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The Rule of Thirds

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Max hoped that this trip would be exactly what she and Chloe needed.

 

They needed fun. They needed adventure. They needed to move forward.

 

This would be a fresh start for both of them.

 

The day before they left, Chloe did one last inspection of the truck to make extra sure it was in shape to make the trip. Max tried to follow along as Chloe explained what she was doing, but Chloe lost her at ignition points. The car talk was like a different language, and watching Chloe work was too distracting, anyway. With the sleeves of her flannel rolled up and dark smears of grease on her hands and wrists, she looked so capable and… well, hot.

 

When Chloe was finished with the truck, she hopped in the shower, and Max couldn’t resist following, relishing the devilish smirk that played across Chloe’s face when she realized Max was joining her.

 

Their dinner plans were delayed. Twice.

 

They’d sold the couch, and most of their other stuff was in boxes in Max’s parents’ basement, so that night they sat cross-legged on the floor of the bare living room, laughing and joking as they ate takeout out of styrofoam containers, and Max was filled with a kind of bubbly lightness she hadn’t felt in a really, really long time.

 

The next morning, they did a final inventory check, and then they were finally ready to leave.

 

“Alrighty,” Chloe said, practically vibrating with excitement as they tossed their bags into the bed of the truck. “We’ll swing by Victoria’s, get one last goodbye in. Then it’s Boston or bust.”

 

Max felt a pang of something at that. It was weird to think that Victoria Chase was their closest friend, but she was such a fixture in their lives now, and Max really was going to miss her, so much it was almost surprising.

 

“I’ll let her know we’re on our way.”

 

“Tell her to make coffee. Good coffee.”

 

“As if she’d even have bad coffee.”

 

“Fair point.” They climbed into the truck and Chloe started flipping through CDs. “You excited to see Marshmallow?”

 

Max smiled at the nickname. “Totally. It’s been way too long.”

 

“Damn right it has.” Chloe made her selection, sliding the CD in with a satisfied little nod, and then looked away, flexing her hands on the steering wheel. “And after that, who knows? Maybe Arizona.”

 

Chloe had brought up the possibility of going to see David at some point. Max wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She was still uncomfortable around him, even though he’d saved her life. She would never be able to forget seeing him hit Chloe. It was one of those images that would be burned into her brain forever.

 

Even after everything she’d seen, that memory still made her feel sick, still made her pulse kick up a notch: hiding there in the closet, flinching at the sound of his hand across Chloe’s face. Overwriting that reality didn’t erase it from Max’s head. And she knew that wasn’t the only time it had happened.

 

But she had to put those feelings aside. If Chloe decided she wanted to go, Max would support her in whatever she felt she needed to do. After everything Chloe had done for Max’s sake, it was only right.

 

“If that’s what you want. Yeah.”

 

Chloe looked over at Max and grinned as she started up the truck.

 

“Ready to take over the world?”

 

Max leaned over to plant a kiss on her cheek. “Aye aye, Captain.”

 

***

 

Victoria welcomed them inside and listened as they excitedly went over their plan for the trip—if their loose itinerary could be described as a plan. They couldn’t stay long before they had to get going, but there was still something she wanted—needed—to do before they left. It was the whole reason she’d asked them to stop by today, really.

 

She went up to her room to grab her camera.

 

She hesitated, her fingers hovering over it for a few moments. She’d taken some practice shots over the past few weeks, but those didn’t count, not really. This was special. And it needed to turn out okay on the first try, because she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to make herself do it more than once.

 

When she got back downstairs she held it up to show them. “I thought you might want to commemorate the moment.”

 

Max smiled, bright and genuine. “That would be perfect.”

 

They all went outside, where Max and Chloe stood in front of the truck and posed, Chloe slinging one arm over Max’s shoulders and making horns with her other hand.

 

Victoria took a breath and stalled by fussing with the settings for a moment before lining up the shot.

 

Click.

 

And she felt it, the chill that spread through her chest and down her limbs, the itchy crawl across her skin, but the moment passed, and she was okay.

 

The first real shot she’d taken in over a year.

 

Max hugged her goodbye.

 

“You always have a friend in me. You know that, right?”

 

She wasn’t going to cry. That was a promise she’d made to herself, and she intended to keep it. But a heaviness swelled beneath her ribs at hearing that, and she had to swallow before she spoke.

 

“I know.”

 

That was all she could make herself say.

 

They pulled apart and Chloe punched her arm. “Give ‘em hell, Chase.”

 

“Be careful in that thing.” Victoria nodded towards the truck. “I’m honestly shocked it hasn’t totally fallen apart yet.”

 

“I know what she can handle,” Chloe said, slapping the hood. It gave a rusty grunt in response.

 

They promised to say hi to Kate for her. She promised to send them the photo she’d taken of them. Then, after another round of goodbyes, they climbed back into the truck and hit the road, and she watched them go.

 

***

 

Max: BTW THANX BUT WERE NOT FRIENDS

 

Victoria: You’re hilarious.

 

Max: I know :p

 

***

 

Life on the road was good for Chloe and Max, for the most part.

 

Their visit to Kate went fine. Chloe could tell that Max was overjoyed to see her, and she seemed to be doing well, all things considered. She’d even met a guy she really liked, and he seemed sweet, even if he was kind of boring.

 

Buoyed by the freedom of being on the open road, sometimes it was almost like they were their old selves again. Every time they stopped to stretch their legs at a rest area, the camera came with them. Max always knew how to find the perfect moment. Chloe liked posing for her, liked making her laugh, liked the way she’d smile that secret little smile from behind the lens, the look that said that’s my girl. That’s my Chloe.

 

Chloe loved being hers.

 

Other times, the guilt came creeping back in, and she felt it squeezing so tightly around her chest that she could barely breathe. A name or a face would remind her of someone they’d lost. Something would set off that chain of thoughts that she could never seem to stop once it got going.

 

Some days, she didn’t understand how Max could even bear to look at her.

 

Eventually, they headed towards Arizona.

 

David had helped them pay for this trip in part. Chloe was grateful to him for that, and for the cash he’d been sending her here and there for the past few months that usually went straight to weed and beer, but that didn’t mean she’d forgiven him for everything. She wasn’t sure if she ever could. All the shit he’d put her through, the way he’d turned her home into a battleground—those wounds ran deep.

 

Sometimes she felt like she never wanted to see him again.

 

And sometimes she felt like she just wanted to give him a piece of her mind, just once, and then never see him again.

 

But sometimes she felt like she should try to work things out, and not just because it was what her mom would have wanted. He was no longer the adversary he’d been to her back then. Now he was just broken. Just like them.

 

He’d apologized, which was… something, at least.

 

Saving Max’s ass was also something, even if that didn’t happen in this reality. And, yeah, okay, saving Victoria’s ass was cool too.

 

Chloe still hadn’t decided which route she was going to take.

 

As they got closer, she got quieter, lacking the energy for conversation or her usual antics. There was nothing to say that hadn’t already been said. Shit was complicated. She’d been putting off this visit for so long, and part of her didn’t even know why she was bothering to go through with it. She knew Max wouldn’t blame her if she said she wanted to just turn around and drive until they found a hotel or something.

 

But she didn’t turn around. She kept going, and then they were there.

 

“We don’t have to stay,” Max said. “We can leave whenever you want. You don’t owe him anything. You know that, right?”

 

Chloe just nodded.

 

Max reached over to squeeze her hand. “I love you.”

 

Max was so fucking good. Better than Chloe deserved. At least she was there, no matter what else happened.

 

“I love you.”

 

They got out of the truck, and when David came out to greet them, Chloe was stunned by how different he looked, with his shaggy hair and bushy beard and those goofy fucking hippie clothes. The look on his face could have said a million different things. He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything, and neither did she, and for a while they just stared at each other, and just when she thought she couldn’t take the silence anymore, David started crying.

 

As if the cargo shorts weren’t bad enough.

 

She thought it might bring her some satisfaction to see him that way, but it didn’t. She just felt tired and sad and kind of embarrassed. All of the things she’d wanted to say, everything she’d planned, it all felt pointless, standing there in the dry heat watching this grown man, this military hardass, blubber like a child with his face in his hands.

 

He pulled himself together, and apologized again, and it was awkward as fuck but in the end, she decided to stay, just for a little while. That didn’t mean that she forgave him. It didn’t mean that everything was fine.

 

But it was a start.

 

***

 

The next few months were harder than Victoria had expected.

 

Finding a therapist was a bitch and a half. Selling the house was a pain in the ass. Getting rid of all her parents’ stuff was an even bigger pain in the ass, and doing that made everything feel so much more real.

 

Things got easier, though, bit by bit.

 

She kept in touch with Max and Chloe, checking in with them every so often to hear how their trip was going and share tidbits from her own life. It always brought a strange mix of emotions: envy she tried to squash, happiness for them that almost confused her. She finally got around to sending that letter to David Madsen, and they wrote back and forth a few times. She kept going to therapy, and she even started keeping a journal again. She sounded like an idiot when she tried to write, but at least no one would ever see it.

 

One of her therapists told her that time spent in nature could reduce stress, and that didn’t sound like complete nonsense, so she kept up with the hikes, too. Going solo was intimidating at first, but she compensated for that by being obsessively prepared. She wanted to prove to herself that she could do it. She wasn’t some spoiled princess. Not anymore.

 

There was just one last step she had to take before she could really say that she was starting her new life.

 

***

 

Chloe: uptown girl

 

Victoria: Excuse me?

 

Chloe: shes been livin in her uptown world

 

Victoria: What is going on right now?

 

Chloe: its maxs turn to drive and im bored as shit

Chloe: thats what

Chloe: i bet she never had a backstreet guy

 

Victoria: Punctuation. Use it.

 

Chloe: o’kay

 

Victoria: Unsubscribe

 

Chloe: u cant unsubscribe from me

Chloe: its a lifetime subscription

Chloe: no cancellations

Chloe: and no refunds

 

Victoria: Noted.

Victoria: BTW, call me when you guys get a chance. I have news.

 

Chloe: will do

 

Chloe: …i bet her mama never told her why

 

Victoria: On second thought, I’m blocking your number.

 

***

 

Once the lawyers had taken care of all the necessary paperwork, Victoria and Jessica shared a celebratory glass of sparkling grape juice.

 

“Don’t think of this as goodbye. I’m still here for you if you ever need anything.”

 

“I know. Thanks, Jessica. And the same goes for you.”

 

Jessica smiled and lifted her glass. “To new beginnings.”

 

Clink.

 

“Isn’t this exciting? You’re young. You’re bright. You’ve got money, and you have no obligations for the first time in your life. The world is your proverbial oyster.”

 

Victoria swallowed against the lump in her throat. “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with myself now. I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”

 

Jessica swept her into a hug. “You’ll be just fine. I’m sure of it.” She pulled back but kept her hands on Victoria’s shoulders, examining her as if seeing her for the first time, eyes glistening and her expression shining with pride. “I always did have a good feeling about you.”

 

And the Chase Space closed its doors for good.