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The Rule of Thirds

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It wasn’t the first time Victoria had woken up in an apartment she didn’t recognize.

 

Since her return to Seattle, it was just another part of the routine. Whenever she needed to unwind, she made her way to the clubs, where she could lose herself in a haze of flashing colors and smoke machine fog and skull-throbbing bass, carried along by the roll and rise of the crowd around her, swept up in a sea of sweaty bodies and flying limbs. From there it was only a matter of finding someone suitably fuckable to go home with—never her place, always theirs. Usually, she left as soon as the deed was done, but if she was having a particularly shitty night and the thought of returning to the house she’d inherited from her parents was too much to bear, or if she was just too trashed to get home, she would pass out for a few hours and then attempt to sneak away unnoticed before sunrise. Unfamiliar apartments were nothing new.

 

This time, though, something was different.

 

As she shifted where she lay, blinking the sleep from her eyes, the first thing she noticed was that she was on a couch, not a bed. Where she would normally see the hills and valleys of a sleeping stranger’s skin, there was only a wall of cushion. The couch was uncomfortable; worse, it was ugly, an utterly unappealing plaid pattern. Draped over her was an equally hideous bright orange fleece blanket that clashed with the couch and made her already aching head throb. She flung it aside as she turned over and heaved her body upright, rubbing her eyes. She was still fully clothed—also unusual.

 

The apartment she was in was cramped, and it reeked of weed, and it was unbearably messy. Clothes were strewn everywhere. The walls were covered with a sloppy collage of photos and posters for bands Victoria had never heard of. In one corner, a battered acoustic guitar leaned against the wall; a newer-looking electric bass, plastered with stickers, sat on a stand next to it. In another corner sat a shabby beanbag chair. Her eyes passed over several similarly tacky furnishings: a string of cheap paper lanterns, some Christmas lights, a clunky old TV. The kitchen was barely even a kitchen. In front of her was a coffee table, scratched and worn with use, upon which sat her purse—probably the only object of taste that had ever seen the inside of this place—and a huge bong.

 

It was no wonder she was on the couch; even with booze goggles on, she probably took one look at this disaster and fainted on the spot. What possessed her to go home with some tasteless weirdo in the first place, she didn’t know. Usually she had better judgment.

 

Blearily, she blinked the room into clearer focus, glancing around as she cracked her sore neck and rolled back her equally sore shoulders. There were a lot of pictures on the walls. Mostly Polaroids. Mostly pictures of—

 

What the fuck?

 

As she rose to her feet in disbelief to inspect the pictures more closely, her confusion gave way to dread that settled in the pit of her stomach like a block of ice.

 

No way. There ’s no fucking way.

 

Behind her, a door creaked, but in her shock and panic she didn’t register the sound until it was too late.

 

“Finally awake?”

 

She jumped, startled, and then the icy feeling spread to her chest and limbs, because that voice was unmistakable.

 

Victoria forced herself to turn around, and there she was: Maxine fucking Caulfield herself, standing in the threshold of a short hallway that presumably led to her bedroom.

 

Victoria decided that the most sensible course of action would be to throw herself out the window and plummet to her death. Unfortunately, her feet were not subject to logical persuasion, and she remained rooted in place. Her mouth was already several steps ahead of everything else.

 

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

 

The look on Max’s face was something between doe-eyed surprise and, to Victoria’s umbrage, amusement. “I think I like drunk Victoria better. She’s nice.”

 

Her senses were screaming at her to retreat. She was about to throw up—for at least the second time, if the stale taste in her mouth was any indication. When she spoke, the words came out in a jumbled rush, spilling loosely from her lips. “I have to go wash my face.”

 

“Oh. Um, bathroom’s right over there.”

 

Half-stumbling, she snatched her purse off the coffee table and followed Max’s gesture, shutting the bathroom door firmly behind her as she entered. She puked, fortunately managing not to make a mess, then took a moment to glare at herself disapprovingly in the mirror—which was also dirty, speckled with little flecks of God knows what—before she began the daunting task of fixing her unkempt hair and rearranging her face into something presentable.

 

This wasn’t part of the routine.

 

She’d already known that Max, somehow, had survived the storm and left Arcadia Bay with Chloe Price, of all people. Kate Marsh had told her that much during the one conversation they’d had. That was about the extent of her knowledge. Both of them had disappeared from social media shortly following the disaster, as had Victoria herself once the reporters sniffed her out and started haranguing her. She didn’t even know how they knew each other in the first place.

 

Once or twice, she’d considered trying to make contact, but had always decided against pursuing the issue further. After everything that happened back in Arcadia Bay, Max ought to hate her. And Chloe was never her biggest fan to begin with.

 

How, then, did she end up in this trainwreck of an apartment? They must have stumbled into her at some point during last night’s booze-fueled escapade and taken her in out of a sense of obligation—or worse, pity—because they didn’t realize she could fucking take care of herself. That sounded like something Max would do—always too nice for her own good.

 

Victoria’s only option was to try to leave as quickly and diplomatically as possible in order to salvage what little dignity she had left after whatever the fuck last night was.

 

Even though she still looked like complete shit, there was no time to primp and fuss. Having either retouched or removed most of her smudged makeup, she took one last scornful look at herself in the mirror, smoothed her rumpled clothes, and emerged from the bathroom.

 

Someone else had joined Max in the living room—it took Victoria a moment to recognize Chloe, but it was definitely her, alright. She’d traded in that awful blue dye job for a somehow even more awful seaweed green, and her hair was sticking up in all directions where she’d slept on it. She was all rough edges and sharp angles, atrociously pale, bleary-eyed and yawning into her coffee, one lanky arm covered in tattoos that Victoria didn’t bother to inspect too closely. Max was holding two more mugs of coffee, one of which she extended towards Victoria, who took it without thinking twice. Even cheap coffee was better than nothing.

 

Max, unlike Victoria and Chloe, looked like she’d already been awake for a while. She smiled brightly at Victoria and continued to hold her gaze. Victoria found it unnerving. The Max she remembered could barely make eye contact, a meek little thing scarcely capable of formulating a sentence that didn’t consist solely of terrified mumbles.

 

Now, it was Victoria who was afraid to speak.

 

Physically, Max looked much the same as always. Not that Victoria had expected any dramatic changes; she didn’t seem the type to drastically alter her appearance, though she would certainly benefit from a style upgrade.

 

“Man, I’m hungover as fuck,” Chloe said to no one in particular.

 

“Hmm.”

 

They stood around in uncomfortable silence for a few moments before Max spoke. “So, you don’t remember much of last night, do you?”

 

Victoria opened her mouth, then closed it again. She swallowed. Her tongue felt like it was covered with sandpaper.

 

“I thought you might not. You were really wasted.” Max giggled, and Victoria’s insides churned with embarrassment.

 

“Just tell me what the hell is going on.”

 

Chloe snickered. Victoria shot her a glare.

 

“We ran into you at The Flame,” Max said. Victoria remembered arriving at the club, but not much else. “I was so surprised to see you there, by the way. I didn’t even know you were into girls.”

 

“I did!” Chloe declared triumphantly, further arousing Victoria’s irritation. “I totally called it. Twenty bucks, Max.”

 

Max rolled her eyes. “You think everyone is gay.”

 

“No, your gaydar just sucks.”

 

Victoria primly sipped her coffee while the two idiots quibbled, briefly wondering if they’d actually made a bet on whether or not she was gay. The thought made her narrow her eyes. “And then?”

 

“Right. Um, I guess we just hung out for a while. It was fun,” Max said. “We decided to meet up again next Friday.”

 

Last night must have been absolutely fucking crazy if she actually made plans with them. “What were you even doing there?”

 

“At the club? It’s kind of a long story. Anyway, then we came back here and talked for a while, and then I went to bed, and I think you and Chloe watched Spirited Away on DVD?”

 

“You insisted on it,” Chloe added with a smirk. “You passed out halfway through, though. Y’know, I always had a feeling you were secretly a weeb.”

 

“Excuse me? I don’t even—” she cut herself off, pinching the bridge of her nose in annoyance. “Ugh. Never mind. What time is it?”

 

Max glanced at her phone. “It’s almost one.”

 

“It’s what?” Victoria snapped, more sharply than she’d intended. She started rummaging through her purse. “I should really get out of here.”

 

“Okay. We could give you a ride.”

 

That sounded like a terrible idea. “It’s far. Really far.” She wasn’t sure exactly where in the city she was, but she knew it couldn’t possibly be anywhere near her house. “I couldn’t make you do that.”

 

“It’s only fair,” Chloe interjected, again flashing that infuriating smirk. “You paid for all of our drinks last night.”

 

Of course I did.

 

Damn it.

 

Victoria waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll grab an Uber.” Her fingers finally found her phone at the bottom of her purse, and she pulled it out. It was dead.

 

“Aw, c’mon. It’s the least we can do. You even flashed the bartender to get us a free round.”

 

“No I fucking did not.”

 

Chloe laughed. Victoria scowled. “Okay, you didn’t. Too bad, though—ow!” she was interrupted by an elbow to her ribs, courtesy of Max.

 

“Play nice. Seriously, though, it’s not a problem, Victoria. Let us take you home.” Max smiled at her. 

 

Her head gave another mighty throb. Maybe it would be easier, and faster, not to argue with them over this. In her current state, she didn’t have the energy to construct a logical argument against it, anyway. Her thoughts were still sluggish despite the coffee.

 

“Fine.” She tried to force herself to return Max’s smile, but the attempt resulted in a pained grimace. “Thanks.”

 

Coffee finished, jackets grabbed, they shuffled out the door and made their way towards a heap of scrap that resembled an ancient pickup truck. She found herself already regretting her decision to accept the ride. With her luck, this thing would break down on the side of the road before they got halfway there, and then she’d be stuck for who knows how long. Chloe climbed into the driver’s seat, Max the middle; Victoria squeezed in last, cringing inwardly as she sank into the ripped and dusty cushion. She sat with her hands folded in her lap. As the car sputtered to life, Max reached into the glove compartment, took out a CD wallet (do they have a grudge against modern technology or something?) and started flipping through it, which prompted another round of bickering.

 

“If I have to listen to another Fleet Foxes album I’m seriously going to drive us off a cliff.”

 

“Oh, come on. They’re not that bad.”

 

“Says you.” Chloe selected a CD and popped it in. “Now this is real music.”

 

To Victoria, it sounded more like a chorus of screaming cats and dishes breaking. She was unable to conceal the look of disgust that crawled onto her face.

 

“What, not your thing?” Chloe said, smirking in Victoria’s direction. “Sorry we don’t have the Mamma Mia soundtrack.”

 

“It’s fine.” It was not fine, but right now her priority was getting the fuck home as quickly as possible.

 

“We can put on something else,” Max said. “It’s really not a problem. Right, Chloe?”

 

“We don’t have any Taylor Swift either.”

 

“It’s fine,” Victoria insisted tersely, wishing she could disappear. Max turned the volume down a bit, and Chloe rolled her eyes but didn’t argue.

 

The rest of the drive was mostly devoid of conversation, aside from the occasional imparting of directions. She stared out the window and watched Seattle pass by in a dull grey blur. By her estimate, it took them approximately six thousand years to reach her house. When they finally arrived, it was all she could do not to heave a sigh of relief.

 

“So, see you next week?”

 

Max was looking at her expectantly. Victoria paused, fingers lingering on the door handle. “We’ll see. I’ve been pretty busy. You know how it is.”

 

“Totally.” Max gave an awkward little smile, rubbing the back of her neck. “It was good to see you, Victoria. I mean that.”

 

“Right.” Victoria managed a nod. “Thanks for the ride.”

 

Chloe gave a lazy little wave. “You bet.”

 

Before she exited the truck, she glanced around to make sure none of her neighbors were watching. She realized how it would look if anyone saw her getting out of this trash heap and silently cursed herself for having slept in so late.

 

And to make matters worse, there was that fucking cat again. Why did her hallucinations always have to show up at the most inopportune times?

 

She was about to open the door when Max spoke.

 

“Aw, look at the kitty,” she said. “Careful, Chlo.”

 

“Dude, chill. I’m not gonna hit it.”

 

Victoria’s mouth fell open, and before she could stop herself, before she even realized what was happening, she was blowing chunks again. All over the dashboard.

 

***

 

“Well, that went swimmingly, don’t you think?”

 

Max was sure Chloe would forever savor the mental image of a red-faced Victoria stumbling towards them with an armful of paper towels, but for her part, Max mostly just felt bad. “It could have gone better.”

 

As they drove off, they rolled the windows down to try to air out the smell of tequila and vomit.

 

“Coulda gone worse,” Chloe said. “At least she didn’t get any puke on Elvis.”

 

The bobblehead nodded its approval.

 

“This car needs to be cleaned anyway. I think there are still candy wrappers in here from 1980.”

 

“There’s a receipt in the glove box from ‘96.” A new song came on and Chloe drummed her fingers on the steering wheel along to the bassline. “Maybe I should’ve acted all offended and asked her to pay for a detail cleaning. I bet she would have.”

 

“Going by the look on her face, she probably would have bought you a whole new car if you’d asked.”

 

“You think? Alright, I’m turning around.” Chloe laughed.

 

Max managed a tiny smile. “I hope she isn’t too freaked out.”

 

“She seemed a little freaked out.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Max looked out the window for the rest of the drive home.

 

When they got back, they just barely had enough time to eat lunch before Chloe had to leave for her evening shift.

 

“I’ve gotta get going. Those dishes aren’t gonna wash themselves.”

 

Her tone was cheerful, but Max could tell it was faked. Max knew Chloe hated her job, but it was all she could find after she’d gotten fired from her last one for mouthing off to her manager.

 

Chloe got dressed for work, and Max got up to give her a hug and kiss goodbye before she left. Max lingered for a little longer than usual, taking in the familiar smells of her, the leather of her jacket, the faint whiff of weed from her pocket—Max had never been crazy about the smell of weed, but it now reminded her of Chloe so strongly that she couldn’t help but start to like it, in a way. She loved how safe she always felt when she was wrapped tightly in Chloe’s arms. She loved the way Chloe softened around her, showing a side of herself that no one else got to see.

 

Max gave her an extra squeeze before releasing her. “I love you.”

 

“I love you,” Chloe said with a tired smile, leaning in to kiss her forehead one last time before leaving.

 

When she was alone, Max sighed and plopped down onto the couch. Today was her day off work, and she couldn’t figure out what to do with herself. She thought about messing around with her guitar for a while, but she already knew she wouldn’t be able to focus on it.

 

The more she thought about everything that had happened with Victoria, the worse she felt. After everything Victoria had said the night before, Max felt like she should have tried harder to end things on a positive note. She knew Victoria was probably confused and humiliated.

 

Max hoped they could at least be friends. She could tell Victoria needed friends, right now.

 

After all, all of her friends were dead. And it was Max’s fault.

 

Everything that had happened to her was Max’s fault. There was no way to tell her that, no real way to atone for it, but Max felt like she owed Victoria something, something more than one forgotten night of reconciliation.

 

It was the middle of the day and she knew Kate was probably in class or neck deep in schoolwork, but she decided to try giving her a call anyway. She could always count on Kate when she needed to hear a kind word.

 

Kate picked up after only a couple of rings. “Hey, Max. What’s up?”

 

Max smiled at the sound of her voice. “Just wanted to say hi. Do you have time to talk?”

 

Kate had a few minutes to spare before she had to get to class, so they spent a bit of time catching up. Max was happy to hear that Kate was still enjoying Boston and that school was going well for her. She’d even adopted a new bunny—Max felt a sickening pang of guilt at hearing that, but swallowed it and congratulated her. Kate had never blamed her for what happened to Alice; Blackwell had been decimated, and there was nothing she could have done—or so Kate thought. But Max knew she was responsible. Kate herself was only alive because she’d been in the hospital that day, outside of town.

 

When Kate asked Max how things were going with her, Max paused. She knew Kate and Victoria were on decent terms now. She hadn’t planned on getting into it, but maybe it would be good to get Kate’s input about the situation.

 

“Actually, Chloe and I ran into Victoria last night.”

 

“Oh. What happened?”

 

Max gave Kate an abridged version of the night’s events, leaving out the more humiliating details for Victoria’s sake.

 

“And she doesn’t remember any of it?”

 

A lesser person might have been amused, but Max knew Kate wasn’t petty or vindictive like that. She wouldn’t take pleasure in hearing any of this.

 

“It seems that way.”

 

“I’m guessing you haven’t heard anything from her since then,” Kate said.

 

“Nope. She seemed pretty embarrassed.”

 

“I’m sure she’ll come around.”

 

“You think?”

 

“Victoria is…” Kate was quiet for a moment. “She’s trying. I think she probably just needs some time to process things.”

 

Max thought back to when Kate had told her about Victoria’s visit, how Victoria had apologized, how she’d seemed like a different person. Max had gotten a glimpse of that Victoria last night, but the awkwardness of that morning seemed to extinguish the spark of camaraderie that might have existed between them.

 

Soon Kate had to go, and when they ended the call Max didn’t feel much better. Talking to Kate was always nice, but when it was over her thoughts always started to stray to places she didn’t want to visit.

 

She tried to distract herself and waste some time by watching random videos and scrolling through articles, but her brain refused to absorb any of the information.

 

Taking photos outside wasn’t really an option; it was starting to rain and she didn’t want to mess up her camera. She didn’t feel the itch right now, anyway. She’d been trying her best with her photography lately, even sending submissions to a couple of galleries, but hadn’t seen much success. It wasn’t that her heart wasn’t in it; she just couldn’t seem to find her groove, ever since… everything.

 

She let her head fall back onto the couch with a sigh. It was going to be a long day.

 

***

 

Victoria’s house was empty.

 

It was always empty, these days. Back when her parents were alive, there had been a constant stream of activity: cleaners, gardeners, clients and acquaintances and so on. But now, after everything that had happened, Victoria couldn’t stand having so many people buzzing around her at all times. Dinner parties were out of the question; she was in no state to host. She’d only embarrass herself. As for the staff, she’d had to let them go. She’d given them all generous severance packages, but that didn’t help assuage her guilt as much as she’d hoped it would.

 

At first, she’d thought she would be grateful for the silence, the privacy, but every time she stepped through that door all she felt was the crushing emptiness of the house. Today was no exception.

 

For the rest of the day, her emotions cycled between embarrassment, disbelief, irritation, and general dread. After brushing her teeth to rid her mouth of the taste of tequila and puke, she took a cold shower to scrub the layer of grime from her skin, then filled up the tub for a lavender-scented bubble bath.

 

It wasn’t as if she’d never wondered what it would be like to cross paths with Max again. A chance reunion between them was something she fantasized about frequently. Usually, she imagined it would be work-related; some gallery event, perhaps. She’d make a heartfelt yet poised apology, no groveling, and even if fully mending Max’s opinion of her was impossible, she would at least leave her with a somewhat more favorable impression so that they might be able to have a cordial professional relationship.

 

What ended up happening was basically the polar fucking opposite of that. Even if she still didn’t remember the details, she knew one thing for certain: she’d made a complete and total fool of herself. Exactly zero of those imagined scenarios involved her being hungover and confused after what was undoubtedly a very sloppy night.

 

Since when was Max the clubbing type, anyway? Since when was Max gay? Were she and Chloe a couple? The idea seemed preposterous, but they were going to gay clubs together and sharing a bedroom. What other explanation could there be?

 

And why were the two of them privy to Victoria’s hallucinations?

 

The first time she’d seen the cat was several months ago, the morning of her first day back in Seattle. She’d been waiting in line for a coffee. Nobody else seemed to notice when it slipped in through the door on someone’s heels and hopped up on the counter right there in front of the barista, who continued making drinks as if nothing had happened. She remembered staring, wondering if someone was pranking her; she’d almost asked a nearby stranger about it, but given her mental state at the time, she’d assumed she was just imagining shit, so she’d turned around and walked out without even ordering, and tried to tell herself that she wasn’t actually crazy, that stress just does weird shit to peoples’ heads. After all, she’d just been through hell and hadn’t slept in days.

 

But then she kept seeing it. A month later, in the middle of a crowded store. A week after that, at an appointment with her hairdresser. Sometimes several weeks would pass without a sighting, but it always showed up eventually. And nobody else ever acknowledged its presence.

 

Until now.

 

But it wasn’t like she could just ask them about it. Not without sounding completely fucking insane.

 

When she finished her bath, she took the edge off her hangover with Advil and coconut water, but she still felt and looked like garbage. She tried to answer a few emails, but concentrating on work seemed an impossible task. Seeing Max was a headfirst dive into the murky waters of her past, and she was entirely unprepared for it. It felt like a sick cosmic joke.

 

She realized with a sinking feeling that she’d missed that day’s therapy session. Ten o’clock had passed her by while she was still passed out on that fucking IKEA couch. It wasn’t her first missed appointment, and she knew her therapist would be disappointed, which gave her all the more reason to wallow in self-loathing.

 

 The worst part of it all was the burning frustration of not knowing exactly how thoroughly she had embarrassed herself. Every now and then, pieces of the night would come back to her, but there was nothing solid enough to hold; it was just a merry-go-round of meaningless fragments. She remembered getting to the club, but everything after her first few drinks was a blur. Part of her wished she’d pressed Max for a more detailed account of what had happened.

 

One thing was clear: the whole encounter was a mistake. Max felt bad and let Victoria crash at her apartment in some misguided attempt to play the savior. That was all there was to it.

 

But that pity was both unwelcome and undeserved, and so Victoria decided she would simply erase those events from her mind and continue on with her life as if they’d never seen each other at all.