“Here it is. Never thought I’d be delivering morphine to my best friend.”
Max pocketed away a photo and reached inside the closet. Her fingers found a syringe inside, their tips gently touching it before they wrapped themselves around it. A sigh blew through her nose, Max’s hand bobbed softly up and down while her eyes shifted between her reflection and the syringe. She cleared her throat and shook her shoulders in an effort to cast off her worries. With a soft gesture, her hand turned off the bathroom lights before she headed downstairs.
The living room was quiet, save the rustling of papers that William made when he shifted through the pile of paperwork he was working on. Max looked at his back, so small and overworked as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders alone. Considering how important Chloe was to him, there was probably not a better image. To hell with the global economy and world peace; to William, Chloe was his world. Carefully Max walked on quiet feet, the syringe hidden from view, over to Chloe’s room.
“Finally. Give me the blue pill…” Chloe said, she sported that faint and brave smile of hers.
Max looked over the morphine drip and she turned to Chloe with an apologetic frown on her face as she said, “I’m sorry. I’m nosy, but not precise.”
“Go ahead and plug it right in. It’s so easy. And painless.”
“Um, okay, but get ready to yell for your folks if I screw up.” Max didn’t look fully convinced as she plugged the syringe into the dripper.
Chloe allowed herself a smile, “Oh, trust me, I will.” She moaned lightly, probably from hurting somewhere. “Of course, my pain just keeps getting worse… but you caught me on a good day.”
Her head sank back into her pillow and a sense of peace slowly started to fill the room as Chloe spoke. “Max, I’m so grateful that I’m even able to hang out with you. See, I’m getting mushy.” A light chuckle escaped her lips. “I’m already high.”
Max stood patiently by her bed, a tender smile on her face as she said, “You’re so adorable. Do you want anything else?”
“Um, stop me if I’m being too emo, but can you grab one of the photo albums over there?” Chloe blinked away a tear as she turned towards the dresser at the other side of the room. “I’d like to check out some old pictures of us when we were kids.”
Max smiled and lightly patted Chloe’s hand. Her steps were light and soft, as if not to disturb the serene calm that lingered when she said, “Please. My diary is like emo ground zero.” She looked over the different albums, tenderly stroking their covers before picking one. “Plus Max Caulfield does not pass up a photo op with Chloe Price. Ever.”
She placed the album in Chloe’s lap and opened a page, adjusting the angle a little before she looked for confirmation, “Is that okay?”
Max turned a page, a large photo of the two of them as kids enjoying a day outside in the warm summer sun. Chloe’s face lit up like the sun seen in the photo, “Oh my god, look how little we are there! We look like toys!”
“I remember that day by the lighthouse,” Max nodded her head, a warm smile on her lips.
“My dad was pissed at us. He actually tried to give us a time-out!”
“And you laughed at him. My dad would have banished me,” Max reminded her and they shared a small laugh together.
Another page turned, this time both elementary kids Chloe and Max were suited up for a wild adventure. Chloe’s eyes grew distant as she said, “Whoa, awesome picture. We look so badass in our pirate gear.”
A finger traced along the edges of the photo, Max’s face faded to a sad frown that showed subtle hints of regret when she said, “We should have taken over Arcadia Bay when we had the chance.”
“There’s still time for you…”
The page turned yet again, teenage editions came around in the next photo, complete with braces and pimples “Oh man, there we are making pancakes. I love that shot of us,” Chloe said. “It’s hard to believe that my dad took that picture five years ago.”
Max nodded to herself, “Literally seems like yesterday…”
“I wish it was.”
The last page turned over and the book was closed. A quiet moment ticked by, then another. Great friends don’t need big words or long sentences, best friends can just sit and enjoy each other’s company. Though limited in her movements, it was clear that Chloe had something on her mind and it was no small matter. It could be the morphine kicking in, but her eyes seemed distant and lost whenever Max looked at them.
“Listen, Max, my respiratory system is failing and… and it’s only getting worse,” Chloe said, the way she rested her head on her pillow looked like someone who was on their last leg. “I’ve heard the doctors talking about it when they thought I was zonked out.”
A moment ticked by, Max looked carefully at her friend when Chloe said, “So I know I’m putting off the inevitable, while my parents suffer along… and I will, too,” she sighed. “This isn’t how I want things to end.”
Max shifted slightly in her seat and she took a moment to let what Chloe had said sink in before she said, “What? What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that being with you again has been so special. I just wanted to feel like when we were kids running around Arcadia Bay… and everything was possible,” Chloe said, a small tear formed in the corner of her eyes. “And you made me feel that way today. I want this time with you to be my last memory… Do you understand?”
Max felt a ball of emotion starting to swell at the deep end of her throat, getting the words out was hard without bursting into tears. “Yes, I do.”
Chloe faintly nodded at the morphine drip, a brave smile contrasted with her tear moist eyes. “All you have to do is crank up the IV to eleven…”
The brave smile persisted, faint and hopeful with a pair of gently pleading eyes. “I’ll just drift asleep… dreaming of us together… forever.”
Max sat in her chair, her fingers fidgeted around with the strap of her shoulder bag. She wanted to say something, the usual like it’s going to be alright or anything really. Deep down she didn’t want to say a single word, for Max was convinced that if she spoke now, she’d either start bawling like a baby or say something that she’d regret for the rest of her life. Instead, Max slowly rose from her seat and looked over at the controller that controlled the drip. Her thumb found a button and at first the digits ticked up a little before it raced upwards until it stopped.
“Thank you so much,” Chloe let out a sigh of relief. “I’m so proud of you for following your dreams. Don’t forget about me.”
Max stood by her friend’s bed, a sharp sniff broke the tranquil calm. “Never.”
“I love you Max,” Chloe’s words melted into a soft and gentle sleep. “See you around.”
She took Chloe’s hand and placed it on top of the album, the back of her wrist swept away a lonesome tear. “Sooner than you think…”
It was early the following morning, though William looked like he hadn’t slept a single wink the night before as he stood in the doorway.
“Max,” his voice sounded like a hushed whisper as he invited her inside.
Max’s hand clutched the strap on her bag, there was a smog of gloom inside the house. She reached out and softly touched his arm, “William, I'm so sorry for your loss.”
He put on a forced smile, the gesture and words clearly meant a lot to him. “Thank you... Truth be told, we-”
“We knew, Max. The doctors told us, that she didn't have much time left, but we were always hoping.” Joyce walked up to Max and gave her a warm hug. In her hands she held on to a crumbled piece of Kleenex, her lips curled down until the sobs caught up to her. “Praying for one more day. Oh god, I've lost her. I've lost my little girl.”
Max's eyes shied away from Joyce, instead, she turned to William for answers. “How did- was she hurting when...?”
He shook his head and folded one arm around Joyce’s trembling shoulders when he said, “They don't know. At least by the looks of it, she passed away peacefully in her sleep. They'll have more answers for us in a few days.”
“I'll come by after school. Chloe was my best friend, I can't- she was fine yesterday, a little drowsy yeah, but...”
Joyce nodded with a sorrowful smile on her face as she said, “Max, it’s okay dear. You couldn't have known.”
School passed on, as usual, nothing major caught up. A few of Max's classmates mentioned briefly about Chloe's passing, but since she hadn't attended school since the accident, few actually remembered her. Hurray for teenage attention span. Even in a small place like Arcadia Bay forgets the people that fall to the wayside.
Rachel Amber's missing person posters only amplified this notion. A full week of their complete attention, then like the waves on the beach, they get eroded away and the smooth status quo is restored. Max looked at one of the posters when she was brought out of her thoughts by Mr. Jefferson when he said, “You looked a little out of it in class Max. Is everything okay?”
“I'm sorry Mr. Jefferson. A friend of mine passed away yesterday and... It’s really eating me.” She shrunk back from him ever so slightly, her gaze fixed on his face rather than his eyes.
He raised his eyebrows at the news. “Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. These things- Ah, there's no real way of saying it, is there? Words feel so insufficient in times like these.”
“It's okay. I get what you're saying, Mr. Jefferson. It's the thought that counts after all.” Max shrugged lightly and gave him a tender little smile.
Mr. Jefferson gave her a short bow with his head and as he walked past her he said, “Well, I'm here if you need or want to talk.”
Max’s smile faded away as soon as Mr. Jefferson walked away, a shudder ran up and down her spine. For now, though there were a lot of things that needed her attention and as ironic and cliché as it sounded, Max didn’t have all the time in the world to do it. She navigated through the students and teachers that sailed up and down the hallway until she came outside at the front of the school. As her eyes landed on her target, Max drew a breath and walked over to Victoria, Taylor, and Courtney.
“Hey guys,” Max gave them a feeble wave of her hand.
Victoria turned and her whole face lit up with a smile, “Maxine, hi. Why didn’t you join us during recess?” she rose to her feet before she dusted off her skirt.
“Little Vic pup is happy mommy’s home,” Courtney said, barely holding back a chuckle.
“Oh can it Courtney,” Victoria said over her shoulder, a quick glare flashed in the corner of her eye. “We- I just get a little- you know, worried when you don’t show up. Something wrong?”
“I just have a lot of stuff on my mind right now,” Max said, her eyes stole a glance at her watch. “Chloe died last night…”
“Oh my God,” Victoria grabbed both of Max’s hands with hers, squeezing them firmly. “I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
Max pulled Victoria in for a hug, her arms gently folded around her lower back. “I’m fine- just- a lot to take in. It’s so unreal. I can’t believe that she’s gone.”
A quiet moment of serenity ticked by, just a gentle breeze rustling the trees kept the silence away. When Max pulled away from the hug, her eyes were tearful, just half a blink away from spilling over. Her lips trembled into a smile that bore reminiscence of a cracked piece of glass. Before Victoria or the others managed to speak up, Max calmed herself with a slow and deep ragged breath.
“Victoria, do- do you think… that I can borrow your car for the weekend?”
She blinked, a baffled look on her face. “Sure Maxine, anything. Let me know, okay? Let me know if you need anything.”
Max took the car keys, a sharp sniff and a smile that expressed thanks were all that she offered as payment. Victoria had her fair share of flaws and kinks, but at the end of the day, she was just a kid trying to fit in. With that in mind, Max could more easily cut her some slack. The Vortex Club was, in the grand scheme of things, just another stepping stone of groups of friends, but it wasn’t a shallow friendship. That much Max was certain of, beyond any reasonable doubt.
Soothing music leaked out from the car stereo as Max drove over to Chloe's place. Arcadia Bay's scenery in its small town simplicity flowed by like a gentle stream deep in the woods. Max parked in the driveway just behind William's car, though instead of heading inside, she remained seated. As she looked up at the house, her breathing got faster and shallower, fingers coiled around the wheel like young snakes strangling a prey and then the door flung open. Max's head spun around as she gulped up her lunch, the sour taste of vomit sticking to her tongue like a thick coat of crude oil.
She looked down on the vomit stain in the driveway, her gut twisted itself into a knot before it slowly settled back into something more normal. Max's feet wobbled for the first few steps when she walked up the driveway, the calm of normality graced her with its presence just as she was about to ring the doorbell. Joyce looked calm as she answered the door, yet there was no escaping the suffocating mood that persisted throughout the house.
“Maybe... maybe this wasn't such a good idea,” Max said as she stood in the hallway, her eyes traced over the pictures on the wall.
Joyce turned, her clouded eyes showed signs of confusion. “Honey, what makes you say that?”
“I don't know... I'm not sure what to do or say,” Max shrugged a small helpless gesture. “This is the first time someone close to me has died.”
William peeked out from the kitchen, a towel loosely thrown over his shoulder. “As cheesy as it sounds, in times like these you say it best when you say nothing at all.”
A smile, faint and forced, crossed Max's face. For now, she'd have to be courageous and strong, Chloe would probably force her to walk the plank if she ever learned that Max couldn't come out on top at the end of everything. No one messes with pirate captain Chloe and her first mate Max, terrors of Arcadia Bay. Not even the grim reaper and all of its party pooping nonsense.
“So, uh... Do you need help with anything?”
William dried his hands with the towel, a brave yet paper thin façade held him up. “Yeah, they'll come by sometime next week to collect Chloe's... bed and chair. We should start sorting out what to keep and what to-” he swallowed his own words before he disappeared back into the kitchen.
Max stepped up to Joyce and took her hand. “I borrowed a car from a friend, so I can take some of Chloe's things with me if you'd like.”
“That'd be great Max, come with me.”
Joyce and Max went to Chloe's room and started sorting out her clothes, bedsheets and various personal items. It was slow work, Joyce's hands worked slowly and she frequently stopped when her tears got the best of her. Max was patient and offered her shoulder, hugs, and Kleenex without a word, taking William's advice to heart. Though she was offered to stay over for dinner, Max declined and put the last box in the back of Victoria's car before she drove off.
The small hospital looked quiet and peaceful after sunset. Normally there would be some serious horror vibes floating about, but as far as Max was concerned, everything was A-Okay. She sat in the car, parked a good way from the main entrance and counted people as they came and went, her eyes glancing down at the car stereo watch every now and then. When a mother rolled out her son in a wheelchair, Max left her car and strolled over while she pretended to be engulfed by her phone.
Max paused and looked up from her phone. “Yes? Uh, you're talking to me right?” she looked over her shoulder just to make sure.
The mother nodded and smiled politely as a van pulled up next to her. She looked about 28 years old, with ice blue eyes and ginger hair. “Do you think you can return this wheelchair for us?”
“Sure, yeah,” Max said as she pocketed her phone. “Where, uh... where do I leave it?”
A man with dark brown eyes and blonde hair, probably the father, helped his son out of the wheelchair and into the backseat of the van. “Just by the elevator on the third floor,” the mother said.
As the sound of the van driving away faded into silence, Max stood quietly by the empty wheelchair. She rocked it back and forth a few times, the left wheel creaked a little as she did. With a sharp breath and a sigh, Max headed inside the hospital, though instead of taking the wheelchair up to the third floor, Max headed for the basement.
While the hospital, in general, wasn't exactly buzzing over with activity at this late hour, the basement was even quieter and deserted. A metallic rattling sound clattered and crashed into the concrete walls as Max pushed the wheelchair out of the elevator and into the hallway. The only sound that could be heard was the fluorescent light that flickered on and off in some distant corner.
She walked down the hallway, the wheelchair rolling in front of her. Just at the edge of a corner she paused and waited, a finger tapped the handle of the wheelchair as if counting. A door opened and a nurse along with a doctor walked out, discussing the high arts of the manual transmission on cars among themselves before they disappeared out of sight. When the metal doors on the far end clicked closed, Max rounded the corner and headed into the room where they'd come from.
The door closed behind Max just before she found the light switch. A small second alone in the silent dark, then with a plastic click the lights came on and the darkness shivered in the shadows. The morgue was far from the coziest place in town, but Max wasn’t here for the scenery or to take pictures. Now there’s a gross thought. She left the wheelchair by the door and walked along the wall, closed doors and behind them, the dead rested. One last glance over her shoulder before her hand found the handle and opened it.
Covered under a blanket and shadows, the outline of someone resting inside could be seen. Max grabbed the handle and gave it a few solid yanks before the pull out shelf cracked in protest and rolled out from the wall. One last look at the watch and then it came. A gasp, hollow and bone chilling as if the breath scraped across a blackboard. Chest heaved upwards, the blanket sunk down around the mouth and the outlines of a gaping, shocked face could be seen. Max pulled the blanket aside, revealing that Chloe was alive.