“What, that thing? Chloe, are you cereal right now?”
“Mom said we could each get one piece of candy, right? Well, this is the one. I’m calling it.”
“Chloe, it’s the size of a baseball!”
Chloe leans toward the massive jawbreaker, a proud and mighty Jupiter resting in a solar system of lesser sucking candies. She hefts her mother’s change purse in one hand and wiggles the fingers of the other like Indiana Jones preparing to swap a bag of sand for an idol. “Come to papa.”
Max shakes her head bemusedly as they walk home from the store. “Your mom is going to flip when she sees that monster. It’s like: Attack of the 50-Foot Sugar-Bomb.” Max unwraps her own carefully chosen, sensible candy selection - a caramel - and pops it into her mouth. She’s satisfied with her choice and frankly a bit smug about it when she mentally compares it to Chloe’s ostentatious one. This sense of superiority lasts for roughly forty-five seconds, until she has swallowed the last traces of the caramel and can still hear Chloe loudly smacking away at her prize. She glances at her friend out of the corner of her eye. Chloe is attacking the jawbreaker with her whole mouth but can’t get a decent purchase on it. “Stop that!” Max chides her. “They call it a jawbreaker for a reason, you know.”
Chloe rolls her eyes. “I’m not actually gonna break my jaw, Max. Jeez.”
“You’ll chip a tooth or something.”
Chloe pauses. At eleven years old, she’s already starting to become aware of things like money… and what it means not to have it. Chipping a tooth means going to the dentist, and going to the dentist means more whispered late night conversations between her parents trying to figure out how to pay for it. Chloe frowns. After a moment, she grabs Max’s arm and presses the sticky candy into her palm. “Okay then, genius, you show me how it’s done.”
“What?” Max is noticeably grossed out by the sudden wet, slobbery candy dirtying her hand, but she manages not to fling it away reflexively. “I’ve never even had one of these before.” She wrinkles her nose, eyeing the monstrosity. “I’ve never even wanted one of these before.”
Chloe strides ahead and turns around to face Max, walking backwards with the confidence of youth that Max will never let her stumble. “Well, we’ve got one now!” she says smugly. “So figure it out, Caulfield.”
Max raises the candy to eye level and inspects it. There are some light scratches from Chloe’s teeth, but it is otherwise unfazed by her assault on its rock hard surface. “Normally, you suck a hard candy,” she thinks out loud.
Chloe snickers. “Normally, you suck!” she teases.
Max sticks out her tongue. “But if even you can’t get it in your big mouth,” she continues pointedly, “then there’s got to be another way. How do you eat something you can’t put in your mouth?”
Chloe shrugs unconcernedly. “Dunno. Didn’t think that far ahead.”
“Big surprise. Hm… Like an ice cream cone, I guess?” She licks it experimentally. It tastes… okay.
“You mean you don’t just bite your ice cream?” Chloe’s foot finds the edge of the sidewalk before either of them notices they’ve reached the intersection. She starts to fall over backward into the street, her eyes opening wide with surprise. Max reaches out quickly and grabs her by the hand. The residue from the jawbreaker makes their fingers cling together as she pulls Chloe to solid footing. “You saved my ass, Super Max!” Chloe grins. She squeezes Max’s sticky fingers with her own. “Uh-oh, looks like you’re stuck with me forever now.”
Max smiles back at her nervously, heart still racing from seeing Chloe so close to falling off the edge. “That’s a dollar for the swear jar.”
“Max! What’re you doing?!”
Max freezes. She has no idea what she’s done wrong. “Um.” Her voice cracks. “Licking the jawbreaker?”
Chloe jumps up and stands in front of her, hands on hips, looking indignant. “I know that! Why are you licking it on that side?”
Max furrows her eyebrows in confusion. “It’s a circle, isn’t it? I didn’t know there was a wrong side to lick.”
“First of all,” Chloe sighs in disappointment, “it’s a sphere, not a circle. Second of all…” She holds Max’s wrist in place with one hand and rotates the candy with the other. “See that?”
“Uhhh…” Max squints.
Chloe points. If Max looks very carefully, she can see a slight indentation on the candy near Chloe’s finger. It’s only slightly deeper than the old scuff marks from Chloe’s teeth, but the outer shell has thinned just enough that the ghost of another color is starting to show through it. “We’re almost through the first layer!” Chloe declares proudly.
“Wow,” Max says with a bewildered chuckle. “It only took us a month.”
Chloe rolls her eyes. “Yeah, well, that’s why we have to keep licking it in the same spot! It’s like that movie where the guy digs his way out of prison with a spoon. You’ve got to keep digging in the same spot, or you won’t get anywhere!” She gives Max an irresistibly conspiratorial grin. “Besides, I want this sucker to open up like a geode. Won’t that be cool? We’ll get to see all of the layers at once!”
Max can’t help but smile back. “That will be pretty cool. In, like, a bajillion years.”
Chloe removes her hand from Max’s wrist. “Well, it’ll be quicker if you stop licking it on the wrong side.” She waits expectantly. Max gives an indulgent sigh and licks the jawbreaker where its outer shell is wearing thin. “Yes!” Chloe exclaims. “One lick closer to awesomeness.” She takes the jawbreaker out of Max’s hand and licks it. “Two licks closer.” She holds it up like a trophy. “This is gonna be awesome. We’re gonna make a frickin’ sugar-geode out of it. And then we’re gonna keep going until it disappears. We’ll probably be the first two people in history to ever actually finish a jawbreaker.”
“What, hippie? Don’t you wanna make history with me?”
“Chloe, that jawbreaker is going to last forever.”
“Yup!” Chloe bumps Max’s hip. “Just like us, right?”
Chloe’s enthusiasm is like gravity. Max can’t resist being pulled in. “Right.”
Chloe puts out her pinky. “You promise?”
Max hooks her pinky into Chloe’s. “I promise.”
“Check it out, Max! I think the next color’s gonna be green.” Chloe cradles the jawbreaker like a magic 8-ball and peers at it intently. “Or maaaaaybe blue.” She holds it out to her friend. “What do you think?”
Max leans in and examines the ball of candy. “I think… blue.”
“Not ‘what color do you think;’ I mean, ‘do you think we can get through to that layer tonight?’”
“Oh!” Max blushes and she’s not sure why. “I-I don’t know, um…”
Chloe hears her hesitation and gives her a suspicious look. “Hmph. What is up with you lately, Max?”
“Huh? Nothing!” She can feel that her face is already screaming red.
“Suuuuure. Nothing’s up with you. And yet every time I want to make progress on our rad as heck sugar-geode you look at me like I’ve got two heads.”
“It’s nothing!” Max bites her lip.
“It’s nothing, except,” Chloe prompts her.
“Except… Uhhh…” Max can’t look Chloe in the eyes right now, so she squeezes hers shut. “I’m, like, twelve years old now. And you’re thirteen!”
“So what?” Chloe snaps, sounding hurt. “So you think we’re too old to eat candy and be awesome together?”
“No! No, no…” Max’s eyes snap open. Chloe looks like she’s been slapped in the face. Max didn’t expect this to go well, but she didn’t expect it to go so badly, either. “That’s not what I meant! I just mean…” Chloe scowls at her and folds her arms across her chest, raising her eyebrows and waiting impatiently for Max to find her point. Max takes a deep breath and releases it slowly. She scrunches up her face and blurts it out. “It’sjustthattheotherdayinthelunchroomwhenyouwereoutsickGarytookasipofTina’smilkwhenherbackwasturnedandwhenshedrankhermilktheothergirlslaughedatherandtoldhershekissedGarybecausetheyusedthesamestrawandshegotsogrossedoutshespitouthermilkand… and…” Max stops to catch her breath.
“So… You don’t want to share our jawbreaker anymore because… of somebody else’s milk?” Chloe rubs her temples. “I’m sorry, Max; I’m not getting it.”
“It’s not the milk, it’s…” Max covers her face with her hands. “Never mind. Forget it.”
“Wait…” Chloe’s eyebrows knit together. “For crying out loud! Max, is this a cooties thing?” She laughs, then stops when Max’s fingers tighten on her face. “Hey…” Chloe’s voice goes soft. She touches Max’s shoulder. “Is it really? ‘Cause I can tell you from a scientific perspective, cooties are totally phoney-baloney.”
“No, it’s not cooties…” Max groans, getting even more embarrassed.
“Oh, good, because if they were real you’d be, like, 80% Chloe cooties by now.”
Max laughs into her hands.
“There she is!” Chloe gently eases one of Max’s hands away from her face. “I thought I heard Max in there somewhere. Now what’s going on? For reals.”
Max dodges Chloe’s eyes. “It’s stupid… Just forget it.”
“Nope, not doing that. Doctor Chloe will not rest until she has solved all your problems.” She strokes an imaginary goatee. “Now, tell ze doktor vere it hurts in your brain.”
Max smiles reflexively. “It really is stupid… But,” she presses on when Chloe starts to open her mouth, “It’s what the other girls were saying to Tina. That just because Gary used the same straw as her…” She rolls her eyes, trying to be dismissive. “They said it was an ‘indirect kiss.’ ‘Cause they were ‘swapping spit.’ Isn’t that, like, the dumbest thing you ever heard?”
The wheels turn in Chloe’s head as Max speaks. After a moment, it clicks. “Ohhhh!” Her lips turn up into a devilish grin. “So that’s what this is about!?” She raises a single eyebrow. “Why, Max,” she teases, “I didn’t know you cared.”
The fresh wave of crimson that comes over Max’s face tells Chloe she’s hit the target. “Isn’t that the dumbest thing?” she repeats in a nervous mumble.
“C’mere, you dork.” Chloe slings an arm over Max’s shoulders. “Yeah, it’s totally the dumbest thing. Kissing is kissing.” She makes a face to show Max what she thinks of that. “Sharing milk is sharing milk. You dig, hippie?”
Max relaxes and leans into her. “Yeah. Thanks, Chloe.”
“Think nothing of it, citizen,” Chloe says loftily. “You can always count on me to tell you when you’re being stupid.”
Max snorts. She grabs the jawbreaker out of Chloe’s hand abruptly. “You’re right. Who cares what those silly girls think? Kissing is kissing. Sharing candy is sharing candy.” She gives the jawbreaker a defiant lick.
“That’s the spirit! We’ll get through this layer in no time.” Chloe takes the candy back and licks it herself. Something flickers briefly in her chest, but she ignores it.
“What about this half-eaten jawbreaker? Seeeerious biohazard.”
Max has to admit, it actually does look sort of like a geode now. A geode made out of sugar and artificial food coloring and spit. Someone could probably clone them from all the DNA on its eroded surface, she thinks. That would be kind of amazing and also pretty icky. She can’t believe Chloe even still has it after all this time. How long has it been since they worked on it together? At least half a year. So what is it doing in Chloe’s top dresser drawer? Apart from making her shirts all sticky, probably.
“You promised me we’d finish it together no matter how long it took.” The expression on Chloe’s face is more intense than Max anticipated. “Don’t be a quitter.”
Max feels a surge of guilt. It’s as if Chloe’s looking right through her. Like she knows she’s about to be left behind in Arcadia Bay while Max moves on to a new life in Seattle. Three days. Just three days left, and somehow Max still hasn’t gotten up the nerve to tell her best friend, the most important person in her life apart from her parents, that she’s moving away. Probably forever.
So long, Arcadia Bay. So long, Chloe Price.
Max wants to tell her, but when she opens her mouth the words won’t come out. Just like a hundred times before. She just wants to enjoy these last days with Chloe, to have as much fun with her as possible before she has to leave. She wants them to be happy. She doesn’t want Chloe to be mad at her. Not ever. Is that so bad? The heavy feeling in her stomach tells her that it probably is, but that doesn’t make the words come out any easier.
“You’re right,” she says, feeling like a coward. She licks the jawbreaker. It tastes the same as it always did, which is actually kind of gross. Three-year-old candy shouldn’t taste the same. She cringes a little and shakes her head.
“Yes!” Chloe crows. She sounds so excited that Max feels like maybe she’s right not to tell her. At least not right now. Why ruin Chloe’s happiness? She reaches out her hand and Chloe takes the jawbreaker. “The never-ending candy lives on.” Chloe licks the half-sphere of candy and shakes her head, too. Smiling, she tosses it aside into a pile and continues rummaging around for things to throw out.
There will be other moments, Max promises herself. Three days is plenty of time.
“We’re always together, okay? Even when we’re apart. We’re still Max and Chloe. I will always, always love you.” Chloe stops the tape. She doesn’t want to hear Max say goodbye. Never again. She can’t stand it. The way Max sobs. The way she says goodbye like it’s the last word she’ll ever say to Chloe.
Chloe hits rewind. It hurts to hear Max’s voice, but it also feels good. It’s that strange pleasure-pain that’s become more familiar to her recently. Like picking the scab off a healing wound. Like thinking about her father.
She wishes life were more like an audio tape. Then you could always stop it right before the goodbye, so the goodbye never comes. You could rewind it to the moments that make you happy. Pause it when someone says they love you, so you can hold that moment forever.
She knows the tape won’t last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Someday it’ll get caught in the mechanism and spool out all over the floor and that will be the last time she hears Max’s voice. Assuming Max doesn’t suddenly get better about returning her calls.
Sometimes Max texts. It isn’t much, but Chloe will take anything right now. Any point of contact. Anything that makes her feel like she isn’t completely alone. But she wonders if Max is even the same girl who made her this tape just a few short months ago. Seattle has sucked in her old friend like quicksand. Chloe’s starting to fear it will never let her go.
Chloe presses play. “--ought maybe… if you heard my voice it could be a little bit like I was there. I don’t know, maybe this was a dumb idea.” Chloe presses stop. Max’s voice falls silent.
“Goddamnit, Max.” She can hear tears in her voice, and it makes her angry. She presses play so hard her finger hurts.
“I would give anything to be there with you now.”
“Would you, Max?” she spits. “Would you?”
“It’s so hard, trying to say what I’m thinking. If I could just see you…”
Stop. Chloe pushes the tape deck away. She has an urge to throw it across the room and watch it shatter. “What’s so fucking hard about it, hippie?!” she demands of the silence. “Just spit it out, Caulfield!” She throws up her hands. “You never could! You never could!”
“Chloe?” Joyce calls up the stairs cautiously. “Everything okay up there?”
Chloe bites her lip hard enough to bruise. She clenches her fists. Count to ten. Deep breaths and count to ten. Just like the stupid fucking therapist stupid fucking always tells her to do. Deep breaths and count to ten.
One… Two… Three… Fucking hell, Max, goddamnit… Four… Five… Why did she have to leave?? Why now???... Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten.
Slowly, Chloe relaxes her hands. Her fingernails have left cruel, red marks in her palms. She isn’t calm, exactly, but she’s close enough.
Max is gone. She isn’t in Arcadia Bay anymore. She barely calls or texts or anything. But she left pieces of herself behind. Chloe still has those pieces. The tape, for one: a piece of her voice, her comfort and love. The tape they made when they were kids, too, and everything in the time capsule: pieces of their history. The photos still hanging on a line in her room. Drawings scattered everywhere. Max is gone, but she’s still there in a hundred different little ways. Even…
Chloe suddenly remembers. That stupid goddamn jawbreaker! Their sugar-geode masterpiece! She goes to her dresser, then remembers it isn’t there anymore. Where did she toss it? She hadn’t realized it would be important that day. She hadn’t realized how important every moment of that day would be.
After half an hour of digging desperately through the mess of her room, Chloe finds the jawbreaker. She sits on her floor and holds it in her hands with a sigh of relief. Another piece of Max. A promise.
“What the hell is this thing?” Eliot pulls his hand out from under Chloe’s pillow. “Is this… half a jawbreaker?”
Chloe makes a grab for it but he moves his arm away, keeping it out of reach. She has a sudden urge to headbutt him, but she resists it. Even if he’s being annoying right now, he’s still one of the less annoying people in her life these days. He doesn’t treat her like she’s made of glass. “Give it!”
“Why do you have half a jawbreaker under your pillow?”
“Convenient midnight snack. Never know when the munchies are gonna hit. Now give it.”
Still holding the candy as far away from Chloe as he can, Eliot turns it in his fingers. “I didn’t know anybody really ate these things. Did you bite it in half?”
Chloe bares her teeth at him. “Yes.”
He laughs. “Show me.”
“You wish.” She tries to reach again and he puts a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
“Uh-uh. You didn’t say the magic word.”
Chloe glares. “Quit being a tool, Eliot.”
“Not exactly the magic word I had in mind.” He looks at the jawbreaker for a moment, then starts to bring it to his mouth.
“The fuck are you doing??” Chloe seizes it from his hand.
“Woah! Chill out, girl. I’ve never had one before. I only wanted a taste.”
“Tough shit.” Chloe tosses it across the room into a pile of clothes. “And don’t even think about trying to find it. I don’t want you pawing through my laundry like some kinda creepo.”
“Jeez, Chloe, I was just fooling around.” Eliot gives her a look of exaggerated hurt feelings. “What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is: you’re here to make out with me, right? Not to snoop around my room.”
“Cool. So we can do that, but only if you follow my rules. And the rules are: Don’t. Touch. My. Stuff.” She narrows her eyes to slits. “Ever.”
“Oh, Chloe. You didn’t really think I was ever coming back for you, did you?” Max touches Chloe’s shoulder. “That’s so sad. Sad as in pathetic. That’s so pathetic.”
“B-but…” Tears burn down Chloe’s cheeks like fire. “You promised. That tape you left…”
“Was a brush-off. Don’t you get it?” Max snorts her contempt. “I’m so much happier here in Seattle without you. I mean, can you imagine if I stuck around in Arcadia Bay?? I’d be stuck being your stupid dorky sidekick forever. I’d be trapped.” She puts her fingers under Chloe’s chin and turns her head to lock eyes with her. Chloe’s stomach flops like a dying fish. “Don’t you understand? I’m free now. Free from you. You junkie loser.”
“It’s true, Chloe,” William adds, putting his hand on Chloe’s other shoulder. It weighs as much as an entire planet. Her fingers tingle. “We’re all finally free from you.” He looks her up and down and shakes his head sadly. “Look at you. Smoking pot. Drinking. Sneaking strange boys through your window. Failing your classes. You had so much potential. Now you’re just a burden on everyone still unfortunate enough to be in your life.”
Something soft brushes against Chloe’s legs. She looks down, startled. “Bongo??” The cat hisses and scratches her when she bends to pet him.
“Even Bongo thinks you’re a loser, Chloe.” Max flicks her ponytail. “We’re all so much better off without you.”
Chloe sinks to her knees. “Why?” she whimpers. “Why are you doing this to me?”
William squats down next to her. His hand is still on her shoulder. She can’t feel her own hand anymore. “Chloe,” he says somberly, “You’re doing this to yourself.”
Chloe wakes up shaking and in tears. She feels like she’s suffocating. She tries to sit up, but her arm is pinned. She looks over and groans in disappointment. Of course. That guy from the concert with the spiky green hair and all the facial piercings. Mark? Clark? Maybe Dirk? He’d seemed cool at the time, but waking up next to him in the middle of the night Chloe is suddenly full of loathing. She would rather chew off her own arm than have it trapped under his sweaty, unfamiliar body for one more second.
“Hey,” she hisses, shoving him with her free arm. “Wake the fuck up.” He snores. She shoves him harder, almost pushing him out of the bed. “I said wake up!”
“Huh, what the fuck?” he mumbles groggily. He gives her a confused look, probably trying to piece together who she is. “Oh, hey… What time is it?” He rubs his eyes.
“Time for you to get your ass out of my room!” She shoves him a third time. He moves enough that she’s able to pull her arm away. She immediately recoils, springing up and out of bed.
“What fucking time even is it…” He fumbles for his phone, finding it in his pants on the floor. “Jesus fucking Christ, are you really kicking me out at two in the morning?”
“Damn right I am. Now get out of here!”
“Okay, okay, whatever. I’m going.” Markclarkdirk mutters “crazy bitch” under his breath as he pulls on his clothes. He’s moving too slowly for Chloe. She starts grabbing his things off the floor and throwing them at him.
“Just go! Just go! I don’t want you here anymore!”
“Fine! Fine! What the fuck, man.” He starts to head for the door and she grabs his forearm.
“No the fuck you don’t! Go out the way we came in!” She points at the window.
“Are you out of your fucking mind? It’s snowing!”
Chloe glances out the window. He isn’t lying: a light snow has begun to fall since they climbed in. The tree branches outside her window have a thin coating on them. “I don’t give a fuck if it’s hailing bullets. Go out the window.” They’re talking so loudly she’s surprised her mom’s asshole boyfriend hasn’t already woken up and come blazing into her room with a gun. Maybe he stayed at his own damn house for once.
“You are crazy. If I slip and break my neck, I’m suing.”
“Like I give a shit.” She pushes him toward the window.
He opens it and starts to climb out onto the roof. Cold air blows into the room, carrying delicate snowflakes on its breath. “Hey,” he says, leaning back in before she can shut the window. “Can I call you, though?”
“Fuck off, Mark.”
He looks wounded. “Who the hell is Mark?” He frowns and resigns himself to climbing back down.
Chloe shuts the window and locks it, then flings herself down on her bed. Tears slip silently down her face. She doesn’t even notice them. Anger and disgust well up in her in a sudden violent spasm. She rips the sheets off her bed and pushes them off onto the floor. Something thuds to the ground along with them. She digs through the sheets to find what it is, expecting it to be her phone. Her fingers close instead around the half-sphere of the jawbreaker. “Oh, god,” she moans. She shuts her eyes tightly but can’t block out the memory of Max’s cold, hard stare in her dream. Her contempt. “You fucking traitor,” she whispers, clutching the candy like a lifeline. “You promised. You promised you’d come back for me.” She knows the Max in her dream isn’t real. She knows it’s just her own mind poisoning her. “Why didn’t you come back?” She flings the jawbreaker across the room. It hits the wall with a sickening crack.
Chloe feels an immediate swell of panic and leaps up out of bed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she chants as she searches the room where it must have landed. She finds it several minutes later. It’s picked up a small chip but is otherwise fine. “Fuck’s sakes,” she sighs in relief. “This thing must be made of steel.” She walks back over to her bed and sits, setting the ancient chunk of candy down next to her. She checks the floor on the other side of her bed and finds her phone.
She knows it’s an outdated piece of junk - nobody uses a flip phone anymore - but it’s still covered with the stickers she and Max decorated it with years ago. Before her dad died and Max left and her life turned into a swirling cesspool of awfulness. She runs a fingernail over the part where she had carved Chloe + Max when she was still a child and believed that good things could last forever. She flips it open and clicks into Max’s messages. Nothing but the same string of her own pathetic, unanswered messages to Max since November. Fucking November!
Something twists violently in Chloe’s chest until it breaks. “Dream Max was right,” she mutters. “She really is happier without me. They all are.”
With shaking fingers, she types a single word into her phone: max. She presses send. A message in a bottle, pushed out into a vast and unforgiving ocean. “Prove it to me,” she says. “Prove to me that Dream Max is wrong. Prove to me that you still care.”
She snaps the phone shut and sobs into her pillow: deep, wracking sobs that leave her feeling empty.
“Six years? Seriously?”
Chloe’s ears turn red. “I mean… Yeah, I guess. Something like that.” She rubs the back of her head pensively. She never knows what to do with her hands when Rachel is around. “I dunno, I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Rachel raises an eyebrow. “You’ve held onto this novelty-sized candy for more than half a decade, but you ‘hadn’t really thought about it?’”
Chloe shrugs awkwardly. “Time flies?” she suggests. She doesn’t want to admit it, but it makes her uneasy to see Rachel holding the jawbreaker. It doesn’t make her angry, like when Eliot snagged it. Just… uneasy. Embarrassed. “It really isn’t a big deal.”
“Oh, no?” Rachel puts her arm out and holds the candy over the wastebasket. Chloe jolts, starting to reach for it in a panic before she catches herself and stops. “Mhm, very convincing,” Rachel teases. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that to you.” She cups the jawbreaker in both hands to prove that it’s secure. “So. Who was she? Or he, I guess.”
“What? No one! What’re you talking about?”
“Oh come on! You know you can’t lie to me.” Rachel reaches up and tucks a lock of blue hair behind Chloe’s ear affectionately. “You turn purple. So whose jawbreaker is it?”
“Mine…” Chloe blows out a slow breath. “And Max’s.”
Rachel tilts her head, clearly expecting more.
“She’s… my old best friend. She, uh, moved away. A long time ago. Right after my dad died. I mean, right after. I haven’t seen her since. Barely heard from her.”
“But you still hold onto this.”
Chloe nods sheepishly.
Whatever reaction Chloe expects, it isn’t what she gets. Rachel’s eyes turn sad and she pulls Chloe into a warm embrace. “That’s…”
Chloe bristles but doesn’t move away. “What? No, no, no…” She laughs, the sound more bafflement than humor. “You’ve got the wrong idea. Max and I, we weren’t a couple or anything.”
Rachel pulls back and gives Chloe a skeptical look. “Chlo, you haven’t seen this girl in three years but you still keep a piece of candy you two shared. What else can you call that but romantic?”
“Uhm… Grossly unsanitary?” Chloe gently pries the candy out of Rachel’s hand.
“Try to be funny all you want,” Rachel sighs, leaning into Chloe. “I still think it’s sweet.” She goes up on tiptoes and presses a kiss into Chloe’s cheek. “You’re sweet.”
“Yeah?” The blush has spread to Chloe’s entire face. “What else do you like about me?”
Rachel laughs softly. “You’re funny.”
“Sweet and funny, check.”
“And romantic,” Rachel reminds her.
“Yes, smart,” Rachel continues. “And brave, and loyal, and honest, and…” She reaches up and gently but firmly tilts Chloe’s head toward her. “And a really good kisser.” Rachel goes up on tiptoes again to prove her case. The jawbreaker thuds to the floor. Rachel pulls away with a chuckle. “And easily impressed.”
“Wait, wait… Remind me what that last one was again?” Chloe slides her arms around Rachel’s waist.
Rachel swats her playfully. “You dropped your jawbreaker.”
“You dropped my jaw.”
“Smooth.” Rachel slips out of Chloe’s arms and picks up the candy. “You know,” she says wistfully. “I could almost be jealous.”
“Huh? What, jealous of Max?” Chloe sputters. “That’s… Rach, that’s ridiculous!”
“Is it? Six years is a long time to hold onto a memento of someone you’re not in love with.”
“Throw it away then. Seriously, whatever, I don’t care.” Chloe’s heart is crashing against her ribcage. She waits to see if Rachel will actually do it. Part of her thinks she’d be glad to see it gone. Another part feels like she might explode if anything ever happened to it.
Rachel glances back and forth between the jawbreaker and Chloe. She reads Chloe’s emotions so easily it’s embarrassing. “No,” she says finally. “No, you don’t really want me to.” Her smile has a bitter edge to it. “Deny it all you want, but I’m right to be jealous. This Max must really be something special to you.” She sets the candy down on the dresser, turning her back to Chloe. “Maybe someday you’ll hold onto something of mine for that long?”
“Forever,” Chloe blurts out. She wraps her arms around Rachel again. “Anything you want.”
“Anything?” She slides her hands over Chloe’s.
“Anything,” Chloe promises.
“Lock of my hair? Stinky gym shoes? Used piece of chewing gum?”
“Yes, yes, and yes.”
Rachel tips her head back and peers up at Chloe. “I wonder if you really would.”
Chloe tightens her hold on Rachel. “Never leave me and you’ll never have to find out.”
“WHY. WON’T. YOU. BREAK.”
Photographs litter the floor of Chloe’s room. A small metal box sits overturned among them: ground zero. This is where Chloe shuts everything away, hidden out of sight under her bed. Everything she doesn’t want to see but can’t bear to throw away.
Rachel is gone. Just like Max. And her dad. Even Bongo. They’re all gone, and Chloe is still. Fucking. HERE.
Nothing is left to her but bits and pieces, scraps, fragments, and she can’t take it anymore. Broken memories and broken promises. Photographs and mix CDs and treasure maps… Rachel’s bracelet on her wrist. Her clothes hanging in Chloe’s closet, still smelling faintly of jasmine. She’s only been gone for a week. Everything still smells like her.
And that goddamn fucking unbreakable jawbreaker.
Chloe smashes it against her desk again. The sound it makes is satisfying only in that it’s loud. She wants to hear it shatter. But it won’t. If anything, the candy is winning: the desk is starting to get scratched.
Her hand is throbbing. The ache goes all the way up her arm, into her shoulder, into her chest... She leans back in her chair with an angry sigh that would be a sob if she had any tears left. “You weren’t supposed to leave without me.” Chloe rubs her thumb against the flat side of the jawbreaker. “We were supposed to escape this hellhole together.”
Max, at least, hadn’t disappeared all at once. She’d slipped away slowly, flickering out like a candle at the end of its wick. The gaps between answered calls and texts had grown wider and wider over time until they finally stopped altogether. But with Rachel, she was just… gone. One day everything was fine, answering on the first ring, responding to every text, making plans, and the next she didn’t answer a single call. And the day after that. And the day after that. For an entire week.
She’s probably in LA by now. She probably caught a ride with someone much cooler than Chloe, someone with a flashy set of wheels and a fat roll of cash, and now she’s living large in La-la Land. Too busy to call or text.
At least, this is what Chloe tells herself, because the alternative hurts too much to think about.
Anger rises up in her, or maybe it’s fear, and she smashes the jawbreaker again and again and again. It leaves a powdery residue on the desk but otherwise holds strong. “Promises always break,” she shouts, “so why won’t YOU!?”
“Stop second-guessing yourself, Max! Put this on and let your inner punk-rock girl come out! You can afford to take chances!” Chloe wants to be mad at Max. And she is… about twice a day. But mostly she’s ecstatic. Giddy as a puppy. Max is back. She came back. With fucking superpowers. Ten-year-old Chloe would be shitting herself if she knew one day her best friend would have actual superpowers. Nineteen-year-old Chloe is handling it about as calmly.
It almost doesn’t matter that Max ghosted her for five. Damn. Years. It almost doesn’t matter that she’d been back in Arcadia Bay for a whole month without contacting her once. Or that she might never have contacted Chloe at all if she hadn’t been murdered right in front of her eyes. It almost doesn’t matter. Almost. Because Max is back. Max and Chloe are back, bitches! Look out, Arcadia Bay!
“Whenever and whatever you want to try... for example, I dare you to kiss me!” The words are out of Chloe’s mouth before she even finishes thinking them.
“What?” Max looks dazed. It’s… surprisingly cute. That’s another thing that makes it hard for Chloe to stay mad. Was Max always so cute? She doesn’t remember thinking so, but at the same time a thousand little memories prickling at her brain tell her that maybe she always did. Either way, now that Max is back, Chloe can’t seem to stop flirting with her.
“I double dare you. Kiss me now.”
And she does. Zero hesitation. It’s so unlike Max - careful, logical Max who needs to think very seriously for about ten minutes before she can decide whether she wants waffles or pancakes - that Chloe is completely unprepared. Almost as soon as Max makes contact, warm hands bracing against Chloe’s shoulders to pull her up to Chloe’s height, lips soft and somehow sweet despite the early hour, Chloe steps away in surprise. She regrets it immediately, but she’s not the one with rewind powers.
Is this really the same Max who once got so worked up over the idea of “swapping spit” with her that she almost backed out of their jawbreaker promise? The thought makes Chloe want to laugh. She could get used to this Super Max. “Damn, you're hardcore, Max! Now I can text Warren and tell him he doesn't stand a chance... unless he's into girl-on-girl action.” Chloe turns and walks back to her bed, a soft, warm glow spreading through her chest. Her sheets still smell like a swimming pool.
“You are such a dork.”
Music to Chloe’s ears. She basks in the early morning sunlight. She hasn’t felt this good in… months. Half a year. She feels a twinge, thinking of Rachel. Flirting relentlessly with Max, daring Max to kiss her, dressing Max up in Rachel’s clothes… Rachel probably wouldn’t be too thrilled about it. Chloe touches Rachel’s bracelet, still tethered securely around her wrist as it had been since Rachel tied it on: something of hers to hold onto forever. Like that old jawbreaker candy that made her so jealous. The memory of that day makes Chloe smile. Rachel might not be thrilled about… whatever the hell is going on between the two of them since Max came back. But she’d be hella smug that Chloe was proving her right.
Chloe looks up at Max. She’s standing near the bed, just looking at her wordlessly, still wearing the pajamas she’d borrowed from Chloe the night before. The warmth in Chloe’s chest spreads to fill her whole body. For the first time in a long time, she doesn’t feel empty inside.
“You better not rewind and take that kiss back. You know I'm hotter than those Seattle art-holes, right?”
“Holy shit!” Chloe nearly jolts off the couch when her phone begins to buzz.
Max is jerked out of a near-sleep by the sudden violent movement. She’s spent much of the last few days since the storm either sleeping or barely conscious. Her head lifts groggily from Chloe’s shoulder. “Whu-hnxh? Wha’s happening?”
Chloe digs her phone out of her pocket and stares at it in stunned disbelief. It’s been four days since they left Arcadia Bay and almost a week since the storm. Emergency crews were still working when they left, clearing roads, evacuating survivors, trying to restore the town to some sort of life. The number of survivors found seemed to dry up within the first day or two, but the death toll just kept coming in… The longer they stayed, the less likely it seemed that anyone they were hoping to find alive would be found at all. Once they’d gotten clear enough of the disaster zone, they found a coffee shop that let them charge their phones. Max’s had started buzzing with notifications almost immediately. Her parents had seen the storm on the news and were desperate to find her, flooding her voicemail and bombarding her with texts. Chloe could hear them crying with relief when Max called them back and told them she was on her way to them. They even sounded glad that Chloe was coming with her.
Chloe’s phone hadn’t buzzed at all. No missed calls. No frantic voicemail. No text messages. Nothing.
Max gently pulls on Chloe’s wrist to read her phone. “Unknown number… But that’s an Arcadia Bay extension. They must have the lines back up.”
Chloe shudders. She knows that she should answer it. She’s been waiting for days for any sign of life. But fear grips her hard and won’t let go. She’s frozen. “Max,” she pushes out through clenched teeth. “I can’t. I can’t do it. What if… What if she’s…”
Max puts a soothing hand on Chloe’s shoulder. She gently takes the phone from Chloe’s hand and presses the “answer” button, then puts it on speaker. “Hello?” she says, faking a calm she doesn’t feel.
There’s a moment of hesitation on the other end of the line. “...Max? Is that you, sweetheart?” Joyce’s voice is distorted by the crackling of static, but it is unmistakable.
Chloe sobs and buries her face in her hands. Her relief is so extreme it feels like anguish. Max’s fingers tighten on her shoulder.
“Yes! Joyce, oh my god!”
“Max, dear,” Joyce says, her voice trembling but strong, “Is… Is Chloe…?”
“Yes!!” Max immediately feels guilty for not making Chloe answer the phone herself. “Chloe’s here, she’s right here next to me, she’s alright, we’re both alright…” She’s babbling but it doesn’t matter. The three of them cry together for a minute, and when Chloe can speak Max hands over the phone and tries to give her as much privacy as possible without leaving her side. Her eyes dart back and forth between the tv set still mumbling to itself in front of her and Chloe sitting beside her, still weeping tears of joy into her phone. Chloe catches Max watching her and lays one of her hands palm-up on the couch between them. When Max touches her palm, Chloe squeezes her fingers softly. She continues to do this throughout her conversation with Joyce, rhythmically tightening and relaxing her grip on Max’s fingers. It helps.
After about ten minutes, Chloe has to reluctantly hang up so that her mother can relinquish the communal phone to other survivors. “I can’t believe she made it. I never thought I’d hear her voice again.” She’s in a daze, speaking to herself more than to Max.
Max twitches her fingers in Chloe’s hand to gently bring her attention back. “Should we go back? I know I said I wanted to stay here for a while, but if--”
Chloe shakes her head. “She’s in some sort of emergency facility. Helping feed the other survivors, because of course she is. We already got out, so she wants us to stay someplace she knows we’re safe.” And it is safe in Seattle, if a little surreal and a lot uncomfortable. But if it’s what Max needs, Chloe can deal with it.
Though the sound on the tv is turned down to a whisper, the words “Arcadia Bay disaster” are audible to Max and Chloe at any volume. They turn to the screen instinctively, though neither really wants to see. It’s the same stories, the same images, the same everything that’s been playing off and on since they got to Max’s parents’ place. Chloe grabs the remote and flicks off the tv. She chuckles humorlessly. “I always did want to get out of Arcadia Bay for good. Didn’t think it would be like this.” Her voice is bitter and shakes slightly. She leans her head onto Max’s shoulder and gives her fingers another firm squeeze. “At least I got out with my partner in crime, right?”
“Right.” This would be a really awkward time to kiss her. Chloe’s in a state of shock, she’s upset, she’s a bundle of raw emotions… They both are. So Max just strokes her hair until she calms and relaxes into her, letting the impulse pass her by. The past few days have been full of awkward moments and swallowed impulses. Max finds it hard enough to talk about these feelings under the best of circumstances, and impossible when they’re also tangled up in the destruction of an entire town.
“Hey.” Max nudges Chloe. “Let’s get some fresh air, huh? Maybe go for a drive?”
Max knows that if Chloe had her choice, they would still be on the road. When Chloe’s behind the wheel, it’s the only time she really feels in control of her own destiny. She’d drive forever if she could.
Chloe seizes the opportunity as the lifeline it is.
The change in her mood when she starts the engine is dramatic. Max feels a pang of guilt: it’s her fault that Chloe’s stuck in Seattle, trapped in one place when she clearly needs to be in a constant state of movement. They roll down their windows and let the crisp October air in. Chloe lights a cigarette and Max doesn’t complain. She’s been good about not smoking in the house, even though it’s obviously a struggle for her.
They drive around aimlessly, and the mood between them is lighter than it’s been since the storm hit, possibly even since they were kids. There’s still guilt there, and sorrow, and pain; that may never fully go away. But a weight has been lifted from them both. There are many others to bear, but this one tremendous burden - the weight of Joyce’s fate - can be set down. “Stop at that gas station,” Max says on a sudden impulse. “Let’s get some supplies. We had good news today; we should celebrate.”
“Aye aye.” Chloe obediently pulls into the station. “Fuel light’s about to come on, anyway.” She crushes the remains of her cigarette into the truck’s ashtray. “Or it would, if the light worked.”
“Perfect. You pump the gas, and I’ll shop for party supplies.” Chloe starts to protest - they’ve hardly been apart since they left the Bay - but Max holds firm. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
Chloe watches Max disappear into the convenience store. She knows Max isn’t going to leave her again, not like this, but she still feels a twinge. They’ve been so close since she came back; she couldn’t stand to lose her again.
Chloe gets out and starts gassing up the truck. She wonders what Max has up her sleeve. Celebrating sounds nice, but she can’t really imagine it. There hasn’t been much to celebrate lately, except for being alive. And being alive has been a mixed bag at best. But being with Max again, having someone treat her like her life is worth something - worth everything…
Chloe climbs back into the truck and pulls it up close to the door. Still no Max. She drums her fingers impatiently on the wheel. She’s not exactly eager to get back to the house, but she hates sitting still. Despite Max’s insistence to the contrary, Chloe’s always had the feeling Ryan and Vanessa don’t like her much. The last few days living with them have done nothing to dispel this suspicion.
They’ve been civil enough, giving the two of them their space for the most part. They haven’t really said anything bad to her - or anything much at all, really; they direct everything they say to Max - but the way they look at her is eloquent enough: she was never good enough to be friends with their daughter. And now with her blue hair, her full sleeve tattoo, her body piercings, her pervasive smell of cigarettes, her constant swearing… She’s shocked they even let her through the door. Any day now, she expects them to reach the end of their indulgence and kick her to the curb. But for now Max has them wrapped around her little finger.
When Max put her foot down, they’d even caved and let Chloe stay in her room without comment beyond an exchange of disappointed looks as they grudgingly removed the extra pillows and blanket from the couch and handed them to Max. And thank goodness for that, because Chloe’s not sure she’d survive the nightmares without her to hold on to.
The passenger door open and shuts, startling Chloe out of her thoughts. “Check out all this swag!” Max dumps her teeming armload of goodies onto the expanse of seat between them: bags of chips and candy, microwaveable popcorn packets, all of their favorite treats from when they were young.
“Looks like a real party.”
“I figured we could use an old-school movie night. We’re gonna party like it’s 1999.”
“Like I’m five?”
“It’s an expression! Plus, I got you a little present.” Max smiles slyly. “Put out your hands and close your eyes and you will get a big surprise.”
Chloe smirks. “You sure it’s just an expression? Anyway, I thought it was open my mouth and close my eyes.”
“It won’t fit in your mouth. Do it!”
Chloe obliges. Something that feels like a baseball is pressed into her hand. She opens her eyes. “Holy shit… Max…”
“I saw it and thought of you.” Max loses her smile when she sees that Chloe’s almost in tears again. “Chloe, are you okay?”
Chloe manages to nod. “Yeah… Yeah, I’m…” She closes her hand around the jawbreaker. “I’m okay.”
“I’m sorry. It was a dumb idea.”
“No, no, it was a great idea. It was a really great idea.”
The sincerity in Chloe’s voice pulls a shy smile out of Max. “Yeah? I always felt bad we didn’t get to finish the old one.” She laughs nervously. “You probably don’t even remember that. It’s probably in a landfill somewhere.”
Chloe blushes and dodges Max’s eyes. “Uh, actually it’s probably floating in the Bay, along with everything else from my room.”
“Wait, seriously? You still had it? Since I was ten??”
“That is the sweetest, weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.” Max leans across the seat, sending bags of snacks cascading onto the floor, and wraps her arms around Chloe. Chloe hugs her back, holding on tightly. She smells like cigarettes and gasoline and like she could use a shower, but Max really doesn’t care. She’s Chloe, and she’s alive, and that’s really all that matters to her.
When they finally let go, Max takes the jawbreaker from Chloe’s hand and holds it up with a look of determination. “This one, we’re going to finish. No matter what.” She licks the candy to demonstrate her sincerity.
Chloe chuckles and shakes her head at the sweet absurdity of Max’s gesture, but her eyes are shimmering with restrained tears. Max holds out the jawbreaker to her and she takes it, bringing it to her lips.
Max grabs her wrist. “Hey! Wrong side, dork. Remember? Digging out of prison with a spoon and all that crap?”
Chloe obligingly turns the candy and licks it. “You are so fucking weird.”
“And you so love it.”
“I so do.” Chloe reaches out her pinky. “No matter how long it takes?”
Max hooks her pinky onto Chloe’s. “No matter how long it takes.” She hesitates, then pulls her hand close to her, pulling Chloe along with it until they’re only inches apart. She remembers how quickly Chloe stepped away the last time she kissed her, so she waits for Chloe to close the gap on her own.
And she does.
Tentatively at first, each afraid the other will change her mind, but slowly building in confidence and intensity. It should feel weirder than it does, after so many years of friendship and everything that they’ve been through. And it is weird, but it’s also wonderful. It’s awkward and beautiful and greedy and giddy. Emotions swirl and tangle - joy, guilt, relief, pleasure, fear, excitement, love - and both of them are shaking when at last they pull apart.
Max is the first to break the silence that follows. “I have been waiting for that.”
Chloe scoffs. “I’ve been waiting for that since I was, like, thirteen.”
Max laughs, not unkindly. “Okay, fine, you win.”
Chloe takes a few slow, deep breaths until her breathing steadies. When she turns to start the engine, she realizes she’s still gripping the jawbreaker in one hand. She passes it over to Max and turns the key in the ignition. “So,” she says, “you’re really going to stick with me as long as it takes to get through that thing?”
Max clicks her seatbelt into place. “A promise is a promise.”
“You know that jawbreaker’s going to last forever, right?”
Max settles back into the seat with a self-satisfied smile. “Of course it is. Just like us."