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After This

Chapter Text

Your gaze through the windshield of your rusted out, beaten truck is glued to the sun’s orange haze filtering through red-and-yellow fractal leaves in the tree branches passing silently overhead. You drive carefully along winding, pock-marked roads because you’ve softened, you and your blue hair with the roots coming back in, the way you do when your dipped-in-shit life of five years has been returned to you with a love that fills you to bursting and shatters your fragile body in the places where limbs and joints end and the world begins.

Your best friend Max – never Maxine – has her mop of brownish hair turned away from you so you can’t see the tears falling silently from her eyes between ragged breaths that remind you of the way she panted with rain-soaked cheeks atop the cliff next to the lighthouse. You stood there, hand in hand with her, as you watched the largest tornado you had ever seen descend on your hometown and stroke it with a deadly caress that took the lives of people you had never met but who must have been important to somebody the way you are to Max.

In the glow of the autumn sunset you spy the familiar sight of a gas station and a lone attendant sweeping the lot. The dispenser nozzle is pumping gasoline before you realize you’ve stopped. Five minutes, two sandwiches, and fifty dollars later, you’re moving again. You paid with bills from the horse-choking wad of cash earmarked for the local academy’s handicapped fund for a building that no longer stands. Max let you pocket it so you could repay a loan you took out from a drug-dealing acquaintance to run off with a girl you thought you loved – you thought loved you – then pretended it didn’t exist when you met with him because she knew you’d need it. Somehow, she knew.

Your friend’s eyes are looking forward now. So are yours, but you’re thinking about clouds and sleep and dreams and anything but the mundane details of day-to-day living. If you could drink your bodyweight in coffee and write novels about the sudden explosion of emotion within your chest you’d have written a library full of words that are too feeble to contain what you’re feeling right now. The life that you cursed to infinity the day your father died – and later, when Max’s parents moved her to a place far north of Arcadia Bay that you had only read about in geography books – that life had been returned to you, a timeless gift from one of the few people that still gives a damn about you.

Max told you she wanted to go back to her parents’ house in Seattle, back to the only place that either of you can think of that offers the kind of comfort you need right now. It’s the type of assurance that lets you breathe and exist without having to agonize over bodies, wreckage, and broken relationships. You’re hardened after years of living with a stepfather who treated you like a soldier and even hit you once when he thought you got out of line. Max righted a five year absence in five days and you were ready to forgive your mother’s second husband, even if forgiving’s a hard thing to do.

The sun has gone to sleep when you near the state line. It’s warm enough in October that you don’t need a blanket in the front of your truck at night. Max has already dozed off with her head against the side of the dirt-hued interior of your ill-kept truck with her mouth half-open in the manner of a child. You ball up your jacket behind you in the driver’s seat, then gently reach your right arm around your friend’s waist and pull the back of her head down against your sternum into a sleepy half-embrace that neither of you is awake enough to protest. The rhythm of her breathing against your ribcage sings you to sleep the way your mother did when you were young, very young.

Moments later your eyes open to the ambient heat of the morning sun kissing your cheeks and jawline through the windows. Something presses against your abdomen.

“Chloe, I need some air.”

“Sure thing, Max.”

You open the driver’s door and swing your legs out onto patchy green grass that receives your faux-punk boots without complaint. You clasp your hands behind your back and gently press against the edge of the ratty blue seat cushion (pop-pop-pop between your shoulder blades). There’s a sudden hand on your bare, tattooed shoulder, so you turn and watch as Max lazes out of the truck with the long strap of her book bag still clinging to her neck. She steps in front of you and arches her shoulders around the hood of her zippered grey sweatshirt. Your knees buckle for a fraction of a section before you right yourself; then and there you vow to give up cigarettes for as long as you can stand to so your friend doesn’t have to smell like you feel most of the time. Because you’re never leaving her.

Not after this.