was, 3 bottles down and Chloe asking where to shoot next.

And "Max" was standing next to her, waiting.

Smirking.

Chloe, as always, took the shot. Bang. "Jesus, I shot myself! I shot myself! Back up, back up!"

The doppelganger laughed, hand over her mouth. That pose looked awfully familiar...

Rewind. Awkward pause. Smirk. Bang.

"Jesus, I shot myself!" More commotion, laugh again, rewind, pause, smirk, bang.

This went on for some time. The doppelganger was in stitches. "Shit, fuck that other slut, this is how you 'bang for Jesus'! Chloe here could start her own damn church at this rate. Or a carnie sideshow."

Eventualy the pauses got very short, and Chloe was just shooting herself over and over and over.

Max decided she was getting rather fed up with this. She noticed that the tape on her right ankle was loose, and why hello there, Nathan's lamp sitting here with me right in kicking range...

The lamp beaned her doppelganger right in the head and shattered. The doppelganger turned around with a "What the f—"

Bang.

The doppelganger dropped like a time-lapsed ragdoll as Chloe's revolver smoked.

Then the doppelganger got up, faced Chloe, rewound to the moment of impact, let the bullet go through her third eye and dramatically fell back in slow motion onto the ground.

It looked up at Max. "Told ya she'd do it."

"Fuck you."

Chloe didn't seem to notice Max up there at all. She holstered her revolver and stared blankly at the supine doppelganger. "Bailed on me again." Then she shot the bumper and fell dead wordlessly as she had in the bathroom.

Max sat there for an undefined period of time before she woke up.

 


 

Max was sitting in the diner waiting for breakfast to arrive. Some of the furniture was missing after it had been thrown out on the street. If she leaned over she could see the Two Whales sign propped up against the side of the building.

Something deep inside gave her a vague irrational feeling that, given the entire kitchen and behind-counter area was a charred husk, she might not get her order.

The dead body by the red newsstand got up and shambled over to the door. It lurched over to Max's booth, sat down, and was Max, still in her grey hoodie and leaning towards her with her elbows on the table as though to stake a claim on her personal space.

The real Max kept staring at the molten remains of the baked goods shelf. "Go fuck yourself."

Doppelganger leaned in even further, almost lying on the table, and took a selfie with both of them. "Hey, at least treat me to dinner first, you selfish whore. After all that I've done for you..."

"Fuck off. Let me wake up already."

Doppelganger sat back up in her own seat. "Let me do this, let me do that, holy fuck you really are that selfish, aren't you. You fucking murdered Chloe in cold blood just so you wouldn't have this shit-pit of a town and its poor miserable fuckers you never actually gave a shit about on your poor pretty conscience, because you'd hate to think of yourself as anything other than a good person. Gotta hand it to you, though, I do admire how fucking deadass cold you could make it. So easy, so natural, so right..."

"Shut up, shut up shut up!"

"Yeah, I should. I was wrong."

"W-what?"

"No, it wasn't your badass coldness that let us save the town, I had to fucking pull every stop to remind you how much of a selfish toxic bad friend Chloe was before you stopped being such a chickenshit abuse victim about it. I mean, look at yourself, you stupid hipster slut, that whore just—"

Rewind. Rewind. Rewind. Doppelganger leaned back onto the table with her camera out.

Max stopped rewinding and smashed that camera into its face. Over and over and over. Until only an unconscious hogtied Jefferson remained at the table.

She ran out the door and heard Joyce yelling after her that she hadn't paid for the Belgian waffles she had.

She hopped down the stairs into the morning sea breeze and ran past Macready's table, but the dream was not over. She kept running down the road, away from the Two Whales, north, toward the lighthouse, the junkyard, the train tracks, towards the old freight train slowly, ever so slowly rumbling past her.

And then she hopped on.


Max looked around. It was very brown, with crates everywhere, making her wonder if she should be holding a shotgun or something. On one wall was a large scrawl of graffiti, partly blocked out by more crates: it was mostly a palimpsest of unintelligible tags and unfortunately-intelligible obscenities and slurs, but the freshest ink formed an elaborate wall-to-wall scene of rolling hills and pleasant leafy trees, in the middle of which were some ancient Greek-looking shepherds with their flocks recoiling before the sight of a meticulously detailed skull sitting on a plain stone altar.

"Hey Max."

She turned around. On the other end of the car, on a square knee-high crate, was a bright blue butterfly. It spoke in Rachel Amber's voice - it was really Max's dream-logic that told her this explicitly, though the sound did match what she heard in an old video of her she'd found earlier that week on her old social media profile.

But the dream-logic also told her this wasn't Rachel.

It continued to speak in Rachel's voice. "Have a seat." Max pulled up another similarly-sized crate and sat down on it.

The train kept chugging along. Max could feel the fresh pine-scented spring breeze pouring in from the mild overcast forest scrolling by to her right. The butterfly looked so terribly still, so awfully calm amidst the flickering of the sunlight as the jagged edge of trees rushed past.

They looked at each other for some time. At last it occurred to Max that people should be having... conversations... and stuff. "So, uh... you... come here often?"

"All the time." They sat for a while. The train kept chugging along. "Tell you what, let's get to know each other—"

"Who are you? You're not Rachel Amber."

"I'm not. I'm just a butterfly that dreams it's a teenage girl sometimes." A familiar hop and flutter. "Don't worry, I didn't do anything to Rachel, she's... doing as well as the... circumstances... permit."

"Rachel is dead."

The butterfly did something with its wings that Max understood to be equivalent to a shrug.

The train kept chugging along.

"As I was saying, Max, let's get to know each other. I propose we play a game - two truths and a lie. Are you in?"

"I don't seem to be waking up from this anytime soon, so yeah, sure, I got the time."

"All the time in the world." The butterfly hopped a bit higher and fluttered back down. "My turn. Two truths, one lie. I'm ambidextrous, I smell like chlorine, and right now I'm doing time in a supermax for the murder of five thousand people."

Max smelled trees and musty wood. She thought for a moment she smelled rainwater and ozone, gasoline and smoke. She thought she smelled bathroom cleaning products. She didn't want to look at the butterfly. "You don't smell like chlorine."

The butterfly suddenly fell limp and flat against the crate. "Are you cereal? You didn't even come over and sniff me!"

Max did not move.

"I'll take that as you conceding this round." The butterfly perked back up to its normal stance. "But you've still got your turn!"

Max opened her mouth to speak, then heard a contemptuous laugh inside her own head - in her own voice. And then these words came out: "Two truths and a lie. I am madly in love with Mr. Jefferson, I am delighted and thankful that that toxic, selfish, stupid bitch Chloe is dead, and my selfies are shit and will never aspire to the quality of true authentic portraiture that only Mark's professional touch could provide."

The train kept chugging along. The butterfly sighed, then farted, and the whole car was flooded in chlorine gas, but Max couldn't smell anything.

"All lies, Max. Come on, if you're gonna cheat me on this you've got to be smarter about it than that!"

"Does it really matter? You seem to know all about me anyway."

"There's still a lot that I don't know. And even if I did, sometimes it's good to hear it. Or say it. Anyway," the butterfly turned towards the window, "I think this is our stop. Now's the time to jump." The train was slowing down a bit and the turf ahead looked fairly soft.

"What!?"

"Three, two, one... JUMP!" The butterfly flew out of the car door. Max followed.

That stupid, hateful laugh again.

And then Max had just jumped out of Brooke's drone, which was conveniently flying right over that spot in front of the ledge of the dormitory roof.

It took a whole second's worth of that falling feeling before Max woke up.

 


 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Max looked around. It was very brown, with crates everywhere. On one wall was a large scrawl of graffiti, partly blocked out by more crates: it was mostly a palimpsest of unintelligible tags and unfortunately-intelligible obscenities and slurs.

The dream had been a vision. Normal dreams did not contain such details of how the weight of a crate felt as she moved it, the feel of the cool breeze blowing in through the open car door, the smells of the pines (if not the chlorine gas attack) and even the sudden flashbacks to looking for the diner in the storm. There was no storm this time, but no reason not to follow wherever this vision led either, so she did.

It wasn't some completely dissociated fugue sort of thing, though: she actually wanted and willed to do this, and before taking any action she checked online to see what was even up there. Culmination State Park had been caught in a big wildfire a few years back; most of the trails were restored and much of the forest had been replanted and was starting to grow back, while the State of Oregon had recently commissioned a local Coast Salish artist to replace the old totem pole. One thing that did not need replacing, however, was a huge twisted old oak tree near the centre of the park, near where authorities believe the fire had started, that had taken extensive damage but was still alive and structurally stable.

And something deep inside Max told her that she had to go there.

 


 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Chloe is dead.

Chloe Elizabeth Price, my best friend, my partner in crime, my Captain Bluebeard, whom I'd abandoned senselessly for five years and met again by the most cruel and random of accidents, is dead.

I don't know why it didn't work. All I can remember is that I retraced my steps, splashed water on my face, took the photo and... had a mental breakdown. I remember feeling some terrible indescribable storm of awfulness in my chest, like everything that mattered to me in the world was being violently ripped out, then dropping to the floor crying my eyes out as Nathan and the blue-haired girl played out their morbid play around the corner. By the time I could move again she was dead and I couldn't rewind past that point.

Nathan had his back to me, freaking out over what he'd just done. Then after what felt like eternity Mr. Madsen FINALLY barged in and took him down. It was then that I saw who the girl was.

What the fuck is going on? Is this some kind of sick joke? I get these incredible time travel powers just for them to fucking BAIL on me at EXACTLY the moment I needed them most!? Fuck time travel, fuck Blackwell, fuck Nathan, FUCK this shit-pit of a town called Arcadia Bay.

 

It turns out that Joyce remarried after William died... and her husband was Mr. Madsen. I didn't need that "step-ass" comment to know Chloe never approved of him, but when they were taking her away I could see that, at that moment, nothing else mattered to him. I wish I could have given her the undivided attention I saw from him then...

I wish I could have done that a long, long time ago.

There was no trip to the hospital. We tried to stop the bleeding as well as we could, but the EMTs pronounced Chloe dead at the scene. They later told us that the bullet had gone clean through her left ventricle and left atrium, and the expanding gas from the point-blank shot made the damage even worse. I was half covered in my own blood as well as hers by the time they got here, rewinding over and over first trying to break through to before the shot.

(Note to future self: DO NOT FUCKING REWIND if you're trying to stop someone from bleeding. Any blood that gets on you does NOT go back into the other person when you rewind. Fortunately it only took one try for me to notice this.)

Then the police took Nathan away as well. Mr. Madsen looked like he was going to die right there, sitting outside the bathroom door, pale as death, mumbling to himself how he'd failed everyone, too burned out even to cry. We both just sat like that for a while as the police eventually got around to taking our statements.

When I told the officer about how I broke down, she was really adamant that it wasn't my fault, that it was normal for people unaccustomed to violence to freeze in these situations. To be honest, even the first time it happened (before the very first rewind) I didn't even know for sure Nathan had a gun until Chloe mentioned it, so it hadn't even occurred to me to intervene until he actually shot her. If I have to testify against Nathan I'll first need to settle on which version to tell them.

 

Holy shit, they arrested Mr. Jefferson!

Everyone's freaking out. Rumors EVERYWHERE. Some people saying he had some bad drug deal involving Chloe (fuck that), others are saying he had something to do with Rachel Amber's disappearance.

I managed to stop one of the attending officers and abuse my rewind to just keep mentioning different theories until I managed to tell him something that made it sound like I already knew the important parts. It WAS about Rachel - and Nathan had apparently confessed to KILLING her.

And somehow this involved Mr. Jefferson and his "dark room". Not the darkroom in our photography class, but another one, like a secret base or something. Sounds ominous, but I can't imagine what it might be. Drugs? Money laundering? Blackmailing the DA?

Constable Witt thought (entirely off the record, of course) Nathan might have killed Chloe because she was getting too close to the truth, but that's entirely speculative right now. I have NO problem believing that, though - Chloe breaking into dangerous places and uncovering crazy secrets about the town's elite would have so totally been her thing.

And she might've busted them too, if her partner in crime hadn't bailed on her.

So many questions. So many possible leads.

And one less person to care about any of it with.

(Unless you count some upcoming bonding with Mr. Madsen in shared trauma... off to the Two Whales to meet him and Joyce now.)

 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Took my usual selfie this morning. Didn't get any sleep last night, of course, so hello zombie face - if only. If only I COULD raise the dead, do something that MATTERS instead of this bullshit rewind that only seems to work if I spill a drink or say something stupid in a conversation.

(Was someone in my room while I was asleep!? Why was Captain sitting on my desk? ...Oh, right. I put him there right after the selfie. Helloo zombie brain.)

Samuel gave me back the butterfly photo. At first I asked him to get rid of it, it was too painful even to look at now, but... it's still the last thing I have that helps me remember Chloe. So once that thought entered my mind I rewound Samuel back into the hall, took it, thanked him, scanned it in several different resolutions, saved it on my laptop, emailed it to myself, uploaded all versions onto the cloud, texted Pop to save a copy back home for me, and put the original back into my journal.

And THEN I learned that my rewind powers could use it.

I was looking at the original wondering if I had a safer place to put it, when I started hearing an ambient echo, and then... I was back in the bathroom again, camera in hand as the photo came out. Now was my chance - maybe this rewind power really wasn't just a bullshit joke proving that the universe hated us! So I waited until Nathan came in, then did the obvious thing: I stepped out and asked him what he was doing in the girls' room. He literally screamed and ran. Then I waited for several minutes for Chloe to come in, but she never did, and eventually I lost control of the time travel and faded back to the present.

At first I thought nothing changed. Chloe was still dead, and the butterfly photo was still in my journal. But then I saw that none of the extra scans were on my computer, nor was a copy of the statement I gave to the police. I called David and he had no idea who I was.

After a few rewinds I found out that he'd arrested Nathan, and found Chloe dead, in the BOYS' bathroom. And the cops were assuming he'd shot her in self-defense.

Time for Plan B. I went back, waited until Chloe changed her tone of voice, then stepped out to intervene...

I never knew getting shot in the kneecap would hurt SO MUCH. Chloe, sweet beautiful loyal brave Chloe, went fucking APESHIT on Nathan. Her last words were "I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!" just as David was opening the door, right before Nathan shot her. It was an open-and-shut case of self-defense.

Thank Dog I'd still managed to pocket that photo during the mêlée. A little blood-stained, and I had to get the nurse to help get my bag, but still good.

Back to Plan A. But how do I get them both out of the bathroom, without being seen, but keep them from meeting up again elsewhere? I'd need to make sure to wait until Chloe saw the gun so she knew about the danger, but also flush them (sorry!) both out the bathroom and into the open where they couldn't continue whatever the fuck they were doing.

Time for Super Max's super secret weapon: a big ancient fire alarm, right next to that bucket...

 

What the FUCK. What. THE. FUCK.

Fuck you, time power, you useless piece of shit.

I did everything right. EVERYTHING. Nathan pulled out his gun, Chloe got scared, I set off the alarm, Nathan got distracted, Chloe kneed him in the balls and ran off as everyone started pouring towards the exit, ... and then I come back and NONE OF IT HAPPENED. According to my own police statement I just had my breakdown again.

But at least David still knows who I am and I've still got the police statement and the butterfly scans, so I wasn't making things even worse like the first time.

Was I just dreaming about the other two attempts? Is any of this even fucking real!? Only way to tell is try.

I went to my photo wall, memorized the positions of two pictures, then travelled back in time using this morning's selfie and switched them around. Sure enough, they were switched. Tried it again, this time writing a note and hiding it in my drawer. Yup, it's there now. Tried again, moved Captain to my desk, found him on my bed again but I think I moved him back there before my time-travel memories returned.

Went back to my Monday selfie and drew a little doodle on the back with my ballpoint. When I came back it was still there.

I tried a few other dates. I went back to another dorm selfie from September, took my old watch out of the drawer and left it in another drawer. It worked. Went back to another selfie from June (also a Monday) and drew a doodle on an earlier page from this journal. It's still there now. Went back to the butterfly photo, redid the alarm thing,... and nothing but a heartache.

And headache. I'll just write AROUND this bloodstain. Time to get some rest.

Fuck, I totally forgot about my homework. Whatever. Everyone's super distracted anyway...

 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Passed out last night for 14 hours. Big smear of blood on the sheets where I'd pulled it over my head. Will deal with later. Happy for now I didn't die in my sleep being suffocated by my own clots.

This must be the nastiest selfie I've ever taken. "You should've seen the other guy"...

(Because the other guy was beautiful as she always had been. The blue hair looked sublime.)

Called student admin and they were fine with giving me a leave of absence for the rest of the week. Told them I'd look into grief counselling... once I was ready for it, of course.

Had lunch at the Two Whales. Joyce gave me the photos I asked for. I gave her a print of the butterfly photo and asked her to stick it behind the counter near a picture of Chloe. Just in case I needed one.

Is this just the "denial" phase of grief? Or was it bargaining?

You have no idea how tempted I am to jump back into one of these photos and just... relive something with Chloe. But it wouldn't be fair. I was the shitty friend and I don't deserve it.

Also I'm scared shitless of what else I could screw up.

One afternoon when I was at home with a cold Mom and I binged a bunch of old Simpsons episodes. There was one where Homer built a time machine and went through dozens of nightmare alternate realities before settling on one that was "close enough". I can't even imagine how bad things could get in real life with life and death on the line - and Homer always had his time machine with him, while I might come back to find that whatever photo I'd used was destroyed, or I was stuck somewhere where I couldn't get it.

I'm going to have to do a lot more work before we can move on to bigger things.

We? ...yes. MAIS OUI, as William would have joked. Sorry, William, but once I've worked out what went wrong I'm gonna be taking Chloe back.

 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Did more experimenting with the photos. I've learned that if I need to undo anything, I can just use the photo again, go into it and IMMEDIATELY jump back out, and I'd continue doing whatever I would have been doing like I'd never jumped in.

"I"... this is So. Fucking. Weird. I never remember anything different that I do after I change things; I have NO memory of ever having moved Captain from my desk back to beside my bed, or writing about it in the journal. It's like I'm drugged and wake up without remembering—shit, is this how Kate must've felt? The headache I'm getting thinking about this almost makes me miss the headaches I get doing it.

This is a test selfie. Hi, this is Future Max from 15 minutes from now. Write down everything you remember. Here's a drawing of Hawt Dawg Man throwing a Bob-Omb at Jörmungandr. Also I told Kate to come in in exactly 10 minutes. Do with her as you please.

Wowser, Future Max, where did THAT come from? This drawing is actually pretty good. I totally saw you rewind to finish it in time, by the way.

I also see that you changed our phone lock screen to... no, fuck you, I am SO changing that back. I don't know how I'm going to find that funny in 15 minutes but seriously, after he had the GALL to ask me out on a movie date on a week like this!? No phone for you!!!

Here, have this picture of Chloe from her friends-only(!) profile that we got Kate to forward us earlier. I love the way it hurts when I look at it.

What else to write in this thing... oh, right. Yes, I remember drawing this, and texting Kate, and changing the phone screen. You know how sometimes in dreams you just kinda... do stuff? And there's no real decision being made, it just kinda happens and you watch yourself go along with it? That's how it feels to me. Kinda like—

Oh God no.

[there is light damage to the paper. A few attempts to write have been scribbled out.]

Holy shitballs, did we actually go back and kill Chloe!? What the FUCK. I'm shaking as I write this. What the FUCK could have possibly happened that we would even THINK about doing that!? It makes no sense at all... did she get kidnapped and tortured? did one of us go insane and try to kill the other? was she dying of some horrible disease that was so bad she'd rather get shot? does she have some kind of terrible secret that would lead to hundreds of people dying if it got out? Why didn't we consider any of the million other options that could do... whatever it was that THIS bullshit was meant to do!? Fuck fuck FUCK—

And there's Kate. Our angel come to rescue us from this train of thought. I'll ask her if she wants to hang out for bit - I need some air. Guess you'll be seeing her soon.

 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Chloe's funeral is today. I still can't believe it's real. No, fuck that: I REFUSE to believe it's real, at least in the usual sense. I refuse to accept that the reality presented to me is the only one I can have. I've got this time power and hardly any idea how to use it, but it's still a hell of a better idea than I had when I was trying to un-break my camera on Monday. I'm even learning to relax more to help with the headaches and nosebleeds. I've just got to push through this... whatever it is... that's causing this ONE case to not work.

Maybe this is how my bargaining phase looks like.

I still don't know what could possibly have pushed future me to let Chloe die like that. I guess that Max's memories are going to come back any moment now - maybe I won't finish this sentence, or maybe it could be years. But I'll just have one nice little word with her before I go:

Future Max, you HELLA fucked this up. Whatever you were trying to do, it's not going to work. Whatever fucked-up safeguards you put in here that stop me from interfering with anything from Monday, I'm going to bust through them. No matter how long it takes. I've learned so much more about my time travel power than you and you'd better think twice before you kill Chloe.

And now that I've finished writing that message, here, have a selfie. Let the last outfit Chloe saw you in serve as a gentle reminder.

I got a look at Kate's desk yesterday. She had some stuff printed out, looked church-related I think? but there were some song lyrics in there too. I couldn't take a closer look, but a couple lines stuck out for me:

And God is up in Heaven
and He doesn’t do a thing
With a million angels watching
and they never move a wing

Pretty bleak stuff. I should remember that Kate's working through her own problems too, and I need to be there for her more than I've been. (Here we are again, Max Caulfield, Professional Shitty Friend, Bailer Extraordinaire...)

Not that I even know if there is a God. But I do know that butterfly's wings DID move.

 

I'm back. Max Fucking Caulfield, Time Warrior, Co-Savior of Arcadia Bay, Maxine Fucking Iscariot-Caulfield, Condemned Murderer of Chloe Elizabeth Price.

Taunt me as you will, Real-Max-I-Left-Behind, but it was so good to see Kate again. Alive. Vindicated. Absolved.

Saved.

Maybe this is predestination. Maybe this really is God's judgment, that the saved should live while— no. I am NOT going to write that. If that's what God believes in then TO HELL with that God.

Past Max didn't leave any notes for a eulogy so I tried to wing it. And rewound and tried again. Three times. Before giving up. How can you possibly give a speech about the person you loved more dearly than anyone else in the world, the way YOU remember her, the way you can't bear BUT to remember her, when the greatest and most recent moments you had with her both are inseparable from an unbelievable story about time travel powers... AND technically never even happened!?

No one really knew what Chloe believed, but both Joyce and David are Baptist, so the funeral director stuck with some pretty generic Christian-sounding stuff, I think. (Mom and Pop never really taught me anything - Pop just said they had me baptized to get the grandparents off their backs. I have no memory of it.) Most of it kinda went over my head - I was kinda distracted when the butterfly came back - but one comment stuck out: this idea of "eternity", that God loves us and remembers us from a point of view that doesn't just last forever but originates and persists OUTSIDE of time itself.

I don't know what to believe anymore.

Her words still haunt me: "All those moments between us were real, and they'll always be ours."

What the fuck does that even mean? What even IS real? What CAN be real when you could wipe out an entire history with a glance? This is not hope. This is just another riddle in this ever-growing pile of bullshit in my life that never made sense and never will.

Fuck you, Chloe.

I'll always love you.

 

 

Chapter Text

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Max closed her journal. What a week. At least she actually remembered this one. Or should have.

Shortly after looking up Culmination Park online this morning she had checked on Fernando and Kristen. Good, they were still talking to each other. Late Monday afternoon Max had tried to revisit the Fremont Troll, and somehow said something that sparked some kind of doubt in someone's mind about... something, Max never worked out what the details were. Only on Thursday had she noticed that they had blocked each other on social media for over a year. So when she woke up today Max went back to that photo and immediately jumped out without doing anything, and now those two were still in contact the way she remembered them.

She couldn't even bring herself to feel guilty about experimenting on them like this. No way she was going to risk anything of this sort with Chloe.

Jefferson and Nathan were still in jail. The investigation was ongoing and the police considered them both to be flight risks.

Still no snow, or eclipse, or dead birds, or beached whales, or storm. She hated herself for wanting them.

Joyce was putting in more hours at the Two Whales and putting off having to clear out Chloe's room.

David wasn't fired, thank God, but he was still suspended until next week. This gave him some time to do some work around the house, but he couldn't bring himself to clear out Chloe's room either. So Max offered to help them get started.

Her first attempt had her going straight for William's old camera. She picked it up and spent the next twenty minutes curled up on the floor with it crying.

She spent the night in Chloe's room. She took all the pictures in there but promised that Joyce could have any them back that she wanted if Max hadn't been able to use the school scanners and email her copies of everything before next Monday.

She may have gone back in time to leave a recorded message for Chloe. If she had, it did not seem to change anything.

Earlier in the week Max had gone to the hardware store to pick up a few things. The first time in she asked a few too many questions and things got awkward, so she rewound and bought without any prior questions what she needed to plus a few other things for some deniability. She tried to keep things in her bag, but had to dump out a large stack of paper that was already in it. The dozens of pamphlets and brochures about handling grief and loss that she kept getting weren't helpful. Farewell, completely unread writings of people who didn't personally undo from the universe their own final memories of the people they loved.

David was also buying some things from the hardware store. He caught Max wandering around the block near the store entrance looking for a recycling bin and recognized one of the flyers from when Phil died. Max started mumbling something noncommittal when David stopped her and said he didn't find that one helpful either, no pressure. David suggested they go talk about this over coffee (and once they were there they argued briefly over who would pay; ultimately David did since it was his idea and he wasn't actually fired). He was very earnest and wanted to help Max stop blaming herself, and in the course of doing so let out why he was so obsessed with watching things, and mused on why he seemed to instinctively focus on potential victims instead of potential perpetrators - maybe if he could have stepped up his situational awareness he might have warned their driver about the IED.

Max kept thinking David had no idea what she was going through. They both stood by while Chloe died but he honestly did not know, so he was blameless. It was ironic, but she only opened up (as much as she could without disclosing the time travel thing) when she realized how much David was also at fault for pushing Chloe to this point - also, in his own way, in the name of some greater societal good that did not care about Chloe's own concerns.

By the end of it there was hugging and crying (mostly David) and the coffee was cold. It was Wednesday.

That night Max cried when she read a few pages from Chloe's old journal and understood how she could say "I will always love you" even in the face of erasing all memory of their recent reunion.

The following morning someone on social media shared a "funny" thing about an old illustration of Achilles wrapping himself up like a burrito while grieving Patroclus. She skipped class and spent a great deal of the day like that.

While thus playing the epic hero she imagined asking Mom for a copy of her ultrasound and strangling herself. She imagined Kate barging in on her again like she did on Sunday, then her mind randomly drifted to an old dumb-blonde joke where the girl caught her boyfriend cheating, put a gun to her own head and told him he was next - then considered the possibility that if Max had never been born and Chloe never died in the bathroom Kate might have ended up killing herself with no one to stop her. Sleep well, ultrasound picture in photo album in storage.

She slept little. The other Max harrassed her nightly. She did not viscerally resent its obvious delight in her pain nearly as much as she would have expected.

Max did not remember much of Friday. She recalled watching a million online videos about how to use a device that she was going to assemble from the hardware store stuff later.

While on the train she struggled to remember what she was doing on Friday, since the sort of video she was looking for certainly did not number in the millions outside of some dark-web stuff she did not know how to access. That was why she pulled out her journal and struggled to write something, only to review again the previous week that she had more valid, time-travel-related reasons for not remembering.

The park was closed to the general public for more repairs. Nobody saw her. It was perfect.

Max found the tree. It was enormous and majestic. She sat down under it. She tried again to get down something in her journal to cover this past week. At least she took daily selfies for some reason. It amused her to flip through them like a flipbook, a time-lapse of someone getting more and more haggard and sleepless.

The sleep would come soon. Just one last round to make sure there was no one here - not having to wait until the park was closed put her ahead of schedule anyway.

Max tied the rope as best she could. This was fate. This was destiny. This was what the universe truly wanted, and was Right. This was the logical, hard Truth that was properly described by the cold equations of the real world. She was proud of herself for being able to make the right choice.

She unfolded the little fishing stool and stood on top of it. Tonight she will be free. Fulfilled. With Rachel and William and Chloe and Bongo at last, together, forever.

The sunlight began hitting her eyes as she worked, platinum quickly fading to gold as the afternoon wore on. She felt a wonderful, calm silence within her that she had not felt since she had first escaped the Dark Room. Surely this was another sign that what she was doing was very Good, in accordance with the Way of all things.

She tested the rope. It is accomplished. Max gently cradled the loop and put it up against her face, snuggling it for a moment like a beloved pet rabbit—

"What are you doing here, Max!?"

Max opened her eyes. Really? Seriously? Nevermind the coincidence of her being here at all, but did she really have to use that exact same tone of voice?


Kate was on the roof again.

She'd come up here many times since she started living on campus. She was sitting at her usual spot, sketchbook on her lap, pencil in her hand, spare pencil stuck in her hair, busy drawing whatever came to mind.

This time she was doing a life drawing of a butterfly in front of her, drinking from a glass.

But why was there a Bloody Mary on the roof? It certainly wasn't Kate's, and there wasn't anyone else up here who could have brought it. Unless...

The butterfly was now Chloe, in that dream-logic where something just is something else without any transition. She picked up the glass, chugged the whole thing in one terrifyingly immediate gulp, then tossed the empty glass over the ledge.

Kate heard the shatter, then waited for the scream but it never came.

She then looked over to Chloe, but was immediately fixated on the bright red dripping stain rapidly spreading over her skull-themed tank top under her jacket.

"Shitballs! I knew I forgot something. Argh, fuck, gotta go clean this shit off. Talk to you later, okay?" As she was speaking Chloe had already turned around and was making her way over to the roof door.

From the corner of her eye Kate thought she saw something unusual about the bit of Chloe's tattoo sleeve sticking out of her jacket. She looked, and saw no tattoo at all: it was just a mess of dry wrist bones, connected to a skeletal hand.

Kate realized that she had no memory of looking at Chloe's face this entire conversation. When she tried to look now, Chloe was already passing through the door, revealing only beanie, boots and blue hair.

She tried to get up and follow, but felt only the air beneath her. She was on the wrong side of the railing just long enough to let that falling sensation wake her up.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

All in all, you could argue that Kate had a good week. And not just in the sense of all things ultimately leading towards the Good.

Perhaps it might have been worse if she'd caved and checked her social media at any point. She had not, and still was not going to. The people from school were bad enough, but the past two weeks were like a live demonstration of why Alyssa had a strict "no family" rule when it came to connecting to other people's accounts on websites.

Kate continued driving down the winding road as she reflected on that week. She still couldn't believe Aunt Katherine had been so contrite as to buy her an entire car as an apology - that letter had been mean, but not "$12,000 lightly used but basically indestructible 2006 Corolla she had originally bought for herself" mean. Kate would still have to pay for gas and insurance, but Auntie explicitly said that she'd have no hard feelings if the cost was unsustainable and she had to sell it.

It almost made her want to log in to read the details on what had been going on with her extended family over her miserable little scandal. All Dad told her when he came with Auntie was that the second night after Kate had spoken with him on the phone about her assault (his word), he mass tagged the entire Marsh clan plus Fr. Caulfield in a long, angry open letter quoting Augustine at length with his own interlinear exegesis, then finished off a quarter bottle of wine and fell asleep on the couch to which Mom had banished him the night before. Everything that may have happened afterwards, he said, was done in accordance with each person's own conscience or will.

Things were not much less dramatic in person at Blackwell. The administration was trying to maintain some sense of normalcy, just one scandal with one teacher and one student, but anyone stepping on campus could feel the damp vapour of that restless cloud of tension hanging over everybody whether they had anything to do with the Vortex Club or Jefferson or not.

Quite a few people were leaving Blackwell for good, or at least making noises about it, though the vast majority of the scholarship people seemed to be staying. Kate was seriously considering joining that tiny minority who weren't: too much baggage, too much drama, all those eyes on her never able to see her without all of that in the back of their minds. (And that "bang for Jesus" poop tagger was still active and at large.) She'd already discussed this with Dad, and both her parents indicated they'd fully support her decision to leave even at the cost of the scholarship - if anything, Kate got the impression Dad was actively working behind the scenes to keep Mom from pressuring her to get out, just so they could be sure it was Kate's own decision. Odd incidents with Alyssa and small random projectiles notwithstanding, it wasn't like anyone needed her in Arcadia Bay.

On Thursday Kate received a text from Mr. Madsen saying he wanted to apologize. A part of her was a little annoyed it took him this long, which shadow-Kate immediately latched on to as irrefutable proof that she was selfish and evil and worthless and should just go jump off that dorm roof since that dumbass still hadn't locked the doors before he got suspended; this went on for some time so it wasn't until ten minutes after she saw the text that she called him back.

David had started off trying to explain, but quickly caught himself and simply said that he was glad Kate didn't turn out to be a second Rachel. He did not elaborate when asked. Anyway, he was truly sorry about how he treated her, and if there was anything he could do to help her he would be glad to do it; also, he was trying to find some leads as to who some of these other individuals were in the video, but so far was coming up empty-handed. Kate accepted his apology, thanked him for his efforts and (despite a part of her strongly disagreeing) told him he did not need to make this investigation a priority.

She tried to check on Max a few times. Throughout Friday and Saturday morning she said she was dealing with her loss and just needed some time, she would be okay, but thank you for asking, it meant a lot to her. No, she didn't need anything, yes, she ate while Kate wasn't around, and yes, please do catch her up on class notes once she was ready, just not now, she needed some alone time to process.

On Thursday Kate had been having lunch with Alyssa and Daniel at the Two Whales when they saw from the Go Ape poster that the drive-in Warren kept talking about sold tickets by car. With some encouragement from Kate, the other two used this to get a big four-person outing with them, him and Brooke.

And that was how Kate found herself alone one late Saturday morning, with no plans for the day, thoughts that she would soon be leaving this her hometown forever, and a brand new (for her) car waiting to be driven.

Kate had fond memories of Culmination Park. The family had gone there almost every other week when she was little. She'd always wanted to revisit it since she came back, but school life and everything else kept pushing it out of her schedule and she just kept getting around to it later. Would she even recognize it now? How did they rebuild everything after that fire? Was that crazy tree still there? She wondered if teenagers were still tagging dumb "sextant" jokes on the Northwest Valor statue. Who knows, maybe someone would spray it all blue or something.

The drive was uneventful and the roads quiet. Kate caught many glimpses of that vast, beautiful tree-lined ocean to her left, that belovedly imperfect day-blue giant's mirror of the sky with all its unseen monsters lurking behind it, its frame torn by the ragged lines of the surrounding hills and winding road, but her own safety in keeping her eyes on the road and mirrors remained foremost and she passed by most of the view in a hasty regretful ignorance. If only Max were here to do a little "drive-by shooting"... which would totally be the sort of thing she'd call it, too...

The parking lot looked strangely empty, but perhaps most people were busy elsewhere the week following the Discovery Day weekend. A temporary-looking metal sign near the gate lay face down under a big steel chain and a truck loaded with a Bobcat was parked up ahead, but Kate didn't think anything of it - she knew from the website there would still be some construction going on. She parked on the opposite side of the lot, nearest to the trail entrance, got her camera and backpack with lunch and spare coat and Alice in the modified compartment, checked the windows, locked the doors and headed down.

Had Alice ever seen such an unlimited expanse of natural shapes and colours? Hunting her down the first time she'd set her down took a few exciting moments of running at full sprint and diving into the ferns and mushroom-covered burned logs between the fresh trails. The second time Alice wandered off out of reach when Kate set her down, she'd given up out of sheer fatigue and started eating lunch, leaving Alice's dish of banana slices and lettuce open on the ground and just pointedly ignoring her until she came back.

The third time they were both much more relaxed, and Alice seemed to get a better sense of her bearings and returned when Kate did the pspspsps thing usually reserved for cats.

The view from the overlook was every bit as gorgeous as she remembered it and more. Kate clenched her teeth and procrastinated about getting her coat out of the bag as she experimented with focal length and ISO and angles and framing of all that light that came bearing gifts from the mountains and clouds.

It probably wasn't the wisest expenditure she'd made all day, but Kate did feel a bit nostalgic about looking into those binocular things like she did as a kid.

Nostalgia is a function of forgetfulness. Her view felt unnaturally constrained, and it was a lot more disorienting than she remembered. She had to look up from it a few times just to figure out what she was looking at, but also to ease on that odd sense of tightness that kept creeping into her chest whenever she tried to see the world through that confined framing.

She spotted the old garry oak in the centre of the park and turned the binoculars towards it.

Fancy seeing Max there. She was sitting by the tree, half leaning against it, butt planted on a small folding fisherman's stool, smiling to herself over some pictures. She looked peaceful and happy in a way Kate hadn't seen in weeks. Guess she wasn't the only person who was artistically busy today.

Kate felt relieved at seeing Max getting back into her photography again. She should go down there to say hi...


"Get out of here, Kate! This does not concern you!"

"Max, this is not the way!"

"My life is still mine, and this is something I can only get through alone. If you want to help me, just turn around and go. You never saw me." She held out her right hand as if to point back in the direction Kate came from, but her hand remained open.

"We can get through this together! Let me help!"

Max's eyes widened for a moment. Her hand remained outstretched, then a second she clenched her fist and slowly brought her arm down. "You don't understand what I'm going through, Kate! Nobody gets it! Nobody! I'm in a nightmare and I can't wake up—"

"—but the solution to that is not to fall into a deeper sleep! You still have hope! Please... you don't have to do this!"

"You don't get it! There's nothing left for me here! Every waking moment I'm getting worse. I killed her, Kate. The voice will not stop. Nothing I do can ever make it better. Kate... this is the only way."

Kate stepped forward. "No! You've got an entire life ahead of you! Chloe would not want this! There are so many people who care about you! Me! Your parents!" She hesitated for half a second. "Warren..."

Max took the noose in her hand again. "You're an amazing person, Kate. The kindest, purest person I know." She laughed. "But you're still full of crap." She turned away from her, closed her eyes and held the bottom of the loop to her forehead. "Please... just go. There are millions of better people than me out there. Everyone will just forget."

"Suicide is a— it is not the way! Please, if you won't listen about people who care about you at least try to think through this rationally!"

Max held down the noose and stared through the loop. "I did, Kate. I made the decision, and it was the rational one. You. Do. Not. Understand."

Kate was angry now. It was so frustrating talking to Max like this. One pull and a jump and that would be the end. There was no way she could run over there and stop her in time.

But maybe anger was the thing. "Then make me understand! I'm not going to let you get away with talking down to me like this, like I've never been hurt! I'm your friend, Max! If we're not helping each other trough this, then Jesus fucking Christ, Max, what the fuck are we even for!?"

The noose dropped and went swinging.

Birds were flying out of the branches.

Max stared at Kate, wide-eyed and empty-handed.

Alice leapt out of the bag and ran for the tree.

The sudden movement grabbed Max's attention and she turned to face away from the swinging noose.

Just as the noose swung back into reach Max found herself tackled by 110 pounds of raging charging Kate.

In fact, far from raging, Kate was busy racking her brain for an old memory. Years ago she volunteered in a soup kitchen with a huge Hungarian guy named Attila who worked as a nurse at an addiction recovery centre. During breaks they'd talk about work and he had these great stories on having to subdue people who were high or having seizures or hallucinating and couldn't be reasoned with. In addition to finding tensions and weak points in the other person, the important thing was to use your own weight and theirs against them - to stop whatever it was they were doing that was harmful until they could be taken care of properly.

And so Kate ducked under Max's panicked slaps and blows, squeezed her with both arms with all her might, and just let go of the ground as everything from the waist down became dead weight taking Max to the ground with her.

"Get off of me!" Max kept trying to scramble back on her hands and feet. Kate felt Max's right shoulder jam into her, then suddenly felt this nauseating, painful pull on her legs and scalp as her own shoulders began to involuntarily loosen.

Kate headbutted Max and the pulling sensation stopped. "I'm coming with you! You're my friend!" She redoubled her efforts and wrapped her legs around her for good measure. She felt Max's shoulder come up again, and again the pulling, but this time the pain only affected her back and knees and Max seemed to be pulled around with them.

And so for about a minute they hugged on it, in that special kind of hug that only one party is expected to win.

They had rolled quite some distance away from the tree by the time both of them collapsed on the ground gasping for air. Kate still had enough strength to make sure she collapsed on top of Max.

The ground was awfully cold. Kate mused they might die of hypothermia if they didn't get up soon. Eventually her breath was steady, but Max's was not. In fact, Kate could distinctly feel heaving and sobbing. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..."

Kate sat up with great effort and cradled Max in her arms. "Don't be sorry... you got me to do a week's worth of cardio..."


They soon found Alice munching on some clover on the opposite side of the tree. She refused to leave until Max took several fistfuls of clover with them.

One last granola bar remained in the bag and they split it along with the few swallows of water left in Kate's bottle. Nobody had a knife that could quickly cut through the rope, and it was too cold to undo the knot, so Kate buried it somewhere muddy.

They said nothing to each other on the way back to the car. Nobody greeted or saw them. It wasn't even an awkward silence as they enjoyed the cricket-haunted blue-hour melancholy.

They sat in the car for a while. Then Kate touched Max on the shoulder. "Max... you were lying about having eaten earlier, weren't you?"

"Y... yeah."

"Two Whales, my treat."

Max took Kate's hand in her own. "Thanks. And sorry."

"No apologies needed, Max. Nothing like an exciting day out with a friend!"


"Kate! Max! Fancy seeing the two of you here—what happened to you two!?"

"J... Joyce! What are you doing here this late?"

"Got a chance to pick up an extra shift. Money's been even tighter than usual since the funeral, I'm afraid. But enough of my troubles, why are you both covered in grass and dirt?"

"We were on an adventure at the state park up north! We're fine now, just had a—" she glanced briefly at Max—"near fall. You and Mr. Madsen should take a trip there sometime - the views are gorgeous."

"Ha! When/if we ever both get the time and energy for that! Until then, though... what can I get you two lovely ladies tonight?"

"A burger with onion rings sounds good!"

"Waffles. Lots of waffles." Max was doing that thousand-yard stare thing again, but at this point it wasn't clear whether something was up or she was just thinking about her food.


Eventually they drove back to campus. Kate tried not to think too much of the lights while she helped steady Max as she wobbled out of the car.

They walked back to the dorms like they did on that Friday night. Max's grip did not relent this time, though Kate was leading them - where Max had previously been leading and reassuring her, she now seemed to need Kate as an anchor to this world.

Kate led Max to her dorm and opened the door, then stopped for a moment. A new print of the butterfly photo had been put up in the spot where she had seen the original last Sunday.

"Max, can I ask you a personal question?"

"Anything, Kate."

"Last Sunday I came to your room and asked if you were interested in tea. You didn't answer but you were wrapped up in your blanket staring at that butterfly photo - not that print now, but the other one. What was that all about?"

Max went pale. She raised her hand, like she had when Kate first approached her by the tree, then covered her face with it. She turned to the butterfly photo print, took a step towards it like she was going to take it down, then stopped. She then sat on the floor right there in the doorway and buried her face in her hands. "Kate. Dearest, kind, gentle, lovely Kate. Please forgive me. I don't deserve you. I am worthless, the most fucking evil, selfish person to have ever lived. Please forgive me."

Kate bent down, took Max by the elbow and pulled her back up to stand facing her. "Max, don't say these things! You are real. You are good. You are valued and loved. What on earth do you think you need to beg my forgiveness for!?"

Max looked her in the eye and blurted, "I was trying to kill you!"

[suggested soundtrack: Lunatica - Heart Of A Lion]

And then Max froze, slack-jawed and wide-eyed as the significance of what she'd just admitted began to sink in. She raised her hand to rewind.

Instinctively Kate took the weaker girl's wrist and gently set her arm back down by her side. "Max, stop! I don't know what you think you're doing, but let's talk about this first. Whatever it is, I promise not to judge you, or try to proselytize to you, or cut you out of my life, or anything like that." She didn't let go of her hand; in fact, she was running her thumb over the back of Max's wrist rhythmically, like she was drawing something over and over again.

"I am so sorry", Max repeated lamely. "I really didn't want to get you roped into all this crap. Look, can we just forget I said anything? Because I can totally do th—" Max covered her mouth with her free hand and there was a brief tension as she tried to raise her other hand again and Kate kept it down. Max bit her lip and lowered her gaze.

Kate watched Max for a moment before her gaze briefly wandered over to the butterfly photo again. The butterfly photo... the way Max looked so busy that whole week while isolating herself... the blood stains... Chloe...

"Max", Kate began again, "Not that long ago I was experimenting with something very wrong. Something... hardcore. Something that I thought if I learned to use it I was going to discover some secret knowledge that would fix my problems, but it didn't.

"A friend caught me in the middle of trying to get out of it. She listened to me without judgment, without mocking—okay, a little mocking, but not the mean kind—and really tried to understand and help me through it. She kept..." - Kate watched Max's face for a sign of recognition - "she kept my secret to the end. I could do nothing to help her in return, Max. Could you please help me at least try to pay this forward?" She let go of Max's hand, but put her hands on her shoulders instead. "She doesn't want to see you hurting like this."

Max kept looking down. She blinked. Doesn't. "Okay, but hold right there exactly as you are for a few seconds, I gotta do something or you won't understand." Kate complied and Max moved out of her grasp and stood behind her instead. Then rewound and silently counted one second before leaning in. "Kate—"

"AAAUGH!" Max flinched at the abrupt yelp but kept smiling, then waited for Kate's breathing to slow down enough to get out a "How did you do that!?" before she (waving at Dana who had just peeked her head out her door) asked if they could go somewhere more private than the hallway so she could explain from the beginning.

And so the mud-caked Christian girl with the leaf in her hair led the brown-haired blood-stained bisexual time traveller girl into her room and quietly closed the door behind them.


However, the wizards of the White Council had somehow forgotten one factor: namely, that there is a certain Someone in the world Who rather abhors complete victories and assorted ‘final solutions,’ and is capable of showing His displeasure with same in the most improbable ways. Even now, that Someone was dispassionately surveying the vanquished – all that flotsam cast ashore by the passed storm – when suddenly He rested His gaze upon a couple of soldiers of the extinct South Army lost among the dunes of the desert of Mordor.

The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Eskov

Chapter Text

"Listen, you who thirst for tales, to-"
"Excuse me," a child said, "is it a true story?"
"This story never happened," the storyteller said, "but it is true."
Satisfied, the child sat down to listen.
"That makes no sense," an adult said.
"It does," said child and storyteller both.

O. Westin


October 20, 2013

Hello again, journal. Long time no write.

I don't want to talk about this week. I don't think I'm ready to. I'm just glad Kate was there.

Last night I had one of those dreams where you think you've learned something really complicated and important and you really gotta write it down once you wake up, but when you do you don't remember anything about it except that was complicated and important.

All I've got now is that I was in a place where things were being thrown away (junkyard?) and Chloe was there talking. Then I realized I was dreaming and suddenly I was watching Hawt Dawg Man propose to Kate (on one knee and everything with a hella big rock on that ring!) and then something about bullfighting and that was when I noticed that my alarm was going off.

I'm pretty sure the dream wasn't telling me to marry Kate or anything.

(I mean, I DID just wake up in her bedroom and everything, but we were just passed out on the floor, not... you know.)

Sigh. Showered, emergency Red Bull drunk, entire body still hurts, now to figure out what outfit I've got in here that could pass for a "Sunday best"... I really hope Kate isn't making me do this to try to preach to me about suicide being a sin.


Platinum rays peered over peaks of roofs, illumining the old nave, softening the shadows on the decorative trim framing icons that felt just a little too high for Max to reach.

The soft white tranquillity of the morning walls contrasted itself against the chiaroscuro of the icons of the saints she was pacing between. After all that nonsense she'd seen from Kate's family Max was surprised that women were given such prominent roles in the Church's history; but it was a surprise tempered with the distinct sense of the universe still playing one terribly long and repetitive joke on her, as she strode from Saint Catherine to Saint Chloe and back again.

Contrasts, layers and repetition. At first she had defaulted to the one vaguely formal-looking outfit she had, still hanging at the front of the closet after that Friday. The doe was a bit too big and flashy, but having nothing there made it look too much like a mourning dress - which would have been entirely appropriate, but it felt wrong on the morning right after Max just got a new lease on her own life. So she decided instead to finally start wearing Chloe's bullet necklace that she got from her last visit to the Price home. She finished the outfit with her black jacket and chucks and a pair of black leggings borrowed from Kate because it was way too cold without all of these.

Light and dark. Death and resurrection. Faith and doubt. Max decided to come back later to do more photos, once Kate wasn't busy with her experiments anymore. It was a wonderfully liminal space, now that the service was over and they weren't stuck in the pews anymore.


Max surreptitiously took out her journal and flipped to this morning's selfie. If it got really bad she could go back, feign illness and stay in her dorm all day.

Kate had gone wide-eyed and frantically both mouthed and texted her "SORRY SORRY I HAD NO IDEA" when Max had looked at her. In retrospect Max thought she'd probably given Kate a much nastier death-glare than she'd intended, but this was exactly what she had been afraid would happen.

Fr. Lamont had started his sermon talking about why suicide was a sin.

But it wasn't about her. He soon moved on to his actual example, his own depression that got him nearly flunked out of his engineering undergrad. How he tried to lose himself in booze, hookers and wild concerts, before trying to overdose on painkillers one drunken night which he ended up projectile-vomiting out the window onto the head of a campus police officer who had been called on a noise complaint from a neighbour. How he sat in the station drunk tank while the cops sounded more and more serious about charging him with assault of a peace officer and the catastrophe it would mean for his entire education, his career, his life. How he tried to block it all out of his mind so it wouldn't hurt - but couldn't, and precisely because he had cared that he was able to finally just let go and commend his fate to whatever power he already knew at the time was watching over him.

The next day they let him back into his dorm with a warning.

He spent years trying to dissect what had gone wrong, how he had let himself fall into such a state. Every time he thought about it, the same themes kept coming back up: control, management, trying to make things happen exactly as he planned it. With every success he was motivated to do more, to make his mastery complete; with every setback he was convinced that he was deficient and needed to fix everything.

Max started thinking about airplanes.

A baby started crying and its mother excused herself past a row of knees to take it out of the nave, breaking Max's reverie. Fr. Lamont was now saying something about the trolley problem - and, more specifically, the "fat man" version of it where instead of diverting the trolley with a switch you had a very large person standing next to you who could be pushed into its path, eventually stopping the trolley and preventing its collision with the crowd beyond.

(He asked the congregation to momentarily ignore, for the sake of argument, a few natural objections: the man might be too heavy to push; he might be knocked aside by the trolley as it continued, accomplishing nothing; he might derail the trolley endangering anyone who might be inside, or in its new path; his mass might not be enough to stop the trolley anyway; the first person tied to the tracks might themselves have been enough to stop the trolley, resulting in a net gain of zero lives saved; the man might be on his way to save many more lives; one or more of the people tied to the tracks may be on their way to cause many more deaths; etc., etc., etc., he was sure they could name a few of their own.)

But the point of this was that, even though it felt utterly different from the regular trolley problem, the logical analysis was the same: acting to kill someone in the belief you could save others. The second situation of personally assaulting another human being right next to you merely made the reality of the decision more present to the moral agent.

Fr. Lamont then tied this to a line from the Humanae Vitae of Pope St. Paul VI:

Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.

Now, he clarified, this quote was originally in the context of birth control, but that same act - of stopping a person's existence before they could realize their God-given chance of the joy of being and the fulfilment of their salvation - is only a few procedural steps removed from the substantive reality of robbing that man of his God-given gift of life by pushing him into the death from which he had otherwise been totally safe.

Being together this week... it was the best farewell gift I could have hoped for.

Max fiddled around with the three bullets on her necklace.

She held the rightmost bullet and looked at her journal again. Using her selfie now wouldn't let her unhear all that. This miserable lecture didn't solve anything for her: to save Chloe now she'd have to kill the town; every day she lets the town live, she murders Chloe. The power was already used, and already a curse. Fuck off, Fr. Lamont.

She held the middle bullet and watched Kate from the corner of her eye. She seemed to be paying attention to the sermon. Why did she have to rescue her? She could even now have been with Chloe now... wherever she was. At worst, justly suffering the same fate as her. Fuck off, Kate.

She held the leftmost bullet and stared into the little hole the string was threaded through. Why the fuck did Chloe have to tell her anything then, to put her in this horrible position? Why was she so goddamn self-destructive all the time? Get capped by Nathan here, get blasted with a ricochet there, totally forget to watch out for people in the junkyard wandering off into the dark,...

Fuck guns.


Fr. Lamont quickly left after the service with an apology, having been called for an emergency exorcism at the old lumber mill on the other side of town. Kate was disappointed at this anomaly but trusted the power of the site itself to be enough to facilitate their ongoing experiments warping through time and space.

As the parishioners were filing out Max thought she overheard some gossip about someone named "Frankie" being a disgrace to the church and everything having gone downhill since he took his position. Was that really Frank she saw lurking in the dark corner on their way in? Whatever else he's into, he must take his faith seriously if this was how they treated him here and he kept coming back. Who was she (or anyone) to judge?

Eventually Kate and Max were the only warm bodies left in the nave. Cameras out.

Kate asked Max to take a selfie, then took her own picture of her. Yes, she showed up in both of them.

Before Max did a single rewind, Kate gave her a rosary and tied it to the necklace. The cross clicked against the brass casings.

She walked over to St. Chloe, then walked over to St. Catherine, then rewound and stood by the icon of St. Catherine. She went back and forth like this two or three more times, sometimes rewinding only partway.

At one point Max began to take a step, then stopped, blinked and looked at her camera. She rummaged through her pockets and bag and looked annoyed. "Are you cereal?"

"What's wrong?"

"I walked halfway across, took a selfie midstep, went to the other side and then rewound, and now I'm back where I started and my picture's gone. I didn't do anything else different!"

"Did you take a selfie the other times?"

"No."

They tried again, once regular and once with selfie. Teleported on the first, self-rewound on the second.

Max thought back to that confrontation with David in the parking lot that had now never happened. She'd thought about stopping to get photo evidence first, but didn't even try. Guess her intuition back then was right - she would've wasted way too much time lining up that shot not to need to rewind.

"Try my camera."

Sure enough, the seconds on the clock on Kate's digital went out of sync with Kate's phone without selfie, stayed in sync (and selfieless) with. Tried again just to be sure Max didn't just forget to hit the button, then tried one last time with Max pointing the camera elsewhere. The rewind got rid of that picture as well, but Max took it again with both cameras because those God-rays coming in through the windows were giving the big crucifix an otherworldly glow.

Then Kate showed Max how to turn on video mode, gave her a small booklet and turned to one specific page.

"Isn't this kinda, I dunno, blasphemous?"

Max wondered if it was too inappropriate to think that Kate had an impish smirk. "That's what I've been trying to find out." The smirk disappeared. "But seriously, if you're not comfortable—"

"It's fine, Kate. I'll do it." If all this is real then God should forgive, right? And if not, well, Max has had to read worse for school projects in the past...

Max held the camera to herself while reciting the Our Father, walking from Catherine to Chloe the long way around the pews. She rewound and stopped recording.

"Have you started?" Max blinked and saw that she was still at the icon of St. Catherine.

"Yeah, I already rewound. Camera didn't catch it at all."

"Okay, let's do it one more time, but without recording. But cross yourself first, like it says in the prayer book, and don't rewind that part." And so Kate heard Max invoking the Trinity, but only heard "Holy Spearmen" with the last syllable coming from the opposite side of the room as Max tried to rewind while speaking and overshot slightly.

"Wowser. I don't think I've done so many rewinds in rapid sequence in a while." Max walked over to the pew and sat down next to Kate. She smiled at her but could feel herself swaying a bit. "So what's next?"

Kate tapped her forehead with her pencil while thinking, then scribbled down one more note. "Dunno. I do know I'm less worried now, since all this time you haven't freaked out or screamed that the rosary was burning you or seized up while trying to do the sign of the cross or anything. Thanks for humouring me about this."

Max sniffed. "Hey, no problem. I'm just glad you're here for me. And that you believe me. And hey, it's a lot more sanitary than shooting dirty bottles in a junkyard."

Those words hung in the air for a second or two. And then Max slumped forwards with her elbows on her knees and sighed.

Kate put her hand on her shoulder. "You miss her. It's okay to. It's part of what you meant to each other. What you mean to each other."

Max sniffed. "I hope we can find out how to save her, Kate. She died at the lowest point in her life" her brow tightened "because I let her." She looked up, glaring angrily in the general direction of the big crucifix "Bailed on her, right after" she stood up and began pacing "this miserable... town took away everyone she loved! How can I" she bent forwards and grabbed her head "nnnggggh!"

"Max? Hey, Max—Maaaaaax!"


Where the fuck was Fr. Lamont. It'd been over three months since confession and he finally worked up the balls to do it, only to get bailed on like this? Is this some kind of passive-aggressive penance or some shit?

Frank had missed the last minute or so of the service when he received a "VERY URGENT!!!" message on his phone. It was a client asking about mixing weed and acid, a question that Frank had answered him at least seven times in the exact same way in the past year. He had then made the fatal mistake of making a snarky comment about the guy's memory, upon which he was treated to a ten-minute tirade about chemtrail waves, galactic enforcers and government androids animated by the blood of the Beast, etc. etc. until Frank heard something like a fire alarm going off in the background and the guy said he'll call later because he had a very urgent question to ask.

The problem was that that "VERY URGENT!!!" messages from clients had a one in (Frank had counted this at one point) seven chance of being a real emergency - OD, needles, trying to escape from the cops, trying to keep a stash where a little kid in the house couldn't find it - so he couldn't ignore it if he wanted to keep that client.

Few other dealers he knew did this kind of followup. One way or another he made damn sure Fr. Lamont knew, so that he would be bothered to hear his confession at all, unlike other priests who'd just tell him to fuck off until he repented of his day job.

The nave was nearly empty. Frank could only see the back of Kate's head at the front and centre pew; not unusual, except that she wasn't looking up to Jesus or bowing her head in prayer, but looking down to her left at something on the pew. Didn't Father warn her last time she tried to bring Alice into the nave?

Frank watched her for a second, shrugged, then walked up to her. "Hey Kate, have you seen—ohwhateverthefuck." Frank scowled and stopped dead in his tracks.

Max sprang to her feet, then grunted and grabbed her head. "Fuck... Frank! What are you doing here? Are you following me!?"

"I should be asking you that question! Who the fuck are you and what the fuck do you—"

"Frank! We're in the church! Both of you please maintain a bit of respect!" Kate moved to stand between them before it got out of hand. Once Frank was stopped in his tracks, she turned around and softened her tone. "Max, how's your head?"

"It's fine," Max grunted, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "It still hurts but—"

"Where did you get that?" Everyone froze.

"What?"

"Where the fuck did you get that necklace!? It's Chloe's necklace! You—"

"Joyce let me have it." As she spoke Max stepped back, held out her phone in front of her with both hands like a magnum and called while Kate stepped into Frank's space and made and held eye contact with him. "Shit, no answer! Uh, sorry Kate." Max dialed again. "Hi, is this the Two Whales? Is Joyce there? It's very urgent, it's about her daughter." Max looked at Kate and Frank. "Hi Joyce! I'm really sorry to bother you like this, but I've, uh, I just ran into... a... an old friend of Chloe's and they'd like to know if you had actually let me have her bullet necklace."

Max paused for a moment, then switched to speakerphone. "—course you could, Max! I have no reason to think that she would not have wanted it this way." Pause. "Who is this friend, exactly? I don't think I've heard of her."

Kate looked from side to side. Frank quietly took a step back. Max switched out of speakerphone.

"Just someone that both Chloe and I knew from before." Max's eyes suddenly went wide. "...y-yeah, it was Frank. Yes, Joyce, we're safe, we're at the church he goes to."

Frank scowled as everyone could hear Joyce's incredulous laugh even without the speakerphone.

Max glanced over at Frank's scowl and promptly avoided eye contact. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure he heard that." Her eyes widened again, then she nodded and held out her phone. "Frank, Joyce wants to apologize."

Frank grunted and took the phone. "Yeah? ... oh. Ha! Yeah, she didn't look the type. Well, it's good to verify her story anyway. No worries, Mrs. Price. See you at the Two Whales." Max heard the hangup beep and Frank gave the phone back to her. "So you really were Chloe's friend—oh, come on, don't give me that fuckin' look, I mean you actually were back then too—and here I was with half a mind to stack every Bible I could find in these pews and make you swear on them you weren't a cop before I said a single damn word to you ever again."

Kate crossed her arms and looked generally annoyed. "There certainly has been a lot of swearing in here so far... anyway, are we cool now? No more fighting over jewelry?"

Frank glanced over at Max, then without thinking followed her gaze which led to the bracelet on his own wrist.

"Yeah."

"Yeah."

Frank looked around the nave. "So where is Father anyway?"

"He had to go to an emergency exorcism down at the old lumber mill on the south end of town. Just before he left he asked me to forward his apologies to any appointments he'd missed."

Frank blinked, then stared off into the distance for a moment. "Damn. About time." Max thought about that joke where the guy went to hell for swearing and then went down a level every time he swore upon realizing what had just happened. "Well, if he manages to bring peace to that place he won't even owe me a beer. Hell," Max was actually feeling a tinge of vicarious embarrassment now, "I might owe him after that."

He faced the big crucifix, crossed himself and put his hat back on. "Well, since he's out I guess I should be going. Good seeing you again, Katie–"

"Kate, never Katie!" Outside of the logbook, anyway.

"—and Max, guess you're not quite as horrible as I thought. But you still kinda weird me out, no offence."

Mrs. Price. "Hey, you're not smelling too vomitously bad yourself. We should hang out." Max raised her right hand forwards and then awkwardly brought it around to scratch behind her ear.

Frank walked out the exit without anyone teleporting.

Max sat back down on the pew.

"How are you doing?"

"Still a headache, but I can move."

"So what happened? Did you have a vision?"

"No storm, but yeah, it definitely felt like a vision. I was in the middle of a snow-covered forest, and then the doe led me to streetlight up ahead. I heard very faint human voices in the distance shouting something, but I couldn't tell where they were coming from, and some popping noises echoing in the distance. It was really windy but nothing was getting knocked over and I couldn't see a tornado. I walked past the light, then there was a road. Then I crossed—okay, back up, across the road I saw the front gates of the cemetery, but something had smashed through them. I knew I had to go into the cemetery for some reason, so I walked over, and then this bright red 1977 Needham pulling a huge blue container came out of nowhere straight for me and that's when I woke up. I didn't feel the cold, though, and the road didn't seem to lead anywhere, it just kinda... was. It didn't feel like a concrete location like the lighthouse or the train."

"How could you tell it was a vision?"

"I... I guess I just could? Like, it felt like one..." Max had no idea. Without that same sensory vividness of what she saw with the storm and the train, the only thing she could consciously name was the context of it happening while time-travel fainting.

Kate frowned. "Well, we're definitely not going to be experimenting to try to find out. And don't you dare try while I'm not looking!"

"I guess if we're ever in the snow near the cemetery we'll know for sure." It sounded almost like it could have been intended as a joke, or mere flippancy, but really Max just wanted to fill in that uncertain space with words.

She asked Kate to pose like she was taking notes, then took a selfie with her in the background and stuck it in her journal.


As they passed through the narthex Max noticed the intercessions list. There was a section for prayers for the departed faithful. Max hesitated, then half-remembered some line about "God will sort them out" and wrote in—she glanced over at a copy of the local rag showing one story about the ongoing investigation with Prescott and Jefferson—Elizabeth.

A little jingle played in her head as she remembered a chalk drawing of a butterfly.

"Oh hi there!" Max nearly dropped the pencil. "You must be the new youth leader! So glad to meet you at last!"

Max turned to see a portly Filipina woman who looked about fifty, wearing a long, high-necked eggshell white dress and a very comfy-looking pastel blue shawl, reaching out with her hand as she walked towards her. "I am Izabella. We spoke on the phone."

Max turned all the way and shook her hand. "I'm Max. Nice to meet you. But, uh, I'm not the new youth leader - I just came here as a guest with Kate."

Said Kate came back from the bathroom. "How terribly rude of me! I should introduce you two properly. Max, this is Izabella Sumilang, our parish council member-at-large. Izabella, this is Max Caulfield, one of my classmates from Blackwell."

"Ah, yes! Max, the photographer! It is good to have you with us!" At this point Max noticed in the corner of her eye, on the church bulletin board, a rather familiar-looking photo of the building - taken while her parents were driving her to Blackwell back in August and which she had subsequently given to Kate. "Perhaps you might want to join the group if you're here? They normally meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings."

"Um, thanks. I'll consider it."

Kate, remembering her promise from last night, chimed in with more positive-sounding noncommittalness. "Yes, it could be a great learning experience! I'll remind Max to look into it." She glanced at Max, then back at Izabella. "But why did you think Max was the new youth leader? I thought Maribeth Lee was Asian."

"Yes, so did I, but when I saw Max I thought I must have remembered wrong! Max, you have a very strong, quiet calm to how you move, like you know how to lead people, but in a humble way, like you spent so much of today's mass with your head bowed in prayer. You dress up and dress down at once—" she respectively indicated Max's dress and her everyday shoes—"which matches the necklace perfectly. A symbol of the Trinity, made manifest even amidst the violence of our fallen world, which you have reappropriated in service of the truth. Very 'gangsta rap', even!"

Max Caulfield, blinged-out church lady gangsta. I'm sure there's an alternate reality somewhere out there where I'm totally embracing that.

"I dunno, Izabella, it seems to me the bullets are more warlike... and evocative of death..."

"Exactly, Kate! A necklace like this is an excellent way to remember the One who died for all of us. And we are already in a state of spiritual warfare and should be vigilant, but also wanting to save others, like a brave soldier, even at cost to ourselves: 'Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.'"

Max smiled and tried to pretend to listen to a word of what Kate and Izabella said after that, as her mind raced trying to plot how to get herself shot by Nathan without Chloe going berserk on him before David showed up.


Max was in the junkyard, dressed in Chloe's clothing. It all fit very poorly. The tank top felt wet around the middle.

She found herself on the very spot Chloe had been standing when she was shooting bottles. It took her a moment to recognize it, watching it from this much higher vantage point from where she had been duct taped to this cross.

The other "Max" was standing in front of her, dressed in a cheap Halloween Roman soldier costume. The dream-logic told her that it was supposed to be the guy from Life Of Brian who was trying not to laugh at "Biggus Dickus".

"'Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.' Aww, how nice a sentiment! Too bad it doesn't undo how fucking toxic Chloe was. She's a really bad influence on—sorry, was such a bad influence on you, you know. Not once that whole week can you identify something truly good that she did."

"Fuck off."

"Every single time we've spoken you couldn't answer. My. Question." Max briefly heard someone else's voice in there, or maybe just imagined it. "Every single time now, I've asked very nicely to prove me wrong, given these objective facts about Chloe's selfishness, her toxicity, her self-destructive behaviour that hurt so many people,... and you can't. Your emotions and bias are clearly proving you wrong with every word. Prove she's worth anything, without resorting to pathetic girlish emotion or frieeennndship or any such idiotic sentimentality, and you might see something that isn't your own constructed lie for once."

"Go rot with Nathan in hell. I have no obligation to answer anything within a frame of discussion that I don't give a fuck about, which you only picked for yourself so you could win."

"Oh ho! Mask off now, aren't we! See, that's it right there! You never cared. About poor Nathan, or Joyce, or Victoria, or anyone. You really should have agreed to become Jefferson's protégé, you're exactly the same."

Max thrashed about on the cross, trying to break free, find that baseball bat and beat the living tar out of the doppelganger.

"And don't you fucking think you can get away from me. I saw you with that slut, hiding from us in that grimy little old hovel, letting her puppet you around with that bullshit hocus pocus that she clings on to to pretend she didn't fucking enjoy it—"

"RRRRGGHH!" She still couldn't do it. There was a lot of duct tape. The cross teetered back and forth.

The doppelganger rolled its eyes and scoffed. "Oh, sure, like that'll do anything. See? You're in denial again. You know it's Chloe's destiny and you're still fighting it like a stupid hysterical woman. You're just being emotional and refusing to face facts and logic."

The cross was still rocking back and forth the whole time the doppelganger was speaking.

Max rewound for half a second, then thrashed in sync with the swinging. The tape strained.

"...refusing to face facts and logic." Loud creaking.

"...to face facts and logic." Violent swinging.

"...facts and—" Max slammed screaming into the doppelganger as the whole thing came crashing down.

The doppelganger exploded into a shower of burning debris on impact and Max woke up gasping for breath.

Chapter Text

Kate was on the roof again.

She could tell it was a dream, because when she looked down from the ledge she was standing on all she could see was the frozen notion of a crowd staring at her.

She stared out at them. They seemed oddly upset and it was raining lightly. The air felt really nice though. Since the crowd was just frozen in place she guessed they wouldn't mind if she just stayed here and relaxed a bit...

"BOO-YAH!"

"AAAUGH!" Kate spun around to face her attacker. "What the—what do you even think you're doing, Chloe!?"

"Boo... yah? Get it? I'm Chloe and I'm a scary punk ghost!" The blood was gone, but so was the rest of Chloe's soft tissue, as her usual melodious, sarcastic voice came out from under wavy blue bangs set over a grinning white skull. If she had been awake, Kate supposed she should have been frightened at this; but now she was busy fighting off her annoyance so she could at least feel sorry for her.

"More like a scary punk jerk. Someone could get hurt! So what did you bring me here for?"

"Well I just think it's neat, to see you here down here in the dark with me after my real best friend ghosted me for five years..." It was daytime on the roof and Kate could feel the rain on her.

"She really is honestly sorry about that! Please don't hold it against her!"

A heckler called from below. "Yeah, you'd like that wouldn't you, you fat slut?"

They were now overlooking the cemetery instead of the dorm entrance. Everything down there was cast in shadow but Kate could not discern what of. The "other Kate" was down there, caked with dirt with leaves in her messed-up hair, leaning against a shovel stuck into the dirt in front of the Price headstone. Nearby lay an assortment of objects that Kate could not identify but was sure were intended to be used for something obscene.

Chloe responded first. "What the fuck? That doesn't even make sense! Try harder, bitch—ow!" She was smacked in the face by a bright red bouncy projectile. As it splorped off her and fell back to the ground below, Kate remembered one time when she was watching Alyssa browse Bad Dragon for laughs, though this particular custom work had seven heads.

Before either of them could respond again another flurry of projectiles hit them - this time a shovelful of dirt. Chloe cursed a blue streak and stumbled backwards towards the exit as a worm had fallen inside her exposed eye socket. "Yeah, you go on with your good bad dead self! Our little druggie ho of Blackwell's too fleshly for you anyway!" The doppelganger made a bodily gesture over Chloe's grave that reminded Kate of that "teabagging" from those first-person shooters her sister Jessica would play with their cousin Jamie.

Kate turned to Chloe who waved her away as she leaned against the wall and tried to pull the worm out. She turned back to the doppelganger, making sure to emerge in a different spot on the roof as another clod of dirt sailed past her. "Really? Insulting my friends and making stupid tea jokes? You're really running out of ideas now!"

"Oh, now you're really asking for it..." the doppelganger slammed the shovel into the ground and Kate was knocked back by a torrent of dirt and rocks and ancient bone fragments and worms.

She and Chloe dug their way out and ran back to the ledge. The doppelganger was standing at the bottom of the grave grinning maniacally with a wine bottle labeled "PRESCOTT DARK 2013" in one hand and a crowbar in the other.

Kate looked at Chloe who looked as perplexed as a skeleton can look. "What the fuck..."

"I'm gonna do it, bitch! Finish what that little weasel started!"

Kate had no idea what the doppelganger was even on about, but she did have a hunch that it was probing for a weakness. One that, she decided, it would not find today. "This is stupid! I'm calling your bluff! Dig her up, I dare you!"

"Fine!" It pried open the coffin.

A swarm of sapphire butterflies poured out and consumed the doppelganger who stumbled and fell inside. They covered her entirely with their glowing blue wings, then rose up like a plume of smoke and disappeared into the clouds. Only a shovel and baptismal cross remained inside.

Kate muttered a prayer for the departed, then remembered the Chloe was standing right next to her. She turned to look at her, who was no longer a skeleton but was surrounded by butterflies. Chloe did not seem to notice their presence at all.

She was looking at her now very non-skeletal hands. Kate could see a bit of her tattoo sleeve poking out from under her jacket. "Well, thanks for getting some meat on this bony white ass again. Now I'm just a little pale."

Kate felt that something was odd about the insects' flight, as though they weren't real and she was somehow inside a drawing. Much later, when a teacher we'll meet later in this story went off on one of her random special-interest tangents in the middle of a lecture, she would learn why: real live butterflies tend to hold their wings mostly behind their heads, so their front edge forms a very gentle curve while their front and back wings have a great deal of overlap. The ones around Chloe weren't like this: instead, they flew around with their wings splayed out rigidly in an X shape at all times, like pinned specimens.

They, like Chloe, were dead.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Number of days since last suicide attempt: 2
Number of days since last serious consideration of suicide: 0

I'm listening to one of Chloe's playlists as I write this. It's louder than my own collection and that's exactly what I need.

The thing inside my head won't shut up. Even now it's telling me, with all the enthusiasm of talking about drywall, that it's the best thing that's ever happened to me and I should be grateful. I will NOT write down what else it's saying. Not without someone in the room who can wrestle away sharp objects from me anyway.

Crazy thing is? Kate's got her own. They BOTH seem to quiet down while we're together. She says it gets quieter for her while she's in church. I can't remember if I heard mine while we were experimenting on Sunday, so maybe it was quieter for me too.

Which kinda led to...

Okay, so TOTALLY RANDOM ASIDE time: The priest at the church Kate's family goes to in Portland? Fr. Michael Caulfield? He's my UNCLE. Mom did sometimes mention an "Uncle Mike" that Pop has refused to talk to ever since before I was born. Something about an old mutual friend dying back in the 90s.

He was really glad (like, "I could hear him choking up on the phone" level glad, kinda awk) to finally talk to me and I promised to catch up if I was ever in Portland. Uncle Mike said he wasn't surprised at all when I mentioned that my parents never told me anything about religion - something about a long and sad story that he'd rather tell me in person. Or in a letter.

Anyway.

After listening to us talk for a bit he made it pretty clear that he did NOT recommend we try to get Fr. Lamont to exorcise us, and we should talk to a psychiatrist first. He said some kinds of trauma could result in people feeling like they've got another personality inside them telling them things, but he was no mental health specialist and was in no position to diagnose us. Even so, the things we were getting from our "bad selves" sounded to him more like an extreme version of anxious self-talk that the early church called "logismoi". He started giving a personal example about a lost friend and abruptly stopped.

Kate didn't seem too satisfied with the answer but thanked him anyway.

Me, I'm just curious now.

 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Curiosity killed the Max.

Okay, not really, but Pop MIGHT want to kill me if he knew who I was having a nice loooong phone call with at lunch today. Not saying he's right to cut off Uncle Mike, but what Uncle Mike did was hella fucked up and his "I was just following orders" bullshit (which I'm not even going to give the dignity of writing down) was NOT helping his case.

I don't even dare try to write down how I'm feeling about all this, so I'll just stick with what Uncle Mike told me. This is going to take a lot of processing before I even think about talking to Pop about any of it.

Maxime(!) Gage was best friends with Pop since middle school. They met when Max (Gage) was being bullied by some other kids and bonded over a shared love of old computers and comic books. They hung out with Uncle Mike and a few other friends and they got real close over the years, but a lot of that circle grew up, married and drifted away having to deal with their wives and kids... leaving the three of them.

Uncle Mike was always really active in the church and it kinda rubbed off on Pop and Max. Neither of them went as far as actually going to seminary, though there was one year when Max talked about it a lot.

Max was also in love with Pop. Both he and Uncle Mike knew, but Uncle Mike said he had no idea if the feeling was returned. I didn't tell him, but Pop has sometimes mentioned that he had fallen in love with a mutual friend of my parents before that person left (Pop's word) the year before he and Mom started dating. He never gave any details, and never even used names or gendered pronouns for this person, but I always assumed it was just to keep Mom from getting jealous.

This was all happening a few years before I was born, in the middle of the AIDS crisis.

Uncle Mike talked about how fiercely Pop and Max advocated for their parish to do more to help the sick and dying. There was HUGE resistance to it at all levels in the parish: the rector at the time, Fr. Southin even refused communion to people who had recently been in contact with a patient, claiming that the virus was transmitted through aerosolized saliva!

He emailed me scans of some clippings of the church newsletter and parish council minutes from back then. Hella (sorry) fire and brimstone talk on both sides.

Eventually this whole shitstorm (Uncle Mike's word) came to a head when Fr. Southin wrote an open letter to the bishop recommending Pop's excommunication over another open letter he had posted on the front door of the nave. Pop was secretary of the parish council and was getting a paid internship with one of big law firms in Portland through someone from the parish. My grandparents - whose house was facing foreclosure - and pretty much all of Pop's family and friends were really looking to him to do this right.

He had to choose between them and Max.

Uncle Mike started to get a bit evasive at this point. I had to rewind just to get him to actually SAY that after about three months Pop wrote another open letter recanting his position and he got his internship. No one knew what Pop and Max said to each other but after the open letter no one from church ever saw or heard from Max again.

Then Uncle Mike showed me another old newspaper clipping, a tiny bit stuck on page 3 of some local paper: "Body of homosexual found in bar bathroom, suspect questioned / Father of three released without charge, claims self-defense". With it was an editorial about the validity of gay panic defenses, written carefully to respectfully treat both sides of the issue.

Only Max's parents, Mom, Pop, Uncle Mike and two of Pop's friends showed up for the funeral. Max had never been formally excommunicated but Fr. Southin strictly forbade anyone at the parish from praying for his soul.

Pop sent Uncle Mike to the hospital with a jaw fracture and a broken rib that night when he tried to defend his rector's position. That was the last time he ever saw Pop.

Mom and Pop have already told me what happened after: Pop finished his internship, quit the firm without making a single connection there, borrowed $3000 from a former client to set up his own shingles in some small middle-of-nowhere fishing town on the coast, then later that year met up with Mom again on his way to a hearing back in Portland.

 

I could tell that Uncle Mike hadn't told this to anyone in a long time. I might hate the excuses he makes about the "authority of whole tradition" or whateverthefuck, but he obviously deeply regrets what he did. Funny how he made me think of Frank's reaction when I told him about Rachel a whole alternate reality ago... both in the business of opiates to the masses, I guess.

Did he seriously not think after all these YEARS that he could just pray for Max himself!? All I do is mention that in a side comment and he just... I thought I heard him stop himself from saying "holy shit" right there. He then started talking rapid-fire about a bunch of stuff about a requiem and a blessing from his eminence that I didn't catch, but by the end of it he promised to add Max's name to the list of departed that they prayed for at their parish.

Without thinking I asked him to add Chloe as well.

 

So writing all that out something hit me: if I could somehow jump that far back, I could kill myself by saving my namesake. Pop would have just stayed friends with Mom and stuck with Max and they could have lived happily ever after together, Pop arguing all those crazy important human rights cases he always talked about, making a huge difference in the courts instead of just defending out-of-season fishermen and teens caught with doobies in Arcadia and rubberstamping tech deals in Seattle. Chloe would never have met me, which would work out since she'd "only" have William's death to deal with in 2008, so she wouldn't be as traumatized and could have avoided that whole chain of events that ended with her spending that $3000 for Rachel and getting shot trying to blackmail Nathan in the bathroom. She and Joyce and David might even have a semblance of a decent family life. Rachel would also be cut off from that mutual feedback about trying to escape Arcadia Bay, both of them could focus on their schoolwork and getting jobs, Chloe could get more scholarships and really make a name for herself in whatever field she wanted, all without me in the way—

...which Max is writing this again?


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kate, Stella, Daniel and Alyssa were at Two Whales gossiping about Warren and Brooke.

"So what happened?" asked Stella.

"The expedition", explained Daniel, looking very much like he'd been waiting for this, "was an unequivocal success. While the events themselves did not unfold as we had expected, their outcome was what was hoped. As is documented in the well understood science of love, the primary aim of the successful wingman is to escalate the value of all present but that of the man you are aiding just slightly faster than any potential competition. And so it was on that directive that we set out.

"As such, we played to Warren's strengths and attempted to cover his weaknesses. With great determination and moral clarity of my goal, we strategically interjected our dear friend Warren's displays of his scientific intellect with a mild segue into the underlying romantic poesy upon which its import relied.

"But alas, we had miscalibrated Brooke's receptiveness of the finer embellishments of my wordsmithing. My mere mortal lexicon cannot relate to you, my friends, how wounded I am in my pride in admitting this; but as a loyal wingman I can but throw myself upon this artistic grenade for the greater good. I pressed on in my efforts, for I had carefully discerned her intentions and she had reasoned that her annoyance was not so much the mismatch of diction as the time taken away from her beloved Mr. Graham. He, in turn, was beginning to perceive her annoyance with yours truly as distress, one from which he as the alpha male among us was his telos to protect our damsel - and thus the seed was planted that such telos was tied specifically to Brooke. And so we watered that seed with a few more exchanges in the spirit of thinly veiled sporting masculine competition, and by the end of the night he had his arm around her, and his efforts plainly directed towards gaining and keeping her affections, unprompted.

"In conclusion, Brooke is going with Warren again for another movie this weekend, and Alyssa and I" - his tone built up to a triumphant flourish - "are cordially but unequivocally not invited."

"I never understood what everyone loves about Charlton Heston anyway," Alyssa added.

Kate smiled and nodded.

Stella was leaning forwards and grinning. "This is great! They're such a cute couple together! Can't believe I'm saying that, but..." She did not elaborate as to the nature of her disbelief.

For a few seconds no one had anything to segue on to the next topic.

"Since we've got this awkward silence," Alyssa said, "I might as well ask since it's been bothering me all week. No pressure to answer if you don't want to, Kate, but... did Mr. Madsen find any leads on who those other people were in that video?"

Kate shook her head. "Last time I talked to him he said he was keeping some feelers out, but no leads so far. The best person to know is Victoria, but no one knows where she is and Blackwell admin would only say that she left voluntarily."

"I still say we should kidnap Taylor and make her spill the beans." Immediately after Stella said this a man in a booth somewhere behind them choked and sputtered on his drink.

"Seriously, though, aren't the pol—" Stella just. Looked. At Daniel. And the four of them sat there looking sad.

"Anyway, I hope this new development isn't going to be a disappointment for—" Stella stopped as she and Kate heard the door open behind them and watched the sudden look of confused recognition on Alyssa's face as it immediately fell into wide-eyed dismay. As the person approached their booth Alyssa gestured at her head: "...Max. Why."

She was dressed in what now passed for her usual outfit: skull-patterned chucks, jeans, bag, bracelets (now with Chloe's spikes), black jacket and bullet necklace. She was smiling down at them, however, from under the sea-green brim of a baseball cap that had "WOMEN WANT ME / FISH FEAR ME" embroidered on the front. Attached all over the cap and brim were numerous cute fishing lure critters: krill, minnow, squids, and a couple adorable squishy tentacled bug-eyed things that looked like something Clark Ashton Smith might have imagined if he were Kate Marsh, and being so had Kate immediately taking out her sketchpad.

"Is... is this your Halloween costume, Max?" Daniel ventured.

"Oh, the hat? just a little thing I had lying around." Only after she'd bought the components along with the rope and stool, but they didn't need to know that; meanwhile, the fishing line sitting in her drawer could be useful for more photo displays. "Macready gave me the stinkeye outside at first until I told him it was a lesbian thing."

The four of them stared at her. Acting like nothing was amiss, she waved at Stella and Kate to scoot over, and sat down when they complied.

As she sat down she looked at the faces of everyone present. Why hello there, mildly inconvenient fact that I hadn't actually come out yet. My name is Maxine Dumbass Caulfield. Charmed, I'm sure. She slowly raised her right hand forwards, then raised up one finger as though she wanted to speak, then used that hand to fidget uncomfortably with her hat as she looked at the mostly-finished remains of everyone else's food.

Soon both hands were on the table as she stared at her own twiddling thumbs. "I loved her," she said finally. "She was my light. My angel. My everything—" she buried her face in her hands "oh, God, that's so fucking cliché, but... fuck words. Maybe" that kiss in her room "we always felt that way about each other, even back when we were kids, or maybe" that kiss by the lighthouse "the feelings only came later. Lately I was doing a bit of soul-searching and... I don't think I've ever felt anything, for anyone, like what I felt for her. Not with anyone at Seattle, or here, even when I thought I might've had a crush on" - the difference in reason for not using names was so stark Kate almost thought she saw the diner darken slightly - "him when it was really just hero-worship over a shared interest. No, even... even with the guys who were decent, guys I told myself I thought were cute, guys I almost went on 'dates' with, it was... my love for her was like the sun blotting out the stars in comparison. Hot, burning, life-giving, illumining the eternally recurring blue of the sky,... wherever she smiled down at me she wiped out all that was cold and distant and long dead." Max looked out the window. Her angel, her heaven, that unclouded firmament she could just stare into and get lost in forever... I can look at it anytime and she'll always be there for me...

She looked around at the others for judgment, for amusement, for scandal, for contempt, for lewdness, any excuse to rewind all of this now that she'd gotten it off her chest. The sad, earnest sympathy for her, even from Kate, was devastatingly unanimous.

She looked back down at her thumbs.

Stella broke the silence. "So... Brooke never had to worry about you stealing Warren away from her."

"What!? No, of course not! Why the fu—"


They chatted about homework and other nonsense until the other three paid their respective bills and took their leave. Kate spotted someone she knew from Meals on Wheels and excused herself to discuss new logistical prospects with them now that she had some wheels of her own.

Max heard the door open behind her and watched another person come in who was also wearing a jacket and baseball cap and had also failed Chloe miserably when she needed them most.

"Hi David. Are you here to visit Joyce?"

"Hi Max. Just here for dinner, really, as much as I love seeing my wife's beautiful face." He waved at Joyce who had just turned around from taking someone else's order. "She's been taking a lot of extra shifts, and she usually eats here before coming home, so I'm either here or cooking for myself."

"It must be a difficult time for both of you financially."

"Just the usual bills and mortgage. We just barely managed a payment this week to get them off our backs, since the funeral. Nothing but interest. God, those banks are such bloodsuckers..." Max was pretty sure from the way Pop used to complain about the paperwork that Arcadia Mortgage Investment Corporation wasn't technically a bank, but point made. "I tried to pick up some other work myself, but stuff is harder and harder to come by in this town... one lead looked promising but at the end of the day I just couldn't sign up with them—sorry, I shouldn't say any more."

"I don't blame you. The way shi—stuff is run around this town, some jobs can be a bit more than you bargain for." David, thank you so much for not selling your soul to that fucking Prescott scum and their evil project. For Joyce. For Chloe. For Kate. For all of us.

David chuckled. "Hey, we're both off duty, no need to censor yourself around me. And I need to be less of a hardass dumbass about everything anyway." They avoided each other's gaze for a moment. "Hey, uh, Max, if there's any more of Chloe's stuff that you want, let us know soon, okay?"

She tried to imagine what was left in Chloe's room. She had so many memories in that room, maybe she could have... no, it's different now, she wouldn't be able to afford the rent.

The rent...

They really were going to do it, weren't they.

She remembered the empty room from the alternate timeline. The crutches, the boxes, the butterfly poster, the spool, the CD, the old hi-fi, the big drawing board, the doe globe, the other globe, the photos, the camera, the blue desk drawers, the phone, the T-shirts, the blue hair dye, the other posters, the christmas lights, the board games, the wastepaper basket with all the parking tickets, that stupid stuffed shark,

The empty room.

I love you, Max.

Don't forget about me.

"...Max? Are you all right?" And with that, she realized she'd been staring into some unseen thousand yards for a whole minute without saying a word.

"Thanks, David. I might drop by tonight to take a look."

"Great! See you around." David went up to the counter.

Kate returned and they poked David for more updates. He was still trying to compare some of his own surveillance records on campus to the video for any matching outfits or tattoos or whatnot. So far, zilch.

The girls paid and left. They saw Frank's RV pulling out of the parking lot.


Frank didn't usually compliment the way a regular client's breasts looked under her new blouse as she came by to pick up her merchandise, but when he did, as he just did now...

"Thank you so much, Frank! I wouldn't be here without you!" She looked down. "Is there any way to make this go faster?"

"Yeah, but you won't like it. And I wouldn't have the cash to front it for you if you couldn't pay. Say, did you finally manage to call up that voice trainer?"

"Not yet, just practicing more on my own. I have my own place now! A bit small but the roommates are great... and do pass on my thanks to that reference you gave me!"

"Yeah, of course." Frank went back into his RV and emerged half a minute later with a baggie and an account book. He flipped to a page and crossed something out. "Consider him thanked." He gave her the baggie and wrote a new entry in the logbook. "How's—" No. Frank knew better than that, talking about that shit would just get himself riled up for no good reason. "Let me know once they pay you, alright?"

"Will do." She put the baggie into her purse and began walking away. "Have a great evening, Frank!"

He watched head back to her car and went back inside. That should be the last person he was scheduled to meet. He went to his fridge for a beer and Pompidou bolted for the door, tail going like a quantum superposition of left and right waiting for Frank to let them both out.

He wondered how much he was really helping her. In his mind he could hear both of his parents screaming some... not nice things about "those people".

He stepped out onto the beach, looked around and opened his beer. At least now this would help shut them up instead of making it worse.

No, she definitely seemed better adjusted now than when they'd first met. Even if it were the delusion Fr. Lamont insisted it was, it'd be a lot closer to the truth than the vast majority of people's self-identifying as any sort of "good person". Frank was too old to trust anyone who said that about themselves.

Anyway, guess that's one more day he doesn't throw his whole stash into the ocean and drive away forever.

He picked up a piece of driftwood and threw it with all his might. Which wasn't terribly far from where he was sitting, his throwing shoulder facing the ocean, and Pompidou was quite clearly standing above the waves by the time he started carrying it back. Business was pretty lousy ever since the Vortex Club scandal; maybe it was a good idea to start winding things up, pass off a few clients to some other dealer who might be moving into his turf, stick around a bit longer for the couple high-profile clients he still had whom he still needed in order to keep the cops off his back...

He put down his beer to get the stick back from Pompidou. Getting to that point was a lot harder to do without that $3000. He could, theoretically, serve Joyce with a claim against Chloe's estate, since it wasn't a drug debt; but obviously he had no intention of doing that to her (however hilarious it would be to see the look on Der Führer's face when he lost in court to a drug dealer!) and their net worth was probably less than his anyway.

They never did work out what the interest was supposed to be, did they?

Pompidou nuzzled his hand. Frank stared at the golden brightness blaring out one last encore of light before, its allotted space-time consumed, it would become that dim blue-cloaked rose line for a moment and die. What he did to Chloe was wrong. It was wrong, and he knew it - knew it throughout the whole six months after Rachel disappeared, and even more so when things started spiralling out of control after he lent her that money in August. No one had owed him money like that ever since he and Damon were at their height in the business, and three years of toxic habits from bad faith delinquent clients and idiots trying to muscle in on his turf, and that whole awful cauldron of mixed feelings they both had about Rachel, got the better of him.

Chloe died trying to repay you, Frank.

From the corner of his eye he watched Pompidou shake himself off, then shiver. He put down his beer and went inside for a towel. With those two gone, and Damon, and his parents, and no longer really having a "boss" just suppliers and rivals, besides his dog Frank really was alone - free, unbound, unaccountable to anyone but God.

He supposed there was Fr. Lamont, as his confessor. And Kate, too - Mom went to school with Deacon Dick and he used to babysit her back in those bygone days before his side hustle got him expelled from Blackwell. Except...

He came out and grabbed Pompidou to towel him off. Man, what was it with him and high school girls this year? He'll swear on a stack of Bibles in three different translations and the entire Black Sabbath discography that he wasn't a fucking creeper; what happened with Rachel just happened that Spring Break and neither of them really thought about what led up to it. Or at least Frank hadn't - who knew what Rachel was ever really thinking.

Shit.

He finished drying off Pompidou who gave himself a big shake and proceeded immediately to sniffing at the beer. "No. No drinky. Down, Pompidou." He took a swig himself to make his point clear. Earlier that month Kate bought from him for the first time. As predicted, she called before the week was over trying to get a refund, though for reasons known only to her she never followed up on it. She didn't look like she'd been expelled when he saw her at church.

With that weird girl.

Frank looked around for people. Seeing none, he threw the stick in as completely random and chaotic a direction as he could muster without stopping to roll a die.

Chapter Text

Click.

Click.

Clickclick.

She felt shadows flit across her between clicks as Jefferson changed angles.

Click.

She couldn't feel anything below her neck. She was pretty sure that this hard-looking floor was cold, and lying here was doing bad things to her skin and spine. She wondered if he would get rid of any marks in postprocessing or if he preferred to incorporate them into his work. Probably the former, this sort of thing varied from person to person and it was another thing he couldn't control. She wondered about film quality, and whether he'd always used digital on his victims for ease of portability. Must have been important back in the early days before he came to Arcadia and they set up the Dark Room.

Any stupid banal thoughts were welcome to block out his talking.

She heard his voice and felt the usual instant loathing. There was something inhuman to his responses, devoid of any genuine emotion outside of his own vanity and obsession with his artistic vision, that always convinced her for a moment that this wasn't a man at all but some fundamentally broken, soulless malevolent intelligence piloting an ill-fitting meat suit.

He turned her around and called her a stupid bitch again for whatever. She remembered how Chloe would complain about how the doctors would move her around like she was some kind of science project or something. She was usually good with remembering words and phrases but she couldn't quite recall Chloe's exact words now. She tried harder. It would be good to think about her voice instead.

He snapped at her about looking the wrong way. She was looking at the exit door, as it happened. "Chloe! Look out!"

"What!? How did you—"

Chloe came in with Nathan's automatic and David's revolver, one in each hand. She turned and raised both guns at Jefferson, who was already spinning around into a crouch, pointing and shooting - with his camera.

There was a flash and Chloe lay quivering on the floor, eyes wide and unfocussed and drugged out of her mind. She noticed that Chloe was wearing her pink runners.

She stood up. She was now also David. "She" seemed inappropriate at this point. They went over to Jefferson and punched the fucking daylights out of him.

They turned around and saw Chloe now dead with a bullet wound in the forehead and lying on the couch.

Their hands were machine guns now. They turned back towards Jefferson and Dax Madfield resigned themselves to a puerile first-person-shooter mockery of violence as bright red Jeffer-giblets flew everywhere.

Eventually they ran out of ammo and she was alone, completely covered and soaked in blood. She turned around again and now the couch had nothing but a butterfly pinned delicately to the vinyl, its wings like crosshairs pointing to where Chloe's heart had been.

"Max," it said, "you've seen enough of this room." Its voice was that of yet another man that she knew.

She went to get William's camera from her bag and took a selfie.

When the film developed it was of William looking at the photos on the corkboard by the front door, from the perspective of the photos, Max out of focus in the background looking at him, exactly the way David and Max were when she ran into him that Thursday morning.

She focussed on it to get out and wake up.


Fuck that guy. She hated him so much. And the words the demonic, made-up, not-real Jefferson said hurt her as much as anything else he'd ever actually told her, and that the words had been stolen made them even worse.

All those moments between us were real, and they'll always be ours.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Max threw a pencil into the air and practised dribbling it like an upside-down basketball. Last week Kate had made some comment about "slipping upstream" while trying to make sense of something. They were in class and Ms. Grant was showing them a video featuring a dead trout that was naturally moving against a current as though it were alive.

Passive propulsion in vortex wakes
The Vortex Club
Chloe's wake

This had been a day after Joyce was talking about reading up on the Alexander Technique and trying to teach herself to stop forcing herself to move according to her own will and simply position herself to allow it to happen naturally.

Trying to apply both to her rewind power meant she was no longer King Canute commanding the tides in a fight against the universe itself, but just a little fish slipping around in the waves doing her thing. The Iron Man repulsor blast gesture was no longer aimed like an attack, but just her launching herself back into a more convenient place. She was starting to get light headaches only after several minutes of continuous use, like dribbling this pencil now, and she basically, generally, only got nosebleeds from photo jumps.

Anyway, enough practice, time to—"Ow! Shit!"

She'd grabbed the pencil the wrong way and stabbed the point right into her palm. There was blood.

In a burst of anger she jerked backwards into herself and let the blood go back in, the pen back up, her hand back to where she was about to catch it. Then she watched the downward movement of the pencil a few times, repositioned, and caught the pencil in a more controlled manner. You seem a decent pencil - I'd hate to break you.

That was the first time she'd ever voluntarily self-rewound without taking a picture.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

It was the post-service coffee break. The sun was shining and people were hanging out in the crisp cool autumn air. Max and Kate were chatting with her friend who was hovering about her easel as she worked on a painting of the back of the church building. Betty's brush flicked in and out of the water as she mixed and layered colours on top of each other to bring out walls and grass and stones and sky from components Max would never have guessed had anything to do with what they were looking at.

They were in the gazebo at the far end of the old church graveyard. It was rimmed with a nice flat-topped railing that was just the right height and width to invite people to set down mugs on.

Anyone who paints has probably guessed where this is going.

Several absent-minded forgotten decisions by numerous parties later Max was staring in slack-jawed horror at a nasty-looking mostly-empty mug of acrylic water. She panicked, and a brief mess of incomprehensibly garbled impressions later found herself once again looking at Kate while moving towards what she had thought was her mug.

This time she looked first, then grabbed the right one.

Later that evening she tried to replicate this self-rewind and only ruined another T-shirt with blood stains for her efforts.


Had a nice talk with the parents tonight. Just some updates about schoolwork, and Kate, and catching up on English stuff with Mr. Dickinson. Now that the photo class is no more* they offered to pick me up and get me out of here, but from the looks of it I could still finish this year and get my diploma and still use my scholarship instead of having to jump through a zillion hoops trying to transfer credits and start over the rest.

Of course, I didn't tell them my real reason was that leaving Arcadia Bay now felt like giving up on Chloe.

Pop must sense that I'm hiding something. Which is true - I am, after all, hiding from him how much I ALMOST want to ask him about Max. Would it actually give me or him any closure, though? Or just open old wounds and undo whatever healing there had been? I can't talk to Mom about this beforehand, and Uncle Mike has no idea where Pop is about all this 20 years after they last talked.

I so badly want to have someone to talk to about this horrible mess I've made. I'm sure Pop feels the same way. But from his own daughter? To my own father? And it would mean having to explain what happened, which would mean showing him my time travel power, and... wowser. I am NOT ready to even begin thinking about having THAT conversation with my parents.

*ACKCHUALLY, it's just suspended and I've heard they're looking for a replacement. Word is that it's a former student of Jefferson's. Which sounds... kinda... fucked up? Depending on how it turns out I might just either drop the class only or take up Mom and Pop's offer to get me the hell out of here - as long as they let me tattoo something on myself where I can see to make sure I remember Chloe this time.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Click.

Clickclack.

Click. Click.

Clickclackclick brrrt.

Kate shooed Alice away from a book before she could chew on the cover.

Click.

She didn't care that she felt pins and needles in her left foot. She alt-tabbed again, leaned over her bed behind her and cross-checked the reference on the book there. She wasn't angry, or upset, as her opponent so slanderously alleged; merely concerned that such misinformation should appear over and over again, even on this forum.

Brrrrt went the keyboard as Kate verified the quoted passage and transcribed it from print to Notepad++ window.

The festivities were lovely, but the discourse could get so exhausting. As a teenager raised in a devout home educated in a secular school environment and active in her church with numerous family and volunteering connections, Kate found herself every year stuck in the middle between the misinformation from Christian conservatives (often connected to a heavy dose of anti-Catholic scaremongering that people kept glossing over for whatever bizarre reason) and the misinformation from neopagan fluffbunnies (sorry Alice!) about some alleged ancient idolatrous practices the conclusion of which was always that all Christians should stay away from the candy and dressup and suffer not so much as to let a knife touch a pumpkin until November.

And now it seems one of the latter had crawled out of the woodwork on her beloved Hawt Dawg Man fan forum.

This place had been her refuge this month. No one knew RiversOfBabylon's age or gender or location or anything else, except they were in the PNW and over 18, and based on that username knew enough Scripture to catch the psalm reference in that controversial episode where HDM was defending Pan Francisco's Ye Olde Towne from a horde of infinitely replicating Moldy Boys that were sending out tiny cuttings through cracks in some ancient masonry. Just enough to establish their credentials on a cartoon fan forum. Nothing about religion, or race, or money, or Blackwell, or the Vortex Club, or Mr. Jefferson, or the video, or that slight tinge of doubt that still faintly showed itself when she interacted with people about whether they'd seen it and how they must surely think of her, or any of the other bother that was plaguing her everyday life. On the forum's end, no one was cluttering the board with falsehoods or nonsense (other than the fun kind), or spreading any misinformation or stereotypes about religious or ethnic groups (or if they were it got caught quickly and people apologized), just posting jokes and memes and nostalgia and (squick-free, generally wholesome, sometimes even well written) fanfic.

Things were peaceful.

So when mustdawg4eva97 asked on Off Topic if as a new follower of Jesus she should be worried about going to the school Halloween party, and CinnamonToastKaiju gave some useful links and guidance, and then after him this other user so helpfully chimed in in defence of The Narrative with the tired old smear that the Church moved All Saints Day to November 1 to suppress the existing pagan tradition, Kate brought out the big guns.

Kate's first reply had been her standard plain but polite, lengthy and fairly thorough fact-check of the main talking points, with links to a few articles she's collected over the years. She then went to browse another thread.

When she went back to the OT index page, she noticed there were new posts on that thread again. It was a snippy retort by pagan guy, summarily dismissing half of what she had linked as religious bigotry and questioning RiversOfBabylon's own motives.

So RiversOfBabylon did what any right-thinking, sensible netizen would do: they replied again correcting him, pointing out the logical fallacies in his (frankly rather rude) reply, asking for sources on the numerous statements being asserted, and revisited some links and found new ones, carefully cross-checking a few things to make it clear that they was trying to look at the underlying facts and logic of the matter without any agenda.

The reply came much sooner than she was expecting. Kate looked at the bottom of the page and, sure enough, there he was, online with Anpanfrancisco, Vienna, Google[Bot] and 5 guests. It was very long for the surely not more than two minutes that had passed. It was an angry and impassioned rebuttal of several of her key points, citing a few books that she didn't know about, plus another couple that she had previously debunked, as well as a few of the sources she'd used herself. At one point he even pulled the "I'm Irish and I know this stuff" card. Five times she tried to begin her reply, but as she kept reading she found that the next paragraph was almost a perfectly direct rebuttal to the point she had been thinking. There were still glaring logical issues in his argument (and the ad hominems were really starting to get on her nerves), but the guy had this uncanny ability to predict her and thwart her rebuttals before she could even begin. Obviously he'd done this before - they'd butted heads before on a few topics in the past but he was never this bad.

Kate smelled troll blood. She called him out accordingly.

The reply was vicious. He called her callous, cruel and un-Christian, and complained how the Church's attempt to codify and systematize everything was destroying mankind's ability to understand the mystical Truth of the world, providing controlling watered-down ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥ pablum to the masses while denying true comfort and aid to those who had lost loved ones (mentioning his dead girlfriend in passing - totally legit, right?), barring entry to any means of communion or closure while refusing to go in themselves.

This called for one last reply. Kate spent more time on this one; by the time she posted it she couldn't see the guy's name on the online users list anymore. More links, more cross-checking, more sources on each specific assertion each side was making, marked in convenient colour-coded nested numerical lists, URLs and blockquotes everywhere. A vast, complex, perfect machine of debunking and correcting, with a bit of rhetorical flourish on top, maybe a little angry and harsh, but fair, she thought as she hit Submit.

Then Kate did some of her real homework.

15 minutes later she saw an email alert for a private administrator message:

> "Noir's girlfriend's dead, such sad, ok"

Seriously, Rivers!? You are better than that. You've been a helpful and well respected member of this community for years so at first I was going to just issue a warning, but given how heated this thread has been, and just to reflect how ♥♥♥♥♥♥ this snarky comment was, I've issued a 24-hour ban. (NoirAngel has only been issued a warning since she's only been replying to you; I've messaged her just now and she is agreeing not to pursue this further. I'll be happy to forward any sincere apology.)

Go outside, get some fresh air, watch a few back episodes of HDM, but please do NOT try to talk your way out of this ban until you've had a chance to step away from all this.

- Vienna

This was insane! How could Vienna possibly—okay, sure, fine, forget it. She was clearly not appreciated on this forum.

Kate sat there for a whole minute struggling with whether to reply, but didn't have the energy. Maybe some fresh air was called for...

She opened the roof door to find Max curled up in the corner weeping bitterly.

"Max!" She ran over to her and stooped down, gently holding her by her shoulders. "I'm here. We're here. Talk to me, Max. What happened? Who hurt you?"

For about half a minute Max said nothing, just hugged Kate and cried. Eventually she calmed down enough to speak. "S... sorry, Kate. I'm... oh, fuck it all, it's stupid, it's nothing. Just bullshit. Thank you."

"No, it's not 'nothing', you're clearly hurt by it, it is real and how you feel about it is valid and deserves to be acknowledged for what it is! I'm here for you now, Max. If you don't want to talk about it we don't have to, but I am always going to be here to listen."

Max was now down to breathing in ragged sobs. She sniffed, but Kate hadn't felt that weird pull so it was probably just tears and snot rather than blood. "You're such a great person, Kate. Even if you're... not knowing what you're talking about." She pulled back but kept her hands on Kate's elbows so they were both kneeling and facing each other. "It was real, and it was hurtful, but I let it get to me way more than I should. It was just a fight with a stranger on the Internet."

"Those are terrible. I just ran into someone like that myself today. Do you want to talk about it?"

Max looked out onto the field below, then out towards the vast autumn blue sky before turning back to Kate. "Yeah, I guess so, we're here anyway. Actually, Kate, you might be a good person for me to talk to anyway about this. I was on this Hawt Dawg Man fan forum—"

The burst of raw, Divinely guided psychic power that Kate expended right that moment to maintain a poker face, silence the thousand angry guilty voices in her head and keep on listening to Max, she was sure aged her body by an entire year.

"—and this girl was asking about Halloween and Christianity, and this one guy, I think he named himself for a Bob Marley song or something, he comes in and just dumps this huge essay on this poor girl after her question had already been answered by me and another user. And it's not just an autistic special interest sort of thing, he's clearly got an agenda of some kind, just grabs all the Samhain stuff that everybody knows and tries to deny all of it, downplay all the colonialism and erasure and everything, with like a bajillion links that no one's going to have time to sort through and debunk properly - yeah, okay, I could rewind, but it was like an hour's worth of reading! - and it was all so condescending like he was entitled to having us believe everything.

"But I thought I'd give it a fair shake anyway, so I tried reading some of the links. They kinda made sense, but then I clicked around that one blogger's site and holy shit it was bad. Like, justifying the Inquisition and the Crusades and calling for traditional theocracy in America bad. So now I read some more, and I did rewind now because I was worried some other people might start looking at it without noticing the dogwhistles, and I tried to point them all out. I didn't realize how quickly this guy would step up his game.

"So his next reply was more of the same but bigger and harder-hitting and fuck, I knew I was in way over my head at this point. But I couldn't back away, like this was wrong and I just needed to figure out how. So I just... kept arguing, and going back and editing my post every time he came up with a rebuttal, until I got so angry and upset I couldn't take it anymore, and the argument just kept getting more pointed and nasty and somehow getting into things about loss and grieving and processing death and—I'm sorry, Kate, but the way... the way Christians talk about nonbelievers when they die? That's why I'm never going to believe. I'll still come to church with you if you want, but if... if that... is all that's on offer, all that I could expect of..." - she glared angrily at her bullet necklace - "then no. I'm not going to betray and abandon like that ever again." She broke away from Kate and stood up, looking back out onto the field, the trees, the Tobanga. "And then the guy just leaves off with more of his bullshit, and makes fun of me on top of it, makes fun of how Chloe fucking died, and I just... after I taped my laptop back together I got a warning from the admin who was really apologetic and understanding so I didn't take it any further, but just being sent into that spiral of thinking about what I lost, what Chloe lost, I couldn't stay in my room anymore and trying to get some fresh air on the roof, remembering what happened here when she was alive, just made everything so much worse and—Kate, why are you standing there? Come back down, it's dangerous."

Kate stood and stared at her shoes. She dared not make eye contact. "Max... I'm... I'm going to tell you something. I am not the good person you or anyone else might think I am. This has nothing to do with what happened at the Vortex Club, this is a whole new level of bad I have to tell you about. Once I've finished telling you, you can push me from here if you want. Ev... Everyone will think it was an... an accident."

Max walked up to her and took her by the elbow. "Come down, Kate," she said in her best annoyed-parent tone before immediately softening it once Kate had stepped down. "Please. If for no better reason, you know how upset I get seeing you on there." She turned Kate around to face her. "I swear, whatever you tell me, I won't get mad at you. Okay, I might, but I promise to forgive you right away! Even if you told me you regularly do stuff like what the Babylon guy did."

Kate hugged Max like she was going to float away. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Please don't hate me!" She was the one crying now, though not nearly as badly as Max's unhinged ugly-crying earlier.

Max awkwardly put her arms around her trying to comfort her over about half a minute of crying and apologies as certain bits of information started to join and form a pattern in her brain. Eventually the pattern settled. "...Wowser, Kate. What the fuck."

"I'm sorry! I thought I was helping with more information! And I was so used to the understanding that I had that I didn't realize how new it still would be to other people so I got upset when I thought you weren't listening! Please forgive me!"

Max blinked. "Okay, I know I promised to forgive you, Kate, and I do. But really, right now I'm just... kinda processing the fact that we've known each other for over six years and we've spent the whole school term getting to know each other having no idea about all this history we've already had."


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Frank copied his notes, reviewed them, summarized them on his computer, then smeared barbecue sauce on them and fed them to Pompidou. Mostly good news so far. No need to skip town just yet.

He took his beer to his driver's seat, reached into the secret compartments in the cushions and updated some of his more permanent records. No need to go to the vents: except for Rott, Bulldog and a few students who were leaving, the Blackwell contacts were virtually unchanged.

The exact security measures he took with each client were never perfectly consistent, but fuck it, they were paying for drugs not data storage. They usually drifted towards one of three levels:

  1. Dog breed, Latin characters: White Blackwell kids mostly. Connections, clean record, no real worries if they were caught.
  2. Dog breed, runes: Likely jail term if caught.
  3. Dog name, runes: Plausible risk of lengthy jail term, deportation, or even murder by family or spouse.

There was more to it than this, of course. Most of the content was just sales records, interspersed with anonymized notes about some non-recreational users, withdrawal symptoms or usage schedules. A great deal of it was written in code words for which, like the users' nicknames, only Frank had the key - part of which was typed out in a mess of shorthand, spelling mistakes and 13375p34k in a file on his computer under ~/.config/skulltag/.bak/~skulltag-ESiddon.ini (an actual Skulltag ini file, albeit unused, with the key inserted as comment lines starting around line 200).

One security measure he never took: he always just deleted old files without shredding. One panicked half hour of learning how to use UNDELETE.EXE while someone was screaming from whatever Damon was doing to them can have that effect on a man.

Once again Frank recalled all this as he continued inspecting the damage from this morning's break-in. The only thing they seem to have stolen was a wad of cash and a 2011 breed/runes logbook that he was planning to burn anyway. None of the "last accessed" dates in the furry porn folder on the desktop, let alone the key itself, were more recent than the last time he saw the book. Without the key, that book would be almost pure gibberish.

This was the second time this month and it was always the runes - which, of course, he used for the people with the least money to extort. Why the fuck would anyone do that?

Whoever it was, it wasn't anyone smart enough to get the real shit, even if they managed to exploit Pompidou's weakness for old leftover meat. He'll have to step it up anyway, lest he make it too obvious that he had been expecting the thieves to take only minor bullshit.

He half considered ordering takeout from the Two Whales instead next time, before getting ready to head to the cemetery.


"Max?"

"Yes?"

"I... actually, never miahAHAHAHHAIIIIIND—okay okay! Right! No chickening out!" Attila's words of wisdom saved the day again as Kate found the pressure point. "I... I just wanna say I'm... sorry... for my past behaviour. I kept trying to impose a relationship on you when you had already made your lack of interest clear, and that was... and that was wrong. I apologize and I hope we can repair our friendship."

"Thank you Warren. I appreciate that. And it is a difficult thing to apologize for." She glanced over at Kate. "And did you really literally dangle that photo in front of him before he started talking?"

Kate smiled back at her, still holding the photo of Brooke. It was an outdoor headshot and clearly fully clothed, though Max had given a general direction to try to look sexy for Warren and pulled up a few example glamour shots from her reference collection. Max had a dozen vital criticisms swimming in her brain every time she looked at the photo, but Warren's eyebrows when he first saw it were enough to let them know they had succeeded.

The air was a bit warmer than the bright clear autumn day would have suggested, but not enough to be a cause for Max's alarm. Birds were singing and she couldn't help but take a few shots of them on the paths and pitted old crosses and ancient stone angels. She felt vaguely guilty about not feeling more sad while they were here: this was the third time she was ever at this cemetery, and she never remembered exactly how they got to the gravesite either time, so this just felt like a stroll through a lovely quiet park featuring a great deal of plaques and early 20th-century stonework.

Nonetheless they had no problem finding it. Kate and Warren stood by solemnly, careful not to accidentally step on anyone. Max went straight up to the headstone, half knelt, half flopped down beside it and rested her head against the stone staring at Chloe's plaque. The birds kept singing somewhere. No one said anything for a while.

She ran her hand along William's plaque. "William... thank you. Thank you for everything you've ever done for Chloe and me. I am so, so sorry. I wish it could have been different. You deserve so much better than this. I miss you so much. Thank you for everything you've been, everything you've given up for us. Wherever you are, I want you to know that every good thing you've ever done for us was real, and meant something—means something, no matter how small you might have thought it was at the time."

Max was on William's side of the grave. She sat up and reached towards the other side, like she was going to move over, then froze, then put her hand back down. "Chloe..." She was now kneeling by the graves, head bowed, unsupported by the stone. "I was not there when you needed me. I couldn't even say sorry when you could have remembered it. I cannot even begin to understand the magnitude of what I ask when I ask your forgiveness. Please... remember me, wherever you are."

Had she been alone - or even if it had only been her and Kate - she could have let herself be angry. She could have explained to Chloe what happened, in case she didn't remember it, and raged at her about having to force her into that choice, give her that final power over life and death that she never wanted, never could have had the understanding to use for anyone's good. For a moment she imagined herself screaming and crying and slamming her fist into that six-foot barrier of earth that was only a symbol for the ground of eternity that separated them now, before breaking down, lying down on Chloe's grave, whispering an unnumbered useless "I love you"s in ever-dying, never-dead hope that one time it would cease to be the lie that she'd made it out to be in the end.

In a way, she was glad that Warren was there.

"And speaking of remembering," she perked up with a mock-forced cheeriness, "I should give you an update while we're here. Jefferson and Nathan were charged with Rachel's murder. They're in jail now pending trial but we have no idea when that's going to be. I don't know what the DA is doing with your case now, but I've been told they'll have someone contact me and David soon since we're the main witnesses. David and Joyce are struggling to keep afloat but they're trying to make it work. Joyce has picked up a lot of extra shifts and I'm starting to think a lot of it is her trying to put off dealing with losing you. They're..." - Max sucked air through her teeth and almost felt better for being so nervous about this bad news - "they're looking into renting out your room to help pay for the mortgage. I'm helping them to keep things reasonable in there, but I'll leave a couple Sharpies near the walls overnight just in case you're ever in a place to let us know anything. Sorry, you know I have no idea how this shit works..."

She paused.

"I've spoken with David. I wish you could see how sorry he was. He's trying to change. I don't know how it's going to turn out." Max glanced at the ground in a gesture that Warren was tempted to think was looking for an embalmed, blue-nailed hand sticking out and flipping the bird. No such thing happened.

"You're probably wondering why Warren's here. You can blame Kate for that." She smiled back at the two of them. "Apparently I missed out on a whole thing that our circle of friends was plotting - long story short, Kate dragged him to where we were going today to personally tell me that Brooke and him are an item now. Yeah, I know, I'm honestly happy for them and it was better for all of us this way. I guess my feelings are a lot clearer since... then... than when we last talked." She avoided Warren's gaze when she realized the implications of what she'd just admitted to about how she'd talked about him with Chloe during that week.

"As for Kate, between Nathan's confession and what they found in the Dark Room—"

Max sensed Warren's surprise and rewound.

"As for Kate, between Nathan's confession and what they found with Jefferson—"

Max rewound again. Can't casually mention anything Chloe wouldn't have known on Monday morning. Holy shit that was a lot of stuff.

From Kate's and Warren's point of view Max paused for some time after "...than when we last talked" with a pensive, increasingly sad look on her face.

"As for Kate, they found proof that she was drugged. Turns out Nathan was working with Mr. Jefferson. Hella long story on that one." She glanced over at Kate. "She's helping me cope with all this and I hope I'm half as helpful to her this time round. We both miss you, Chloe."

There was one thing she wanted to say. Perhaps Max was still denying and bargaining, but there still lay in there that what-if, that hope, that one last crack the builders had missed before it would eventually be sealed whether by design or debris and decay and all would be lost forever. But she definitely wasn't going to say it in front of Warren.

Fuck it. If Chloe could hear them here, then surely she could see them too, right? And if those moments were real - Max took a moment to imagine herself in the Dark Room being manhandled by Jefferson, mentally poking at her own insides to feel that bile start to come up; a moment to re-imagine her own grief as they looked into each other's eyes in the stillness of her final moments, before Chloe's eyes closed for the last time and Max couldn't bear it anymore, rewound and was thanked with the same everyone-bails-on-me tantrum she'd set off that entire chain of events trying to avoid - and if she was still real, even now, before Max would be able to find any way to undo her death three weeks ago, then that reality would surely find itself.

And if Max found a big crude Sharpie "what the fuck are you talking about" on Chloe's wall tonight, she could come back alone to explain further.

She pulled a photograph out of her journal and flashed it in front of the headstone. "I've had a tough time of it since you were gone, but Kate's been incredibly helpful in trying to get me to work through this. To get this to work for both—for all of us." The explosion at the diner. "Frank and Pompidou miss you too." She looked but did not focus on the blue butterfly, then without moving her eyes shifted her focus back to the headstone. "I'm thinking about you every day - and trying not to lose hope."

She held the butterfly photo to her forehead and closed her eyes for a moment, then carefully placed it back into her journal. "Goodbye, my dearest friend. See you in another reality."


As Kate opened her mouth to speak Max turned and looked behind her and Warren. "Hi Frank."

Well, shit, this was awkward, he thought. Frank should've known better than to come here on the weekend. Max, he probably should've guessed; Kate too, it's like they were joined at the hip lately; but no idea who this other kid was.

"What the... hey, you're that skeezy drug dealer who hangs around the parking lot! What are you even doing here!?"

Frank got angry, Pompidou barked, and—

Max rewound. She burst into a wide, oddly exaggerated smile and stood up. "Frank! You're finally here! It's so good to see you again!" She squatted down and made eye contact with Pompidou. "And Pompidou, come over here! Lookit the big good boy! Lookit you! Who's a good boy!" The dog ran over to Max and licked her face as she embraced him.

Warren and Kate stared at Frank who stared back mirroring their baffled wide-eyed look and open-armed shrug.

A few seconds later a brief flash of understanding swept over Kate's face but she said nothing.

Max stood up. "Warren, I'd like you to meet a mutual friend of mine and Chloe's, Frank. Frank, this is Warren, a mutual friend of mine and Kate's."

The two men looked at Max, then at each other, then awkwardly shook hands with mumbled heys.

Pompidou barked, and Warren stumbled back as he started pawing at him. After a moment of alarm he squatted down and gave him a great many belly rubs and rhetorical questions about the identity of alleged good boys. He likes him!

Frank got momentarily defensive, then frowned in confusion. "Pompi—what the fuck? He usually doesn't like strangers. Kate, does your friend have beef jerky in his pockets or something?"

Kate shrugged. "Warren?"

"Nope!" he dodged Pompidou's tongue and gave him scritches behind the ears. "It's like he knows me or something! I can't imagine where from."

Max left Warren to Pompidou and approached Frank. "I guess you're here to visit Chloe too. I know it was a difficult time between you two but I'm sure she'll appreciate it."

As Max moved Frank also moved, face blank but going in a clear direction until he was again on the other side of Kate from Max. "Yeah. Thanks." He didn't make eye contact, just watched Warren and Pompidou.

"...um, don't let me stop you?"

"Oh, right. Yeah. Uh."

Max gave Frank a puzzled look and stepped away from Chloe's grave. Frank slowly moved over to it as - and only as - Max moved away, giving her wide berth but never looking directly at her nor letting her out of his field of vision.

"I guess I'll give you two some privacy while I get a stick so we can play fetch with your dog."

"Yeah, sure, thanks." Max could hear his relief at the prospect of her moving physically away from him.

Max, Kate and Warren played fetch with Pompidou for a few minutes, watching shadows of dog and stick dart through the mesh of the trees casting theirs from above. They never learned what, if anything, Frank said to Chloe.


"Frank?"

He spun around with his knife drawn. Pompidou barked. Then he saw who it was. "Fuck, kid, however you're doing that, stop it!"

She was a couple steps closer than she had been that Friday, visibly less than 21 feet. "Listen, I don't know what happened, but can we talk about it?"

Frank stared at her, scowling. Pompidou tilted his head at her. He didn't see that weird little shift from the funeral that he was starting to think was nothing more than his imagination and the flickering tree shadows. "Talk about what?"

"I don't know! But that whole time we were by Chloe's grave it was like you were avoiding me. I saw you move behind Warren, then Kate, then you walked up into that tall grass to keep your distance from me when I made way for you. What is going on?"

Frank scowled at her for a few more seconds, then looked around to see if there was anyone else with them.

"I told Kate and Warren I'd catch up with them. They're probably at her car by now."

"Do you have a gun on you, Max?"

"N-no..." She didn't sound like she was lying, but that look of knowing fear that so briefly flashed across her face...

Frank looked around again, then at Max's hands. He sighed, then realized he still had his knife out and put it away. "Okay, you got me. It's... fuck, it's fucking stupid, alright? Just go."

Max sighed. "Look, Frank, we both knew Chloe, we both know Kate, we're probably going to run into each other again a lot while I'm studying at Blackwell. This can be weird and awkward now, or this can be weird and awkward every single time we're in sight of each other. Now sp—spit it out, what this deal is you've got with me."

Frank looked around again and stepped closer. "Look, this is really fuckin' stupid. If you fucking tell anyone else, I will use this." Knife out.

Max's expression didn't exactly change, but it did feel somehow like the angle of her head suddenly wasn't what it had been before. "Okay. Fine. Tell me."

Frank was already putting the knife away. "I've been having, like, fuckin', dreams about you. Not dirty shit, but like... just random bullshit bad dreams. One that keeps coming up is that we're by my RV at the beach and then you shoot Pompidou and then me. The details always get fuzzy when I try to think about it but I always remember this low-caliber blue revolver."

Frank stepped back just a tiny bit as he saw the look on Max's face. Was she insulted? Hurt? Worried for his mental health? Coming on to him? Fuck. "No, Frank, that's not stupid. Tell me everything you can about this dream. Was Chloe there at all?"

It took a few seconds for him to get out a "...no?" that was not satisfactory to anyone. "Well, it definitely didn't involve R—wait, fuck, did it? She wasn't there though. Nor Kate."

"Frank, kinda random question, do you have any impression of me saying a bunch of numbers just now?"

"What? No. You're not high again, are you?"

"I'm not the one changing my behaviour because of vivid and extremely specific dreams about a friend-of-a-friend I've only met twice."

"Have you considered maybe I'm just left with a really bad impression of your erratic behaviour each time?"

"Did you have any experiences with a gun that looked like that?"

"No, but I must've seen it online."

"Maybe it is just bad impressions, then." Max shrugged. "So what about the other dreams?"

"Other? Just—"

"You said, and I quote, 'just random bullshit bad dreams. One that keeps coming up is that we're by my RV at the beach...'"

Emphasis aside, were those words really verbatim? How the fu—and then Frank let himself relax a bit. That might be the explanation. She could just be this Rain Man sort of autistic savant and, assuming she was neurotypical and not giving any thought to anticipating anything different, he must have been just having a negative reaction to some kind of awkward quirk in the way she talked or moved or something. Hardly his proudest moment when he was supposed to be good at dealing day in, day out with people with all sorts of issues, but at least it was an explanation.

He looked out onto the rows of long black jagged crosses on the golden-lit grass and sighed. "Fine, whatever. One other one is that I'm dying somewhere and I'm talking to Joyce and suddenly you're barging in telling me Rachel is dead. The other... I'm eating at the Two Whales, then you just come in and fuck up my meal for no fucking reason at all. So I get angry, and I stand up and slip and it's all in slow motion and I just keep wanting to kick your ass but I keep slipping and I'm just so fucking—"

[suggested soundtrack: Avantasia - Death Is Just A Feeling]

Frank stopped. "Max? What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Rewind.

"Max, what the fuck is wrong with you?"

Rewind.

"What the fuck, Max. This isn't that goddamn funny."

Rewind.

"Max, if you're just gonna stand there laughing at me like a fucking idiot then fuck you."

Rewind.

"What the fuck? Are you choking on something?"

Rewind.

"Max, what's with that look?"

Max's smirk disappeared almost as fast as her stone-cold death glare from that awful Friday. She closed her eyes, took a deep, dramatic breath, opened her eyes again and looked Frank right in the eye. "Sorry, Frank, but I have to tell something crazy. Something... hardcore. All those nightmares were real. They're your memories of things that had actually happened until I erased them. Frank, I can rewind time. There's an entire week where we got to know each other that has now, should have now, never happened from your point of view. We hated each other then. I actually watched you... fall. And there was so much other stuff going on that week, the storm and Chloe and Rachel and everything—"

Rewind. ...


The last rays of the sun turn the diner into an explosion of red fire as Joyce is wiping down the counter at the Two Whales. She finishes her work, walks into the back to check the stove and fryer again. She sniffs, gets a concerned look, steps outside, turns off the valve on the gas meter and pulls out her phone.


David lurches awake gasping for air. He feels himself front and back. No bleeding, no bullet holes. He's on the couch at home.


Victoria is sitting on her bed at home in Seattle, looking at her copy of Jefferson's book. Without thinking, she feels her wrists and neck, and feels oddly sleepy. She wonders how Mr. Madsen is doing, and why he of all the people from Blackwell would suddenly come to mind.


Nathan is chatting with his lawyer. The conversation is friendly and jocular and both of them laugh about a joke that ends with Nathan pantomiming shooting heroin.


Deep inside he's kicking himself, but really Mark is having the time of his life. All those wasted years being a homophobic idiot, preying only on pretty young girls and failing to realize the true fulfilment of his artistic vision. The range of emotions, the perfect descents, the last faint struggles of hope that perfect that moment of corruption he so yearns to capture,... he chuckles as his new protégé holds the drugged, terrified inmate and poses him as he frames him with this smuggled disposable camera.


Two bearded young men with runed face tattoos are having a fine dinner with Mr. Prescott and his wife. The couple seem pleased to meet them. The conversation turns towards difficult topics and there's a salad bowl, but the table remains intact by the end of it.


A young woman stomps into her car, pursued by Wells. She rolls down her window and they argue briefly before she rolls the window back up and drives off into the sunset.


Kate is waiting for Max at the diner. She's sketching her view out the far window. Feeling a bit mischievous and morbid, she doodles a whale with Xes for eyes in the middle of the road. It's exactly where the whale was when Max was looking for Warren's photo of her. She puts everything away when she sees Max coming in and Max never sees the drawing.

Chapter Text

Max woke up duct taped to a chair, wearing her stupid fish hat. Her arms were by her sides, since this wasn't the Dark Room chair but that old classroom chair on top of the boat in the junkyard. The chair had been turned around to face the firing range Chloe had made that Tuesday morning; sure enough, there it was, 3 bottles down and Chloe asking where to shoot next.

And "Max" was standing next to her, waiting.

Smirking.

Chloe, as always, took the shot. Bang. "Jesus, I shot myself! I shot myself! Back up, back up!"

The doppelganger laughed, hand over her mouth. That pose looked awfully familiar...

Rewind. Awkward pause. Smirk. Bang.

"Jesus, I shot myself!" More commotion, laugh again, rewind, pause, smirk, bang.

Eventualy the pauses got very short, and Chloe was just shooting herself and yelling "Jesus, I shot myself!" over and over and over. After a while something happened, and Chloe's yelling "Jesus, I shot myself!" over and over became self-active.

This went on for some time. The doppelganger was laughing contemptuously, but its voice wavered slightly with each shot. "Fuck that other shit, this is how you 'bang for Jesus'! Chloe here could start her own damn carnie sideshow at this rate."

Max wiggled out of the loose tape on her right ankle, and why hello there, Nathan's lamp sitting here with me...

The lamp beaned her doppelganger right in the head and shattered. The doppelganger turned around with a "What the f—"

Bang.

The doppelganger dropped like a time-lapsed ragdoll as Chloe's revolver smoked.

Then the doppelganger got up, faced Chloe, rewound to the moment of impact, let the bullet go through her third eye and dramatically fell back in slow motion onto the ground maintaining eye contact with Chloe the whole time.

It then looked at Max. "Who's the bitch now?"

Chloe followed its gaze to look up at Max and opened her mouth to speak, but then it started raining birds and a mating pair of great tits slammed into Chloe's head at relativistic speeds, knocking her out and waking Max up.


Monday, October 28, 2013

"So you definitely can't go back in time by listening to something?"

"Nope, photos only. Screens don't work either, has to be print. I don't know why." She frowned at the recording device as it played the results. "Man, this was disappointing."

"It's a valuable experiment!"

"Wondering whether we could and forgetting whether we should."

They were at their usual spots at the diner. Max had gotten the idea of trying to do that record-scratch DJ thing using her powers, so they tried to record her doing this with the Two Whales jukebox. Surprisingly, it actually picked up the reversed vibrations, but every time the relative flow of time changed the microphone picked up this awful popping, crackling, clipping noise. Artistically Max could not even begin to conceive of a use for it.

Max watched the rays of the setting sun filtering through the windows, red beams scanning Joyce as she walked up to their booth. Identity confirmed: Time Travel Experimentation Facility Security Clearance Level Three granted for Mrs. Price. "Good evening, ladies, what can I get you two tonight?"

Anomaly detected in sector. "Good evening to you too, Joyce. When did the fish and chips get back on the menu?"

"The fish is all shipped in frozen from out of town, I'm afraid. We only started doing it again because the tourists kept complaining. You can give it a try if you want, but I'd recommend the burger."

"Is it really that bad? I remember you guys did a great job with the fish and chips back before... well..."

"We've always prided ourselves in keeping our menu consistent and to the point, but sometimes things... change." Joyce paused. "Sorry, didn't mean to get morbid there, but if you really are hankering for it it's still good for what it is."

"I remember the fish and chips back in the day", volunteered Kate. "Cousin Jamie would always order it and he'd always dig in before Dad finished blessing the food. Auntie Liane would give him such a good smack in the back of the head that he'd get a faceful of tartar sauce. When I was little I was worried he'd get a concussion!"

Joyce laughed. "I remember that! Your family's pretty 'old school' as folks say these days. My brothers and I had it way worse back in the day. Pop would never have gotten away with it now..."

Max almost opened her mouth to speak, but realized she was already mentally preparing to rewind, so instead she just found herself conveniently fascinated by the weather report playing on the TV.

They both ended up ordering the burger.

Max kept staring at the TV after Joyce left so Kate poked around on her phone. Kate (correctly) guessed from the timing what the matter was and, (correctly) anticipating there would have been a great deal of unpleasant discourse about it, decided to look up Blackwell's website on an unrelated matter.

"Hey Max, what do you think about the photography class restarting under the new teacher?"

Max blinked. She looked at the floor in front of the TV for a second. She looked at Kate, then looked out the window and slouched in her seat. She took off her hat and fiddled about with one of the mystery creature lures. She took out her camera and took a close-up shot of it, lit by the last rays of the sun with Kate all red and blurry in the background. She put the hat down on the table, pulled out the photo and gave it her usual shake. She showed it to Kate and put away her camera. Kate approved of the eerie pseudo-Martian foreboding and Max put her hat back on. "I don't know." She took back the new photo and looked at it. It had been photobombed by an anchovy. "It's why I came here, and" Chloe. Hard rewind. "This class was how I got the scholarship in the first place. If I need to take it to keep that, then I guess I will, but if not, it's not a hard no for me yet, but I guess it really depends on what the... curriculum... would be..."

"The new teacher did say she wasn't going to be using Mr. Jefferson's book, at least. She sounded like she didn't even have anything planned and was getting kinda stressed about it. But I wasn't even able to answer more than half of the quiz she attached without looking things up... Max, didn't you check your email today? Miss Cheang introduced herself and asked us to schedule interviews with her and everything."

"N... no?"

Kate moved over to Max's side of the booth and opened her email with her phone.

And so went Max's first introduction to the words of her new teacher:

ffs did I really hit Send without changing that!? Sorry guys, just... read the rest of the email, I guess, we're all adults.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Lu Cheang" <lcheang@blackwellacademy.ed>
To: "Blackwell Photography Class"
Cc: "Ray"
Sent: Monday, October 28, 2013 02:18:24 AM
Subject: Re: Language of Photography 2014

<<<blah blah blah Blackwell Photography Class of 2014 - try to think of something not stupid or pretentious, "dear" still sounds hella weird, might as well tell them I'm a Nigerian princess held for ransom, fuck I hate writing salutations in emails>>>

I'm going to assume Wells has briefed you all about them trying to re-open the Language of Photography class. When I first heard about this on the proverbial grapevine I couldn't help but jump on this... prestigious... opportunity.

As was mentioned on the Blackwell website, I did study under your former teacher starting in '06 and he was a major influence on my own work. We started in my senior year and while it lasted we had a good working relationship. I was young and full of hopes and really looked up to him.

GUESS WHERE THIS IS GOING.

Yeah, the cops let me see the photos when they told me. No, they didn't give me a copy and I wouldn't share them anyway. I don't know how many people he did this to, so:
1. I'm okay to talk about it with you if you want; but
2. I have NO expectations that you talk about anything that you don't want to.

Blackwell did strongarm me into an NDA, but it's only about remuneration plus a "non-disparagement" clause that I had to talk down to just saying I can't help any of you if you were to sue Blackwell in civil court.

My express goal in teaching this class is to try to undo whatever damage he might've done to you already - whether compromising your love for the art, or giving you weird ideas about what is or is not an appropriate boundary between a photographer and a model, or just making you memorize a bunch of heavily filtered art history without passing down the skills necessary to apply it to your own work.

Anyway, here's some information that I hope would be helpful in deciding whether you want to continue the class under my questionably professional tutelage:
- My website, CV and portfolio: <URL>
- Profile from the Tillamook Free Press: <URL>
- Sample page from Two Birds Wedding Services (scroll down to 2009-2010): <URL>

Plus a couple TFP pieces I worked on, for the Arcadia Bay connection:
- 2010 wildfire: <URL>
- Small town drug scene in 2011: <URL>

And just to be SURE you'll all hate me, I'm giving y'all a pop quiz in my very first communication to you! I have no idea what Mark was like as a classroom teacher, he kinda rambled about people and narratives, so I've attached a quiz with a bunch of technical, practical stuff just to see where everyone is and what I need to cover. This won't count for grades and I ask that you go through it once and answer as many as you can before trying to look anything up, and let me know if there's anything unfamiliar or unclear.

On top of this - and this is purely optional - before the first class I'd like to have an in-person chat with each of you about your expectations for this course and what you've found helpful or not helpful in developing your skills and artistic "voice". I'm generally available during lunch or right after school either by the dorms or in front of the school. For obvious reasons, for now I am only willing to have these chats in a public place. If(f) you're interested please email me and we can book a time.

As Max finished reading Kate got another email alert. It was from Warren:

Wow, that's pretty intense stuff! The stuff about JPEG compression, diffraction, implicit bias and migratory animals is kinda out of my league. I've forwarded it to Ms. Grant, she might know someone.

I can fix up that explanation of Rayleigh scattering, though...

The "quiz" itself was 5 pages double-spaced of open-ended questions, and began with "Sorry if it's a bit much, I did this in a rush and didn't know where to pare it down. —L".

A quick scroll through the CV revealed no formal teaching experience or credentials; at best, she was a T.A. while doing her journalism degree.

Max was ignoring that, however, by the time they got to the wildfire photos. No close-ups of the flames themselves, though a few shots of the sky were like something out of a medieval painting of hell. Max and Kate both decided not to click on the blurred-out preview of the dead deer. Max noticed that every shot of the burned trees had something green in the background, no matter how blurry or far away, except one shot of a sprout at the base of an unrecognizable charred thing.

"And here we are at the hospital. I can almost smell the smoke and soot on those firefighters... damn, that look in his eyes, like he's trying to forget something that's been burned into his retinas... ouch, right next to that low-angle shot of the donation box with 86 cents in it... holy shit, is that Chloe!?"

"She looks so terrfied. I wonder who she was waiting for. Did Joyce tell you anything, Max?"

And speak of the devil, as she said an entire reality ago. "Two Whales burger with fries for the lady, and Two Whales burger with salad for the lady. Enjoy your meal, girls!"

"Thanks, Mrs. Madsen—ow! Max, what was that for!?" Max whispered in her ear. "Oh. Thanks."

Joyce shook her head with a sad smile as she went to attend to other customers. Kate's unsaid "you too" dissolved and washed away in the timestream.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Max glanced up towards the booths, widened her eyes and froze in her tracks. "Chlo—" But it only took a second for the illusion to fade away.

Someone was sitting in Max's usual spot. She was leaning forwards slightly, occasionally nodding and drinking her root beer float and scribbling things onto her yellow pad. On her right, turned around so it only pointed at herself, lay the scratched and beaten body of a DSLR with a hooded zoom lens; it all looked just a little too large for her slight frame, augmented as that was by the shoulders of her patch-covered denim jacket. The late afternoon sun splashed platinum edges onto a thin black beanie set over a mop of wavy wine-dark sea-green hair. It framed a pale, pretty face, dark brows barely visible under her bangs alternating between a concentrated scowl and a concerned knot, a few noncomittal "uh huh"s and "go on"s coming from thin lips that looked all too eerily familiar to Max. The stranger's dark eyes flickered between the pad and the unseen face on the other side of the booth, whose position was marked for Max by the top of an unmistakable messy blonde bun.

The thought drifted by Max's mind that, after all their time here, that was now Kate's usual spot as much as the other one had been her own.

She sat down in the next booth, her back to Kate. Now Kate was projecting her voice directly away from her, while the woman spoke softly to begin with, but she was able to catch a few things.

"...Holy shit—sorry. Now I'm wondering if Mark might've targeted her himself... no, he wouldn't, he'd lose interest the moment he saw that tattoo sleeve. Ugh, I hate the fact that I even know that... But yeah, don't let his words get to you. You're doing a great job of getting over his bullshit, Kate. It sounded like this Victoria girl was a lot more under his influence, though - what she did there sounds like classic 'Always Take The Shot' Mark combined with the rivalry that he'd intentionally set up between students."

"Is that really a thing? It sounds like you had some experience."

The woman sighed. "By the time I started my degree Deanna wouldn't even answer my calls. Which she had every right not to - I said a lot of things I really wish I could go back in time and undo. When all this broke out about what he'd secretly done to us she finally reached out to me and... she blamed me for it! And part of me keeps thinking maybe there's some truth in that."

"Don't say that, Miss Cheang! Mr. Jefferson was a grown man and responsible for his own actions."

Lu laughed. "You're an amazing person, Kate. Here I am thinking I'm gonna be some 'everyday hero' to you kids and here you are saving me from my own crap instead. Thanks."

"It's important that we look out for each other. I find strength in my faith, but with people on earth trust is hard to come by nowadays."

There was a brief pause as Max could hear some shuffling around in the other booth. "Sorry to derail, but Kate, I'd like to remind both of us now that we're in a public place where anyone can hear our conversation if they really want to. I'm saying this because" - Max heard her voice become clearer and louder as the speaker leaned around the booth - "I think you have a classmate, cleverly disguised as a fearsomely sapphic fisherwoman, who seems interested in what we have to say."

It was only now that Max realized she'd unconsciously turned 90 degrees from her original position, legs and cap brim sticking out of the booth, so she could eavesdrop better. She turned the rest of the way and gave a tiny wave. "......hi." Only upon hearing the click did her mind register the fact that Lu's camera had already been pointed at her.

Kate also turned and brought her face mere inches from Max's own. "Max! How long have you been hiding back there? Come on, get into the booth!" She shifted over to make room and took her tea with her as Max came over and sat down. "Miss Cheang, this is Max Caulfield. Max, this is Lucy Cheang."

Lu smiled and reached over with her hand. "Lu, never Lucy. I just keep the full name on the CV in case people need to do background checks."

Max shook her hand. "Pleasure to meet you at last." If she never knew the name "Maxine" there was no need to let her know now.

"Max Caulfield... where have I heard that name before... right! You're in this class too! Or at least you were, I don't know if—sorry, I don't mean to presume, you never got back about setting up an interview time and all..."

"I was kinda still thinking about when to do it," Max lied, having had no intention of scheduling anything, as it seemed way too up close and personal all at once. "I was actually here to meet Kate after this, she said it was going to be 15 minutes tops."

"Oh no! I'm terribly sorry for taking up so much of your time, Kate, is there anything else you'd like to talk about as we wrap this up? And do either of you want the last couple onion rings here?"

"Well, the whole reason why Max was meeting me here now was to debrief after this meeting to help both of us with our final decision, and maaaayybe get some of that English homework done?" This was Kate speaking, and as such we know it to be true. She looked at Max. "But if we're all going to be here anyway, though, why not just 'debrief' with a second interview?"

Max looked at Kate, then at Lu. If she could leave a good enough impression on Kate, she can't be that bad. "Sure. If you've got the time, I mean."

Lu fiddled around with her camera, holding it between her and Max, but smiled. "Excellent! Let me just look for my pad—" she looked around the table before realizing it was right under her camera "—here..."

Max took the rest of the onion rings.

For the next while they went through the various items on Lu's hastily-compiled "quiz" and Max's attempts to answer them. She had breezed past most of the intro basic stuff, was obviously taking wild guesses when it came to tracking animals, knew more than Lu did about how to get pets to co-operate in a shoot, and showed a disdain for even wanting to learn macro photography until Lu deviated from the written questions (which for some reason all presupposed one was taking pictures of ants), took apart her own DSLR to reveal the electronics and asked Max how she would explain to a child how all the pieces fit together and why they were shaped the way they were.

Tiny, tiny tools.

This had been going well, but things bogged down considerably as the questions became more obscure and random and more obvious that Lu had been coming up with them on very little sleep. "And this is what you get for trying to brainstorm about what you don't know you don't know at one in the morning. Trying to find anything relevant is like looking for a needle in a junkyard." Lu immediately made a horrified face as the words came out of her mouth. "Sorry, that was so the worst analogy wasn't it."

It got worse when they got to a question about duct tape, but Lu defended this one. "Okay, this one I actually meant to put in here. I've had so many times where I had to improvise a support that my tripod couldn't reach, or stick a light somewhere, or create a reflective surface when nothing else was at hand, or patch up a broken camera to keep light out of the image sensor..." She stopped and looked at Max, then at Kate, then at Max again, then at her camera. "Kate... I didn't give this spiel in exactly the same way when I was talking to you an hour ago, did I?"

"No, you just explained that you were concerned that I might be triggered by what could be a common tool in the field, and I thought about it and said I was fine." Kate began to wonder if Lu was professionally intimidated by Max, or if she was just consternated and confused by Max unconsciously telegraphing many subtle indications that she'd also been abused by Jefferson but no one was allowed to talk about it. Or both.

"I'm fine." Max finished speaking then, but Lu just kept looking at her without changing expression so she continued. "Yeah, I do feel a slight bit of apprehension, but it's not as bad as before." This was true: between the depression, the doppelganger, the suicide attempt, the logistics of Chloe's stuff, the time travel experiments, the long-lost uncle and classwork, Max hadn't had a real opportunity to unpack any potential trauma triggers, but the fucked up lucid dreams were oddly helpful in repeatedly recontextualizing some of them in unpleasant but much less threatening situations. The new tape on her computer had unpleasant connotations but that was overwhelmingly because it reminded her of that fight with Kate - and all the reasons why she'd gotten so upset over it...

Lu nodded. "I'll take your word for it, and again no pressure to say or discuss anything you do not want to or are not ready to."

They continued down the list. Kate felt that something was wrong, something bothering her, and soon she had to speak up. "Why can't they just make these stacked lenses out of a single piece if they're stuck together like that anyway? Is there some manufacturing issue with grinding them that precisely with this asymmetrical shape?"

"Oh! Sorry, forgot to mention that they're different materials. It's a bit more obvious why if you can see the actual components - I should ask my dad if he can get our old Kodak Bantam Special out of storage, Grampa took it apart trying to fix it after it got busted in a police shootout in Hong Kong—"

"Wait, you've actually got one of those? So jealous right now. I saw one at the store I worked at back in Seattle last year, I begged Pop to lend me the money for it—"

"You worked in a camera store in Seattle last year? When was this? Surely it wasn't the store that had—"

This rapidly escalated to a great deal of camera nerd talk that Kate was largely unable to follow, no matter how quickly she could wiki things on her phone (not, after all, being the one with the time travel powers).


"...and I think that's as much as any of us should be trying to cover in one sitting, this seems like a good point to wrap up."

"I think we were doing nothing but talking about cameras for the last ten minutes." They hadn't finished looking through page 3 of that quiz.

"Closer to fifteen now! But I think I've got a good idea of what I should try to cover and what I can assume you two already know." Lu began reassembling her camera. "Okay, so maybe snapping a picture of you just as I was calling you out was a little mean. Do you want me to delete it?"

"Can we see it?" asked Kate.

It wasn't nearly as bad as the picture that Victoria took in that other timeline, but they could see why she'd made the offer. It was mostly the back of the booth, red and white against the pale blue of her jeans and the light of the diner beyond. The green brim of her cap and the shimmer of Chloe's necklace completed the implied line between the two, broken up only by Max's partially obscured sheepish grin. Her eyes could not be seen so one could not tell if the smile reached them; but the timidity of the wave, the way the back of her foot pressed against the booth, her overall smallness against the poor excuse for concealment amidst the unfocussed diner behind and in front of her, suggested it did not. This moment could be the beginning of happy memory or a sad one, or both, but it was not going to be neutral.

"It's a lot less funny than I'd expected it to be when I took it."

"I like it! It's very... Max."

"I don't know whether to be flattered or mortified by that comment."

"It's cute! If you don't want it I'd like a copy."

"Well, Max? Are you sufficiently more flattered than mortified to consent to me giving this to Kate?"

"As long as I get a copy too."

"Sweet! So not deleting this one then." She set down the camera and leaned back in her seat. "And you can totally have your revenge if you want."

"What?"

"It's only fair that if we're going around taking pictures of people that we should be ready that someone might find us to be worth adding to a frame. We're here, the sun's still out, we've all got cameras, I'm trying to get a feel for how you guys approach the art,... so go ahead. Shoot me now."

She just had to say "shoot me now" in that tone of voice, didn't she.

Max thought about this for a moment, looking at the window, the rays of light peering in, the random disruptions as the occasional truck drove by, looking back at Lu, relaxed, smiling, leaning against the booth, arm up on the back, no longer looking at her camera,...

"Lu, I think something got caught under your lens when you put it on."

"What!? Where? That can't be right, I would've—"

Click.

Whirr. Flick.

Click again, this time from Kate.

Max's shot was a dramatic progression from gold to red to blue as the sun cast long, odd shadows from Lu and her camera. She had been in the middle of turning it around to look for the alleged foreign object, and the size of the lens and the closeness of the table and its contents had forced her to lean away from the window slightly; the sun shone directly on her face with her arms held out, illuminating her like some mirrored parody of Caravaggio's Judith, not quite sure of her ability however determined she was to seek out and destroy her lawful prey.

Kate's shot was like a bizarro-world answer to Lu's shot of Max: golden instead of white light coming from the viewer's right; figure obscured from below instead of the side; sarcastic smirk instead of sheepish grin visible beneath obscured eyes; and instead of the brim of Max's cap, Lu's eyes were obscured by her hand in the beginning of a pseudo-martial salute.

The salute had been photobombed by an anarchist patch on her jacket.

Lu saw the photos and laughed. "These are great! We are doing such a terrible disservice to your class by having me teach it instead of you two!" She watched their reaction. "You look almost as awful as I feel about having to talk in front of a whole class! And speaking of being in front of things..." She held up her camera but left it pointing at the wall. "Kate? Do you want in on having a souvenir shot of today?"

"Certainly."

Lu glanced at Max as she scooted out of the booth, then glanced at Kate. Max got out as well. "As much as I'd love to be in a shot with you, Kate, I'd also like to get a better view of our as yet prospective teacher at work."

And so Max got out of the frame and stood behind Lu. She gave a bit of a start as she was met with a creepy array of eyes sewn or ironed onto the back of her jacket, headed as they were by a gold and black Eye of Horus on the right shoulder.

Lu looked around the diner for a moment, dodging Joyce with a flustered, mumbled apology. She looked at the jukebox. "Hey Kate, spend ten seconds thinking about what your favourite song means to you. Don't tell me what it is, just sit back and relax and think about it."

Max watched as Kate shifted about on her seat. For a few seconds nothing happened, then Lu crouched and Max heard a soft, sluggish click. They returned to their seats and Lu showed them the preview.

The single exposure was enough that the cold blue floor in the shadows of the booth seats and table could clearly be seen. This turned the window into a flaming burst of fading light from which all the quadrilaterals of the furniture seemed to radiate, take form and come into being in the world of the Two Whales. It was towards this ark of ineffable light which Kate was turned, legs crossed left knee over right, the shimmering ivory ring of the top of her mug of hot cocoa just a little off of her centre line nestling itself in the shadow of the windowsill. She was holding it maybe two handbreadths from her chest, arms bent and unstrained, as she leaned back and smiled slightly to herself letting her eyes half smile, half squint out onto the unseen street and sky and sea beyond, their light taking form atop her head in an elaborately filigreed translucent golden crown.

Max remembered that Tuesday morning. Kate having banished herself into the darkness while herself reminisced wistfully at an old white beacon anticipating the arrival of the one she loved. And now that energy belonged, rightfully, to Kate, and Max was in no way diminished merely because she had it. "I love it. It's definitely you. And I mean that in a flattering and not mortifying way."

"Thanks! I like it, though I'm not the best person to judge how 'me' it really is." Kate smirked. "But it does remind me of a completely different song than the one I was thinking about."

"Heh, I'd be surprised if you knew the song I had in my head when I took this shot. But glad it's up to both your standards! I'll send it to you along with a link to an article that all this talk about loving and knowing and mortifying reminded me of just now. Rereading it last week helped me a bit with... you know. It might be helpful for you as well." Lu turned off her camera and packed her things, but stayed in the booth. "For now, though, I think it's time to wrap up. You're giving Max a ride back to campus, right?"

"Actually, I could just—ow. Thanks, Kate."

"Anytime!"

"Well then! Guess I'll be seeing you two around... uh... whenever the class is supposed to start..." Lu pulled out her phone and began rapidly typing on it.

Kate waited a few seconds and then told Lu the correct date. Lu put down her phone and nodded with a sheepish smile on her face without making eye contact.

They bid each other goodbye again and Kate and Max left. Lu finished the dregs of her now entirely liquefied float and looked around the diner. Things were starting to get busy in here with the after-work crowd and it might be a minute or five before Joyce would notice and she could order dinner. She wondered if she should've offered to treat those two. They seemed to be getting along and the timing was right, but would that have been a bit too much? Did she look too desperate for student approval? Would it come off as too creepy, like the photography teacher's trying to isolate and groom their favourite students all over again? Were there any teacher conflict of interest rules about this sort of thing? Were Kate and Max a couple? Was she eating into their alone time together?

Fuck. Peopling was hard.

She picked up the menu. The fish and chips couldn't be half as bad as Joyce had made it sound; if it were, though, that would be a new and interesting data point about the bizarre ecological decay of this town.

Someone stepped into the diner. And speaking of collecting specimens in studying the town's decay...

"Francis Bowers! Long time no see!"

The man gave a start, then scowled at her. "Frank, never Francis."


An hour earlier...

Guy passed all of Frank's usual cop tests. That stylized Yggdrasil tattoo across his thick sausage-like neck and jaw and the little scars where the ink went in would be pretty hard to do with makeup anyway.

"So are you passing by, or coming here for work?" It wasn't idle chit-chat; this guy seemed like he'd be coming back, and Frank needed to know whether to start tracking or just mark off another "stray dog".

The man raised his eyes to somewhere in the sky past the trailer. "All things shall pass. This moment, too, is but to be vanished into the stream. We labour, but the fruit is nigh. The reapers are few, but by the strength of deeper truth more shall be set free."

Frank closed his eyes and then opened them again. "Sounds important. How long is the project? Six months? a year?"

"Only Pan Himself can truly say. We labour. We reap. The reckoning is delayed, but inexorable. More winters may come before the spring."

"I'll take that as a yes. Just don't try any funny business with your tab later on."

The new guy made eye contact again. Not angry, just creepy intense for no reason. "Arcas is a great man. He will bring purity and justice to this diseased place." Frank was about to say something in annoyance but the man went on. "There will be fire, and storms, and the heavens will rage in war. And from Surtr's corpse the two shall rise, and hail the beginning of the new world."

Frank leaned back and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, 'new and improved' formula. Same old shit everyone else is selling." He immediately regretted saying that, but didn't let it show. New and improved. Hip new drugs. Rachel.

"Far from it, friend. Arcadia is but to be restored to its former glory, a safe, noble, wholesome place for our people."

He would have laughed out loud at the sheer absurdity of that if he still hadn't been thinking about her. "Sure, thanks for the targeted advertising to the skeezy drug dealer in the dirty camper by the woods."

The man stared off into the slowly goldening sky. "You will find your place, friend. And your place will find you. All of the Arcadian blood are called, but few answer."

Frank watched the man's gaze. Those wide-set eyes reminded him of something. He mentally reviewed his list. Later he would write down a new client entry in runes: "Boston Terrier - Treeface".

Chapter Text

Kate Marsh was dressed in a long ripped flannel shirt, death metal band tee, Daisy Dukes and black knee-high leather boots. She was lying on top of someone's grave, posing for a photo.

She immediately leapt to her feet.

Click.

"Chloe!"

"Sweet! First action shot of the day!" The camera she was holding looked just like Miss Cheang's. Of course. Dreams.

They were in the churchyard at her parish in Arcadia Bay. Most of the congregation nowadays didn't have much money to tithe. The grass was always just a little bit too long, a little bit too yellow, kept only by volunteers if and when they had the time; the headstones were clean enough, but they could only do so much against permanent stains and wear when no one had been buried here since the nineteen fifties. The lichen was unstoppable. The church building itself was much older than that, an uneasy attempt to blend Gothic and Polish Cathedral, with an extra wing of breakout rooms on the south side added in the nineteen sixties that threw the whole thing out of symmetry. They hadn't had a chance to powerwash the exterior for quite some time, and the mould was making the blackened spires and masonry look less than warm and welcoming to anyone not already familiar with the goings-on inside.

The trees that dotted the yard were a beautiful fractal patchwork of gold and sienna and crimson. Kate looked down on her shirt, or rather Rachel's shirt that she was now involuntarily borrowing for whatever reason. "I think the spring foliage had complemented this better."

"Nah, I like this look. Hella intense."

Kate always lowkey hated that word. "Chloe are you absolutely sure you want to joke about that these days?"

She shot a picture of the look on Kate's face as the latter spoke. "Now that I think about it... yeah. I do." She showed Kate the photo and Kate was startled again to see that she was even wearing Rachel's signature earring.

Kate looked around again. It just looked like when she was at church this past Sunday, only a little clearer and sunnier and the leaves redder. As she looked a leaf swished to the ground, became a blue butterfly, and stiffly flapped away. "Why are you showing me this?"

"Feeling nostalgic, I guess. That Spring Break was fun while it lasted. And before I found about about Rachel and—okay, no, I shouldn't bother you with that."

Kate looked down at her outfit again. "It sure looks to me like you've already started to."

Chloe paced about the headstones agitatedly. "Look, I don't have full control over this yet, okay?" She lay down on top of one of the graves. Kate opened her mouth to speak but Chloe snapped her fingers and the headstone was replaced with her own, except...

"Why does it have my name on it?"

Chloe sat bolt upright, turned around, cussed, slapped the headstone like a malfunctioning old television and after a few staticky slaps it went from Kate to William to Frank to Jefferson to Warren to Joyce then finally to herself. She lay back down and stared at the sky.

What sounded like some faint choral singing echoed from within the church. Long after waking from this dream Kate would hear it again in an unrelated situation and learn that it was actually a very distorted portion of "In My Mind".

Kate lay down next to her, on the opposite side from William. "I never did manage to convert you two to the faith."

"Kate, you're one of the sweetest people I know, but I'm not going to change my religion on the advice of someone I haven't known for more than half a year."

"You know Max told me why you're even here now. She touched the headstone. "You're a braver, kinder person than me." She looked at Chloe. "You... do remember that, right?"

Chloe mumbled noncommittally and rolled over to her side, facing away from Kate. "I miss Dad."

"You can't talk to him?"

"Only once, since..." She tapped the ground beneath her with her foot. "And your outfit right now is the closest I've gotten to seeing Rachel." She lay flat on her back again and stared into the sky with a sad look on her face. No one said anything for a few seconds. "Hmm. This dream hasn't turned into total bullshit yet, so I guess I was allowed to tell you that."

"What are you allowed to tell me?"

There was another long, awkward silence before Chloe turned away from Kate again.

The awkward silence continued.

The awkward silence continued. The grass around them withered, the headstone eroded into nothing, the birds evolved sapience and ascended into space, and the sun grew blood red and thrice as large in the thin starry sky.

Kate could hear the ocean.

Chloe glanced up at the broken remains of Venus. "Yeah, kind of a long awkward silence, huh." She sat up and faced Kate. She took off her hat to look at it, then shrugged and put it back on: instead of the beanie it was now Max's fish hat, illumined red like everything else, like in her photo. "Hey, before I forget to mention: thanks for not being a jerk to me and Rach when we first met."

"You both took it very well. Think nothing of it." Kate herself certainly didn't. She'd come across them trying to do a photoshoot of Rachel, making jokes about how hella spooky this shoot was going to be in this graveyard by this creepy old abandoned church, not realizing Kate was standing right there until Rachel turned around for a new pose. As if on cue the choir inside had just then started practicing; whereupon Kate smiled, introduced herself, said she was glad that visitors were interested in their humble little parish and offered to take them on a tour of the building. They were welcome to continue the shoot afterwards, as long as they respected the dead.

Chloe stared at the ground for a moment. "No. It wasn't 'nothing', you offered a place for us to just... be. You weren't swayed by some fancy argument Rachel was putting up, you didn't just tell us troublemakers to move along, you weren't trying to score points with some free converts—"

"I had to reassure you of that last one three separate times during that meeting! But I guess I might've had guided tours for prospective members on my mind, given I was in Arcadia Bay for the tour of Blackwell they were hosting."

Chloe looked at Kate. "So why did you decide on Blackwell, anyway? Don't tell me it was Jefferson."

Kate sat up with her knees up to her chest and her arms around her legs and looked out into the poorly defined dream-distance for a few seconds. "I got a scholarship at a highly acclaimed art program in my hometown, it's hardly like I would have turned it down with or without him. But he was certainly icing on the cake." She stretched out her legs and plucked idly at the grass. "A few years ago our church worked together with a homeless and drug addict advocacy group to try to get some safe injection sites to help prevent overdoses. We used a few of his street photos and portraits of homeless people in part of our presentation to the city council. All of us knew it was a one in a million shot, and at the end of the day they all voted against, but afterwards two or three councillors talked to us about it and they looked honestly apologetic. Even during the presentation I knew a few of them were looking at those photos and really seeing the humanity in the people we were talking about. Even if it wasn't necessarily the same individual people."

Chloe paused, then rolled her eyes and scoffed. "Humanity? How the fuck could that creep possibly know anything about that?"

Kate made sure to start speaking before Chloe could continue winding herself up. "I don't know, Chloe. I guess it's like what Paul wrote: 'If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing.' Except that even if someone were nothing, but did all that anyway, those around them might still hear those tongues and prophecies, and be moved by their faith, even benefit from the gifts they were given."

She waited for Chloe to say something sarcastic about her impromptu Scripture recital, but it never came. Instead she mirrored the way Kate was sitting, then crossed her arms, closed her eyes and leaned back against her headstone. "You know, I've led a pretty shitty life. I made Joyce's life a living hell for the past five years, got in the way of everything, never made anything of myself, pissed away whatever talent people kept saying I had for whatever bullshit reason. And now I'm just dicking around harassing you after ditching Max and nearly getting her to kill herself—uhh, thanks for helping with that by the way. Do you think I can still turn this around? Can Arcadia Bay still do any good with... whatever it was that I gave it somehow?"

"Chloe," Kate smiled despite herself, "you know this is way above my pay grade. All I know for sure is that God does not scorn anything done in selfless love, and that the absolute last thing Max wants is for you to blame yourself for any of this."

She slumped into the old red dust. "I miss her, Kate. I really wish I could reach her somehow..."

This had so far been such a vivid dream. "Hey, Chloe, I know I'm dreaming all this, but if you have any words of wisdom that you want me to 'anonymously' pass on to Max—"

Thump.

The dust could settled, revealing a ground dented in a humanoid outline where Kate's double had slammed violently into the dirt between them. The dying red sun was blotted out, the graves now in the shadow of the dorm roof.

"What the f—you again! Get the fuck out of here! We're trying to have a conversation for once!"

The double grabbed itself by the hair and peeled itself off the ground. As usual, it was dressed in Kate's normal clothes except the cross was replaced with something else. "Yeah, sure, 'conversation', more like you trying to get this slut into whoring out for your Rachel Amber erotic roleplay!"

"Don't you dare attack her like that! Chloe or Rachel! They were good friends and they loved each other! You wouldn't know anything of that sort!"

The double turned towards Kate. "The fuck you know. I knew her way better than you, which is obvious by how you're wearing that outfit. She looked beautiful in it and you look like ass." It started walking into Kate's space. "But I guess all the boys are perfectly happy with lying to themselves about the novelty of Little Miss Frump Ice Queen finally spreading it for—"

"Hey, get the fuck away from her, man!" Chloe reached for the double's elbow.

She was met with the barrel of a gun.

"I am sick", said the double, "of everyone trying to control me!"

Both girls quickly backed away from the double without thinking.

The doppelganger stepped towards Chloe. Then stopped. Then laughed. The gun was now a phone. "Christ, you're both so fucking stupid." It closed the distance with Chloe, grabbed her by the hair, then began kissing her deeply in the mouth while rapidly taking pictures of them in the act on its phone.

The doppelganger then shoved Chloe to the ground and threw the phone at Kate, who woke up before she could catch it or be hit by it.

As her eyes got used to the twilight Kate was struck with the thought that it had looked rather like Max's phone.


Max was Chloe. They were back at the clifftop, storm in front of them gradually shredding the marina. She watched Max hold up the butterfly photo, and... disappear from existence.

The butterfly photo blew away in the wind. She was now truly alone.

Alternate Chloe wheeled up from behind her. "Yeah, she does that to people".

And so Max woke up. She wasn't sure if she wasn't feeling anything or just too tired to feel anything, or using her fatigue as an excuse to pretend to herself that she wasn't feeling anything. She jumped into the nearest copy of the butterfly photo, pocketed the original, grabbed the hammer and set off the alarm, faded back in, took a tissue for her nosebleed and lay back down in bed.

After all, what else was there to do?

Chapter Text

"Thanks for being there, Daniel."

"Just helping out a friend, Max. You ended up doing almost all of the talking anyway."

"I hope I didn't sound too crazy."

"I all but literally saw a light bulb go off above Mr. Dickinson's head the moment you mentioned Jefferson. He gets it." Daniel glanced at the top of Max's (currently unhatted) head. "Though to be honest, given it was right after he assigned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we all thought you had worn that fish hat on purpose to be thematically appropriate."

Max looked up at nothing in particular and shrugged. "Maybe on some level I did." She fiddled with the bullet necklace. "Man, this sucks. Dickinson's actually pretty cool. But just... being singled out in class like that by a male teacher..."

"It's tough, Max. Stay strong." Daniel paused for a moment. "Does this happen with female teachers too?"

"Actually, Daniel? I honestly have no idea, it's never come up yet." She pulled the fish hat out of her bag, looked at it and smirked. "Remind me when Ms. Grant's going to get into marine biology this term..."


Thursday, October 30, 2013

Frank could hear pattering footsteps inside his camper. Pompidou was running around inside. Was probably getting a bit agitated without him: Frank hadn't checked his phone, though it seemed like he'd taken a normal amount of time for breakfast. Then again, he couldn't remember when he last had to give a shit what time it was. Maybe he really was starting to lose it...

He reached for the door handle and stopped as he heard a thonk, donk donk of something bouncing down the length of the camper, followed by Pompidou's footsteps. Right hand in pocket, Frank opened the door.

Pompidou raced past him, ball in mouth. He stepped inside and looked to his left to find him with Max huddled between the seats.

"Hey."

Frank scowled.

"Sorry. I just needed a place to get away from Joyce and Kate and everything."

"And you chose to break into my home for that."

"The door wasn't locked."

"Get. Out."

Pompidou nuzzled Frank and whined. Max looked the way Pompidou sounded as she slowly forced herself up. The thin grey zip-up hoodie briefly reminded Frank of someone else he knew, long ago.

Frank scrunched his eyes shut and thinned his lips as he breathed hard through his nose. He opened his eyes. "Okay, fine. What's going on?"

Max continued standing up, hung her DSLR around her neck and faced the door without looking at him. "Nevermind, Frank. It's stupid. Sorry about invading your space."

"Hey, you didn't let me get away with that bullshit while we were visiting Chloe. Why should I do you that favour?" Frank was stepping out of her way anyway. Pompidou looked at them both and whined at the mixed messages.

Max kept her head down and walked over to the door. She stopped. "It's Chloe, okay? And Joyce. Holy shit, how can a woman so totally fail to understand her own flesh and blood!? We get into one little conversation and we start talking about her and—fuck! And Kate was so... useless about it too! I thought she had my back! I thought she... that she had hers, too!"

Frank sighed and sat at his computer desk. Pompidou followed him and Frank started absently rubbing the dog's head. "Yeah, I guess not everyone decides to just randomly hang out with their weed dealer." He noticed that the camera strap said "BLACKWELL ACADEMY" on it.

"She was there! Just as I was! She knew her pain and somehow just... lost it. Forgot. Numbed it and replaced it with David's stupid crap and her own parents' stupid crap and whatever stupid crap is in those damn Dr. Bill books. And now she can't talk about her anymore without spewing some useless lifeless platitudes about tragedies and teenage delinquents and wandering off the path. Chloe needed a mother and all I'm hearing are fucking goddamn motherhood statements." Max was standing straight now, staring angrily into some unknown distance. "And to think I was feeling so fucking guilty for being the one who'd abandoned her for five years."

Frank's world froze. An echoey sound effect was playing in the background. A red haze seemd to cover everything and the view of him appeared to have multiple blurry exposures overlapping each other. To his left: SIDE WITH JOYCE. To his right: SIDE WITH MAX.

He considered waffling for a bit to buy time, but that very framing of waffling ultimately decided things for him. After all, it was a lot harder now to pop in during times he could be sure Joyce didn't have a shift.

Frank opened his mouth to speak, but Max's phone went off and she answered it. "Sorry, Kate, I'm on my way. I'll be a bit late, I just... had to stop by a friend's place first." She looked at Pompidou who wagged his tail. Wait, didn't Max say she came in here to get away from both Joyce and Kate? Wouldn't that imply they'd already— nah, that didn't make any sense, he probably heard wrong. "If you see her you can ask for the key first. Yeah, I know. Look, I'll be fine, no there isn't really anything I need at this point, and do feel free to talk with Joyce about other stuff too, it's not like you guys don't have lives of your own! Yeah... in fact, please chat about other things." Frank could see Max's eyes narrow and her fist clench when she said "please". "Okay. Gotta go, see you at the Two Whales soon!" Beep. She looked at Frank.

Frank leaned back in his chair and thought about his words for a moment. "So, uh. Max. How do you feel about some unsolicited advice?"

The unexpected call had already done most of the de-escalating for him. She glanced over at Frank and slouched, but didn't move beyond that. "Yeah, sure."

"You know what I do for a living, right?"

"You're a drug dealer."

"Good. Thank you for paying at least that much attention. And that means a couple things. First, I deal with a lot of people who will at some point think they're gonna one day turn over a new leaf, get off the drugs, and be all sober and upstanding and citizen-y and all that stupid crap. Every so often I'll get a call telling me I can go fuck myself and they don't need my shit anymore, and that's when I mentally prepare for them to show up a couple days later than usual getting all panicky and desperate and hating me almost as much as they hate themselves.

"Second, I deal with a lot of people whose lives are, pardon my French, a pile of fucked up shit." He gestured at the squalour of his RV as an example, which was still a bit nasty even if it was distinctly better than what Max and Chloe had been dealing with that Wednesday morning. "But don't let appearances fool you. There's a lot of method to this madness. For them and me. You see, the body works in natural cycles, rhythms, schedules: it needs time to do things, and time makes it need things. And sometimes" - he turned around his chair to face the bottles in the sink - "you get so fucked up that need is the only thing that gives you any purpose, any sense, any structure in your life."

"So... where are you going with all this?" If Frank was mocking Chloe somehow, she was going to rewind that damn knife right up his—

"Joyce", said Frank, making eye contact with Max as he spoke, "is a person who needs a great deal of structure in her life. That sense of routine, meaning, obligation, I've seen that need from a few people, both from church and work. It's how they ground themselves, make the work make sense to them, just to have one last thing that's always gonna be there for them.

"She really tries not to let on, especially with you kids, but I can see Chloe's death is fucking her up real bad. So far I've only ever been her customer and not the other way around, but it's obvious what she's trying to numb herself with so she doesn't go off the fuckin' deep end now. It's going to take a while before she can bring herself to process what Chloe really meant to her; until then she's going to double down on whatever bullshit she thinks gives clarity to how she sees the world.

"So I don't know what to tell you, or what you ought to do with this. It's just what I've been seeing, and how I'm making sense of what you're telling me she's saying. You can stay pissed off at her, or forgive her, or fuck, agree with her for all I care. But I don't think it's smart to conclude from all this that she didn't - doesn't - care."

Max looked at the door and said nothing for a moment. She wasn't angry anymore, just sad - and confused. Confused, in particular, at how obviously Joyce had been talking with Frank about all this, and sharing similar things to what she had just done (had just would have done?) with Max. After some consideration she asked in as non-accusatory a tone as one can make a question framed like this, "How do you even know Joyce so well anyway? You're her daughter's drug dealer."

"I'm a regular paying customer at the Two Whales. Joyce knew Damon and me before we even got into the business - Chloe wasn't even born at the time. She was almost like a second mom to him back then" - he fiddled with some random windows on his computer - "until that time when..." - he hemmed and hawed for a bit until Max started turning towards the door again - "yeah, sure, I guess I should tell you."

Max made a confused and worried noise while looking at Frank.

"No, no, Joyce wasn't in the business or taking or anything like that! It's just personal, that's all." He sighed. "We were in seventh grade. Damon had been saving up to get this one set of Copic markers that he'd been talking about all year. I remember we showed up at the store with exactly the amount that he remembered it cost - and it turned out that they'd raised their prices last week. I'd just had my lunch money taken that morning so I couldn't lend him anything. He had a meltdown right there at the store and it was all I could do to drag him out before anyone got hurt.

"Damon didn't say a word about the whole thing for a week. Then one day I saw him with this big welt on his face that he kept telling everyone was a skin rash. I told him that was bullshit and he told me that he'd been caught reaching into his mom's purse with a five dollar bill in his hand. The thing was, by the time he was caught he'd been trying to put it back into her purse, after he'd stolen it and regretted it an hour later. He confessed all of it and his mom kicked his ass anyway.

"He never did get those Copic markers.

"So anyway, Joyce noticed it too, and I think Damon must've skipped the part about putting the money back or she misheard or something, because... I'm sure she meant well, but what came out was basically saying that his mom was right." Frank typed something into his browser. "Bless her heart, but that woman had no. fucking. idea what Miss Merrick was capable of behind closed doors and she shouldn't have assumed what she saw was the worst of it. Damon inhaled his lunch without saying a word and had another meltdown while we were walking down a back alley on the way home. I don't think we went back to the Two Whales for a whole year after that.

"I don't blame Joyce for this, just want to make that clear." Frank scowled intently at whatever he was looking at on his screen. "But I guess I don't not blame her for contributing to it either? Anyway, I just thought to tell you all this as an idea of where she comes from with some of what she might've told you."

Max looked at Frank blankly for a moment, then at Pompidou, then back at the door. "This is a lot to process."

"Don't get me wrong, Joyce is a good woman. Just a product of a different time and place, and who tends to think she knows more than she really does. I'm only telling you this because the way you got angry at her there reminded me a little of Damon's reaction in the back alley." He tilted his head as he looked at Max. "Actually, you kinda remind me of him back then, a little - a bit shy and weird and always looking like you're on the edge of doing something catastrophic. Maybe that's the real explanation for all those weird déjà-vu dreams."

"You guys sounded close. Where is he now? I don't think I've ever heard him come up while talking to you or Chloe or anyone."

Frank said nothing for a long time. He just petted Pompidou who rested his head on his lap and looked sad. Frank closed his eyes and breathed for a while.

He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. "Damon Merrick killed himself almost a decade ago."


Max was strangely quiet during their meeting with Mrs. Madsen. She was so evasive with what they were doing Kate ended up being the one to actually confirm that their purpose was to record Chloe's graffiti on the truck for posterity.

It was parked way at the back, as out of sight from passing customers as could be, just across from the sketchy dirty RV in the corner.

At first Kate suggested that they use Max's instant to shoot the upholstery on the truck first, so they'd have a reference at hand when they had to put it back together as they'd promised Mrs. Madsen. This resulted in Max staring at her camera for a half minute saying nothing, then putting it away and fumbling with the long-neglected camera function on her phone.

They unlocked the truck. They slowly pulled down the upholstery, revealing the writings beneath, the incorrupt remains of someone who lost their innocence too soon.

Yes I am, Chloe. We all are. Thanks for the reminder.

"Max, do you need a—" No, she didn't, she had already taken a few shots with her instant and was switching over to the loaner DSLR.

Kate watched Max work. Click, click click, clickclick. Normally with her instant Max was like a police sniper, ever taking her time to line up the perfect shot knowing her ammo was scarce and once she took that shot she would not be able to try it again. The way she worked now, ducking and weaving in and out of the truck, rapid-fire, silent and totally focussed, instead made Kate think that Max had gone John Preston on her.

Max took one last shot: a selfie from the driver's seat, eyes wide and sad but face half-heartedly smirking, right next to that ironically ominous message Kate had first laid eyes on. She took it again with the DSLR, just to keep that record consistent.

She took a few more shots from the driver's seat and the front passenger seat. When she reviewed the pictures with her later Kate noticed how these passenger seat shots always had Max's arms, legs, hoodie, bag or instant camera somewhere visible, while she carefully stayed out of the way with the driver's seat shots.

The inside done, Max prowled the perimeter of the truck and took a few shots of that. The RV featured prominently in a few of them; a couple left Kate wondering at why Max would similarly feature a random garbage can nearby. Kate thought that the grey-blue of the diner and the blue of the sky complemented the warmer colours of the truck in a way that would make for some very pleasing shots, and Max did in fact take them, but she couldn't help but notice a split-second hesitation each time Max hit the shutter button.

When they were finished Max pocketed the tube of blue hair dye that was still lying on the dash before she let Kate lock the doors again.

Eventually Kate asked Max if she was angry at her. Max continued to refuse to speak. They stopped at a red light and Max hugged her.

Chapter Text

Crowded out in its original sense by the zoological use (1768) which began with Linnaeus, who applied the word to immature forms of animals that do not resemble, and thus "mask," the adult forms. On the double sense of the Latin word, Carlo Ginzburg, among other observers of mythology and folklore, has commented on "the well-nigh universal association between masks and the spirits of the dead."


"No, Chloe."

"Come on! Max has the dye now, you can get it from her!"

"It is not a good idea!"

"Scary. Punk. Ghost. It is the best idea!"

"Look, even if I'm going to assume you're actually Chloe approving this and not a phantasm of my scarred brain, people will get the wrong idea! They'll think I'm making fun of you!"

Chloe looked hurt by this comment. They were standing on the dorm roof again, but the roof was now a Babylonian hanging garden filled with headstones.

Kate sighed. Even characters from her dreams knew so well how to manipulate her. "Okay. Fine. I'll... not summarily rule it out."

"Fuck yeah, now we're talkin'!" Chloe reached in for a high five and tumbled off the roof as she phased right through Kate. She sighed and trudged back onto the roof before the cartoon gravity would have caught up and made her fall. "I guess it would be hard to explain to Max, though."

The door opened and Kate's double, now dressed in an ill-fitting leather battle jacket, blue beanie awkwardly stretched over her bun, suspenders half disconnected and dragging noisily behind it and Papa Emeritus face paint, walked past them facing them the whole time and flipping them both birds.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Of all the things from That Week that were now forever gone, she had definitely not been sad to see "Supermax" go.

She sipped her punch and quickly rewound her way behind a decorative scarecrow to regain composure as her scumbag brain decided to dwell on the 1978 movie and how the titular character had successfully saved his beloved heroine with his time powers. Juliet made an adorable Lois Lane, and Dana, with her hair dyed and slicked and tied back just right to keep the length from being too obvious upfront, one short cowlick springing forwards, made it completely unequivocal which superhero was intended.

It was a great costume; if only Max could look at her for more than five seconds without thinking either of rewinds, dead love interests, forbidden interferences with the world or people dying years after turning quadruplegic.

Max forced herself to relax as she rewound. Drift, rise, allow it to happen. Breathe. The five seconds soon became ten, and by the end of the party she was no longer avoiding the pair. Looking in the mirror someone had set up in the corner of the gym helped.

She had an easier time with Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. She and Kate were not the first nor the last people who needed an explanation, and fortunately Daniel and Alyssa were able to help while Stella gave a riveting performance in her masquerade as someone who did not know the reference. Max was too happy for Justin's sake to mind: he and Trevor were uncomplicated buds all over again, not a single tragic secret romantic rivalry in sight.

Alyssa was forced to explain for the plebeian audience her all too artistically clever costume as an evil doppelganger of herself. Kate and Max gave each other a knowing look.

She wandered over to the punch bowl again and found Kamaitachi, Kunoichi and Ninja there.

"Maximilian! Glad you can join us!" said Kamaitachi. No hug, just fist bump. Kunoichi adjusted her nuclear blonde wig and smiled. To see that total lack of low-key tension from Brooke made this new timeline seem almost worth it.

"Glad to see you guys too. And Daniel, I can't believe you gave Ninja a fedora."

He tipped it towards her. "The wacky hat motif was a tribute to you, m'lady Max." He winked, but not at her, rather at Kate.

"Oof. Guess I need to reconsider some life decisions. So where's StellaaAAAAAA!" She leapt out of the way as a red-stained toy chainsaw went brrrt against her neck.

Her assailant mock-chased her around the table for a lap and a half as the others laughed. Stella put away her chainsaw and pulled up her hockey mask. "Hey Max! Good to see you made it!" She looked at her and Kate. "So are you guys, like, your Pirates of the Caribbean OCs or something?"

The pair looked at each other for a few seconds. "....Yes", said Max at the end, "We totally are." In fact they hadn't coordinated at all, let alone with that movie series in mind; "Kate-thulhu"'s wine-dark green papier-mâché angry-cuttlefish head and wings were a perfect mix of rough and glossy to give that dark dank New-England-monster-in-the-fog look, and in better lighting would definitely not be mistaken for Davy Jones's much softer-looking tentacle beard. It would have been almost spooky if she hadn't finished the look with Max's fish hat.

Two more people in costume were chatting with each other as they approached the punch bowl. One of them was Mr. Dickinson, dressed as the Headless Horseman. The other was Ms. Grant: had Kate the time and resources to make articulated wings and tentacles for her own costume, surely the entire gym would have been able to see her cringe at the sight of the science teacher's; but for now only Max was watching Kate from an angle where her brief, all too human grimace could be seen unhindered.

(Only much later was Kate willing to admit that it was certainly a respectable accomplishment that a fat black American woman could pull off an immediately recognizable costume of a skinny old British white guy.)

"But that story has got to have some kind of origin," Ms. Grant continued in a blessedly not-Richard-Dawkins voice. "Some kind of migratory pattern that the story was intended to explain?"

"Or a collective memory of an historical event. Oh hi Kate! Hi Max! Don't mind if we squeeze in here to get to the punch..." He filled both his and Ms. Grant's cups. "Looking appropriately nautical tonight! Ms. Grant and I were just talking about Arcadia Bay's fish situation. Neither of you might have read anything on that, would you?"

Kate thought about it for a moment. "Can't say I have. I just know a lot of stuff's closed down since our family moved all those years ago."

"Neither have I. But... would either of you have heard anything about unusual whale sightings or deaths or anything?"

The teachers looked at each other, and then Ms. Grant spoke. "Whales? Not in particular. Nothing unusual lately, at least - sightings have been steadily going down in recent years. They're probably following the fish."

Kate started saying something about someone she volunteered with who used to do guided whale-watching tours, but Max was too busy excusing herself from the conversation to catch it. She turned towards the exit where she saw the flash. There appeared to be two figures in Blackwell security uniforms; she recognized the taller one as David, crossing his arms and looking more annoyed and disgusted than she considered normal for him while on duty.

As Max approached to look more closely it seemed the jacket on the shorter figure - about Max's height - looked a bit off in outline from the usual security uniform: the jacket in particular was a little too narrow, a little too rigid, with patches and lumps and odds and ends in all the wrong places; and the "SECURITY" on the back was just a taped-on photocopy of a photo of the real jacket.

"You're on thin ice, Ms. Cheang!"

"Just keeping an eye on things so the kids can have a Safe, and Happy, Halloween!"

Once Max was close enough to hear the conversation the lumps started to take form. They were cameras: old webcams, disposables, ancient-looking digital pieces that still took alkaline AA batteries, children's toys, empty security camera domes, camera-shaped paraphernalia from gift stores, all looking out from various points on Lu's jacket and slacks. Dollar store spooky eyeballs were stuck into the gaps, just in case any onlooker didn't feel watched enough. A flashbulb was tightly secured to the cap on top of her head, though it wasn't plugged in and the flash probably came from the zoom-lens DSLR she was holding.

David scowled at her as she approached. "Max, did you know your teacher was doing this!?"

Lu turned to face Max, grinning like an idiot under the fake moustache. Max burst out laughing - the collage outfit she knew about, she'd even helped her with it earlier that evening, but Lu never said anything about the 'stache.

David harrumphed. "You're both crazy."

Lu smirked and made the "eyes on you" gesture, then repeated it about three times with both hands and the numerous cameras and eyes on her costume.

She then turned her attention to Max. "You made it! Did you get everything you needed at the house?"

"Yeah. Thanks for helping me get the boxes out from Chloe's room."

"Thank you for the help with the jacket! I almost lost my mind trying to figure out how to wire a couple of these things on without ruining it permanently." Lu was interrupted by a sasquatch and she pretended to arrest them and take their mugshot, telling them they had the right to remain blurry in a goofy deep-man-voice identifying herself as Blackwell Academy's chief of security.

"Where were you this whole time, though?" asked Max. "When we got back to campus you said you just needed to stash some stuff in the classroom and put on the costume before coming here. I thought you'd already be here by the time I showed up."

Lu held off on answering until the sasquatch broke free in a daring rescue by a scantily clad sexy femme offensive ethnic stereotype. "I did, but then I wanted a mocha so I took a trip to the coffee shop near the hardware store. Then I pulled over on the way back when I noticed the butterfly.

"It was a flicker under the streetlight of the purest blue I'd ever seen in nature. At first I thought it looked like a Menelaus blue morpho, but that didn't make any sense - they're found in Central and South America, not way up in Oregon in the fall. I thought it might've been an escaped lab specimen from the school so I called Michelle, but she didn't know anything about it either. So of course I did what any sane, sensible adult would do and went after it.

"The butterfly didn't seem spooked at all by all the noise I was making. It landed on a bush and then I saw that its ventral side was also blue, which was way harder than it should've been to notice because it held its wings at an angle instead of straight up. Whatever it was, it let me take three whole pictures up close - it literally just stopped and stayed still, like it somehow knew I wanted to do a long exposure shot. (Of course it wouldn't know, just saying it felt like that. Not crazy.)

"Once I got a shot of the ventral wing pattern it flew away into the trees and I lost track of it.

"After it was gone I drove to Blackwell, sat down at my desk, looked up an old entomologist friend of mine and sent her the photos. She said she'd get back to me but off the top of her head she had nothing." Lu stopped ladling punch into her cup. "Max, are you okay? You look like I told you I saw a ghost."

Max blinked. "Did... did anything else happen? With any people nearby or anything?"

Lu finished filling her cup, took a sip and thought about this. "Nope. Just me, the butterfly, the grass, the trees and my 2004 Yaris hatchback. Why, was something going on earlier tonight?"

Max hemmed and hawed while adjusting her slightly-too-small tricorn and switching which eye her eyepatch was covering. "...Not really."

Lu gestured at Max's cup with the ladle. She handed it over and Lu refilled it and handed it back. "If you want to talk to me about it later I'm happy to go over it with you, but again, as teacher I'm 100% going to respect it if you don't want to." She led Max away from the punch bowl as cyborg and pirate slowly drifted back to the ninjas and elder god. "Okay if I ask about something else?"

"Sure."

"So what is the story behind your costume, anyway? You already told me you wanted to do this in memory of Chloe and your old pirate LARPing days, but I got the impression there was" - she looked at the blue streak in Max's bangs - "another story behind the decision itself."

At the end Max still wasn't ready to let her in on everything, but she did tell her more than she would have before the butterfly - whatever or whoever it was - had given its approval.


"Three hours to go before the party, Chloe. Three. Hours. I'm going to be the laughingstock of the class after all my big talk about it." In fact she might've said maybe one thing to Dana and made a few mentions here and there to Kate and Warren, but surely her tone had set at least the expectations she had wanted to impress each of them with at the time.

She slumped down on the ground and leaned against the headstone, lightly touching her head with one hand. "I know you can't tell me anything now, but it would have been great if I could get your okay to go in our old pirate getup. Are you still angry with me? Do you even remember anything from that week? Or do you remember both times that William died and I left without a word?"

She dared not ask if Chloe was even there.

Max knew too well where that train of thought tended to lead. She had no rope here, no stool, no conveniently shaped tree; it was safe for now. Not quite desperate enough to try dashing her skull against the headstone.

Instead she just rested her head against it.

And drifted off, pondering the continuity of her existence.


The lights come on, the cast step out and bow for the cheering audience. Roses are thrown. Prospera and Ariel hold hands, still in costume, a mischievous grin from Rachel, they kiss. Just the lightest of pecks on the lips, a flashbulb, the crowd goes wild. Someone yells "Encore!". They bow again.

End scene, fade out.

The troupe tours across the continent. Mr. Keaton beams with delight watching the updates on social media. The shots of the production are an art unto their own, capturing moment after moment of meticulously choreographed pathos, catharsis and mirth.

That one slightly blurry photo of Prospera kissing Ariel is framed in a bittersweet melancholy that catches even its photographer by surprise.

They do Shakespeare, sure enough, but only among a great deal of other works. Nathan finally discovers his calling, developing vivid stage adaptations of whatever catches his fancy. They receive glowing reviews for their works on Moby-Dick, the Book of Jonah, the Enuma Elish, Inanna's Descent Into the Underworld, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The uniquely postmodern takes on the costume design are the talk of the theatre world for months after each run.

Rachel and Chloe are at the café, in the booth, bickering over something. It's a friendly contest for now, but there's just enough tension to make one think they can cross over at any moment. Mr. Keaton stands nearby, tapping his foot with his arms crossed, but a knowing smirk on his face. The two do not see him. They see him, and stand, their argument uninterrupted but the ire thereof redirected in his general direction.

Queen of the Black Coast had been one of Ryan's favourites of the old Conan stories, to Vanessa's disapproval for various reasons. Max had read it while poking through his stuff one night, unable to sleep on account of an ill-advised late afternoon root beer float. Nathan's eyes had lit up when she mentioned it while they were in his hotel room one night drinking their sorrows away. Chloe thinks she's a perfect Conan, Rachel Bêlit; the latter disagrees and comes up with many fancy, pleasing-sounding reasons why: but the real reason, whatever it is, Max can practically hear her daring not say.

"Enough!" says the director, "This merry band of bards has surpassed all need for further argument about this. Let it be known to all present that I have already found" - he turns towards Max - "our barbarian."

"You're talking to me!? Uhh..."

He approaches her, joyous, inexorable. "The massive, dark shock of hair! The glittering blue eyes of steel, shining forth with a wisdom and ferocity that belies your youthful visage! That quiet shadow of inescapable raw power that emanates from your person - it is all there! I'll have Nathan print you a copy of the script..."

"But wait," objects Rachel. "If Max is Conan, then which of us is—"

With fearful speed it is rushing upon her, and in that instant Max has only a confused impression of a small Max-like shape hurtling along on papier-mâché wings concealing taut unfailing wires; of bare scrawny arms gloved in misshapen black-nailed paws; of an oversized head, in whose small face the only features recognizable under the mask are a pair of horseshoe-crab-blood-blue eyes. The costume only reminds Max how much this doppelganger in her head is a thing neither man, beast, nor devil, imbued with characteristics inhuman as well as characteristics all too human.

But Max has no time for conscious consecutive thought, so she makes some. Then the doppelganger waxes wroth, and it talks a great deal about Max's duty to the state, and society, and other things she does not understand, and bids her leave her friend whence she has flown.

So then, seeing it is all mad, she stops treading time and throws herself toward Nathan's fallen lamp, and her clawing fingers miss it by inches. Desperately she grasps the tape which pins her legs, and the veins swell in her temples as she strives to thrust it off her...

 

A bird landed on the headstone and started signing. Max woke up to the silent red glow of the setting sun fading far out in the blue hazes, and an inexplicably clear recollection of where the plastic cutlass from Chloe's pirate costume was kept.


"And then Joyce just told me to ring the doorbell and ask the tenant if she was willing to let me in. I'm so glad it turned out to be you, of all people - I had been bracing for the worst."

Lu nodded. She wanted to say something about hopefully this not becoming a habit of Max coming over to her place, need to keep a professional distance just because of... you know, but this was a bad time to bring it up, to make it all about her when really this was properly Max's story. This Chloe girl really did sound cool. She wondered about what her room must've looked like before it got painted over: from the shots Kate showed her of the truck, the place must've been a veritable work of art...

Oh, shit, right, she's still got to respond to Max to continue the conversation.

She sipped the punch. The two of them had stepped outside with Kate to get away from the increasingly loud music while Max spoke. "That is some heavy stuff. I totally get why that story would come up, though. I think your" - she briefly glanced at Kate, then at Max's blue bangs - "friend would've loved to see it. I know I would've." She stared out into the sky. There was something flying in the distance that had a blinking green light. Amidst the lights of Blackwell behind and around them there was little else to see in the murky blue darkness beyond. "How are you feeling now? About... well..." she gestured with her camera, then into their seen and unseen surroundings, before looking at Kate who was looking at Max.

Max stared at the blinking green light and said nothing. Shit, she'd overstepped a bound, didn't she. Or maybe Max was just thinking. Lu hoped Max didn't read too much into the way she had glanced at Kate. Totally no judgment there, maybe too soon if they'd been married for years but they'd only gotten back together for a week and Max wasn't even absolutely sure if she and Chloe were a thing, right? Or was Lu totally misunderstanding the situation here—

The bluenette took her eyes off the plane and gave Lu a soft, sweet, sad smile. "Thanks. It's better now. Sometimes I do wonder if I can keep going, or if on some cosmic level I even should." She stared off into the darkness. "I don't think I'll ever love anyone like her again."

Kate put a hand on Max's shoulder but said nothing. Lu couldn't quite see if Kate was concerned about Max or disturbed at something that had been bothering herself - she'd noticed Kate with that expression since around the last third of Max's story.

Max put her hand on Kate's, smile unfaded. "Kate's been an amazing help. If it weren't for her I don't think I'd have been able to see any light in this world anymore. Or get back into photography."

As Max turned to look at Kate Lu saw her suppress that other expression and smile back at Max. "Hey, it's what friends are for."

"So anyway, yeah, that's my story of how I decided to come as the Scary Punk Ghost Pirate!"

Kate blinked and looked out into the darkness. She took her hand off Max's shoulder and crossed herself while Lu accidentally dropped her fake moustache into her drink, catching Max's attention, and neither of them was looking at her.

Chapter Text

RiversOfBabylon: Hey Jess, I kinda have a question that your computer tech nerdery might help with. Do you have a moment?

JessieRocket96: do your worst lol

RiversOfBabylon: :)

RiversOfBabylon: Let's say you've got two people who know a third on this online thing, like AIM or a forum or something. They don't have any other means of contacting each other.

JessieRocket96: ok...

RiversOfBabylon: Suddenly that third person, for whatever reason, absolutely *cannot* use that messaging system anymore. Maybe they're banned, or their computer can't run the thing in question, or whatever it is, you know for certain that this person no longer has any access to the original platform.

JessieRocket96: just... make a new account?

RiversOfBabylon: For the sake of the issue I'm dealing with, let's say they can't.

JessieRocket96: weird but ok

JessieRocket96: email?

RiversOfBabylon: Sure, let's use that example. Neither of the first two people know the third's email and they never shared email addresses ever.

JessieRocket96: are you sure? maybe they looked it up?

RiversOfBabylon: Let's say they couldn't, or at least the email addresses in question were never posted anywhere. I know, I know, Web stuff sticks and spreads :(, let's just for the sake of this example say that this person definitely doesn't have, and couldn't have had, our emails.

JessieRocket96: oh flip is this about the video!? im so sorry :(((

RiversOfBabylon: No, not this time!

RiversOfBabylon: This third person is a friend, or at least a pretty decent acquaintance - or was, before they got deleted from the original platform.

RiversOfBabylon: The problem is, after the third person's account got deleted or banned or whatever, the first two people have been getting these cryptic emails from an *unknown* address - from someone claiming to be this third person.

JessieRocket96: so they did have your email! that's good!

RiversOfBabylon: But!

RiversOfBabylon: The first two people have nothing by which to connect the old account to this email address.

RiversOfBabylon: On top of that, let's say on this particular original platform there have been cases of users getting banned or deleted or whatever, then some other person starts emailing other users impersonating that former user. We don't know why, but it happens sometimes.

RiversOfBabylon: So for the sake of this analogy, if you were in this situation getting these emails, what sort of *technical* stuff would you be looking at to try to ascertain whether this person is really that user?

JessieRocket96: idk

JessieRocket96: emails are easy to spoof

JessieRocket96: and you didn't have their email before?

RiversOfBabylon: shv;s hp0459yokhjj;/,

RiversOfBabylon: Sorry, that was Alice on the keyboard.

RiversOfBabylon: No, we certainly did not.

JessieRocket96: uhhh call tech support for this platform and see if they're willing to match the email address?

JessieRocket96: can still be spoofed but better than nothing i guess

 

And so Kate prayed for an answer.

The only thing she feared more than giving Max a false hope was to deny her a true one.


Oontz oontz oontz.

Kate couldn't hear the clicking over the music. Or her doppelganger cussing a blue streak as the flashing lights of the Vortex Club party kept messing up the exposure.

She couldn't help herself. "Just use the flash."

"Shut up! I hate you so much! Do you even realize how horrible you've been, after all the help I've given you!?"

Kate glared up at her doppelganger from where she was tied to the chair. "What help? You just verbally abuse me every time we meet! Your points are so inane you haven't even been able to guilt trip me for weeks!"

She flinched as her doppelganger literally grinned from ear to ear. "That's because" - it leaned into Kate, the pendant on its necklace barely touching her, who dared not look down to see what anatomical grossness it had replaced the cross with this time - "you forget." It stood up, took another photo of her with a dramatic flourish that offended all of Kate's photographic training up to that point. "And tonight... I shall remind you!"

Two more figures lurched zombie-like from behind the curtain. They were the same shape and clothing as Victoria and Nathan at the night of the party, distinguishable in the noisy lights mostly by their uncoordinated stumbling and their faces - or lack thereof. Smooth, perfect skin glistened and quivered featurelessly as they approached.

Kate realized she could not feel any fabric between her skin and the chair.

There was a rope around her neck securing her head to the chair, preventing her from looking down to confirm. It was the same rope Max had tried to use to hang herself. She kicked against the chair, not so much trying to break out but to cause herself enough pain to wake up.

The zombies stood in front of her on either side of the doppelganger. Kate addressed the latter only. "Why are you doing this?"

The doppelganger chuckled and took another picture. "There it is. There's that fear. Good. I need you to remember what you really are. Your stupid cuck of a father spread that grotesque slander about you and your family was so happy to hear it! But you remember what it was really like. What you wanted to do that night. Whom."

"What... what are you even talking about!?"

"The truth." The doppelganger stood over her, grinning even wider now, fists on hips, leaning in, feet just a bit more than shoulder width apart. "I'm going to enjoy this" - the zombies' faces opened up into obscene, toothless, mouth-like branching tongues-within-tongues - "a lot less than you will!"

But before anything further could happen the bathroom door behind her assailants exploded.

Fragments of warped aluminum flew outwards at impossible speeds, tearing into both pseudo-Nathan and pseudo-Victoria which turned into so many helpless, shredded, thrashing pink masses of tatters and tongues and tentacles. One stray piece tore through the rope around Kate's right ankle. She noticed that she still had her shoes on.

The doppelganger turned its head around. "What are you—"

It was cut off by the hardest groin kick Kate had ever attempted in her life. "Don't you ever touch me again, freak!" - Kate said them, and agreed with them, but had this strange feeling these were not her own words.

Nathan stepped out of the settling dust and smoke. He pulled out a blue revolver. "I am sick of people trying to control me!" He didn't wait for a response, and emptied the cylinder into the staggering doppelganger who stumbled backwards into the pool, spraying both Kate and Nathan with far more water than Kate's body should have displaced, and promptly dissolved.

Everything stank of chlorine.

Nathan tried to pocket the gun, but the hammer got snagged on the suspenders that were dangling uselessly off his pants for some reason so he had to untangle them before the gun eventually disappeared into hammerspace.

He stooped down and began untying Kate. "Holy shit, I'm sorry, that was so fucked up. Kate, are you alright?" His eyeballs were featureless grey orbs beneath his eyelids.

Kate hesitated before answering. She looked at Nathan and blinked. He didn't seem to change expression as she looked at him. "Yeah. I am. I'm unhurt. Thank you Chloe."

Nathan bit his lip but said nothing until he was finished untying her. "I am so sorry about all this! Come on, we need to get out of here." He took her hand and helped her up. "I... uh, think your clothes should be around here somewhere."

Kate looked down and saw that she at least had her underwear, blouse and baptismal cross. She turned towards the couch, where she found the track jacket and jeans she had on that Saturday at the park.

"Do you know where my stuff is?" she asked while getting dressed.

Nathan blinked. "Does it really matter? We're in a dream."

"I guess not. I just wanted to make sure there wasn't some symbolism there I might miss."

"No, don't worry. We can get out now. Just remember to look for me once you're awake. This is important but I can't say any more."

"Look for you!? You mean at the cemetery, or are you—"

"No, no no! Look for me, Kate!", said Nathan, pointing at his own face which was starting to flicker in and out of existence in his frustration. Said in Chloe's voice.

"Okay, now I'm confused..."

Nathan covered his mouth, stepped back and gestured now at his tight-lipped face, then at his jersey and slacks. These were slowly beginning to flicker as well, and he stopped gesturing before Kate could consciously register the leather battle jacket and ripped skinny jeans.

"So you want me to look for Nathan?"

Chloe looked even more frustrated and scrunched her eyes shut, neither saying anything nor nodding nor shaking her head.

Fortunately the fire alarm went off and she had an excuse to run out the way she came. She took one last glance behind her at Kate before disappearing without another word.

Kate sighed, picked up the remains of Max's camera and followed. "Another crummy day."


Max had a vague dream about Chloe being pulled off a stage by a vaudeville hook.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Max was glad she could freely self-rewind now - she was pretty sure she'd hurt her foot during that last beating. Or maybe she should keep it and get Frank to give her a mock Purple Heart - it was the Veterans Day weekend after all.

No, she was better than that. Frank was better than that too, he just needed to give himself permission to be, after he's dealt with some of his own trauma. Pompidou... Max and Frank were better than that. She needed to rewind and redo this until no one got hurt, and continue resisting the temptation to fail on purpose a few more times before the final.

His words still rang in her head. They'd found him pacing around, in his sports jacket and wraparound mirror shades, plucking petals one by one off some potted flowers someone had left there, pacing back and forth over her and William's graves, muttering and rambling something Max couldn't make out at first.

When they first met him she'd tried to engage in good faith. It turned out to be her first mistake.

By asking him why he felt the way he did, instead of helping explore the reasons they just gave him a platform to spew more of the same hate that he had been before. Chloe was a selfish manipulator; she was a dropout, a ne'er-do-well who never amounted to anything; she took all the good things in her life - like him! - and threw it all away for bullshit. She was a constant angry menace to everyone around her and didn't deserve the second, third, umpteenth chance or whatever it was by this point that she so selfishly manipulated people into giving her. He used a great many other words, the overall gist of which was that Chloe was a Bad Person, who was the kind of person who was always toxic and hurting the Good People who were victims of her parasitism; she hurt David, who was so Good to her and was trying to make her Good; she hurt Joyce, who was always Good but never passed that to someone who didn't have that Good nature; Chloe was a Bad Person who threw away all the Good that she could have been because of her selfish "love" that she called her manipulativeness, one of those crazy people ever constantly gaslighting those around her and forcing her stupid, hateful narrative on everyone without considering anyone else's feelings or needs, constantly prostituting herself to all these other—

The first time, Frank pulled a knife and Max tried to stop him but failed.

The second time, Max busted open her knuckles and sprained her wrist. The crack was a sound she never knew her own fists to be capable of.

The third time, Pompidou rushed him as soon as Max started yelling.

The fourth, well... that weird, awful, externalized bad voice in Max's head was still having a field day with the fourth, talking about how horrible and worthless a person and just-as-bad-as-Chloe, just-as-bad-as-Frank, just-as-bad-as-whoeverthefuck she was.

The fifth, Max rewound a little bit further and abruptly stopped walking.

"Frank?"

"Yeah, what?"

"I think I recognize someone up ahead. Someone from Chloe's past. This is not going to end well. Can I ask you to do a few things for me?"

Frank narrowed his eyes and looked at her.

"Okay, first. Can you leash Pompidou? This can get a bit upsetting and he's going to respond well to that."

Frank looked up at the headstone, then at the figure next to it. Max facepalmed as she saw his eyes widen. "Shit, is that who I think it is?" Knife already out, striding forward.

Max didn't want to yell so she rewound him back into grabbing range before she took him by the elbow. "Wait! Fuck, Frank, are you stupid!?" she said a little too loudly for anyone's comfort. "We don't want the cops on us! There are still people visiting the war memorial, we'd never make it to the parking lot unnoticed!"

For half a second Frank looked like he was going to turn the knife on her, then caught himself and put the knife away. "Fuck! We gotta get him out of there! If he starts pissing on that grave neither I nor Pompidou are gonna promise you shit, Max."

"Glad we're on the same page. But just make sure Pompidou doesn't do anything we can't get away from." He was already barking.

Pompidou charged. Shit, rewind!

Max grabbed Pompidou by the collar just as he started running forward. Frank grabbed as well, and Max let go once he confirmed he had a proper grip.

She got up and strode headlong towards the interloper. "HEY!" her adrenaline yelled through her. "Get the fuck away from that grave, asshole!"

"...selfish and manipulative—what the f—"

"Woof! woof! Grrrr..."

Frank started letting Pompidou drag him slowly forwards. "You heard her! Get the hell away from that grave, you bitch-ass punk!"

"What the fuck, I—"

It was the loudest "Shut the fuck up!" Maxine Caulfield had ever uttered. "Shut up! Don't say a word! You don't know who the fuck Chloe is, you don't know who the fuck I am, you don't know what the fuck you're dealing with here! Shut the fuck up and get the fuck out of Arcadia Bay, get the fuck out of all our lives, you disgusting God damned creep! ..."

Max kept going like this as she approached. It was pretty much all adrenaline now - she was just here for the ride, able only to tug the reins left or right a bit. Which was fine, since she only had one immediate objective: to get this man to leave without having to hear him say one more word.

A normal Arcadian man, whether a drug dealer, a Blackwell football jock, a junkie, a cop or a creepy obsessed sociopathic photo-rapist disguised as a teacher, would have taken the hint. This man, however, turned towards Max with contempt. "Oh, look, another one of Chloe's white knight snowflakes. What are you going to do, you useless dyke, cry at me!?"

Max was about to respond, but suddenly something caught her eye. The two of them looked over by the headstone. Pompidou was still barking and restrained by Frank, who was holding the desecrated flower-pot in his free hand, slowly, ever so slowly moving towards the man's face.

"Those were my flowers, Eliot."

Eliot slowly took a step back. "Frank! What are you—"

"Those were."

Max's eyes went wide. Eliot stepped back again. "What's with—"

"MY."

He slowly began raising his arms defensively as Pompidou's barking drowned out all background sound. "... what the f—"

"̢̩̳̘͕̟̰ͅF͓̭̝̪͎͍͎UC̷͈̹̟͆̓͐͒̚K̷̪̻ͪͅI̬̝͓͕̽̇̃̿N̮̦̹̼̠̏G̒͒̈̉.̸̳̓̏͑̋"ͧ̋ͪͪ̆̚҉̗̯̟

Frank's face was backlit under the early afternoon sun, but the whites of his eyes and the foam around his teeth were plainly visible. He held the little clay pot with its pathetic plucked stems inches from Eliot's face, just a little in front of Pompidou's maddened Cerberean cacophony. The tattoo on Frank's neck took on a whole new living structure around the bulging thews over which it now strained in a thin silent scream. The earth itself seemed gradually to give under his heels, as months of pent-up molten rage bubbled to the surface and turned his skin to stone, every muscle tense and ready to rip and tear.

The gentlest push could have knocked him over with all this tension, of course, but woe to whoever did that to the one thing saving him from the baying madness behind the glittering teeth of those slavering, bone-crushing, red-tongued jaws.

"̬̤̐ͫ̾ͮ̋̏̽͢͜F̘̗̞̫͓̘̏̽̋L̈ͧͨ̇̾҉͚̙̜̦͚̺͞O̷̡̤̦̠̘ͮ̆̑͐̊̓W͎̫͋͋̿͐ͣ̌̔͠Ė̵̵͍͕͈̤̙̬̝̭̞̃R̢̢͈̙͓͂̌̑ͦ̍ͩ̍̚S̮͖̙̤͙̤̼̗͂̋̈́ͭ͐͢͝.̳̦͂̌̕"̛͈͙̮͕̟͉͒ͤ̽͟͢ͅͅ

Max was shaking and it was all she could do to keep her voice steady. "P... Please, Eliot. Leave."

She smelled something. At least he was already about a metre or two away from anyone's grave at this point.

Eliot tripped and fell on his ass, so he slowly crab-walked back.

The pot exploded against a tree trunk an inch away from his face, splashing him with soil and shards.

He got up and ran off. Max never saw him again.

A few people had gathered nearby, none of them closer than 21 feet away. Shit, did Max have to rewind this one too, even after finally getting a run where no one got physically hurt?

Eventually Pompidou was safe to let down. Frank looked around. "What you you all lookin' at?" The one or two people who made eye contact left quickly.

Max petted Pompidou and tried to look harmless while warily surveying the small, very gradually dispersing crowd.

Once most folks weren't looking anymore an old Native guy in a leather jacket with deus pascit corvos embroidered on the back shuffled up to them, glancing over his shoulder once or twice. "Hey, uh, you two? I've seen both of you around here before and I just wanted to say you're doing alright. I was here visiting my brother and that guy was there the whole time talking to himself and he was starting to give me the creeps."

"Hey, thanks man!" Max's adrenaline said. "Guy was a total fucking asshole. I wouldn't know what I would've had to do without Frank here to help." The adrenaline slapped Frank on the back a bit harder than Max would've liked, forcing him to stumble a bit. She looked at them both. "Who was that, anyway?"

Frank adjusted his shirt and pants. "Some dweeb Chloe used to hang out with. He Nice Guyed her for a while but after Rachel came into the picture he went from pest to megacreeper in no time. I noticed it before, but he'd always conveniently slink away when either I or another guy was around."

The new old guy cringed. "Sounds pretty awful. And he was visiting her grave?"

Max squared her shoulders on him. "You knew Chloe?"

The way he threw his hands up palms forward indicated to Max that her body language might've been a bit too enthusiastic. "Oh, no, I didn't even know her name until your friend said it. It was pretty easy to add two and two together, listening to what he was going on about and now hearing that he was a jilted unrequited lover of some sort."

Frank opened his mouth to speak, but Max interjected a bit more loudly and hastily than one would like, "Please do not tell us what he said."

"Fair enough! Just glad I don't have to listen to any more of it now." The man extended his hand. "Name's Ty. Tyler Corbett."

Max shook his hand first, leaving Frank annoyedly hanging for a few seconds until Max remembered to disengage and Ty could shake his hand. "Max Caulfield."

"Frank."

"Pleasure to meet you all. But I should get back to my brother - a bird took a dump on his headstone and I feel like I've got a family duty to help clean it up, however fittingly ironic it might be to leave it there." He took his leave and disappeared behind a stone angel.

After Ty disappeared Max looked at Frank. "Were those really your flowers?"

He shrugged. "No idea who put them there, but they've got my thanks."

By the time they got back to Chloe's grave the adrenaline was starting to wear off, which meant that Max managed to stand there in quiet, dignified stoicism for maybe five seconds before the tears began uncontrollably coming out and she fell back onto her usual spot by the headstone, crying softly and repeatedly apologizing to Chloe for failing to protect her again from having had to hear all that crap. Pompidou went over to comfort her while Frank stood about in a pained uselessness with his hands in his jacket pockets.

Frank waited for a bit after Max eventually regained her composure. "So, uh, you might want to take things a bit easy for the rest of the day, that kind of show gets a bit of getting used to. You might have some dreams tonight about it too, just let it pass, that's normal."

Max sniffed, nodded and stood up. He would later prove to be right about that, though he probably wouldn't have known that the doppelganger would have been involved, trying to convince Max of very similar things to what Eliot said. Unfortunately for it, Max had fewer worries about getting arrested in her own nightmares and long story short it is possible to learn how to throw a punch in a dream.

It was Frank's turn to talk. "So, uh, I never know what to say, so here's the latest on the guys that killed Rachel, from what I've heard from some guys who were in court lately. They're still doing preliminary hearings for both of them. Their lawyers are each trying to throw the other one under the bus, but so far Prescott's winning." He made the "give me money" gesture as he said that last bit. "Jefferson's up to some weird shit while he's inside - I've been hearing about some drama but I don't want to say any more, let's not get our hopes up just yet. Whatever happens, it doesn't look like he's seeing the outside anytime soon..."

As he spoke Max got the impression that the information was as much for her as it was for Chloe.

They eventually headed out and Max spoke again. "Why did we get so angry at that guy anyway? He obviously wasn't right in the head and nothing he said was true." She started reciting snippets of poetry in her head to drown out the long, loud "Well, actually..." spiel from the (as yet unpunched) doppelganger voice in her head.

Pompidou started sniffing around a nearby headstone. There was a white and red beanie placed haphazardly on it. Max took a picture.

Frank watched his dog investigate and eventually return to him, then spoke. "It's not like she wasn't rash, aggressive, ill-tempered and very quick to insult people with one hell of a knack for getting under their skin. So at least where his... material... touches on that, there's some impression of truth that makes things sting. But on the whole, I think the biggest thing is that he's not just venting, but trying to weaponize his own beliefs about Chloe to try to justify himself at her expense. When someone does that with someone you care about, it's real fuckin' easy to react to it like they're literally being attacked. He tried something similar with Rachel back in the day - Chloe never really did much besides try to de-escalate, but I think we were all a bit more secure back then. Rachel damn well knew how to speak for herself, and I thought it was funny to just not sell to him and tell him if he ever wanted to see a joint again all he had to do was ask Rachel for a freebie."

"This sounds like it's been going on for a long time."

"Nah, he left Blackwell a month after the first time I told him that. Never knew what happened to him, never cared. Today was the first time I'd seen him since then."

"He seems dangerous. We should keep an eye out for this guy."

Frank almost responded to that, but noticed the odd expression that grew on Max's face a second after she said those words followed by her avoiding eye contact.

Two figures were approaching them. They looked like Blackwell students, though Max didn't recognize them - but the people at Blackwell she wouldn't recognize in weekend clothes could easily populate a negligibly smaller Blackwell.

Slightly ahead of the other was a brunette with jeans and a purple T-shirt featuring a band Max only vaguely remembered, over which she wore a sky-blue wool duster and an ornate dragon pendant. Her hair was messed up at the top, like she'd just been wearing a hat, haphazardly framing an expressive (at the moment pensive and annoyed) face that Max could easily watch talk for hours.

With her was a young man, tall and lean, with delicate features just barely growing into the full bloom of manhood. Max watched his long loping strides, the walk of someone who had finally learned to be comfortable in his own skin but was at that moment just a little too lost in his thoughts to be too relaxed in the open. His khakis were off-brand but carefully pressed and fit well; the front of his black dress shirt was tucked into it, the top couple buttons undone revealing three pendants: a cross, a dragon and a raven. She couldn't quite see his eyes at this distance, as light reflected off a stylish but not overbearing glasses.

"So you have no memory of taking it off at all?"

"I mean, I must have at some point, but actually doing it? Not a thing."

The young man looked somewhere behind Max. "You might've hung it on that tree next to the grave, but I don't see—" he lurched forwards as his feet abruptly planted themselves on the ground. The woman looked where he was looking and came to a slightly more graceful abrupt halt.

Awkward silence. They stared at Frank and Frank stared at them.

"...Frank."

Frank hesitated, but the way he momentarily broke eye contact suggested he'd simply forgotten the speaker's name. "Mikey." He shifted his weight. "Long time no see."

For a while there was an awkward silence as no one really knew what was appropriate to say to each other. It was so long that Max surreptitiously hard-rewound a few seconds before breaking it. "Hi. Are you guys friends of Chloe's?"

"Yeah. We are." The brunette cautiously turned towards Max, glancing briefly at her camera. "I don't think we've met though? Did you use to go to Blackwell?"

"I just started this year, actually. Chloe and I knew each other from before. She... why are you two looking at me like that?"

"Holy shit! I never thought I'd actually meet the Max Caulfield!"

"Yeah, Chloe used to talk about you all the time!"

The author of this fic did not have a proper word for Max's expression that fit better than the "D:" emoticon. "I... I'm... glad I can meet you as well then." She winced. "Can I... ask what she said?"

For a moment the brunette looked distraught on Max's behalf, then she tilted her head and watched Max's expression again and her own expression softened. "Hey, don't worry, she didn't go into horrible lurid embarrassing details about childhood memories or anything, you just kinda came up every now and then during our D&D sessions."

Max did that thing where she'd grab one arm with the other hand. "Really? She must've been angry—"

"Not at all", interjected Mikey. "But she did mention you were a bit of the self-deprecating type. I've seen my share of that, so, uh, don't mind my interrupting you just there."

"Yeah, it was more of a 'aww man if only Max were around to see this!' or 'Max would totally rock this swashbuckler/assassin gestalt build!' kind of thing."

"Swashbuckler assassin, huh. About time Chloe recognized how hardcore I was. Man, it would've been cool to have gotten together for a game..."

The brunette looked Max up and down. "Hey, not too late now! We're just in town for the weekend but I am running an online game on Sunday nights over IRC and VoIP if you're interested." She took a step forward and extended her hand. "Name's Steph by the way."

Max shook her hand. "Y... yeah, that'd be cool! Let's talk about this more tonight and tomorrow."

Steph was already taking out her phone with her free hand. "Alright, our new ninja pirate DPS! Give me your number and I'll send you the details." She glanced over at Frank. "You know, not a single thing Chloe said about you would've had me expecting to see you hanging out with Frank, so I'm guessing one of you must have changed a lot since Mikey and I lived in the Bay. You want in too?"

Frank crossed his arms and feigned a scowl. "Nah, no time for all this nerd shit. No way between the clients and the new attention from the pigs I'm gonna re-learn what THAC0 means all over again..."

Steph's face lit up in that special way that nature gave us to let people nearby brace for an infodump. "Actually..."

This could have gone on for some time, had about half a paragraph into Steph's explanation Mikey not already wandered off in the direction of Chloe's grave and—"Hey! What the... who destroyed our flowers!?"

Max and Frank looked at each other. Frank stepped forward. "Uh, yeah, sorry about those. I kinda had to use them for, well—"

"He threw them at some creep who was messing with Chloe's grave when we were trying to get him to leave. If you hadn't left that flower pot there things might've gone a lot worse for us. So thanks, Mikey."

"But that doesn't explain why all the petals were ripped off!"

"That wasn't us, that was the creep. I just threw the rest at him after."

Steph scowled. "What the fuck? Who would bother doing that to Chloe of all people?"

"Remember Eliot?"

Mikey and Steph looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Max and Pompidou looked at each other with the shared sense of resigned exasperation at being privy to a group injoke for which one had nothing close to enough context to get.


"It's getting late. We should get out of here."

"Frank, it's barely past 3 PM. This is a perfect time to go."

"Well, I'm just, fuckin', like, concerned and shit, it's getting dark."

"What are you talking about? The cemetery closes at 10."

Frank opened his mouth to speak and then shut it. He refused to make eye contact with her.

I killed her.

You killed her.

So fuckin' high and mighty now, huh Max? You can totally hang this over him. What you did was right and what he did was wrong. You won.

He's obviously too chickenshit to face what he's really done - just like you, really. Come on, drag him over, make him shit himself, it'll be fun!

I'm suggesting this all for your best interests, you know. You need a break from all this bullshit, and you know I'm going to enjoy fucking him up a lot less than you will.

Look at that. Look at you, just drooling over the chance to show the world you're a Good Person. Worse than a goddamn junkie. Go, drag Frank's ass into the natural consequences of his actions. What kind of an asshole pushes an already-wounded man like this? Who does this?

At those last words Max could only remember Chloe weeping at the junkyard.

"I'm going to visit Rachel."

A few seconds after Max started walking away she could hear footsteps behind her.


It was almost on the other side of the cemetery: James and Rose had their own plans and none of them involved Chloe.

The pair stood by either side of her grave awkwardly, Frank slouched with his hands in his jacket pockets, Max with one arm crossed over her body grabbing her other arm. She hadn't planned on this at all and had no idea what to say. She closed her eyes in thought. Hey Rachel. I, uh, wish we could've met. Thank you for everything you've done for Chloe. I hope—

She couldn't hear herself after that, as Frank's voice snapped her out of her reverie. She saw him kneeling by her grave, forehead almost on the ground where she was buried, blubbering a stream of variations of "oh God Rachel I'm so sorry" over and over.

Well, well, well. If it isn't the consequences of my own actions. What a piece of shit. He. Killed. Her. And he's sorry? No, that doesn't cut it. It's never going to be anything but the lie he made it out to be in the end. None of this crying does shit and he knows it, but is too much of a piece of shit to own it right. Kinda reminds you of someone, doesn't he, Max. You dumbass. You piece of shit.

Max turned away and stepped around, making sure the grass rustled over her mumbling. "It's not about me. Let Frank mourn." She kept looking away from him, over the darkening expanse of crosses and corpses and angels, back the way they had come.

...and he's still going at it. Holy shit, what a useless, little, stupid man. Boo hoo, poor little rich drug dealer can't keep his pants on, Rachel Amber's dead, such sad, okay—

The voice had faded from Max's to Chloe's before abruptly stopping.

Max's head hurt and the ground felt like it was swaying. She sat down and Pompidou came up to her trying to provide some kind of support.

She took a moment to regain her focus. The voice was gone.

She turned back to Frank. He'd recovered at some point while Max was dealing with her headache and was now giving Rachel a similar update to what he'd told Chloe.

"...can't say too much, I guess Price might be telling you some of this already, fuck I don't know how that would even work, but we're doing what we can to make sure those fuckers never see the light of day again. I'm pulling all the favours I can, but a lot of other folks have been all wait-and-see while there's still media and lawyers fluttering around. Fuckin' scumbags, the lot of them, no offen—well, I suppose you wouldn't mind me saying that, would you?"

Max gave Pompidou headpats and they stood up. He ran over by Frank and sat next to him, sniffing at the gravestone.

Frank continued speaking for a while, giving some updates about some people whose names Max didn't recognize. Eventually he ran out of things to say, and there was a brief silence. "So I guess this is goodbye again. For now." He looked at Pompidou, then back at the headstone. "We'll be back soon, if you'll have me." He briefly glanced at Max before turning to Pompidou again and sighing. "Come on," he said, finding his usual cranky tired gruff voice again, "let's go."

They did not move.

Max's mind wandered and she became conscious of the wilted, brown bouquet on top of the grave, crinkly and yellowed, blending into the unkempt grass. The golden-hour interweave of light and shadow against the headstone was a tantalizing photo op, which Max would have taken if Frank weren't standing right there, turning his gaze towards it himself and picking it up and brushing away the bits that had fallen onto the headstone. The cleanup done, he started walking away and Max followed.

"Has anyone been here recently?"

Frank was staring at the remains of the flowers. "That cocksucker kept the funeral details private. I didn't even know the date, didn't even know it happened, until a mutual friend of ours told me almost a week later. According to her, maybe eight people showed up at the service including her parents, Principal Wells and the funeral director." He looked at her. "Yeah, I think I made the same face too when she told me."

Dana. Trevor. Victoria. Wells. Warren. Kate. David. Joyce. Frank. Herself. All for the forgotten, disposable girl who died on the Blackwell bathroom floor. "What the fuck? I don't get it, wasn't she... she was like this superstar of Arcadia Bay, the way people talked about her!"

Frank grunted and looked back the flowers. "Okay, maybe not quite the same face. You're young, Max. Still idealistic about what people are like. How people ought to stick around. How maybe this shithole town might be capable of more than just sucking you dry and throwing you away." He stopped for a moment. "Fact is, she'd been gone from all these people's lives for six months" - he turned towards some bushes - "and the way people work" - he threw the flowers into the bushes - "she was already dead to them. Wait, Pompidou, no—fine." He took the flowers back and Pompidou wagged his tail.

"But surely she had more friends than that!"

"'Friends' is a pretty meaningless term these days. Rachel wasn't like you or me or Chloe. She always had a gift for saying the right thing at the right time to the right people. There were only a few of us who she ever opened up to with anything else - and that included both Chloe and me, and even then" - Frank changed direction - "it always felt like a guessing game whether we knew, whether there was a question of whether we knew, what she was ever really up to." As they walked Max noticed the garbage can. "Towards the end Chloe and I were... well, the couple times we did talk, we were at each other's throats about which one of us really knew who she was and what she wanted."

Frank successfully discarded the flowers. They stood there for a second before leaving: the moment the flowers touched the bin, they both had the sudden thought that these dead plants had stayed with Rachel for so long in their absence that they deserved at least the respect of a moment of silence.

They eventually went back to the RV.

As Frank was unlocking the door Max broke the silence. "So how many people do you think would be at your funeral, Frank?"

He shrugged. "Fuckin' hell, if I'm lucky Pompidou can use my body for food before he learns to catch his own and runs off into the bush." He opened the door and let Pompidou run in before taking a step.

Frank paused with one foot in the RV and one on the asphalt, then turned to look at Max. "Hey, you don't mind dogs, right?"

Chapter Text

She felt in turn chosen and damned, cherished daughter of God and terrible child of the devil.

—Paul Lachance, Angela of Foligno: Complete Works

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Juliet! What are you doing here?"

She found her sitting on the teacher's desk, hunched over her DSLR fiddling with settings and looking at a small pile of printouts on her lap covered in handwritten notes and highlights. "Oh hi Max! I'm taking this class now! I met Lu back when she did the story on the 2010 wildfire and when Victoria forwarded her email to me I couldn't resist!"

Max didn't have the spoons to talk about Victoria right then, or try to figure out what the fuck happened that would've gotten these two talking to each other civilly in this timeline, so: "She's that good?"

"She cares about learning the truth and documenting it, at least." Juliet made a face. "Look, I know it's gonna sound dickish in retrospect, but I never had a good feeling about how Mr. Jefferson approached photography - we've got this great technology for documenting things the way they really are and he's just all about the 'art', you know?"

"Well, I..." Juliet's dismissive tone about the power of photography as art rather than documentation was honestly getting under her skin, but no way in any alternate universe nightmare hell was she going to say anything that could begin to be construed as defending anything Jefferson did. "Yeah. Good to have you in the class, Juliet."

Click. Apparently Juliet took Max's smile of truce as an invitation to a picture. "Hey, she posted right on the door!"

"Yeah, I know. 'By entering this classroom you consent to have your image taken and possibly posted online. Talk to Ms. Cheang before you leave to opt out of the latter.'" The message had been printed in large typeface, with a border covered in appallingly cringeous slightly misused memes, awkwardly large whitespace and a wilfully miskerned and rescaled mix of Papyrus and Comic Sans. It was impossible for anyone born after 1980 to pass by that and not feel a terrible disturbance in the Force demanding their attention. "But that doesn't mean you have to take the shot!"

"Just trying to get some practice in! How much of the class have I missed, like two months? Gotta learn to 'always take the shot', like Mr. J—"

"Yyyyeeah, maybe let's not go with what that guy said."

"Sorry, Max!" Juliet sounded adequately, thus forgivably, distressed. Max had tried to cover her reaction with a tone of jocular distate, but apparently that didn't quite stick.

They looked at the preview. Juliet had moved too fast, while it was a heavily overcast day and most of their lighting was from the fluorescent lights in the room, so the whole thing was an unusable blur.

"Oof", offered Alyssa looking over their shoulders. "I've been having the same problem trying to catch the fish in the science room while they're chasing each other. I always have to set the ISO so high that everything's all grainy and looks like crap. I hope Ms. Cheang's got some tips for us."

"Ugh, yeah I know, right? And I just got this camera last week, too... how do you do it, Max?"

Max blinked. The only photo of those fish she had was from That Week, but it had turned out pretty good. "I... guess I just have a gut feeling for it?" If no one asked of her, she knew; if she wished to explain to her who asked, she knew not.

Another voice passed by somewhere behind them, reading something aloud to herself. "'If, then, time present — if it be time — only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be — namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to—' holy shit everyone's here!? I thought I still had five minutes!" She looked at her phone again. "Or not!" She muted her phone and pocketed it, then approached the three girls who were standing right by her desk. "Not bad, Juliet, very Francis Bacon Pope Innocent X. Alright everyone, I'm gonna start the lecture so please have a seat!"

Lu pulled out the big DSLR and took shots of everyone heading to their seats. Juliet took Victoria's old spot. Max noted that Jefferson's work was completely gone from the walls, replaced with a distinctly more chaotic aggregation of works from a variety of photographers, as well as copies of articles and editorial cartoons. There were quite a few more football action shots among the photos than she would have expected.

"Alright, now that we're all here, welcome to—Daniel why are you sitting like that?"

He turned around to face her. "Mr. Jefferson would normally lecture while wandering in the space in the middle."

She ran a hand down her face. "Hoo boy. That is hella weird even by Mark standards. But I guess I can" - she looked at the pile of binders, papers and equipment on her desk - "actually Daniel if you can do me a huge, huge favour and sit between Alyssa and Kate so we can have a horseshoe going here?"

"Absolutely, Ms. Cheang!"

Max was happy for this change - the uncanny eye patches on the back of Lu's battle jacket were sort of starting to get on her nerves. She couldn't help but notice a couple of the Halloween eyes were still on, and Principal Wells must have finally talked her into covering up the anarchy patch. (There was now a nametag sticker covering it with "Blackwell Academy" written in black marker: Blackwell logo B, A with a long crossbar with the C overlapping and almost not quite encircling it.) The beanie was gone, replaced with a grey newsboy cap that had three pins stuck on the side: another Eye of Horus, a chubby blob-like cartoon penguin and Mjolnir. Max knew from their past interactions that the matching hemp cargo skirt held a compact mirrorless camera, a flexible tripod, a knife, spare batteries, cords, adapters and enough energy bars to feed a small family for a day. Between this knee-length skirt and the scuffed black Doc Martens one could just recognize the pattern of her leggings, which today were—

It just had to be blue butterflies, didn't it.

Everyone had just barely settled into the new configuration when Zach burst into the room.

"Hey! Ms. Cheang! You left your water bottle in the gym!"

"Oh hey, thanks Zach!" He handed her a black water bottle with a Cradle of Filth sticker on it.

"No prob! Great working with you, ma'am." He turned to the class. "Hey, you guys are frickin' lucky, this chick is way cooler than Jefferson. Take care!" Ms. Cheang watched him leave just long enough for Stella and Hayden to exchange glances, and Juliet to glare daggers at her.

The delay was also just barely long enough for Max's heart to begin to stop pounding. Stop. Kate was sitting right there, waiting for Ms. Cheang to start. Breathe. Kate turned to look at her, whereupon she realized she was staring, smiled and waved a shy wave. Everything's fine.

Except for all the usual stuff that was definitely not fine. But back to class.

"Okay! So! Hi everyone, thank you all for coming, I think I've had a chance to talk to each of you here so no need for a lengthy introduction, I'm Lu, while in class you can call me Lu or Ms. Cheang or whatever you're comfortable with, and I'm here to completely reinvent the Language of Photography curriculum on the fly and hope you still get whatever it was you thought your scholarships were paying for."

"Actually, Ms. Cheang, I'm pretty sure not all of us here were able to get a scholarship." The prevailing Blackwell culture had developed a certain distinction between the kids from the good, established families whose parents could afford the fees, and those who had to get in on what the former considered to be other people's money. Stella's "were able" was understood by everyone in the room to be a shot fired.

"You're right, Stella. And I am flattered that Juliet had gone out of her way to take this class so late into the year only because I started teaching it!" Awkward fingerguns! "Okay, but seriously, I've looked at your files and it turns out every other student in this room right now is on an art scholarship. And—" Lu took a sip from the bottle, which was then placed on her desk (and no one thereafter could say whether she did this intentionally or not) at an angle that revealed on its other side an embossed logo for the Watson Endowment for the Visual Arts. "I think that's all I'm going to say on that topic!"

The elephant in the room that was shaped just like a Victoria-shaped void smouldered invisibly.

"Before I start teaching anything, though, let's consider what I even should be teaching. I want us to go back to that questionnaire, and look at the most basic and hardest item on that list: Why are you even here? Or how did I put it" - she grabbed the black binder on her desk and flipped to the page, idly fiddling with her camera while she scanned the lines - "'What is/was your primary motivation for enrolling in the Language of Photography class? (Honest answers only, "I don't know" is valid if you try to speculate why, maximum 1000 words, minimum 17 syllables).'" She tossed the binder aside. "I regret to report not a single one of you took me up on—"

A paper rustled somewhere to her left. The rustler put down her pencil. "A thousand words in / A single click: Memory / A perfected Art."

"Damn, Alyssa, did you just make that up on the spot? That's hardcore."

"Not entirely, I was giving some thought to it earlier. It's a bit rough."

"Hey, I know people who spend months tweaking a syllable in these things. Two weeks over an email is no time."

Daniel said nothing but he did jot down a few notes.

"So yes - art and photography, memory and words! A couple of you wanted to do this to inform your other artistic pursuits" - two clicks of her camera, only long after which Max realized that their teacher had intentionally wandered over to a spot where she could get both Daniel and Kate in the frame - "and at least one of you wanted to learn the journalistic side of things" - Juliet perked up, all prior Zach-related trespasses either forgiven or forgotten, and the click came a split-second later to resolve the movement of her hair - "and the rest of you had something that boiled down to 'I want to be a photographer'." She gestured at the class with her camera. "Quick show of hands, who here takes photographs?"

All hands but one went up. Ms. Cheang reached out with her left hand, pointing and feigning counting, while with her right hand she took shots of everyone with their hands up, never even looking at her camera. She smirked as she noticed her poor sleight of hand was mocked with a jeering tongue of film extending from the mouth of the ersatz eye of the one person who didn't raise her hand.

"Excellent, every person in this room is already a photographer! I am so good at this job... Okay, but seriously, there's no photographer's bar exam, there's no College of Cameramen, no Hogwarts School of Pictures and Imagery, if all you leave this class with is the confidence to take the shots you want without the approval of anything handed down to you by some artsy-fartsy authority figure then I'll take that as an unmitigated success."

Max remembered her time at the Zeitgeist. That glorious opening that she felt in the universe when she stepped into that gallery, that lofty moment of revelation at what could be... could she ever replicate that now? Was it some freak one-off that let her do it? The longer it had been, the more it felt like a mere vision, a daemoniac fantastique of something that not only should not but could never be.

Max! Holy shit, man, your vision! It's... it's true! You saw the tornado, it's coming!

I'm so fucking scared! I'm... I'm by the beach, I'm stuck in—

She was aware of the teacher talking. Why did the lecture start to remind her of Jefferson all of a sudden?

Jesus, it's like you're back in my class. You're still spacing out...

The illusion left as soon as it came. She heard Hayden's slow, meandering voice drone out some question or other, after Ms. Cheang had just finished saying something about... crucifying the Mona Lisa? What!?

Maybe she should try to catch whatever it was Lu actually said. Rewind.

Just one little change.

"...to your audience, to your editor, to your publisher, to your camera, to your photo processing software, to yourself. If I had my way this class would be nothing but practicum and we'd have lots of fun with it, but I guarantee that a lot of these lectures will involve boring wordy book stuff too, so don't worry! By the time you're out of here you should practically have learned a new language that lets you sound like the intelligentsia and ekphrasize your way into getting money from elite clubs to scam them into letting you do the stuff that you want."

A click, and someone's confused face was captured in a piece of time. "Look it up on wiki, I've put up the spelling and a printout of two very different samples somewhere around here - look for the Mona Lisa and a crucifix."

A hand. "So, uh, how are we going to be graded? Do we need to memorize a lot of terminology or something? Because that doesn't sound all that chill or artistic." A valiant effort, Hayden; it might even have worked, if she'd been trying that hard to be literally everything Jefferson wasn't.

"I'll explain my system later. Don't worry, all assignments will be open-book." She pulled out her phone and started pressing buttons. "That said, this is the perfect pivot to my next topic: what to expect in this class. This morning I emailed everyone a list of my expectations for this class, so grab your phone if you want to follow along.

"First, my promise to you guys: I intend to take each of you seriously as artists and aspiring professionals. I'll give you whatever information I think will help you improve your art, and offer any assistance that I can. I won't babysit your progress, or push you beyond what you're ready or willing to deal with, nor try to mould you into anything you don't want to be. I'm not going to second guess anything one of you tells me unless an interested party is telling me something different."

"But you said earlier that as people interested in the truth we needed to question everything!"

Kate looked up from her oddly elaborate hierglyph-like hammer-wielding penguin. "When did Miss Cheang say that?"

"I think Juliet is referring to our conversation from yesterday. Yeah, sorry about that, I shouldn't have relied on that cliché. There's a time and place for everything and I've seen people take 'question everything' to real toxic extremes. God knows Mark's 'always take the shot' mantra unleashed some of the most pestilent sort of paparazzi... anyway, yes, do question things, don't take anything for granted without having at least considered why you should trust your source. But at some point you'll run into a wall where your prodding and uncovering is going to do a lot more hurt than good. Sometimes the right answer to your question is 'there's nothing you can or ought to do here to help and you need to leave this alone'."

We have to save everyone...

Ms. Cheang seemed to watch Juliet's reaction. The DSLR hung limp and untouched. She then looked at her phone and unlocked it. She scrolled a screen or two.

Kate held her drawing and glanced up at her, then at Max who tried to defuse the awkward pause by pointing at the drawing and giving a thumbs up.

"Right. Boundaries! Expectations... I've got a few specific things I'd like everyone in class to do." She quickly went through the list from the email:

  • Please raise your hand if you need to interrupt me while I'm giving a lecture.
  • Please leave the room if you need to take a call or text someone (and please just leave, don't interrupt me just to ask for permission). [As if to illustrate the point, Stella's phone went off and she hastily shuffled out the door.]
  • Do not judge anyone for asking a stupid question, or not knowing the answer to a question. [Brief student interjections over what counted as a stupid question. Ms. Cheang was then given the unenviable task of explaining the concept now known as sealioning, almost a whole year before the sea lion comic came out.]
  • If you need to chat with me alone in person I am leaving that door open.
  • If we're at a party or schmoozing event, every person must watch their own drink at all times - take it into the bathroom with you if need be. [Brief teacher apology that maybe this one was too graphic. Max half worried about Kate having to engage in emotional labour again.]
  • Under no circumstances is one student to call out another student for "chimping". [Explaining the term ended up in a tangent that resulted in brief heated debate between Hayden, Evan, Alyssa and Max about the merits of mechanical versus purely digital viewfinders, which ended abruptly when they noticed that Ms. Cheang was quietly taking pictures of them talk.]

She then moved on to the grading system:

( A + B - C ) / ( D + E )
where:

A = classes in which I see you here*
B = assignments for which you hand me at least 1 photo that you took for it
C = times I've caught you trash-talking another student, in or out of class, for which no bona fide apology has been issued
D = classes in which I'm here
E = assignments I give out

*you have to convince me you're actually trying to attend the class, though, don't just walk in, wave at me and walk out. I will not penalize legitimate emergencies so talk to me if you have one.

"So Ms. Cheang, can I ask what is meant by, a 'legitimate' 'emergency'?" Thereafter Max would not remember if Hayden actually airquoted with his fingers or if he'd just let the little pauses in his voice do the work.

"Discretionary", she said without missing a beat. "But basically, if it's because someone died, or might die, or if it's medi—" she squinted at him for a split second - "or if a doctor or a nurse says you should skip this class, I'll count you as having attended anyway.

"As you can see, the quality of your work has no effect on your grade. If you didn't want to be a better photographer you wouldn't be here, and I want that, and not any bullshit academic hoop-jumping, to still be your motivation after this. We're all trying to learn, so I'm intentionally making it zero-stakes so you're free to fuck up and learn from experience." Ms. Cheang paused, apparently noticing the looks on a few people's faces, and smirked. "I may deduct marks if any of you complains to Wells about my language."

She put away her phone. "So with all that said, any questions?"


Lu was pleased with how the questions went - more or less in the direction of what she'd prepared for the substantive part of the lecture anyway. Too bad Max didn't say more about the aesthetic side of things, but the interplay between Evan, Kate, Alyssa, Daniel and Juliet about what it meant to frame, to focus and exclude, and what it even means to tell "the" truth from a very imperfect vantage point was exactly in the direction she'd wanted the class to think about.

A couple sex, religion and politics tangents. Good.

At one point Stella said something about the Second Commandment and Kate started saying something about the images making present what they depict, when suddenly she conceded the argument with no reason given and Max had her hand half raised looking extremely uncomfortable. Lu hastily diverted the discussion to the problem of colonialism in beauty norms, eventually making everyone uncomfortable in a much less drastic and more pedogogically constructive fashion, and thereafter never figured out what happened to cause Kate to abort that discussion.

Stella was in the middle of a gruesome horror story about a skin whitening cream her second cousin tried to use one time when Lu's phone buzzed with the timer warning. She checked the phone and winced, then waited for the horrified reactions to the conclusion of Stella's story to die down, before interrupting what was no doubt Hayden about to say something gratuitous about appreciating sexy dark-skinned women. "Guys, we've got ten minutes left but I haven't even gotten to the second half of what I'd wanted to cover today, about privacy and consent to use one's image. So I'm just going to email you all the articles and extracts of the legislation as your assigned reading for next class" - she waited for the exaggerated groans to finish - "and you can email me with any questions."

Max became conscious of the fact that Lu didn't even try to take a picture of the class groaning: in fact, she'd been holding the camera pointed at herself since her phone had gone off. "So, quick poll, who here wants me to try to blast through a really shitty rush job of this part, and who here wants to watch me go through my cringeworthily large collection of bad shots from today looking for the good ones?"

Some murmuring. A couple clicks from Lu's camera as she listened and interjected here and there, until...

"Ms. Cheang, did you just take a selfie in the middle of class?"

"Very astute, Mr. Harris." She held up her camera by the lens. "This is, in fact, your assignment for next class: take a selfie, but make it look like a candid. How realistic or unflattering you're willing to go is entirely up to you." She passed her camera around and everyone present saw the preview of the most recent shot: a perfectly focussed, awkwardly cropped, perversely low-angled image of herself oblivious and mush-faced with her mouth open. The word "oof" was used.

Max took the camera from Juliet and remembered to breathe. This isn't about you. Okay, maybe it could be, but if so she means well. You're safe here. Breathe.

The murmuring voices of Victoria, Jefferson and her double grew louder.

But no storm.

"Uh... Max?" Oh yeah. Right. She handed the camera over to Kate, who looked and blinked once before passing it over to Alyssa who contributed a yikes.

Lu took back the camera. "I see it got the reaction I wanted. Now imagine that was you, and someone else took the shot without you knowing. Then do the assigned readings, ideally in the context of Hillel's condensed edition of the Torah."

She looked at the selfie again and blinked. "Actually, that's pretty much the core of what I wanted to cover, isn't it. Everyone's free to go, but I'm going to be sorting through today's shots during lunch and you're free to stick around. Just remember the note on the door." She walked over to the computer at the back, then turned around to see Stella and Hayden still seated, staring at her, holding their packed bags. "Uh... class... dismissed?"

Stella bolted while rapidly typing on her phone. Hayden gave slow, relaxed "Have a good one!" as he sauntered out.

Daniel's phone buzzed. He looked at the text and raised his eyebrows. "Ms. Cheang, I would have loved to see this final demonstration of your work, but it seems Logan wants to have a word with me?"

"Go, I'll hold off on uploading this dramatically backlit shot of you until you've had a chance to vet it. And let me know exactly how it goes down." Lu punched in something on her own phone and sat down at the computer.

Alyssa went after him. "I'm coming with. I don't trust these guys..."

Once they were gone Juliet, Kate, Evan and Max were left to crowd around the computer. Before they settled in Juliet and Kate talked over each other asking Lu what on earth that was about.

"If all goes well, nothing short of a proper apology." Lu turned over her camera and pulled out the SD card. "As you may have noticed, I've been doing a few promotional shots for the Bigfoots. This started over a week ago when I managed to catch them at practice. I introduced myself and spent a few minutes reassuring them that I meant no harm. I told them, in front of Coach Lochbaum, that I thought that the bad blood that had developed between the arts and the sports student circles was a disgrace to Blackwell and completely unlike the excellent sports photography program I enjoyed in high school - this was before Mark, of course - and I wished to repair a few bridges with a fresh start." She stuck the card into the reader. "After a few comparisons of Mark's posed works with them and some of my best action shots of their most hated rivals, they agreed. In return for casting the Bigfoots in a much better light then they have been in the past few years, after day or two I politely suggested a few of them begin making amends with some of those of our number." She opened up the file browser and navigated to the SD card. "Inevitably there was some resistance, at which point Mr. Madsen was seen passing by: whereupon I loudly greeted him on a familiar first-name basis, ran up to him and returned the locker room keys that I had borrowed from him, which he accepted graciously. I trust that the security camera bauble that had still been attached to the back of my jacket at that time finished conveying the intended warning. They seemed a little more willing to bargain after that."

Juliet frowned. "That... sounds kinda creepy."

"Hella creepy. And deliberately so." Lu opened up the bad selfie - it looked even more awful on the screen, with its eerily perfect focus right up one nostril and a slight motion blur that looked like something stuck in her teeth - and then switched to the Web browser and navigated to her profile on the Blackwell website featuring a dramatic, intricate greyscale portrait of her looking up at the camera while holding a silver platter with two vintage cameras and a couple rolls of film on it. She resized the window so this picture stood side by side with the bad selfie. "Never forget the power we have."

She waited a moment for the contrast between the three images of her to sink in before she closed the Web browser and opened up the other pictures.

The first few shots on the card were less than impressive: motion blurs, cropped heads, unintentional Dutch angles as Lu had been warming up rapidly snapping at nothing in particular. And yet, looking at them in sequence Max felt like she could hear the chairs moving all over again.

Things got a bit more sane as Lu started intentionally singling people out. It was oddly fascinating watching what parts of their desk arrangements each person tended to look at first as they took their seat - and who was or wasn't planning on taking any notes.

Lu skipped her curiously moody shot of Daniel, as promised, and moved on to the picture after it.

"That's my new profile picture!"

"Glad you like it, Kate! You're kinda out of focus though..."

"You mean you didn't mean to focus on the drawing?"

"...I'm wasting a huge amount of goodwill admitting that it was the autofocus, aren't I?"

Intentions or goodwill or not, a cropped version of this shot heavily emphasizing the drawing eventually made it to Kate's online portfolio.

"No disrespect, Lu, but I look like a dork in this one."

"You look happy!"

"Maybe, but she also looks a total keener."

"Alyssa, remember my grading system. Kate, thank you for your support. I think I'd caught Juliet off guard with the sudden attention in my lecture. I like it, but... you're both righ—noticing something important," she caught herself before calling poor Juliet a dork and a keener, "it doesn't sit well as a picture on its own, like you'd intentionally posed that way. If this went up anywhere I would definitely put up a caption with some context."

It ultimately did not go up anywhere.

The "everyone's a photographer" Rambo streak fell far short of the virtuosic stunt Lu was hoping for. The compositions were just not there, the lines never quite doing anything - except for one shot, where everyone's arms seemed to form a garden path leading up to Max's camera, in stark focus and pointing directly at Lu's.

Max was surprised at how wounded her pride felt when she seriously thought about using this as a profile picture instead of one of her own selfies. But then Lu turned towards her: "Well Max, now that I've shown you mine..."

The framing effect of everyone's arms was even more obvious in Max's picture. The barely noticeable motion blur of Lu's free hand implied an additional top to the frame, bringing the viewer's attention straight into the lens that just happened to be pointed directly at Max's camera.

If it weren't for the camera she would have looked like she was conducting a choir.

Lu opened up her profile page on the Blackwell website again. She took Max's shot and held it up where her original picture was. "May I—"

"Yes."

Into the scanner it went.

They got to the candid shots from the Great Ape Debate. Lots of duplicate shots, but each person had at least one of them that was cleanly focussed, comprehensibly composed and not immediately evocative of a cartoon smear frame. Each participant present praised the photos of every other participant, and hated their own: a compromise was reached, in which each agreed to have their own posted, as long as the others also were.

Lu reserved judgment on her selfie.

 


 

He’s been talking like this since he showed up—places that never were, things that can’t be, omens and portents. I figure it’s bullshit because he’s telling it to me, a kid whose own mama kicked him out and prays for him to die every day and probably hates me. God hates me. And I fucking hate God back, so why would he choose me for anything? But that’s really why I start paying attention: because of God. I don’t have to believe in something for it to fuck up my life.

“Tell me what to do,” I say.

—N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

She knew damn well that the boys' dorms were downstairs, but old habits died hard. One second of her mind wandering - about Frank, about the truck, about what the hell was going on between him and Rachel - and she was already upstairs, almost right up to that dorm room she'd spent the past year sneaking into almost every day.

The task had been simple: scope out Nathan's dorm, keep an eye out for anything she could use, memorize the exits in case anything went south. She could figure out how to actually get through to him later: she's seen how he's looked at both her and Rachel, convincing him to meet her alone would be the easy part.

What she'd actually do to get the cash out of him was another matter entirely. She tried not to think about her last resort. Fuck, were those condoms in her wallet still any good anymore? And what's to keep him from cheating her out of it after? Let's just leave that as Plan Z, with Plan Y being "burn everything and drive the fuck out of town". She wasn't sure if armed robbery was Plan X or Plan B.

Plan A was a moving target, but she had the basic outline: get him alone, get him drunk, get him talking. Between him, what little she managed to get out of Frank, the scant details of what she learned from Rachel, and whatever she'd be able to find after picking the lock to his dorm room, she was sure she could find something that poor little rich boy would be willing to cough up a grand or two to keep under wraps.

Once she... actually got down there, of course. Instead of staring at what used to be Rachel's door like a stalling robot, programmed to do just one thing that at that moment couldn't be done.

She didn't even bother to try to read the new name on the door. She almost wanted to put a poster right over it, out of spite, but she'd only had three in her pocket, and that was just enough to cover all these shitty Vortex Club posters down the hall, which of course she did.

She approached the board and as she turned her eye caught another closed door with a name on it.

Not now. Not this. Fuck. No no goddamn no.

Not a call. Not a text. After all these fucking years, not even a fucking letter.

Did Mom know!? Of course she did. She must have. And not fucking told her. Just like her, and everyone else, huh?

Fuck Mom.

Fuck Arcadia Bay.

Fuck Blackwell.

Fuck Nathan.

Fuck... Kate Marsh?

Kate ran into her dorm without even noticing her. Chloe took a moment to recompose herself. Dammit, she was busy being hurt! Why did the squeaky clean mousy Christian girl suddenly have to act all weird and throw her off!? Seriously, fuck... Kate... Marsh...

No, this was too weird for her to get angry at. Something was up with that girl.

Fuck it. Not her circus, not her monkeys. She turned back towards the board. Just put up the posters, then to find Little Mister Rich Bitch's stash so she could give him what's coming to him. Time to get worked up so she could—

She heard a door and footsteps behind her. She turned around and saw a less than mysterious figure acting very mysteriously.

And yet despite all the conflicting raging inner voices Chloe still managed to speak without thinking. "Hey Kate, do you know where Nathan Prescott's dorm is?"


"So I don't know what to do", continued Kate, pacing back and forth between couch and desk. Her body seemed to pulse with a faint, ineffectual light in the gloomy room as she passed by the partly covered window and the sunlight fell on her. "I should be having the best year of my life! I'm at Blackwell, I've got support from my family, I am blessed with everything I need! But my art is languishing, I keep feeling everyone hates me here, nobody here cares about anything, everything just... feels like it's falling apart and about to drift away in every direction while I'm spending all my energy trying to pull them back together... at least you've got—no, I shouldn't say that! Sorry Chloe..."

She sat on Kate's bed, semi-consciously stroking Alice on her lap as she watched the blonde keep looking back at one particular drawer on the cabinet by her desk.

What was Kate going to say?

At least your dad is dead so you've actually got something to be a whiny bitch about? At least you had any friends so you can actually feel like shit instead of just—fuck goddamnit shut up!

"What were you going to say?", asked Chloe in a friendly, neutral tone.

Kate stopped pacing. She was outright staring at that drawer now. Chloe watched Kate turn her gaze to the picture of Jesus, then to Alice, then not quite making eye contact with her. Kate sighed. "That... no, it's stupid."

Chloe made eye contact while forcing a carefree smirk. "Hey, that's never stopped me!"

Kate looked away, towards the mir—the violin on the other side of the room. "That you've got... you've got your freedom. You're free to defy your parents'" she didn't notice Chloe's cringe "expectations for you. You don't have to care what everyone at school thinks about you. Oh God, it sounds so bad when I say it out loud..." She ran a hand down her face and then looked at Chloe, who could not tell if the look was one seeking affirmation or wondering if further explanation was necessary.

She should let Kate know she did not need to explain. Mom believed, more or less, but was never really the church type; it was Dad who had actually taken them whenever Chloe could be bothered to wake up early enough. She never really paid much attention, and never really knew what she believed, but one recurring theme always stuck out for her even then, burned eternally into young Chloe Elizabeth Price's brain in the condensed, incomplete, apophatically hinting form of a single decontextualized verse: If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

It was the Bible verse of the week for the first Sunday school class she went to after she had first met Max.

She forced herself not to glance at that door—

She glanced at the door.

It was October.

Not a word. Not even in the beginning.

Max had chosen the world.

Cradling Alice in one arm she stood and put her hand on Kate's shoulder looking her right in the eye. "You know what, Kate? It is bad. It's bad because you deserve so much better than just envying me for it. Fuck all of them. You need to figure out what makes you you and not what your parents or Blackwell or whoeverthefuck thinks is the mould they should be stamping you into. Because what you are is so much more than that, and fuck whoever can't see it!" And then she quoted the verse.

Kate stared at Chloe slack-jawed. She blinked, then looked at Alice. Alice head-butted Chloe affectionately. "Th... thank you, Chloe." She caught a glimpse of the covered mirror over Chloe's shoulder. She went over and sat down on her bed, facing away from it - on the end furthest away from it.

Neither said anything for a few seconds. Alice hopped over to Kate and she took her into her own lap. "But how do you do it? What even am I in that sense? Any one person can only mean something through another..."

And with those words Chloe realized she wasn't quite finished. "No! Fuck that! Kate, you're falling into all the bullshit they're using to control you! You—each and every one of us needs to be true to ourselves! And no one has the fucking right to take that away from anyone!"

Kate looked at Chloe. "Sorry, Chloe, I know you mean well but right now you don't understand, this isn't me feeling lost and afraid, this is me running into a philosophical wall with the literal meaning of what you just said! How does a person have any meaning without anyone to mean anything to? We're created by the triune God, hard-wired, whatever you believe, as social beings..." At this point she stopped and stared at Chloe.

She was staring at the floor. Her jaw clenched as she slowly raised her head towards the door that lead out into the hall. Towards what she knew lay beyond it. Who.

Kate slowly raised her hand towards the other girl, trying without wanting to get her attention. "Chloe..."

Chloe took her gaze off the door and slammed her fists into the mattress. And did it again. And again, and again, loudly yelling "Fuck!" each time. Then she threw her beanie on the floor and grabbed her hair in her hands, making a nonverbal frustrated noise through her teeth.

"Fuck you, Kate! I mean nothing right now! Everybody bails! Everybody lies! Rachel bails on me, mom bails on me, my best friend bails on me, Dad fucking drives off and dies and bails on me, even my fucking truck suddenly decides to fuck itself and put me three grand in the fucking hole. Fuck everything!" At some point in all this she had stood up and started pacing about the room. "Fuck you, Rachel! Fuck you, dad! Fuck" - her eyes landed on the picture of Jesus, and she pointed at it for emphasis - "you, you fucking holy-ass condescending piece of shit! You never fucking cared!" She sat back down on the bed. "Nobody cares about me! Nobody!"

Kate took a deep breath. "Chloe", she interrupted loudly. "You're here. In my room. I'm here. I'm letting you in my room. Because I care."

Chloe had been covering her face with her hands, but she freed one of them to flip Kate the bird. "Kate, you literally dragged me in here because you were afraid I'd rat on your stupid little acid trip. If you've already forgotten that, maybe check to see if you're still high." She wiped her eyes and rested her head in both hands again for a while.

Kate put Alice back in her cage. Chloe watched her from the corner of her eye. She was still pissed, and now also pissed that Kate would so obviously lie to her face, but she deliberated to herself to sit there for a few more seconds so she could calm down enough to admit to herself that Kate had done the right thing - whether she knew it or not. Getting her pissed off about some other thing she had to think about was exactly the distraction she needed from spiralling about... that... again.

Once Alice's cage door was closed Kate turned towards Chloe, but did not sit back down or speak. She felt herself starting to get angry at Chloe now, who was very rapidly depleting the limits of her hospitality railing against everyone who ever cared about her and literally cursing God to his face. In her mind she was composing a righteously indignant and powerful rebuke: but that same mind nonetheless began to consider where this railing and cursing had been coming from, and these two parallel rails of thought did nought but shoot her barbed words back in her own face unsaid. After all, was it not fundamentally that aloneness, that dark corner of desperation into which her own mind had been wandering so often these past weeks? The very God that Chloe now accused had sent her here to bear Kate's cross, and Kate hers.

"Chloe." Kate moved to sit down next to her. She let her hand hover near her shoulder for a split second seeing if she'd move away, and watched as Chloe initially flinched reflexively then stopped herself and returned to her original position once she became conscious of it; whereupon Kate finished doing the "reassuring hand on shoulder" thing. "I've already said my piece. I know you're not—" - her mind blanked on the word snitch and would not recover it until long after this conversation had ended - "a Judas or a Ham, and if that had been my only concern I would have let you out of here fifteen minutes ago.

"But to be fr—to be blunt about it" - Chloe looked away, trying not to smirk at how Kate made the drug reference even worse by avoiding their dealer's name - "I wanted someone to talk to about all this, someone who looked like they understood. And" - Chloe got her shit back together and, smirkless, turned to look at Kate - "I think you do too."

"You show me mine and I show you yours, huh?"

She took her hand off her shoulder. "Just to be absolutely clear, this isn't a come-on. I'm trying to be a supportive friend."

"I know, I know, just messing! Rachel and I used to do this all the time. She literally had us playing 'therapist' with each other the day after we met."

"Wow. I see why you two were so close."

"Are." She muttered "are" to herself again. It wasn't so much a correction as a prayer.

"When was the last time you spoke to her?"

"Six months ago, before she disappeared. Nobody I've talked to has heard from her since. A lot of people were asking me at first too, but not anymore. I'd left notes in her room, in her locker, left messages on her phone, tagged every social media account I knew she had, fuck I even emailed her, nothing."

"That's..." Kate dared not speak her mind about what she thought was the most likely explanation. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend your servant...

Kate imagined that in Fr. Caulfield's voice. She found herself glancing at the door. Caulfield... no, can't be, that's just way too wild of a coincidence.

"Is someone at the door?" Chloe looked alarmed. Hopeful.

"No, just thinking about someone else who isn't here."

"Not here, huh." Was Chloe staring at her chest!? No, she was staring at her cross, because the next thing she said was: "Random question, Kate. When you pray, does God, like, talk to you?"

She hesitated. "I've read about saints receiving direct visions and words, but I'm nothing of that calibre. Sometimes I get... a sense of peace, or something becomes clear where it had been confused and upset before. Or maybe something happens that day, or weeks later, that fulfils exactly what I had been praying about. Not always, though." Kate cringed at her own words. "I wish I could explain this better, Chloe. You're probably thinking it's all—"

"Hey. Compared to the mystical spirit stuff Rachel is into? This shit sounds downright scientific!" Chloe stood in front of the picture (it wasn't really an icon) of Jesus and crossed herself, somehow knowing the Eastern Rite method of doing so, except unthinkingly doing it with her left hand. "Hey Jesus, if you can, get my friends and everyone around me to repent of bailing on me, okay? That'd be awesome." She sat back down.

Kate struggled for a moment whether to say amen to that. "It's... definitely not like the kind of verbal conversation like we're having now, at least. But even so, Chloe, I still have my faith that there is always a person out there who loves us, and is looking out for us, even if we can't see them or get a straight answer from them."

Chloe looked over at the door. "Yeah." She turned away from the door and stared at her boots. No one said anything for a few seconds. "Hey, you're pretty cool for someone who's leading a high school abstinence campaign."

"Uh, thanks, I guess." She glanced - not looked, glanced with her gaze like a poorly-aimed sword strike deals a glancing blow - at the picture of Jesus, then looked at the drawer. She appeared to try to take her gaze over to her desk, then the violin, before drifting back to that drawer again and sighing. "Pretty cool. Not pretty. Not cool. But of course, being either of those wouldn't help me with anything. Wouldn't make me actually useful or good or of any value or help to anyone!"

Oh hell no. Not these memories of David's talks with her. No, not now. Fuck that. Kate needs her not to be a piece of shit again. This time Chloe could see it coming and she pinched herself while thinking of a hilarious Hawt Dawg Man / Mayoist Revolutionary Army bukkake porn fancomic she found online the other day. "No, fuck that! Kate, you're worth something, no matter what the fuck the world says! You are a good person and deserve to love yourself! You're an amazing artist and you need to be damn proud of it! Anyone who tries to take that away can throw themselves to the wind for all you should care!"

The mentions of pride and self-love set off memories of numerous things numerous people have said over the centuries. Kate stared at the floor.

Chloe sighed. "Look, don't think I don't know what you're getting at. Look at me, Kate, I'm a fucking high school dropout, I don't have any friends and I can't hold down a job without pissing off five customers in the first week just because they're too fucking stupid to breathe." The matter-of-factness in which Chloe said that last part got Kate looking at her. "Objectively, I am worthless. But here you are, putting up with this used-up trash and taking all sorts of bullshit coming out of its mouth right now. So obviously the objective facts are wrong."

"I know what you're getting at, Chloe. Intellectually I believe you. It's even a... I know I'm supposed to believe it. But... I just..."

Chloe blinked. She was, wasn't she. What a fucking crock of... God, it must be like being told to be happy at Christmas, except it's about your fundamental self-worth and ontology. Maybe she could reframe the whole thing in something more obviously stupid. She could do stupid. "Look, how about this: forget all that other philosophical circlejerking and have just for the two of us, like, a reverse murder pact. Instead of killing, it's not killing and instead of some poor schmuck we ran over on a road trip it's ourselves. No matter how worthless, useless, godawful fucked-up garbage we think we are, we're accountable to the other one to force ourselves to keep going until we're the best that each of us wants to be for ourselves. Just the two of us, no one else needs to know. Deal?"

No one said anything for a while. Then Kate nodded.

"Shake on it?"

They clasped hands.

"Pinky swear?"

They clasped digits.

"Blood oath?"

"Chloe!"

She let go. "Alright, just wanted to see how far I could take this!" She narrowed her eyes. "That pinky swear is totally legal though."

Kate nodded and smiled. "Thank you."

"All in a day's work!" Chloe got up, took a step towards the door, and stopped. She turned towards that drawer. "Hey Kate?"

"Yes?"

"Sorry to be so, uh, blunt about this, but Frank and I have had a bit of a... falling out, can I, uh, maybe get a joint off you?"

Kate stared wide-eyed at the drawer and sucked in air through her teeth. "Is it really that obvious it's still in there?"

"I thought I smelled it and figured I'd rather ask and be wrong than not ask and be wrong. I promise I'll pay you back!"

Even if Chloe hadn't mentioned it in this conversation, unbeknownst to her Frank had previously told Kate about the $3,000 she owed him. There was no possible universe from which Kate would have been able to extract the tiniest, loneliest molecule of hope that Chloe might be good for the money.

"Please. It's all in that drawer. Take all of it."

Chloe loped over to the drawer that Kate had been staring at and pulled out the baggie. "Holy shit Kate! I can't take all of this!"

"You need it more than I do!"

"No, I mean it wouldn't be right! Here, let me" - she pulled something crinkly-sounding out of her jacket - "put some here, and—fuck! okay, good, it's there on my sleeve, just gotta... okay, good to go! Kate, come over." She showed her a much better hiding place for one joint's worth.

"Thanks. I guess." She sounded disappointed.

"I can leave you more if—"

"I wanted you to take all of it!"

"That's what you said, but I have a feeling you'll need this later. And trust me," the larger baggie disappeared into somewhere on Chloe's person, "once I've taken it it's gone." She picked up her beanie with a smile and turned towards the door.

Kate decided not to argue the point. She made a note to open the window once Chloe was gone.

Chloe looked at her beanie. She wasn't smiling. "Hat trick," she mumbled to herself.

"What?"

"Managed to get two things done that I hadn't planned on." She took a deep breath. "I'm gonna try for a third."

Kate followed Chloe's gaze. It did not end at the door but somewhere a few feet beyond it.

So she's the friend Max kept talking about feeling guilty about needing to get in touch with sometime.

...for five years.

She watched Chloe's hands ball up into fists a few times before she spoke. "Are you planning on giving Max a piece of you mind?"

"A hella spicy piece of my fuckin' mind, yeah." She furrowed her brow, put on the beanie and nearly blew the cloth off the mirror as she dramatically swung the door open.

Nothing good could come of this.

As Kate followed Chloe's stomping she wondered what would happen if Max didn't answer and the door turned out to be locked. She really didn't want to get Chloe into more trouble for breaking things in the dorm—

Chloe didn't even knock. The door opened.

The room was empty, the bed neatly made.

 


 

November __, 2013

Frank woke up to Pompidou barking at something outside the window. Probably some bullshit like a butterfly or something. Why did he dream about that? Why would this completely random fucking memory from 20 years ago decide to invade his sleep?


September __, 1993

Frank put on his goggles and readied the disposable camera as Damon grinned like a maniac, both of them watching the lit fuse rapidly burn down towards the pile of more or less humanoid figures taped to the firecrackers in the mall parking lot.

They were skipping class on an early Tuesday afternoon and no one was there to give a fuck what they were doing. They'd found most of these toys - some old Barbies, a Christmas nutcracker, some action figures for some kind of cop cartoon - behind a thrift store, apparently (so Frank told himself) left over stuff that they couldn't sell. Damon spent way too long posing the cops so they'd be pointing their guns at themselves and each other; as for the Barbies, after Damon's initial proposed course of action Frank had taken over posing them, silently enduring the friendly taunts that he was "all up in that gay shit".

Damon ultimately still indulged in having a nutcracker "crack a nut" over one of them though.

But enough of the past. One thing mattered now that they were done: "This is gonna be so fuckin' cool!"

BLAM. The flash was visible even in the midday sun.

The tape held together better than they'd expected. The top few figures were sent flying, as predicted, but so did the entire ring of those stuck to the tape as most of the escaping gas briefly found the path of least resistance at the bottom. This resulted in a split-second geyser of plastic body parts, a fleeting mushroom that fell apart in dozens of bouncing fragments as soon as their eyes registered the shape.

"Booyah!" thought Frank, who would have said it if he hadn't been too busy trying to take shots of the blast. Damon just grinned. "Oh yeah, that's the stuff."

He nudged Frank. "Gimme the camera." He ran out and started taking close-up shots of the doll parts, laughing. "Dude! Check this one out! It's totally fuckin' melted and freakish and shit!" He held up a very mutilated-looking plastic head, hair burnt off and smelling awful, blistering and oozing from bubbles from expanding gas in the imperfections in the plastic, barely recognizable as such in the worst ways, that made Frank think of roasted marshmallows.

He would be in his mid thirties when he next ate one.

Now, though, he did nonetheless smell a campfire...

"What's that crackling sound?"

They turned around. One of the firecrackers had been blown away in the blast undetonated, and landed in the bushes behind them. Somehow a live spark stayed in or on it for a few seconds, before the firecracker had gone off while they were preoccupied with the sick fucked-up doll head. It hadn't rained all week and the wood chips by the bush were oddly good kindling.

And then the bush caught fire.

"Shit!"

"Fuck!"

"Put it out, Damon!"

"Fuck you, this was your idea!"

"Fuck!"

They ran over and tried to stomp it out. Frank was quickly stopped by this as he caught sight of his shoe sole starting to melt and the ragged bit of the hem of his jeans caught a flame. Damon persisted for a second longer but soon they were both rolling in the dirt nearby.

The bush continued to burn.

They got up and heard the squealing tires of an oncoming car. It braked right in front of them and the engine stopped. Trunk and driver side door seemed to open at once. Out jumped a very solid-looking blonde guy in a flannel shirt, lean but powerful, like a football player or a soldier, he looked old, Frank thought he must've been thirty, who didn't miss a beat going into his trunk and pulling out a big red package.

"Out of the way, kids!" Tearing open the package in his hands he strode towards the fire. The heavy blanket billowed out, trailing ever so slightly as he seemed to walk straight into the flames.

FLOMPH.

"Shit!"

The man jumped back as sparks got on him and rapidly put them out. "Alright, now back to you..." He grabbed the blanket again and started putting out the flames in a more controlled manner.

Soon there was a big patch of black ash and charred leaves, and a thoroughly ruined-looking blanket. "Phew! Not exactly the adventure I'd signed up for when I agreed to grab an emergency stash of gelato and a jar of baby dills for the missus! You boys all right?"

Frank winced as he stood up. "Yeah."

Damon dusted off his hoodie and stared silently at a spot where the polyester had visibly burned and melted a small hole. His eyes grew wide. He wasn't paying attention at all to the guy who just saved them from a lot worse.

Frank's eyes grew wide. His mom was going to see that. "Shit... fuck... uhh, sorry, I mean thanks mister, for the help, I mean, but—" He was all but actually windmilling his arms as he paced back and forth waiting for Damon's meltdown.

The man crossed his arms and tilted his head. "Is your friend really that upset about the hoodie? It looks like just a little scorch from here."

Frank looked at the man from the corner of his eye and nodded. The man's dress shirt and jeans were in even worse shape but he didn't seem to notice.

The man tried to put a reassuring hand on Damon's shoulder but he jumped away. At least it was a distraction that kept him from spiralling like he was about to. The man pulled back, raised his hands to show he wasn't a threat, and quietly, slowly lowered them. "Hey. It's okay. I'm not going to rat on you guys. No one's hurt and that's what matters right now."

Damon stared at the man.

"I was at the thrift store around the corner yesterday and I think I might've seen a hoodie similar to yours."

Damon blinked.

"I think they close at six so you've got plenty of time."

Frank winced and scratched the back of his head.

The man sighed, picked up the blanket and started rolling it up. "Tell you boys what, I'm just gonna park by there and maybe pick up a few things myself. I'd offer a ride, but it's literally right there and I shouldn't normalize kids getting into strangers' cars when I'm gonna be teaching one of my own soon."

To this day Frank wondered sometimes what would've happened if he'd just asked for money, instead of the two of them skipping lunch again to get the replacement hoodie, which led to an unusually miserably hangry day that culminated in him and Damon vowing to each other never to miss an opportunity to make more money as long as they were friends - a vow that they fulfilled many times in many interesting ways. Instead, as the man turned around Frank settled for something a little less shameful to request: "Hey, mister, wait! We owe you one for putting out the fire and not snitching on us. Can we get your name?"

The man turned and smiled, and told them.

"Thanks, sir! I, Frank Bowers, hereby pledge my undying warrior's fealty to one" - he hesitated for a moment at how the name fit into this particular sentence, but said it anyway - "and all his bloodline!"

The man laughed. "I like your style, kid! Looks like I saved the right pair of delinquents today. You two stay out of too much trouble, alright?" He got in his car and left. They would not recognize each other from this incident next time they met.

 


 

"What's going on now, Jamie?"

"James, sir. James (Jacobus) Randolph Marsh."

"Okay, wait, no, I know I know it, but just some life advice, you shouldn't fuckin' loudly announce to your drug dealer your full-ass legal name while we're—"

"We are reporting directly from our council with Arcas himself. Through Him all cowardly anonymity is needless. Fear not, Franciscus ["Frank, never Francis"] Bowers. Your place in the great work is secure, notwithstanding any past... indiscretions."

Frank was slowly getting used to the weirdness. Meeting under the green-grey gloom of the forest seemed to help, just by making it feel like some SCA bullshit... or Blair Witch, but some kind of anchoring context either way. The Knights of Pan always paid cash upfront, on the condition that Frank always wrote them down as "stray dogs". As long as the money was good he kept his opinions about their beliefs to himself, though he was definitely no fan of his cousin Jamie evolving over the past couple months from completely unremarkable gamer nerdbro to... whatever the fuck this was. Lately Treeface was letting Jamie do most of the talking, as it typically made the transaction go a bit faster with fewer questions (questions like "what is the normal common or pharmaceutical name of the drug you are trying to purchase from me"), and Pompidou barked and growled less when Treeface wasn't talking, but lately the difference had been getting less and less pronounced.

He had absolutely no idea what Jamie meant by "past indiscretions" and suspected it was going to bite him in the ass later if it wasn't dealt with now. So he asked.

Amidst the tiny fiery interarborous flecks in the dying blue light Frank barely made out Jamie's eyebrows knotting in mild annoyance. Frank took strong comfort at this, a sign of real human emotion - until Jamie opened his dumb nerd mouth and the knighty-wighty stuff started coming out again. "I refer, Franciscus Bowers, to your reckless endangerment of our noble and chaste kinswoman! We have only the God of All to thank that the real damage had in the end been averted, and the worst not to have come to pass: but that was wholly on account of the derangement of the disgraced Steward of the Shadow Chamber and not anything good or wise that you did to prevent it!"

Frank parsed this correctly and stared at a tree stump nearby. Yeah, no, that was fair, cringey LARPese notwithstanding. Kate should have been a lot more pissed at him than she's made herself out to be all this time. "Alright, let's get this over with. You guys didn't call ahead this time so no guarantees I got it, whatever it is."

"Our immediate quest brings us here in anticipation of only a chaste and humble celebration, Franciscus. We seek but ten ounces of your finest cannabis. The Second Shadow Chamber is already stocked with fine wines and strong drink, and the motivational meeting with Arcas is expected to be but a formality tonight."

"Oh, well that's simple enough." Everyone was momentarily blinded by a rectangle of orange light as he went inside and easily readied a 10 oz. baggie of Invulnerability Sphere. He quoted a price, received it and went back inside to get change.

And when he came out with the change, because Frank was a big dum-dum poo-poo head who couldn't leave fucking well enough alone not to speak without thinking: "So whatcha guys celebratin'?"

A flash of teeth in the darkness. It wasn't a threatening smile, but it wasn't one Frank could say he liked coming out of his cousin. "An early pre-inauguration of the Second Shadow Chamber! It is not fully in commission at this point, and we have yet to see who Arcas has divined to be the new Steward, but we now have a building and a facility—"

Jamie's words rattled about in Frank's head and suddenly connected with a few other words he'd said a few weeks past. "Wait, hold the fuck up, is this connected to that freaky shit with Jefferson!? First off, what the fuck, second, why are you even talking about this so openly!? I never agreed to join your club here, and if you think I'm going to keep selling..." His hand was in his pocket.

Treeface tensed but backed down when Jamie raised his hand. "We had misplaced our trust in the former Steward. The Shadow Chamber was a place of sacred ritual and powerful invocations and should never have been abused for such trivial and disgusting perversions. The new facility has already received its surveillance upgrades and the new Steward will be thoroughly briefed on how he must account for all actions therein to Arcas directly."

Frank tilted his head and scowled. His hands remained in his pockets. He's known Jamie all his life, albeit as a distant cousin acquaintance, and while he wasn't exactly the most kind and thoughtful person Frank ever met he really couldn't imagine him being rapidly initiated into some kind of pseudo-occult frat-boy rape cult just to get his rocks off. "Jamie. That shit was all over the news last month. Both the girls who died were... repeat customers of mine. I'll give you one chance to explain how the fuck any of this makes sense and what the hell you're actually using this Dark Room—sorry, 'Shadow Chamber'—for, or I'll be happy to let this be our last deal while me and my dog live off of canned beans and diner kitchen scraps until Spring Break."

That smile again. Frank shifted his weight, made himself comfortable. He was going to be standing here for a while.

"In the beginning the area we now call Arcadia Bay was inhabited by a tribe whose name is no longer known to us. They had their own language and civilization, distinct from the other races of the area; however, none of their original language remains from which we can work out their endonym, so we simply call them the Arcadians."

"Dude, this is unceded Coast Salish territory, didn't they teach you that at school?"

Jamie blinked. "Is that one of those Amerindian tribes? If so, then no, those only came after. Anyway, we know the original Arcadian people were here thousands of years before that, dating as far back as the Neolithic, based on human remains and burial goods found during George Vancouver's early expeditions and followed up by the authorities that established Arcadia Bay in the decades that followed.

"Most of the early research was first compiled by Gerardus Alexander Prescott in the late 18th century. He was a brilliant man who had a great interest in what we now call proto-Indo-European civilization and ancient knowledge that is encoded in sacred texts, ancient mythology and folk legends. Over many decades of careful study and hard work, assisted by his sons and grandsons, he was able to put together a more full picture of the ancient civilization that had once tamed the western coast of America.

"Around the time of the ancient Babylonians there was a major seafaring Indo-Aryan empire that dominated much of the Mediterranean. They did not build many lasting structures like many other civilizations around them, but carried their influence primarily through trade and temporary alliances among their neighbours. Many of their people travelled through Asia along the Silk Road, founding a great number of religious spiritual movements in their wake that were eventually corrupted by peoples of lesser pedigree into the practices we see in that continent today. It is believed that the Five Emperors were actually originally a government council established by the proto-Arcadians to help manage affairs amongst this fair and far-flung people.

"Nonetheless all good things would come to an end. The rise of the Xia Dynasty [he pronounced it something like [zaɪə]] coincided with the waning of the proto-Arcadian power in Asia, and around that time we know their government ceded to the native chieftain now only known to history as the mythical Yu. Even so, the time had allowed them to explore more of the Pacific Rim, developing their culture and religion further as they migrated along the coasts and islands.

"Of these migrations only a few outposts survived. Over the next few decades the Prescotts were able to deduce the existence of one outpost somewhere on the Oregon coast. In the early eighteen twenties an expedition was led by Niall Moses Prescott and his sons to find the exact location - the same expedition which, as the New World Order's schools did accurately teach us, sparked a chain of events that led to the original founding of Arcadia Bay.

"On their third night camping in the area Niall Moses Prescott had the following vision in the form of a dream: he was standing at the highest cliff on the bay at night, when a voice told him to look. He turned and saw an ancient river, one that had long been dammed, diverted and dried up by the time he and his men had arrived, pouring down into spectacular whitewater cascades into the bay below. A man carrying something precious close to his chest was in a small canoe, desperately trying to regain control without dropping the object. He fell and was not seen again.

"Niall Moses Prescott awoke in the middle of the night and sought out the place where he had seen the waterfalls. Beneath this place he discovered a hidden cliff cave, accessible only through a tiny man-sized gap visible under a full moon at low tide. As he entered, the moonlight shone through another gap leading into the cave, too small and too high to climb through, and landed on top of a fossilized skull.

"(Give me not that doubting countenance, Franciscus. I know full well of which I speak. Yes, Niall Moses Prescott himself confirmed in his later journals that it was indeed fossilized, in the sense that the bone had mineralized while in the wet, saltwater-inundated cave. It does happen that fast under some circumstances, and we actually studied this in science class.)

"Niall Moses Prescott—"

"Why do you keep doing that?"

"Doing what?"

"Saying his entire full-ass name every time!"

"His sons were named Niall and Moses. You surely understand the problem."

"Oh."

"Anyway. The senior Niall Moses Prescott, hereinafter 'Niall', took extensive notes on the proportions, situation and appearance of this exquisitely preserved skull. Based on this work and that of his sons, recorded and compiled during breaks in the initial settlement and establishment of law and order among the savage tribes nearby, they were able to connect the skull to the features associated with what they had pieced together about the proto-Arcadians. Armed with this affirmation, Niall retraced what he had seen of the course of the river, and was eventually able to pinpoint the location of the remains of an ancient settlement deep in the forest to the north-northeast of the newly founded village.

"Niall's sons were able to accompany him on several visits, taking more notes and samples while evading the snares and watchful eyes of swarthy bandits and corrupt Union army-men. Unfortunately, the continued daily matters of the construction and maintenance of Prescott Bay (as it had then been informally known) took up far more time and resources than allowed them to expand quickly, and Niall was tragically poisoned by Chinese mercenaries hired by the savages after one ill-fated expedition into the forest. He survived and was duly avenged, but was short of breath and lame in one foot for the rest of his life.

"In the decades that followed the Prescotts were able to continue most of their other research unmolested, but could make little further headway into acquiring the settlement. The federal Union government, on the direction of the Rothschilds, the Freemasons and other important players in this world, were bearing down on the Arcadian legacy the world over and doing everything they could to discredit the effort to revive it.

"The struggle has been long and trying, but the word of the good news has slowly spread in all the many channels that the God of All has allowed. The past few years have been truly profitable, however painful the birth-pangs have been. Much of the original territory is being recovered by various means, as we have used the New World Order's own tools, its own rules and laws, against itself, and the rest is more taming of this land - our land, Franciscus, yours and mine and Kate's and Yggdrasil's and all this scattered remnant of the great Arcadian race! - against the savagery that had overgrown it in the long exile of its stewards.

"This is all to say we are so close to our final victory, Franciscus! Which of course means we are now facing extreme and insidious opposition. Yggdrasil and I have been looking into Mark Jefferson's connections to George Soros' network, as well as any connections or influence they may have had involving the woman who was trying to seduce Nathan Prescott and conveniently disappeared after his arrest, or the assassin who went after him several weeks ago which had started this latest setback. We have been also been keeping a tab on Jefferson's replacement at this 'school' that our treacherous quasi-Talmudic uncle has fed our kinswoman to: she is so blatantly a New World Order cyborg that it almost seems like a taunt instead of an attack, but nonetheless I trust you will remain vigilant with respect to her. The compromised command structure of the Church - by the way, Franciscus, be careful about the parish you still go to, and anything involving that usurper who has taken your name - may also have sent a sleeper agent to spread misinformation about what had happened. Be careful about anyone from out of town who may have started attending your parish lately for no apparent reason; knowing the poison in the Vatican today, just to mock us they might even have the gall to send in an unrepentant homosexual!"

Frank continued nodding. He made a note to have a little discussion with Kate and Max. Maybe that Lucy girl as well, however annoying he found her. How much of a threat were these guys anyway? So far it's all been talk - or has it? How much did Nathan know about all this shit when he brought that gun that day? How much did Chloe know? Or Madsen? Maybe Max was a cop, or CIA, sent here not for Frank but to keep an eye on these guys...

But still, he's heard worse conspiracy theories from his clients, money was money, and it wasn't like he had any proof they had killed or were going to kill anyone. And it's hardly like he had any power to level this town and purge all the evil from it or anything...

He half-remembered something Fr. Lamont said about wheat and tares.

Before Frank could say anything Treeface's phone buzzed. He looked at it, then nudged Jamie. "The Knights rally! We have our gateway sustenance for which we had come, as is fitting for our station within the natural hierarchy of this our tenebrous celebration: us having so prepared, so Arcas and his men abide, even as the day wearies and light becomes one with dark." The phone buzzed again and in the deep blue gloom Frank for the first time saw the whites of Treeface's eyes. "They are ready to announce the next Steward!"

The two men took their goods and fled the scene. Only much later that night would Frank realize that he never actually got an answer to his question.

Frank went inside and got himself a beer.

He thought back again on that morning's dream, that memory. The name that man had given, or at least Frank recalled - or dreamed - being given.

"Bill Price." What an awful setup for a pun. Was that even his actual name, or was Frank having a shitty money dream again?

Bill. Price.

Bloodline.

Gonna have his own kid soon.

Getting ice cream and pickles for his wife.

20 years ago.

William Price.

A bat flew past his windshield.

Chloe died trying to repay you, Frank.

Great. One more thing to spend the rest of the evening feeling rotten about.

 


 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lu: hey Max, how are you holding up?

Max: Okay, I guess? Is anything the matter?

Lu: U were lookin a bit upset a couple times in class. I hope i didn't overstep any bounds

Lu: Esp w/that in-class selfie stunt

Lu: That honestly was part of my original lesson plan, not picking on you i swear

Lu: I'm talking too much aren't i

Lu: How do u feel

Max: I know you've been talking to Victoria, and she must've told you about what happened that Monday. Don't tell her this, but I am still working through a few hangups over that.

Max: But I appreciate the effort - from both of you.

Max: And *that* you can tell her for me!

Lu: Has she been talking to you as well? I was under the distinct impression she'd been too scared/ashamed to reach out to you which is kinda part of why i'm texting u now

Max: No. I just have my sources (^-^)

Lu: Say no more (~.^)

And indeed she didn't.

On the one hand, Lu's intuitions were correct: the whole selfie bullshit had cut her deeper than she would have liked to admit, and the mockery would low-key come up again from time to time in her still-somewhat-regular nightmares. (She re-read the exchange: good, the edits she made were seamless. That had been an embarrassing outburst. When the fuck did the mere surprise mention of Victoria start having such an impact on her?)

On the other, she still felt like she was lying to her. How on earth could she ever explain to Lu what the aftermath of that class really meant to her, the real reason why she broke down crying in the bathroom instead of intervening to save her best friend?

Shit, Victoria must have been blaming herself for that, if Lu's information was correct.

That line of thought was cut off by a buzzing on her table.

Lu: But seriously, that was a terrible day for anyone to be reminded of

Lu: If there's anything i can do to help, let me know

Lu: I know a good therapist in Tillamook who i think i can drag out to ab

Max: Thanks for the offer. I'll keep it in mind.

Max: But there is one thing that can really help me along in my recovery, though.

Lu: I'll do it!

Max: I need you to post your selfie from today as your main portrait on top of your official portfolio.

Lu: ...

Lu: Ok done

Max: <cellphone selfie posing with an instant print of a camera screenshot of her laptop>

Max: Screenshot posted!

Lu: ...

Lu: Posted where

Max: (◡‿◡✿)

Lu: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Chapter Text

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Max had another nightmare.

She woke up and went to the mirror. A hateful voice laughed inside. She considered hitting herself to try to get at it, it having so rudely evaded her in this dream, but understood that it was futile. Next round, doppelganger. Next round.

She grabbed her camera and took a selfie of her looking in the mirror. She looked very tired and worn.

Once she was showered and her hair (somewhat) combed and her mascara on, no one noticed.

She grabbed the grilled cheese she bought yesterday and ate breakfast in the empty photography lab, posting a picture of the sandwich to social media with a sarcastic comment - and a sarcastic sadface.

The sandwich was still edible, just cold and stale.

She breathed. She belonged here.

Everything was fine.

She was going to win this.

 


 

Lu couldn't sleep. Her scumbag brain insisted on sitting and spinning on one tiny little problem. It was not a problem that lent itself to any logical deduction, nor reasonable extrapolation from first principles, nor any immediately available means of experimentation to prove any particular hypothesis; on top of all this, it was none of her business whatsoever, but of course that just made her scumbag brain obsess over it even more.

What the fuck was "Max" short for?

She had come up with the following possibilities:

Word-final devoicing: "Max", "Mags". Magdalene, Madeleine or Margaret. Maybe Magnol—Lu stopped her train of thought, as she had to sleep eventually, and nightmares about raining frogs were not going to make anything better.

Phonetic spelling of short form: Mackenzie. That... was a name some people named their daughters, right?

Opposite Day: What the hell was Minnie short for? Minnifred!? She opened her laptop. Wiki gave Minerva, Winifred (hey, she was close!), Wilhelmina, Hermione, Mary, Miriam, Maria, Naomi, Clementine and Amelia. No shame in being named for a Roman goddess of war, but in English, in grade school, and being of a nervous disposition, Lu could imagine a young girl never hearing the end of it and wanting something that was the opposite.

Absolutely arbitrary alliteration: Melissa, Matilda, Miriam, Megan (Mega! Max! a pun! ...which militated against this possibility), Megara, Millicent, ... Lu couldn't think of anything that Max clearly didn't look like.

Some other phonetically similar name ending with X that a toddler might mispronounce as "Max": Beatrix. (She did not look like a Beatrix.)

Some other reference: Lu wasn't sure what a Johanna Kasparina would look like, but probably not like Max Caulfield.

She looked up up what kind of ethnic name Caulfield was. Irish. No, no, she could try to figure out who these nine hostages were later, she was so, so tired. Back button, now.

Further down the page was a result from a genealogy page for a Margaret Caulfield. Whatever, she'll just assume it's Margaret. Good night, room. Good night, computer. Good night, World Wide Web and all the lost souls trapped therein.

Lu closed the browser and was reminded of why she was up thinking about this. Obviously there was one name, feminized suffix or not, that Max was not short for. No. Forget it. The coincidence would be too much, the universe legally obligated to reject it. This was one impostor syndrome panic attack she had the right not to have.

The wallpaper randomizer was set to change every day at 4:20 AM. Today (or rather yesterday) it was set to a scan of one of her most prized possessions: an autographed test print, given to her for her twenty-first birthday by her mentor. It was not his own work, but that of an old friend who just happened also to be one of Lu's all-time favourite photographers. That friend had taken it during the last few months of his life, on one of his more lucid days of fighting the spiral of anger, depression and grief of one who had found himself utterly abandoned by the world.

It was a full-colour self-portrait of the photographer sitting on a sidewalk under blue sky on a sunny day, in unassuming blue jeans and grey T-shirt, smiling into the camera he was holding to his chest. The main object in the frame was a large darkened window of the courthouse library, peeking out from where the building rose a few feet below sidewalk level. Inside one could barely see the bookshelves and a desk where someone had left some large binder open. The photographer's image was in the reflection on this window; behind him, the street. The blue-grey rectangle of a hot dog stand to his left was cut off by the slightly blurred edge of a briefcase and two pale, powerwalking legs of a woman in a black skirt and padded blazer. In the shadows of the corner of the image to his right, closer to the camera, sat a grimy fire-engine red backpack, surrounded by plastic bags on a picnic mat that had seen better years: these shared space with a man who made Lu think of an old Russian hieromonk, dressed in filthy clothes, also seated, watching the photographer take the shot. The photographer himself was a thin, delicate-looking young black man with golden brown skin, messy bronze cornrows and a neatly trimmed moustache. His piercing black eyes, looking just a little too large for a man his age, casually betrayed the sadness behind his soft smile. The cross from the Chefchaouen-blue rosary on his wrist hung just a bit off from the line of the lens, seeming to point at his finger on the shutter button.

In tall, cramped writing with elaborately elongated downstrokes, slightly overlapping the legs and street vendor and a studiously ignored half coffee ring, the photographer had written in a dark blue marker:

Zhingos,

You are a father and a brother to me. It is for that reason alone that when you say this print will one day be worth more than the paper that was used for it that I would trust it as anything more than a joke.

Nonetheless, here it is - "for prosperity" :)

You and Maryam have a wonderful trip to the coast. Give Ryan my best if you ever see him again.

Maxime

 


 

 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Hey Max, have you ever thought about getting into owning a small business?"

They sat on Frank's rickety old picnic chairs, drinking beer out of crazy straws sticking out of paper bags that burned like honey in the ever-too-early golden-hour sun. The red-hot-glass ocean, once and future sign of a revelation beyond time, was today flat and boring. The only background noise to their conversation were distant birds, distant waves and Kate playing fetch with Pompidou.

"You know I can't do what you do, Frank. All these baggies and bottles and funny names are a fucking blur to me, it's like school but so much worse!"

Max's original plan after church had been for them to meet up with Dana and go over their findings from Friday again, but after Fr. Lamont's sermon on days of rest and whatnot Kate insisted that they head out to the beach and avoid even thinking about that project. And thus had they run into Frank who seemed to have had analogous plans in mind: but, as always, not talking about work and dismal current events with someone you only know because of those things was always a failure.

"Alright, alright, just pretend I didn't bring it up!" Frank replied, flinching at Max's distraught expression, not having heard the unthinking snarky crack about dead bodies that she had just rewound (and which, incidentally, had made him a lot more distraught). They sipped their drinks and Max took a near-silhouette shot of Kate laughing and holding the stick away from Pompidou who was half climbing on her trying to reach it.

The warm beer tasted like ass, but she was thankful for that. Frank was right that this was helpful in taking this past week's edge off. If it hadn't been such an act of will to swallow this bitter crap Max might've been a lot more scared of becoming an alcoholic after all this.

Max looked at her paper bag. "It would've been cool to have been a Prohibition-era bootlegger though. I'd totally rock one of those outfits..."

Frank rolled his eyes. "Geez, girlie, if that's what you think it must've been like then thanks for turning down my offer." He pulled out his crazy straw, finished off the bottle and reached in the cooler, swapping out one bottle from there with the one in his bag without any outside passerby the wiser.

Max was cute when she got annoyed at you and did that thing with her eyebrows while keeping the rest of her face neutral. Not like hot-girl cute, like small-child-trying-too-hard-to-be-taken-seriously cute. "Yeah, well if you're so smart, Frank, how did you manage to get mixed in with all this crap?"

How indeed, child.

Bill Price's baby.

Broken blood oath.

Too young for you.

...

Frank slumped in his chair, popped open the bottle and took a few gulps as the cap rattled in the bag. He looked out into the fiery emptiness that lay waiting before him.

"This shit-pit of a town has taken away everything and everyone I have ever loved." He took a long drink. "Almost, anyway. I guess I still have my Pompidou. And I care about Kate, as the one person at church who even tried to get Fr. Lamont to give me a second chance."

"You miss Rachel."

Frank sat so still that if it hadn't been for the waves and the gulls and Kate and Pompidou she might have feared she'd accidentally frozen time.

He sat up. "It's... it's not just her. Chloe was like this little sister I never had. And I've already told you about Damon. But anyway, to answer your question. A year or two before I got my scholarship to Blackwell—"

"You got a scholarship?" The memory of a piece of paper on a cluttered desk flashed through Max's mind.

"That's what happens when you pay attention in class, Max. But hey, like you said, this shit" - he gestured towards the part of the RV where his drugs were kept - "is just like school: pay attention, read lots of bullshit, feed people whatever line they want and take their money. Anyway, by the time I did get that scholarship Damon and I both were being raised in single-parent households with no child support payments and my scumbag dad was somewhere in Nevada with that evil bitch whore whose fuc—" - Frank breathed - "anyway.

"The first year at Blackwell wasn't too bad. I just ignored the preppies, the jocks, the haters, you know the usual Blackwell scum, because obviously fuck 'em, right? Didn't work so fuckin' well the year after when mom was diagnosed." And then Frank fell silent again.

"Frank, if you're not comf—"

"Shit, Max, do you have any idea how fucked up it is when your mom's dying of shit that could be treated and the kids at school learn about it and make fun of you for being too poor to afford the treatment? I plotted for days how to go postal on them - that was what we called it before Columbine - until Damon finally talked some sense into me, that if I was ready to do something as illegal as murder I might as well try to figure out how to get mom's treatment some other way. Now this was before 9/11 and the alphabet soup that followed, before fucking Facebook and Google took over everything, you could find shit back then. It worked, and one thing led to another, and we met a guy who knew a guy, worked off a few debts to get a few favours,... we were riding a fuckin' gravy train throughout tenth grade!

"But after a while we got too cocky, sold to too many people who didn't know their own shit-spewing mouth from an asshole that was magically growing out of the ground. So I got expelled - with, I'm sure, enough knowledge about medicating people that I could've become a real doctor if it weren't for the record keeping me from ever getting a scholarship again. Mom was fucking heartbroken, but I think she learned to move on - for a while. At least while me and Damon had the time to make way more bank than we ever had before and mom knew what it was like not to be worried about bills like she hadn't done in years.

"It wasn't easy, though. Always so, so fucking much competition - idiots trying to make a quick buck, idiots who think they can learn to run by the seat of their pants what you spent years working to establish, idiots working for bigger idiots who'd get half their clientele killed and the DEA on their asses if they ever got what their idiot shit-for-brains wanted." He had one hand in his pocket. Max heard clicking. "You're right, Max, you can't do the shit I do. I can't do the shit I do. It destroyed Damon and it's been destroying me. Oh God, Max, if I'd only just not... then she... shit, I'm sounding like my dad trying to apologize for his stupid fucking outbursts. Ugh." Frank took another long drink. Or rather shoved a bottle in his mouth so he would stop talking, then decided to get some alcohol into his sytem while he was at it.

"What happened to him? You mentioned a long time ago that you ran into him once and he said something about 'entering his house justified'." Said a month, a week, and at least two alternate realities ago. Not too long.

Maybe he even remembered.

He didn't stop until the bottle was vertical over his face. He looked at the cooler. He looked up at the sun, at the sea, at Kate, at Pompidou. He put down the empty bottle and said nothing for a few seconds. "Mom's funeral. I was able to visit her a week before she died in her tiny, filthy apartment filled with hoarded stuff that she didn't have the energy to clean. She never updated her will after dad left so he was still executor. I stole all the cash from the apartment and left him the rest."

"Was she saving what you were giving her?"

"$7.42 in change in an ashtray, $5.86 in her purse, a hundred dollar bill kept in a baggie with a burner phone behind the couch and a debit card with the PIN written on it linked to a savings account that was several hundred in banking fees in the red. She'd moved into that place when I turned twenty-five; by then she hadn't taken any more of my money in a long time."

"Shit, Frank, that's hard. Any talk about money must be rough on you these days." The Caulfields had run into their share of troubles, especially after the 2008 crash. Max had seen how the pressure left permanent marks on the way Mom and Pop saw and reacted to things, to say nothing of herself - to this day she wondered how things would have turned out if she'd had a plan that came with unlimited texts, or her own computer, or the time and opportunity to use the family computer or even just sit down and compose a letter, by hand, without someone eventually wandering into the kitchen and arguing about someone's unnecessary expenses or freaking out over Max's college and career prospects. "It must've been hard not to take the money on Friday when we had the chance."

"Yeah, no shit, huh? I guess it's for the better the others were there."

There was a long awkward pause during which each of them would glance at the other but then quickly look away.

Max gave in first. "So Frank, while Kate is still out of earshot, in your experienced criminal opinion what do you think is going to happen?"

He sighed. "I don't see how they've got anything to keep it from happening. We haven't found anything that they could use to convince a judge to put a stop to it. Not worried about the DEA on my ass yet but we're probably looking at a much chunkier alphabet soup with some of the girls they found in the binders out of town and out of state - but with that in mind, I wouldn't be surprised if the first thing he bought on his way out was a one-way ticket to the family timeshare in Cancún or whereverthefuck."

"Do you think he'll try to mess with us?"

"Who the fuck knows, Max. All I know is that if he shows his shit-ass face anywhere near me I can't guarantee anyone's safety. He probably knows that too, so I expect to see a few new buyers soon who just happen to be interested in the same stuff he used to buy."

And at that the two of them shut up as Kate and Pompidou returned, tired and happy.

 

 


 

 

Saturday, November __, 2013

It made no sense, but some part of Lu's mind insisted that if she was not meant to write on these walls, then surely these markers would not have just happened to have been accidentally left near them.

Long ago she'd already written Joyce an irrevocable waiver of her damage deposit, on the condition that she be allowed to keep all the scribbles until she moved out. She knew that these walls had been freshly painted over just before she moved in; nonetheless, the same sense of compulsion that had filled many of her sleepless nights had also drilled into her an insistent, irrational, ineffable sense of extreme importance in ensuring that sufficient words of wisdom were being left in this environment.

Exactly what she chose to write felt like the opposite of lucid dreaming: she was awake for it, but the logical process of her actions was completely opaque to her, and it tended to just happen whether she gave it any consideration or not. The choices seemed to be a muddled attempt to reconnect to something, but Lu simply did not have enough pieces of the puzzle to know what - or who was making this attempt.

Most of them were quotes - Bible verses, Lewis, Tolkien, Zhuangzi, Nietzsche, Weil, stuff she wasn't sure if they were Iron Maiden lyrics or the books their songs were based on. The compulsion came maybe once or twice each week, seemingly at random. The quotes were all over the place, but they always followed common themes of corruption, destruction, revelation, liminality and escape.

Three in particular she frequently found her mind returning to during her drives to work.

The first was written just over what Max told her used to be Chloe's height chart growing up: Balder the beautiful was dead.

The second was near the head of the bed. In her 4AM delirium Lu thought she'd simply written "I Can't Sleep", but upon waking found that she'd put down an entire sentence from Tolkien's famous passage about escapist media: They are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. For an entire two nights afterwards Lu was able to accept that going to bed at a reasonable time was neither an admission of defeat nor a betrayal to some enemy, and did so.

Far above this, near the ceiling and accessible only by putting her chair on top of the bed, a welcoming note for someone new to this quiet rickety old town:

For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.

To compound the strangeness, Lu had no idea what the deal was with all these "holes to another universe".

 


 

 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Max quickly rewound her stale grilled cheese back into her hand. No five-second rule to worry about, at least. She braced herself for Ms. Cheang's startled yelp as she finally noticed that there was someone else in the room.

Lu got off her chair and started fishing the mouse out from under the TV cart. "Holy shit Max, how did you even get there!? Did you just teleport or something?"

"...I was here when you came in."

The photography teacher blinked. She looked over at the door, retraced her steps with her gaze until she got to her desk, then looked at the mess of laptops, peripherals and cables on it, before looking back at Max. "Oh. Um. Sorry about ignoring you, Max, I was kinda wrapped up in a... thing." She snapped the body of the mouse back together, went back to her seat and plugged in the USB dongle. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I was eating!"

"...that's fair." She wiggled the mouse around and frowned at the screen, then softened her expression as she looked back at Max. "How's getting adjusted to the photography class again?"

"It's... fine, I guess."

"Got it. I'll leave you to your breakfast while I finish..." she picked up the ethernet hub and looked blankly at it, "whatever it is I'm doing."

"It's not that I don't want to talk about it, it's just... well, yeah, I guess I... don't... want to talk about it."

Lu nodded. Max continued eating her sandwich while Lu went about plugging and unplugging things, typing and clicking, occasionally punctuated by exasperated groans.

Max finished the sandwich and took a sip of her root beer. "Hey, Lu?"

"Yes?" She sat bolt upright, literally dropping the laptop she was typing on onto the desk from where it had precariously sat on a tangle of cords.

"How did... sorry, I shouldn't ask."

"Hey, remember my email."

Max breathed. "So how did you get back into photography after... you know..."

Lu stared at her DSLR for a few seconds before she spoke. "I probably had a smoother time of it than you are. I have basically no conscious memory of what happened. All I remember is afterwards spending that weekend at home feeling physically, then emotionally like shit and thinking it was just a bad hangover. Mark said I got carried away with the whiskey and made an embarrassment of myself, and he eventually had to drive me home." She checked the lens for dust. "When that happens to normal people their friends who were there usually have specific funny anecdotes about them, right?"

"...I wouldn't know."

"Mark never gave me any details. I guess it's obvious why now, but—" no Lu don't fucking get into the victim-blaming talk now "...anyway. I kept working with Mark afterwards, didn't take a break or anything. Just threw myself into the work and tried to get on his good side after he started randomly getting distant for no apparent reason. Alienated some good people on the way, too. I had a" - Max watched Lu sink an inch behind her kraken of computers and cables - "nervous breakdown around December and neither took nor allowed myself to be in another photograph, until I ran into my now real mentor's wife the following April."

"'Real' mentor?"

Lu started sitting back up. "Zhingos Ransom. Right now I think he's freelancing for that PR firm in Hong Kong - sorry, hella long story behind that, I'll spare you the details - but you might be most likely to recognize him as Phil Ransom from the one of the WWF ad campaigns from the late nineties."

"Wait, which WWF was this?" Max didn't recognize the name at all.

"I meant the one with the panda, but he did do some pro wrestling stuff too! Anyway, another long story short, he was working with Mark around the same time I first met him and that's how we first met. Mark fucked him over in some of their business deals and left him basically unemployable by September with a lot of bridges burned.

"We were both in pretty bad shape when I ran into Maryam, but Zhingos was already trying what he could to rebound. When Maryam first offered me a job as his assistant I nearly threw my caramel macchiato at her as I got up to leave! I don't remember what she said to get me to stay, but somehow she talked me down to promising to take 3 pictures each day - one in the morning, one in midday, one near sundown - for a whole week and then give Zhingos a call. I agreed only because all I had then was my flip phone and I figured no one would notice if I put in an absolute minimum effort.

"By Saturday I'd bricked my phone trying to add a third-party manual exposure controller.

"I called Zhingos on my parents' landline and explained why I couldn't take pictures on my phone anymore. He just gave me the time and address for 'our' first shoot with some local punk band on Sunday. I laughed at him and hung up - and then got my sister to drive me to the junkyard right after church. A few gigs and a degree later and here I am, taking over for the guy who nearly killed my career." She suddenly pointed her camera at the window and took a shot.

The bird on the windowsill chirped once and hopped out of sight.

"Wowser. I'm glad you got back on your feet - it sounds like Jefferson had affected you a lot." And then Max paused, because the other voice in her head was distracting her with a torrent of mocking abuse about how stupid this Lu poser ("Lu-ser!") was for thinking she understood anything when Jefferson didn't even try to kill her or really do anything that bad; at which point Max could not help but concede the fact of the explicit threat of death, and the voice (which used to be much more clever a month ago) immediately dropped anything about Lu and began berating Max herself for playing oppression Olympics when clearly so many people had it worse and Max was just entitled privileged white trash selfie slut pretending to be a photographer and then Max was able to let the inherent logical contradiction help her tune the voice out as it droned on and on in that dark corner of her brain she could no longer control. "And you didn't remember it at all?"

"Not the stuff he did while I was drugged, but I remember what he said and did after. It wasn't obvious then, but thinking back on it it was always this pattern of seeming to encourage me to put my worries behind me and be strong, but on another level dismissing my concerns in a way that always made me doubt myself, or anyone who said anything good about anything I did, all the while poking at that little bit inside me that always felt tainted, used up somehow, that I could never quite figure out why - only this persistent impression that no one cared and the best thing I could do was disappear and stop bothering everyone." Max noticed that as she spoke Lu was staring hard at her camera, with an expression she couldn't quite read but looked all too familiar anyway.

I'm trying. But you have to understand my position...

"Oh my God, Lu, that is horrible! Man, fuck that guy."

Lu's expression softened but didn't quite make it all the way to a smile. "Hell yeah."

Max caught her glancing at the camera again. "Were cameras a..." - the memories of a dozen online mocking sneering remarks about the word she wanted to say crowded her head - "a sticking point for you?" She relaxed a little after finally getting that sentence out, glancing over at the bookshelf and wishing Lu had done a bit more than just swap out the pictures on the walls.

"Holding one, using one, shopping for one, fixing one, looking at one on either end, ... it was all tied to him for the longest time. In a way, I was lucky the only camera I had left back in '07 was so shitty - we're talking 800 by 600 here - and it just made things so totally different that I was able to distance what I was doing from everything I was doing with Mark and ease back into my art on my own terms." Lu glanced over at the printer, then at the cameras on the bookshelf. "What about you?"

Max looked at Lu's big DSLR. Jefferson's workhorse had been hefty but compact, brutal, brand new, a joyless, anonymous robot phallus of death. It was a weapon, as David had skillfully demonstrated so many realities ago: the perfect antithesis to the wobbly, precarious, high-maintenance rickety yellow garage-sale gadget that enabled and defined Max's art for years.

She still could not bear to look at its erstwhile successor for too long, but that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her.

Lu was here to help Max get over him and him only.

What sat on Lu's desk was something else. Its body was faded, scratched, dented and patched, aftermarket handles struggling in their frayed hockey tape, the edges of the pronged hood ragged where something had melted it, the whole thing looking like some antediluvian grabbing worm. It, too, was no less a monster than the lifeless creature that had been bound to their nemesis: but where one was a perfect, immortal machine designed to brand its master's mark on all flesh it consumed, the other was a feral cybernetic organism that bore proudly its own marks of having come into being from things of mud and slime.

But it and her, and her own gadget and the monster's own mistress, were sharing the same cage.

"Sorry, I shoudn't have asked so bl—"

"No, not at all! And I guess that's also my answer to your question." Max smiled briefly, then looked around. "But there is still one thing that I think could be helpful for me..."

Half an hour and a last-minute rescue by Samuel later several bookshelves were switched around, all the desks were in deliberately irregular rows facing the former back of the class (now featuring the TV and flip chart), the printer and computer were nestled close to the darkroom door in a mess of extension cables, and the loaner cameras were sorted in their own dedicated shelf with a sign-out sheet.

Two sweaty photographers stood at the new front of the classroom and admired their work.

"If I start lecturing from the wrong end this afternoon just yell at me, okay?"

"Of course, Lu. Thanks for doing this for me."

"This looks so much more chaotic than the old setup. Like we were never even really meant to be here."

"But it's different. And I guess we're not really supposed to be here anyway, in the long term."

Lu watched Max's face for a second as the girl's eyes wandered about the desks closest to the door. Then she walked over to where Max was looking and moved them to make the room look even jankier. "'But we seek the photography career to come.'"

Max smirked and gave a thumbs up. Lu returned with finger guns.

The Blackwell sticker had long since fallen off of her jacket.

As Max got ready to leave she found her gaze heading back to where that bird had been. Seeing the mess of cables on Lu's desk made her think about worms again - though at this point she certainly wasn't going to be an early bird at Mr. Tang's class. "So what were you doing with all this computer stuff, anyway? I hope this isn't an assignment."

"Oh, this? No, definitely not. What happened was I got annoyed at something in Outlook's UI so I tried to install Thunderbird on the laptop the school gave me. I figured this was too petty to bother Blackwell's IT department about, so I tried to hack the administrator password myself, but then I got locked out of the computer so I tried to look up circumvention methods using my own laptop. While looking that up I had to learn some networking stuff, then one thing led to another..."

 


 

 

"Now both of you turn towards the Tobanga like you're being struck down by its power!" Her conscience flinched at the implications of this direction. "But resisting!"

Samuel leaned back in a crouch, face turned away in exaggerated agony and arms raised defensively. Mr. Dickinson faked a flinch, but held out a small thick book that he happened to have in his coat pocket. The bookmark tassel caught the light and reflected it back like radiant power from a paladin's holy symbol.

"Perfect. Now just hold for a bit..." Irregular clicking ensued. The two men each changed their poses up a little as Kate wandered around them, carefully catching the fiery beams darting in through the trees as though hurled by the ersatz wooden bird itself.

Kate smiled as she showed her models the results.

Samuel nodded gravely, but Kate could see his expression soften. "Yes. Powerful, but ambiguous. You have created an image of mystery and made visible unseen energy: much like the Tobanga. Much like Arcadia Bay itself."

"I am mixed about this, to be honest," said Mr. Dickinson. "The lines and shadows on this one really bring out that old pulp adventure feeling, but with an old white guy like me being the resisting force I suspect Ms. Cheang's going to get on your case about colonialist symbolism or something."

Kate looked at that shot again and raised her eyebrows. "Y-yeah, that could be a concern, couldn't it." The concern about the Unfortunate Implication was real, though she actually wasn't too sure Ms. Cheang would pick up on it this time: even before this class she'd gone on quite a few asides about never being able to find out just where the Tobanga came from or who made it, and how it could not possibly have been authentic given how clearly different its construction looked from any local totem pole style. She made a note to mention that to her when she submitted the assignment.

She was also sure that Lu would share her concerns about her original shoot making the Tobanga look too much like an idol.

The assignment had originally been in-class: take 20 pictures that happen to have the Tobanga in the frame. They had gone out to the dorms right after a brief lecture about implied stories, emphasis and sequences, which Kate had initially thought Ms. Cheang was trying to illustrate by flipping the entire room backwards like that.

Everybody had at least one shot where they tried to be all meta and take a picture of someone else shooting the Tobanga. Among the only keepers there were when Evan agreed to pose for Alyssa's shot from below and just in front of him, the Tobanga barely visible in the reflection of his lens; and when Max took a shot from just behind the Tobanga looking out onto the dorms (and Evan and Alyssa barely visible below) - in Stella's frame Max looked like she was sneaking up on it to assassinate it.

(Max would later discover that she could travel through Alyssa's photo of Evan here, based on a few pixels of highlight on the blue part of her hair that were visible on his lens behind the Tobanga; she used this to correct a minor tilt in her own shot. Lu's mirrorless always felt a little awkward in her hands.)

Kate had spent the bulk of the class playing the prompt straight: 3 shots of Max, 1 shot of Alyssa and 16 shots of the Tobanga. All from the front, all from below, all with the Tobanga as its subject. Looming, ominous. Venerated.

Worshipped.

As far as Kate had ever read, real totem poles were never worshipped as idols. They were monuments and memorials, no more the recipients of sacrifice or bringers of divine favour than the statue of Jeremiah Blackwell out front. Objecting to them per se on Christian theological grounds would be even sillier than Evangelicals freaking out about statues of Mary.

And yet Kate's original shoot had still bothered her.

It might've been connected to the class discussion afterwards. Whatever its creator's intention, replicating an authentic totem pole or otherwise, the Tobanga had long since developed its own mythology at Blackwell. It was said to watch over something; it was connected to the dead somehow; it was sometimes identified with a literal "school spirit"; Samuel always buried dead animals near it for safety; it had caused the Vortex Club to be created and disbanded periodically throughout Arcadia Bay's history; it was customary to pour out your first beer in front of it the night before the big game, and again if the Bigfoots won afterwards. Lu's every attempt at bringing the discussion back to photography ended up being poisoned by her own need to deal with the storytelling aspect of the photos, and back down the Tobanga-hole the whole class went.

No one ever talked like this about the Jeremiah Blackwell statue, of course, and given Lu's own background Kate wondered why she hadn't just picked that instead.

But the way the sunset now played with it through the trees, gave new life to its worn-out roughness, brought out extremes of light and shadow that imbued it a realness that had nothing to do with the blurry dusty gossamer tales that were woven around it, helped her better understand the decision.

It was this light that Kate now understood she needed to bring out.

When she finally handed in her assignment Kate had re-ordered the shots. That shot Mr. Dickinson had commented on - the last she had taken before heading back to the dorm - was the first. This was followed by several more shots of the Tobanga: ancient, twisted, looming and majestic, slowly revealing more of the light that came out from behind it. The sun shone down higher and higher until it broke free of the bird head, revealing itself amidst the leaves and needles, reigning in harmony above the outstretched wings and crown of its keeper and herald. This was concluded by several shots from the rooftop, taken before Kate had come down for the rest, the sun cloaked in a banner of gold at the top of the frame, sending its life-giving, shadow-spawning fire to the forest, the Tobanga and the man-made structures below.

She clicked Send.

Kate refilled Alice's water and let her mind wander back to the conversation she had overheard before recruiting Samuel and Mr. Dickinson for her project.

"I hope Ms. Hoida finds a better fit after she leaves Arcadia Bay."

"Wells sounded quite adamant about using his best efforts for that reference letter."

"Sometimes it felt like even the squirrels wanted to learn to read in her presence. She deserves no less."

"Sad to see her go before I've had a chance to see her in action, then! Looks like I've got some big shoes to fill."

"Congratulations on your new permanent position, by the way." Samuel paused. "However permanent it may be, all things considered around here."

Mr. Dickinson chuckled. "Ms. Cheang, you've really let yourself go since I saw you this afternoon! Yes, I have heard of people getting bad vibes about what's gone down in the past few months. But I have seen what Wells has been bringing in with respect to new investors, and Lu's bought us a lot more time to give the arts program a proper overhaul. On paper it seems loosening the Prescott stranglehold will be a net gain!"

"All things are difficult before they are easy."

"Exactly!"

But Samuel wasn't finished. "If you want the rainbow, you have to tolerate the rain. The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness." Something crunched. "A foolish man listens to his heart. A wise man listens to cookies." He ate half of the fortune cookie while handing Mr. Dickinson the last fortune and finished chewing as the other man read it.

Samuel continued. "All of these have been written on paper, Rob. Contained in treasuries of varying quality and flavour." He threw the other half out into the bush, where a squirrel unceremoniously took it and fled, never to be seen by human eyes again. "The squirrels don't read fortunes. But they do gather and fatten up for long, dark winters."

It was around this time that Kate had decided to recruit them, and began to engage accordingly.

But before the shoot she had a question for Samuel. "Is all this talk about Blackwell's future why Ms. Hoida left? It didn't sound like she wanted to come back anyway."

Samuel frowned. "Officially, what we've been told is that Ms. Hoida is merely being laid off with a hefty - but undisclosed - severance." He glanced at Mr. Dickinson, then looked around the empty field. "But off the record, everybody in staff knows she doesn't ever want to deal with Nathan again."

Chapter Text

Max dreamt of an anemone with a brown-grey stalk and a brilliant blue head. It was decapitated, and the head drifted away. Max was sad that it had to die this way, but the dream was not over. It landed and eventually wandered back to the stalk, which by then had grown another head, and reattached itself to what was left of the stump. The anemone now had two heads.

 


Monday, October 28, 2013

Victoria's thumb hovered over the trackpad. She blinked, then moved the cursor away from the report spam button on the screen.

She recognized that name in the "From". Victoria remembered reading a long time ago about that no-name wedding photographer who sued Jefferson back in 2010 over his exhibition from that 2006 series on Seattle's homeless. Some crazy bullshit about copyright and whether they were his employee at the time. Why the hell would they be emailing her?

And... where the hell did this person get a Blackwell Academy address?


Friday, November 1, 2013

It's only one, the night's still young. She wasn't even in bed yet! (That this grade-school-looking desk chair had long become her "sleeping chair" had no bearing on that fact.) Time for more Internet—

Ugh. Mail.

Ugh. Her.

Two people had been upfront about dropping out of the class. Taylor was nice, almost apologetic, but clearly overloaded between her mom and other coursework. The other... between the police report, the venom in the girl's reply to her introduction email and what Kate had described, let's just say that she had no hesitation reassuring Kate that it was totally valid not to forgive her.

I'm sure a few people have said the same to Deanna.

Lu stared into the inbox, email unclicked, for a few minutes to let herself wallow in three or four adults-only-afterparty wineglasses' worth of guilt and self-pity. Then, her mind having satisfactorily crashed against an all too familiar brick wall, she clicked.

The body of the email suggested the sender had a lot more than just three glasses - and a lot more guilt and regret than Lu ever let herself express.

She started replying immediately.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

"Everybody in this town knows everybody's secrets", complained a wise and thoughtful person several realities ago. And yet new ones keep coming up.

I admit it. I'm a little hurt, a little jealous, that Kate had decided I shouldn't be there when she reached out to Victoria. But I have to keep telling myself she was right - she needed this to be a reconciliation, not an intervention. "And now, Victoria, we will parade you in front of all the people you've hurt so you can beg forgiveness one by one..."

The part of me that would've enjoyed THAT had hung itself at Culmination Park.

Someone reading what I just wrote might think to try to validate my feelings. I can hear Chloe now: what the fuck, beeatch lied to you, you have every right to be mad. First, she didn't lie, just... didn't say anything; second, it's hardly like she's cheating on me with Victoria (or that I'm cheating on Chloe with her!); third, I don't think I'm quite up to talk to Victoria yet even if I were given the chance.

Part of me knows it's just going to get worse as time goes on. There's just so much past animosity, rivalry, attempted reconciliation, mixed feelings and actual honest to Dog trauma wrapped up in even thinking about her that I'm just paralyzed every time I even consider the possibility of talking to her again.

It's almost as bad as thinking about getting back in touch with Chloe had been.

(Almost, of course, only because in Victoria's case I would be fine if I couldn't do any more now than wishing her a wonderful life and moving on. Then again, maybe she'll be in Arcadia Bay next week and nearly run me over while I'm in another altercation with Nathan. Joking, of course - he's never coming out of jail with all the stuff they've got on him.)

But enough about me - I'm sure, dear diary, that you're dying to hear about other people for once. So here's how Kate told me it went down: apparently Lu had been given an old class mailing list that included Victoria, and through some wizardry I'll never understand she'd convinced her to approach Kate to seek forgiveness so they could both get some closure. She then cleared it with Kate, and eventually worked out a time where all three of them could hash it all out in a social media group DM.

When the day came Lu ran into some "technical difficulties" getting everyone together - when Kate told it to me she was practically laughing at just how LONG she could grumble about badly coded websites and why they couldn't use AIM like civilized people. (Presumably not where Victoria could hear, of course.) But Kate was practically raring to go: she'd mentioned a few times that she actually wanted to mend things with Victoria, but never knew if she was willing or able to acknowledge any of the hurt and confront it with her.

Things were awkward for the first 15 minutes or so. At first Lu just sat back and let Kate and Victoria say a few things in the group chat. The way Kate described it, it was like the words of apology and forgiveness were there, but it was all very guarded and had the energy of having to write thank-you cards when you're a kid. Then while trying to prompt them with some leading questions Lu got hit with some ad on her screen or something and made a snarky aside about how overpriced and shitty a camera model was.

It was the name of the one Victoria had been using.

WALL. OF. TEXT. She just TORE into every one of Lu's objections and typos and grammar. Dissected. Pinned. Crucified. Kate showed me the screenshots. All laid out in exquisite, polysyllabic, eruditely pedantic, immaculately Victorian detail.

And then Kate leapt into the ring and bashed Victoria from behind with a chair pointed out a technical issue about Victoria's comments. It turned out Lu was talking about the American version of the camera that was shown on the ad, while Victoria had only ever used the Japanese import. (Kate learned this from me when I was talking to Lu about my summer job! See, I WAS there - in spirit!)

So this completely threw Victoria off guard and then Lu was nerding out about something involving materials and distortion and heat treating, while Kate was starting to get into more detail about the artistic side of what was wrong with Victoria's comments, but Lu apparently lost the script and kept hyperfixating on mechanical stuff, which both being artsy types got Kate and Victoria teaming up against HER to try to redirect the conversation to stuff THEY wanted to discuss,...

TL;DR: they both saw each other's human side enough that Victoria could properly, honestly apologize to Kate as a fellow human being and Kate could forgive her on the same level.

The bad news now is that Kate is so often busy texting Victoria it's like I can hardly get a word in.

I wonder if we're destined to be rivals in every timeline...


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Victoria: Hey babe!

Kate: Hi, Victoria!

Victoria: WYD

Kate: Seriously!? "WYD"... O how the mighty have fallen! :)

Victoria: Merely indulging in some pseudo-plebeian irony - a bit of cyber-slumming if you will.

Kate: If you really want to know, I'm stressing over the new photography assignment!

Kate: We're supposed to pick another photographer and try to imitate their style. And I have no idea who to pick!

Victoria: You were talking the other day about volunteering meeting with that old woman on the outskirts of town and I had this mental image of you doing a Dorothea Langesque series.

Victoria: Therese Frare also came to mind - if for no better reason than that photo that made David Kirby look like Jesus.

Victoria: I sounded like a total asshole with that, didn't I.

Victoria: Sorry.

Kate: Do NOT apologize!

Kate: You're closer to the truth than you think.

Victoria: Thanks.

Victoria: Since all good things come in threes, I'll also namedrop Eliot Porter.

Victoria: I thought of his work after that time you did that entire backdrop based on one off-hand comment I made wrt: the contrast you wrote between Photina Rabbit's and Artemis Rabbit's responses when they stepped into that forest.

Victoria: Hope that helps.

Kate: Thanks Victoria! You've given me a lot of material to work with.

Victoria: It's the new me - I live to serve and serve to live.

Kate: How transgressive of you - cyber-slumming so hard you reinvent cyber(crust)punk.

Victoria: Ugh.

Victoria: You've been hanging out with Max too long.

Kate: Maybe you haven't enough!

Kate: This might be shocking news, but neither of you hates the other nearly as much as the other seems to think.

Kate: Vic?

Victoria: Kate?

Kate: Yes?

Victoria: Be honest with me.

Kate: Of course.

Victoria: Max's twee hipster aesthetic, the one I always gave her so much shit about - does she still do that? Even without Jefferson to impress?

Kate: If you mean the instant camera, yes she's definitely still got that.

Kate: It's her only camera!

Kate: But ever since Chloe died she's started wearing a lot of her stuff.

Victoria: Oh.

Victoria: I'm imagining a certain chaotic sort of hipster-punk mix... sort of not entirely unlike the sort of aesthetic that would attempt to combine a battle jacket and a newsboy cap?

Kate: I see where you're going with this and it's not like that.

Kate: She'd been wearing her current getup long before we knew who was replacing him.

Kate: Only the blue hair came afterwards, and I know on *very* good authority that that was about Chloe and no one else.

Victoria: I'm sorry.

Victoria: It's hard to shake off old habits of suspicion and cynicism.

Victoria: But if you are confident in her authenticity then I believe you.

Kate: Thank you, Victoria.

Victoria: But with that out of the way, even if on a somewhat related matter I want to get back to what I originally wanted to warn you about.

Kate: Warn?

Victoria: It's Nathan.

Kate: He escaped???

Victoria: NO

Victoria: He's on bail - and coming back to Blackwell.

Victoria: We don't know when exactly but he's guessing near the end of the month.

Victoria: Don't tell anyone yet, please.

Victoria: But let Max know.

Victoria: And if either of you see him get him to give me a call right away.

Kate: Thanks for the warning. But with all respect, though, I'll just be trying my best to avoid him.

Victoria: I am so sorry for dropping the news on you like this.

Kate: It's fine, Victoria. I would have to know sooner or later.

Kate: And I need to learn to forgive even him.

Victoria: NO YOU DONT

Victoria: Shit did I just all-caps that?

Kate: I know what you mean - and in a way I almost agree.

Kate: With you it was easy: between the enforced distance, and Miss Cheang acting as a mediator, and knowing beforehand that you actually *wanted* reconciliation, it was safe.

Kate: But having to do this in person with someone who... did that... more than just "taking the shot"...

Kate: Vic? Are you still there?

Victoria: No less than you right now, cherie.

Victoria: I know this is hard, and I still think of him as my friend.

Victoria: But I cannot in good conscience ask you to forgive him for my sake.

Kate: You have a good heart. But if I can forgive him it would not be for your sake, but for his - and mine.

Kate: But right now I'm just worried how I'm going to break this to Max.

Kate: She's going to be devastated.

Victoria: I know I can't do much from Seattle but let me know if there's any way at all I can help.

Victoria: There might still be a few old strings back there we can pull.

Kate: Thanks, Victoria.

Kate: Max is yelling at me to start the tea and get over to her room - Steph's running her new sci-fi murder mystery one-shot.

Kate: I really need to get Warren to help me with my audio problem sometime.

Kate: TTYL!

Victoria: Au revoir.

 


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Max stared at the mottled grey-blue carpet, muted and sturdy against the dark stained wooden trim of the walls.

Make them pay for what they did to Rachel.

She wasn't here to do that. The lawyer who called her had made it clear that she was only required as a witness for the charges related to Chloe's death. Max had tried to pry further into what was going on with Rachel and Jefferson, with mixed results; she'd also offered more evidence, but rewound when it became clear she had no way to show how she knew.

But it was an incredible relief to confirm that the DA even had the information about the binders and the Dark Room.

A serious-looking middle-aged brunette in a black skirt and padded blazer stepped out from behind the glass doors. "Maxine Caulfield? Heather Lalache. We spoke on the phone. Thank you for coming." There was a handshake and Max probably said appropriate customary responses to the things Heather was saying. They went into one of the meeting rooms.

It was exhausting and clinical. By the middle of it Max felt like... imagine if you were held captive by people who told you they would cut you open and pull your heart out, dissect it in front of you and you would sit there and help them do it - and you knew why they were doing this and agreed; but by the time they started you were already dead and you were just looking down at so much stiff, cold tissue being labeled and pinned to a big wax tray. It was all still very important, and you were still there and it was awful, but after all that had happened you knew it didn't really matter anymore so you could still bear to help with the job.

It wasn't even Chloe dying anymore, just "the victim" getting shot. This was not unintentional: by all accounts (and all timelines) she really did not visually recognize Chloe until after the shot, and the DA made it a point of strategic importance that Max's initial observations were not tainted by bias towards her friend.

Heather was patient. She expressed condolences when it was socially appropriate and let Max go at her own pace, but there was still a professional coldness to it all that made it hard to describe anything she did as "kind". She did, after all, need to ensure justice was done.

She carefully reviewed, considered and questioned everything Max told her. Ultimately she found Max to be honest and sincere, but the reliability of her testimony had some serious issues:

  1. She never actually saw the gun come into play.
  2. She never actually saw what exactly the victim was doing when the accused pulled out the gun.
  3. Notwithstanding the initial non-recognition, her involvement in the immediate aftermath and speaking with the victim's stepfather may have influenced her assessment as to what had been going on.
  4. She had not established any baseline "normal" for either party's body language and could easily have misinterpreted (say) a nervous tic as an indicator of aggression.
  5. This lack of recognition, which was repeated in the statement to the police, seemed to contradict reports by others that Max had told them that she had, in fact, been in regular contact with the victim the entire week before the alleged incident. This could raise some serious questions as to her credibility on the stand. Fortunately, the prosecution was not going to be calling Max for any character evidence about the victim anyway, and were going to object to any questions on that end during cross-examination, so they could focus on Max's eyewitness observations only.
  6. Max had stated to the police that her breakdown had continued for some time after the shot, and she had remained out of sight until after David had entered. However, during their interview now Max had insisted at numerous, independent times that she had stepped out after hearing the shot, personally seeing the victim fall and the accused drop the firearm from his own right hand. Based on the rest of the evidence it seemed most likely that Max had remained out of sight, and this memory of her stepping out would have been a constructed memory after the fact. This was compatible with the numerous reports of Max's erratic and depressed behaviour in the weeks following the incident, as well as her repeated contacts with Francis Bowers.
  7. No, she was not calling Max a liar. It is only that she was mistaken and stressed and people did often reconstruct false memories during such times.
  8. In fact, based on the information they were given, it was most likely that the jury would find that this alleged week with the victim was also a fabrication—
  9. What was Max doing with that? She needed to put that thing down—

Better get the bad news out of the way: It was extremely likely that Prescott would be acquitted based on a reasonable doubt that he might have deployed his weapon in self-defence before discharging it accidentally. They should be able to get him on some lesser firearms charges, but the chances of him seeing any prison time on account of those was almost nil.

She hoped that the Amber murder team had better luck. The photographic record clearly showed the place where the body had been found, but there was a certain margin of error between the date of the photos and the estimated date of the victim's death; the defence could easily posit that the victim was still alive in all the photos and either accused could claim that the other killed her and returned alone to dispose of the remains later.

Hopefully Kate and Lynn would be more reliable in their testimony. (No offence.) The abduction and (in Kate's case only) sexual assault charges might be enough to land a custodial sentence of some sort, at least while the conviction and sentencing went through the appeal courts. Unfortunately Kelly's lengthy, detailed, heartfelt suicide note would almost certainly be thrown out as hearsay...

Wait, why was she telling the Price witness all this? No, this wouldn't do at all—

Now Heather did not do civil litigation, but she stressed that all this downer-talk was only with respect to proving an unlawful killing beyond a reasonable doubt. Max was probably too young to remember O.J., but she should definitely consider talking with Mr. and Mrs. Madsen about pursuing a mental distress suit for the wrongful death of their daughter and friend.

She gave Max a list of lawyers that she knew could potentially handle the case. Over half of the names were crossed out due to known conflicts of interest.

 


Friday, November 15, 2013

Kate woke up from a dream.

She felt like garbage, but not actually tired or sleepy. She'd barely spoken to Max since their interviews yesterday afternoon; when they met up afterwards at the nearby café they were so worn down that they mostly just sat and finished their drinks in tired, sad, relieved-it's-over-for-now silence. When they did talk, it was mostly about funny random stuff from Tuesday's game.

And now she lay in bed, waiting for the alarm, trying to piece together her memories in the meantime. This one hadn't been like a few others this week: she dared not tell Max, but instead of the vivid conversations from October she'd only been having these ugly, sad little half-remembered dreams all about suddenly and tragically losing Chloe, and a blue butterfly leading her out the window of a burning bathroom. She'd been starting to wonder if she was simply passing out of the "denial" stage of grief when last night's dream happened.

Kate found herself on the dorm roof again, American Rust sprawled out in its scrappy ruinous glory below. It was a cool foggy fall morning, the grey wrecks in the distance fading in and out of the mist. A train sounded in the invisible distance.

The girl sitting next to her stood up. She was noticeably taller, strawberry blonde hair cropped just below the ears at Kate's eye level. She was wearing what looked like a replica of Kate's outfit, but the blazer was a bit torn and dirty, the cross was made out of bullets and she dared not look or think too long about how short that skirt was on her. Her skin was frightfully pale, and as the girl leaned forward against the railing Kate could see some blue in her fingertips, and fresh scrapes on her knuckles that seemed always not to quite have enough blood.

Kate looked out at the scrapyard. "It's so quiet up here."

The girl lit up either a joint or an enormous mummified caterpillar. "It's good to be alone with your thoughts sometimes."

"You're here."

"Would you rather I not be?"

"Of course not. But it is a little weird, to be talking about being alone with our own thoughts when you've just knocked out a chunk of mine and replaced them with yours."

"You know that's not the real you."

"She's a part of me, Chloe. All my guilt, all my neurosis, all my self-hatred, all my knowledge of all my secret sins turned against me—"

"This isn't a Catholic guilt thing, is it? Come on, girl, I can't hold this bullshit off forever anyway, enjoy it while you can and relax!"

They said nothing for a while. Kate enjoyed the cool, clean air. Predictably, she did not notice any impression of breathing from Chloe, and briefly wondered how she even spoke before remembering that this was only a dream.

She did notice her moving, however.

"Where are you going?"

Chloe stumbled and turned back to face Kate. "No, it's fine, I get it, it's good to be alone."

"What? No, what are you doing, come back here!" Kate watched Chloe return to her original position at the railing. "I haven't seen you all week!" This dream hasn't turned into total bullshit yet, so I guess I was allowed to tell you that. "And I think you've been trying to reach me about something. Something specific..."

During the long awkward silence that followed Kate counted at least five times where Chloe's fingers gripped the railing and she looked like she was about to speak. Then she slouched on her elbows and bowed her head. "Can we talk about Max instead? She's a complete wreck now, despite everything you've done for her, and I know exactly why. 'Don't you forget about me'... fuck I'm so goddamn selfish... not like you, or Max..."

Kate put a hand on her shoulder and Chloe stopped talking, but Kate did not say anything for a few seconds as she gathered her thoughts. They'd had this talk before, and it was never easy, but without the loud nega-voice blaring at her to give her an antagonist to counter it almost seemed even harder for the words to come by. "Chloe. You gave up everything to save the rest of us. You thought you'd be gone by the end of it. Whatever you have now, it was given back to you, you didn't take it wrongfully. Max adores you. She is hurt - but we are all hurt and you helped her through the hardest part of it. She is grieving because you have been good to her. That grief is real, and it is right, and neither of you has the ability or the authority to rewind it away and pretend it never happened."

Chloe raised her head to face Kate and allowed herself the tiniest of smiles. "Thanks." She broke eye contact. "I should stop bothering you with—"

"It's fine, Chloe. You know I know that feeling. That sense that you completely fucked it up" - oh hey, that got her attention - "and ruined everything and became objectively worthless if you weren't already. Were you there when Max told me what happened on the Tuesday of That Week?"

"Wait, hold the fuck up, Kate, I'm still trying to process you dropping an F bomb for no reason here. But... Max fucking told you!?" Chloe gripped the railing and stared wide-eyed into the distance.

"And how you lashed out about me the day after. Water under the bridge, Chloe. Everyone was hurting. I forgive you." As Chloe's face went from scared to sad Kate confirmed that her guess had been right. "Do you forgive me?"

"For what?"

Kate told her.

The tiny smile returned. "I guess we're even then!" They both turned towards the wrecked bus. "Thanks, Kate, for helping me with all this."

"I already owe you my life. You've more than returned the favour."

A little patch of blue became visible in the distance. Another train sounded... elsewhere.

"So what was that other thing you wanted to talk about?"

That tensing up again. "There's... Kate, suppose there was a... person... fuck, I really don't want to lose this one, gotta choose my words here... and don't make any guesses yet, or just don't say them out loud, but... let's say I've worked really hard on something, and it's already cost me a lot and a lot of people are depending on me to succeed, but this other person wants to take it away, or make the thing not be what it's supposed to be... how would I let someone know who had the power to stop them, without saying who or what or why?"

Kate thought about it. "I suppose—"

But while Kate was thinking Chloe had walked back to the roof entrance and was now taking a long drag of her blunt. The blunt was now (in that dream-logic where something just is something else without any transition) a chrysalis, a translucent, iridescent Chefchaouen blue rosary hanging off of the extended wrist of a Maxine Caulfield frozen in time, pale and bleeding and trying to rewind one last time to save her friend.

A butterfly hatched from it, filled and dried out its wings in rapid time-lapse, and fluttered off into the cloudless sky as the imaginary Max faded away.

Chapter Text

"The assignment is simple", said Lucy. "I'll hold the football and you'll take a selfie with it."

"No! You're the Logizmoid in disguise again! You'll just take the football away and I'll drop on the ground!"

"I swear on my heart that will not happen!"

Max took out her camera and walked up to the footb—

Max was on the floor of the Dark Room and Lucy was wearing wolf ears and taking pictures of her, going "HAW HAW!" like a Jack Chick comic villain.

The alarm went off. World's shittiest naptime over.

Time to get some work done.

 


 

Friday, November 15, 2013

[Delta Team reporting in.]

Fuck no.

They're letting that piece of shit back out!? No fucking way.

Damn this entire fucking place. This school, this cage, this hell, this ugly city, this trap.

He'll have to find some way to make them pay for what they did to her.

But he needed information. Information he didn't have.

The pigs were too busy. No way he'd be able to break into the station. He'd have to start with easier targets, work his way up, find some clues on what the fuck was actually going on.

A car whooshed by in the distant dark. All else was silent. Frank hated the white fluorescence that mocked him now, as he hid behind a billboard, long since stripped of its overrated, joyless work. At least he didn't have to suffer the indignity of looking at that hideous nonsense while he was doing this.

Waiting for Beavis and Butt-Head here to get the fuck out of his way.

 


 

[Bravo Team reporting in.]

"Maybe there's some other way."

"We're already here, Kate!"

"I... I still can't believe we're doing this! We are so going to get caught!"

"By whom? Nobody's here, I've checked."

"How?"

Max allowed herself a smirk. "Just some independent reading following a private consultation with a teacher whose landlady's husband just happens to be in charge of who goes where at night."

Kate sucked air through her teeth. "I guess it's not like you've never done this before. But what are we even trying to accomplish?"

Max gazed into the outer darkness to the west and sighed. "To be honest, Kate? I'm just winging it. I have no idea what we're looking for now - nothing I found with Chloe last month would matter. But that reminds me." She handed Kate a mirror selfie in her pyjamas, smiling innocently into the camera while holding a sheet of paper with "11/15 9:15" written on it. "If I fuck this up, find me and give this to me. Hopefully you'll never use it - I've got mine in my pocket."

Kate accepted the photo. "So what's the plan to get in?"

"Same as always. I do it the stupid way, then rewind and let you in."

Kate put her goggles on. "Okay, but with what? You never told me—"

"Opsec, Kate. All you'll ever know is that I..." Max smiled, took a deep breath, rolled her shoulders, stretched her arms, cracked her knuckles, then lurched and staggered through both sets of doors from the inside, "...opened the door for you!", she said a little too loudly, leaning her elbow against the handle of the door she had just opened, her hair a frazzled mess, breathing heavily and grinning like a maniac.

"Max, you're bleeding!"

She stood bolt upright in terror and reached for her face. "Oh shit! No, not now, not again!"

"No, I mean your hand - you must have cut yourself on the glass! I told you to use the gloves! Here, let's go inside and we'll find something in the nurse's room!" And they did, Max looking much less panicked in the dark.

(It should be noted that Frank at this point was very tired, very angry, very sad, and just the tiniest bit drunk; he would later convince himself that he had found Kate alone just as Max was opening the door, then they stood outside chatting for a while before they both went in to deal with one of those nosebleeds Max seemed to get at random and Kate apparently knew nothing about.)

Texting left-handed while someone was disinfecting and bandaging you was hard. Max thought about the numerous cameras she'd seen over the years and wondered if that was why Chloe never got into photography with her and William.

Max: were in
Max: rchrgin mana
Max: healin up
Max: near wipe on outer gate
Max: no mob spawn

Dana: Be careful Nemesis and Athena!
Dana: This game is hard!!!
Dana: Remember to go back to town and drop me that loot once I've unlocked my account!

Max: will do
Max: gtg

And now to delve into the dungeon.

 


 

[Charlie Team reporting in.]

"Samuel does not like this at all."

"Neither do I. But this has now become a campus security matter, and if Wells is not cooperating then I need to do my own due diligence. We'll have to go through the affected student records, some recent staff communications, take a snapshot of the month's budget, and we're out."

"Sean Prescott has always sees what he himself is entitled to long before he is able to see what others see. But do you think he'd really leave a trail that us humble servants would be able to track?"

"I believe we're about to find out, Samuel Taylor."

 


 

Max and Kate stepped out of the nurse's office and right into David Madsen's path.

"Max?"

"Oh no!"

"Shit!"

Rewind!

Max touched Kate's elbow and soundlessly mouthed, "Argus has spawned!" before putting a finger to her lips in a shushing gesture.

They hid behind the front desk - not behind the doorway since David might try to come over to close the door - and waited.

And then raised their heads over the counter when they heard Frank's "What the—"

They watched David instantly take a textbook Weaver stance. "Hold it right there!"

Frank raised his hands, stood still for a moment, chuckled and slowly turned to face David. "How cute, Madsen! Actin' all like I've got anything to lose by fucking you up right now." His contemptuous smirk faded into consternation as David suddenly turned to look behind him, in response to a loud clomp that sounded from someone jumping off the nurse's desk.

Max began walking out into the hallway, arm out as though to grab her target and force his compliance. "Frank. Don't do this. Don't start with that bullshit. We're here to find out what the hell happened with Nathan Prescott. And how he's getting away with killing Chloe and Rachel." Max made eye contact with both men as she spoke. Looking at David's face she slowly let her hand lower. "I didn't bring you here to start crap with our inside guy."

David scowled. "Max, what in the hell do you think you're trying to pull here? I'm no... 'inside guy', whatever you think that even means!"

Max tried not to show her concern that David still wasn't holstering his gun. "Are you not? Are you not here for exactly the reason I just said?"

"I'm the chief of security at this facility!"

"Yeah, and nobody made a call here. The vending machine is that way, your office is there, and this isn't part of your normal route."

David sputtered angrily for a second. "You have no right to be snooping on people like this, Max!" But he did not say any more, as his walkie talkie went off.

"Madsen, everything okay on the west entrance? Shit fuckall is happening and I'm gonna punch out real soon."

"Yeah, just, uh, lock the door when you go. I've just got a couple mall goths here thinking they're all edgy loitering by the entrance at midnight, trying to give me some idiotic excuses with their SJW bullshit. I'll take it from here."

"Ha! Good luck with that... and good night, sir!"

Max crossed her arms, standing in front of the nurse's office door and looking at David as he shut off and holstered his walkie talkie. "So it's true."

"Max, even if it were true this is none of your business."

"David, it is true and this is absolutely my business. If it weren't for Chloe neither of us would be here right now."

Max paused for half a second, and then Frank noticed that little shift in Max's position again - and why the hell was she looking at him now instead of David?

Max turned back to David, looking two inches shorter and her tone completely different. "Please, David. Chloe was my best friend. I need to find out what really happened - if not for justice then at least for closure. Just like you do. And Joyce."

David looked at Max for a few seconds without changing expression. He then turned to Frank. "You're with her?"

Frank looked at Max and David saw neither her nod nor the "do not fuck with me" look in her eyes. "Yeah. Needed... help getting past the locks."

He scowled at both of them. Then his expression softened and he finally holstered that damn gun. "Welp. You both got me. So who else is in on this thing?"

Kate stepped out around the desk and came into view behind Max - mostly hiding behind her - while another voice came out from the shadows of the hall beyond.

"This is all quite beyond Samuel's expertise - though he might have misplaced some cleaning supplies in Principal Wells' office. You never know what strange important things get inappropriately concealed behind secret locked doors."

The party gathered and ventured forth to the front office without further incident.

It wasn't that Max didn't have a solution, she was just curious what solutions the others had: "And now we have to figure out how to unlock the door..."

Everyone looked at Samuel.

"Samuel assumed the head of security would have had the key."

Everyone looked at David.

"I, uh..."

Everyone looked at Frank.

He was already pulling a pencil case out of his jacket. "Yeah, yeah, figured you knuckleheads would need my help. Outta the way, folks..."

It took longer than anyone would have liked and Max had to rewind when a pick broke, but Frank proved that the lock was in fact pickable.

When the door opened they became conscious of the soft, irregular grinding spin of a hard drive. A quick clackity-clack of a keyboard, the click of a mouse.

David gestured at everyone else to fall back. One hand on his gun, he slowly stepped inside. From the front office Max watched him advance, turn (so excruciatingly slowly) towards the desk,... and stand straight up, arms crossed in irritation.

[Alpha Team reporting in. Over and out.]

"David Madsen! What a surprise to see you here! How's Samuel doing? And Kate? And Francis and Maxine?"

Frank and Max cringed.

"Ms. Cheang, do you understand that you have just been caught by the head of security at Blackwell Academy breaking into the office of its principal without lawful excuse?"

Max heard the squeaking of an office chair. "I do. I also understand that, by sheer lucky coincidence, the head of security at Blackwell Academy has also just been caught by its star photography teacher breaking into the principal's office, for reasons unknown to her except that (a) she knows full well he isn't supposed to have the key to this place; and (b) she is willing to bet her entire teaching career that this has something to do with his stepdaughter being nearly raped, then actually murdered in the coverup, by the scion of the school's most longstanding patron family, which scion the said head of security found out earlier this week has just been released on a recognizance. Watch the friendly fire, Corporal Madsen, before you take out your rear guard, squad leader and two snipers behind you." With each unique squad role mentioned Max heard the scraping of a small hard object being placed on the desk.

David held his fire.

Max emerged from behind cover.

Her eyes landed first on a stack of old leatherbound books on a side table weighing down a mini-tripod, at the end of which was a compact digital camera pointing down at the floor where a pile of folders and papers lay. From there she turned towards the nearest light source, and found on Wells' desk proper a laptop and a small black box with a rapidly flickering green light and an onion sticker on it, with a few cords coming out of them. The cords meandered haphazardly around three whiskey tumblers flocking like chicks around a hefty mother hen of a bottle of Heaven Hill, about one-third consumed. The bottle looked just a little too large for the slight frame of the figure who was now at the desk, twirling back and forth on the swiveling big comfy chair, a fourth whiskey tumbler in hand.

"Holy shit, Lu, how much have you been drinking? We are so going to get caught!"

"Relax, Max! I barely poured myself half a shot! Come here, all of you." She got off the chair, reached into the wastepaper basket and pulled out a receipt. "Wells bought this today. It was here" - she pointed at a spot a few millimetres above where the liquid was now - "when I found it, after listening in on Wells' room in the dorms to make sure he was snoring. I'm half wondering if I drank some of his spit now... Anyway, I've got a rag to wipe off any prints, and photos of where everything was before I picked it up. Unless he sleepwalks in here, or everyone 'always takes the shot' a few more times and we start partying it up, or one of you breaks something throwing a tantrum over some of the shit we're going to dig up in a minute, Wells isn't going to notice a thing."

She looked at David, Samuel and Frank again, and gestured with one hand at the tumblers. David just scowled at her while Samuel and Frank each raised their hands in front of them and took a step back.

"Fine, fine, gotta look all responsible in front of the students and shit. Max, Kate, you know your way around my stuff. Finish taking the photos of those files while I put away the party favours, rinse out this glass in the bathroom and get my webcam. By the time we've put everything away our ph4t l3wt should be all copied up and ready to go." Lu took the bottle and unused tumblers, wiped them down, checked her phone and put them all away.

 


 

Max: Buncha randos showed up!

Dana: Holy shit! What's going on now? Did the raid wipe?

Max: No PvP, all same team.
Max: 3 other groups logged into the same instance. One of them m4d h4x0r3d and solo'd the inner gate and guardian by the time we got there.
Max: But she's sharing the XP and loot with us now \(^o^)/

Dana: Be careful! Argus can still spawn!!!

Max: Already did - he's on our side now.

Dana: WTF

Max: Special event, raid boss is playable!

Dana: Was he the hacker???

Max: NO
Max: Hacker is
Max: Uh

They had never thought to come up with a codename for anyone else.

 


 

"Samuel is... not surprised at all. But disappointed nonetheless."

The group was gathered around the computer in the photography room, going through the copied contents of Wells' hard drive. They'd searched for Samuel's emails first, expecting to have the least information of any direct relevance to the Prescott matter. That was mostly correct, besides the numerous instances where he had to fix things Nathan broke; but what Samuel was referring to now was the total, systematic ignoring of his requests over the years for some ramps when he had to cart heavy equipment around campus. He'd send in the request, then Wells or a staffer would tell him they'd look into it, and after that they never would.

"See Dave? They're just cheap, not picking on you. That's good news, right?" Lu was referring to David's recent correspondence about setting up a proper security system - some of which had been CC'd to Lu as one of the two faculty members who'd ever responded with anything remotely sympathetic.

Max felt the need to interject. "Come on, Lu, you can't compare these things! You know Ms. Grant even had a petition going on! Believe it or not, you two, some of us actually don't want to be spied on all the time!"

Lu looked at Max and opened her mouth to speak, but she caught Frank's gaze which was pointed directly at the onion sticker on Lu's hard drive enclosure. "Okay, fine, you got me. But you'll have to excuse me for feeling a little... less than charitable... about Blackwell's motives as an institution for not spying on all of us."

Frank chuckled ruefully at the way Lu said "institution".

Moving on.

"Rob Dickinson mentioned on Wednesday that he had to sign a non-disclosure about the amount of his remuneration as well. He seemed quite happy with what he had negotiated."

"Yeah, well, I'm sure an old guy with a sexy British accent who's taught at five different posh private schools has probably learned a thing or two about haggling over his pay. Fuck, all this time I thought I was highballing them with bullshit that they'd be forced to talk down, and here are four fucking emails where Wells had offered these random white guys higher than that!" Lu sighed. "Of course, if I'd known Ayesha Washington was in the running I'd have dropped out and done everything in my power to get her in here with a shitton more money, but given how they lowballed even her too compared to this crap I'm glad she walked." Many days later Lu would recall a vaguepost Ayesha had made on social media that, when combined with their findings here, put a whole new context to why she ultimately withdrew her application.

Moving on.

More correspondence from David. After a few rewinds Max had to recruit Kate to help with some improvised de-escalation tactics when they inevitably got to David's accusations of Rachel being Frank's drug mule. A pattern soon became apparent that David's reports respecting the Vortex Club and Nathan had slowly dwindled, whether he was conscious of it or not, over the months as the administration did nothing each time.

"Wowsers. This is depressing."

"It's why I try not to take too many political stories in a row when I'm at the TFP. It really gets to you seeing the same shit happen over and over and those in power letting it no matter what the truth is."

"We are only given to do what we can. The power is not on any one of us to save the world... or even all of Arcadia Bay."

"Put not your trust in princes nor the sons of man..." Frank was the one who said this, while Kate nodded glumly.

While they were discussing the emails Lu was taking the SD cards out of the cameras and copying their record of Rachel's, Chloe's, Kate's, Max's and Nathan's files. The girls' files were more or less as Max remembered, except for the police reports about Rachel's and Chloe's deaths (containing nothing that Heather hadn't already hinted at - and of course Max had her copy of her own police statement), plus the police report on Kate's abduction.

Nathan's official record was a little less clean than before. There was a note that he was being investigated in relation to the accidental death of a woman who was found trespassing on school property, along with a note that this woman was mentally unstable and had threatened his safety in the past; this was said to have exacerbated some existing mental health issues that left him impressionable and vulnerable to abusive outside influences, along with depressive episodes, hallucinations and delusions.

The file contained nothing about any sort of misconduct on his part.

Max put a hand on Frank's elbow. "Frank, if you feel any need to step away from this for a moment..."

He shook her off and slammed his fist on the table in one motion. "Fuck off, Max! Right now the only thing I need to step away from is Nathan Prescott's dead fucking body after I'm done with him!"

Kate put a hand on Frank's other elbow. They looked at each other for a second. Frank sank into his chair. "What the fuck do we even do then!?"

Lu woke the school computer up from the screensaver. "The same thing we do every night, Frankie: try and take over the world. By which I mean we keep digging." She waved David over to look at the screen. "I'm gonna make separate copies of Wells' Nathan shit here, here, here and here. Do you think there's any other place where he could be hiding anything?"

"I guess if I were Wells, I'd... hmm..." David took the mouse from Lu and clicked around. Frank went over and suggested a few things. As Samuel started looking like he wanted to squeeze in there all three of them went wide-eyed and David ordered Max and Kate to stay the hell on that side of the room.

"Nothing illegal", said Lu.

"I've seen worse", said Frank.

"Yeah, but not on a work machine!" said David.

"I work from home."

"Anyway, this is all really fascinating as to the extremely personal sexual explorations of Raymond Wells, but it's got nothing to do with what we're doing here—"

"Lu, I've got a hunch. Can you enable hidden file view?"

"Yeah, but what do you think—oh hey, there is something here... 'The D—'"

"Lu!" Max yelled from the other side of the room. "Do not throw that keyboard! Remember what you said earlier!"

"Why? What would make you think—holy shit is that..." Lu suddenly stood up, knocking back Frank and David and her own chair. She shakily picked it up, set it a few feet back, sat down on its edge and put her head in her hands. "I think I'm going to be sick."

Max grabbed Kate's hand. "I rewound", she whispered. Then she guided her to a chair, kept holding her hand while interlocking their fingers, and said in a normal speaking voice: "Kate, you might want to sit down for this. Just remember: people care about you. It was never your fault. We're all here to help you any way we can. Please" - Max put her other hand over their hands for emphasis - "stay strong. Stay with us."

Lu lifted her head up, looking over at Kate in fear. "D... did you two know about this?"

Kate stared at Lu, then at the computer. "A... about what?"

"Oh God, Kate, I am so sorry... fuck, I don't even know if it's real... I'm going into the folder. Subfolder with names... clicking on 'Lucy' now... enabling thumbn—fuck everything!" The keyboard tipped over the monitor and both crashed back onto the desk, but no damage was done and Max did not rewind.

It took a few minutes for Lu to calm down enough to look at the monitor again. It took about another minute for Kate to stop crying. Samuel and Max were left trying to comfort them, as Frank had slunk away into the shadows in shame while David had gone to check the perimeter to make sure no one had noticed the new commotion.

Lu went back to the computer. "I'll make a read-only backup of Wells' browser profile - we can figure out where he got these later and try to work from there."

 

Max: God fucking damn it!

Dana: What's wrong? Are you guys safe???

Max: The shit they did to Kate got leaked!

Dana: The video!?

Max: DR

Dana: ...
Dana: Holy shit that's bad
Dana: Wait, you found that in the raid!?

Max: Our hacker friend got carried away and went on the wrong site looking for an exploit.
Max: The hack they were using had some "surprises" in it.
Max: They'll try to dig up the source to stop it but it's gonna be The Video all over again...

Dana: OMG I am so sorry Kate!!!

Max: What they did to the hacker got leaked too.
Max: Shit, wait, that totally gives away who she is, doesn't it?

Max: Gotta go, we'll talk about more of this while we're setting up your share of the loot.

Dana: Be careful. And stay strong.
Dana: Tell "Alpha" I said hi.

 

Lu wasn't known for conceding to her better judgment. So when her better judgment told her to stop looking at the fucking Dark Room pictures and triggering herself, she went back into that folder to just stare at the names for a moment.

Then she clicked on something.

Max, Kate, Samuel and Frank watched Lu's face in the light of the monitors as it went from scared, to sad, to consternated, to growing shocking revelation amidst some rapid scrolling and switching windows,... and then laughing.

"Wells. You fucking bastard. You kinky piece of shit. You self-flagellating limp-dicked Uncle Tom of a sub... you, sir, are a gentleman and a fucking everyday hero." She actually took off her hat and touched the monitor with it. Then she put it back on and peered over the monitor at the others. "Guys, get David and come over here, you've got to see this shit!"

The Dark Room folder had a "websites.txt" file at the bottom, which started thus:

2013-10-31
I don't know where else to keep this. Hopefully if our IT guy ever looked in the vicinity of this folder he would be sufficiently distracted by the... other findings... that I can continue this mitigation procedure unmolested.

Contacted admin of OnHumanBondage.co.uk. Very cooperative once made aware of their origin.

Contacted admin of FuckHardRideFree.info. Disappointing but not unexpected.

Contacted admin of ChainSmokingHotBabes.net. Immediately cooperative and on board.

Contacted mod team at OmegaverseOfOurOwn.org. Disappointing response, exacerbated by a mistake on my part (I really didn't want to look that closely), but also a reminder of why I need to do this.

[...]

2013-11-02
Jim got back to me about the DMCA question. Nothin'. Nada. Unless we're to somehow gain control of Mark Jefferson's estate and issue a takedown claim as a rightsholder. Which I just don't see happening anytime soon.

Contacted mod team at OnLeatherSteeds.porn. [...]

It went on like this, with more websites and dates and results, ending with a couple entries from earlier that day.

She then showed them Wells' email history on her laptop from Halloween:

Ray,

Thank you very much for letting us know about these pictures. We have taken down the post and issued a warning. These "models" were clearly unconsenting and posting them was a violation of our forum rules. We have made a new post in Announcements and the mods will keep an eye out for any reposts in the future.

Always good to have you with us. Now back into the dungeon with you, little man~ ;D

—Mistress Cora Anthrax
OnHumanBondage.co.uk


Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for reporting the thread "Mark Jefferson's MASTERPIECE - the REAL Dark Room pics!!!". We have reviewed your request and the post did not violate our User Guidelines as all models were over the age of 18 and even if they weren't there was no nudity or sexually explicit material anyway. In the interests of protecting our users' God-given freedom of expression we are not able to take any action based on purely moral grounds.

Wishing you the best,

RockHard_Rider
"All Day, All Night!"


Dear Principal Wells,

First off, HOLY SHIT LMAOOOO did you really mean to send that from your Blackwell address!??!!??

Anyway, yeah that shit's fucked, man. Hate to see the Bigfoot name dragged through the mud like this. That fucker's permabanned now and I've made a report to the image host. Best of luck scrubbing the Net clean of this garbage.

Go Bigfoots!!!

—Brandon Locke (Class of '08)


Thank you for your report.

The set that rapeman_mcslutface69 posted was not a genuine Dark Room set, but a satire of Mr. Jefferson's work made by members of our photography subforum. The models in these sets, xXx_SlapMeDaddy_xXx, LilMissPurrfect and rapeman_mcslutface69 herself, have all indicated in the thread that they were over 18 and posing willingly.

Perhaps some might consider this to be tastelessly "too soon"; but we cannot arbitrarily censor people posting genuine personal artistic expression based on subjective moral judgment.

No action will be taken.

Hope that helps!


Ray:

Thank you for taking the initiative on this. Rose sends her regards.

I've spoken with Brett Matthews from my old firm. Turns out he was recently talking with one of his clients about a similar (unrelated) matter and his general advice going forward about these takedown notices is...

"I've been to a couple of these sites. Some friends of mine make hella cash doing kink shoots. They'd told me that there was talk about Dark Room photos that got posted and taken down, but no one they knew actually saw the posts and the mods wouldn't say anything. Of all the people who I might've suspected was reporting them so damn fast..."

"But how would he know where to look?" asked poor, sweet, innocent Kate.

Lu sucked air through her teeth. She ordered her and Max to stay on that side of the desk, and turned Wells' monitor to face Frank as she scrolled through a few screens of thumbnails. "Okay, now, Frank, as a heterosexual man familiar with the vices of our time, can you tell me: (a) Ignoring the Dark Room folder, does this look like a genuine spank bank to you, as opposed to a mere decoy? (b) After seeing that set with the large black man in chains being stepped on by this statuesque Teutonic woman dressed like Brünnhilde from a low-budget Wagner production, while not a fellow POC but still someone reasonably familiar with analyzing problematic porn tropes, do you think I was being unfair with that 'Uncle Tom' dig?"

 


 

The sudden, jarring sense of silence came before the realization that the hard drive grinding had stopped. Lu checked her phone and laptop and set Wells' windows and desktop view back to what they had been.

The bronze bird looked on impassively.

"I think we've got as much as we can hope to get," said David. "I don't know what kind of physical evidence of anything Wells might've had in here—"

"Actually, Dave, thanks for reminding me." Lu went over to the desk, drawing everyone's gaze away from Max's wide-eyed gawking, and opened a drawer. "Check out what I found while I was looking for the tumblers."

Lu pulled out the crisp, clean bundles of bills and tossed them onto the desk like so many playing cards. "Ten thousand even." She dropped the empty envelope on top of them. It wasn't quite the envelope Max had remembered, but the "Handicapped Fund" label was there all the same.

She looked at Samuel, then at Kate. "You two are the most likely people in this room to have heard anything about this." They looked at the others who just shrugged. "Nothing at all, then? No talk about ramps, or lifts, or Braille signs, or textured pavements, or an on-site therapist?" Instead of looking at Max, she looked at the spot where they'd put Nathan's file.

David inspected the envelope and bills, then went over to the drawer. He pulled it all the way out, shone a light on it and found a DC adapter, a cheap ballpoint pen that didn't work, a worn-out screwdriver and a dead moth.

"The 'handicapped' fund", mused Kate, scare quotes audible but not in a bitchy way. "I wonder what would possess someone to make a charitable donation like this, to leave it untraceable but still earmarked for a purpose - even if such a vague one."

"Heh, maybe the 'handicap' refers to—"

"Not now, Frank." That shift, that "do not fuck with me" look. This time the shift took Max from somewhere off to Frank's left to right in his face. He staggered backwards and complied, and saved everyone from a fifteen-minute heated argument between Lu and David about ableist language.

"I'm trying to think," said Lu after a brief awkward silence, "about any accessibility discussions any staff or faculty might've had that might've led up to this. I know for a fact no one had any sort of fundraiser for it recently - Ms. Grant had brought it up specifically at a staff meeting and was told we should wait until an actual current student expressed a need."

"In all these years Samuel has never heard of such a fundraiser."

"Back when I came here it was a running gag how 'gimp-proof' this piece of shit building was." After that last never-happened exchange Max was surprised that David "you don't know a goddamn thing, missy, don't give me that fuckin' PC bullshit" Madsen would be the one to wince at Frank's mere mention of the slur. She made a note to remind Lu to stick with Krita whenever she was working in the house.

Kate pursed her lips and shook her head. "Look, I know I have a bit of a... reputation, so I'm just going to first make it very clear to everyone that I understand why this money looks suspicious. I'm even willing to go as far as to say that this is probably the Prescott bribe money we're all thinking it is.

"But I can also see how it could actually be what it says on its face. 'But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing' - this kind of anonymous cash charity is totally the way a few older people I know would've handled this, if they wanted to spur the school into action."

Max half-remembered something Pop said those few times he'd ever said anything about work. "But if the donor had specifically earmarked this money for 'handicapped' use, wouldn't that legally be a trust?" She picked up a wad of bills and flipped through it. The whole thing seemed like a novelty gag item, the bills felt so new under her fingers. "But there'd be no way to enforce it without proof."

"That's exactly the point. If you really want to give, you can't hold back and demand accountability. You can't find motivation in the promise of a tax receipt. The sacrifice has to be unmitigated, an act of faith, in the same way Christ's was."

"Didn't he come back after three days, though?"

Kate looked at Max and sharply exhaled out of her nose. "Okay, but still, he actually died, even if—" Kate suddenly broke eye contact, paused, and touched Max's arm. Lu thought back to that sudden stop to that iconoclasm debate in class, and wondered again what in the world was going on between them.

Max returned the touch. "It's okay, Kate. You tried."

Frank crossed his arms and glared at the money like the paper itself had personally insulted him. "Let's say", he began, "that I suddenly had this big fuckin' stash of dirty money, and for whatever reason I had to leave it in another building overnight." He looked at David. "Suppose my private security detail was not supposed to know about it, and I couldn't trust anyone else, and my office door had this medieval-ass lock of the sort that could be picked by some random fuckin' drug dealer." He looked at Lu. "Or even some psycho small-town newspaper reporter."

Lu interpreted, not wholly by sincere error, Frank's look to be her cue to finish his thought. "So the question, then, would be: what could you put on the cash to make someone afraid of stealing it? Pretty smart move, Principal Wells." She narrowed her eyes at the bills. "Fuck, you know what? I can steal all of this right now and pocket it tax free, and they'd still be paying me less than what they offered Matt Munroe..."

"I really don't know about all this!" interjected Kate, turning towards the two party members with the lockpicking skills. "It's like a negative Pascal's Wager! If we're wrong and we don't take the money, we don't lose anything; if we're right and we don't take the money, we don't gain anything; but if we're wrong and we take the money then we will have just stolen ten thousand dollars from a bunch of handicapped kids. And then, even if we're right and we do take the money, we will still have just stolen a bunch of dirty money!"

"I'm with Kate here", said David. "Stealing is wrong no matter what. There are lines that we shouldn't cross if we're not forced into it. It's a matter of integrity and loyalty, and if we just sit here debating what sort of good we could accomplish by doing some bad here and there we'll just end up with the kind of reasoning that gets people to murder their loved ones for some bullshit 'greater good'!"

Max cringed so hard she reversed time. Which, of course, just forced her to relive the bad part of David's lecture all over again.

Lu looked about a fifth as bad as Max felt. Which, granted, was pretty bad. "Samuel, you've been real quiet, help us here. You know this cash is bullshit, right? No one's gonna miss it... besides Wells. I don't even want the money here, just, like, validation."

Samuel considered his words for some time, then gave his final answer: "The squirrels know many things. As do the birds."

An owl flew past the window.

I will not repeat here the torrential spew of judgment and condemnation that ran through Max's head, comparing Chloe unfavorably to her new (but also derogated) companions in this re-do of the principal's office night raid. Max felt the power of a thousand owl-eyes judging her at unnatural angles, and said nothing.

 


 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Max and Kate came back to find scaffolding on the front steps of the dormitory. A sign indicated that accessibility upgrades were in progress.

Samuel was picking up some litter by the benches.

Seeing no one else around, they taped a couple letter-sized sheets over it and went their way.

It was an announcement, typed on a crude photocopy of Blackwell's letterhead with a tiny little anarchy sign for the "A" in "Blackwell", claiming to be speaking on behalf of the school's "shadow administration" and its most generous donors.

The letter contained a detailed, simply worded, conveniently captioned point-by-point list of improvements that students and faculty could expect in the next five years, as the school committed a hefty six-figure budget to not only reach but exceed full ADA compliance with ramps, wheelchair lifts, elevators, Braille signs, textured walkways and motorized front doors. A small map of the campus was included showing the highest-traffic areas that would receive work.

A short but unequivocal plan, clearly written by an actual lawyer, was set out for a special escrow fund that would receive all donations for full financial transparency.

A call for nominations was made for a full-time on-site therapist, scheduled to start Spring 2014. Alumni were encouraged to pass on suggestions for people they had worked with since graduation.

The letter ended with a cartoon of a sasquatch riding a wheelbarrow up a ramp, pushed by a smiling, bespectacled squirrel.

Chapter Text

Memory never recaptures reality. Memory reconstructs. All reconstructions change the original, becoming external frames of reference that inevitably fall short.

—Mentat Handbook

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lu could barely hear over the rumbling of the bus the familiar guitar riff coming out of her pocket. OSP Sergeant Susan M.L. Cheang being a metalhead, of course Lu had to use "Breaking The Law" for her sister.

She picked it up without looking. "Heeeeyyyyyy, what's makin', bacon?"

Lu could almost hear her sister rolling her eyes. "Ugh, fuck you. I go totally out of my way to give my dearest baby sister a call - live! even on a telephone! - and this is the thanks I get! Anyway, do you have a few minutes?"

"I'm just on the bus right now. What's up?"

"Okay, take a look around, and see how well you're able to code switch. Some of this is going to be sensitive, so if you're going to be overheard anyway, you can... come to think of it, just call me later, okay?"

"Nah, it's good. All I see are..." - she paused to look, then resumed in halting, heavily accented Mandarin peppered in English and Cantonese words - "a Native mom and kids, a woman I know about from that coffee shop, she definitely doesn't speak Chinese, the driver who is Indian and a couple white folks. Won't know a thing I'm saying."

A loud, angry voice rang in Lu's ears. "Hey, knock that shit off! We don't need to hear that sort of thing in this country!"

"Ma'am, I was not talking to you", she shouted back.

"For fuck's sake", Su said over the phone.

"You heard that, Su?"

"Look, just get out of there, keep to places where there are witnesses and exits and call me right after, okay?"

"Yeah. Oof. Thanks, driver! Totsiens, sus! Love you, Miss Piggy—"

"Stay on the line, dumbass! And yell if you need anything. Where are you anyway?"

It should be noted that during that last exchange with her sister Lu had already pulled the next stop, then started moving down the aisle before nearly cracking a rib on the ticket machine and staggering out the door. All while the woman in the back was yelling at her about her sort being unwelcome and taking over and ruining America.

And also getting off the bus at this stop.

Oh hey, she recognized this parking lot. The two whales on the Two Whales were looking lovely in the sunlight today. In the distance an all too familiar-looking RV sat in the bright shade as though it were merely part of the land itself.

Three options appeared on Lu's mental HUD:

  • GET BACKUP FROM THE DRUG DEALER
  • GET BACKUP FROM THE DINER WAITRESS
  • TAKE SOME PRETTY PICTURES

From everything she's had to cover about this town, Lu could think of no better person than Frank to represent its real, authentic non-immigrant(-merely-colonizer) character for maximum ironic lulz. However, luring this person towards some strange sketchy-looking drug dealer was probably going to trigger every last one of this woman's Karen instincts and escalate things even worse.

"I'm off the bus, going into the Two Whales diner."

"Good job. Boy, this Joyce woman sure does a lot for you, from what you tell me... you'd better always be paying your rent on time."

"Cops helping landlords. It's like I'm reading a bad preachy leftist fanfiction."

"And you'd better leave her a fat fucking tip once you've finished your brunch."

The yelling continued behind her.

She ducked into the diner and immediately found the person she was looking for.

"Oh hi, Lu! Fancy seeing you again so soon! Have a seat, I'll be with you in a jiffy."

"Thanks, Joyce!" And they both promptly shot past each other because Lu saw her favourite spot available and Joyce was in the middle of carrying someone's Belgian waffles over to their table.

She sat down and the door opened again.

"—ever think we've forgotten about how you rigged the election in 2012 with your people's socialist sleeper agent Manchurian candidate who's done nothing but fucking undermine the economic freedoms of this amazing country ever since—"

Joyce quickly set down the waffles for the patron with a brief apology for her haste, then walked straight up to the woman. "Excuse me, ma'am,"

The woman stopped. "Joyce! Fancy seeing... you... here..."

Joyce glowered at the woman, hands on her hips. "I work here, Barbara. And I appreciate your not making a nuisance of yourself or harassing our customers."

"Oh. Um. Sorry." The woman cast a death glare straight at Lu before hurrying out of the diner.

Joyce briefly checked in on the other customer, took back her tray and went over to Lu's booth. "Jesus, Lu, I'm sorry you had to go through all that. Does that sort of thing happen often?"

"Not at all! This is the first time I've ever seen anything like that in this town! So thanks, Joyce, for literally saving my day."

A tiny, tinny "Hey, Earth to Lucy! You there?" sounded from the phone on the table.

Lu picked it up. "Yeah! I've just sat down in the booth. I think Joyce scared her off."

"You think?"

"Could be fear, or could've been she was madly in love with her." She grinned at Joyce's aghast expression.

"Alright then. Well, call me later when you've got some privacy, we gotta talk about that insane fucking pile of Pres-scat you told me you found on that now defunct 'Shadows of the Dark Room' site on the darkweb."

"Will do, Link Hogthrob."

"And don't order the fish again, Lu Zealand." Beep.

She asked for and received her burger, root beer and salad without further incident.

While she was eating Lu thought she caught a glimpse of Barbara again in the parking lot, but paid no further mind.

 


 

Frank frowned, closed his cupboard, sucked air in through his teeth and opened his camper door. "Barb, I've got some bad news and either good news or worse news depending on how you feel about certain... countries."

"What? Are you out?" Her anxiety medication was grossly overpriced when bought through any legal avenue.

"Technically, no. But my Canadian source has been a bit on the rocks lately and I've only got three days of it for you, not the entire week."

"What!? What the hell kind of— what's going on, Frank!? Are you trying to pull a fast one here? You didn't promise some 'reservations' for those Blackwell dykes, did you!?"

"What? No, haven't— anyway, the g— the other news is that my other source got a fresh supply from China—"

"No! Frank, you know how those people are! First that Pan Estates takeover, then our meds, then what!? Then what, Frank!? I got fired from Pan Estates because of them, Frank! They'll take over America and destroy our freedom! Our way of life! Fuck that shit, Frank, you need to stop selling it!"

He ran his hand over his face as she went on in a similar fashion for some time. Whatever time of day it actually was, it was too early in the morning to deal with this. "Fine, I solemnly promise not to sell anyone any Communist Chinese sleeper agent product. Are you going to take the last of the Canadian or not?"

Barb fidgeted for a bit and looked around. "Ugh. Guess I have to, don't I? I'll just have to suffer the rest of the week without. Text me as soon as your Canadian guy comes around!"

"Will do." Frank went back into his camper as Barb rummaged through her purse.

He stepped back out a few seconds later with the goods and they exchanged wordlessly. "It's for the better. Turns out all the labels on that last shipment's bottles were in Chinese. Gonna have to ask around to see if someone could translate, unless—"

"Do I look like I fucking speak Chinese!?" She put her three days' worth of meds in her purse and stormed off.

Frank did not answer Miss Barbara "Cocker Spaniel" Leung's very loaded rhetorical question.

His phone alerted him to a text. Oh look, it's one of the "Blackwell dykes". Yes, she was safe to come over now, and yes he has her mom's new prescription this time not the old one. Yes, it's the right one, he checked the name on that damn box letter by letter. Yes, just come over, what, no, just pay the fucking car guy first and he'll put it on the tab, they'll figure something out for her later. He of course hadn't written the prescription, so do let him know how her mom was responding to it...

 


 

Max: I can't take this waiting anymore! What did Circe say about the runestones?

Lu: She n another player in her clan r still going through them
Lu: Nothing they can use yet
Lu: Not at this level

Max: That was a shitton of runestones though! They couldn't use any of them?

Lu: Thats what happens when u hack the game to get them (_ _|||)
Lu: Their power wont work directly on the Dragon
Lu: The clans only use them to summon quest givers n shit
Lu: And hope those quest rewards CAN hurt the Dragon

Max: Can they at least use the Runes of Wicked Deeds?

Lu: Just flavor text
Lu: Wont actually damage the Dragon

Max: Or the Missives of the Dragon's Necromancers?

Lu: Not privileged at least
Lu: But still the problem of how we got them
Lu: So more quest givers
Lu: Though "reveal the boon that Abaddon bestowed on the Chained Master to obtain his oath for the Dragon's unsealing" is one bigass quest
Lu: (and from what Argus and i saw i guess i do mean big ass ;D)

Max: Gross! (>_<)

Lu: Lol sry

Max: Ugh. This is going to take so long!
Max: Sorry if I'm gonna be spacing out more than usual in class. This is going to bother me all afternoon.

Lu: Np
Lu: We can discuss this further in person after
Lu: Never liked doing rpg stuff online anyway

 


 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Amidst all the expunged misconduct reports and correspondence, the obsessive scrawlings about Rachel in the Dark Room, the picture of Chloe and the note she gave him, and even the talk about David leading him to people, one set of incomprehensible scribblings stood out for everyone. Had it not been for the context, it might have been overlooked as mere notes for another art project in Nathan's signature spooky, brooding framing.

Lu had refused to say a word about this camera tenebrarum in any written unsecured channel. The name itself had sounded so wildly RPG-esque that it had taken Kate, Dana and Max a while to come up with a code name for it in their fake game: the Oubliette.

They had no idea what the fuck it was.

After Frank relayed what he had heard they could at least establish this much:

  1. it was supposed to be a successor to the Dark Room;
  2. it was supposed to be for some kind of ritual purpose;
  3. Jefferson had been the original's keeper;
  4. what Jefferson had been doing with his photos was not the original purpose; and
  5. there was a growing, secretive cult of men who believed strongly in this purpose.

"Has anyone met any of these cultists?" asked Dana.

"I've only talked to Jamie and Treeface. They haven't seriously tried to recruit me yet - I guess 'Arcas' knows I wouldn't be able to do the work I do if my brain were to be scrambled by weirdo Kennewick Man fanfic LARPer bullshit."

"I knew Jamie was depressed for a long time, but a cult!? We need to try to get him out!"

"If only it were just a matter of convincing him!", said Dana. "They've got entire programs and facilities to deprogram cult victims, Kate!"

Kate sighed. "I know."

David and Samuel were still at work, so of the Friends of the Dungeon Raiders it was just Frank, Lu, Dana, Kate and Max in the gazebo behind the church. They must have been a sight, Max thought, this motley mix of weirdoes hanging out with their tea and computers, amidst the rain and mossy headstones.

It would've been a great photo op if everyone weren't in full agreement that leaving any more of a trail than absolutely necessary was a bad idea.

"Is there any reason not to think that this 'Arcas' is Sean Prescott?" asked Max.

"I thought it might be an abstract ideal, or an institution, or even a prophesied future saviour, but everything I know from having met him I'm sure he'd be personally taking on that mantle himself." Dana's experiences with Mr. Prescott were... not very nice. And always about how strong and dominant and unassailable he was.

"Hey Lu, any luck looking up where the other bomb shelters might've been built?"

"I don't even know where to start. City Hall's website sucks and I've just been bringing up old human-interest news articles and shit. Found a news story about one that was sealed off after they found a meth lab in there, another about some old boomer who's trying to preserve the greatest relics of human civilization - by which he means mostly Led Zeppelin memorabilia, from the looks of this picture." And this was after several additions to the search terms to filter out all the news about the Dark Room.

"We need to go to City Hall in person!" Max looked at Frank and Kate. "And while we do that, do either of you think you can get any more information from Jamie without making him suspicious?"

"I've told him over and over again I didn't want to hear about any of that crap, so I might've painted myself into a corner there. Then again, the main reason I've told him that is because he wouldn't shut up, so I don't think he'd notice if I forgot to slam the door on him once or twice."

"We hardly even talk now! I'm trying to remember... Last time we really talked was when I was here touring Blackwell in the spring. We hung out at his mom's place and I watched him play Brutal Doom with Jessica." Max and Dana looked at her and she shrugged. "Both our moms were at work!"

Max's scumbag brain let in a judgmental thought about mindless edgelord video games with unhealthy fixations on blood and death, but that suddenly reminded her of something else. "Wait, why are we wasting time on this Jamie guy when Nathan's coming back to Blackwell? I'm sure David's already planning on tracking his truck again!"

"Max, remember the point is to get more intel without tripping any—" Dana narrowed her eyes. "Wait, what do you mean again? Who else has he been tracking?"

Max tried three different explanations in which she would not have had to disclose her time travel powers and the entire timeline that never was. At the end of the day, she could not steer the conversation in a way that would not create a rift where the gazebo people had to keep certain disclosures arbitrarily secret from David. Hello mission-killing internal drama. Rewind!

"What about Nathan himself? David might be able to monitor him, send us anything we might be able to use and pretend it's just normal security routine."

"That's a good idea, Max. He and Samuel might also be able to keep a tab on any students who might be showing signs of being connected to this cult." Dana blinked. "God, am I really suggesting we encourage Mr. Madsen's insane surveillance crap!? What am I getting myself into..."

"I'm afraid David will overreact and do more harm than good!" added Kate.

"Well, how about this", said Frank, "we can keep an eye out - wherever we are - and keep each other updated. Once we've flagged someone then we get Rambo to follow up, stick a tracker on their car if he hasn't done so already."

Max's eyes widened. "Wait, you knew about that!?"

Max turned to Frank with an expression of only mild surprise. "A tracker? Does David really do that?"

"Had to pull one out as recently as two weeks ago. Stuck it on some rando's car while I was at the mall. Where does that motherfucker even buy these things anyway..."

Max remembered a mortgage statement she found in a bedroom a few realities ago.

 


 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"You got my note."

"'The guy with the dog who was with the loud angry chick with the blue hair and bullet necklace' - how could I forget? You really didn't have to add the flowers though."

"You can thank Little Miss Angry for those. She didn't think it was right to just leave the note on your brother's grave with nothin' else."

Frank was talking on his phone while coordinating a few shipments on his computer. A lot of the older guys he learned from were never this bold on the Internet, though Frank learned early on that it wasn't so much cleaning your trail as making the ones you leave too shitty to be worth the effort. A little lying to intermediaries, a bit of pattern recognition when it came to the pigs' feeding habits and a dash of fresh onion was usually enough for small fry like him. (After all, it wasn't like anyone was going to just randomly barge into his RV with a cop on the line.)

Anyway, this call had nothing to do with all that.

"Well, you can tell her thanks for me - and to be honest, that bit of respect was why I'm bothering to go out of my way to respond."

Frank felt that quizzical look Pompidou gave him. "Uhh, sorry for whatever it was?"

"You basically wrote 'hey I noticed you were Indian can you give me a call please cuz I wanna ask you about Indian stuff around here'. Surely you've seen that episode of Seinfeld, Frank?"

Frank distinctly remembered writing "Native" not "Indian" but point taken. "Yeah, okay, fine. That was a bit crass. But you're not the first person I approached about this and I'm getting fuckin' desperate. And besides, would you rather I went to some starchy-ass old white guy with a British accent for this info? Pip pip cheerio with a pith helmet and mutton chops and everything."

Ty laughed. "Point taken. But I doubt I've got anything you're looking for - I'm actually Musqueam from up north. Me and my brother came down here back in '87 to avoid family. When it comes to any old local stuff I don't suppose I'd know any more than you or any of your clients."

"At this point I'll take whatever I can."

"You've been warned."

"Okay, first off, have you heard of any ethnic group called the 'Arcadians'?"

"Just the folks who live in this town! Red, brown, black, white, yellow, green, purple,... wait, we're not talking, like, Cajuns, right?"

"No, like Arrrrr cadia, like this town." Pompidou barked for emphasis.

"Got it." Silence, then: "Nope. Though I think I might've read something in the paper years ago about some scientists trying to debunk some weird Kennewick Man sorta bullshit and they might've called it 'Arcadian Man' or something like that..."

"I figured as much." Frank scheduled a meeting with one of his sources by the remains of the old riverbed, which reminded him of his next question. "Do you know anything about the river?"

"What river?"

"The old riverbed that leads to the cliffs, north of the lighthouse. According to another guy I've talked to it matches what the local elders have always said: an old chief dammed it and diverted it out of greed, causing a famine for years, after which he was killed by his own son."

"T.I.L. - like I said, my family isn't from these parts."

"So nothing about the river... do you know anything about an old skull near the cliffs at least?"

"What? No... did they find another body from that whole Jeffer-shitstorm?"

"No. Not that... God, I hope not..."

"Then no, no idea. That's some weird-ass stuff you've been reading, whatever it is."

"Yeah, you can say that."

"Anything else?"

Pompidou was half trying to climb onto Frank's lap, while staring at one specific point on his screen. Frank looked and saw what the problem was, picked up the burner and texted one of the two dealers asking to reschedule. Pompidou went back to his chew toy. "Nah, I think that's it. Just trying to track down this story I heard from someone a while back."

"Good luck then, friend." Silence, then: "Dunno if I should ask, but..."

"Yeah?"

A few minutes later Ty was by Frank's RV scoring a quarter of Green Dream.

"Thanks! I'm starting to wonder where my regular weed dealer had gone..."

"Who was it?"

"Simon Jimmy. Usually hangs out by the docks to the south. You know him?"

"Yeah." Frank was, in fact, Simon's supplier - or had been. "Haven't seen him in over a month. One day he just packed up all his shit, dumped all his clients and said he wanted to focus on activism or some shit to save his people."

"Shit, he never told me any of that! This has to do with the Pan Estates protests, right?"

"Now that you mention it, I think it does. Heard it's pretty hairy over there... fuck, if I pissed people off a tenth as often as Prescott did I'd be dead ten times over by now. He probably doesn't want to get clients in on this sort of thing, so if you want to get involved yourself you'd better find another way in."

"Yeah, I suppose recruiting your clients would be a liability, wouldn't it." Ty glanced over towards the lighthouse, the let his gaze drift inland towards the general direction of the old burial ground. "Maybe I'll take a look there myself sometime soon..."

Jimmy.

Jamie.

"I'd be careful. Prescott's got some pretty fucked up dudes there and it ain't just the pigs." Damn, did Pompidou just stop wagging his tail at the mere mention of that name now?

"Thanks for the advice, friend, but just remember I'm still older than you and I expect to be for some time." Ty started turning away. "And with that I should get going. See you around, Flower Power Frank!"

Frank had not for many years been this glad that he hadn't given someone his last name. Max must never learn about this part of the conversation.

As Ty was driving home the staircase wit kicked in and he remembered something he had no specific reason not to tell Frank. He made a mental note to call him later, and promptly forgot it when he got home, stepped through the door and work called.

It was a story about a river, something that Simon had jotted down in a notepad that Ty had discovered when breaking into his dorm one morning many years ago in their wild, wasted youth, trying to figure out if his girlfriend had been fucking the much younger man on the side.

It was a story that Simon's grandmother had told him when he was little. A man had used a deer's eye to steal the soul of a woman; he tried to feed it to a whale to gain its favour but was punished by the Thunderbird. The woman's soul escaped and wandered for many years, was taken up by Thunderbird in a waterspout and finally restored to her when the tornado tore open her grave. There was a lot more to it than that, but Ty couldn't remember the details.

The paper was clipped to a photo of a mural, neither the first nor last of its kind, painted on the wall of an old storefront long since shut down and condemned: the image of a man falling down a waterfall in his canoe while clutching a disembodied eye to his chest.

 


 

"Hot date tonight?" asked Lu, looking directly at Michelle's stack of student papers and coffee mugs.

"You, Ms. Cheang, have a talent for trolling up the last thing the person you're talking to wants to think about at any given moment. Sure, hot date, if you're that sort of masochist!" To emphasize her point, she grabbed one paper and tossed it in Lu's direction. She picked it up as it was sliding across the staff room table and found an interpretation of climate change and Arcadia Bay's fish shortage that read like an example from a textbook on conspiracy theories.

"Good Lord, Michelle. Do you need a break? A hug? Me to start reading Arthur C. Clarke out loud?" She flipped over to the next page. "Or Clark Ashton Smith?"

"Thanks for the offer, Lu, but it'd just be too distracting - I actually want to engage each of my students in good faith."

"Amen to that!" She looked at the paper Michelle had given her again, and added a "Lord have mercy" before sliding it back to her.

"Keep in mind this can be a very important teaching moment for this student - and everyone around them later." Michelle picked up the paper and flipped a few pages in. "Including myself - I think I can write up a model answer that can get a lot more use going forward!"

If only Lu could have that kind of pedogogical integrity. Instead, she was now erratically flipping between two virtual desktops on her computer: one with her teaching notes - at this point just this old rant from her blog about how much she hated the word "capture" that she was slowly picking apart to rebuild into something actually useful - and the other with the so-called "runestones". Where the fuck do they even go from here?

Coach Lochbaum looked up from his own laptop. "So I guess we're all staying late, huh?"

"Guess so", said Priscilla Jackson without even looking up from the papers she was grading. General murmurs of agreement from the other two.

"Hey, I got an idea, let's order takeout!" General, slightly more enthusiastic murmurs of agreement from the three women. "Lu, what's a good Chinese restaurant around town?"

It was tiny, barely an eyetwitch on the side of Michelle's face that did not have line of sight with Lochbaum, but Lu saw it and understood the reference.

She herself decided to think nothing of it, however, and immediately tried to recall what she had seen during her time here. After all, as a person with an ethnicity, food was very important to her.

"Gimme a moment, gotta check something before I lead us all down a long, hangry rabbithole for the rest of the night." There was some rapid typing and a few clicks. "Heaven's Pearl Seafood was a real surprise for me when I was last here in 2011. Like, fancy real Hong Kong-style stuff I would never have expected in a town as small as this. They're still around, but I don't really think of it as a weeknight sort of 'take-out place' and their prices have gone way up since their local suppliers went down.

"Then there's Arcadia Golden Hour Grand Fortune. Oldschool North American stuff - it's the sort of place where you order sweet and sour pork and broccoli stir fry. They make their own fortune cookies, too - some of the messages went viral on Tumblr last year.

"Last but not least, Wang's Western Halal. It's owned by these two guys who came here from Harbin in the '90s, one Muslim and one Russian Orthodox, really long and confusing story behind that but the lamb skewers are amazing!" She turned the monitor around to show the others a photo of said skewers.

"Hey, does that watermark—"

"And they're willing to shell out for original photography for their website! Seriously, this is actually how it looks, it's not that shit you read about where you paint raw meat in motor oil to give it an appetizing crispy look or whatever, what you're looking at here is something that they really make and what really gets eaten." They had gone through so, so many takes to get the steam to look right - enough that at one point they just had Lu shoot everything coming out of the kitchen and let the numbers game sort it out.

"Hmm", started Coach Lochbaum hesitantly. "Seems might be, uh, kinda spicy for me. Doctor. Heartburn."

"Dude, don't worry, the pepper ratings on the menu are calibrated 'white people spicy'."

"Still, uh, don't really want to risk it. Big game coming up."

"Uh huh."

Nobody present needed to eat halal, nor was anyone there a vegetarian. Accordingly, no objection being raised to it, they went with Arcadia Golden Hour's grandest sweet and sour pork stir fry.

Suddenly Coach's phone rang and he stepped out to take it.

Michelle glanced over at the door to confirm he was out. "Did you all see how Coach flinched when Lu first said 'halal'?"

"Nope! Too busy admiring my own work again!" She started dialing.

Priscilla was visibly struggling to keep a straight face. "We are so ordering from there next time!"

"Hell yeah. It has been so long..." Someone picked up. "Hi, I'd like to get four 'Breakfast At Saint Nick's' beef skewers, four extra spicy lamb skewers—"

This would not be the first nor the last time Lu wanted the power to rewind time.

"Err, sorry, wrong num—wait! No! Stay on the line! I actually want to order from you guys! Okay, so: uh... one large sweet and sour pork with a side of rice - yeah, Option 1—no, sorry, Option 2 - and the General Tso's chicken, medium, four—no, eight gluten-free spring rolls, two Pepsis and a Diet Coke, hold the straws. Oh for sure, gotta have the fortune cookies! Party of four. For Lu. L-U. We'll pick up. How long was that again—right, thanks..."

Michelle ended up going to pick up their order. The clouds were breaking just in time for the sunset and she wanted to go out and get some inspiration from the natural world. Lu came along, camera in hand, glad to be going down that hill as a passenger for once.

They did not speak much until they were picking up their order and neither of them was distracted driving or taking shots: "Lu, I've been meaning to ask, and don't answer if you don't want to, but... what - is - the deal with that new patch on your jacket? It's obviously supposed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger's face but why does it say 'Hollywood Hogan' on it?"

Chapter Text

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kate wasn't normally the sort who'd just walk into someone's room without knocking. She did, however, recognize that barely audible, uneven sobbing: she herself would not have appreciated the sudden, sharp sound of that knock. Better just walk right in and let her see who it was: Kate was stronger than her and could deflect the projectiles; the hurt feelings from being yelled at could be dealt with later.

No yelling. Max just saw her in the moonlight and flinched further back in her bed. She made a half-hearted attempt to curl up in her blanket and turn away, but appeared to keep watching Kate from the corner of her eye.

Kate cleared out some books and photos from the couch and sat down. They stared at each other for a while. Then Max went limp and Kate felt her gaze be removed from her.

"Do you want to talk about it, Max?"

"It's stupid."

"Do you think it would be helpful to talk about it?"

"Just left myself alone with my thoughts again. Yeah, I know, Max and thinking, nothing good, r—"

"Max, stop! You were alone with your thoughts. They can be good or bad thoughts. They have meaning and your feelings right or wrong are still real and to be respected and understood. Sorry for interrupting." Between herself, Max, Frank, even Chloe at least that one time, Kate had been getting way too much practice dealing with everyone's spiralling negative self-talk these days. New book idea—shelve it, now was Max time.

"Yeah. Sorry. Uh, thanks, I mean." She was sitting up on the bed now, knees up to her cheat, but still avoiding eye contact. "Kate, do you remember science class today when Ms. Grant brought Lu in as a guest speaker to talk about the evolution of the eye in vertebrates and arthropods, and then she said" - Max paused, took a breath, then spat out the sentence really fast "i'llalwayslovethewayartsandsciencesworktogetheronceweseethemforwhattheyreallyare?" Now get out of here, Kate, before I freak.

"Yes, Max, I remember her saying that. I don't understand the significance, though?"

"October eleventh. My journal. End of the entry. About the funeral. Those were four of her last words to me."

Kate remained exactly where she was on the couch. "I remember now. God, Max, I'm so sorry..."

She tried to reach out to Max but Max just flinched and shrank away. "No, Kate, I'm the one who should be sorry - even if I'm thankful you're here - while you should definitely not be thanking me." Still avoiding eye contact.

"Max. No matter what that awful voice says, it was never your fault. Or... hers."

"You can say 'Chloe', it's fine. I was fine in class too, it was just when I was lying here thinking about stuff from today that the phrase came up and..." She lay back down and curled away from her. "Kate, you don't have to do this."

"You're right, Max. I don't", Kate said in a prickly tone. "I have no obligation to be here with you." She stood up. "No" she turned to face the door "obligation" and stepped backwards falling onto the bed, sprawling into the ample space that Max's fetal-positioned body had left vacant "at all."

She became conscious that she was probably digging her heels right into the reminder to keep calm.

They lay there like that for a while and said nothing. The room slowly darkened a little as the moon rose up in the sky. A little while longer and the moon was no longer in Kate's eyes and she could see the stars. Ever silently roaring in the emptiness, ever burning even when we couldn't see them, gamma rays and black holes and supernovae swirling like ashes in the snowglobe of this our time-bound universe, heedless of however scratched and cracked its dome may now be.

I have many destructive qualities...

"You know I want you dead, right?" Her voice was a hoarse croak.

"I know I can be a bit annoying sometimes, Max."

"You joke, but I mean it. And I meant it that Sunday when you walked in on me trying to undo all this. I don't know how many times I've gone back without telling you. Even if just... to hear her voice, to be with her when she was at her worst, I... fuck, I've dreamt about that a few times, but not recently."

"You want her alive. There is nothing wrong about that. She is a good friend and a kind and beautiful soul."

In the darkness Kate could feel Max tensing up. She glanced over at her but Max said nothing.

Then she remembered something. "Max, do you ever dream about her in any other context?"

"Sometimes. Vaguely. A lot, but it's just... I don't remember much of them, just how she went and how she never even saw me and how she could never remember and it's all my fault and I couldn't do anything about it and I keep fucking everything up—"

Kate sat up and put her hand on Max's arm through the blanket, and she stopped talking at her touch.

"I hate feeling like this but I can't stop. It's like every single time I'm reminded Arcadia Bay still exists, it's her blood crying out from the ground that I killed her. I know it's wrong and I know it's crazy, but then totally at random I'll run into someone who would be dead if it weren't for her, talking about 'that girl who got shot in the bathroom last month' like she were just some thing, some nobody, and it's all I can do not to rewind them into a large heavy object over and over hoping maybe I'll trigger the tornado again and be done with it."

Kate said nothing for a few seconds. She still dared not tell her about that. Not while she still harboured a very real, very rational doubt that that was really just a figment of her own mental illness. Whatever that illness was - it wasn't like she had the time or resources to get diagnosed with anything.

She slowly picked her words, still unsure if these were the right ones or if she was looking in the wrong drawer for the wrong tools entirely. "Max. This is not the way. Your grief is real, and valid. But it is not ours to turn - it would do neither you nor Chloe any good to turn - that grief from suffering into violence. I don't know what to say. There will be loss and there will be grief. But whatever you do, please - do it because of love and not bitterness."

Max said nothing for a few seconds as she ran this through her head. "Thanks, Kate. I hate it and it's useless. Sorry." Silence. Kate stared blankly out the window, defeated. She heard some shuffling behind her, then more silence. "It's full of stars."

"They're beautiful. Even if we can never reach them."

"Even if they're not really there."

"What do you mean, Max?"

"They're already dead. That we can see them at all is an illusion, because the light coming from them can only go so fast, by the time it reaches us it's always too late. We just see a recording, a photo, of something that isn't even there anymore."

Kate blinked.

"Fuck stars." More shuffling.

"Hey Max."

"Mm."

"Do you know how far the furthest stars are that are visible to the naked eye?"

"Millions of light-years away."

"Less than eight thousand. And most are more like one thousand. Do you know how long a star lasts?"

Pause. "Billions of years."

"And do you know how many years a billion seconds is?"

"What?"

"Just over thirty. And a thousand seconds is a little over fifteen minutes."

"I know what you're trying to do, Kate, but it's not the point."

She turned towards Max and dared a faint, backlit smile in the dark. "It is not only the point, but the point. There are more stars still in the heavens, my dear Maximiliana, than are dreamt of in your philosophies." Careful, now - she still needed to test this spirit. But she was still right in principle.

Her confidence wavered as no sound or movement came from the vague pile of blankets she could barely see in the starlight. Then the pile chuckled. "Oh. My. Dawg. Kate. Did you really just call me that? I had no idea you could turn this ridiculous at one in the morning!"

"I have many talents, my dear Empress Nemesis Maximiliana Cavellina Johanna XIV Cerva of Tempus Arcadiae and all her alternate-reality colonies, Mistress and Commandrix of the Fourth Dimension, Chief Stewardess of the Ouroboromorphous Onion Rings of Eternity, Unconquered Defender of the Ten Thousand Evils of Truth and Love, Extender of the Reach to the Stars Above!" Kate went through the titles slowly and dramatically, buying time for herself to continue making things up as Max was forced to fluctuate rapidly between confusion and laughter until she had reached into that final pocket of monstrosity and Kate earned a punch in the shoulder for her efforts.

Max stayed seated next to her. "Thanks, Kate. You've been such a good friend to me this whole time - I really don't deserve you."

"Enough of that talk already, Max! I'm just glad you're here."

"And I'm glad you're here too." Max held her hand and they looked at each other for a moment. "We're never getting any sleep at this rate."

"You're right." Then Kate remembered something. "Max, what was Ms. Cheang's assignment for today again?"

"You haven't done it? It was, uh, hold on" - she grabbed her phone and checked - "'take a nature shot but not the kind you'd usually do'. I did a macro shot of some mushrooms in the forest behind the dorms. I thought it looked a bit cliché but Lu was really stoked to see them."

"Want to come to the roof with me and help me with mine? This assignment fits right in with my idea just now! That, and her little aside about framing what we're doing in terms of 'receiving' the light instead of capturing it. Because if these stars are still around I'm sure they'll appreciate their gift being noticed..."


Kate watched a rabbit being hunted by a doe. It gave chase early on, and they ran a great distance out of the woods and into the meadows. As they ran to the hills the doe suddenly stopped, and the rabbit stopped as well to turn towards the doe to see what was going on.

The doe immediately caught the rabbit by the scruff of the neck. Once caught, it did not struggle.

It brought the rabbit up the hill, through the trees, until they came to a clifftop overlooking the unwatchably bright sun-reflections of the ocean beyond. Everything was shimmering in the blazing midday sun, and everyone was surrounded in light.

At the very ledge was a pile of white bones and black rot and little brown rabbit droppings. On top of this was perched a butterfly with wings of blue sky and black space. The doe tossed the rabbit onto the grass between her and this strange altar, and shrank back, staring at the broken teeth and eye sockets jutting out of the putrid pile.

The butterfly turned towards the rabbit briefly, then turned towards the doe and began hopping and flapping agitatedly. The doe did not appear to perceive the insect at all. The rabbit, for its part, had shuffled off to the side and was hiding behind a tangled collection of dried dead snakes that it had found somewhere.

The butterfly started hopping agitatedly in the rabbit's direction too.

Kate went and picked up the tangle of snakes - it reminded her of a dried roadkill she found with a neighbour kid when she was little - and waggled it in front of the butterfly, mirroring its motions. It seemed to appreciate this.

Then a whale breached somewhere in the ocean and Kate woke up.


Why was Max pinning a butterfly to a cross? Didn't know, but if she were to be honest with herself what really bothered Max was that this dream was lucid enough that she could even ask that question.

So she sat on the dorm roof, hunched over her little arts and crafts project, facing south, trying not to let the golden-hour light of the southern sun either glare into her or cast a shadow from her hand that rendered her work invisible. Just gotta carefully move this one wing over here—

"What the fuck is this hipster shit? Oooh, look at me, I'm Max fucking Crackfield and I'm so fuckin' symbolic and shit!" A brown leather dress shoe knocked the assembly out of Max's hands.

The butterfly, wings still fully splayed out above its head, flapped away.

Max tried to turn but Nathan immediately shoved her out of the way with some more of his usual rude, misogynistic words.

As she got back on her feet Nathan grabbed the cross, screamed and began bashing it against the railing of the dorm roof they were on.

Smack.

Smack.

Smack...

"Damn you, why won't you break? I need you broken!"

Max stared in horror as Nathan's hands began to bleed.

Red stains were also coming up his socks and down his shirt.

The butterfly was flapping around erratically above and behind him.

Nathan was crying now. He was still smacking the cross against the railing, it and his shoes and pants and hands all covered in blood.

He staggered back, held the cross behind him, and heaved it off the roof with a cry of anguished, desperate rage.

Max noticed he was bleeding out of little holes in his scalp. Many, tiny little holes.

The butterfly flew after the cross and both disappeared over the ledge. Max's dream-logic told her that, at least as far as this dream was concerned, the butterfly had been Nathan all along.

She watched the blood dry until it went dark.

Enough of that.

Max rewound space, grabbed a fistful of stars from the sky and hopped over the railing. The stars in her hand carried her drifting down, Mary Poppins-style, down to the church cemetery junkyard.

Here lies Mr. Ford. Into Your Hands, O Lord, we commend Mr. and Mrs. Honda. Mx. A. Mazda, your memory be eternal.

Max wandered the endless fields of rusting wrecks and angels of iron and clay until it grew light again and she noticed one of the graves was a real one. A people one - two people.

Chloe and Kate were facing each other, kneeling on top of Chloe's grave, talking animatedly about something. Max heard the comically loud slap of Chloe grabbing Kate's arm for emphasis as she leaned into the shorter girl.

"...swear, Kate, it's true! We need to find that cross right now or it's going to suck an epic amount of ass for everyone!"

"But where, Chloe? How? You saw how Nathan threw that thing! It could be anywhere or anywhen!"

Did Kate always have that blue stripe in her bangs?

"We've got leads! I can help you, I know some peo—" Chloe suddenly let go of Kate with a panicked look on her face, put out her hand, and rewound. "We've got leads! I can help you, but you and the people you know need to put in your own grunt work too!"

"We are! But we're trying to look for buried objects that could be anywhere in this town! Arcadia Bay is small but not that small!"

"Just keep looking and trust your instincts! You'll know where to look!"

"So we're just guessing, then? That is terrible advice, Chloe." Max was thinking the same thing.

"You know I know what I'm talking about, Kate! I'm not crazy! Maybe a little dead," she glanced over at Max for a split second, "but not crazy."

"Okay, fine. You're not crazy. But high? This isn't a fairytale or a ghost story, people don't just have these intuitions about where a bunch of random buried creepy stuff is!"

Chloe tensed up and her voice got much quieter. "I know what I have. And I'm scared shitless of fucking it up trying to give it to you." She glanced at Max again, but Kate did not seem to notice her or any of Chloe's glances.

"You need to get level with us! You've been leaving everything we've been looking for buried while we've been driving ourselves insane these past few days—"

Kate didn't finish the sentence. She flinched at the touch of a large fleck of ash that hit her face.

"What's this?"

"Ash."

"Falling like snow..."

(Max vaguely recalled one of the last animes that Chloe had pirated for them before William died. They'd only seen the intro to the first episode - something about child soldiers and being hit in the head with a beam of pink light?)

"Which means..."

They looked down the hill to the west. A battalion of uprooted concrete buildings, each covered in dirt and rust, each headed with a steel vault door, each containing all the power of that hideous voice that had plagued Max's dreams for so long and was so curiously absent this one time, were trundling up the broken roads and rocks and grass.

Max woke up with a splitting ache and the phrase memento mori stuck in her head.


この想いは 寂寞の夜空に
舞い上がり 砕けた
闇を拓く 栄光と引き換えに
守るべきものを失ってきた
(It’s falling from your sky)
虚しすぎる
Baby I come for you


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Steph laughed at the assassin's and paladin's joint proposed course of action, but in a good way. "Holy shit you two, what has been going on over there at Arcadia Bay?"

"Yeah, you guys have been on a roll this session! And here I was worried we'd have a new sidequest just for the necessary spell components..." They had agreed on - and miraculously successfully arranged - this extra mini-session over lunch to wrap up a few ritual/logistic things during downtime as the party got ready for the next big confrontation. Elamon's to-do list had seemed to have grown in the telling.

"Really? I just felt like we were really distracted - it's been a hella insane couple weeks here."

"It's really helped that there are some parallels between our project and this campaign."

"Really?" Max could just about hear Steph's eyebrow raise. "Do tell, Athena!"

Max looked at Kate and raised her hand, pantomiming a rewind. Kate shook her head and turned back to the computer mic. "We can't say too much, but—" she paused briefly as she gestured at Max to close the door, before resuming a bit more quietly "a couple of us have been wondering if there's been some other stuff going on with Nathan coming back. I know it sounds crazy, but it seems to be connected to some of the Prescotts' real estate projects. I don't want to say much more—"

"Wait wait wait, go back, what's this about Nathan coming back? Like, Nathan Prescott?"

"Yeah. Didn't you guys hear? It's been the talk all over Blackwell the past day or two..."

"Holy shit, seriously!? After all that's happened they let that fucker back out and back into the school? What the fuck oh my God I am so sorry guys, if you need a ride out of there—"

"We're good, Steph. Kate and I have support - it's not just the two of us."

"Are you sure? I mean, I don't know how much we can do on our end, but we are definitely going to help you with this if you're willing to let us."

"Thanks, Mikey, but right now my biggest worry is just making sure Elamon makes this Wisdom check while we hide the Rune of Earth Magick from the seven-headed Prince of Corrupted T'ian..." As she spoke Max texted Kate: I rewound. We said too much. They just got upset and couldn't do anything anyway and the game was ruined.


The code the Dungeon Raiders and friends had was starting to creep into almost everything they had written down. As a sample of the tone that it was setting, here was the most complete version of one of those communiqués:

Quests:
Reseal the Dragon
- Uncover more lore to overpower the Chained Master's oath
- Locate sources of corruption in the Tengoku bandit clan and prevent them from destroying any important lore
Stop Abaddon's project
- Investigate the Bdelugma and the armies rallied against it
+ Cerberus to follow Raven as he makes first contact with one of the armies
- Investigate Abaddon's Whale and its agenda
Locate the Oubliette
- SD Sidequest: locate ALL Oubliette locations
+ Venus to contact Tengoku Palace and work outwards from there
Root out the cultists and sabotage whatever they're trying to do
+ Argus to increase his army of electric eyes (but needs to let Bronte do the shopping)
+ Cerberus and Athena to keep notes on Brutus' chatter
- Find ways to mobilize the Imperial and Aeaean bandit clans against them
+ Bronte to continue fetch quests for Circe
VICTORY CONDITIONS:
- Dragon sealed
- Abaddon sealed > Abaddon dethroned
- Cult defeated and deprogrammed > Cult defeated and cast down from Tengoku

Quests (Spiral Dancer DLC players only):
Find and root out the origins of the Storm
- Discover the true mechanism of the first victory over it
VICTORY CONDITIONS:
- Storm permanently averted > Tengoku evacuated before Storm
- Blue Lady restored >>>>>>>> Blue Lady's theory vindicated
- Astral Lion restored
[Kate wrote a hasty "(optional)" next to this in the first draft. When asked, she told Max that the detailed reasons were sadly not hers to reveal just yet, but she trusted the person who unknowingly warned her and believed that any such effort could only be taken with utmost caution and some very strong contingency plans. Max agreed.]

Quests (Friend of the Spiral Dancer mod only, NEW 11/20):
Help Nemesis establish contact with the Blue Lady
+ Athena needs to get from the Blue Lady one thing she herself does not know but Nemesis must know, which the Blue Lady must not have had a chance to tell Athena before she sacrificed herself to the Dragon - but ALSO which Nemesis must not have told her either
VICTORY CONDITION: Lovers reunited >>>> Lovers have a proper farewell >>>>>> Blue Lady revealed to be demon and banished


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lu narrowed her eyes at the newpaper in her hand, leaning back precariously in the school chair, feet on a file cabinet, as her other hand dangled over the back of her seat flicking her cigarette lighter on and off.

"If you're seriously going to burn it you should use the fume hood in the lab." Priscilla almost told her to go outside, but even with the rain earlier it had been a fairly dry fall.

The younger teacher paused, blinked, looked at the lighter in her hand like it hadn't been there the whole time, and returned it to her pocket. Then after a second she pulled it out again and pursed her lips as she placed it under the Arcadia Bay Beacon. Then her expression returned to its prior sneer as the lighter once again returned to her pocket and stayed there. "Wouldn't give him the pleasure to know I did that."

"You say 'him' but it could be anyone."

"I've read his columns back when the Gazette was still around. If it's not him then it's someone hiring the same ghostwriter. And besides, I've never seen anything like this before outside of social media and I've been very open from the start about what I'm doing here. Who else would decide now to put this kind of energy into a full-ass dead tree attack, than the guy whose son is the notorious Jefferson protégé coming back to the same school?"

"Can I take a look at that again?"

It was a guest opinion column in place of the usual editorial, attributed to "a longtime friend and ally of robust, strong protections of free speech in the Pacific Northwest". It never called out any particular staff or former staff by name, though Blackwell's achievements and illustrious history were mentioned repeatedly. The author noted some disturbing trends that accompanied the recent restructuring and faculty, in particular the introduction of some new blood that was not from and had no connection to the traditions of the local area. (Rob's self-deprecating jokes in response to this were of limited amusement.) The issue was summed up in a term the author seemed to have newly minted, "cancel culture", in which the modern sensibilities were given free rein to delete the older history and institutions that helped define Blackwell Academy and its bespoke, deservedly elite alumni. The author expressed his sincerest concerns over the systematic way in which this new order was threatening to turn the world against the civilizing, law-giving power of the Christian gospel of forgiveness and redemption - the one transformative power that allowed Western culture to become the force of good that it was today. There was an aside respecting the Oresteia, contrasting the torment of the Furies with the justice of Athena; the latter the author tied back to the image of the law-giving Western light, the good society in which each man had a policeman in his head, standing in opposition to the very bad society where each man had but a choir of Furies in that policeman's place. Blackwell's true calling, the columnist opined, required her to be steadfast in instilling proper classical godly virtues in her students, to inspire in them the temperance, fortitude, loyalty and chastity they needed to be competitive in an increasingly fractured and directionless world. In opposition to, of course, the new sort of liberal, libertine pagan moral relativism that sought to emasculate them.

"Maybe you should post a response on your blog. Or maybe even twist a few arms at the TFP, if you're feeling brave..."

"What do you think I've been mentally composing for the past five minutes? Fuck, this is a lot of bullshit to get through."

"It is, but your response doesn't have to be a whole rundown of the history of Western civilization and post-Christian moral philosophy. You're a newspaper photographer writing to a newspaper, what's a better way to go than 'just the facts'?"

Lu sat up. "You're right, Pris! Gimme that paper, fuck all the unfalsifiable bullshit for now, time to set fire to some fuckin' lies." She rummaged through her pockets before turning around and picking a highlighter out of a pen holder nearby. "Starting with this bit of low-hanging fruit that this new photography teacher, who trained under two men - plus a talking turd with a goatee - and one of whose biggest influences was a Franco-American historian-turned-photographer primarily known for his work documenting other men who loved men, is now running around 'teaching Arcadia Bay's scholastic inheritance that the work of dead Western males was of no value'..."


Thursday, November 21, 2013

When Kate woke up all she could remember of her dream was being in the Vortex Club party, stripped naked, doused with wine, clothed in a royal cloak and crown of thorns and then pelted with eggplants. She thought she heard Barney the Dinosaur singing in the background.

The viewer's screen went blurry and red:

  • REPORT TO MAX
  • STILL GATHERING EVIDENCE

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kate: Hey Max, I've been meaning to ask you this all day but forgot. I'm trying to do something, but before I ask this question can you promise me a favor?

Max: Anything for you, Kate.

Kate: When you answer my question, can you make sure you do not tell me anything more than what I ask, and not ask me why I'm asking?

Max: Uh... okay?
Max: Yes.

Kate: Do you remember
Kate: Did you just rewind to answer my question?

Max: Sorry, I started describing what I was wearing instead of just answering the question.
Max: Hard to forget the day you saved your best friend's dad and completely turned reality upside down for a night.

Kate: Thanks.
Kate: This leads me to my next question: WITHOUT telling or hinting at anything that would let me figure out the color, what was the outermost garment you had on?

Max: It was a thin wool sweater.

Kate: That's all I needed. Thanks, Max.

Max: No problem. I hope?

Kate: We'll talk later. Good night.

 

And then Kate said her nightly prayers, repeated a few times the question she was planning to ask next, and went to bed.


Lu: So i wanted something to take my mind off of this latest bullshit for a few hours
Lu: And i got cerb to fill out my prescription from dr. rathbun
Lu: And was trying to get that old beanbag chair out from behind the boxes
Lu: And i accidentally dropped a box (nothing broken)
Lu: And what do i see but a dvdr
Lu: Burned w a fansub of my favorite gundam series
Lu: (holy shit thats a lot of ands lol)
Lu: But now i feel kinda weird about just taking it and watching it
Lu: So may i?
Lu: Or should i wait until were meeting up again
Lu: Guess ur asleep... i should probably do that too
Lu: Good night

Max: Sorry, my phone was on silent!
Max: Yes, of course you may.
Max: Did Joyce say anything?

Lu: Shes sleeping
Lu: Joyce has nothing to do with this anyway
Lu: Chloe made this for you
Lu: She wrote on the front "gundam 00 s2 pt 1 / max's copy / march 2009"

Chapter Text

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Hey Pop."

"Hey sweetheart. Is it a good time to talk?"

"I'm just with Kate in the church backyard. What's up?"

"I... I just want you to know, Max, that no matter what, no matter what situation you find yourself in or whatever anyone says about you, you will always be our little girl, your mom and I love you and will do everything we can to support you to be the best person you can."

"Wowser. Pretty intense lovedump outta nowhere there, Pop! But thanks." In fact Ryan had already texted her more or less the same thing earlier that day, after which Max had known it would only be a matter of time before they had this discussion.

She waited for Ryan to continue for a second. Silence.

"So... what... brought this up?"

"You said you were at... Kate's church, right? How are they treating you there?"

Max didn't say anything for a few seconds.

"Max?"

"Sorry, just... moving somewhere more private."

"Ugh, I'm so sorry for bringing this up like this. Thought I'd try to get it over with before—"

"It's fine, Pop. What have you heard?"

"Are you alone?"

"Kate's here. And we both have some idea of what you're going to say."

Max heard a hissing sound that was most likely a large bearded man sucking in air through his teeth. "Right. So, I just want to preface this with my sincerest doubts that any of this is true, but if it were, we're... we're ready to do whatever you're willing to let us do to help you get through all of it."

"Pop, I know how hella awkward this is right now, so let me help: I'm not dating Frank."

"Wait, there's an actual guy!?"

"Mr. Caulfield?"

"Kate! You're... well, I guess after what happened last time I shouldn't be surprised, but still! We're not speakerphone are we?"

"We're sharing headphones, Pop. And we're down the street now. Just birds and a cat."

"I'm so sorry to jump in like this! But actually, can I just... check with Max real quick about something?"

"Sure. Guess I'll talk to you two soon, okay?" Beep.

Kate looked up at Max. "How badly is your dad going to freak?"

"About what?"

"Gee, I dunno, maybe about you getting involved with a drug dealer trying to uncover a massive conspiracy involving decades of police corruption in the town he raised you in for thirteen years..." Kate tilted her head. "How much have you told him already?"

"Not much. My parents know I need to testify against Nathan, and that there's a lot of talk about how they're letting him back to Blackwell, and they know how nosey I can get, but I don't think they know anything connected to any dungeon raids." Max winced when Kate just kept looking at her. "Or... the other thing."

"So I should just tell him he's a friend of ours?"

Max thought about this for a moment. "I dunno... it's vague enough to sound suspicious. We should at least tell Pop that Frank is your cousin and Chloe's dealer." She began redialling. "And that I'm definitely not his type."

Seven rings for the big round bearded guy. "Hey sweetie!"

"Hey Pop. So about Frank - no, he's just a friend. And Chloe's weed dealer."

"Seriously? That's it?"

"That's it."

"And he's my cousin."

"That too."

"Maxine, your father and I know your 'what are we gonna tell them?' break when we hear it. There's got to be more to it than your just randomly befriending Chloe's drug dealer to the point where people start gossiping about you in church!"

"Mom!? You guys are on speakerphone?"

"Your father briefed me on what was happening and added me on conference call. I believe you when you say you're not in a relationship with this man, but... well, how old is this guy, anyway?"

Max looked at Kate who shrugged. "Uh... forty, maybe?" She blinked. "Look, mom, he's not grooming me or anything, okay?"

"Does he ever take you to places where you're alone together without telling any of your mutual friends?"

Kate narrowed her eyes at Max while holding her phone in front of her, showing Max's text to her from Wednesday afternoon: Hey, Lu said she's going to be on campus late again so I'll be over at the Prices' sorting some of Chloe's things. I'll be back on campus before dinner. I'm putting my phone on silent so I might not respond. Talk to you soon. xoxomaxo

Max's eyes turned towards some fascinating thing that was not in the direction of Kate's face. "Uh..."

"Mrs. Caulfield?"

"Yes?"

"Please don't take this as me trying to stick up for my cousin over Max's interests, but what if we made her promise - made them both promise - to always take a mutual friend with her?"

"Kate, I don't need a chaperone—"

"Yes you do!" Textbook hiki-taoshi, Max was out of the ring.

A stifled deep, gruff laugh could be heard.

Then a long, awkward pause. Max and Kate looked at each other while they could hear two keyboards typing frantically in the background.

"Max? You guys there?"

"Yeah."

"Your mother and I aren't going to stop you from talking to this guy - I mean, it's hardly like we'd have any power to do that - but you do be careful, okay? And I'll give Uncle Mike a call and see if he and Dick can pull whatever strings they've got in Arcadia and help you guys set the record straight—"

"No! That will not be necessary, Pop!"

There was a long pause.

A tiny flurry of typing, then no more.

The birds kept singing.

The cat had wandered away.

"Maxine... oh no, my poor baby..."

"Max. Honey. I know you want to support Kate, and to understand more of your roots, but if you feel you need to come up with a ruse like this, to hide who you really are from that church community, you need to move to a more supporting environment. I... I can't let you get hurt like this. You know that."

"You know your father and I support you wholeheartedly! We can help you find a better church to go to in Arcadia Bay... or even back up here..."

"I'll send you some books... Kate could do well to read them too, frankly. Uh, no pun intended..."


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Max wandered over to Frank's booth. She noticed he'd brought in two beers this time. Truly the breakfast of champions.

"Frank, can I..." - he turned to look at her and just as he did he saw that shift again - "...please, this is really important."

He furrowed his brow. "What?"

"Can you... stand over there for a minute while I take a picture of your table? Leave everything as it is."

"Um. Okay." He moved. "Is this about later today?"

"I'll explain later."

She stooped down to the table, squinting at Frank's plate. She moved the fork around. She moved the empty beer bottle closer to the edge, creating a highlight on the beans. She moved the not-empty beer bottle closer towards the wall, then moved it a bit closer, and smiled as it cast a crystalline green shadow alongside the plate, a refreshing cool oasis in the glimmering warmth of the morning light. "Yes... haha... yes..."

The light was getting away!

Max grabbed the fork in her right hand, the beer in her left, and the empty bottle in her teeth (and, it must be stressed, only her teeth), rewound time by a few precious dozen seconds, and quickly took the shot.

Switching from instant to DSLR now. Booting up... ISO and shutter speed defaults were all wrong for this, gotta make just one little change—

The light was getting away! Stupid computers!

Max rewound to immediately after she'd finished taking the first photo. Autofocus, reframe, shutter, "go ape". All was good, said the little screen.

She took the empty and got out of Frank's way. "Thank you. I saw the opportunity as I was having breakfast. I think you've saved my GPA."

Frank crossed his arms and glowered at her. "This didn't have anything to do with later today, did it." He looked at the rearranged items on his table, then at the empty in Max's hand. "That bottle's worth cash, you know."

"Oh, right. Sorry." Max put it back on the table.

She went back to her own booth and Belgian waffles.

Max took out her instant shot and compared it to the sticky note in her journal:

TLOP Assignment (MONDAY - PAST DUE!): Take your best shot of a food item that's notorious for looking like ass in a photo.


From: "Lu Cheang" <lcheang@blackwellacademy.ed>
To: "Blackwell Photography Class"
Sent: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 01:36:57
Subject: Wednesday's Photo Lab assignment

Hey everyone!

I'm sending today's assignment out early. I've already told some of you what it is, a couple of you already have ideas that will have to take you off campus, and I didn't want to give people an unfair head start.

  Photograph a story about how living spaces are affected by conflict.
  Any kind of living space, any kind of conflict.

As a sample, here's a shot (with permission) of the gun locker in David Madsen's man cave, and a shot of a shopping cart from a guy I met named Bob - taken in front of the Pan Estates office, I kinda cheated since his cardboard sign already tells the story for me.

If you need to talk to me about anything or borrow any equipment, or work on anything else, I'll be in the classroom, but as long as you eventually confirm to me that you spent today's class time working on this project, or hand in a photo on or before Thursday, I'll count your attendance.

*Your physical attendance at the lab on Wednesday is wholly optional.*

Grab your camera, go out, catch up on whatever assignments you've missed, redo whatever assignments you want to improve, enjoy what's left of the daylight and have a great extra long lunch break!

As always, I'll be regularly checking my emails.

NEED CHANGE
Sold boat, lost dock job, wife left town with the kids + the pickup
Born + raised a proud hardworking citizen of Arcadia Bay + plan on keeping it that way

Another victim of the economic havoc wreaked by the deranged tyranny of the Prescotts
We must act as a community before we're all gentrified the @#%! out of here!

We need REAL change
But some coin of the realm is always appreciated :)

God bless

God save us


"Is she asleep?"

Lu barely registered Alyssa's question over the hypnotizing clatter of the rain outside. "I wish I were. But I'm back on my coffee again, and I'm technically still supposed to be supervising you guys in the lab. Just leave her alone, I'll give her a nudge when lab time is over."

"Poor Max..."

"Hey, just so you all know I won't take any offence if the rest of you guys followed suit, it's been one of those weeks. Especially you, Kate - you look even worse than her."

It felt weird using "you all" to mean just two people, in this case Kate plus Alyssa who was spending the lab time reading a book. No effort in the slightest was made to inquire what the book was about.

Lu slouched at her desk and zoomed into her scan of Max's Wednesday assignment - and started to understand how Victoria must've felt. Max had managed such a better shot than she had, with the same theme and similar location but much more primitive equipment. If it had been staged she would've called it crass, but somehow Max just happened to know that back alley enough to realize the opportunity naturally: the homeless woman's blanket was just a little out of focus in the corner in the shadows, pointing into the dark chill of the cold iron chain link fence setting off the waxing dim light of the side of the RV, a tiny peace sign drawn darkly into the dust over the yellow boards of its windows, nearly drowned out by the thin highlight of its roof, itself a pale underline of the blazing red morning light reflecting off the Pan Estates sign looming high above and beyond - a flaming red eye of the panopticon towering over the helpless itinerants who yet lived on the same level as the viewer. Et in Arcadia.

So what's the point of this power...

Her phone buzzed.


Max lay wrapped in sky-blue blankets in a makeshift cocoon in that spot in the junkyard. The butterfly stood at the lip of the pit, watching over her. The sky behind it was a star-filled ball of glittering night.

"I should get up."

"Get some rest." It was speaking in Rachel's voice again.

"Are you going to tell me something?"

"No?"

"Because you totally look like you're going to tell me something."

"No, Max, you need sleep."

"Technically you just told me I needed sleep, so I was right," she said sleepily.

The butterfly fluttered once, then paused. "Touché."

Max felt a strange sense of weight through the earth nearby. "That's my double with a bullet hole in her head lying on the ground to my left, isn't it."

"Rest well, Max."

"Wh... when is she going to get back up?"

The butterfly landed on her lips and gently shushed her.

She fell asleep until the bell rang.


Dana: [A series of photos of building permits going back decades]

Lu: Fuck yeah!
Lu: ...i cant read half of this

Dana: We took some better pictures on our cameras
Dana: But they're kinda big to send

Lu: Good good
Lu: We can go over them at school

Dana: We ran into Mayor Abrams on our way here!
Dana: Guy's FLIPPED OUT

Lu: O.o
Lu: Do tell

Dana: Poor guy... his home was broken into this morning.
Dana: They left him a dead cat!
Dana: Not his, but from somewhere
Dana: Scared the crap out of his kids :(
Dana: It had "INDIANS TAKING IT BACK" carved into it with a knife!!

Lu: Wtf

Dana: The police are on it but his neighbor told him their camera caught some guys in leather jackets
Dana: And their patches
Dana: Um
Dana: Lu you might want to reconsider wearing that Mjolnir pin for a while

Lu: F that
Lu: Even more reason i need to wear this (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
Lu: But anyway back to the project
Lu: Did he say anything about pan estates?

Dana: Just a lot of cussing and regret!
Dana: Juliet got out of him that OSP were trying to kick out the Arcadia Bay police after he mentioned the chief was giving him a hard time about it
Dana: Jules says I forgot to mention that ABPD are working on a theory that the perps were wearing the Nordic stuff as a disguise

Lu: (¬_¬)
Lu: I imagine the perps were tall, blue-eyed blonds
Lu: Anyway im giving you both full class credit for the pics you just sent me
Lu: We can work more on the
Lu: Game
Lu: Later
Lu: Enjoy the rest of your lunch break!

Dana: Will do~

Lu: Stay safe!


"Frank! Look out!"

Frank turned around on the spot. The gas grenade made impact just as he turned, a sickening crun—Rewind.

"Frank! Duck!"

"Max, this isn't the time for bir—" Rewind rewind rewind.

Shit, the truck!

Max froze time and So. Ever. Agonizingly. Slowly. leapt away from the oncoming shiny pickup as it sped forwards, blasting everything behind it in a double-cone of mud. Her grip slipped away just in time and the truck slammed into a tree. No humans hit. But instead of standing back up once she was out of the way, this time Max kept rolling as Frank was standing and turning towards her, just in time to catch a gr— Rewind.

She rolled up to her feet and double-hammer-fisted Frank in the ass sending him sprawling. The grenade flew past their heads and made a loud smacking splut! to their right. She stood up and grabbed his arm before they could get trampled by another group of people who were charging past. The group smashed their way into the shield wall before either of them could even figure out which group they were with.

A now all too familiar hiss began coming out of the crater next to them in the packed dirt. Two masked figures ran up with a traffic cone and bottle of water. Max took a picture of the wrecked truck as two large tattooed sausage-like men in leather jackets covered in Nordic-themed patches emerged with baseball bats. The men, women and nonbinary persons in black now rapidly surrounding them and screaming at them to put down their weapons were an unrecognizable blur in the shot.

The tree came down on one of the black-clad— Rewind!

"TREE!"

The black-clad person leapt—slipped, fell and rolled out of the way as the tree came crashing down, cornering the two men from the truck. Max and Frank quickly moved out of sight of the new commotion.

They were safe. For now.

"We need to get out of here!" they yelled at each other simultaneously.

This wasn't a regular street protest. They were in the middle of the forest, with long dirt pathways and broken ground and lots of twists and turns into the trees beyond. The early afternoon rain meant there was mud everywhere. The OSP were clearly struggling with any method to contain anybody and a few black bloc people had taken early advantage of ambushing anyone who tried to get into the bush; then some of the white supremacist heavies (God knew at this point if they were Prescott's men or another group entirely) started doing the same thing to the protesters, and the cops started gaining a much bigger advantage after word got around about some disappearances and people started being much more easily confined to the clearings and (technically, very recently) active construction areas.

Frank leapt onto a barrier and scanned the sea of signs and masks and Molotovs. He found an angle that looked a little bit less glimmering with shields than most others. "There!"

They made a break for it.

They ran right up to an angry-looking group of heavyset bearded men with runic tattoos and Confederate flags (for whatever reason). Their truck had a huge "ARCADIA FOR THE ARCADIANS" banner duct-taped onto the side. A man literally twice Frank's size approached them with a nailbat.

"Bowers, what the fuck are you doing here?" he boomed.

"Meetup gone bad. This used to be a safe space, you know? Before the publicity."

"Shit, I know right? So who's the girlie here?"

"Back off, she's mine."

Max rewound everyone's perception of her immediately disgusted reaction to that.

The man laughed and told Frank some loud, lewd congratulatory thing that I will not repeat here.

Instead of rewinding Max just nervously laughed when they caught her disgusted reaction to that and explained she was worried about all the mayhem around here. Which she was, really: as though to demonstrate that, a few large masked men with long black hair and Thunderbird designs on their jackets started yelling and pointing in their direction.

Frank and Max ran the fuck off into the forest as the Knights began to respond.

Eventually they were alone in the woods. It was going to get dark soon. Both of them were too exhausted to say anything and they just kept trudging along. It wasn't clear exactly where they were, but the sun was still high up enough for them to follow through the trees: as long as they headed west they should find the road, where they could call Joyce for a pickup.

Lu and Kate could wait until morning to find out where they'd been and strangle them.

And on that note... quick check. No bleeding (except a small nosebleed from Max), no concussions, no broken bones, no broken gear. Max might've managed maybe ten shots the whole time they were there, and rewound at least five of them.

At least I already gave Lu my assignment photo. Even if it was just a crap imitation of her example.

"So did you get anything? Any shit we can pin on Abaddon or figure out what the cult is up to?"

"Abaddon?"

"Max, in case you haven't noticed we're on a trail in a public park."

"Yeah... no. I don't know." She stared blankly at the little screen, too tired and wired to even focus on it while they were walking. "Everybody's wearing so many patches, it's really confusing."

"We'll check them out later. Might be able to figure out some patterns. Anyway, can we stop? I'm hungry as shit right now."

They stopped. Max pulled out a granola bar from her bag. It was not clear where it was from which Frank pulled out a spoon, a can opener and can of beans.

"Don't you ever get sick of those?"

"They're good cheap protein on a Wednesday. Nothin' to get sick of about that." He mumbled something and made the sign of the cross, opened the can and put away the opener with alarming speed, and started walking again as he ate.

Meanwhile Max was... struggling with her wrapper.

Whether by prayer of saints or sinners eventually it opened. She looked up to see Frank walking out towards the light, a tired, small silhouette amidst the brilliant pale yellow columns flaring out from between the thinning trunks of the old trees.

She changed the DSLR's clock to show the wrong date and took a shot.

This almost looks like a peaceful memory.

Her body carefully considered the matter, then reported to her that jogging up to him to catch up was no longer a line item on the budget. So she walked up to where he had been right after she took the photo and rewound.

Frank immediately gave a start, then settled down as he saw that it was her. "You sure you don't want the second can? Pulling that shit has got to tire you out."

"I'm good, thanks. I just wanna get out of here, go back to my dorm, get some rest. It's been such a long day."

"It's just my usual twenty-four, but I can't imagine how long it must've been for you."

"What?"

Frank looked at her and went back to eating his beans.

Oh.

Oh.

"How long have you known?"

Frank stopped eating and walking. "Fuckin' shit, seriously?"

There was an awkward pause.

"Wait, we are talking about the same thing, right? You do have some weird shit going on about manipulating time and space, don't you?"

"Please don't tell me Kate told you."

"Both of you are absolute fuckin' garbage at keeping a secret. But no, she didn't, though she has said some little things here and there that made a lot more sense this way." They started walking again. "You, though, you don't even hide it from me! I'm not David Madsen, I'd be dead, not given a stern talking-to by Wells, if I were that fuckin' oblivious to where people are in a room at any given time and why."

"Am I really that obvious?"

"I first noticed it after Chloe's funeral. You'd start talking and then suddenly your face and tone would be totally different. And you'd always look more upset, and either nicer or more insistent or both, after that shift than before.

"It got more obvious later on. We'd be in a tense situation and you'd be calm one second and the next you'd be coming down from an adrenaline high, with no fuckin' ramp-up at all, and then at that point you'd forcibly change the subject or urgently tell someone to do or not do something.

"For a long time I just thought you had some kind of neurological disorder that made you hyper-aware of really random shit sometimes, but you having a condition didn't explain why I would be seeing those weird shifts in where exactly you were standing. I thought I might've been having micro-blackouts for some reason but it wasn't happening with anyone else. So am I right? Can you go back in time?"

They looked out through the trees at the red glow of the setting sun. It was terribly chilly.

"Frank, this is really important to me, and if you don't promise me this I'm going to just keep rewinding and coming up with bullshit explanations until I find one you will have had believed. Do you promise not to tell anyone, and not to talk about it, even obliquely, with any other person except me and Kate and only when we're alone?"

"Max, I wouldn't have a job if I was that incompetent with business confidentiality."

"Yes or no, Frank."

He rolled his eyes. "Yes." He looked at Max. "But seriously, thanks for saving my ass back there. And for trusting me enough with this information."

They kept walking.

Max would've been fine with the silence, except after twenty seconds she had to ask. "So... what now?"

"We go home, get some rest, debrief tomorrow. We didn't get shit done tonight, except whatever clues might be in those photos."

"No, I mean between you and me—"

"Max, I was literally lying to Nazis. No. Not even if you wanted it."

"What—ugh, no, not that, gross! Sorry, no offence—"

"None taken—"

"I mean about my power."

"What about it? It's yours."

"So you don't want to test me or try to use my power for stuff, or..."

"Oh, really now? I think I just learned something more shocking about Kate than about you."

"Well, Kate just wanted to know it wasn't from the devil or something. Chloe thought we could take on the world."

"Yeah..."

They did not speak again until they had come to the end of the trail. As it turned out to lead them close to the beach parking lot where Frank's RV was, he just gave her a ride to somewhere near campus and they did not speak then either.

Pompidou was much too excited about all the new smells for anyone's comfort.