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The Rule of Thirds

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Being friends with Max and Chloe was weird.

 

They were childish. Unrefined. Crass. Lazy. Max seemed to be allergic to any technology invented within the past twenty years. Chloe cared for the opinions of others even less than she cared for her own bodily safety.

 

But they were also, as strange as it was to admit, good friends to have. Chloe’s annoying quips were occasionally amusing. Max was genuine to an almost infectious degree. And after their talk on the anniversary of the storm, it was like a barrier between her and them had been broken.

 

In the months since, hanging out with them became just another part of the routine. She had coffee or tea with Max almost weekly, and sometimes Chloe would join them. She showed them her favorite animes, and they showed her weird sci-fi movies and forced her to listen to terrible music. The two of them even talked her into going hiking with them a couple of times, and she was surprised to find that she didn’t completely hate it. She had to admit that it was nice to escape from the busy rush of the city for a little while. And she figured that as long as she lived in an area known for its natural beauty, she might as well take advantage of that.

 

Unfortunately for everyone, that wasn’t the only natural beauty she noticed.

 

She could settle for being Max’s friend. She’d have to. It would never be anything more. Max and Chloe were unbreakable—not that she wanted to break them up. She could see that they were good for each other and they clearly cared about each other, like, a ridiculous amount. A disgusting amount, really.

 

Surely this infatuation, these feelings, would soon fade. In the meantime, she’d just have to pretend she didn’t feel anything.

 

But sometimes, pretending was hard. Like when Max was sitting in the passenger seat of Victoria’s car, gazing out the window with that faraway look she got sometimes that always made Victoria wonder what the hell she was thinking about, and the sunlight was hitting her face just so and—

 

Victoria had to remind herself to stop staring and focus on the road.

 

I’m going to crash and kill both of us because I’m too fucking gay to function. Great.

 

Fortunately, she managed to get them downtown in one piece.

 

“Chloe hates bubble tea,” Max remarked as they entered the shop, which supposedly had the best boba in Seattle. “She says the bubbles taste like depression and remind her of fish eyeballs.”

 

“Gross. I like the texture.”

 

“Me too,” Max said. “I keep trying to convince her to try it again, but she won’t.”

 

“Her loss.”

 

It was sunny out, one of the first nice days of spring, so they decided to take their drinks and wander along the waterfront. Normally Victoria avoided this area during the warmer months, but it was still early enough in the season that it wasn’t completely packed with tourists yet. And even though most of the shops here were filled with nothing but schlock souvenirs, the view over Elliott Bay on a clear day really was something.

 

“I finished Serial Experiments Lain yesterday,” Max said as they started their walk.

 

“What did you think?”

 

“I think you’re into some really weird stuff.”

 

“Don’t pretend you didn’t love it.”

 

“You mean like how you pretend not to like indie music?”

 

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“Sure.” Max smiled. “Anyway, it was weird, but good. I liked it. Even if it was pretty confusing at first.”

 

“I had a feeling you would appreciate it.”

 

“Now if only I could get you to appreciate Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

 

“Oh, don’t even start. That movie is a sin against the franchise.”

 

“An underrated masterpiece, you mean.”

 

After a while they came across an unoccupied bench and stopped to take in the view, sitting in companionable silence as they looked out across the heavily trafficked bay and watched a steady stream of boats of all shapes and sizes pass them by.

 

Stretches of quiet between them no longer felt as uncomfortable as they once had. There was no pressure to fill the air with small talk. It was easy to just enjoy Max’s company.

 

Almost too easy.

 

“Can I ask you a question?” Max said, bringing Victoria out of her thoughts.

 

Victoria cast a sideways glance her way, raising an eyebrow. “What’s on your mind?”

 

“Do you still want to be a photographer?”

 

Yes, was her first thought, but she paused, stalling by chewing on a mouthful of tapioca pearls.

 

Even after everything, that was still her dream. But it had been so long since she’d so much as looked at her camera. Once, the act of using it had been as familiar and natural to her as walking or breathing. It had been an extension of herself, as much a part of her as her hands or eyes. 

 

What would it feel like, now?

 

“I don’t know.”

 

Max hesitated, fiddling with her straw.

 

“Talent shouldn’t go to waste. That’s what you’re always telling me, right?” she said with trace of a smile. “You’re one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, and… I know how much you loved photography. I just really hope you get back into it.”

 

Victoria watched a tank ship make its way sluggishly across the water while she thought about what to say. 

 

“I’d like to,” she said. “I have an appointment with a new therapist next week, actually.”

 

“Really? That’s good.”

 

“Hopefully it goes better than last time. Sometimes I feel like I’m just going around in circles.”

 

“It’s good that you’re still trying, though. It’s important.”

 

Victoria looked at the water, at the boats, at the hazy silhouette of Bainbridge Island on the opposite side of the bay, anywhere but Max’s eyes. She knew Max meant well, but talking about this shit was still embarrassing.

 

When she didn’t say anything, Max looked away.

 

“Sorry,” Max said. “I don’t mean to pry.”

 

“You’re fine.” Victoria shook her head. “It’s just hard to talk about.”

 

“I know.”

 

They sat with that for a moment.

 

“He was the whole reason I wanted to go to Blackwell in the first place,” she said. “Did I ever tell you that?”

 

She knew she didn’t have to specify who she was referring to.

 

“You never mentioned,” said Max. “But that makes sense. It was the same for me.”

 

That meant that the two of them had only met because of Jefferson. She wondered if Max was thinking the same thing.

 

“I hate that I used to idolize him. I still feel like an idiot for it, sometimes.”

 

“I know the feeling,” Max said, nodding slowly as she looked down at her lap. “But he tricked everyone. Not just us.”

 

“It’s more than that.” Victoria bit down on the inside of her cheek. “I was Nathan’s closest friend. I could have done something.”

 

“What Nathan did isn’t your fault. You didn’t know.”

 

“He wasn’t okay. I knew that much. I’d known it for a long time. He started going downhill fast when Kris—when his sister left. I saw him falling apart and I was too wrapped up in my own shit to do anything about it. And he got even worse after… Rachel.”

 

Victoria noticed how Max’s eyebrows quirked up at the mention of Rachel’s name, the spark of curiosity that played across her face. Nosy as ever.

 

“Everyone knew she wanted to run away to LA and be a model. She was always talking about it. When she disappeared, nobody was surprised. At all. And when Chloe started putting up all those posters, everyone thought it was kind of…” Pathetic. “Pointless. I was sure I was going to open up a magazine one day and see her face. I just kept thinking, like, it’s only a matter of time until she makes it big, right? We all thought that. It only made sense. Perfect Rachel Amber, the overnight success.” She couldn’t stop that hint of bitterness from creeping into her voice, even now. “But Nathan was always super weird about it whenever she came up. I should have known something wasn’t right. Then all that shit with Kate happened, and I let him goad me into posting that stupid video, and…”

 

She trailed off, suddenly annoyed with herself for rambling. Sitting here feeling sorry for herself wasn’t going to help anyone. It wouldn’t change anything.

 

Max was fidgeting with her plastic cup, squeezing in the sides like a stress ball. She was wearing that look she always got when subjects like this came up, that sincere concern that always made Victoria feel a little ridiculous to be on the receiving end of.

 

“You don’t need to keep punishing yourself,” she said eventually. “You’ve been through enough. And Kate forgave you a long time ago.”

 

“I know she did.” Sometimes Victoria wished she hadn’t. “You still talk to her, right?”

 

“Yeah. We talked earlier today, actually.”

 

“How is she?”

 

“She’s good. About as good as she could be, I think.”

 

“Good. She deserves to be happy.”

 

“You should give her a call sometime,” Max said. “I’m sure she’d like to hear from you again.”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

 

Max’s prodding was starting to make Victoria a little uncomfortable, so she decided to change the subject.

 

“Now it’s my turn to ask you something.”

 

“Shoot.”

 

Victoria hadn’t planned on asking about this, but it was only fair. If Max got to indulge her nosy streak, so could Victoria.

 

“A while ago, you said you had a dream where you and I talked at a Vortex club party. Do you remember?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

She sounded surprised, almost nervous. Victoria almost told her to forget about it, but her curiosity won.

 

“What did we say to each other? In the dream, I mean.”

 

Max was quiet for a moment, looking away.

 

“You asked me if I think it’s fate we’re not supposed to be friends. I said we would get along fine if we hung out without attitude. And you agreed. Basically.”

 

The corner of Victoria’s mouth curled up. “Like I would have said any of that shit. Even in your dreams, you’re too nice.”

 

“I like to see the best in people, I guess.” Max looked over at her with a hint of a grin. “And I was right, wasn’t I? Here we are, getting along fine.”

 

“Things are different now. If we’d tried to be friends back then, it would have been a fucking disaster.” She almost snorted at the thought.

 

“Maybe,” Max said. “Maybe not. You had a soft side, even back then.”

 

“See? Way too nice.”

 
They shared a smile.

 

A gentle breeze picked up, tickling Victoria’s nose with the faint salt-spray smell of the water. A few strands of hair drifted across Max’s face and Victoria was struck by an urge to reach out and tuck them behind her ear.

 

Her throat felt suddenly tight, and she had to look away.

 

They made small talk while they finished their drinks. Max thought the seagulls were cute, and Victoria didn’t understand how anyone could look at seagulls and feel anything other than unadulterated annoyance, but she reluctantly admitted that they were at least better than pigeons.

 

Max invited her to come over for a while, so they headed back to the car. Victoria’s Audi was probably the most expensive vehicle Max had ever ridden in, and it showed. Victoria still got a kick out of the careful way Max got in, closing the door as gently as possible, as if she was afraid of breaking something. It was kind of adorable.

 

When they got back, Chloe was sitting on the couch with her bass in her lap, engulfed by a cloud of weed smoke. “Hey, nerds.”

 

“Hey, band geek,” Max said, shrugging her jacket off her shoulders and flinging it onto the back of the nearest chair.

 

“I think being in an actual band is a requirement of being a band geek.”

 

“Okay, regular geek.”

 

Chloe leaned her bass against the coffee table and scooted over to make room for them on the couch. “How was your weird gross tea?”

 

“Delicious,” Max said as they sat down. “I still think you should give it another try sometime.”

 

“Once is enough, thanks. Those chewy little balls are just wrong.”

 

“Some people say it’s an acquired taste,” Victoria said. “But I know you would live off of nothing but cheeseburgers and chocolate cake if you could.”

 

“Aw, man, why’d you have to go and say that? Now I’m hungry.”

 

“Just think about fish eyeballs,” Max said.

 

Chloe pretended to gag. “Thanks, that actually did the trick.”

 

Max wanted to hear what she’d been playing, so she showed off for them a bit. Victoria had to admit that it was rather impressive, the deft, nimble movement of her fingers as she switched between chords. Victoria didn’t have even a little bit of musical talent, and she always found herself fascinated by those who did.

 

“You’re getting really good at that,” she said after Chloe was finished.

 

“Thanks,” Chloe said with a satisfied grin. “You know, I originally wanted drums, but Max said no.”

 

“I don’t want our neighbors to hate us,” said Max.

 

“Minor details,” Chloe said as she got up to put the bass away in its corner. “Get it? Minor? Anybody?”

 

Max groaned. Victoria narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.

 

“Nobody appreciates how hilarious I am.” Chloe heaved a dramatic sigh and flopped back down on the couch. “So, did you tell her?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

“Tell me what?” Victoria said.

 

“Our lease is up at the end of next month,” Max said. “We’ve been talking about leaving Seattle. Traveling for a while.”

 

“Oh.” So this was why she was being so sentimental earlier. More so than usual, anyway. “That’s great, Max. Do you know where you’re going first?”

 

“Boston, probably, to visit Kate. After that, it’s up in the air.”

 

“Sounds like fun. I’m happy for you.” She nodded, as if to confirm to herself that that was, in fact, the primary emotion she was experiencing right now. “And I guess I’ll miss you guys, or whatever.”

 

“Aw, shucks, Vicky,” Chloe said, smirking. “You do care.”

 

“Don’t make me take it back.”

 

“We’ll miss you too,” Max said with a smile. “But this isn’t goodbye. We’ll stay in touch, right?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“And we’ll send you postcards,” Chloe said. “Like, an offensive amount of postcards.”

 

“Or a normal amount of postcards,” said Max. 

 

“Think Hogwarts letter style. Coming down your chimney and shit.”

 

“I’d like to see you pull that off.”

 

“Challenge accepted.”

 

Victoria allowed herself a smile.

 

She was happy for them. Even if she was also jealous. Even if she was going to miss them more than she was willing to admit. She was perfectly capable of setting those feelings aside and just being glad for her friends. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen this coming, anyway. They’d mentioned the idea a handful of times over the past few months.

 

Maybe distance would be a good thing. It wasn’t wise to encourage these feelings she still had for Max.  And if she was being honest with herself, she wanted to get out of this city, too. She’d been dragging her feet on selling the house, but it was time.

 

Yes. This was for the best.

 

There was just one thing that gave her pause.

 

The cat was gone, and she wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

 

She’d been looking for it, too, waiting for it to show up. Sometimes she thought she caught a flash of fur out of the corner of her eye, but every time she looked there was nothing there. On one hand, she’d been wishing for it to fuck off since the day it first appeared to her. There was a time when she would have given anything to never see it again. Now, it seemed her wish had been granted.

 

On the other, that meant she couldn’t say anything about it, and that bothered her more than she wanted it to.

 

She thought of something Max had said back in October—that there were some questions they’d never have an answer for, or something like that. Maybe this was one of them. Maybe she just had to accept that, and push the whole thing to the back of her mind.

 

But, no matter what she told herself, she couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she was missing something.