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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
Thanks to anyone who made it this far! I started writing this story years ago and a large chunk of it is already finished, so I'm hoping to be able to update pretty regularly, assuming anyone is actually interested in seeing where this goes.
“…all gonna die…”
“Nathan, look at me. No one’s dying. It’s okay. I’m here. You’re fine.”
Panic swells in Victoria ’s chest. He sounds terrified, almost childlike in the way he’s whimpering, cradling his head, curled up on the floor of her dorm room. Should she call an ambulance? She’s never seen him like this before, not even during his worst meltdowns. Nothing she’s doing seems to help, and she’s starting to feel desperate. She hopes no one can hear him through the thin walls of the dorm.
She reaches for her phone, drops it, swears as it clatters to the floor. Her head is spinning and her vision is blurred with tears as she kneels to pick it up. Nathan has gone still and quiet. She leans in to check that he s still breathing. His breath is so shallow and slow that she can barely feel it.
“I’m gonna call for help, okay? Just hang on.” Cursing her fingers for trembling, she fumbles with her phone. If they get busted for the booze, so be it. This isn’t something she knows how to deal with.
“Don’t.” His voice is hoarse and frantic as he reaches out to grab her arm with surprising force, making her jump and nearly causing her to drop her phone again. His hand is cold and damp with sweat.
Victoria ’s heart hammers against her ribs. “Nathan?”
“Don’t call anyone,” he rasps, clinging to her as if she’s keeping him afloat.
“Look at me.” She lifts his face; his eyes are cloudy and unfocused, but eventually lock onto hers. “Are you okay?”
He blinks and shakes his head, as if trying to bring himself back to earth. He lets go of her arm. “I’m fine.”
Considering the state he was just in, he sounds surprisingly lucid. This sudden shift in his demeanor is almost more alarming than the episode itself, but at least he ’s conscious now. Relieved, she pulls him into a hug, but his body stiffens at her touch. She pulls away.
“What the hell just happened?”
“Nothing. Just a bad trip.”
She stares at him for a moment, incredulous. “It wasn’t nothing. You scared the shit out of me. Did you take something while I wasn’t looking?”
For a long time, he ’s silent, his breath shallow and ragged.
“You don’t have to apologize. Just tell me what the hell is going on.”
No response. He wipes tears and snot on the sleeve of his jacket and stares at the floor between them, stone-faced. She doesn ’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to deal with this. There’s only one person who might be able to help.
“Should we call Kris?”
He laughs, bitter and humorless. “Hell no. It’s fucking late. I can’t bother her with this bullshit.”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
She knows better than to push him. Sometimes, after a night of partying, they ’d stay up and talk for hours, bitching about anything and everything until the sun came up and they fell asleep in an exhausted heap on her bed, but his guarded grimace tells her that tonight isn’t one of those nights. They’re becoming less and less frequent lately, anyway. As much as she wants to keep pressing him for answers, to not let him leave until he explains himself, she knows him well enough to know when he’s not in the mood to share his thoughts.
For a while he just sits there with his head between his knees, and the silence stretches on. After what feels like hours, he mutters another apology and goes back to his own dorm. When she ’s sure he’s out of earshot, she calls Kris anyway.
“Tori?” Kris’s voice, heavy with sleep, makes Victoria’s insides twist into anxious knots.
“Hey. Sorry to wake you up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says with a yawn. “I always have time for you. What’s up?”
Victoria takes a deep breath, pressing the phone tightly to her ear. “It’s about Nathan.”
“Is he okay?” Kris is definitely awake now, a worried edge to her tone.
“He’s fine now, I think, but he really fucking scared me tonight. He asked me not to call you, but I wanted you to know.”
“We were hanging out in my room and he just started freaking out all of a sudden. I think he was hallucinating or something. He kept talking about a storm…”
Friday rolled around, and though Victoria was resolute in her decision to spare Max the awkwardness of a forced reunion, putting it all out of her mind was proving to be easier said than done. Waking up in that apartment was only the latest fuckup in a long string of fuckups, but it was a pretty colossal one. It brought everything right back to the surface. Kate, Jefferson, the Dark Room, all the weird shit that happened in Arcadia Bay.
Victoria still thought of Nathan often. Sometimes, the memories were good: their drunken talks, parties or concerts they’d attended together. Little things, like how he made fun of her for watching anime but still surprised her with a limited-edition figurine of one of her favorite characters, just because. She’d known Nathan and Kris since childhood, and for a time, they’d been like family to her. When Kris left, it was just Nathan and Victoria against the world. As woefully ill-equipped as she was to deal with his mood swings, his impulsivity, his bouts of rage, she always tried to be there for him, because she knew no one else was. He was there for her too, in his own way; though he was even worse at being comforting than she was, it was enough to know that there was at least one person who was truly and completely on her side. Even as he became increasingly unpredictable and started to actually scare her with his outbursts, she thought of him as her brother-by-choice. Her best friend.
The good was starting to fade, though. Every memory was tainted now that she knew what he’d done. That knowledge spread through everything like a plume of ink through water, infecting, corrupting each moment they had shared.
She thought of the times they’d talked about Rachel—
“I’m sure she’s having the time of her life slutting it up in LA.”
“She did always say she wanted to go there, yeah.”
“Such a fucking hypocrite, preaching at us about abstinence and then sucking face with a bunch of randos.”
“I hear that. You gonna post that video?”
How easily he lied to her face, nodding along while she ranted like an idiot. How he encouraged her anger and vindictiveness. She’d replayed those memories hundreds of times, agonizing over all the signs she should have seen, all the ways in which she’d failed and fucked up.
Mostly, she hated him.
Sometimes, she missed him.
Then she remembered, and hated herself for missing him, and hated that she was too stupid and weak and useless to help him. He’d slipped and tumbled into the canyons of his own mind, and she did nothing but stand at the edge, watching him fall. Kris, wherever she was, surely resented her for that. As many times as she’d thought about contacting Kris, she knew she didn’t have the right.
She still didn’t understand how she could have been so wrong about him. About everything.
And then there was the matter of the storm.
The whole week leading up to it was insane enough to begin with—the snow, the dead animals, the eclipse. Most people wrote those things off as bizarre side effects of climate change, or had some other perfectly rational explanation she had no real rebuttal for. Science was never her strong suit. They even claimed that the extra fucking moon was some kind of collective hallucination—one person said they saw it and it worked its way into everyone’s minds, spurred on by the strange events of that week. She could almost convince herself that was true, sometimes.
But Nathan’s prediction, or whatever the hell it was, was something she couldn’t ignore or rationalize. Scientists nationwide were still mystified by the storm; nobody understood how it had formed so quickly. Nobody had seen it coming. Nobody except Nathan.
How could he have known?
There were some things she just couldn’t talk to a therapist about.
The trauma of her experience in the Dark Room, the grief and shock of losing so many people all at once, the crushing weight of being suddenly responsible for her family’s legacy on top of it all—these were heavy problems, but at least they were grounded in reality. How was she supposed to talk about the things she couldn’t prove or explain? Any half-decent therapist could tell she was holding something back, and what was the point of going to therapy at all if she just had to lie? The only person she wanted to talk to about it was Nathan, but Nathan was dead, and all the questions she would never get to ask him were left to smolder like coals in her stomach.
Ten o’clock came and went.
On Friday morning, Max sat on the edge of the bed, hugging her knees to her chest.
Behind her, Chloe wrapped her arms around her and held her close. She heard Max sniffle and stifle a whimper. Max was trembling. She felt small and fragile in Chloe’s arms. Chloe was used to these moods by now. The nightmares were a regular thing. Max never shared all of the details, and Chloe wasn’t sure whether that was because it was too hard to talk about or because she was trying to spare Chloe the pain of hearing it. But Chloe knew the guilt she still carried, saw how it weighed on her.
Chloe was shitty at dealing with stuff like this. She always tried to comfort and reassure Max, but it was hard to find the words. There were no words for the shit Max had been through. There was nothing she could say to erase the pain. There was no magic phrase that would make things better.
But she knew Max liked to be held, and that, she could do. She tried to communicate with her touch all the things she couldn’t put into words, and she felt Max’s heartbeat slow gradually as she came back to reality. Eventually, Max wiped her eyes and stood, and went to go take a shower.
While Max showered, Chloe gathered up the sweat-soaked sheets and tossed them into the hamper. Then she kickstarted her morning with a few bong rips. It was her day off.
She tried to lighten things up by cracking a few jokes over breakfast, and she managed to get a smile or two out of Max, so she counted that as a win. They spent the morning trying to shake off the sour mood that always hung over them after an especially rough night.
“I haven’t heard anything from Victoria about today,” Max said eventually. Chloe had been wondering if she was ever going to bring that up. “Do you think I should text her?”
Chloe gave a half-shrug as she packed herself another bowl. “She’s probably too busy polishing her collection of solid gold Pokémon cards, or something.”
“Come on. Be serious.”
“Seriously, I don’t know. It’s up to you.”
“Maybe I should.”
She did. And as they went about their day, trying to distract themselves with movies and other random shit, she kept glancing at her phone.
Chloe still wasn’t sure how to feel about Victoria yet. True, she’d shown a side of herself that night that Chloe hadn’t been expecting. But as for the rest of her, the two-facedness and the shallowness and now the cold shoulder shit—yeah, hard pass, thanks. The fact that she was ignoring Max didn’t come as a surprise at all, even after everything she’d said that night at the club, on top of the endless apologies and fawning over Max. The bitch wasn’t fooling anyone, yet she was still acting like she was so much better than them, like she wasn’t falling apart just like they were. It pissed Chloe off.
Chloe made dinner for them that evening, pasta again because she was a shitty cook on top of being shitty at almost everything else, and when they sat down to eat she saw Max cast a sad look at her phone for the millionth time. She felt another flash of annoyance at Victoria. Why couldn’t she just get over herself already? Max didn’t deserve to shoulder this guilt on top of everything else.
“Don’t even worry about it,” said Chloe through a mouthful of noodles. “If she wants to be a bitch, let her.”
“She’s not all bad.”
“Yeah, when she’s too drunk to know her own name, she’s a blast. The rest of the time, though?”
Chloe knew that Max had seen a different version of her, one that was somehow her friend, but in this reality, Victoria Chase was acting like the same stuck-up bitch she’d always been.
“You know there’s more to it than that.” Max shook her head. “You heard all the stuff she said that night. The past few months have been really hard on her. She lost everyone, Chloe.”
“Yeah,” Chloe said. “And that sucks. But it’s not your job to—”
“Then whose job is it?” Max snapped, setting her fork down with too much force. “I fucked up her whole life. And that’s what you have to say about it? That sucks?”
“What do you want me to say? You can’t force someone to change.”
“I’m not trying to.”
“Then what are you trying to do?”
“I’m just trying to do the right thing,” Max said, looking down at her plate. There was no more anger in her voice, just an exhaustion that ripped Chloe’s heart in half.
They finished eating and did the dishes in silence. Chloe knew she needed to apologize, but she still felt bristly and on edge from the argument and she knew if she tried to speak her voice would come out sounding bitchier than she wanted it to and that would probably snowball into even more shit.
She just had to open her big fucking mouth and make everything worse. Max was already going through so much, and Chloe hated being the source of any of that unhappiness, but when her mouth got ahead of her it was like someone else took over.
All of this was Chloe’s fault. Everything from the argument itself to the very reason they were having it in the first place. If Victoria was a selfish bitch, what did that make Chloe?
After giving herself some time to cool down and think about her next move, Chloe came crawling up to Max with her tail tucked between her legs.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and she wanted to say more but the words wouldn’t come.
Max just sighed and reached out for her, pulling her onto the couch for a hug. Max never stayed mad at her. Sometimes she wished she would.
“I know. Me too.”
“I love you so fucking much,” Chloe said.
“I love you, too.”
They held each other for a while, then Chloe got up and gave as much of a smile as she could muster.
“I’ve got an errand to run. I’ll be back soon.”
Max glanced at the clock and her eyebrows knitted up. “Right now?”
“Don’t worry. Won’t take long.”
“Where are you—”
“Don’t worry,” Chloe repeated, kissing Max on the forehead as she pulled her jacket on.
It was time for her to take matters into her own hands.
Around noon, Victoria received a text.
Max: Hey! Are we still on for tonight?
Max’s number was already saved in her phone. Apparently they’d exchanged information, though she didn’t remember doing that—or much of anything, for that matter. The night was still a blur. She hadn’t expected Max to actually reach out to her.
Max was probably just too polite to cancel the plans they’d made. She was probably hoping Victoria wouldn’t respond. Ignoring the text was the most sensible course of action. This way Max could feel like she’d done her good deed for the day without actually having to follow through.
Victoria tried to continue working, but felt jittery and unfocused. Her gaze lingered on the bottle of vodka next to her desk, nearly empty from the night before. Rubbing her temples in a vain attempt to stave off a budding headache, she made a small noise of frustration. For the past few days, her concentration had been utter shit. She had emails that demanded her attention but all she wanted to do was throw her laptop against a wall.
After re-reading the text for the millionth time, she finally decided to turn her phone off. That was nothing unusual; she kept it off most of the time these days, because every time it buzzed it sent a little dart of anxiety through her chest. It always seemed to be something she didn’t want to hear.
She slogged through the pile of emails, responding to the urgent ones and ignoring the rest, then stopped by the Chase Space to touch base with Jessica, her business partner—it still felt strange to refer to her that way, rather than as her parents’ partner. She wasn’t sure if she would ever get used to it. They chatted for a while about an event that was to take place at the gallery in a couple of weeks.
“Do you think you’ll be coming?” Jessica asked. “It’s okay if you’re not feeling up to it yet. No pressure, alright?” Her tone was careful and sympathetic, and Victoria found herself irritated by it. More undeserved kindness.
“I’ll be there. I’m ready.”
It was a promise she’d made before and broken each time, but this time she was determined. She couldn’t hide from the world forever. Time to suck it up and stop being pathetic. Attending an exhibition shouldn’t have been such a daunting task. She’d done it a million times before.
Just never without at least one of her parents.
By the time she got home that evening she was ready to break down, and that made her even angrier at herself. Once it was late enough, she polished off the last of the previous night’s vodka and grabbed another bottle from the kitchen, filling up a glass. It had been a stressful week, and she decided that she deserved an off night. No clubs, no work shit, just Victoria and some of her favorite guilty pleasure shows. She needed to recharge.
She settled down in the living room and booted up Crunchyroll, ordering herself to relax.
Then she heard a knock at her door.
The sudden knock startled Victoria and she shot out of her seat, nearly spilling her drink. The banging continued as she stormed over to the front door. Her eye met the peephole, and she froze.
She blinked, hard.
God. Fucking. Damn it.
She threw open the door.
“Sup.” Chloe jerked her head upwards in a nod. “What’s wrong? You look like you’re about to shit your satin jammies.”
“Why. The fuck. Are you here.” Victoria grabbed her by the sleeve and pulled her quickly inside, hoping nobody had seen her.
“Lovely to see you too.” She leaned back to survey the interior of the house, giving a low whistle as she wandered right past a sputtering Victoria. “Damn, this place is huge. You probably have, like, an entire closet just for purses. Got any food?”
“Why the fuck are you here?” Victoria repeated.
“I just wanna talk.” Chloe threw her hands up defensively. “Besides, I gave you fair warning. Don’t you ever check your phone?”
“You need to get the fuck out of here. Now.”
“What are you gonna do, call the cops?” She cocked her hip and raised a teasing eyebrow, igniting another flare of anger in Victoria, whose lips curled into a sneer.
“Maybe I should call Animal Control instead.”
She laughed. “Either way, I have a feeling you don’t want your neighbors to see that. I can be pretty loud, y’know. Just let me say what I came here to say, and then I’ll go. Alright?”
Victoria considered her options. She could try dragging the bitch back outside and locking her out, but the rational part of her brain knew that Chloe would either overpower her or just stay out there making a scene until Victoria let her back in. That kind of commotion was the last thing she needed.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Jesus. Fine. Five minutes.” She motioned for Chloe to follow her into the living room, returning to her drink. Chloe had effectively killed her buzz, so she took a few swallows to try to get it back. “Did Max send you here to check up on me or something? You know you’re wasting your time, right?”
“Nobody sent me.”
Victoria paused, taken aback. “Then what the hell do you want? Does she even know you’re here?”
“This isn’t about me. It’s about you. But first,” Chloe said, slipping a hand into the breast pocket of her jacket and pulling out a joint, “a peace offering. Yeah?”
“A peace offering? After forcing your way in here in the middle of the night?”
“Uh. Yes?” Chloe smirked. “Something like that. But I didn’t exactly force anything. You let me in, remember? Practically dragged me—”
“Whatever. Follow me.” Chloe’s weed was probably dirt compared to the top-shelf product Victoria was accustomed to, but at least it might make this more bearable. She abandoned her glass and grabbed the whole bottle (fuck it), plus her cigarettes, off the kitchen table, then led Chloe through the house to the sliding doors that opened to the back porch. “Even though I really don’t have time for… whatever this is.”
“Relax. It’s just a friendly chat.”
She rolled her eyes as she slipped into her porch shoes.
As they stepped out into the cool night air, she suppressed a shiver. There were a couple of chairs on the porch and, between them, a small table with an ashtray. Victoria set her cigarettes down on the table and leaned against the railing with her arms crossed, too jittery to sit. She watched as Chloe pulled up a chair, making herself at home. Chloe sat like a guy, with her feet planted apart and her knees wide, and jiggled one foot annoyingly as she sparked the joint and sucked in a huge lungful of smoke.
“Clock’s ticking. Talk.”
“Okay, I’ll cut to the chase.” Chloe grinned. “Get it? ‘Cause your last name is—”
“Don’t.” Victoria took the joint from Chloe’s outstretched hand and raised it to her lips.
“Alright, alright. Tough crowd.”
They passed it back and forth between them a few times, Victoria taking sips of vodka between hits, and eventually Chloe spoke, her tone more serious now.
“You should talk to Max. It’s not cool to leave someone hanging like that.”
Victoria snorted. Fucking precious. “That’s what this is about? You’re here to defend her honor?”
“I’m here to ask you politely to stop being a dumbass.”
She narrowed her eyes. “If you’re just going to insult me—”
“All she’s trying to do is be your friend. Why is that so horrible?” Chloe interrupted, meeting Victoria’s glare with one of her own. “What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
“No?” Chloe crossed her arms. “Then why are you being an asshole? Making plans with someone and then blowing them off is fucking rude. It’s a shitty thing to do. I shouldn’t have to spell that out for you.”
“I’ve been busy—”
“Busy, huh?” Chloe said with a pointed glance at the bottle in Victoria’s hand. “Yeah, looks like you were hard at work before I got here. Anyway, doing something tonight was your idea in the first place.”
“I don’t even remember saying that.”
“Yeah. I know.” Chloe raked a hand across her scalp, messing up her already-tousled hair even more. “But you did say it. You said a lot of things, actually.”
Victoria’s heart skipped a beat. What the hell was that supposed to mean? “I was drunk. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“So now you’re back to bitch mode because, what, you’re embarrassed?”
“I told you, I’ve been very busy. I do have an actual life, you realize? With actual responsibilities. Not that you would know anything about that.”
“Deflecting again,” Chloe said, wagging her finger. “You’re so predictable.”
Victoria wasn’t sure what to say to that. Chloe was anything but predictable, as evidenced by her presence there.
“You’re so annoying.”
“At least I’m honest with myself.”
They glared at each other for a few moments. Chloe stood and started pacing.
“Look, Max is a really good person, okay? She’s helped me a lot and—”
“I don’t need her fucking help.”
Chloe made a noise of frustration. “What is it with you? What the hell is your problem?”
“I don’t have a fucking problem. You’re the one harassing me for no reason.”
“I’m just trying to be real with you.” She gave a humorless laugh, shaking her head. “Is it because of your little crush on Max? Is that why you’re being weird?”
“My fucking what?” Victoria tried to laugh at the utter ridiculousness of that question, but the laugh came out strained, too high-pitched. Chloe’s ditch weed was probably laced with something. That was the only possible explanation for why she would say something so completely insane, and why Victoria felt suddenly sick to her stomach. “You’re fucking crazy.”
“You’re balls deep in denial.”
“I didn’t have a fucking crush on her. What are you, twelve years old?” She wanted a cigarette, badly, but didn’t dare reach for the pack—she knew her hands would shake. She kept her arms crossed. Five minutes had long passed, but Chloe, still pacing, wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Victoria’s pulse drummed nervously as she watched. “I didn’t even like her.”
“That’s not what you said last week. Going on and on about how you always thought she was so talented.” Chloe smirked at Victoria’s noise of protest. “Oh, yeah. ‘I wish I hadn’t been such a bitch to you, I always wanted to compare photos with you—’ ”
“ ‘I almost asked you to join the Vortex Club, you know—’ ”
“Shut the fuck up.“ Victoria was starting to see red. The fact that Chloe’s imitation of her voice was startlingly accurate wasn’t helping. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“I think I know exactly what I’m talking about. I was there, remember? You were a fucking mess that night, but you were telling the truth for once. So just drop the act! Just admit that you want to be her friend like a normal goddamn person!” Chloe was gesturing wildly, arms flailing like downed wires. “Why does any of this high school drama bullshit even matter, after everything that’s happened? Aren’t you tired of it? Almost everyone we knew is fucking dead, and you’re still pulling your ice queen shit because you’re so terrified of—of I don’t even fucking know what. I don’t know why you feel like you have to act like this. I just know it’s fucking sad.”
Victoria’s grip tightened around the bottle. She tried to steady her voice; it betrayed her, wavering pathetically as it came out. “Fuck you.”
Chloe ignored the jab. She stopped pacing to face Victoria directly. “If you could just get over yourself—“
“Fuck you.” Victoria grabbed Chloe by the front of her jacket and pushed her, stumbling forward. Chloe took a step back but kept her balance, raising her hands to keep Victoria’s flailing at bay.
“It’s time for you to fucking leave. Barging in here acting like you know me—”
“Jesus, Victoria, stop—”
“You can’t fucking come here and talk to me like—like—”
Her words were starting to slur and she was dizzy and angry, shoving clumsily. At some point during the scuffle, the bottle slipped from her hand and landed with a thud. Fortunately, it was capped. Chloe gave up on trying to fend her off and stepped in towards her, taking hold of both of her wrists and pinning her with her back against the railing.
“Cut it out, alright?”
Victoria froze, snapped out of her rage.
Pressure on her wrists. Duct tape. A needle in her neck. The sound of the camera shutter. That awful voice, mocking and taunting her—
Chloe took a step back, releasing her. “Just chill for a sec, holy shit.” She bent down and picked up the bottle, setting it down next to the ashtray on the table, then plopped back into her seat. Shaking her head, she heaved a frustrated sigh. “Man, this really isn’t how I wanted this to—are you okay?”
Chloe’s voice was suddenly spiked with confusion and something that might have been concern. Victoria became aware that she was hyperventilating, and her knees had given up on keeping her standing upright.
Deep breaths. I ’m alive. I’m safe. He’s not here.
She tried to ground herself by focusing on the feeling of rough wood under her palms, the chill of the night air on her skin.
It ’s just a flashback. It’s just a—
“Uh, you good?”
Victoria gulped and jerked her head in a nod, still trying to banish the swarm of unwanted images from her mind. Rubbing her wrists, she forced herself to speak. “Just—just dizzy.”
Chloe grabbed Victoria’s cigarettes and held them out. Victoria clung to the railing to pull herself up, then straightened herself and snatched her cigarettes from Chloe’s outstretched hand. She fumbled pulling one out of the pack, and it took her a few tries to spark the lighter. They were silent as she smoked and attempted to compose herself and Chloe started puffing on another joint. Chloe wasn’t supposed to have seen that, but she didn’t seem to realize exactly what had happened. Victoria hoped she would accept drunken dizziness as an explanation.
“Listen,” Chloe said eventually, her voice quiet, almost gentle. “I know you probably have no idea what to say to her. I get that. But I think you should at least try. Just talk to her, okay? It would be good for both of you.”
No jabs or mockery; surprising. Victoria had expected to be kicked while she was down. This was almost worse.
The relief of the nicotine fix was starting to slow her racing pulse, leaving her exhausted and embarrassed. Between that and everything else, she didn’t have much fight left in her. She tried to swallow down the lump in her throat, keep her voice even.
“I don’t want your pity.”
“It’s not about pity, dude.”
“Then why? Why do either of you want anything to do with me?” she managed weakly, internally cringing at how pathetic she sounded. “Max should hate me. You do hate me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
A sharp, humorless laugh escaped her lips. “Of course you do. Don’t insult me by pretending otherwise.”
Chloe sighed. “I mean, yeah, when we ran into you that night I had my doubts. I’ll admit that.” She twisted the remnants of the joint between her fingers before flicking it into the ashtray. “But we ended up actually having a pretty good time. You’re alright when you don’t have your entire head crammed up your own ass.”
Victoria didn’t know where to begin with that backhanded compliment, so she remained silent.
Chloe tried again. “I’m trying to give you a chance, alright? Even though you really aren’t making it easy.”
“I’m the one being difficult?”
“What are you trying to say? I’m a ray of sunshine.” She withdrew yet another joint from her jacket pocket and lit it.
“Jesus, how many of those do you have?”
“An endless supply. I’m like the Mary Poppins of weed.” She took a couple of drags and flicked ash off the tip. “Look, maybe I’m wrong and this is a terrible idea, but Max means everything to me. And she has it in her head that you aren’t as horrible as you act.”
Victoria took a moment to mull that over. “I don’t understand why.” Her anger had mostly evaporated, leaving her feeling beaten down, nausea starting to swirl in the pit of her stomach. “I never even apologized for… for anything.”
“You actually did. Like, over and over.”
“When I was wasted? That doesn’t count.” Victoria snuffed out the butt of her cigarette and pulled out another. She caught Chloe sneaking a longing glance at the pack and held it out.
Chloe shook her head. “I quit.”
“Suit yourself.” Victoria attempted a shrug, but it turned into something between a twitch and a shudder.
She decided she would make the best of this shitshow by using it as an opportunity to dig for information. Chloe clearly wasn’t going to fucking leave any time soon, and Victoria was beginning to feel desperate for answers, both about Max and about her own behavior that night at The Flame.
She finished her cigarette too quickly and considered having a third, but she was getting chilly wearing just her pajamas and slippers, and decided against it.
She grabbed the bottle of vodka and sighed. “Let’s go in.”
Chloe shrugged and followed her back inside. Victoria motioned for Chloe to sit down in the kitchen, then retrieved a second glass and put it next to hers on the counter. She split the remainder of the bottle between the two glasses, giving Chloe a slightly more generous portion. “Drink,” she said without much bite.
“I’ve gotta drive.”
“Aren’t you stoned anyway?”
“I’ll be fine in half an hour.”
“We smoked like seven joints.”
“I’ve got a high tolerance.”
“You should be able to handle one drink, then.”
Chloe laughed. “Alright, fair enough. I can’t say no to free booze. No blacking out on me, though.”
“You sure? I don’t wanna have to babysit your ass again.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Alright, but I’m holding you to that. Now, there’s just one teensy little problem. See, I don’t want to drink on an empty stomach.” Chloe was smirking; the bluster and bravado had returned to her. “I know you’ve got some bomb-ass food in this house.”
Victoria sighed. If this was what it took to get some answers, so be it. She would play along. She decided that she could use a snack to settle her stomach anyway. She turned and reached into the fridge, pulling out a bag of baby carrots and some hummus, then tossed them onto the counter in front of Chloe, who looked at them and raised an eyebrow disapprovingly.
“These are called carrots,” Victoria said. “I’m guessing this is your first time seeing a vegetable in person?”
“No, see, I think you’re confused. I want food for myself, not a rabbit.”
“I don’t keep junk food around the house.”
“I guess a fuckton of alcohol doesn’t count as junk food?” Chloe got up and started ambling around the kitchen, peeking into various cabinets.
“Do not touch my supplements.”
“I don’t even know what half of this shit is. Primrose oil? What the hell does that do?”
“It’s for your skin. On second thought, maybe you should take that one. You need it more than I do.”
“What I need is fancy rich people snacks. You’re holding out on me, Chase.”
“Eat the damn carrots.”
“I’d rather get hit by a train.”
Victoria huffed and got up to fetch a bribe that might loosen Chloe’s tongue, or at least placate her whiny ass for a minute. She stood on her tiptoes to reach the top shelf of one of the cabinets and procured a bar of Swiss chocolate that probably cost more than Chloe’s truck.
“Hell yeah. Maybe Max was right about you after all.” Chloe unwrapped the bar and took a bite out of it instead of neatly breaking off individual squares like a civilized human being. She chewed for a minute, drumming her fingers on the countertop and eyeing Victoria with a smirk that said she wasn’t done being annoying just yet.
Victoria crossed her arms. “What now?”
“I could use something to chase this with,” she said, swirling her glass of vodka. “Get it? ‘Cause your—”
“You’re no fun. Seriously, though, I don’t understand how you drink this shit straight. Got any juice?”
Victoria rolled her eyes. Being ordered around in her own house was a new and frustrating experience for her; the only reason she was even entertaining this nonsense was the hope that if she played her cards right, she could persuade Chloe to share the details of what happened that night at The Flame. She fetched some cranberry juice from the fridge and somehow managed to resist the powerful urge to throw the bottle at Chloe’s face.
“I mean, I’m more of a screwdriver kinda girl, but I can live with vodka cran.” Chloe laughed. She took a long gulp from her glass, cringing as it went down. “Good shit. You want some?” She extended the gnawed-on chocolate bar towards Victoria, who shook her head curtly.
They drank in silence—except for the sound of Chloe’s chewing, which Victoria tried to ignore. She was becoming pleasantly dizzy, embracing the familiar warmth that spread through her veins. Good shit, indeed. It occurred to her that her alcohol tolerance was so high that she was just now starting to feel properly drunk, even after all she’d had earlier, but she pushed that thought to the back of her mind and told herself to enjoy the feeling while it lasted. Curiosity started to overtake her now that the possibility of finally getting answers lay at her fingertips.
“So,” she said once she was confident that Chloe was well on her way to being sufficiently tipsy. “I have some questions.”
“What kinda questions?”
“For starters, what actually happened that night at the club? Like, why were you even clubbing in the first place? Neither of you seem like the type.”
“We just felt like doing something we wouldn’t usually do.” Chloe fidgeted with her glass. “Is that really so hard to believe?”
She was a terrible liar. Victoria could tell she was full of shit. “Fine, don’t tell me.”
Chloe shrugged and gave a little lopsided grin. “It’s nunya bidness anyway. But I’ll tell you other stuff. Do you still not remember anything? Like, anything at all?”
Victoria sighed in resignation. “Not really, no.”
“What do you wanna know?”
“Just give me a rundown. Start to finish.” She nibbled on a carrot while she waited for Chloe’s response.
“Alright.” Chloe took an extra-long gulp of her drink, making a face as she swallowed. “So, you saw us first and came up to say hi. You asked Max if you could talk to her outside. We went outside and you started apologizing and all that mushy stuff. You were already pretty drunk so it was a little hard to understand, but you made your point.”
A snippet of a memory flashed through Victoria’s mind: the three of them shivering in an alleyway, Max nodding along as she babbled.
“What exactly did I say?”
“Just that you felt bad about everything that went down and you always thought she was cool, and all that shit.”
“Basically, yeah. Don’t worry, it was totally normal and not awkward at all.” She grinned. “So when we were done singing kumbaya we went back in, and you were all like, ‘oh my gooood I love this song you guys, dance with meeee—’ ”
“I don’t sound like that!”
“Whatever you say.” Chloe was kicking her legs like a toddler as she drank her vodka and juice. “Anyway, we danced for a while and got shitfaced. Well, you and I did. Max is a lightweight so she had like three shots and got sleepy. Oh, and I wasn’t kidding when I said you paid for all our drinks, by the way. You insisted. So thanks for that. Good thing you’ve got a fake ID.” She smirked. “Then the club was about to close so we all left to head back to the apartment. By the time we made it back, you were totally hammered. Like, practically on another planet. We all got to talking again and that’s, uh… that’s when things got kind of heavy.”
Victoria felt her heart drop into her stomach. “Heavy?”
“You were saying all this stuff,” Chloe said, now sitting still, her tone suddenly serious, “about how you should have died in the storm like everyone else. About how you deserve to die.”
So this was why Max was so invested in reconnecting. After that humiliating display, she probably thought Victoria was having some kind of mental breakdown or something and felt obligated to try to help.
“Yeah. And, listen, I know this probably doesn’t mean shit coming from me, but I’m gonna say it anyway. You don’t deserve to die. That’s bullshit.”
Victoria polished off the remainder of her drink. People feeling sorry for her always made her intensely uncomfortable. Her throat was tight but she tried to keep her voice even. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“No, I mean it. No one deserved what happened.”
Chloe’s jaw tightened as she stared down into her glass with clouded eyes. All of the humor was gone from her voice; she sounded suddenly exhausted. With her playful, irreverent front stripped away, Victoria noticed for the first time just how tired she looked. Her shoulders sagged and there were dark circles under her eyes that were too deep to have been from a night or two.
Perhaps it wasn’t pity, but solidarity, that brought Victoria to their apartment that night. Maybe their motivations really were as simple and genuine as that. Was it possible?
She and Chloe had never gotten along. Chloe became an enemy by default when she attached herself to Rachel Amber, existing on the periphery of Victoria’s social group as Rachel’s attack dog. She tried to remember the last time she'd even seen her. Rachel would occasionally drag her to Vortex Club parties; it might have been the time Logan grabbed Rachel’s ass and Chloe tackled him into the pool. Before Chloe was expelled, neither of them had been able to resist making jabs at each other any time they crossed paths. Victoria had found her annoying and terrifying in equal measure, though she wouldn’t have admitted the latter out loud.
And yet, here they were.
As for Max, Victoria still couldn’t understand why she didn’t hate her after everything Victoria had done, and continued to do. There was a strange sort of relief in knowing that despite everything, there was still a chance of reconciling like she’d always imagined. Not that Chloe’s ridiculous accusations of a crush had any merit. She just wanted to make amends with someone who truly hadn’t deserved the way she’d treated her.
Max and Chloe had been there in Arcadia Bay that week. They’d seen the same devastation, witnessed the same bizarre events leading up to it. They’d lost people too.
“Anyway,” Chloe said with a shake of her head, wrenching Victoria out of her thoughts. “You already know how the night ended. Shit calmed down, you crashed at ours, showed your true weeaboo nature.” It was clear that she was making an effort to keep her voice light; Victoria could hear the strain underneath, cracks that threatened to show.
Still, the teasing almost came as a relief after the uncomfortable turn Chloe’s retelling had taken. Victoria found herself feeling oddly grateful for the ritual of it, something to ground her before her thoughts started to spiral in other directions.
“Appreciating Japanese culture doesn’t make me a weeaboo.”
“That sounds like something a weeb would say.”
She bit the inside of her cheek. As tempted as she was to launch into a lecture on the nuances behind the term and the exact reasons why it did not apply to her, she knew doing so would only provide fodder for Chloe’s mockery. And she was too drunk for that, anyway. Instead, she decided to redirect the conversation. “I have another question.”
“Sure, change the subject. You know I speak the truth.”
Victoria ignored that. “Does Max know you’re here right now?” It was something she’d been curious about since Chloe arrived. She was reasonably certain she already knew the answer; something told her that if Chloe wasn’t here on Max’s orders, she probably didn’t have her blessing, either.
“No,” Chloe said simply, her tone unreadable.
“Did you have a fight or something?”
Chloe swirled her glass absentmindedly. Victoria watched her, hoping she wouldn’t spill any over the sides.
“I’m a selfish asshole,” she said after a long pause. “And I’m trying to be less of one. That’s all I’m gonna say about it.” She inhaled the last bit of chocolate and crumpled up the wrapper. “This is me trying to do the right thing for once.”
Surprised at Chloe’s sincerity, Victoria let that information roll around in her head for a few moments.
“What are you going to tell her?”
“Dunno yet. Are you gonna go back to pretending you don’t have human emotions after I leave?”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to Max.”
“That’s the spirit.” Chloe grinned. “I knew you just needed a little push.”
“This is what you call a little push?”
“Okay, more of a shove. But it worked, right?”
Victoria sighed. “I suppose it did.” She almost laughed at how truly fucking absurd that was.
“So I’ll tell her we had a friendly chat and it all worked out. And you’d better not change your mind. Remember, I know where you live.” She chuckled while Victoria made a noise of annoyance. “For real, though, it’s gonna be fine.”
“I hope so.”
“Everything’s gonna be—” Chloe leaned back and unleashed a loud burp. “—fine.”
“Oh my god! Could you be any more disgusting?”
“Is that a challenge?” Chloe wiggled her eyebrows.
Chloe’s phone started to buzz. She took it out of her pocket and glanced at the screen.
“Hang on,” she said. “It’s Max.”
She got up to wander into a different room. For a second, Victoria considered following to eavesdrop, but she knew she was too clumsy to pull off sneakiness right now. Instead, she strained her ears to try to make out Chloe’s half of the conversation. Sound carried far in the spacious house, with its vaulted ceilings and wide halls; she heard sorry and back soon, and thought she could make out her own name but wasn’t sure.
When Chloe returned, she sat back down and pushed her glass away. “Can’t finish this,” she said. “I know how much you love having me around, but I’ve gotta get going soon.”
While they waited to sober up, Chloe requested that they watch something on “that huge-ass TV in there,” laughing when she saw that one of Victoria’s favorite animes was already up on the screen, ready to go. Chloe insisted on watching it and made quips throughout, which would have been annoying if Victoria hadn’t been too drunk to care.
Then she left, after making Victoria promise again to speak to Max, and the house was empty again.
When she turned on her phone the following morning, Chloe’s texts from the previous night came in.
Chloe: text max back. seriously.
Chloe: if u dont im coming over there and we are gonna have a talk
Chloe: not even kidding
Chloe: ok i warned u
She rolled her eyes as she read them, simultaneously annoyed with herself for missing them and begrudgingly impressed by Chloe’s stubbornness.
Then she typed and re-typed a message to Max, rewording and rephrasing until she was satisfied that it was adequate.
She took a deep breath, swallowed the anxiety and dread that rose up like vomit in her throat, and hit send.
In the days leading up to her meeting with Max, Victoria came close to canceling several times. She knew, though, that she needed to go through with it if she ever hoped to recover her dignity. It wasn’t as if she had much to lose at this point, anyway, in light of her drunken antics and subsequent freakout. She just needed to make a proper, non-drunk apology and then she could put this whole mess behind her.
When the day finally came, it was damp and grey. Moving somewhere sunnier was something she’d fantasized about on more than one occasion, but there were too many things here that demanded her attention, at least for now.
As she showered and got ready, she thought back to her visit with Kate, several months earlier. The encounter had been brief and intensely uncomfortable, but she’d said what she needed to say and felt better afterward despite the awkwardness. She tried to summon that same courage now, but found herself jittery and anxious. This was so much worse for so many reasons.
She left early, giving herself extra time to find parking. It didn’t take nearly as long as she’d worried it might. She thought about sitting in her car for a while to kill some time, but decided against it. At least being early meant she could get a head start on her caffeine fix and hopefully settle her nerves a bit before Max got there.
On her walk to the café, Chloe’s words rang in her head. Your little crush on Max.
So childish—not to mention inaccurate. Whatever feelings she’d had towards Max—feelings that had completely evaporated, thank you very goddamn much—that term certainly didn’t describe them. Infatuation, perhaps, was more accurate. It was something she’d never admitted to out loud; there had been times she’d wondered if Taylor had picked up on it, but Taylor wouldn’t have dared to ask her about it, and she would have denied it anyway. It was deeply unsettling that Chloe had been able to read her so easily after a single drunken encounter. Chloe knew exactly how to get under her skin, just like she had back when they were trading petty remarks in the hallways at Blackwell, before Max was even a student there. It occurred to her again that she wasn’t even sure how Chloe and Max knew each other. Max had barely interacted with any of their classmates, let alone random stoner dropouts.
Your little crush on Max.
Yes, Max was talented. Not just talented, but gifted. When she actually bothered to put in a little bit of effort and take pride in her work, she demonstrated immense potential, yet she seemed entirely uninterested in playing by the art world’s rules or actually putting her skills to use, which was nothing short of infuriating. Status and reputation seemed meaningless to her. As someone who knew the value of those things well, Victoria found this both aggravating and baffling. On top of that, Max didn’t even appear to realize how special she was in the first place. Back when they’d attended school together, Victoria’s feelings towards Max had been a complicated mélange of admiration, frustration, fascination, and envy. And at the same time, she’d been trying to navigate through the confusing process of figuring out her sexual orientation. It was only natural that she would have certain thoughts once or twice. Thoughts about how soft Max’s hair looked, or how bright and blue her eyes were, or what it might feel like to caress the smooth curve of her jawline and tilt her delicate chin upwards and—
Victoria made a small, involuntary noise of disgust at herself, prompting a nearby stranger to give her an odd look. She increased her pace, heels clacking decisively on the damp sidewalk. This was going to be bad.
There was no backing out now, though—not unless she wanted another visit from Max’s annoyingly upfront other half. She summoned the willpower to keep walking until she reached her destination. The place was your typical hipster café, which came as no surprise. It was exactly the kind of place she would have expected Max to pick. At least it wasn’t a damn Starbucks.
When she entered, she felt stares on her. She frequently felt that way when she was in public, and she could never be sure whether people actually recognized her or it was simple paranoia. It had been a while since anyone had approached her, and that made her feel like she was due any minute for some nosy stranger to come up and start asking idiotic questions about the storm or Jefferson or both. The conspiracy theorists were the worst; they had no sense of personal boundaries. Her whole life, she’d wanted to be noticed, but she’d never imagined it would be for something like this.
She arrived almost twenty minutes early and was surprised to see that Max was already there, sitting at a table with a laptop in front of her and her face screwed up in a look of concentration. Max seemed totally absorbed in whatever she was working on and hadn’t noticed Victoria yet. Victoria contemplated turning around and walking back out, but forced herself to press on. Better to get this over with.
The knot in her stomach drew tighter with each step she took as she ordered a latté at the counter and then approached Max’s table. She cleared her throat when she got close and Max gave a small, startled jump. Max looked up and her expression shifted from surprise to recognition, a smile blooming on her face.
“Hey,” Max said, closing her laptop. “You’re here.”
Around her neck, she was wearing a leather cord with three bullets dangling from it. It seemed so out of place with the rest of her attire that Victoria assumed it had to have once been Chloe’s. The drink in front of her was some hideous concoction topped with a mountain of whipped cream and more caramel sauce than coffee. Just looking at it made Victoria’s teeth hurt.
Victoria sat down. “Why do you sound so surprised? Did you think I wasn’t going to show up or something?”
“No, nothing like that,” Max said. “You’re just early.”
She felt her face flush, already wishing she’d left when she’d had a chance. She wanted to say so are you but Max kept talking before she could get the words out.
“How’ve you been? I know things were a little awkward last time we saw each other. Sorry about that.”
This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Max wasn’t supposed to apologize. That was Victoria’s part.
“It’s—it’s fine,” Victoria stammered. “I’ve been well. Busy, as usual. And you?” She was painfully aware of how stiff she sounded, but it was really Max’s fault for not sticking to the script.
“I’ve been pretty good.” Max smiled at her. “I’m glad you found the time to meet up.”
The words she knew she needed to say burned on the tip of her tongue, but she wasn’t about to sit there and freak out. She’d already embarrassed herself enough. Small talk, first. Play it safe.
“So.” She cleared her throat. “How did you end up in Seattle?”
Max blinked, as if surprised by the question. Victoria mentally smacked herself. Obviously she should have started with the apology.
“My parents live here,” Max said. “Chloe and I stayed with them for a while after… you know.”
So much for playing it safe. Unsure of what else to do, she continued fumbling her way through that line of questioning. “How do you like it here?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she cringed at herself. This wasn’t supposed to turn into a fucking job interview.
Max gave a noncommittal shrug. “It’s alright. I don’t know how much longer we’ll stay, though. Both of us could use a fresh start.” She rubbed her hands over her knees. The fabric of her jeans was faded and thin there, worn almost to the point of tearing.
Victoria nodded. “I know the feeling.” Too rainy in this city.
When the barista called out her order, she was thankful for the interruption. She sat back down and took a dainty sip of her latté.
It had to be now.
“Max, I wanted to say…” She took a deep breath and burned a hole in the table with her stare while Max looked at her. “I wanted to say I’m sorry. For everything. The way I treated you… I…” She started to stumble over her words. She’d rehearsed this countless times, yet somehow she was managing to fuck it up. “I was horrible to you and everyone else, and I should have apologized a long time ago. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I just wanted you to know. I’m really sorry.”
Her stomach churned. She couldn’t bring herself to meet Max’s eyes, focusing instead on the stickers covering the laptop. At least Chloe wasn’t there to make some annoying comment.
“Of course I forgive you,” Max said simply. “I hope we can be friends.”
Just like that? Jesus, did she always have to be so earnest? Victoria swallowed a too-large sip of her drink, her face burning with embarrassment. Max was acting as if Victoria deserved a trophy for making the barest effort to be a decent human being. Ridiculous. She didn’t deserve sympathy or forgiveness from anyone, least of all Max. She almost wanted Max to call her a fucking bitch and tell her to burn in hell. At least that would have made sense.
Yet there she was. Victoria looked up at her, studied her face, saw the same tiredness that she saw every time she looked in the mirror, the same tiredness she’d noticed in Chloe the other night.
Her eyes felt hot with tears that she refused to let fall, and she had to look away. Crying was definitely not part of the plan. She took another sip of her latté.
“I wanted to get in touch with you sooner,” Max said. “I just wasn’t sure how.”
She wondered if Max meant that literally. She had, after all, changed her phone number shortly after leaving Arcadia Bay, and had zero social media presence. A persistent person could find a way to contact her, but Max wasn’t the pushy type.
“I did too,” she said. “I didn’t think you would want to hear from me.”
“Well, it’s a good thing we ran into each other. I guess everything worked out.”
“I guess it did.”
“At least it did after you and Chloe had your—how did she put it? Friendly chat.”
Victoria noticed the glint in Max’s eyes, the hint of affection in her voice.
“I’ve been wondering,” she said, jumping at the opportunity to satisfy her curiosity. “How do you and Chloe know each other? I know you didn’t go to Blackwell together.”
“We were best friends as kids, believe it or not,” Max said. “Before I moved away.”
Victoria mulled that over. A childhood friendship made sense; they seemed so different from each other. She wondered what they’d both been like back then. “And now you two are…” She paused for a moment, considering her phrasing. “Together. Right?”
“No, we’re just roommates.”
“Oh. That’s…” Victoria was trying to figure out what to say to that when she saw Max’s face split into a grin. She narrowed her eyes. “You’re hilarious.”
“Sorry,” Max said, giggling. “I couldn’t resist. We’re dating, yeah.”
Victoria had to bite back the impulse to say something bitchy about Max’s taste in women. “Congratulations.” She found herself wondering again how the two of them had managed to survive the storm, but she wasn’t about to just ask something like that.
“Thanks, Victoria.” Max smiled. Either she hadn’t picked up on the hint of sarcasm that Victoria had been unable to disguise, or she was choosing to ignore it.
“What has she been doing with herself?”
Max’s eyebrows quirked up, then the corner of her mouth twitched as if she was somehow amused by that question. Victoria didn’t see what was so fucking funny. It was only polite to ask.
“She’s been talking about maybe trying to find an apprenticeship as a mechanic or something. She already knows a lot of car stuff.”
Victoria imagined she would need to, considering the piece of scrap she drove. “That makes sense.”
Max nodded, reaching one hand up to absentmindedly fondle the bullet necklace. “I think she’d be good at it.”
Aside from customer interactions, maybe.
Max sipped her drink, leaving a tiny dab of whipped cream on her upper lip. “So, what have you been up to for the past few months?” Her tone was cautious.
The truth was that Victoria’s enjoyment of photography had been tainted by her experience in the dark room. It was that sound—the click of the shutter still filled her veins with ice. She hadn’t taken a single picture since that night, as badly as she wanted to. No matter how many times she tried to tell herself not to let it control her, certain things brought her right back to that room. The harder she tried to scrub that stain out, the more deeply embedded it became.
Thoughts of the upcoming trial constantly filled her with dread, an undercurrent of anxiety rippling beneath every moment. She’d been told to expect the process to take a while; the storm had complicated matters considerably. Legal proceedings that would already have taken months were further prolonged by the logistic nightmare of putting together a case when much of the evidence had been destroyed and most of the witnesses were dead.
But she didn’t want to bring that up and make things even more uncomfortable, so she tried to find ways to skirt around the subject, and hoped Max would do the same. She assumed Max already knew about her parents’ deaths; it had been covered in the local news enough.
“I’ve been focusing on the gallery,” she said, which wasn’t entirely untrue. “It’s a lot of work, but I’m starting to get used to it.”
“You’re running the Chase Space all by yourself? That’s pretty incredible.”
Victoria shook her head. “Not by myself. I’ve been working with one of my parents’ business partners. Jessica.”
“Oh. What’s she like?”
“She’s been great, actually.” Jessica’s patience and guidance had kept Victoria from coming completely untethered in the months following the storm. “She was really there for me after… everything that happened. I wouldn’t know how to handle any of it without her help.”
The words left her mouth before she realized what she was saying. She was getting too comfortable, too eager.
“I’m glad she was there for you,” said Max, who looked like she might be sick. “And I’m… I’m so sorry for your loss, Victoria.”
Victoria nodded tightly. “Thank you.” She was annoyed with herself. She’d just known she would find a way to make shit even more awkward. “But enough about that. You’ve been keeping busy too, yes? With your photos?” She knew Max’s work wasn’t being shown anywhere locally; she’d been keeping an eye out. Still, she hoped Max hadn’t totally given up on her dreams like Victoria had.
Max hesitated, and for a moment Victoria worried that she wasn’t going to let the change of subject slide, but fortunately, she relented. “Yeah, I have been. I haven’t had any luck getting accepted anywhere yet, though.”
“I’m glad you’re putting yourself out there, at least.”
“Trying to, anyway. I know I need to polish up my portfolio.”
“Is that what you were working on before I got here?” Victoria asked, dipping her chin towards Max’s laptop. Max nodded.
So that was why she was so early. She probably did this all the time. She was probably a regular at this grungy little place. Victoria imagined her sitting here week after week, editing and compiling recent shots, looking right at home among the beard-flannel-beanies and bands no one has ever heard of.
“Let’s see it, then.”
Victoria pounced at the chance to occupy a space where she felt comfortable, if just for a little while. This was where she truly shone—not handling administrative tasks at the gallery, but getting her hands dirty, critiquing and refining, making use of her keen eye for detail. She knew she could be useful to Max in this way, and it would be far easier than muddling her way through small talk or awkward apologies, anyway.
“Really? I’m a little embarrassed. I’m sure you see much better stuff every day.”
“Oh, stop it.” That came out sounding harsher than Victoria had intended. She reminded herself to at least try to be nice, now that she was more or less convinced that Max’s timid innocence wasn’t actually as fake as she’d once suspected it was. “Don’t sell yourself short. I’d be happy to take a look.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, that would be really great, actually,” Max said. “I could definitely use a few pointers from someone who knows what they’re doing.”
She opened up her laptop and they jumped right in.
Most of it was good work; Max certainly had a knack for candid shots. She saw the beauty in the mundane and everyday, those little moments that usually went unnoticed. It lacked organization, but that would be an easy fix. She still hadn’t given up on her Polaroids. Scanning them all must have been a pain in the ass.
There were a lot of nature shots, which ranged from magazine-worthy to underwhelming, but the truly stunning pieces, the most interesting ones, were the ones with a darker, more abstract slant to them. Some of them, Victoria realized with surprise and a pang of sadness, reminded her a bit of Nathan’s work—monochromatic shots that evoked loneliness, helplessness, and desperation. The way Max played with shadows and contrast gave these pieces a haunting quality, something Victoria hadn’t been expecting to see.
It only made sense, though, all things considered.
She was burning to ask about the storm. About how Max had survived. She couldn’t, though, not now. It would be inappropriate.
They picked over the photos for a while, Victoria offering pointers and suggestions. Things between them felt more comfortable when they were both in their element; discussing photography felt like meeting on neutral ground. When she was in work mode, she felt competent and collected, smoothly navigating familiar waters.
An idea crossed her mind and she made her thoughts known before she had time to second-guess herself.
“There’s an exhibition at the Chase Space next weekend. You should come to opening night. I’ll introduce you to a few people. Bring Chloe, if you think you can get her to behave for a few hours.” Extending the invitation to Chloe was only practical; Victoria wasn’t oblivious to the fact that having her partner around seemed to increase Max’s confidence, and she couldn’t have Max embarrass herself—and by extension, Victoria—at the event.
And after having witnessed Chloe in a moment of actual sincerity, however brief, Victoria’s opinion of her had improved somewhat anyway. She was still as annoying as she’d always been, but there was more to her than Victoria had once thought.
“Really? Thanks, Victoria.”
“Don’t mention it,” she said with a dismissive wave. The last thing she needed was for Max to make a big deal out of this. “I just hate to see talent go to waste, that’s all.”
Few things bothered her more than untapped potential.
“No, really, thank you. It means a lot.”
Victoria felt her cheeks turn pink. She wished Max would stop being so goddamn nice. “I’ll text you the details. I expect you two to make yourselves look presentable.”
Max would have to seriously upgrade her style if she hoped to be taken seriously. She’d get eaten alive if she showed up dressed like a mannequin in the children’s section at Old Navy. Bottom-of-the-discount-bin hoodies and un-ironic mom jeans didn’t exactly exude confidence and capability. It occurred to Victoria that she’d never seen Max in a skirt or dress, and she wondered what that might look like.
Max would have to replace those ratty old sneakers too, of course. Maybe something with a slight heel; nothing too high, or she might trip over her own feet. Victoria almost snorted at the mental image, then chastised herself for letting her mind wander.
“No promises,” said Max with a small smile. Victoria hoped she was joking.
There was a lull in the conversation as they sipped their drinks. Victoria let her eyes drift around the café, sparing a glance at each of the various patrons absorbed in their laptops or phones or conversations. She enjoyed people watching, noticing how people were dressed, how they carried themselves, their gaits, their postures. She used to love photographing crowds, capturing the collective energy of a shared moment between a group of strangers.
“So, speaking of talent, what about you? I know you’ve been busy with the gallery and everything, but you’re still taking photos, right?”
Victoria blinked. Max’s uncanny ability to speak Victoria’s thoughts had reared its head once again. She didn’t want to tell Max that her enjoyment of photography was ruined. She didn’t want to make things even more awkward than they already were. She didn’t want Max to find her pathetic—even if a small part of her whispered Max isn’t like that, she couldn’t bring herself to take that risk.
She shook her head and took another swallow of her latté, and tried to sound casual when she spoke. “Not really. Too busy.”
“Oh.” The expression of concern on Max’s face said that she knew Victoria was bullshitting her. “I’m… sorry to hear that.”
Victoria felt a wave of embarrassment. It hadn’t been her intention to make Max feel bad for asking a simple question. “I’m just taking a break from it. It’s not a big deal.”
It was a big deal. All of the things she’d always thought she wanted seemed meaningless now, and for the first time in her life she had absolutely no idea what to do with herself. Photography had been her passion, her purpose. Until everything went to shit, the course of her life had been meticulously planned down to the last detail, but those plans had gone down in flames and she was left with nothing but the ashes.
But Max didn’t need to know that.
“I hope you get back into it,” Max said, rubbing the back of her neck. “I always thought you had a great eye.”
There it was again—the sickly heat that crawled up the back of her throat and settled behind her eyes. She was not going to cry. She wished Max would just fucking drop it already.
“I appreciate that.”
“I mean it,” Max said. “And, Victoria, if there’s ever anything you need, just ask, okay? I’m here for you.”
A jolt of defensiveness shot through her. She almost gave in to the impulse to say something rude, to mock Max for being such a goody two-shoes, to call her insane for even daring to think that there was something Victoria could need from her of all people, but she was too exhausted. The practiced mask she’d worn for most of her life had all but shattered in the face of everything that had happened. There was no point anymore. Max had seen all of the worst sides of her, and was still here, for whatever fucking reason.
“After everything I’ve done,” Victoria said quietly, “you should hate me. I still don’t understand why you’re even doing this.”
She forced herself to look up, and Max looked back at her.
“I know you have a good heart.”
Victoria swallowed. It didn’t make sense. None of this made any sense.
When she didn’t respond, Max spoke up again. “Besides, after we talked at that Vortex Club party, I thought—”
Victoria cut Max off, raising her hand, as her self-pity was rudely interrupted by a stab of confusion. “Hang on. What party?”
“You never went to any of the Vortex Club parties. I’d have noticed.” She cringed inwardly when she realized how that must have sounded. “I mean—I knew everyone who went. I always kept track.” That last part wasn’t exactly true. There were far too many people at those parties to keep track of every individual attendee.
“I—” A look of something like panic crossed Max’s face. “Um. Yeah, you’re right, sorry, I just—I got mixed up. Never mind.”
Victoria’s confusion deepened at Max’s bizarre reaction and the deer-in-headlights expression on her face. “What are you talking about?”
“I—uh—I dreamed it,” Max stammered. “I have really vivid dreams sometimes. Have you ever had that happen? You dream about something and it feels really real and then you start to feel like it actually happened and uh… yeah.”
Maybe Max was worse off than she let on. “So you’re here because of a dream you had?”
“Well—not exactly, no—I mean, no. That’s not why.”
Victoria was deeply curious, but didn’t want to pry for fear of making Max uncomfortable. Max already looked like she was about to puke. Victoria shook her head in resignation. “You’re so fucking weird sometimes.”
“Guilty as charged,” said Max with a nervous laugh, rubbing the back of her neck. She looked down into her empty mug, picking at the frayed edge of her sleeve. She looked like she wanted to say something else, so Victoria waited.
Eventually, she did. “I just think it’s time to leave the petty bullshit in the past. Don’t you?”
There were still so many things Victoria wanted to say and ask, but things were weird enough as it was.
She took in a deep breath and then let it out slowly, feeling herself deflate.
“Yeah. I do.”
It was time.
“Then let’s start over,” Max said. Her face had regained some of its color, thankfully. Victoria didn’t know what she would have done if Max had fainted in the middle of the coffee shop. “Friends?”
For all she’d doubted that Max actually wanted to befriend her after everything that had happened, she couldn’t think of any ulterior motive Max might have in doing this. Aside from Max’s weird maladaptive daydreaming shit or whatever it was, things were going surprisingly well, anyway. Sure, it was awkward as hell, but at least Victoria had managed to not completely humiliate herself.
It could work.
What did she have to lose?
By the time they finished up, they’d spent more time together than she’d anticipated; over an hour had passed and she hadn’t even noticed. She was already starting to feel nervous about the prospect of seeing Max and Chloe at the upcoming exhibition, but swallowed her apprehension and took a moment to send Max the details of the event before they said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.
When Max got back to the apartment, she sat down on the couch with Chloe, who was halfway to stoned already and eager to hear about everything, and filled her in. Chloe’s grin grew progressively wider as Max described her slip up about the Vortex Club party and her desperate scrambling to explain it.
“Oh, man. That’s too good.”
Max groaned. “Now she probably thinks I’m the world’s biggest dork.”
“Don’t worry, she already thought that.” Chloe kicked her legs up on the coffee table, crossing her ankles, and took another hit from the bong. Max thought about taking a hit, as she did every once in a while, but had a feeling that it might make her too anxious right now, and decided against it.
“You’re so comforting.”
“It’s what I’m here for.”
“I just can’t believe I slipped up like that. I’m such a dumbass.” She was so used to talking openly about these things with Chloe, and in her eagerness to comfort Victoria her mouth had gotten ahead of her brain. It was hard sometimes, keeping all the different realities straight in her head. Sometimes she struggled to remember which conversations had only happened to her.
Chloe’s expression softened. “Hey, don’t beat yourself up. Everything turned out fine, right?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine this time. What if I make another mistake? She’s going to think I’m insane.”
“Or she’ll just think you’re a weirdo with really vivid dreams.”
Max rested her head on Chloe’s shoulder, leaning into her. “I guess it could have been worse.” She’d just have to be more careful from now on.
“It totally could have been worse.” Chloe laced their fingers together and gave her hand a squeeze. “Actually, it sounds like it went pretty well, aside from that.”
“Yeah. It actually did.” Max was surprised that Victoria had invited both of them to the event at the Chase Space. She was always so hot and cold, so hard to read and figure out. Even after everything Max had seen during that week in October, she still felt like she didn’t understand Victoria very well at all. There were so many different sides of her, and it was hard to tell which one you were going to get.
This time, though, everything turned out okay, and Max tried to find comfort in that. Things weren’t totally screwed up.
She was grateful beyond words for Chloe’s unwavering support. She didn’t know exactly what Chloe and Victoria had talked about the night Chloe went to see her, but Max was sure it was really awkward for both of them. Chloe had done it anyway, even though she’d always disliked Victoria. She’d done it because she loved Max. And it hadn’t even ended in anyone’s arrest or dismemberment.
Max snuggled closer to her with a contented sigh. “You’re the best.”
Chloe smiled. “I am pretty fucking cool, huh?”
She still felt terrible about Victoria’s parents, and basically everything else, but today was the first silver lining she’d seen in a while.
It was something.
The cat was back.
Its presence put Victoria on edge even more than she'd already been. For the past few months, she’d mostly kept her distance from the Chase Space, working primarily behind the scenes; she hated the stares and the looks of pity she received in situations where everyone recognized her. The opening of the latest exhibition was the first event she would be attending since her parents’ deaths. Every time she thought about it—which was all the time—she felt a cold pressure in her chest that grew as the night drew closer.
Extending an invitation to Max was foolish. She wished she hadn’t been so impulsive. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see Max; she did, more than she was willing to admit. This was just the wrong night for it.
The morning of, she woke up early and went for a jog, but she was unable to shake the heaviness from her limbs, and made it only a fraction of her usual distance before getting winded and calling it quits. The cat was waiting in her driveway when she got back. It stared at her as she trudged past, dragging her feet like lead bricks. This was the fifth day in a row she’d seen it. A new streak.
She occupied herself by cleaning the house, going through and making sure there wasn’t so much as a speck of dust on the mantles or a wrinkle in the bedsheets. She always kept the place immaculate, and tidying was usually a good distraction, but today nothing could cut through the restless apprehension that pounded in her chest. As she cleaned, she couldn’t stop herself from glancing at the clock every few moments until it finally came time for her to start getting ready to leave.
When she arrived at the gallery, her stomach was in knots. A look of surprise flitted across Jessica’s face when they spotted each other, but she quickly masked it with a warm smile as she came over to greet Victoria.
“I’m glad you came. I have a good feeling about tonight.”
Victoria forced herself to smile back. “You say that about every event.”
“And I’m always right,” Jessica said with a wink, tossing her long, silver hair over her shoulder.
A series called Reciprocity was displayed on the sterile white walls, each piece a study in fluidity of motion, a dance of light and dark. The photographer was an up-and-comer from Olympia whose work, in Victoria’s opinion, showed great promise; this would be his first solo show. The bitter, all too familiar taste of envy crept up in her throat as she observed the exhibition, reminded of her own shortcomings as an artist. Her shots were flawless from a technical standpoint, precisely planned down to the last detail, but always seemed to lack the sort of personal touch that made for truly outstanding work. Now she wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to even pick up a camera again anyway.
She kept one eye on the door as she made her rounds with Jessica, welcoming people and making sure the refreshments were in order. It wasn’t long before Max showed up with Chloe in tow. When they entered, she took a moment to study them before they saw her, noting how Max’s eyes lit up as she looked around the capacious gallery, drinking everything in, while Chloe watched Max with a smile on her face—not one of her patented smirks, but a real smile, shining with fondness.
Jessica noticed Victoria staring at them and gave her a knowing look. “I’m guessing those are the friends you were talking about?”
Victoria hadn’t used that word, but she didn’t bother with a correction. “Max and Chloe.”
“I’m excited to finally meet them.”
Max beamed at her when they caught each other’s eyes, veering towards her with Chloe loping along behind. Victoria smiled tightly as they approached, trying to ignore the nausea that twisted in her stomach.
“This place is amazing,” Max said by way of greeting, clasping her hands together. “I mean, I expected it to be amazing, but… wow.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you could both make it,” Victoria said stiffly. “I’d like you to meet my business partner, Jessica. Jessica, this is Max and her girlfriend Chloe.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both. I’ve heard good things,” Jessica said as she shook Max’s hand, then Chloe’s.
Victoria hoped Max wouldn’t read too much into that. She’d only mentioned her name once or twice. At least Max and Jessica seemed to get along, chatting eagerly about the pieces on display.
She was relieved to see that Max and Chloe had both managed to select outfits that at least met a minimum standard of decency. Max’s modest slacks and blouse combo made her look like she should be teaching English to middle schoolers, while Chloe looked shockingly presentable in a button-up and slim black suit, no stupid beanie in sight. The sharp lines of the jacket accentuated her natural height. Chloe caught Victoria appraising their outfits and grinned.
“Like what you see?” she asked, hooking her thumbs under her lapels and striking a pose. “Had to dress up nice for the field trip.”
“It’s acceptable.” The material was cheap but it fit her properly, which was the more important factor. There weren’t even any wrinkles in it. And Chloe did have a certain—
Nope. Not gonna go there.
Anyway, it wasn’t as if Victoria had expected either of them to show up in designer gear. She didn’t want them to bankrupt themselves; she just wanted them to put in a bit of effort for once. And, to their credit, they had.
“High praise, coming from the queen of fashion herself,” Max said with a playful lilt, having wrapped up her conversation with Jessica. “You look great, by the way.”
Victoria was wearing a sleek grey-blue dress that hugged her curves perfectly. In her heels, she stood even taller than Chloe. She may have felt like shit, but that wasn’t going to stop her from looking fucking fantastic.
She gave a satisfied nod. “I know. Now, come with me. There are some people I want you to meet.”
She knew Max had more to offer than selfies and generic pictures of cute birds; otherwise, she wouldn’t be willing to make such introductions in the first place. She just hoped that Max and her sidekick would refrain from embarrassing her for the duration of the evening.
“I’ll catch you nerds in a bit,” Chloe said. “I hear fancy snacks calling my name.”
Chloe made a beeline for the food while Victoria scanned the room.
She led Max around to mingle with noteworthy guests, introducing her as her colleague from Blackwell Academy. The sympathetic looks that followed were annoying, but she’d just have to endure it; there was no point in skirting the subject. Knowing tonight’s crowd, everyone would inevitably know before too long anyway. With an upfront approach, she hoped to get ahead of the rumors and gossip. She smiled politely at the trite remarks about how brave they were, telling herself to focus her energy on more important things.
People were bound to be curious. There were fewer than a dozen survivors of the storm, and three of them were in this very room. She’d expected this. She could handle this. It was her own fault for inviting them, anyway.
Max held her own surprisingly well, engaging in all the niceties that were expected of her without so much as a stutter, though Victoria could tell she was uncomfortable in the spotlight. This was uncharted territory for her, Victoria was certain.
Chloe joined them after she was done massacring the canapés, looping an arm around Max’s waist as she came up. “Seems like you’re fitting right in. I knew you would.”
Max leaned into her touch. “Are you having a good time?”
“Oh, hell yeah. We should do this more often. Those smoked salmon things? In. Credible.”
Max giggled. Victoria couldn’t help but notice the subtle, subconscious changes in their expressions and body language around each other, the effortless closeness between them. It occurred to her that she would have liked to photograph them, back when photography was something she was actually capable of enjoying.
It also occurred to her that seeing them together made her feel violently envious, but she smothered that ridiculous thought immediately.
Victoria hadn’t expected Chloe to take much interest in the exhibition itself, but the occasional piece did seem to catch her eye, holding her gaze for a few moments longer than the others as they wandered around. Max’s appreciation of each piece was deliberate and slow, and Victoria could see the gears turning in her head as she observed, picking them apart and analyzing them.
When Victoria spotted the featured artist, she inconspicuously pointed him out to Max.
“Jasper Daniels,” she said. “The star of the evening.” And a tweed-wearing nerd, but at least his photography was better than his fashion sense.
She waited for an opening before bringing Max over to get acquainted with him, then she excused herself to give them a chance to talk, knowing Max had been eager to ask about his work.
Everyone here knew Victoria was underage, but nobody was about to stop her from having a glass of champagne. She reasoned that she deserved it, since the night was going about as smoothly as she could have hoped. She watched Max and Jasper, who seemed to be deep in conversation, as she sipped from her glass, feeling good that she’d managed to do something useful for once.
Chloe sidled up next to her, leaning one shoulder on the wall to face her. “Told you so.”
Chloe tilted her head towards Max and Victoria realized she’d been staring. “Not trying to rub it in or anything, but tonight’s been nice. Right?”
Victoria bit her tongue. “She’s been doing well.”
“Don’t I know it,” Chloe said with pride. “And you’re totally acting like a human being. Knew you had it in you.”
Victoria suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “And you didn’t show up smelling like the inside of a bong. Good job.”
“Maybe next time I can borrow some of whatever you’re wearing.” Chloe sniffed the air theatrically. “I think I recognize that scent. Must be—ah, yes. Skanque, by Victoria Chase. That’s the one, right?”
She was about to make a hilarious and witty retort when she saw Chloe’s eyes fix on something, her face breaking into a grin. Victoria turned and saw Max approaching them.
“Are the two of you getting along?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at Chloe.
“Why, of course,” Chloe said, putting a hand to her chest in mock offense. “Don’t I get along with everyone?”
“When you want to.” Max stood on her tiptoes to give her a kiss on the cheek.
Victoria turned away. Her gaze drifted around the room and she caught someone staring at them—a man she didn’t recognize. As their eyes met, he looked away.
She kept one eye on him as she spoke to Max. “How are you enjoying the evening?”
“It’s been great,” Max said, smiling. “Thanks again for the invite.”
Victoria gave a distracted nod. The man looked over at them again, and her heart rate kicked up a notch. They held each other’s eyes this time, and she hardened her stare, as if to challenge him.
Max shot a nervous glance in his direction. “Who is that?”
Nobody she’d invited, and by the looks of it, nobody she wanted to talk to. As he turned and started walking towards them, she forced herself to maintain eye contact. He was small and thin-boned, with wheat blond hair and a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
She slipped into cool, detached professionalism as he extended his hand and introduced himself as a reporter for one of the local papers.
“Could we speak privately?”
“I’m afraid not.”
He blinked. “If you’ve got a moment, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about Mark Jeffers—”
“I don’t have anything to say about that,” she said curtly, cutting him off.
“I’m wondering if you have any comments in light of what happened today.”
“She said no,” Max said, fixing him with a more menacing expression than Victoria had imagined her capable of.
What happened today. What was that supposed to mean? Victoria hadn’t heard anything about the trial. Her phone was off. It had been off since that morning.
He seemed to notice her surprise, ignoring Max. “It’ll only take a—”
“Get the fuck out of her face,” growled Chloe, taking a step towards him.
Uncouth, but effective. Victoria couldn’t help but relish his expression, incredulity tinged with caution.
He withdrew a slim metal case from his pocket and pulled out a business card, extending it towards her, his eyes briefly flitting between her and Chloe. “In case you change your mind.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, making no move to take the card. “Leave, now, or I’ll have you removed.”
He put his hands up in a gesture of surrender and slunk away. She watched until he was out the door.
Max’s eyebrows were bunched up in concern, and Victoria decided to preempt whatever sympathetic comment she had on deck.
“It happens. Don’t worry about it.”
“Man, I wanted to punch that asshole,” Chloe said. “Like, just take no for an answer, right? Hate that shit. And he looked like a fucking squirrel.”
“He said something happened today? Have either of you heard anything?”
They glanced at each other, shaking their heads.
Victoria took out her phone and turned it on. A jolt of anxiety shot through her chest as a flood of missed calls and texts came in.
“What is it?”
She stared at the screen, reminded herself to breathe, forced herself to speak.
“Jefferson. He killed himself today.”
Of course something like this would happen. Since when was she allowed to have a normal evening?
She informed Jessica that she’d be stepping out for a moment. Something in her face must have given her away; Jessica told her to take all the time she needed. She wasn’t sure how much time that would be. She wanted to leave and not come back.
Things had been going so well. Why did it have to be tonight?
She thought about arguing when Max and Chloe insisted that they accompany her outside, but didn’t have the energy.
Once outside, Chloe started pacing in a tight circle while Victoria and Max stood in uncomfortable silence. Victoria smoked a cigarette, then immediately lit up another.
It should have been a comfort to know that Jefferson was gone for good. She wouldn’t have to worry about the trial. Wouldn’t have to sit through meetings with lawyers. Wouldn’t have to testify. Wouldn’t have to see his face or hear his fucking voice ever again, except in her nightmares.
But part of her felt cheated, in a way. Part of her wanted him to suffer. To spend the remainder of his days trapped and helpless, like the women he’d victimized.
And her testimony would have contributed to that. She’d been practicing for it, and fantasizing about it, for months now. It had been a source of dread, but it had also been something to cling to. The sudden absence of that possibility left a hollow feeling she hadn’t been expecting.
He’d ruined so many lives, and now it was just… over. Just like that. The easy way out.
She crushed the butt of her cigarette beneath her shoe and flipped open the pack for another.
Chloe stopped pacing and glanced at it. “Hey, uh, can I…?”
Victoria nodded, handing her one, then lighting it for her.
Her eyes closed as she took the first drag, inhaling deeply, and her shoulders sagged as she exhaled, long and slow. “Fuck.”
Victoria wondered how long it had been since she’d had one. The way Max positioned herself upwind told Victoria that she probably disliked the smell. That must have been why Chloe quit in the first place, Victoria imagined with a tiny pang of guilt. Max didn’t comment, though; she just looked away, tucking her hands into the crooks of her elbows.
All three of them were silent again as Victoria and Chloe smoked. Max kept her distance until they were finished, then came over to stand near them, looking pale and almost sickly under the harsh glare of a streetlight.
Chloe seemed unsure of what to do with her hands, now that she didn’t have a cigarette to occupy herself. She kept fidgeting and changing position, one foot bouncing incessantly.
“Fucking prick. Good riddance,” she said sharply, piercing the silence. “Better this way.”
With a twist in her gut, Victoria recalled those missing person posters Chloe had plastered all around campus, week after week. Victoria had hated those posters, hated seeing Rachel’s face staring at her from every wall, as if mocking her: I’ve been gone for months, and you’re still living in my shadow.
But she’d been dead the entire time. Dead at the hands of Jefferson and Nathan.
Victoria suppressed a shudder. “You’re right. It’s for the best.”
“He can’t hurt anyone anymore,” Max said. Her eyes seemed distant and unfocused.
Max had once looked up to Jefferson. Victoria knew that much. Even though he hadn’t directly harmed her, Max had to share the feeling of betrayal that accompanied the realization that one’s idol was a monster.
“I understand if you want to leave,” Victoria said. “You guys really don’t have to stay here.”
Max shook her head. “I’d like to stay. We shouldn’t let him ruin tonight.”
“Yeah,” Chloe said. “Fuck him, right? He’s gone. It’s done.”
“Are you alright?” Max asked, looking at Victoria.
It was a question she was used to getting lately, and she usually hated it. People always asked because they felt obligated to, without really caring about the answer.
But Max wasn’t like that.
“I will be. Thanks.”
Even though tonight had gone downhill, because of fucking course it had, it could be salvaged. She would collect herself and go back inside with her head high. It was time to focus on moving forward.
And that reporter—she made a mental note to remember his name and have him banned from coming back.
She thought of the way Max and Chloe had stepped up to him on her behalf. It had been a long time since she’d experienced anything like it. She was used to fighting her own battles, and did so with terrifying competence. She wasn’t some damsel in distress.
But she had to admit that having them in her corner like that felt good, in a way. Even though she would have been perfectly fine handling it on her own, there was something oddly pleasing about the fact that she hadn’t needed to.
She almost brought it up, but stopped herself.
“It’s fucking cold out here,” she said instead. “Ready to go back in?”
When they went inside, Victoria found Jessica and filled her in. Jessica told her that it was fine if she needed to leave, but she declined. Seeing this through was important. Necessary, even.
At least outwardly, Max seemed to have recovered well from the interruption, and she did a decent job of keeping up conversations and rubbing shoulders with everyone. Victoria could tell that she was drained, though, and her earlier enthusiasm and energy had been replaced by tired politeness. Chloe was jittery and didn’t leave Max’s side for the rest of the night.
Victoria kept one eye out for the reporter, but he didn’t show his face again.
When the night started to wind down, she looked around at the dwindling crowd and found herself content despite everything. It hadn’t been completely ruined. That was about as good an outcome as she could hope for.
“It was cool to see you in action tonight,” Max said. “You really know what you’re doing.”
“This is the first time I’ve been to one of these without either of my parents.” She hadn’t planned on confessing that, but it seemed appropriate, given everything else that had happened.
“Really? I wouldn’t have guessed. I’m sure they would be proud of you if they were here.”
Victoria resisted the urge to laugh. It was a kind thing to say, but it was also complete bullshit. “Thank you.”
“What were they like?” Max asked.
Victoria considered the question for a minute.
They’d been happy to encourage her friendship with Nathan, knowing it represented a significant boost to her reputation. The Prescotts had, after all, been major players in the Seattle real estate game and patrons of the arts to boot. Max and Chloe were a different story. She could imagine the way her parents would have sneered at their secondhand clothes and broken-down truck.
She decided to leave that part out when she answered.
“My mom was obsessed with this place. It was her entire life, basically. My dad usually just went along with whatever she wanted.”
“Were you always really involved here?”
“When I had to be.” The building had her last name on it, but it would never be hers.
“Jessica seems nice, at least,” Max offered tentatively.
“She is. It still feels weird to be working with her like this, but I’m glad she’s here.” Jessica never chastised Victoria for skipping events or forgetting things, even though she had every right to, considering how many times Victoria had let her down.
“Me too.” Max gave a tiny smile. “Anyway, I think we should probably get going. It’s getting pretty late.”
Victoria nodded. “I hope you had an okay time tonight.”
“I did,” said Max. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ll feel better once I can get out of these heels.”
Max’s smile widened a bit. “I seriously don’t get how you can even walk in those things.”
She hesitated a moment, then stepped forward and drew Victoria into a hug.
“Don’t be a stranger, okay? I meant what I said before. If you ever need anything, we’re here for you.”
Victoria’s arms hovered awkwardly for a moment before she returned the hug, clumsy and uncertain. She tried to remember the last time she’d even been this close to someone outside of the context of a one-night stand. There was surprising strength in Max’s small frame, a comforting firmness in her embrace, and Victoria had to remind herself not to make shit weird by holding on for too long.
“Same goes for you.”
She could still smell Max’s cheap shampoo after they left.
“How you holding up, Maximus Prime?”
Max let out a breath and closed her eyes, letting her head fall back against the seat. Chloe, who had kept one arm curled protectively around her waist until they’d made it back to the truck, was now looking over at her from the driver’s side, worry etched into every line of her face.
“I’m okay. Tired.”
Socializing like that would have been exhausting even on a good day, and hiding her reaction to the news about Jefferson had taken a lot out of her. It was almost funny, in a sick kind of way, how he’d just so happened to time his death to coincide with her first real chance at actually getting somewhere with her photography. Without even trying to, he had tainted it, just like so many other things. He’d already made it almost impossible for her to enjoy taking photos. Chloe’s persistent encouragement was sometimes the only thing that stopped her from giving up on it entirely.
Not for the first time, she found herself wishing she could tell Victoria the truth about what had happened to her. She hated having to pretend. Victoria would probably have been more willing to talk about it if she knew that Max had been through the same thing.
But it wasn’t possible. The only thing Max could do was put on a brave face and try to help in other ways.
Chloe reached over to give Max’s shoulder a squeeze as she started to drive off. “You did really good tonight. I’m proud of you.”
Compared to Victoria and her practiced poise, Max felt like a bumbling idiot, but she appreciated Chloe’s praise anyway. She mustered a smile. “For a while it almost felt like being normal for a night.”
Until the part where she’d had to talk herself down from a panic attack.
“And Icky Vicky is really embracing the whole ‘not acting like a total bitch’ thing, too.”
“That might change if you ever call her that to her face.”
“Dunno if I can resist. Sometimes messing with her is just too much fun. Do you think she imagines a little anime version of herself with one of those forehead veins whenever she gets riled up about something?”
That got a grin out of Max. “Probably.”
Max thumbed through their collection of CDs, looking for something relaxing, and Chloe didn’t even complain when the cab of the truck filled with the mellow, woody tones of an acoustic guitar.
She never thought she’d be the type of person to be glad for someone’s death, but it was a relief to know that Jefferson was gone. She’d probably still see his face in every stranger who slightly resembled him, and the nightmares definitely wouldn’t stop. But at least now she could reassure herself that there was no way he was ever going to hurt her or anybody else again.
By the time they got home, she wanted to sleep for a million years. She nestled into bed, pressed snugly against Chloe’s side, and tried to think about anything other than duct tape and needles and a blinding white flash.
Huge thanks to everyone who has commented and left kudos so far!
“One year ago today, the Oregon town of Arcadia Bay was destroyed in what has come to be known as one of the deadliest natural disasters in US history. The tornado that devastated this coastal community, resulting in over a thousand deaths, has been described as unprecedented, and scientists nationwide have been baffled by the apparent lack of—”
Chloe switched off the TV with a sigh, letting the remote fall from her hand and clatter on the coffee table. Max didn’t need to be watching this shit. Chloe knew she was doing it to punish herself.
“Come on. Time for breakfast, yeah?”
Max blinked and looked up, and Chloe’s heart sank at the expression on her face. Distant. Dull. Like she was somewhere else. Chloe took Max’s hands in hers and gave her a tug to coax her off the couch.
They’d talked about everything so much already, over the past year. Max had been forced into an impossibly fucked up situation, and she’d dealt with it as best she could. Chloe had tried, many times, to reassure her of that, but she knew saying the words wouldn’t change the guilt Max felt. And Max telling Chloe that she shouldn’t blame herself didn’t stop her from feeling like a selfish, stupid asshole for even being in that fucking bathroom in the first place. Neither of them had the energy to have that conversation again.
So they were both quiet as they went about their morning, and Chloe tried her best to hold it together.
That afternoon, they gave Kate a call to say hi and see how she was holding up. She seemed to be doing better than they were, at least. Chloe had never been interested in religion—still wasn’t, because no religion she’d ever heard of said anything about any of the shit she’d seen—but she was glad Kate had something that brought her comfort on days like today.
Then Max texted Victoria, and Chloe felt a weird sort of smugness about the fact that this time, Victoria answered right away.
Max’s eyebrows went up as she read the screen. “She asked if we want to come over later.”
“For real? Guess she really is warming up to us.”
“Do you want to go?”
Normally Chloe would want Max to herself on a day like this. She would spend all day moping and getting stoned if she could. But she was done being selfish. If this was what Max wanted, then that was exactly what they were going to do.
The issue of Victoria’s crush on Max—which was definitely a thing, no matter how much she wanted to deny it—would just have to be put aside for now. She probably knew Chloe would punch the shit out of her if she tried anything, anyway.
“Sure. When else are we gonna have a chance to hang out in a mansion, right?”
“Yeah. Fuck it.” Chloe laughed. Today was going to suck no matter what. At least this would be something different to do. “Let’s do it.”
Victoria started drinking early.
Since waking up that morning—since the night before, really—she’d been replaying the night of the End of the World Party, or what she remembered of it, over and over again in her mind, thinking about what she should have done differently. She must have looked away from her drink at some point—so fucking stupid. If she’d been more careful, more attentive…
Even through the thick walls of the underground bunker, she’d been able to hear the storm raging outside, ripping voraciously through the town. She remembered realizing, slowly, as the drugs were wearing off, that something was seriously wrong. Remembered David’s panicked protests as the police officers held him back, stopping him from leaving—they’re still out there, I need to find them, let me go—
She wondered what became of his family. They were dead, probably.
Like she should be. Like she would have been, if she hadn’t been so fucking stupid.
She knew it was pointless to ruminate over these things. No amount of brooding would change what had happened. But her brain wouldn’t let her think about anything else.
So she drank, and by the time Max texted her to ask how she was doing, she was tipsy enough to answer honestly.
She was having a bad day.
They’d seen each other a handful of times since the event at the Chase Space, and things were still slightly awkward, but she had to admit that it was good to have someone to talk to again. So she decided that maybe it wouldn’t be terrible to have some company, and she invited them over, reasoning that it might help get her mind off things.
The thought crossed her mind that her neighbors would judge her for having a falling-apart pickup truck parked in her driveway, but she told herself that today, she didn’t give a fuck. Maybe she didn’t give a fuck at all anymore.
Fuck the neighbors.
When they arrived, they both looked like shit. Victoria knew she did too. Max smiled weakly as they stepped inside.
“Hey,” Max said.
She took them to the living room, where she half-sat half-fell down on the couch. It occurred to her that she didn’t actually know what they were all supposed to do, now that both of them were really here. Inviting them had been a spur-of-the-moment decision and she hadn’t bothered to consider the followup.
“I brought some weed,” Chloe said as she and Max sat down.
Well, that was something. Victoria glanced out the window; it was starting to drizzle. “Fuck it. Let’s just smoke inside.”
“Yeah. It’ll be fine.”
Victoria grabbed the ashtray from the back porch and brought it inside, then Chloe pulled out a joint and sparked it up. Victoria did a double take when she handed it to Max.
“You smoke weed now?”
“Only sometimes,” Max said with a sheepish little smile as she lifted it to her lips. She inhaled too enthusiastically and exploded into a coughing fit.
Chloe patted her on the back. “Easy there, Mad Max.”
Victoria got up to get her some water.
“Thanks,” she croaked, gulping it down between coughs.
“So, music?” Chloe said through a mouthful of smoke. “Be a shame not to take advantage of that sound system.”
Victoria relented and turned on the TV so they could stream some music. Even though both of them had terrible taste, it would be less awkward than sitting there with no background noise, at least.
Chloe commandeered the remote. “So, what’ll it be? Anyone else in a Violent Femmes kinda mood?”
“Victoria, you should pick,” said Max. “It’s your house.”
“How about this,” Victoria said, stifling a hiccup. “We’ll just take turns. Chloe, put on your violent whatever—”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of them!” Chloe looked genuinely wounded.
“I’m sure you’re about to change that.”
“Damn right I am!”
“One album. That’s it. Then Max will pick something, and then I will.”
“Sounds fair,” Max said.
“Alright, works for me,” Chloe said with a grin. “You’re gonna like this.”
Victoria did not like it. The singer’s voice was annoying. But she was trying to be nice now, so she kept her mouth shut about it.
Suddenly feeling a little ridiculous being the only drunk one, she held up the bottle of tequila she’d been enjoying. “Want some?”
“You know I can’t say no to free booze,” Chloe said.
“Maybe just a little bit,” said Max.
She fetched two more glasses from the kitchen, along with some orange juice, because Max and Chloe were a couple of barbarians who had no respect for the fact that quality tequila didn’t require a chaser.
Nobody brought up the storm, but it hung over them like a specter as they drank and smoked and tried to fill the air with bursts of conversation about random shit. Everyone’s mood was off. Chloe’s dumb jokes fell flat. Max was quiet and spacey, and the weed didn’t improve that. Victoria was just fucking drunk, and she wasn’t planning on slowing down any time soon.
Max put on her album of choice, something predictably whiny and acoustic. Victoria didn’t hate it as much as she thought she would, but maybe that was just the alcohol talking.
She downed the rest of her drink, then refilled her glass and offered to do the same for them. Chloe accepted without hesitating, but Max shook her head.
“I’m alright. One of us should stay sober enough to drive later.”
“Do you really think I’m going to kick you guys out in the middle of the night? You can sleep in one of the guest rooms.”
“One of,” Chloe repeated with a dry laugh. “One of the guest rooms. How many are there? Jesus, this place is fucking enormous.”
“Are you sure?” Max said.
“It’s not, like, a big deal or anything.”
Max looked over at Chloe. “What do you think?”
“Shit, why not? It’ll be like staying in a fancy hotel.” Chloe grinned. “I bet she has tiny soaps and everything.”
“I have normal sized soap.”
“Oh. Well, I guess your boring soap is fine too.”
Victoria filled their glasses, and they did a toast to boring soap.
When it came time for her to choose the music, she put on a Grace Jones album.
“I know that name,” Max said. “I don’t remember from where. I don’t think I’ve heard any of her music before.”
“She’s modeled for a few famous photographers. That’s probably how you’ve heard of her,” Victoria said. “But she isn’t just a style icon. She’s influenced basically every pop artist since the eighties. She’s amazing.”
“Dude, you’ve got such a ladyboner for this Grace Jones chick,” Chloe said.
“Grace Jones is not some chick,” Victoria said, indignant. “She’s a legend.”
Max made a face as she listened. “This, uh… isn’t really what I would have expected you to pick.”
“Some of us have eclectic tastes. You should try branching out once in a while.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve gotta agree with Victoria on this one,” Chloe said with a laugh. “I love you, Max, but sometimes you make me wish banjos had never been invented.”
“I don’t only listen to banjos!”
While they bickered, Victoria went to fill up her glass again and realized that the bottle was empty.
“I’ll be right back.”
She got up and went to the kitchen to get another and—
And the fucking cat was there. Sitting on the counter.
Of course it was.
She stared at it, and it stared back, and a surge of anger swelled up in her chest as she stepped forward.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
Why today? Why now?
She was just trying to make it through the day without falling apart. She’d been more or less succeeding in that.
The cat just stared.
“What the fuck do you want?” She slapped her hands down on the counter hard enough to make her palms tingle, but the cat didn’t even blink. “What do you want from me?”
Her head whipped around, and the motion made her dizzy, her vision taking a moment to catch up. She saw Max rounding the corner, wearing a look of concern.
“Who are you talking to?”
She looked back, and there was nothing there. The cat was gone.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” she said to the bare countertop. “Really?”
A burst of laughter escaped her lips. Fucking perfect.
Max was looking at Victoria as if she’d just grown a second head.
Chloe appeared behind Max, glancing between them with a raised eyebrow. “Everything okay in here?”
She could tell them about it. Would they believe her? What would she even say? Why the hell was it playing with her like this, after showing itself to them once already?
Had they even really seen it, or had she imagined that too, somehow? Was she really losing her mind? Or maybe this was some kind of punishment, some cosmic comeuppance for all the horrible shit she’d done in her life?
“Um… maybe we shouldn’t drink more after all,” Max said.
“I’m not drunk. Just crazy.” Victoria laughed again. “Okay, maybe I’m a little drunk.”
“Do you, uh, wanna sit down or something?” Chloe said, looking uncomfortable.
“Better than standing around in the kitchen.” She pushed off from the countertop and snatched a fresh bottle from its home in the liquor cabinet, then teetered past them down the hallway.
They exchanged a baffled look before following her back to the living room, where she didn’t hesitate to pour herself another generous serving of tequila.
Her sips turned into gulps. She could barely even taste the stuff anymore.
“Are you okay?” Max said eventually.
Victoria had to stop herself from laughing again.
“No. No, I’m not fucking okay. I’m not even supposed to be here! I’m supposed to be fucking dead!”
Max raised a hand to her mouth in shock, and Victoria had to hold in another laugh at the sight of her, sitting there looking as wide-eyed as a Disney chipmunk. A stoned chipmunk.
Victoria could feel herself starting to get sloppy. Something in the back of her head whispered slow down, but the rest of her wasn’t hearing it.
“I’m only alive because of fucking Jefferson.” She spat his name out like spoiled milk. A wave of nausea came with it. “Now I can’t fucking sleep without seeing his face. I can’t even use my camera without feeling like I’m back in that fucking bunker. Every fucking time I hear that sound, I just…” she trailed off, rubbing her wrists.
The gesture seemed to catch Chloe’s eye, and a look of realization crossed her face. “Shit,” she breathed. “That night I came here—was that…? Shit, dude, I had no idea. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. It was my fault.” Victoria waved a hand loosely. “I was being a bitch.”
“Well, yeah,” Chloe said with something resembling a smile. “But I’m still sorry.”
“Victoria, are you… have you been talking to anyone about this?” Max’s voice was small, her eyebrows pinched together in worry.
“Like, therapy? Yeah.” Victoria gave a bitter laugh. It had been a while since she’d gone, but she’d tried, more than a few times, with more than a few different therapists. “But they always want to talk about other things too, and I can’t do that without sounding like a fucking lunatic. I mean—” She could hear the pitch of her voice rising, but couldn’t get it under control. “—you were both there. You both saw everything. That eclipse, and the moons, and all the fucking—those dead animals, and…” She shuddered. This was the first time she’d acknowledged everything out loud. Now that she had pulled at that thread, she couldn’t stop herself from unraveling.
“That whole week was just… just wrong.” Heat crept up in her throat, and she squeezed her eyes shut. Tears rolled down her face. She didn’t try to stop them. “But you… you saw it too, right? That stuff really happened?” Her voice sounded strained and desperate, but she couldn’t contain it, didn’t even care, didn’t care about anything except hearing the words.
For a gut-wrenching second neither of them said anything, and Victoria wondered if they were going to tell her that they had no fucking idea what she was talking about.
Then Max closed her eyes and sighed.
“Yeah,” she said. “It really happened.”
“It was a fucked up week,” said Chloe.
Victoria let out a breath that came out sounding like something between a chuckle and a sob.
“How did…” She gulped. “How did you both survive, that day?”
“We went to the lighthouse,” Max said quietly, after a pause. “We stayed there. It was the only place in town that didn’t…” She trailed off. She looked like she was somewhere else.
Victoria knew the place. It had been a great spot for photos, once upon a time—that cliff had offered a stunning view of the whole town.
So they’d had front-row seats to witness Arcadia Bay’s destruction.
Max looked away. “Just a feeling, I guess. It was always kind of ‘our’ spot.”
“Just a feeling,” Victoria repeated, and gave a hollow, humorless laugh. “And that’s the only reason you’re alive. And Kate… Kate’s only alive because…” She wiped her face with her sleeve. She was long past the point of caring about smudged makeup or stained clothing. “And my parents… Fuck. It’s my fault my parents are dead.”
“What? How… What do you mean?”
“Why do you think they were in Arcadia Bay that day? They were supposed to have a meeting with Wells. About Kate. That fucking video.”
She knew exactly what they would have said, too. They would have told Wells that she would never do such a thing, that they wouldn’t stand for such ridiculous accusations. And Victoria would have let them. She would have swallowed her guilt and denied any wrongdoing rather than let a black mark like that mar her permanent record.
What she didn’t know was how she became that type of person in the first place. How she’d managed to convince herself that Kate had deserved any of the shit she’d done to her.
Max looked stunned. At least she didn’t say anything stupid like don’t blame yourself. Victoria was sick of hearing shit like that.
She let out a shaky breath. “And I never even thanked David Madsen for saving my life. Now I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to. I haven’t been able to track him down.”
“Well, shit,” Chloe said. “You could just ask his stepdaughter.”
“Seriously? He’s your stepdad?”
“No, like… he’s your stepdad?”
She was too drunk to properly articulate her thoughts on the matter. It was just too fucking perfect.
“Step-hippie, now,” Chloe said. “He kinda had a midlife crisis and went off the grid. Moved to this little community way out in the middle of nowhere, in Arizona. I’m not surprised you couldn’t find him.”
There was something off about her tone. Victoria lacked the faculties to discern exactly what it was.
“Do you keep in touch?”
“Kind of,” she said. “We didn’t get along.”
She didn’t elaborate, but the look on her face said enough.
Victoria almost wanted to ask about it. She was no stranger to family drama, after all. But she didn’t feel she had the right to pry into Chloe’s life like that.
“I’m sorry,” she said instead.
Chloe shrugged one shoulder. “It’s whatever. He’s way less of a dick now than he used to be.”
For a while, they were all quiet. The music had ended, leaving a silence that settled like fog over the room.
“That week…” Max shook her head. “It changed all of us. We’ll probably never have an answer for what happened. I know that’s hard to accept. Believe me, I know. But you’re not alone.”
Victoria laughed wetly. “I guess we’re all pretty fucked up, huh.”
“Got that right.” Chloe raised her glass. “To being fucked up, and getting fucked up.”
That was more or less how the rest of the night went.
The following morning, Victoria dragged herself out of bed as early as she could to clean up the mess they’d made. Her stomach lurched when she saw the half-finished bottle of tequila. She poured the rest of it down the sink.
By the time Max and Chloe came downstairs the place was pristine again, her throbbing headache the sole reminder of what a clusterfuck the previous night had been.
She greeted them with coffee, which they eagerly accepted.
“Sorry I was such a fucking mess last night,” she said as they sat down in the kitchen.
“Don’t worry,” said Max with a bleary attempt at a smile. “It’s okay. Really. I understand.”
“At least you remember everything this time,” Chloe said with a tired grin. She took a loud sip from her mug. “Oh, wow. That’s fucking good coffee.”
“It’s Peruvian.” Victoria sighed. “I know you both had your own shit going on yesterday. Thanks for being here with me.”
“Of course,” Max said. “Just promise me one thing.”
“Next time we hang out, let’s skip the alcohol.” She rubbed at her eyes. “I have the worst hangover of my life.”
“You’ve only been hungover like three times,” Chloe said with a laugh.
“Yeah, and this is the worst one.” She groaned. “Work is gonna suck today. And I didn’t even have half as much as you guys did. I don’t get how you do it.”
“The secret is weighing more than twelve pounds.”
Victoria’s eyes lingered for a moment on the countertop, where the cat had sat the night before.
She’d come so close to telling them. About the cat, and about Nathan’s… whatever it was. But even if they agreed that something was off about that week—and the relief of that was a weight off her chest—there were still some things she had to keep to herself.
When it showed up again—and it would show up again, because it always did—she would say something. Until then, she couldn’t risk it. Not without proof.
Before they left, Max gave her an awkward hug goodbye, and Chloe gave her David’s contact information. Once they were out the door she went back up to her room, where she sat down with her laptop and typed two words into the search bar.
Even though it felt fucking pointless. Even though she knew she’d probably have to go through a thousand of them before finding a good fit, if she ever did at all.
She would just have to keep trying.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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: u cant unsubscribe from me
Chloe: its a lifetime subscription
Chloe: no cancellations
Chloe: and no refunds
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.”
“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.
Two years later
Victoria hated airplanes. They were loud and they smelled weird. Over the years she’d become decidedly more frugal, but she still refused to fly coach. First class comforts were the only thing that made flying tolerable. But after those unpleasant few hours were finally over, she couldn’t help but smile to herself as she made her way through the bustling crowd to collect her things from baggage claim. As busy as her schedule was these days, she didn’t have as many opportunities to visit as she would have liked, but this was a special occasion. She’d made arrangements the moment she’d heard that Max had finally gotten some of her work accepted by a gallery.
She’d been a child the first time she’d visited New York City, accompanying her parents on one of their many trips. Back then she’d been enraptured by the sheer size of everything, and the speed. To her, everyone had looked so important and busy, like they were on their way to the most interesting places she could imagine. As an adult, her take on things wasn’t quite so rose-colored, but she still felt echoes of that sense of wonder sometimes. This was a city for opportunities. For dreams and risks and fresh starts. There was beauty in that.
She sometimes fantasized about relocating here someday. For purely practical reasons, of course.
Max was waiting for her near the exit, and in her mind’s eye Victoria took a snapshot of the moment they spotted each other, the little smile that bloomed on Max’s face as their eyes met. Max’s hair was ever so slightly longer but otherwise she looked the same as she always did. The sight of her made Victoria feel instantly lighter, somehow.
“It means a lot that you’re here for this,” Max said as they hugged each other. “I’m really glad you could make it.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”
They headed outside, where Chloe pulled up in the truck, which was still functional by some miracle, and hopped out to do her usual nudge-shove-arm-punch thing, which Victoria pretended to be annoyed by. The drive back to their place took extra long because it was rush hour, but in a way Victoria didn’t mind. This routine—bickering over music, teasing each other over their respective picks—was so familiar now. All of it was.
Their apartment here was even more cramped than their apartment in Seattle had been. Victoria never thought she’d be the type to crash on someone’s couch rather than stay in a hotel, but it was nice to wake up to the sight of their place, even with its tacky decor and general clutter. When the three of them got back, the first thing she had to do was take a shower, because that horrible airplane smell still clung to her. After she was finished, she joined them in the tiny living room.
“So,” Chloe said as Victoria sat down. “We’ve got a bone to pick.”
“Dude, you were on TV and you didn’t even tell us!”
Victoria felt her face flush.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Max asked.
“I was waiting for the right time to bring it up.” This visit was supposed to be about Max’s accomplishments. Max had been trying so hard to get her work shown, and now it was finally happening for her. A few minutes on some talk show was hardly worth making a fuss over. Victoria wasn’t sure how they’d heard about it in the first place. They didn’t even own a TV anymore.
The corner of Max’s mouth quirked up. “You thought we wouldn’t notice that you’re famous now?”
“I’m not famous. It was one interview.” It was a segment about the Chase Foundation—more specifically, about its founder and executive director. It was unfortunate that the actual goal of the foundation, and its contributions to disaster relief, often seemed to take a backseat to Victoria’s oh-so-tragic origin story, but she’d agreed to do the interview for exposure’s sake. “How did you even find out?”
“From my mom,” Max said. “Which was super embarrassing when I had no idea what she was talking about, by the way.”
“Sorry about that.”
“You should be! Now she thinks I’m totally out of the loop. I am totally out of the loop.” She grinned. “And you’re totally famous.”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “I’m totally not.”
“Seriously, though, it’s really great, what you’ve been doing.”
Victoria smiled despite herself. She supposed she could allow herself to be proud of this. Finding a suitable place for the bulk of her inherited fortune was a way of making her parents’ deaths mean something.
“It was the only thing that made sense to do.”
Throwing money at problems was, after all, a Chase family tradition.
Once she’d managed to convince them to drop that particular subject, the three of them made small talk as she got settled in. Chloe made dinner and told a story about one of her coworkers doing something stupid, but she might as well have been speaking Russian for all Victoria understood of her grease monkey lingo.
The walls here weren’t totally covered with Polaroids like they’d been at their old place. Instead, they had a small cork board with an ever-changing spread of a few carefully selected shots, reserved for favorite memories. Whenever she visited, Victoria made a game out of trying to spot which ones were new. There were a few new ones this time. Chloe redyeing her hair, hands stained violet, grinning at Max’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. Kate with her bunny in her lap, mid-laugh. A shot of Victoria and Chloe, one Max had taken during Victoria’s last visit.
Her eyes lingered on that one, and she smiled as she recalled the moment. Max had captured it perfectly: Chloe’s teasing smirk as she said something annoying yet endearing, Victoria’s lips just starting to curl into reluctant amusement.
When Max and Chloe had first moved here, she’d worried that the distance would drive a wedge in her friendship with them, widen the chasm she’d only just started to cross. But it hadn’t happened that way, and now, the visits were something she looked forward to more than anything else. Through all the ups and downs of the past two years, they were something solid to hold onto.
That night, she fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
The following day, they all headed to the gallery, taking the subway because driving was too much of a hassle. The receptionist recognized Max, greeting her cheerily as Ms. Caulfield. They made their way to the small exhibition room on the upper floor, where Max and a handful of other new artists had their work on display as part of a group show.
Victoria couldn’t help but mentally compare every gallery to the Chase Space, even now. She’d spent so much of her life there, and whether she liked it or not, it was a part of her. This gallery had a totally different feel to it. More bohemian, less rigid. Max’s work looked right at home here; she’d refined her intimate, candid style, and each shot had a raw sincerity that was nothing short of captivating.
She’d certainly come a long way from falling asleep during class.
If Victoria was honest with herself, part of her still felt envious of Max, as childish as she knew that was. She knew her own work was mediocre by comparison, and she still wasn’t quite able to take photos regularly anyway, despite the progress she’d made. But she was also genuinely happy, knowing how satisfied Max probably felt to finally see her dream come to fruition. Max deserved this.
“Max, these are…” Victoria searched for the right word. Everything seemed to fall short. “…really good.” She internally cringed at herself.
Max smiled a bit, looking as frustratingly bashful as she always did when she was on the receiving end of praise. “Thanks.”
“No, I mean—they’re more than good. They’re incredible.”
You ’re incredible.
Max’s smile broadened. Victoria’s heart skipped a beat and her mouth went dry, and she felt a twinge of embarrassment, looking away.
“You know I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you, right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Victoria said quietly. “You need to give yourself more credit.”
“I’m not saying it never would have happened. But your advice, your expertise… It’s been a huge help.”
Victoria swallowed. “I’m glad I could help.” She knew how lame that sounded, but she couldn’t think of anything better to say. All she could think about was how disgusted she was with herself for having these feelings for someone who clearly thought of her as a good friend and nothing more. Someone who was taken, taken by someone who also thought of her as a friend. After all this time, she’d hoped she would have gotten over this pathetic fixation, but if anything, it had grown stronger.
It wasn’t like she was ever going to do anything about it. Obviously.
But it was getting harder to pretend.
As the night went on, Victoria noticed that Chloe was being uncharacteristically quiet. Happy for Max, maybe, and toning down her usual antics so as to take a backseat. Or maybe it was something else. Victoria couldn’t shake the feeling that Chloe was reading her mind. She couldn’t help but recall that night Chloe had visited her at her parents’ house, and what she’d said—your little crush on Max. Neither of them had brought up the subject since, and Victoria had hoped it was just going to be one of those things that remained unacknowledged forever.
But there was something guarded about the way Chloe was acting around her tonight, a tense edge to her usual humor. Max seemed too swept up in excitement to notice anything, and Victoria almost managed to convince herself that she was imagining it. But when they ended the night with pizza back at the apartment and Chloe stopped eating after one slice, Victoria knew for sure that something was wrong.
Before long, Max was yawning every thirty seconds, and she announced that she was going to bed.
Chloe kissed her goodnight as she rose from the couch. “I’m gonna stay up for a bit.”
As Max headed off to bed and Chloe plucked a joint from her pocket and nodded towards the fire escape, Victoria bit the inside of her cheek.
Something told her that this wasn’t going to be fun.
Chloe leaned onto the railing, watching traffic go by below them as they smoked. The tense line of her mouth, the tightness in her shoulders, could have been nerves or anger or anything, but whatever it was, Victoria was becoming more and more sure that it was directed towards her. Chloe was bouncing one heel incessantly, which Victoria recognized as a sign that she was jonesing for a cigarette or was trying to figure out how to say something, or both. Probably both.
Neither of them said anything at first, and the longer the silence stretched on the more nervous Victoria started to feel. The weed added another layer to her anxiety. She wanted to ask what was going on, but she wasn’t sure that would go over well. There wasn’t much room for both of them on the fire escape, and she felt like the space was getting smaller and more confining by the moment.
“Question for you.”
Chloe’s voice, flat and impassive, punched through the quiet so suddenly that Victoria almost flinched.
“What is it?”
“Do you still have feelings for Max?”
Victoria’s heart jumped into her throat.
“I’m not—I don’t—” She tried to stammer out a reply, but she had no idea what the fuck to say.
Then the thought occurred to her that she could have just said no, and she mentally berated herself for not going with that. Or she could have denied ever having had those feelings in the first place.
Too late now, dipshit.
Chloe looked over at her. “Dude, chill. I’m not gonna freak out.”
Victoria had to force herself not to look away. She was too stoned for this shit. She was sure Chloe would be able to tell if she lied.
“Where is this coming from?”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“If you’re going to drag me outside in the middle of the night to interrogate me, the least you can do is tell me why.”
Chloe was the first one to look away. She twisted the joint between her thumb and forefinger, peering at it as if inspecting it for defects.
“I’m not interrogating you, alright? It’s just… Shit. Never mind. Forget it.”
Victoria felt a burst of annoyance at that. Part of her—most of her—wanted nothing more than to drop the subject, but she knew that neither of them would be able to spend the rest of this visit, and every visit after it, pretending this conversation hadn’t happened. Trying to would only make shit way worse in the long run. Better to get this over with, whatever it was.
“You don’t get to pull that shit. Clearly there’s something you want to get off your chest, so just say it.”
Chloe passed Victoria the joint without meeting her eyes. “Fine. Answer first.”
Victoria could feel her pulse in her throat. Even though she didn’t necessarily want to get higher than she already was, she stalled by taking a couple of drags from the joint before handing it back over to Chloe.
“It doesn’t matter whether I do or not,” she said eventually.
“That’s not an answer.”
“I don’t care. It’s the truth.” Chloe’s cageyness was starting to piss her off. “It doesn’t matter. Even if I did, what difference would that make? You should know by now that I would never…”
She faltered, annoyed at Chloe for making her say this shit out loud in the first place. She wished Chloe would just yell at her or whatever she was going to do and get it over with.
Chloe kept smoking and didn’t say anything.
Dragging shit out like this was just unnecessary. Victoria didn’t know why she was even entertaining this nonsense.
“If you want me to leave early, I will. I’ll tell Max I have to take care of a work emergency, or something.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Then say whatever it is you need to say so we can move the hell on.”
Chloe looked up then, and Victoria was thrown off by the expression on her face. Something raw had broken through the blankness—not anger, which would have made sense, but a sort of resigned sadness that looked entirely out of place on her.
“Just, seeing you two together tonight. Made me think.”
“Think about what, exactly?”
Chloe looked down again. The tip of the joint glowed bright and orange as she took a long pull.
“About how both of you are going places and I’m going nowhere fast.”
She couldn’t possibly be saying what it sounded like. Victoria had been sure that Chloe had dragged her out here to set her straight. To tell her in no uncertain terms that Max was taken and she could forget about ever having a chance. That would have been bad enough. This was way worse. Chloe’s implication that she was somehow jealous of Victoria was nothing short of absurd.
Even if Max did leave Chloe—which she wouldn’t, because they were like fucking obsessed with each other—Victoria was probably the last person she’d pick. The idea that Victoria, of all people, could get in the way of their relationship was ridiculous. The idea that she would want to do that was insulting enough to begin with.
“Is this a fucking joke?”
“Does it fucking sound like one?”
“You can’t be serious. Max is crazy about you.”
Chloe let out a sharp breath that could have been a laugh.
“Crazy for wanting anything to do with me, more like,” she said bitterly. “Even her parents think I’m dragging her down.”
Victoria felt a twist of something in her gut. She craved a cigarette. She didn’t have any on her. She was cutting down—trying to, anyway. Conversations like this didn’t help.
Chloe seemed to be gaining momentum, now that she’d gotten started. “She’s doing all this amazing shit, both of you are, and I’m just some depressed idiot she’s dragging around. I mean, it just makes sense, right? Sooner or later she’s gonna realize she’s wasting her time on me.”
“You can’t seriously be saying this shit.”
“It’s true, though, isn’t it? I’m just along for the ride. I’m her idiot sidekick.”
Victoria wanted a drink. She wanted a cigarette. She wanted a fucking drink and a fucking cigarette and she wanted Chloe to shut the fuck up and stop fucking talking about herself like this.
“That’s not true. Even if it was, you can’t possibly think I’m a threat to you. And whatever you’re accusing me of—”
“Not accusing,” Chloe said, almost too quickly. “Just asking.”
“Same fucking difference! Jesus, listen to yourself!”
Chloe looked taken aback, and Victoria had to remind herself to keep her volume down. Yelling wasn’t going to help. She clenched and unclenched her jaw, took a few breaths.
“Max loves you,” she said, relieved that her voice came out steady. “And you love her. That’s what matters. Don’t ever let me hear you talking like this again, understand?”
Chloe had the decency to look ashamed.
She pinched the joint out and stuffed the roach into her pocket, then turned to head back inside without another word. Victoria couldn’t think of anything else to say, so she followed.
The next morning, Victoria insisted on making them breakfast, mostly to have something to occupy her hands and thoughts so that she wouldn’t dwell too hard on last night. It didn’t work. She couldn’t stop replaying the conversation in her head, and things were made worse by the fact that Chloe seemed determined not to meet her eyes.
Still, she managed to whip up three omelettes that were more than decent, and at least Max was apparently still oblivious to everything, displaying her usual cheeriness as they ate and chatted about their plans for the next couple of days.
Soon, Max left to go to work, and things got that much more awkward.
Chloe was probably intent on not acknowledging last night at all. Victoria should have been more than happy with that course of action, but if they were going to be here alone all day she knew they had to clear the air. She’d barely slept, having spent the better part of the night trying to figure out what the hell she was going to say.
“So,” Chloe said, still looking anywhere but Victoria’s eyes as she gathered up their dishes and set them in the sink. “What should we—”
“Sit.” Victoria tilted her head towards the seat next to her on the couch.
Chloe raised an eyebrow but didn’t argue, and she sat down beside Victoria.
It was so much harder now to work up the courage to speak, with her anger drained away and the pale morning light drawing out all the tired lines in Chloe’s face. For a while the only sound was the low hum of the ancient fridge.
“I’m not going to get between you and Max. I need you to know that I wouldn’t do that. To either of you.”
Chloe sighed and slumped back in her seat.
“I know you wouldn’t, okay? I shouldn’t have brought it up. I didn’t mean to make shit weird or ruin your visit.”
“You didn’t ruin anything.”
“I kinda did.”
She looked down at her mug, ran her thumb over a chip in the rim.
“We’re supposed to be celebrating. Max has been waiting for this for so fucking long, and I should be happy for her. I am happy for her. But I just had to go and get all wrapped up in my own head. Leave it to me and my shitty broken brain, right?” She gave a humorless laugh. “Sorry. I know you don’t wanna be hearing this shit.”
“Don’t apologize,” Victoria said. “You think I don’t know what that’s like? I have PTSD, remember? My brain is literally a flaming trash can.”
The corner of Chloe’s mouth twitched at that. “I guess you and I have never really talked about this stuff before.”
“Maybe we should.” Victoria looked away, biting down on the inside of her cheek. “I’m not just here for Max, you know. You’re my friend too. I care about you.”
She needed Chloe to know that much, at least.
“Jeez, when did you get so soft?” Chloe said with a smirk. Then her face softened into a real smile. “Yeah. Same here.”
Victoria smiled back at her. She thought of last night, when Chloe had called herself Max’s idiot sidekick, and she felt a twist of shame at the fact that she had once seen Chloe that way. Now, she saw the real person behind the cocky, careless façade, and she knew how unfair and untrue that was.
Now, she knew that Chloe was smart, smarter than she gave herself credit for, smarter than she pretended to be. When she was actually interested in something, she dove in head-first, throwing herself at it with an intensity and focus that bordered on frightening sometimes. Like her car stuff, as Max would put it. Or her skillful playing of her instruments of choice, something which was still a source of fascination for Victoria.
Now, she knew that Max was lucky to have someone like Chloe. Someone ferociously loyal, and protective, and funny, and sweet in her own way.
And now, sitting there with the sunlight catching on the steam rising from their mugs of cheap coffee, she realized for the first time how incredibly blue Chloe’s eyes were, and—
“It’s funny, isn’t it?”
Max looked up from gazing out the window of the truck, where she’d been watching the airport disappear behind them in the side mirror. “What is?”
“Her. Us. All of it.” Chloe had an indecipherable little grin on her face as she maneuvered them through the congested midday traffic, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music she'd selected for the drive home.
“I don’t follow.”
“She’s changed a lot. That’s all.”
Max hummed. “I noticed you gave her an actual hug goodbye this time.”
“Did I do that? Don’t tell anyone. Gotta maintain my image.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Max said.
She smiled as she turned back to look out the window and watch the city pass them by, but a tiny twinge of guilt twisted in the pit of her stomach.
She loved Chloe. Chloe was her rock, the love of her life. She’d never do anything to jeopardize the life they shared together.
But she had eyes. And Victoria was attractive.
More than attractive. Passionate, and intelligent, and driven, and so many other things that Max started noticing little by little and then couldn’t stop noticing. She’d always found Victoria beautiful, from the moment they’d met, but back then Max had never even considered the possibility of actually being attracted to her. The meanness had been too much of a turnoff. But now that Victoria was nice, it was easier to appreciate the good things about her. Maybe too easy. Max found herself thinking about her constantly, these days, random thoughts that popped up out of nowhere, like how sometimes when she laughed really hard she snorted a little bit which was just fucking adorable, or that face she made when she was concentrating really hard on something and wanted it to be perfect. Her visits were always over too soon, and Max missed her more and more each time they had to say goodbye.
If Chloe picked up on it, she didn’t let on. Max planned on talking to her about it. Eventually.
She wanted to be honest, and communicative, and other things people were supposed to be in relationships, but she was worried about hurting Chloe’s feelings. Even though she knew nothing would ever come of it, she felt like a scumbag for thinking about Victoria this way in the first place. And she could only imagine how freaked out Victoria would be if she ever found out.
And then there was that niggling little thought that still wormed its way into her head from time to time: if Victoria knew the truth about everything that had happened back in Arcadia Bay, would she even want to be friends anymore?
Max held back a sigh. There was no point in stressing herself out over this. She would talk to Chloe about it. Just not yet. It wasn’t the right time. Things between them were good, better than before, and she didn’t want to screw things up by giving Chloe the wrong idea.
But she would talk to her about it. And everything would be fine.
Having a crush on a friend wasn’t the end of the world.
Did I mention this is a gay mess? I’m still not sorry.
Skip the first section if you don't want to read smut!
Victoria was, simply put, an envious person.
She had enough self-awareness by now to recognize that. It was just another one of her many flaws. Whether by nature or nurture, envy had been a constant feature throughout her life, an unfortunate but unavoidable facet of her personality.
So, she decided she was probably just envious of Max and Chloe for their relationship itself, the close bond they shared, and that was the reason for the way she’d been feeling lately. It made sense.
In fact, it was the only explanation that made sense, because Victoria was not attracted to Chloe fucking Price.
It was bad enough that she still harbored feelings for Max after all this time. Pining after both of them was just unacceptable. It was out of the question. These thoughts were temporary. They didn’t mean anything.
Maybe the problem was that it had been fucking forever since Victoria had gotten laid. Using strangers for sex just didn’t hold the same appeal as it once had, and it wasn’t as if she was in any position to actually try dating anyone.
Maybe some self-care was what she needed. She’d arrived in Phoenix a day early to give herself a bit of breathing room, knowing there was a long drive ahead of her, and now she was in her hotel room with nothing to do but lie there and stare up at the ceiling with gritted teeth, unable to sleep. It was as good a time as any to blow off some steam. Releasing some of this pent-up energy might help her clear her head.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she reached a hand between her legs, rubbing herself through the thin fabric of her shorts. She started flipping through her mental collection of fantasy material, telling herself to think about someone who bore no resemblance whatsoever to any of her friends. Someone like… like Salma Hayek, in From Dusk Till Dawn. That was an old favorite. The fantasy, not the movie. The movie was just okay. Max didn’t like it—
Victoria made a noise of frustration and commanded herself to focus.
A different one, then. She tried to conjure up something else, anything else, but every face she imagined started to morph into blue eyes and a smug grin and—
Another frustrated noise escaped her.
Maybe she just needed to get this out of her system. Maybe she needed to scratch this itch to get rid of it.
Yes. Once, just this once, she would permit herself this, and then she could put it behind her. It was just one harmless little fantasy.
About Chloe Price.
It was an itch she had to scratch. That was all it was.
Now that she’d given herself permission, her mind knew exactly where to take her, bringing her back to that night, years ago, when Chloe had made that unexpected visit to Victoria’s house. She thought of the way Chloe had refused to back down until she’d gotten what she’d wanted. The way she’d smirked while ordering Victoria around in the kitchen, that satisfied little curl of her lips.
Victoria’s pulse quickened, and she slid a hand under her waistband, surprised and almost annoyed by how slick she already was. Heat spread through her abdomen as she started tracing slow circles with her fingertips, imagining that look on Chloe’s face—the look that said I won and you know it. Like Chloe had been daring her to disobey. Being put in her place like that was frustrating, even infuriating, but it was also—as much as Victoria hated to admit it, even just to herself—fucking hot.
It didn’t matter how that night had actually ended. In her imagination, she could take things as far as she wanted. What might Chloe have done if Victoria had refused to play along? She pictured Chloe slowly rising from her seat, predatory gleam in her eyes, advancing towards Victoria as if closing in on wounded prey. That sent another rush of heat through her, and she bit back a whine as she increased her speed. She imagined herself cornered, the small of her back pressed up against the kitchen counter. Chloe would take her by the shoulders and turn her around, bending her over and—yes.
Victoria rolled over to reposition herself and got on her knees, steadying herself by gripping the headboard of the bed with the hand that wasn’t busy. She could feel herself approaching the edge already, felt the tension building in her muscles as she found the perfect rhythm. She worked two fingers inside herself, imagining Chloe’s rough, callused hand in place of her own, and she had to stifle another noise, rolling her hips in time with her thrusts.
She thought of the way Chloe smelled, leather and smoke and something else she couldn’t even pinpoint or describe—for some reason that was what did it. She trembled as the first wave overtook her, biting her lower lip to hold back the sounds that threatened to escape her throat. One wasn’t enough—she was so sensitive it almost hurt, but she kept going, and before long she was there again, convulsing as another wave crashed over her—stronger than the first, but it didn’t last as long. Then it was over, and she let herself collapse onto the bed, panting, still buzzing with little electric aftershocks. She was still for a moment as she caught her breath.
Then she opened her eyes, suddenly feeling drained and embarrassed and more than a little disgusted with herself.
Max and Chloe were her friends. This was wrong on so many levels. She didn’t know what the hell she’d been thinking. This would probably only make things worse, especially because she was going to be seeing them tomorrow and she didn’t know how the hell she was going to be able to look Chloe in the eye now.
Victoria buried her face in her pillow and groaned.
When Max and Chloe had invited Victoria to celebrate the new year in Arizona with them, she’d almost declined. Since her parents’ deaths, she hadn’t much felt like paying attention to holidays in general. But she knew that she had to stop wallowing in self-pity eventually, and besides, she missed her friends.
So she’d agreed to go with them, and at the time she’d told herself that she was perfectly capable of keeping her shit together and acting normal around them.
Now, she found herself starting to doubt that.
As she showered and triple-checked her hotel room to make sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind, she felt jittery and nervous. They were due to pick her up any minute now and she couldn’t get last night’s little experiment out of her head. It seemed like Chloe was a mind reader when it came to Victoria’s feelings towards Max. Victoria desperately hoped that wouldn’t be the case with this. She didn’t even want to imagine the way Chloe would smirk if she ever caught on. Or, Jesus, the puns she’d make.
Victoria’s phone buzzed.
Max: We’re here c:
Chloe: get ur ass outside uptown girl
Victoria: If you get that stuck in my head again I swear to god I will end you.
She checked out of the hotel and found them in the parking lot. The weather was sunny and warm, and both of them were showing more skin than Victoria was used to—Chloe basically lived in tank tops, but Max hardly ever wore them, and the fact that she was wearing one of Chloe’s right now made Victoria feel things that she was trying very hard to ignore. As they hugged her and started helping her with her bags, she hoped they wouldn’t notice how distracted she was. She had to remind herself not to let her eyes linger too long on the mist of freckles across Max’s shoulders, or the subtle curve of—
Chloe glanced over at her with a grin as they climbed into the truck. “Excited to slum it with the hippies for a while?”
“I am, actually.” As much as she was dreading the inevitable discomfort she’d have to endure, she hoped it would be good to actually celebrate something again. “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Hey, as long as you’re paying for the gas, you can tag along anytime.”
“What Chloe meant to say was, we’re glad you decided to come,” Max said.
She made them stop at a real coffee shop—no fucking way was she going to drink the shitty coffee from the hotel’s complimentary breakfast or, god forbid, sludge from a gas station—and then they hit the road.
“Giddyup, old girl,” Chloe said, patting the dashboard of the truck as it crawled onto the highway.
“Are you guys ever going to replace this thing? You’ve already spent way more in repairs than it’s worth.” Victoria would never understand Chloe’s passion for this disgusting vehicle.
“It’s a labor of love. It’s got personality.”
“It’s a death trap and it smells bad.”
“It smells like memories.”
“I didn’t know memories smelled like gym socks and stale weed.”
“Only the good ones.”
Max flipped through the CDs and decided on one of her sad-guy-with-guitar albums, surprising absolutely no one.
Chloe smirked as Max slid the disk into the CD deck. “Someone’s feeling adventurous today.”
“It’s good road trip music!”
Victoria recognized the first song that came on and caught herself humming along to the first few lines.
Chloe glanced over at her, open-mouthed. “Oh, god, not you too,” she said, smacking her forehead theatrically. “She’s corrupted you. I’m surrounded by hipsters.”
“Takes one to know one,” said Max.
“Wow, sick burn. You’re so corny. And I’m not a hipster.”
“You wear skinny jeans, drink craft beer and drive a truck that’s older than you are,” Victoria said. “You’re kind of a hipster.”
“Hey, how far away is the Grand Canyon?”
“Change of plans. We’re going there and I’m going to drive us over the edge.”
“See? That’s exactly how a hipster would commit murder-suicide,” said Max.
“Maybe I should just swerve into oncoming traffic.”
That sounded like a reasonable plan to Victoria, who was already starting to get restless. Hours of sitting never sounded appealing to begin with, and the truck was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and cramped. Every once in a while she or Max would readjust and their bare legs would brush together for a moment, and whenever that happened Victoria’s heart skipped a beat. She felt incapable of sitting normally, hyperaware of everything she did with her legs and arms and hands.
She was starting to get frustrated with herself, and she mentally ordered herself to calm the hell down. It wasn’t as if she’d never been in a car with them before. This was getting ridiculous. She was an adult, not some hormonal teenager.
As the drive went on, she distracted herself by looking out the window at the scenery and tried not to think about the fact that Max’s knee was almost touching hers.
Or the fact that Chloe looked ridiculously good in shorts.
Or the fact that she was going to be staying in close quarters with both of them for the next several days.
Eventually, they stopped at a diner for a late lunch. They settled into a booth and Victoria perused the menu with careful consideration. Greasy diner food sounded like a breakout waiting to happen, but she knew this would probably be her last chance to eat real food for a while.
When they got their drinks, Chloe peeled one end off the wrapper of her straw and then blew into it, shooting the rest of the wrapper through the air and right into Victoria’s forehead.
“Bam! Direct hit!”
“You’re such a child!”
“Guys, calm down. I don’t want to get kicked out,” Max said, giggling.
Victoria narrowed her eyes. Chloe loudly slurped her lemonade.
It seemed like Chloe had been teasing her even more than usual. Or maybe that was just her imagination. She couldn’t be sure. She kept feeling like she was giving herself away somehow, like Chloe was looking right through her every time their eyes met. Images of last night’s fantasy kept surfacing in her mind. She tried her hardest to push those thoughts away.
When they were done eating, Victoria took a moment to stretch before they got back in the truck. Her ass was sore and her neck was stiff but they still had another couple of hours of driving ahead of them.
Before too long they had to stop yet again, pulling over at a rest area because Max’s bladder was the size of a Skittle. The sun was starting to set, and they lingered there for a while to take in the view, sitting at a picnic table that overlooked a sweeping expanse of desert.
Victoria still had a hard time thinking of herself as a nature person. She’d grown to appreciate the benefits of a good hike once in a while, but she still preferred cities. Max’s enthusiasm for these things was infectious, though, and Victoria had to admit that it was an impressive view. The dry, rocky earth looked like an alien world compared to the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest. She almost wished she had her camera on her. She framed a shot in her mind’s eye: tall silhouettes of cacti jutting up into a sky mottled with bright, dramatic pinks and reds.
“This is your first time in Arizona, right?” Max asked.
Victoria nodded. “It certainly doesn’t disappoint.”
“I like it better this time of year. It’s way too hot in the summer.”
“You shoulda seen the sunburn I got last time we came out here. It was nasty,” Chloe said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a joint. “Hey, Maximilian, you okay to drive the rest of the way? Wanna take the edge off.”
Max glanced around. “Right here?”
“It’ll be fine. There’s no one around.”
She lit it up and took a long drag, then passed it to Victoria, who hesitated for a moment before taking it.
Victoria mostly just wanted a cigarette. Cravings gnawed at her during times like these. At least the joint gave her something to do with her hands and mouth. That was the most appealing aspect of it, more than actually getting high.
The three of them fell silent as Victoria and Chloe smoked. Chloe seemed more subdued now, and Victoria could tell that her mood had shifted; she always wore it on her sleeves.
After a while, Max looked over at her. “Are you still feeling okay about this?”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
“It’s okay if you’re not,” Max said gently.
Chloe let out a ragged sigh.
“I want to be,” she said. She glanced at Victoria. “Sorry. I’m not trying to kill the mood here.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Victoria said. She didn’t have to ask what was going on. She didn’t know all of the details of Chloe’s experiences with David, but she knew enough. “I know things are… complicated.”
“I just feel like it shouldn’t be such a big deal anymore, you know? I should be over it by now. It’s been years, and he’s… different now, or whatever. Sometimes things almost feel normal between us. Like, good normal.”
Her shoulders were slumped as she fidgeted with her lighter, looking down at the table. Next to her, Max placed a hand on her back.
“But then I remember the first time it happened. The first time he hit me. I thought my mom would kick his ass out then and there, right? But obviously that’s not how it went. She basically told me I was asking for it. And I just felt so… betrayed, and things were never the same between us since then. Now she’s gone, and we never…” She trailed off.
“You never had a chance to fix things,” Victoria finished. She knew firsthand how that felt, even if the details of her situation were different.
“Right.” Chloe gave a slow nod. “And I kind of still blame him for ruining my relationship with her, I guess. Part of me still hates him for that, even after… everything. Does that make me a shitty person?”
“It makes you human. You can’t just flip a switch and get over something like that. It takes time,” Victoria said. “Have you ever talked to him about this?”
“Maybe it would help.”
“I don’t know. Honestly, my mom and I didn’t ever get along very well, even before that happened. Even before my dad died, really. I know it’s not fair to blame him for all of it.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what else I could expect him to do or say, anyway. He already apologized like a million times. And, I mean, shit. He saved your life.”
“He did,” Victoria said. “And I’ll always be thankful to him. But that has nothing to do with what he did to you. They don’t cancel each other out.”
Chloe seemed to chew that over for a moment.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “I had all this shit I wanted to say to him and I never did, because it just felt pointless. But I guess bottling it up isn’t really working either.”
“Bottling things up usually doesn’t,” Victoria said.
They were quiet for a moment, then Chloe drummed her hands on the table and stood up.
“Anyway, I think I’ve done enough complaining for one day,” she said. “You guys ready to head out?”
The tender concern on Max’s face was so intense it almost hurt to look at. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Chloe said. “I wanna get there before dark.”
They headed back to the truck and Max climbed into the driver’s seat, looking only slightly ridiculous behind the wheel. Chloe picked out a CD, and as she slid it in Victoria caught a glimpse of the Sharpie scrawl on the front: Dad songs.
The first song came on, some classic rock hit, and Chloe cranked up the volume, then looked over at Victoria and gave her a smile as they continued on down the road.
By the time they finally arrived in Away, Victoria had “Man on the Moon” stuck in her head and knew she would for days. She was relieved to be able to get out of the truck and stretch her legs, and even more relieved that she wasn’t sitting an inch away from Chloe anymore.
Unfortunately, during the drive she’d been forced to accept two things.
One, she enjoyed an R.E.M. song.
Two, she was attracted to Chloe fucking Price.
She wasn’t sure which of those two things bothered her more, and she decided that she would just have to do her best to ignore both of them.
David came out of his trailer to welcome them. He and Chloe did a fist bump that was so awkward it was physically painful to watch. He looked so unlike how Victoria remembered him, with a bushy beard and a ponytail in place of the crew cut he’d once favored. They’d been writing letters back and forth for years now, but being face to face with him after all this time was different. His appearance and demeanor had changed so much that he almost seemed like a stranger to her now.
“It’s good to see you,” she said to him. “You look well.”
“Likewise,” he said with a nod. “Glad you could make it.”
“Thanks for having me. It means a lot.”
“Of course. You’re welcome anytime.”
The last time she’d seen him was in that bunker. Neither of them acknowledged it, but she knew he was thinking the same thing. She could see it in his face every time he looked at her. The softness in his eyes wasn’t exactly pity; it was something more visceral, something that came from a place of understanding.
The four of them made slightly strained conversation while he helped them unload the truck and showed them to the trailer they’d be staying in. Victoria could tell that Chloe had her walls up, even if she was making an obvious effort to keep things light, and Max was being quieter than usual. The secondhand tension made Victoria a bit anxious, but she told herself that she would just have to add that to the list of things she was presently ignoring.
David gave her a brief tour of the place when they were done unloading the truck. It occurred to her that the old Victoria would have judged the shit out of this place. Current Victoria did too, but privately. This cluster of ramshackle domiciles wasn’t the kind of place she’d ever imagined she’d spend the holidays in. The complete and total lack of creature comforts would take some getting used to.
But despite everything, she really was happy to be there. It was something different, at least, something to pull her out of the pit of self-indulgent loneliness she always fell into this time of year.
As David brought her around to introduce her to everyone, she recalled how he’d described this community in his letters: it’s like a family. She understood now just how accurate that was. They greeted Victoria warmly, and all of them seemed genuinely happy to see Max and Chloe, especially Joan, who was contagiously cheerful and an unabashed hugger. Arthur and Stanley were entertaining. After she met them she overheard Stanley sigh wistfully as she was walking away.
“What I wouldn’t give to be young and pretty again,” he said.
“You’re still pretty,” said Arthur.
“And you’re still a good liar.”
She could understand what drew David to a place like this, after everything he’d seen. He certainly seemed happier than he had at Blackwell. Even though she hadn’t known him back then, she remembered the perpetual scowl that had lived on his face, the way he’d stormed through the halls. It was obvious that he was more relaxed now, quick to smile and laugh, and she was glad he’d managed to find his way here.
She almost regretted not bringing her camera on this trip. She’d decided to leave it behind because the pressure of seeing it constantly wasn’t something she wanted hanging over her head the whole time, but now that she was here she couldn’t help but think of all the shots she could be taking. The energy here was captivating, and it demanded to be captured. She could tell by the familiar gleam in Max’s eyes that Max was feeling the itch too, and she hoped Max wasn’t holding back for her sake.
David finished up the tour by showing off the solar panels he’d recently installed, which he seemed particularly proud of, and then Max, Chloe, and Victoria headed back to the trailer to get settled in.
“This is Karen’s place,” Chloe said. “She’s cool. You’d like her. She’s in jail for arson right now.”
“Yup. David doesn’t like to talk about it. But she told him it’s cool if we stay here, so, silver linings, right?” Chloe grinned as she unzipped her suitcase and started tossing clothes onto the bed she and Max would be sharing.
The bed Victoria would be sleeping in wasn’t a bed at all, but a booth, and it looked extraordinarily uncomfortable. As she started to unpack she took a moment to reflect on the fact that she was now the sort of person who slept in a booth in an arsonist’s trailer on a hippie commune in the middle of the desert, and she had to smile to herself when she realized just how absurd that was. Compared to how she’d spent the holidays in years past, this was worse in all the ways she used to care about, and better in the ways that actually mattered.
They ended the evening with an awkward few rounds of Texas hold ’em with David, then turned in early because they were all feeling drained from the drive. The booth was even more uncomfortable than it looked, but Victoria was too tired to care.
“Hold still… Perfect.”
Victoria jolted awake with a gasp, scrambling for her wrists in the dark.
For a few frantic seconds she didn’t know where she was, but then it came to her. Arizona. Karen’s trailer. With her friends. Safe, and alive, and nowhere near that fucking bunker.
Her heart was racing. The air was pierced by the sound of her sharp, quick breaths as she struggled to calm herself down.
It had been so long. Why now?
She heard a rustling of sheets—someone was getting out of bed. Victoria couldn’t tell who at first. Then Chloe was there, sitting on the edge of the booth.
“It’s okay.” Chloe’s voice was so quiet that Victoria almost couldn’t hear her. “Breathe with me.”
Gently, Chloe slid a hand over hers, where she was still clutching one of her wrists. She let her grip loosen, and Chloe’s hand replaced her wrist.
“Don’t worry,” Chloe said. “You’re alright. I’m here.”
Chloe ran her thumb over Victoria’s knuckles, and Victoria focused on the steady rhythm of that motion, letting it anchor her as her pulse gradually slowed and her eyes started to drift closed.
The following day was New Year’s Eve. Victoria woke up with the nightmare still fresh in her head, and she was annoyed with herself over it, even though the rational part of her knew she shouldn’t have been. It had been a while since she’d had one, and it was hard not to feel like she’d failed somehow. Part of her still hoped they’d go away for good someday, even though she knew that wasn’t likely.
On top of that, she was more than a little embarrassed that Chloe had seen her that way. They had a moment alone when Max stepped out to shower, and Victoria felt the need to acknowledge what had happened.
“Sorry if I woke you up last night.”
Chloe looked up from the deck of cards she’d been absentmindedly shuffling, wearing a look of mild surprise.
“Dude, don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault,” she said. “I was already awake, anyway.”
Whether that last part was true or not, Victoria couldn’t be sure.
Chloe smiled as she resumed shuffling the deck.
“Don’t mention it.”
Throughout the morning, Victoria tried her hardest to shake off the edginess that always stuck with her after a nightmare, mustering as much of a smile as she could convincingly fake as they started their day.
Eventually, her mood improved for real. Everyone else was in good spirits, and their cheer was infectious. She spent some time talking to Joan about the sculptures—huge, hulking things made out of scrap metal that looked like they should have been impossible to pull off without the help of heavy machinery. She bonded with Stanley over their shared hatred of San Francisco. And as she got to know everyone she found herself wishing, again, that she had her camera with her, despite everything.
David inflicted various card games on them, some of which were actually tolerable. Max and Chloe even convinced her to play horseshoes, another activity she had never previously imagined herself participating in. Chloe was infuriatingly good at it. Victoria and Max were terrible, and Chloe made fun of both of them mercilessly for it. Victoria liked to believe she would have been better at it if she hadn’t been so distracted.
She kept remembering the feeling of Chloe’s hand in hers—strong but gentle at the same time. Chloe had never been so tender with her before. As much as she appreciated it, it definitely hadn’t improved the matter of her recent unsavory thoughts. As the day went on she had to keep reminding herself not to let her mind wander, and she felt ridiculous for that.
The weather during the day had been comfortable, but as night fell over the desert it quickly became chilly. They sat in rigid plastic chairs, huddled in blankets, and watched a movie on an old projector, some cult classic that Arthur insisted on. As midnight approached, they crowded around a bonfire while David counted down on his watch.
At the stroke of midnight there was a collective cheer. Max leaned over to kiss Chloe, and Victoria had to look away, frustrated by the envy that settled in her stomach once again.
Everyone lingered around the fire for a while to chat about their plans and hopes for the year, then the group dwindled until Max, Chloe, and Victoria were the only ones left.
“So.” Chloe leaned back in her seat and steepled her fingers, propping her elbows up on the arms of her chair. “Truth or dare, anyone?”
“Truth or dare?” Victoria scoffed. “Are you twelve years old?”
“Twelve and a half, thank you. Who wants to go first?”
“I don’t do dares.” Not since the mayonnaise incident in fifth grade. They didn’t need to know about that part.
Chloe heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Boring. Fine, truth or truth, then.”
“That’s not a thing.”
“It is now,” Chloe said. “We’ll all take turns asking, and if you don’t wanna answer a question you have to chug the rest of your drink.”
“I’m drinking water. This is dumb.”
“You’re just afraid of what we’re gonna ask.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You totally are,” Max said.
“I am not!”
“Then it’s settled,” said Chloe. “Max, you start.”
“Alright,” said Max. “Victoria, have you ever written fanfiction?”
“That’s a yes.” Max grinned. “Knew it.”
“Okay, fine, whatever, yes. It was a long time ago and no, you can’t read it. Ever.”
“What show was it for? Wait, let me guess. It was Sailor Moon, wasn’t it?”
It was. Victoria found herself both annoyed and impressed by how well Max knew her tastes. “You don’t get two questions.”
“It’s a follow-up question.”
“You don’t get a follow-up question.”
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Max said, her grin widening. “You know, Chloe used to have a thing for Sailor Neptune.”
Chloe shot Max a wounded look. “Max! You said you wouldn’t tell anyone!”
“I never said that!”
“It was implied!”
“It’s not like Victoria is going to judge you. She probably has one of those waifu pillow things at home.”
“They’re called dakimakura,” Victoria said before she could stop herself. Max and Chloe started snickering. She rolled her eyes. “You’re both ridiculous.”
“That makes three of us,” Max said. “Do you want to go next?”
Victoria nodded, thankful for the change of subject. She sipped her water and took a second to think, then she looked at Chloe. “What do you want in life? What’s your dream? And I want a real answer. No jokes.”
Chloe started fiddling with the tab of her beer can.
“Well,” she said. “I know it’d be a fuckton of work, but sometimes I think it could be cool to open up my own shop someday. I mean, I like being a mechanic. And being my own boss would be sweet, right?” She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s a stupid idea.”
“It’s not stupid,” Victoria said. “If that’s what you want, that’s exactly what you’re going to do. And you’re going to be fucking great at it.”
“If you say so,” Chloe said. “My turn, yeah? Why don’t you do dares?”
Victoria chugged the rest of her water.
Chloe laughed. “Alright, but we’re definitely coming back to that later.”
“We’re definitely not. Max, go ahead.”
Max turned towards Chloe. “How often do you listen to the Backstreet Boys while I’m not around?”
“So we’re really just putting all my shit out there tonight, huh?”
“Hey, this was your idea, remember?”
Chloe sighed and took a swig of her beer.
“First of all, just because you came home early from work and caught me listening to them one time doesn’t mean that’s a regular thing for me. Second, ‘I Want It That Way’ is a fucking good song and I don’t care what either of you have to say about it.”
“So, how often?”
“As often as the mood hits me. Your turn, Vic.”
There was something she’d been curious about for a long time, for years, but she’d never had a good opportunity to ask. She supposed this was as good a time as any.
She looked at Max. “That night I ran into you guys at The Flame—why were you there?”
“You mean you still don’t believe we were there for the overpriced drinks and shitty music?” Chloe said.
“It just doesn’t seem like your kind of scene. You’ve never mentioned clubbing since then. I’m curious. What’s the real reason you decided to go that night?”
Maybe it was just a trick of the firelight, but it almost looked like Max was blushing.
Max glanced at Chloe. “Should I tell her?”
“Just spit it out,” Victoria said. “It can’t be that bad.”
“It’s nothing bad,” Max said. “Just… a little embarrassing.”
Chloe’s smirk was getting wider by the second. “Go ahead and tell her, Maximus.”
“We were…” Max was definitely blushing now. “…roleplaying? Like, pretending to be strangers who had never met before.”
Victoria let that sink in for a moment.
“You’re fucking joking. I cockblocked you?”
“Clam jammed,” said Chloe.
“Chloe, I love you, but don’t ever call it a clam again,” Max said.
Victoria wasn’t sure what to say. She wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. “That’s… not what I expected at all.”
Max looked sheepish. “What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know,” Victoria admitted. “Not that.”
“Honestly, it was kind of weird,” Max said. “I don’t think it’s really our thing.”
Victoria wasn’t sure what the hell to do with that information, and she decided it was time to move on.
“Well. Anyway,” she said. “Your turn, Chloe.”
“Alright, here’s one I’ve been wondering about,” Chloe said, looking at her. “I’ve called you all kinds of shit and you pretend to be annoyed or whatever—don’t give me that look, I know you secretly love my nicknames—but Tori is off limits for real. What’s the story there?”
“It’s what Nathan’s older sister used to call me. She’s the only person who’s ever called me that.”
Their faces fell and Victoria instantly regretted answering the question. This wasn’t a subject she’d wanted to bring up tonight, even though it had been on her mind all week. The atmosphere had shifted now, and there was no undoing that.
“Is she…” Max trailed off. Victoria could tell that her nosy side was fighting for dominance, and decided to spare her the mental battle.
“She’s alive,” Victoria said. “I mean, I think she is. She wasn’t in Arcadia Bay when the storm hit. She was living in Brazil the last time I talked to her. I have no idea where she is now.”
She felt a twinge of shame as the words left her mouth. She’d thought about reaching out to Kris, many times, but Kris probably hated her. She had no idea what she would even say if they ever crossed paths again.
“Sorry,” Chloe said. “I didn’t know it was like that.”
“You’re fine.” Victoria waved her hand. “Whose turn is it?”
As the night went on, she couldn’t help but think back to the last New Year’s celebration she’d actually enjoyed, because it was one she’d spent with Nathan and Kris.
The memories were bittersweet. Getting shitfaced in some extravagant hotel on Sean Prescott’s dime was the polar opposite of what she was doing right now, but back then, the two of them, Nathan and Kris, had been a lifeline to her. At the time, she’d thought they were the only people in the world who understood her, and even now, part of her still missed those days of bitching about life with them.
Sometimes she wondered whether any of Nathan’s friendship was genuine or if it was all just an act, and thinking about that hurt more than she wanted to admit. She still felt like an idiot for having had such blind trust in him, and for having defended him at every turn from people who had turned out to be all too right about him.
But Max and Chloe were nothing like him. They were good, and genuine, and they were really there for her. They’d proved that over and over again, in so many different ways, even when she didn’t deserve it. As the fire started to die down and Max started to yawn and Chloe polished off her beer, Victoria felt a swell of affection for both of them, so strong and sudden it surprised her. And for what was probably the hundredth time that day, she wished she had her camera on her.
Next time, maybe.
She settled for the next best thing, and tried to take a mental snapshot of the three of them, awash in the orange glow of the dying fire.
She wanted to remember this moment.
For Victoria, spending New Year’s Day without a hangover was another marked difference from previous years. Max probably would have said that there was something symbolic about that, which was exactly why Victoria didn’t bring it up. She should have woken up feeling refreshed, but she had a kink in her neck from sleeping in that fucking booth. That was one thing about this place she wasn’t going to miss. That, and the shitty water pressure.
Chloe was especially energetic that morning, much to Victoria’s irritation, inundating them with an endless stream of jokes and puns and annoying comments over breakfast.
“You picked a bad day to become a morning person,” Victoria grumbled into her second cup of coffee.
“You picked a bad day to become a ‘drag my lazy ass out of bed’ person,” said Chloe. “Hey, you guys ever tried Cheerios with chocolate milk? Fucking amazing. I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner.”
“I need you to stop talking immediately.”
Chloe started chewing loudly instead, and Victoria groaned into her mug.
Several cups later, she was awake enough to not want to strangle anybody.
They started their day with a hike up to the nearby canyon. Chloe took the lead as they made their way up a long, sloping trail that followed the curve of the canyon. Victoria and Max tried their best to keep up with her longer strides, and she stopped and turned around every so often to make fun of them for lagging behind. When they came across a ledge in the path, she climbed up first and helped Max and Victoria up, and Victoria was reminded once again of the strength in her grip.
They’d gotten a late start, and the sun was beating down on them in full force by the time they reached the top. Chloe unscrewed the cap of her water bottle and tilted her head back to pour the last sip down her throat, and Victoria couldn’t help but stare, transfixed, as a stray drop ran down her chin and neck. Then she used the end of her shirt to wipe sweat off her forehead, and her abs were—
God fucking damn it.
Face to face with some of the most incredible scenery she’d ever seen, and Chloe Price’s abs were all Victoria could think about. That was where she found herself at the start of the new year. If someone had told her, years ago, that this was how she’d be kicking off 2018, she would have had an aneurysm.
Still might, if this went on much longer.
She tore her eyes away and mentally chastised herself, forcing herself to look at the view she was supposed to be admiring—which was, admittedly, also pretty nice.
“We slept up here once,” Max said. “The stars were amazing.”
“That sounds cold.”
“It was. And I kept feeling like things were crawling around in my sleeping bag all night.”
Victoria shuddered. “Ew.”
“Speaking of creepy crawlies, I think there’s a tarantula on you,” Chloe said, walking her fingers up Victoria’s arm.
Victoria smacked her hand away. “It feels more like a lizard. Would it kill you to moisturize once in a while?”
“How come you guys are always pushing lotions and creams and shit on me? Let me be natural.”
They fell quiet as they looked out across the canyon. The sunlight cut through all the angles of it, lighting the whole place up in blazing hues. Standing there with them, Victoria felt a pang of something.
They would be leaving tomorrow. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that. She was looking forward to a real bed, and a real shower, and all of the various comforts that this place lacked. On top of that, spending this much time with Max and Chloe wasn’t helping her get over her unfortunate attraction to both of them, and she knew some space was probably for the best.
At the same time, being here felt good. It was the first actual vacation she’d been on since before her life had been upended, and she was here with people who truly cared about her. The thought of going back—back to her lonely apartment, back to the damp gloom of Seattle’s winter, back to business as usual—made her sadder than she’d expected to be.
When they got back from their hike, Chloe went off to do car things with David. Victoria got the impression that this was some kind of bonding activity for them.
Max suggested going up to the roof of Karen’s trailer, and after some convincing, Victoria agreed, even though she felt like she was going to fall and break her neck. From up there, it was even more apparent just how small the community really was, tucked into the seemingly endless expanse of desert that stretched on in every direction around them.
Watching Chloe and David at work, Victoria couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she could see that they were talking, at least, and the conversation seemed to be flowing more easily than before. She and Max watched them for a while, until they finished up whatever incomprehensible thing they’d been working on and went into David’s trailer.
As they sat quietly on the edge of the roof, Victoria sensed that Max was gearing up for one of her little heart-to-hearts. She had that look on her face. The little worried crease between her eyebrows was a dead giveaway.
“I can tell you’re thinking about asking me something right now.”
Max looked surprised at that, glancing at Victoria uncertainly.
“It’s about Nathan,” she said.
Victoria wasn’t exactly shocked by that. She’d seen how curious Max had been last night when Kris had come up, and she knew how Max tended to dwell on things.
Max looked away, hesitating for a moment.
“Do you still blame yourself?”
It wasn’t an easy question to answer, even though it had been at the back of Victoria’s mind during this whole trip.
“I still think I could have helped him,” she said. “I knew him better than anyone, except Kris. And before she left, I told her I would look out for him. I promised her I would.”
That crease between Max’s eyebrows deepened as she looked over at Victoria, then looked down at her lap. She was picking at her cuticles, another one of those anxious little habits that told Victoria she was searching for the right words.
“My parents and I moved to Seattle right after Chloe’s dad died,” she said, then fell quiet again.
Victoria could tell she was going somewhere with that and gave her a minute to collect her thoughts.
“I basically ghosted her. I didn’t even text her once. At first, I just didn’t know what to say. Every time I opened up my phone to try, I froze up. Then more and more time passed and I was just too ashamed to even try anymore. Even after I started going to Blackwell, I didn’t reach out to her. We ran into each other by accident.”
Surprised, Victoria sat with that for a moment. She’d already known they’d fallen out of touch for a while, but she hadn’t known that this was the reason.
“You were just a kid,” she said eventually.
“And how old were you when Kris left?”
She understood the point Max was trying to make, and she knew it made sense, but that didn’t do much to change the fact that this still felt different. That the last thing she’d said to Kris in person was just another broken, empty promise. That even if she couldn’t have helped Nathan, she definitely could have stopped him.
The blame didn’t lie squarely on her. She wasn’t the only person who had failed him. That much, at least, she could accept, because placing some of the blame on others was easier than simply removing it from herself.
“We’ve all made mistakes,” Max said. “What’s it going to take for you to forgive yourself?”
Victoria didn’t have an answer for that one. She wasn’t even sure if Max expected an answer for it. They were both quiet for a while.
“You’re a good person,” Max said. “You’ve been a good friend to me. And to Chloe.”
She wasn’t usually this persistent. Victoria wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“You’ve been a good friend to me too. Both of you have.” Better than I deserve, Victoria thought but didn’t say. “I don’t know where the hell I would be right now if it wasn’t for you two.”
Still falling apart, probably. Drinking herself to death in that huge and empty house, contributing nothing of value to anybody.
She didn’t know if she would ever be able to forgive herself for everything she’d done in the past, but she felt good about what she was doing now. That was something, at least.
“I’m happy you’re here with us,” Max said. “It’s been nice.”
“I kind of wish we didn’t have to leave tomorrow.”
That made the lump in Victoria’s throat grow a size.
Opening up to Max was always too easy. In that moment, Victoria was seized by a sudden urge to tell Max everything—Nathan’s prediction, even the cat.
But she couldn’t get the words out. These days, she tried not to think about that too much, and she didn’t want their final afternoon here to be tainted by it.
The moment passed.
Below them, Chloe came out of David’s trailer, and then she climbed up to join them, grinning as she poked her head above the edge of the roof.
“How did it go?” Max asked as Chloe plopped down next to them.
“Went fine,” she said. “We talked about my mom. And some other stuff. It was actually okay.”
Chloe seemed drained, but she gave them a smile that looked real and unforced, and then the three of them settled into a comfortable silence as they sat there, side by side.
Max had brought her camera up to the roof with her, and she reached over to grab it from where it was sitting beside her. She held it up and looked at Victoria, and there was a question in her eyes. Even after all this time, she always asked for permission this way, always wanted to make sure Victoria was comfortable. It was just another thing Victoria loved about her.
Max and Chloe leaned in on either side of her, close enough that their shoulders were touching hers, and Max extended her arm to line up the shot.
The shutter sound still made Victoria’s skin crawl a little bit, but it was less intense now, more manageable, especially if she was bracing herself for it. When Max was done, she carefully placed the Polaroid in her bag to shield it from the light as it developed, then she smiled.
“I have a feeling that’s gonna be a good one.”
Sometimes, David would wake in the middle of the night, whether it was because of a nightmare or just because. He’d lie there in that hazy in-between state and reach out, because some part of him, some primal little thing in his brain, still expected to find Joyce there, curled up by his side. And when his hand found nothing, that ache settled into his chest as strongly as if it was the first time all over again, even now.
He’d give anything to be able to hold her again, to feel her softness and warmth, but she was gone, had been gone for years. The photo of her was worn at the edges, and it was starting to fade, just like his memories of her. He was starting to forget the sound of her voice, her laugh, the small details of her face that a picture couldn’t quite capture. As hard as he tried to keep them, they were slipping away from him, little by little. Forgetting made him feel like a traitor.
But he liked to think she’d be proud of him, if she was here. Proud of Chloe, too. As he sat there in his trailer and touched the tips of his fingers to that faded photo, he thought back to Chloe’s first visit to him, remembered the flood of relief that had crashed over him, seeing her for the first time since the storm. There weren’t many things in his life that made any damn sense anymore, but this was one of them: he needed to be there for her, however he could, as much as she would let him.
Just like the photo, that letter from Victoria showed signs of wear. She’d written him many, over the years, and he’d saved all of them, but there was one in particular he kept coming back to.
But then I see yours, coming to rescue me.
Those words were something for him to cling to in his darkest moments, whenever he needed a reminder that he’d done one thing right, one good and useful thing. He’d read it so many damn times already that the paper was full of wrinkles now, and the texture of it was all stiff and brittle where he’d accidentally spilled water on it once, but he still couldn’t stop himself from taking it out to reread it again and again.
When he looked into her eyes, he could see the heaviness of it all, the things she would carry with her forever.
He didn’t have to wonder what that was like. He knew.
That moment that his mind kept returning to, over and over. Sounds that brought him right back, every time. Images that wouldn’t leave him alone. The numb, restless anger that crept into him whenever he was tired or bored or sometimes just for no fucking reason at all, just because it fucking wanted to. Four little letters seemed too neat a package for the monster that lived inside him.
For so long, he’d felt powerless against it. The therapists at the VA meant well but they were overworked, and he was just another name on a long list of people who were as fucked up as he was or worse. After all the shit he’d seen and done, part of him still felt permanently broken. He’d spent so many nights, too many to count, with his gun in his mouth, wondering if that was the only way to end the war that he’d never fully returned from.
But tonight wouldn’t be one of them.
This place was his second chance at living a good life. Maybe he didn’t deserve it, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to waste it.
Victoria, Max, and Chloe spent most of their final morning in Away saying lingering goodbyes to everyone, having already gotten most of their packing out of the way the night before. Victoria took one last long look at the place, trying to etch all of its features into her memory before they left. But they couldn’t dawdle for too long before they had to hit the road.
The drive back to Phoenix was quieter than the drive to Away had been, and it felt somehow shorter. Max and Chloe seemed as preoccupied as Victoria felt. Even their bickering over music lacked its usual energy as the three of them made their way towards civilization. Victoria couldn’t help but wonder what was going through their heads. Neither of them seemed upset, but they were definitely distracted.
Chloe was probably still thinking about her talk with David. As for Max, Victoria couldn’t even begin to guess what was on her mind right now. She just looked lost in thought. That was nothing new for her. She could have been ruminating over any number of things. Victoria almost asked about it, but she decided against it.
The closer they got to the city, the quieter they all got, and the heavier Victoria felt. By the time they reached her hotel she found herself missing both of them already.
As they stood there in the parking lot, an impulse hit her, and she followed it before she could stop herself, looping an arm around both of them and drawing them in. She’d never hugged two people at once before, and their differing heights made things a bit ungainly, but they went along with it. Eventually it reached the point where the hug usually would have ended, but they didn’t let go and neither did she, and for a while they all just stayed like that until she realized how fucking weird she was being and pulled away.
Fortunately, they didn’t seem phased.
“Try not to puke on the plane,” Chloe said.
“Try not to crash that rusty tin can you call a truck.”
They said goodbye to her and wished her a safe flight, and then they left. She couldn’t resist looking over her shoulder to sneak one last glance at that old truck as it rattled on down the road, kicking up a trail of dust behind its wheels.
She wished she could be going with them.
Max held in a yawn as she poured herself a mug of coffee. It was lukewarm—Chloe had made the pot before she’d left earlier that morning—but Max didn’t care that much. At least it wasn’t cold yet.
She hadn’t slept well the night before, and she was dreading the thought of having to go to work today. Plastering on a fake smile for the customers and pretending she didn’t want to crawl back into bed and sleep for another ten hours sounded like a lot of effort.
In front of her, her phone started to vibrate. As she looked down at the screen, a pinprick of anxiety pierced through the fog, and she was instantly awake.
Kate was calling her.
Kate didn’t usually call this early. Actually, Kate never called this early.
Max swallowed before she answered.
“Hey, Kate?” That came out sounding more like a question than a greeting.
“Hey, Max. Do you have a minute?”
Max knew, then, by how fragile Kate sounded, that something was wrong.
“Of course. Is, um…” She almost asked if everything was okay, but the words died before they left her mouth. That would have been a stupid question. “What’s going on?”
For a minute there was silence on the other end of the line.
“The Dark Room photos were leaked last night.”
Max’s heart dropped into her stomach.
Victoria, was her first thought. Then she felt a twinge of guilt at the fact that her attention was supposed to be on Kate right now and the only thing she could think about was how Victoria must be feeling.
“Kate, I’m—” She swallowed again. “I’m so sorry. Do you know what happened?”
“Not really. Not yet. All I know is that the photos were leaked somehow. They’re calling it an ‘unauthorized release.’ ” The heaviness in her voice made Max’s heart sink even lower. “There’s going to be an investigation, and…”
She trailed off and sighed.
“I’m so sorry,” Max repeated, not knowing what else to say.
“I’ll be alright,” Kate said. “Oliver is here, and my sisters are coming up to visit me tomorrow. Actually, I wanted to ask you if you’ve talked to Victoria at all today?”
Max felt sick.
“She didn’t answer when I tried calling her,” Kate said. “Maybe you could try? I think she probably needs someone right now.”
“Of course,” Max said. “I’ll call her.”
Max wanted to say something, knew she should, but her mouth was dry and she couldn’t get any words out.
“Let’s talk later, okay?”
On days like today, Victoria wished she still kept booze around the apartment. She was almost tempted to go get some, but she didn’t feel like getting off of the couch or being seen by other humans, so she just added “lack of booze” to the ever-lengthening list of shit she’d have to get over.
It wasn’t as if she’d been blind to the possibility that something like this could happen. With such a high-profile case, there was always a chance. Between Jefferson’s cult following, the conspiracy theories about his suicide, all the media attention the case had received, and everything else, it was a wonder this hadn’t happened sooner. It was something that had been sitting at the back of her mind for years.
But as time had passed, it had stopped feeling like a real threat. She’d hoped—naively—that people would forget, eventually.
Of course it wasn’t that easy. Of course people weren’t going to forget. She didn’t know why she’d thought she even deserved that kind of freedom in the first place.
It was only fitting, really, that this should happen to her. After all, wasn’t this the same thing she’d done to Kate? The details were different, sure, but the effect was the same. She’d taken someone’s most vulnerable moment and put it on display for the world to see. And she’d taken pleasure in the cruelty of it, too, relished that twisted sense of vindication at the downfall of the perfect little church girl. That was the kind of person she’d been.
She’d turned her phone off that morning after she’d gotten the news, and it had stayed off all day since then. Tomorrow, she would resurface, emerge from her cave and rejoin the real world. Tonight was for self-pity. She didn’t have the energy for anything else.
It was almost midnight when her wallowing was rudely interrupted by a knock at her door.
Whoever it was could fuck off. It was the middle of the goddamn night and she was busy feeling sorry for herself. She ignored it.
But then the knocking continued, louder and more insistent. She almost yelled at whoever it was to leave her the fuck alone, but with her luck it would be one of her neighbors or someone else she’d have to see and interact with on a regular basis, and she still had enough self-respect left to at least make an effort not to embarrass herself like that.
She heaved herself off the couch with a frustrated huff, and as she approached the door she tried to mentally prepare herself for whatever was waiting for her on the other side.
But when she looked through the peephole, her heart stopped.
She opened the door and Max was standing there. They stared at each other for a too-long moment. Victoria opened her mouth to try to say something. Nothing came out.
“Are you going to let me inside?”
She stepped aside, because she didn’t know what the hell else she was supposed to do. Max reached down to grab the small suitcase that was sitting on the ground near her feet, then she swept past Victoria into the apartment without another word, tossing her suitcase unceremoniously to the floor and flopping onto the couch in one decidedly ungraceful motion. She heaved a sigh, visibly deflating as she exhaled, dragging a hand down her face.
Victoria could only stare, still half-convinced that this was some kind of hallucination or something. She felt suddenly embarrassed by the spread of used tissues and chocolate wrappers that littered the coffee table.
“What are you doing here?”
Max’s head snapped up.
“What do you think?”
She actually sounded angry. Victoria was taken aback by that, and by the hurt look on her face.
“It’s late,” Victoria said dumbly.
“Yeah,” said Max with a laugh that didn’t contain even a trace of humor. “I know. I can read a clock.”
Victoria was at a loss. “Max, I—”
“Don’t.” Max held up a hand. “Whatever you’re about to say, just don’t. I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere. We don’t have to talk about what happened, if you don’t want to. But I’m staying. Now, go call Chloe while I find us a movie to watch.”
She snatched the remote off the coffee table and turned her attention to the TV, and Victoria blinked again.
So this was Max’s assertive side.
Victoria, stunned, couldn’t do anything but comply.
She stepped into her bedroom to retrieve her phone from the nightstand drawer where she’d stuffed it away earlier. When she turned it on she winced at the deluge of texts and missed calls that came in. Then she called Chloe, who answered almost right away.
“Hey yourself.” Chloe’s tone shifted from concerned to annoyed so fast it almost gave Victoria whiplash. “Have I ever told you that you’re an asshole?”
“A couple of times.”
“Well, I’m telling you again. Answer your phone, asshole.”
There was a long pause. Victoria could hear the grumble of traffic in the background on Chloe’s end.
“Listen, you know I’d be there if I could, right? It’s just, one of the guys is on vacation this week, so we’re already backed up and the boss says we can’t afford to lose someone else right now, and… yeah. I almost told him to go fuck himself and left anyway.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” Victoria would have felt terrible if Chloe had done something stupid and lost her job because of this mess.
“Yeah, well, Max said you’d kill me if I did, so.”
“She’s right. I would.”
“This is all so fucked up,” Chloe said. “And, shit. I’m just really sorry, dude.”
“Yeah.” Victoria sighed. “Me, too.”
When they were done talking, she went back out into the living room, only to see that Max had put on that awful Final Fantasy movie.
“Seriously,” Max said with the first hint of a smile Victoria had seen on her since she’d arrived. “I know you haven’t seen it all the way through. That changes tonight.”
Victoria was sure that this was some kind of punishment, but she didn’t have it in her to argue. She sat down, and felt another pinch of embarrassment when she noticed that Max had tidied up a bit—the trash had been cleared away from the coffee table.
It started to really sink in, then, as they settled in side by side on the couch and the terrible movie started to play, that Max was actually here. She’d actually hopped on a plane and flown to Seattle and practically kicked Victoria’s door down for reasons known only to her.
And Victoria couldn’t help but notice how tired she looked.
Victoria felt like she needed to say something. She couldn’t focus on the movie at all—not that this disaster was worth any of her actual attention in the first place.
“You didn’t have to do this.”
Max looked over at her with an unreadable expression, staring for a long moment, as if searching for something.
“Do you have any idea how worried I was when I couldn’t get ahold of you?”
“I’m sorry,” Victoria said. “I didn’t know you would literally fly across the country just because I turned my phone off for a few hours like an idiot.”
“I would have come anyway,” Max said. “Otherwise you’d just be sitting here telling yourself you deserve this.”
Those words stung with how true they were. Victoria’s eyes felt suddenly hot and she blinked a few times, and she had to look away. She didn’t want to cry in front of Max, didn’t want to feel any more pathetic than she already did. She covered her face with her hand.
Then she felt Max’s hand on her shoulder, and she couldn’t hold it back anymore.
She tried to turn away when the tears came, but Max’s hand slid across her back, pulling her closer. An ugly sob escaped her throat as Max’s arms wrapped around her and she couldn’t stop herself from melting into Max’s touch.
“You don’t deserve it,” Max said softly. “You didn’t deserve any of it.”
Max held her, murmuring reassurances and rubbing slow circles in the space between her shoulder blades, while she sobbed herself dry.
Victoria woke up on the couch. She was cold, except for where she was snuggled against something pleasantly warm, that smelled familiar and—
It took a moment for her brain to catch up with what was going on.
They had fallen asleep there, together. Max was half-sitting up, propped awkwardly on the arm of the couch, and Victoria was leaning on her—nestled into her, head tucked into the crook of her neck. One of her arms was still draped across Victoria’s back.
Victoria sat up, too quickly, and then noticed, with wrenching embarrassment, that Max’s eyes were already open. Half-open, anyway.
She faltered, unsure of what to say.
Max blinked sleepily, stretched a little and rubbed her neck—which was probably sore as hell, Victoria realized with a pang of guilt—and then gave a small, tired smile.
“I’m going to make you watch it again, you know.”
“The Spirits Within. We never finished it.” Max yawned. “Don’t think you can fool me that easily.”
Maybe not acknowledging what had happened was the way to go. At least Max wasn’t freaking out about it.
Waking up in Max’s arms was something Victoria had dreamed about on more than one occasion, but she’d never imagined it would actually happen, and she’d definitely never imagined it happening like this. She was embarrassed—to put it lightly—but if Max wasn’t going to say anything, neither was she.
Between having cried herself to sleep and the uncomfortable position she’d ended up in, Victoria almost felt like she had a hangover. Her head hurt. Her body hurt. She felt like she’d barely slept at all. Max looked like she could use a caffeine fix, too, and Victoria decided to busy herself by making coffee.
She’d hoped to put some distance between them in the process, but Max joined her in the kitchen and started poking through her sparse fridge.
“Wow, you really don’t keep anything in here,” Max said. “What do you want for breakfast? Eggs and toast, or toast and eggs?”
“You don’t have to—”
Max shot her a look that shut her up.
The eggs Max made were, surprisingly, on the better side of edible—her cooking skills had improved over the years. As they ate Victoria kept mentally replaying the first few seconds of the morning.
Max had been comforting her in a moment of vulnerability. That was all it was. She tried to push it out of her mind.
After breakfast, Max texted Kate. Victoria hadn’t even thought to ask about Kate until now, and that made her feel like an asshole.
“How is she?”
“She’s doing okay. Her fiancé is taking care of her,” Max said. “She’s worried about you, too, you know.”
Of course she was. Victoria didn’t know what to say to that.
Max set her coffee aside and glanced at Victoria from across the table.
“Do you feel like talking about it?”
“I don’t know,” Victoria said, letting out a long sigh. She looked down at her mug, cupping it with both hands. “It just never fucking ends.”
Jefferson had been dead for years and he was still finding ways to fuck up her life, to sink his claws in and twist them around. She had no way of knowing how many eyes had seen those photos already, with all of the various departments and agencies that had been involved in the case, and now they’d be seen by even more, by anyone who cared to go looking for them.
She wasn’t going to cry, this time. She was too drained for that. Last night she’d been caught off guard, overwhelmed by a rush of emotion. Today, it was just a dull ache.
“You’re one of the strongest people I know. You’re going to get through this,” Max said. “And I’m here for you. No matter what.”
“This isn’t your problem,” Victoria said. “I didn’t want you to get dragged into this.”
“I’m not getting dragged into anything,” Max said. “I’m here because I want to be. I wish you would stop trying to push me away.”
The sudden flash of fierceness in her eyes made Victoria pause.
“At least let me pay for your flight, or something.”
Max shook her head.
“How about you just order us a pizza tonight,” she said. “And we’ll call it even.”
Victoria thought about arguing, but the look on Max’s face told her there wouldn’t be much of a point. She’d never seen Max like this before. She didn’t quite know how to handle it.
She and Max spent most of the day just quietly existing in the same space, which was more of a comfort than Victoria had expected it to be. Once she was awake enough she called her therapist’s office and left a message—she should have done that yesterday, but it was better late than never. She called Kate, too, and talked to her briefly. Conversations with Kate had been getting less awkward lately, but this subject was uncomfortable for both of them, and the call didn’t last very long. Victoria didn’t feel she had the right to open up too much to Kate about this, and she knew she wasn’t Kate’s first choice of confidant either.
Chloe texted her way too many times throughout the day—sending multiple texts in a row was a habit of Chloe’s that was usually irritating, but Victoria found herself strangely thankful for it today, and she wished, selfishly, that Chloe could be there with them.
Fortunately, Max didn’t make good on her threat to have Victoria re-watch the Final Fantasy garbage film, and they ended the day by watching Princess Mononoke instead. By the time it ended, Victoria was exhausted, fighting to keep her eyes open. That wasn’t surprising, considering how she’d spent the previous night. Max looked tired too, and Victoria caught her stifling a yawn.
“It’s getting pretty late,” Victoria said. “We should get some sleep.”
Max seemed to hesitate. She dropped her gaze to her lap, eyebrows tilted ever so slightly—she wanted to say something. Victoria waited for a few moments.
“Good night,” she said when she looked back up.
Apparently she didn’t feel like sharing what was on her mind, for whatever reason. Victoria decided not to pry.
Max stayed for another three days before she had to leave.
Victoria was already too used to her company, and wished she could stay longer, but she knew Max had a life to get back to. Max had already gone out of her way to do this. The fact that she’d put her life on hold like this for Victoria’s sake, that she cared enough to drop everything and come here just to make sure Victoria was okay, was more than enough.
When Victoria dropped her off at the airport, Max hugged her goodbye, tightly, for a long moment.
“One last thing,” Max said as they pulled apart. She reached into the inside pocket of her jacket and slipped something out—a Polaroid. “You should keep this.”
She held it out. Gingerly, Victoria took it between her fingertips and examined it. It was the photo Max had taken on the roof of Karen’s trailer in Away. Victoria remembered the feeling of the dry, warm air on her face, their shoulders pressed against hers.
“Are you sure?”
“No. Give it back,” Max deadpanned. Then her face softened. “Seriously, I want you to have it. It’ll be something for you to look at next time you feel like turning your phone off.”
Victoria’s throat ached as she looked at Max, then the photo, then back at Max, and she swallowed.
“Thank you,” she finally said, when she felt like she could keep her voice even. “For everything. For being here with me, and…”
She trailed off, unable to finish.
“Of course,” said Max. “And, you’ll come see us soon, right?”
Victoria nodded. “As soon as I can.”
Victoria wanted to kiss her.
She wasn’t going to—she couldn’t, she knew she couldn’t—but in that moment, she wanted nothing more. Max was looking up at her with such warmth, and Victoria, looking back into those earnest blue eyes, was filled with a longing so deep and sudden that it took her by surprise. With how close they were standing, it would have been easy to just lean in and close the gap between them.
When she realized they’d just been standing there staring at each other for an amount of time that would definitely be considered weird by normal standards, she felt herself blush and she took a step back.
“Well,” she said, trying her hardest to sound casual. “It was, um, good to see you.”
Max’s eyes widened a bit, and Victoria was surprised to see a touch of pink spread across her cheeks.
“Y-yeah,” Max stammered. “I, uh. Yeah. You too.”
Then she snatched up her suitcase and scurried away, leaving Victoria to wonder what the hell just happened.