Chapter 1: Open The Curtains, Singing Birds...
The hardest day isn’t the funeral. At least that gives her something to do, and it’s nice to see so many people show up to that and the reception. It would be easy for Max to be cynical, to demand to know where all these people were when Chloe needed them the most, when she was at her lowest point. But she isn’t cynical. She just can’t let herself be, or she’ll lose herself forever. If all of these people couldn’t celebrate Chloe when she was alive, at least they can celebrate her now. That's as charitable as she's going to get.
So no, the hardest day isn’t the funeral. Max certainly doesn’t think so. It’s every day after the funeral, wherein Max must pretend she’s mostly okay and functional and not having nightly breakdowns. The hardest part is every day that she must pretend to be a normal person.
The hardest part is every day without Chloe.
(Those five years were terrible practice for this).
In some form of great, cosmic irony, Max has moved back to Seattle with her parents, both over perceived safety issues and because Max would rather get swallowed up whole by a tornado rather than have to spend another hour at Blackwell Academy. The entire campus has become tainted by dark memories, and no amount of security upgrades or empty promises from the principal can change that.
Her camera – really, William’s camera – remains safely hidden beneath her bed in a dusty shoebox. Photography doesn’t hold any appeal to her anymore, not after the dark room. After her experiences with bending time, photography holds a sort of ugly poetry for her – so much of photography is the attempt to freeze a moment of time, and Max now knows that you should never mess with time.
So, under her bed the camera remains. Where it will forever.
Tucked into that little shoebox are her last mementos from Chloe – the few polaroids taken during that wild week that no longer exists, some of Chloe’s old bracelets and her prized bullet necklace, pictures from when they were young, and Rachel’s flannel shirt, neatly folded and tucked into a little corner. Max’s journal lives in the shoebox as well; she has no desire to go back to it, ever.
Every now and again, Max is tempted to go through that shoebox. But she never does.
Max tries her hardest to avoid engaging with each awful, passing hour, choosing instead to remain distracted online or with her nose in a book. She only reads non-fiction books now about lightweight topics. No more fiction. There are too many novels that deal with romance and tragedy and loss and love and Max thinks she’ll break down all over again if she has to read just one. She begins to understand why so many people are alcoholics. Avoidance is nice.
But, instead, Max tries to live her closest approximation of a normal life. Since she’s excised Blackwell Academy from her life, she goes to her very normal public high school in Seattle and does normal student things, like having acquaintances you can pretend are friends and doing homework. She sticks to the same schedule every day so that all things progress normally, from one event to the next in a strict linear fashion. It brings her a bit of comfort.
Some days, though, Max still feels like she’s traveling through time. She loses weeks at a time in her more successful attempts at disengaging from everyday life. Everything is treated as a distraction from everything else – she doodles in class to avoid paying attention to the lecture, she reads to avoid doing homework, she does homework to avoid talking to her parents, and she talks to her parents to put off going to bed. She feels like she just floats in and out of consciousness, like she’s always on that wavering border between sleep and wakefulness, like she’s always just coming out of a long nap.
Because what’s the point? In the moment on the cliffside, Max had convinced herself that she was doing the right thing. But now, she’s not so sure. Now, she doesn’t really care.
But as the weeks slip on, her memories of that fateful week begin to fade like photographs left out in the sun (though they’re always there, lurking beneath the surface). She no longer has to contend with psychopathic teachers and supernatural occurrences. Now, the hardest part of each day are the ten to fifteen minutes after she puts her distractions away but before she actually falls asleep. That period of time, though short, is exceedingly dangerous. In that awful epoch, there’s always the threat that her mind will wander to thoughts of Chloe, of what could have been and what she could’ve done differently. Those lines of thought never lead anywhere good.
So, Max stays up later and later, because the more exhausted she is the quicker she’ll fall asleep. And, a pleasant side effect of staying up late means she’s tired during the day, which she finds makes the hours pass by more quickly. It’s like self-medication without the pills – she can slip, dreamlike, through a day, her brain perpetually half-asleep.
Max comes to, like she’s falling into or out of a dream. She’s sitting on the big, cushy couch in her therapist’s office. The Seattle skyline, rained-out and gray, can be seen through the big window on the opposite wall.
“Sorry,” Max says. “I was zoning out.”
“That’s fine,” her therapist says, ever so patient. “This is your eighth session, I believe? I can understand if you’re uninterested or even frustrated from a perceived lack of progress. But this is a long journey that you’re on. Longer than you imagine, I’m sure.”
That almost sounded ominous, but Max can’t find it in herself to really register it in any meaningful way. Instead, she just nods and stares out the window.
“That makes sense,” Max says, one of her various stock responses for when she doesn’t actually want to engage.
Her therapist sighs and leans forward.
“Max, what do you want to get out of these sessions?” her therapist asks.
“I want to get better,” Max answers, not untruthfully.
“That’s a good place to start,” her therapist says, because that’s exactly what Max had said eight sessions ago.
Max exhales audibly. Eight sessions. That seems like so many. That’s four twos. Two fours. Eight ones. Her therapist is saying more words as Max divides up the number eight as many ways as she can.
“Do you still think about Chloe?”
Max’s mind grinds to a halt. Because yes, she does, every day of her life.
“No,” Max lies.
The way her therapist’s expression shifts, ever so slightly, suggests that she knows that Max is lying. Max has never been a very gifted liar.
“If that’s true,” her therapist says. “Then it might be time for you to return to Arcadia Bay.”
Max’s entire body tenses just at hearing that.
“Not permanently, of course,” her therapist says gently. “Just long enough to revisit the places where you’d spent the most time. Through that, you can form new and hopefully positive, or at least neutral, memories in these places that hold negative connotations for you.”
“That sounds scary,” Max says plainly.
“It can be,” her therapist says. “And I’m not saying to jump into it all at once, or to do it right away. It’s something for you to think about, to continue the healing process.”
Max leans forward, her brain beginning to engage in her immediate surroundings.
“And this kind of thing,” Max says. “It works?”
Her therapist sighs.
“It can work,” her therapist says. “Everything I’ve been suggesting – they’re not silver bullets. There really aren’t any quick fixes where the mind is involved. But, if you work at it, and if you truly want to, they can help.”
Max nods and stares pensively at her own feet. That sounds nice, but so does being comfortably numb with no surprises for the rest of her life.
“I’ll think about it,” Max says.
“That’s all I ever need you to do,” her therapist says. “I’m not here to force you to do anything. I’m not a couch. I want to see you get better, Max, I really do. But it’s going to have to happen at your own pace.”
Max almost laughs at that. Her own pace is forwards, then backwards, then looping back around to forwards. Of course, it’s not like she can share that with her therapist. Admitting to time travel powers would set everything back more than a few sessions.
When Max gets to that awful ten-to-fifteen-minute period between her distractions and falling asleep, she finds it’s not quite so terrifying. This time, at least. For once, she allows herself to think and considers going back to Arcadia Bay. She tries to think of the town in the most basic of ways – it’s by the ocean, it’s in Oregon, it has a small population, and so on – in order to avoid dredging up any specific memories.
Memories still bubble to the surface, but Max has gotten better at stamping them down. For the first time in a long time, she wonders what it would be like to go back. To walk the streets and visit her old haunts, to stand amongst the people she once called friends, neighbors, acquaintances. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad.
The memories become more specific. She thinks of the move-in day to Blackwell. Of becoming friends with Kate (and enemies with Victoria). Of the photography class. Chloe in the bathroom. Breaking into Blackwell. Everything floods her mind.
A flash of the storm and Chloe’s lonely headstone strike her, and all thoughts of returning flee her trouble mind. She wishes instead for a swift descent into sleep, as sleep is the cousin of death.
“Max, would you care to give your explanation of the main themes of ‘Catcher in the Rye?’”
Max blinks purposefully a few times, trying to recalibrate her brain. The benefits of zoning out entirely during class outweigh the dangers, but just barely.
“I’m sorry?” Max asks.
Her teacher sighs and grips his copy of the book a bit more tightly. Max can tell that everyone is still treating her like she’s made out of finely-blown glass, but she can’t muster the energy within herself to get angry about it. In a lot of ways, it makes her life a lot easier.
“The main themes of ‘Cather in the Rye?’” her teacher asks again.
“Right, the main themes,” Max says. “A major theme is that of innocence – both trying to protect it and the inevitability of its loss.”
The classroom is silent for a moment, before her teacher clears his throat and self-consciously adjusts his glasses.
“Hmm, ah, excellent analysis of the book,” her teacher says. “Good job, Max. And I expect this level of thoughtfulness from the rest of you, alright? Now, let’s return to our discussion of…”
Max sighs softly and rests her cheek on her upturned palm, beginning to zone out once again. Today, she doesn’t want to think about her therapist. She doesn’t want to think about Arcadia Bay. She doesn’t want to think about her old life. She doesn’t want to think about anything at all.
In that way, each moment can become detached from the last, and she can float through life.
(Walking outside labyrinthian – in downtown Seattle/saw some old friends at her funeral).
Max shoves her hands into the pockets of her thrifted, black military jacket. She thinks it might be a bit pathetic, but she only got the jacket in the first place because it reminded her of something Chloe would wear. It’s the only anchor of the past that Max allows, and even then, it’s not tied directly to a real memory. It’s the faintest possible echo of Chloe.
It’s winter in Seattle and pleasantly cold, the wind carrying in a bracing chill that bites at the exposed skin of Max’s face and keeps her alert and awake.
Max has spent the last four therapy sessions discussing a possible return to Arcadia Bay – her therapist wasn’t kidding when she said this might be a long process. The mere thought of it still terrifies her, but at least she’s feeling something. The fear, the concern, even the act of planning is more activity than her brain has gotten in a very long time.
Last night, she had even looked up train routes from Seattle to Arcadia Bay, marking the most concrete planning she’s done for months and months. Even looking at “Arcadia Bay” written out on her laptop screen is enough to fill her with a vague sense of discontent, but even that’s a drastic improvement from before.
She still hasn’t told her parents, and she knows that she has to eventually. Being on autopilot hasn’t helped her relationship with her parents, and she knows that even they must be growing tired of her canned, noncommittal responses. But, what’s the worst that can happen? Her therapist suggested returning, anyway, and they’ll probably be supportive of any attempts at getting better.
Or, they won’t let their only daughter return to the town in which her best friend got gunned down in a lonely, dirty bathroom in an overpriced college preparatory senior high school. Or that.
And oh, Chloe. Max can feel tears welling up behind her eyes, the desire to let loose overwhelming. Thinking about returning to Arcadia Bay has opened up old wounds, and the numbness that Max had carefully constructed around her heart has started to crack and fade away.
Max tries to shove her hands deeper into her jacket, as if that would somehow help.
Jesus, Max, don’t cry in public, Max thinks. And hello inner-monologue, old friend. Welcome back.
Max sighs. Now she’s talking to her own inner-monologue. Maybe she really is going crazy. Or maybe she’s finding some sort of mental health after suppressing every single ragged edge of her personality for so long. Who’s to say?
“Max?” a voice from behind her sounds.
Max turns around.
What the f –
Maybe she is going crazy, actually. Because standing in front of her, looking like runway model in what must be a thousand-dollar coat and a Burberry scarf, is Victoria Chase. And in a blur, that thousand-dollar coat is wrapped around her as Victoria pulls her into a tight hug.
Max isn’t ready for this. She was supposed to return to Arcadia Bay on her own terms, not have a piece of Arcadia Bay suddenly show up in Seattle. Leave it to Victoria to screw up all her plans.
Chapter 2: Walking Outside, Labyrinthian
Max and Victoria have a genuine conversation. Surprise, surprise.
Bonus chapter! I just got home from my vacation and I figured I'd release some more content for this story. Let me know what you think!
Wordlessly, Victoria drags Max to some bourgeois, artisanal coffee shop in the “a million dollars for a thousand square feet” part of town, all under the pretense of “let’s reconnect!” Max has no desire to reconnect with Victoria, of all people, but also doesn’t have the fire within herself to say no.
Victoria orders them both coffee drinks that both somehow cost well north of five dollars and they sit down at a cozy table with cushy leather seats in a quiet corner of the café. Max sits down and tries to stare at her coffee and not say anything, but it’s hard with Victoria staring her down, as if she expects Max to be the one to kickstart the conversation. Max doesn’t trust herself with that responsibility, since she knows far more about Victoria than she should at this moment in time. She knows about Victoria’s hidden, deep-set insecurities. She knows about Victoria’s video of Kate Marsh. She even knows about the anime figurine stashed on a shelf in Victoria’s room.
“Max,” Victoria says, finally breaking through the woolen silence that had descended upon them. “How’ve you been?”
Victoria’s tone is harsh but somehow caring, and Max just figures that’s simply the most that she can modulate her voice.
“Not great,” Max says, and that’s all Max says.
Victoria nods, as if still expecting Max to elaborate upon that. When no further explanations come, Victoria tries her hardest to suppress the flash of annoyance that comes across her face and continues to force some conversation.
“Well, I figured,” Victoria says. “You’ve been through a lot.”
Max nods and takes a long sip of her coffee – which is delicious yet disgusting, because Max saw how much it cost – and studies Victoria over the rim of her mug. It would’ve been utterly alien and surreal to have seen anyone from Arcadia Bay out in Seattle, but for it to be Victoria, who carries with her such powerful memories – Max is immediately overwhelmed. She’s good at hiding being overwhelmed, though.
“What are you doing here?” Max asks, and Victoria’s narrows her eyes. “Sorry, not like that! I mean, here in Seattle.”
“My parents have a home here,” Victoria says. “I’m visiting for Christmas break.”
Of course her parents have a home here, Max thinks.
“Everyone back at Blackwell has been so worried about you,” Victoria says. “We’ve been taking bets about what you’ve been doing out here.”
A weak chuckle escapes Victoria’s lips.
“Dana thinks that you’ve opened up your own gallery full of your polaroid shots here,” Victoria says. “I don’t think she understands how the art world works.”
Max furrows her brow. She knows it’s unfair, but she can’t stop thinking about the possible angle Victoria has here. It could be that she genuinely wants to make conversation, but there’s always the possibility that this is part of some elaborate Vortex Club prank. Perhaps they’ve changed their tune following the arrests of Mr. Jefferson and Nathan, but Max has her doubts.
“Victoria, are you here just to make fun of me?” Max asks. “Because I’m so tired and I just can’t deal with that…”
“Max, no,” Victoria says, before rubbing her temples. “Shit, I’m really no good at this. You think I would be, with Taylor and her mother – I really am worried about you.”
Max just nods as she stares down, preoccupied, at her mug of coffee.
“That must seem like such bullshit to you,” Victoria says.
It always takes Max a while to sift through the various timelines stuffed in her head. Here, in this moment of time, she and Victoria never went through the almost-bonding that happened in those five days, so it is a little confusing that Victoria seems so concerned. But Max knows that the ice queen had always been hiding a real, live human heart beneath that impenetrable exterior all along. Maybe she really is being unfair. Maybe she does need to give Victoria the benefit of the doubt.
“No, I get it,” Max says. “I kind of always figured you were a big softie.”
Max manages a weak grin at that, and Victoria scoffs.
“Now you’re making fun of me. Unbelievable,” Victoria says. “Everyone at Blackwell really misses you. Turns out you were popular all along.”
Max is fairly certain that Victoria’s trying to make a joke, but she’s just enough on edge that it falls a little flat to her ears. Plus, she knows that Victoria, in a somewhat backwards way, was (and is, presumably, in this timeline as well) jealous of Max. The tangled web that is Max’s relationship to Victoria doesn’t seem to want to sort itself out anytime soon.
“Seriously, do you mind if I let everyone know I’m hanging out with you? I’m sure people will want to know you’re okay and whatever,” Victoria says. “I can even take a selfie as proof. I know that’s your scene.”
“No!” Max blurts out, so quickly that Victoria jumps in her seat.
Oh god, Max, think of something to say.
“Sorry, I, uh – I’m…” Max stammers,
Max’s brain can’t seem to craft a convincing lie, and she knows the longer she takes to answer the more insane she’ll seem. So, she decides to go with what’s been on her mind for weeks now. She decides to tell the truth.
“I’m planning on coming back to Arcadia Bay, just for a visit,” Max says. “I wanted to keep it a surprise.”
That stuns Victoria into absolute silence for a moment.
“No shit? The prodigal daughter returns,” Victoria says. “I’m kind of surprised, to be honest.”
“Really?” Max asks, knowing exactly why she would be but wanting to hear it anyway.
“Yeah, you went through a lot back at Blackwell,” Victoria says. “Like, some truly dark, fucked up nightmares. I mean, your old friend, Mr. Jefferson…if I were you, I’d run far away and never look back.”
“Would you?” Max asks. “Like, seriously?”
Max doesn’t know why she’s so desperate to hear Victoria’s take on things. She just is.
“Let me ask you a question,” Victoria says. “Why do you want to come back at all?”
“It’s a facing-my-fears kind of deal,” Max says. “My therapist suggested it.”
Victoria’s expression changes the moment Max says “therapist,” and she immediately regrets divulging that particular piece of information.
“You have a therapist, huh?” Victoria asks, and Max wishes for a quick bout of spontaneous combustion. “Join the club. I love my therapist. She’s so expensive, but I respect that.”
Of course you do, Max thinks. And also – go Victoria. She totally owns it.
The meaner part of Max’s mind wants to know why Victoria is still so nasty despite going to a therapist, but she quickly presses those thoughts to the back of her head.
“And to answer your previous question, I guess I wouldn’t really run away,” Victoria says. “Not forever. Sometimes you have to take life by the throat and say, ‘okay, now we’re doing things my way. Now I’m going to get what I want.’ I’d hate to be afraid of anything forever, no matter how scary.”
Max almost laughs at that, because it so succinctly wraps up everything that Victoria is.
“I don’t think I could really live life like that,” Max says.
“Well, of course not,” Victoria says.
Gee, thanks, Victoria, Max thinks.
“I mean, there’s only one me, right?” Victoria adds on.
Max pulls a face at that.
“I mean, you’re just you,” Victoria says. “You’ve got your own thing going on, and that’s cool, even if it, for whatever reason, has to involve poor fashion sense. You’re…you.”
Max just shakes her head. With Victoria, even the tiniest compliment just has to be accompanied by a quick verbal jab. In a way, though, it’s comforting – Max knows exactly what to expect with Victoria. (While also having no idea what to expect with Victoria).
“Didn’t I already say that I’m terrible at dealing with emotional distress?” Victoria asks. “My own or anyone else’s. Look, Max, when I’m feeling down I love having my ego stroked, so I’m going to do the same for you.”
“I don’t hate you. I know that sounds insane, but it’s true. I kind of like you, I think,” Victoria says. “Or respect you, or whatever. You always do your own thing; other people be damned. You don’t just act like you don’t care what other people think, like so many people do; you really don’t care. And that’s impressive.”
Max actually does laugh at that, because it’s hilarious. Max can’t think of a single human person who cares more about what other people think of them than she does. Victoria looks utterly offended.
“Hey, I’m trying to be real with you here,” Victoria says. “Bitch.”
“One – you really are terrible at comforting people,” Max says. “And two – you have me all wrong. I care what other people think of me. I care so much, you have no idea.”
I spend days fooling people into liking me with my rewind power! Max adds in her own head.
“Yeah, fine, everyone deep down cares about what other people think,” Victoria says. “We are social beasts, blah, blah, blah. The point is that people act differently based on the knowledge that we’re all judging each other. And you still do your own thing, even with that knowledge. I mean, who would come to a world-class photography program with an old polaroid camera and some selfies? And yet, you totally owned it. You were the best in the class.”
It’s a lot to take in, and given it’s Victoria, Max feels like she’s just been bitch-slapped by compliments.
“Wait, you think I was the best in that class?” Max asks.
Victoria rolls her eyes like she practices. Which, almost certainly, she has.
“Okay, the ego-stroking is done, Caulfield,” Victoria says. “I always mean what I say. And I meant that.”
“Wowsers,” Max says softly. “Thanks, Victoria.”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Victoria says. “That photography class was better with you in it. I mean, all of Blackwell is pretty much a dead scene at this point. Everyone’s still reeling from Nathan and Mr. Jefferson. God, what a motherfucker he turned out to be.”
Max’s heart sinks into her chest. She had completely forgotten how Victoria must’ve been affected by everything. She and Nathan were always so close, and she no doubt saw Mr. Jefferson as a role model and mentor.
“I’m so sorry,” Max says. “I know Nathan was, like, your best friend…”
“Ew, fuck no,” Victoria says. “Taylor is my best friend. And I’m not just saying that. Nathan I were close, I suppose, but he was always so pushy and intense. I guess now I know why.”
“Still, it’s hard to realize that one of your closest friends turned out to be like…that,” Max says.
“I know,” Victoria says. “He – I don’t know how much of it was really his fault, at the end of the day. He was under so much pressure from his dad and Jefferson. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making excuses for him.”
Maybe, maybe not. Max still remembers listening to the voicemail she had gotten from Nathan as she had driven wildly towards Arcadia Bay, the wind and the rain threatening to rip her car right off the road. He had seemed genuinely regretful, but Max has no curiosity left in her bones about Nathan. He simply is, and Max wants to leave it that way.
“It’s all nature/nurture, right? I mean, I don’t think Nathan was born evil and messed up,” Max says. “He just happened to be born into an evil and messed up family.”
“I guess so,” Victoria says. “I don’t know. It hurts my head just to think about.”
They’re both silent for a moment. Max sips her overpriced (and delicious) coffee.
“Hey, I’m supposed to be the one comforting you,” Victoria says.
This time, it’s Max who rolls her eyes.
“Still – thanks,” Victoria says. “I guess I’m still shocked about everything that went down. I mean, Blackwell has always had its drama, but I thought it was pretty small and quiet as far as schools go. Guess I was wrong.”
“Honestly, small and quiet sounds perfect,” Max says. “I’d go back if that were actually true.”
“I know, seriously,” Victoria says. “It really gave me perspective, though. Like, all the petty drama bullshit I was wrapped up in seems so infantile now. I can’t believe I got my rocks off teasing people. Who even was I?”
“We were just dumb kids,” Max says. “We still are.”
“Yeah, I suppose I can’t really argue with that,” Victoria says, finishing off her coffee with a flourish.
Max does the same, setting her mug down on the table with a satisfied clink. What a strange day this has turned out to be – this is probably the longest and nicest conversation she’s ever had with Victoria.
“I’m going to continue being genuine with you – it was really nice running into you,” Victoria says. “We should hang out more. And keep in touch. You still have my number, right?”
Pretty much everything Victoria says still has the effect of completely throwing Max off her game, but now, it’s in a good way. It only took major life trauma to get Max and Victoria to be friends. Given the past few months, Max figures that sounds about right.
“I do,” Max says.
Alright, Max Caulfield, moment of truth, Max thinks. Do you want to continue to be a shut-in loser forever, or do you want to reconnect with this little piece of Blackwell Academy?
“And I’ll be in touch,” Max says, chant of the non-committals.
Max is starting to hate that her inner-monologue is back in full force.
“Right,” Victoria says, clearly not believing Max but unwilling to push any further. “Well, I hope you go through with your plans to visit Arcadia Bay. Everyone would really love to see you, I’m serious.”
“Thanks, Victoria,” Max says. “It was nice seeing you. Honest.”
Victoria manages a weak smile and nods.
“Do you need a ride home?” Victoria asks.
Max shakes her head.
“Nah, I was out for a walk anyway,” Max says. “I like just being out here, in the early winter air.”
“Alright, weirdo,” Victoria says. “If you change your little hipster mind, I’m parked just a couple of blocks away.”
“I’ll be fine,” Max says. “Thanks, though. Really.”
Victoria eyes her strangely, but doesn’t press it any further.
“Well, this is it,” Victoria says. “I’ll see you around. Hopefully.”
Victoria wraps her arms around Max in a quick hug before she strides out of the store in a cloud of luxurious wool and perfume. Max stands there, thinking that she’s just received a sign. Of what, she certainly isn’t sure. But it’s a sign nonetheless.
Max grabs her tangled earbuds from her pocket and puts them in as she starts the walk home. Softly-strummed acoustic guitars and a falsetto voice hit her ears – as if she couldn’t have had a more stereotypical Seattle experience. Thanks, Bon Iver.
Max shoves her hands back in her pockets and thinks about how simple it would be to completely forget about this entire experience and continue to ignore Victoria and the rest of everyone at Blackwell Academy. It feels too easy that the universe just dropped Victoria into her lap just as she was considering returning to Arcadia Bay. Max knows it’s not fair that she feels that way, she just does. She wanted control over every aspect of her return.
Plus, Max is still terrified by the mere prospect of going back. Even growing more comfortable with the idea of returning freaks her out. She’s gotten so used to being fearful that the absence of it makes her worried, like it’s her fear that keeps the demons at bay. It’s ridiculous, of course, and her therapist could immediately whip out a whole laundry list of reasons as to why it is, but Max just can’t change the way she feels.
Maybe she won’t go back to Arcadia Bay. Maybe Max panics the moment something even marginally good happens to her. Maybe that’s something she does now.
It’s late in the afternoon by the time Max gets back home. The cloud cover has cleared somewhat, and the golden glow of the magic hour has begun to dissolve into calm pinks and whites. It’s beautiful. It’s moments like these that make Max wish she hadn’t sworn off photography forever, but it’s better this way. Max knows it’s not as if she’ll conjure up Mr. Jefferson just by taking a picture, but she doesn’t want to take that risk.
Though it’s tempting, Max decides not to just keep her earbuds in and ghost her way up to her bedroom. Besides, her dad is cooking dinner, and it smells delicious.
“Hey, honey,” Max’s mom greets. “How was your day?”
“Good,” Max says, and thinks about just leaving it at that.
Working on sustaining your relationships with those closest to you will help the healing process, her inner monologue recites, almost word-for-word, from her therapist.
Fucking internal monologue.
“I, uh, I ran into someone I knew back at Blackwell,” Max continues, going to sit down at the kitchen island. “Victoria Chase?”
“Isn’t that the, ah…” Max’s dad says, before leaning in conspiratorially. “The ‘b-word girl?’”
Max manages a weak chuckle at that. Her dad is ridiculous.
“Honey, we don’t shy away from words in this household,” Max’s mom says. “You can call her a bitch if you want to, Max.”
Right, they’re both ridiculous. Max sometimes wonders what they were like as a couple when they were young, but then she realizes how weird it is to ever think of her parents in that way.
“She’s fine, honestly,” Max says. “She’s really changed, because of – you know. But I just happened to run into her as I was out on my walk, and we got coffee together.”
“Really? What’d you two talk about?” Max’s mom asks.
“A lot of things, actually,” Max says, rubbing the back of her neck. “She admitted that she was jealous of me the whole time, and she only made fun of me as a way of dealing with that?”
“Well, that’s a funny way to show it,” Max’s dad says.
“I know,” Max says. “And, uh, she talked about how much everyone at Blackwell misses me.”
“Of course, dear,” Max’s mom says. “You’re a very missable person.”
Max scrunches her nose. Her mom always has such a way with words.
“And you were okay, talking about Blackwell?” Max’s dad asks delicately.
Max nods, her heart beginning to thump against her ribcage. Not because of Blackwell, but because they’re circling dangerously close to discussing her possible return to Arcadia Bay. While she’s given it a lot of thought, she hasn’t brought it up to her parents. Yet.
Max knows that she should talk to parents about this. She doesn’t want to turn into Chloe – at least not in that way. Chloe definitely wouldn’t want her to turn into Chloe, either, to be miserable and borderline estranged from the parents she lives with.
“I was fine,” Max says. “It’s not easy, but it’s okay.”
Max’s parents exchange a quick look before turning their attention back to Max.
“And, I was…” Max says, her voice beginning to fail her. “I was…I was thinking…”
Don’t be such a chickenshit, Max, her inner monologue so helpfully chimes in. Max, for a moment, wonders if the little voice in her head is Chloe’s spirit kicking her ass and telling her what to do. That’d be nice.
“I was thinking of going back to Arcadia Bay,” Max says, all in one breath.
The kitchen is utterly silent, save for the sound of the salmon sizzling on the stove. In that moment, she thinks of all the ways this could go utterly wrong. Perhaps her parents will forbid her from returning? Or maybe they have news of another tragedy that’s occurred in Arcadia Bay. Maybe her dad will burn himself on the hot skillet.
“Are you sure, sweetheart?” Max’s mom asks gently.
Max looks from her mom to her dad and back again, wondering why neither of them are panicking and reflecting her own inner turmoil.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Max says, wanting to minimize the thought, effort, and planning she’s already put into this. “My therapist brought it up at my last session. Something about facing my fears and creating new memories to take the place of the old ones. Stuff like that.”
Max’s parents exchange another look, speaking in that silent language that only they know.
“I think that could be a positive thing for you,” Max’s dad says. “But we also don’t want you to push yourself before you’re ready.”
“Maybe,” Max says.
“Some things, though, you might never be ‘ready,’” Max’s mom says. “Some things you just have to do.”
Max nods, staring down as she picks at her fingernails.
“Well, winter break is in a couple of weeks,” Max’s mom says. “If you really want to, we can help you plan the trip. You can take the SUV, if you want. Or you can take the train, if you don’t want to drive.”
Max nods and tries to look appreciative, as if she hadn’t just gone over this herself night after night.
“Maybe,” Max says. “I don’t really want to commit to anything right now. Just wanted to bring it up.”
Max realizes that this is the most she’s spoken to her parents in weeks. It’s going surprisingly well, which means she finds it utterly terrifying.
“Of course,” Max’s dad says.
“And, like your father said, we don’t want to push you,” Max’s mom says. “But if you think you should go back, you should go back.”
Max’s dad nods sagely.
“And, even more importantly, my world-famous salmon is ready,” Max’s dad says. “Arcadia Bay is a fishing town and yet you won’t get any salmon this good back there. Huh, maybe you should just stay at home.”
Max actually laughs at that – a genuine laugh that bubbles up from deep within her. Her parents looked shocked, then confused, before joining in as well. It’s really not that funny, given that her dad makes outlandish claims about his cooking every single night, but it’s beginning to feel good just to be. The pain is still there, but maybe that’s okay (just for now).
Life is an iterative process, her inner monologue reminds her.
Maybe she will text Victoria later.
Chapter 3: Anxiety Spikes & Comfort Food
Texting Kate proves to be a surprisingly difficult process, and Victoria proves to be a surprising source of comfort
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
That night, Max dreams of things that don’t make her immediately hate herself. When she wakes up the next morning, she considers that a win.
The sun is actually shining through the window, continuing the very Seattle trend of the weather never really making any sense at all. No doubt if she went outside right now it would be freezing cold (or what counts as “freezing cold” on the west coast), but it looks pretty, at least. Sunny winter mornings always feel so clear and crisp.
Max rolls over in her bed and grabs her phone from the nightstand. She scrolls through her text messages, as if trying to remember a time when she actually tried her hardest to keep in touch with people. The most recent message she has is from Kate, two months ago.
Kate (4:49 PM, Tues): I’ve missed our tea dates, so I sent you a tin of my favorite blend!
Max still has that tin of chamomile tea sitting on her desk, a little memento of one of her dearest friends. Oh, Kate. If there’s anything that helps the regrets fade, even just a little, is the simple fact that Kate is alive. There’s no telling what the storm could’ve done to her.
Plus, the knowledge that Kate now never had to go through the torment of that stupid viral video and subsequent suicide attempt is extremely encouraging. With the drama surrounding Mr. Jefferson and Nathan, Victoria never posted that video. Kate still knows what happened at that fateful party, but she can contextualize it through the revelation about Mr. Jefferson.
But, at the same time, now Kate knows exactly what Mr. Jefferson did to her. Max barely had the chance to talk to anyone before her parents whisked her away to Seattle (sound familiar?), and the extent of Mr. Jefferson’s crimes weren’t yet known.
Max hadn’t even thought of what the emotional fallout would be like for Kate. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Max jabs the heels of her palms against her forehead. This is just Chloe all over again. Good job, Max, neglecting your friends right when they need a shoulder to lean on the most.
So much for a good morning.
No. This can still be a good morning. Max is still furious at herself, but it’s a righteous sort of anger. If she just falls back entirely into her old habits, then it really will feel like Chloe died for nothing. If her sacrifice doesn’t mean anything to anyone, then she really will have just died on that cold bathroom tile, feeling alone and abandoned and angry at the world.
Max’s anger is a paper tiger, but it’s enough kindling for now.
Max (9:05 AM, Sun): Kate! I’m so sorry I haven’t been responding to your texts, I’m the worst. I loved the tin of tea you sent me. How’re you doing?
Max stares at the text for minutes, checking and re-checking the spelling. She picks apart every single word, coming to the conclusion every time that her word choice is awful. The temptation to delete the message and shatter her phone against the opposite wall is overwhelming.
Don’t. Be. A. Chickenshit.
So, before her brain can fully catch up, Max sends the message, squeezes her eyes shut, and turns the volume all the way down on her phone. It doesn’t make any sense, but it makes her feel a little better. She leaves her phone on her desk as she goes downstairs to eat breakfast.
Breakfast isn’t very good. Her dad’s cooking is delicious, nearly at Joyce’s level, but she can hardly taste anything since her mind is still utterly preoccupied with her text to Kate.
Max’s mind runs through every permutation of what she thinks Kate’s response will be. They become increasingly irrational, bizarre, and mean, as her mind gets more and more poisoned by her own anxiety.
Kate: Fuck you, Max! Real nice of you to ignore me while I’m dealing with the most intense trauma of my life!
Kate: Thanks, Max, your one shitty text message really saved me from my suicidal thoughts.
Kate: You’re such a fucking liar, Max, you didn’t even drink any of my fucking tea!
Max wants to bash her head to smithereens. Sometimes, she really hates her own mind, because it’s completely insane.
For once, Max actually takes her time washing dishes because she doesn’t want to face her own phone and see if Kate responded. Knowing her luck and just how her anxiety works, Kate won’t have even responded yet anyway.
In her despair of her own creation, Max scrubs a plate a bit too hard and manages to hook it against her hand, sending it spinning across the kitchen and shattering on the tile floor. Max’s left hand instinctively shoots out, and she uses her other hand to drag it back.
Really? Over a plate?
“Are you throwing dishes in there, Max?” her dad asks. “I mean, it sounds like fun, but plates don’t exactly grow on trees.”
She can hear her dad getting up off the couch to inspect the mess she’s created. It’s actually not as bad as Max thought it’d be, the plate simply broken into a few distinct pieces. Her dad puts his hands on his hips in a gesture of mock disappointment.
“Well, girlie, you’re off dishwashing duty,” he says cheerfully. “Go up to your room and do some twitter or whatever it is you millennials do.”
Max can’t help but grin. Her dad is the best.
“I can finish, honest,” Max says. “I don’t want that plate to have died in vain.”
“It’s fine,” Her dad says, waving her off. “Besides, doing the dishes always wins me brownie points with your mother. Get out of here, you crazy thing.”
Max shakes her head in fond exasperation. Her dad has really turned up his dad-ness since she’s been back. It’s weird, but expectedly very, very comforting.
“Alright, dad,” Max says. “Don’t break anything yourself.”
“I know, it’s always so tempting,” her dad says. “But I think I’ll be fine. Go, enjoy the lord’s day.”
Max snorts. Her parents are the least religious people she knows.
The good cheer her dad bestowed upon her immediately dissipates as she faces down the stairs to the second floor. They seem steeper than ever, impossibly steep, stretching up into the heavens. But her phone resides beyond those impossible stairs, carrying with it a text from Kate.
Envision the worst thing that could happen, and the best, her inner monologue states. Reality is often in between those two extremes.
Max sighs. Her mind-therapist is a bit much, though it is nice that some part of her brain retained something from those sessions. For a moment, she wonders if it’s a concern that her inner-monologue seems to be wiser than she is. Or does that just mean that she’s actually wise, and doesn’t realize it?
Her mind is stupid. She goes up the stairs, taking them one at a time.
Max approaches her phone like she would a cornered animal, as if it would jump out and strike at any moment. She realizes how dumb she’s being, how deeply she’s overreacting. But after everything? Now, this is just reacting for her.
With one last deep breath, Max reaches out and grabs the phone, spinning it from face-down to face-up in her hand.
There’s one text message notification. Max almost tosses her phone across the room.
Here goes nothing. It’s almost incredible how much that spikes her adrenaline. Max wonders if it’s even safe for her heart to be hammering so thunderously.
Max unlocks her phone with a swipe, and navigates to her messaging app.
Kate (9:07 AM, Sun): Max! It’s so good to hear from you!!!
Wowsers, Kate responded almost immediately.
Kate (9:07 AM, Sun): ヽ(^。^)丿
Kate (9:09 AM, Sun): I’m so glad you liked the tea! I saw it at the store and immediately thought of you. We all miss you so much. I miss you, too! I get why you had to go back though, and I completely respect that
Max exhales audibly. Kate Marsh is too good for the world. Too good for her, certainly.
Kate (9:10 AM, Sun): And I’m doing fine!
Kate (9:15 AM, Sun): I’ve been going to therapy, actually, after everything that happened! My mom didn’t approve at first, but she came around once she realized the good it was doing. I even found a therapist who goes to a church similar to mine! She’s so sweet.
Joy strikes Max’s heart, and it’s so strange that she almost doesn’t recognize it. But Max smiles, and smiles, and smiles so brightly she has to jump on her bed and stuff her face into her pillow so that her ebullience won’t bubble over completely. Kate is okay. Kate is okay. If Kate can work through what happened to her, there’s hope for Max yet.
Max (10:20 AM, Sun): I’m so, so, so happy to hear you’re doing alright! I’m really sorry for not texting, I suck. But I’m seriously so glad that you’re going to therapy and working on yourself. You deserve to be happy
Max’s fingertips hover over the virtual keyboard. She wants to tell Kate about her plan to return to Arcadia Bay, but finds it a little ridiculous at the same time. Just a couple of weeks ago the idea of going back terrified her, and now she just wants to tell the whole world about it? (She knows that’s unfair – telling Victoria and Kate is hardly shouting it from the mountaintops).
Still, she isn’t sure where this urge to share is coming from. Maybe it’s a sign that it’s the right thing to do? Or, maybe the act of sharing her plan scratches some of the itch of actually going through with it, giving her that thrill of accomplishment without actually doing anything.
Stop with the angst and just tell her.
Her inner monologue really is a badass. Maybe it is Chloe.
Max (10:25 AM, Sun): Kate, I’m thinking of visiting Arcadia Bay soon, maybe around Christmastime. My therapist suggested it as some sort of healing exercise. Tell me, do you think that’s crazy?
Max turns the vibrate function of her phone back on and just waits. In lieu of doing anything productive, Max stares at the faint patterns in her carpet as she waits for Kate to reply.
Even though she’s completely expecting for it, Max still flinches and nearly drops her phone when it buzzes.
Kate (10:42 AM, Sun): I think that makes perfect sense, Max. It may seem scary, but sometimes you just need to have faith that things will work out for the best.
Max re-reads the text, and stares thoughtfully out her window. Max may not believe in God, but she believes in Kate Marsh.
Kate (10:42 AM, Sun): Also, selfishly, I’d love to see you again, in person :) I’d consider it a small miracle
Max smiles brightly. Kate is the best.
Max (10:43 AM, Sun): I’ll keep you updated! Thank you for your kind words (=^･^=) And could you please not share this with anyone? If I do come back, I don’t want anyone making a big deal about it
Kate (10:45 AM, Sun): Of course! Your secret is safe with me, Max! xoxoxo
Max (10:45 AM, Sun): maxoxo
Max sighs happily and squeezes her phone to her chest. What a miraculous piece of technology it is. The hit of relief that the text conversation has gone well is unbelievable.
Really, Max rides the high for the rest of the day. It’s the best she’s felt in months, and all she did was text Kate. For the first time, Max is considering the idea that seeing everyone back at Blackwell might be a net positive, even with the horrible memories that’ll dredge up. The idea is so alien to her that her mind threatens to reject it outright, but Max holds onto it, protecting it from the dark shadows that curl up from the dark corners of her mind.
Max’s routine, originally designed as an escape from her own head, is beginning to feel like a prison. Especially now that her mind isn’t quite the hellscape it once was. Now she actually wants to think. During her classes, she even found herself daydreaming of going out on a tea date with Kate at their usual café in Arcadia Bay. It’s so strange that Max can hardly recognize the workings of her own mind.
As always, Max manages to feel completely worn down despite not having done much at all during the week (even with finals coming up). Her maybe-trip to Arcadia Bay is all she has to look forward to, and she’s not even convinced that she’ll go.
Still, it’s nice to have something to look forward to, even if it’s a complete fantasy. Somehow, Max had entirely forgotten what it was like to look forward to anything at all – going through the motions is a stunningly powerful drug. There are cracks in Max’s routine now, thanks to Victoria and Kate, and the light that’s shining through seems like salvation. Or ruination, perhaps.
Max doesn’t quite know the difference.
Saturday rolls around, and Max is woken by the cool winter sun cascading in through her loosely-opened blinds. Once again, Max checks her phone, now seeing it as a wonderful portal to the outside world and not just a dead weight in her pocket.
There’s a picture from Kate of a mug of tea next to a worn copy of the bible, a perfect aesthetic distillation of the girl herself. Max smiles as she stares at the picture – if there’s anything that would get her to restart the memorial photo wall, it’s this.
Max scrolls through her contacts and lets her thumb hover over the entry for Victoria. Really, her reluctance to spend time with anyone at all is getting ridiculous. Even if it is Victoria, she seems to have turned over a new leaf and seems to be genuinely interested in hanging out with Max. Her mistake.
Everyone gets better at their own pace, her inner monologue so helpfully reminds her. Don’t judge yourself for not wanting to jump back into spending time with people.
Max groans. Why does she even pay a therapist when her subconscious is just as willing to berate her over her emotional and mental state?
Fine, inner monologue. Max starts writing a text to Victoria.
Max (10:02 AM, Sat): Hey, it was good seeing you the other day. Do you want to hang out?
Max sighs and rolls onto her back, her phone loosely held in her hand. She stares up at the ceiling and traces imaginary patterns in the popcorn ceiling with her eyes.
It doesn’t take long for her phone to buzz in her hand.
Victoria (10:13 AM, Sat): Took you long enough, Caulfield. Text me your address. I’ll pick you up
Max cracks a weak grin. Victoria’s personality always shines through, even over texts. Max fires back her address and wonders just what this day has in store for her.
Huh, that’s new.
Max never wonders what days have in store for her, because they’re always meticulously designed to be the same, as far as she can control. There’s no time for curiosity, because curiosity can lead her mind to wander into dark places.
When her whole life’s a dark place, though, what’s left?
Max deliberates over her outfit for much longer than she normally does, just to help her feel like she won’t be completely outdone by Victoria. She knows she will be anyway, but just putting in the effort is nice. Putting in effort is usually pretty far out of her wheelhouse.
Max settles on an oversized chamois flannel shirt, a hand-me-down from her dad. It’s become something of a security blanket for her lately, the cozy fabric somehow imbued with the same protective aura her dad naturally seems to radiate. She wears it open over a thick, cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Her “Chloe jacket,” a worn-down, thrifted military jacket, completes the ensemble.
Max inspects herself in the mirror and giggles. She definitely looks like she lives in Seattle.
There’s something to be said about simply paying attention to simple tasks. Max still isn’t really into fashion, but there’s something nice about putting a little care into herself, however trivial it may be.
“I did it,” Max whispers to herself. “I totally cured myself.”
Max makes herself laugh.
Every little bit helps.
Max wonders when her own subconscious became wiser than she is. Isn’t her inner monologue just supposed to be her? Why does it always seem to know better than she does?
It draws closer to the time Victoria is supposed to pick her up, and Max begins to pace in her room. Her hands dance in awkward shapes in front of her, and she can’t stand the way her whole body begins to buzz.
It’s only Victoria. Besides, Max had just seen her a week ago. What is her problem?
Max finds there’s no consistency with the way she feels. She wants control, and yet she was the one who reached out to Victoria and she’s still panicking like the world is ending. The universe just so happened to have dumped Victoria in her lap just a week ago, and she went along with it easily.
It’s only Victoria. It’s only Victoria. It’s only Victoria.
It’s only Victoria, who she had doomed to the dark place because she warned her about Jefferson. Victoria, who she dumped paint on and then comforted – talk about having your cake and eating it, too. Victoria, who tormented Kate. Victoria, who fell under Mr. Jefferson’s repulsive charms. Victoria, from the alternative timeline. Victoria, Victoria, Victoria.
Max is well and truly spiraling. She wishes she knew where these spikes of anxiety came from. This was a nice morning. There was the picture from Kate. The calm, hopeful, sunlight. Everything is usually so nice and numb now that these flashes of pain hurt all the more in contrast.
Like chiaroscuro. Hell.
Max notices then that her breathing has gotten wild and erratic and turns to see her mom poking her head in through the doorway.
“Your friend is here to see you,” her mom says. “Victoria? But if you’re not feeling well, I can just tell her to leave. She’s a ‘bitch,’ after all.”
Max manages to choke out some weak laughter.
“Thanks, Mom, but it’s fine,” Max says. “I invited her over. I think I need this.”
“Okay, if you’re sure, sweetheart,” her mom says. “If you need rescuing, just call me or your father and we’ll swoop right in, okay?”
Max’s smile is faint, but it’s there. Her parents have been so patient and supportive that she can hardly stand it.
“You guys are ridiculous,” Max says. “Thanks.”
Max makes her way downstairs and pulls on her boots before meeting Victoria outside. Victoria, of course, is leaning against her extremely expensive, foreign coupe, looking like a Dior model in her precisely-fitted topcoat and slim slacks. Max deflates, feeling like a dumpy loser in comparison.
“Hey, Max,” Victoria says, her gaze sweeping up and down Max’s outfit. “You look like someone who’s listened to every Fleet Foxes album.”
Max stares down at her feet. Is it too soon to get her parents to rescue her?
You have listened to all of their albums, though. And their EP, too.
“That was a joke,” Victoria says, the implied “sorry” going unspoken. “You look fine.”
“Thanks,” Max says, once she finds her voice. “You do too.”
Victoria nods and stares down at Max for a moment.
“So, Caulfield, where to?” Victoria asks. “I’m bored, and this car isn’t going to drive itself.”
“I hadn’t really thought of that,” Max says, despite being the one to ask Victoria to hang out.
Max can tell that it’s taking all of Victoria’s willpower not to roll her eyes.
“Well, there’s a new photography exhibit at SAM,” Victoria says. “We could check that out.”
“No!” Max blurts out, and winces at the resulting look of surprise on Victoria’s face. “Sorry, I’m not so much into photography anymore. Not after Jefferson.”
Victoria looks like she’s about to protest, but her face softens and she simply nods.
“Okay, that’s cool,” Victoria says. “This is your day, anyway. We could check out some record shops, maybe? I know you’re into the whole Seattle hipster indie/alt scene.”
Max exhales in relief. Music she can handle.
Victoria even wordlessly hands Max the aux cord once they get into the car. Max just stares at it in disbelief.
“Oh, just take it, would you?” Victoria asks. “Don’t be surprised every time I don’t act like a bitch.”
“Sorry,” Max says, grabbing the cord and plugging in her phone. “I’m just not used to this.”
“Well, gee, thanks,” Victoria says.
Max sighs and stares out the window as Victoria pulls out of the driveway and onto the street.
“Why are you doing this?” Max asks.
“Doing what?” Victoria asks.
“Why are you being nice to me?” Max asks.
“Weren’t you paying attention in the coffee shop?” Victoria asks. “I got perspective. I grew up. And I never hated you. Is that enough for you? What else do you even want me to say?”
“I…” Max starts.
Don’t be unfair to Victoria.
“I’m sorry,” Max says. “It’s hard for me to get over my first impression of you.”
“Yeah, me too,” Victoria says.
Max furrows her brow and turns to look at Victoria.
“I thought you were cool,” Victoria says. “Too cool. I didn’t want to have to deal with that.”
“Well, let’s just start over,” Max says. “Let’s pretend this is the first time we’re hanging out, and I’m just some weirdo hipster you took a shine to in a coffee shop and you’re just a fashionista with an expensive camera.”
Victoria almost manages to smile at that. Max considers that a win.
“Works for me,” Victoria says.
“Wowsers, they have the original pressing of Pink Moon,” Max marvels. “I wish I had the money for this.”
Victoria comes over to peer at the record Max is holding.
“What’s the appeal of old records like this?” Victoria asks. “Seriously, when was this released?”
“1972,” Max says. “It’s a classic. That’s the appeal.”
Victoria just shrugs and goes back to flipping through the store’s newest vinyl releases.
“That seems like ancient history,” Victoria says. “Hasn’t everybody copied this guy’s style in the past four decades or whatever?”
“I mean, sure,” Max says. “But nobody’s done the sad singer-songwriter thing as well as Nick Drake. Besides Elliott Smith, maybe.”
Victoria hums her acknowledgement. Max, confused and a bit frustrated, continues to admire the cover of the Pink Moon vinyl.
“Do you really only listen to modern music?” Max asks.
“Of course,” Victoria says. “I care about the past, but I want to be a part of what’s in this moment right now. I want to participate in the current zeitgeist.”
“That sounds exhausting,” Max says.
“If being hip were easy, everyone would do it,” Victoria says.
Max shakes her head. She really can’t nail down her opinion on Victoria. Sometimes she seems so genuinely nice and real, and sometimes she says things like this.
“I’m kidding, Max,” Victoria says.
“Right,” Max says.
Victoria huffs and marches over to where Max is standing, record in hand.
“You know what? I’m going to buy this stupid, old, dusty record for you,” Victoria says. “As long as you promise to listen to some modern music.”
“I listen to modern music,” Max says.
“That one Alt-J song you listen to doesn’t count,” Victoria says. “I’m going to make you a playlist and share it with you on Spotify. Oh god, you use Spotify, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” Max says, finding herself getting annoyed even though what Victoria’s doing is fundamentally pretty cool of her.
“Good,” Victoria says. “Let’s get you into this decade, hipster.”
“Do you want to grab something for lunch?” Victoria asks.
Max shrugs. She’s not really that hungry, having eaten a lot for breakfast, but spending more time with Victoria sounds surprisingly nice.
“Sure,” Max says. “Do you have anything in mind?”
“Always,” Victoria says. “It’s even within walking distance, which I know you love.”
Victoria hooks her arm around Max’s and practically drags her down the sidewalk.
They end up at a cute corner bistro, one that Max is pretty sure she’s passed by plenty of times but never actually registered as a place to eat. It smells incredible from the moment she steps inside, and she marvels at the cozy, comfortable interior. Between the general vibe of the place and the dirt-cheap prices, Max is surprised that Victoria wanted to come here. Max always assumes that Victoria wants to go to the most expensive place she can possibly find.
“And before you say anything, I’m paying,” Victoria says. “My parents were dumb enough to get me my own credit card, and I’m definitely taking advantage of that. I wish I could say I was above them buying my love, and yet…”
“Thanks, Victoria,” Max says, though at the same time she’s completely unsure of what to make of the ‘buying my love’ statement.
They’re seated quickly, and all topics of conversation fly out of Max’s mind in an instant. She stares at Victoria blankly for a moment, before her cheeks flush pink and she looks away. Way to be, Max.
Instead, she occupies herself by looking at the menu, though she really doesn’t know what she wants to eat and the surprisingly low prices continue to distract her.
“Max,” Victoria’s voice cuts through her gauzy mind. “You’re studying that menu like there’s going to be a test on it. It’s just comfort food, get whatever you want.”
“Right, thanks,” Max says. “Sorry I’m so spaced out. I’m just surprised; this doesn’t seem like your scene.”
“I’ll admit, it’s not, really,” Victoria says.
It sure seems that way. The harsh, precise lines of Victoria’s outfit immediately contrast with the soft, warm feel of the restaurant.
“I mean, I like it,” Max says. “It’s so cozy.”
“It is,” Victoria sighs. “It’s my grandmother’s favorite restaurant. Or was, rather.”
Max’s eyes widen; now she’s even more surprised that Victoria decided to come here.
“I’m sorry,” Max says.
“Yeah,” Victoria says. “You remind me a lot of her.”
“Are you making fun of me being stuck in the past or something?” Max asks.
Victoria just chuckles and shakes her head.
“No way,” Victoria says. “My grandmother was a weirdo iconoclast, just like you. She’s the reason I got into photography.”
“Really? Even more than your parents owning one of the most renowned galleries on the west coast?” Max asks.
Victoria rolls her eyes.
“Way more than that,” Victoria says. “My parents are whatever. My grandmother taught me everything important that I now about photography.”
“She sounds great,” Max says.
“Obviously,” Victoria says. “She was the one who taught me that photography isn’t just about capturing a moment in time. It can be about capturing a moment as you want it to be.”
Max nods thoughtfully. That really makes sense, given Victoria’s appreciation of Richard Avedon and the stylized, almost hyper-real quality of her own photographs. Max’s style is completely different – she’s all about capturing the moment as it is, enhanced by the gauzy, nostalgic haze of polaroid film.
“How’d you get into photography?” Victoria asks.
“I’ve always loved taking pictures,” Max says with a slight smile. “Even when I was a little kid I’d always steal the disposal camera during family vacations and waste all the film within the first day.”
Victoria chuckles softly.
“Sounds about right, hipster,” Victoria says.
“I’ve wanted to be a photographer forever,” Max says. “But it was…”
Max’s throat tightens as her fingers curl around her knees. She can just feel the way the flow of the conversation crumbles away.
“Max?” Victoria asks.
“Sorry,” Max says, shaking her head. “I was thinking of…something. I – I’ve always wanted to be a photographer. I guess I have to find something else to do with myself now.”
“No, you won’t,” Victoria says.
Max furrows her brow. How can Victoria sound so confident saying that?
“What?” Max asks.
“You’ve found your calling, Max,” Victoria says. “And – newsflash – you’re already fucking great at it.”
“I’m not going to tell you how to live your life,” Victoria says. “But you’re bigger than all this. You’re too good to let Jeff –”
The look of horror that flashes across Max’s face is enough for Victoria to reconsider her word choice.
“You’re not going to let anything that’s happened to you bring you down,” Victoria says. “Not forever.”
“How can you say that?” Max asks. “You don’t know me.”
Max doesn’t know exactly why she feels so frustrated. Victoria sounds so assured and confident on her behalf, while she’s still buckling under the weight of indecision and past regrets. How does that make any sense?
“I don’t know you,” Victoria says bluntly. “But I know myself. If you love photography and art as much as I do – and I think that you do – you’ll find some way to express yourself. You may not be taking polaroid selfies forever, but you’ll be doing something.”
“I don’t think so,” Max says, slumping down in her seat. “I haven’t touched a camera in months.”
Victoria just looks at her for a moment, before reaching into her bag and pulling out her insanely expensive, top-of-the-line DSLR. Max’s eyes bulge when she sees it, both because she knows just how much the body and lens costs and because she knows just how good of a camera it is.
“It’s not going to bite, weirdo,” Victoria says.
Max isn’t so sure, but after a long and weighty moment of uncomfortable silence, she reaches out gingerly and grabs the camera. It feels the hundreds and hundreds of dollars that it costs, from its heft and its obviously rock-solid construction. At first, it feels sort of good, the photography nerd inside of her tickled that she’s handling a piece of equipment lightyears beyond her little polaroid camera.
But, her brain, traitor that it is, flashes back to the bunker and Mr. Jefferson’s monstrous Hasselblad camera. She can so clearly picture that awful, oversized lens staring her down. Though that model is nothing at all like Victoria’s, Max can’t help but make the association in her mind. And then, it’s all over. Max’s hands shake and she puts down Victoria’s camera down as carefully as she can.
And then, she stands up and walks out of the restaurant.
“Max? What are you…” Victoria asks, sounding a mixture of confused and angry at first, before turning to genuine concern. “Max!”
Victoria finds Max sitting on the curb just outside of the restaurant, her legs curled up into her body. Max isn’t crying, but the distant, vacant look in her eyes speaks volumes.
“Max, what’s wrong?” Victoria asks.
Victoria looms above Max, her arms folded across her chest. Max opens her mouth to speak before her mind convinces her not to say anything, and she curls a little closer into herself. Victoria sighs and sits down next to her, though not before brushing off the sidewalk.
“Max, c’mon,” Victoria says. “Even I can recognize when someone isn’t okay. Seriously, what’s wrong? Are you that messed up over Mr. Jeff – I mean, over everything that’s happened?”
Max sighs and rests her chin between her knees.
“Yes,” Max says. “I can’t – I can’t really explain it.”
Max’s eyes widen in horror. She really can’t explain it. It hasn’t hit her so strongly before that she really can’t talk about what’s happened to her. To the rest of the world, the five days she shared with Chloe don’t exist. They never happened. Now that Chloe is gone, those memories are locked firmly within her own head and her head alone, forever. The burden is hers to bear.
And Victoria will never fully understand why Max is so horrified by Mr. Jefferson. Because Max was there. Max knows intimately what he’s like.
“All of those girls,” Max says, trying to talk through everything in the broadest way possible.
Victoria just nods, letting Max find her words.
“It’s so awful,” Max says. “That the world just – lets this happen.”
“The world can be pretty crap,” Victoria says. “A lot of the time.”
“Rachel. Kate,” Max says. “Oh god, Kate. She didn’t deserve any of that. Neither of them did.”
I didn’t deserve it – those words lay ready to leap off the tip of Max’s tongue, though they remain unspoken. They’ll remain forever spoken, if Max has anything to say about it.
“I know,” Victoria says, tentatively placing her hand at the small of Max’s back. “I know. But they have their justice now. I know it’s not fair and it’s not enough, because fuck all of the men who preyed on them. But they get their justice.”
“It doesn’t feel like enough,” Max says. “It’s not fair.”
It’s not fair. For Max, those three words cover a lot.
“It never does,” Victoria says. “The work doesn’t give a fuck about us, Max. That’s why we have to we have to care for ourselves.”
“I’m no good at that,” Max says.
Victoria gently rubs Max’s back. Max contents herself by staring out at the street and watching the cars come and go.
“I don’t want to feel like this,” Max says.
“Of course not,” Victoria says.
Victoria sighs and folds her hands in her lap.
“You want to hear a secret?” Victoria asks.
“Sure,” Max says.
“My grandmother took me to this restaurant because she believed that everyone deserves a little bit of comfort food every now and again,” Victoria says. “She was a model, but every now and again, she’d just sit down and eat slice after slice of cake, or polish off a few pieces of fried chicken, or whatever.”
Max manages to smile at that. Victoria’s grandma sounds awesome.
“Comfort food is okay,” Victoria says. “Fucking caring about yourself is okay. Flipping off the world and focusing on making you happy is okay. Fuck the world. You’re more important.”
Immediately, Max’s image of Victoria shifts. She isn’t selfish – well, she is, in some ways – but she’s more than that. Victoria looks out for herself, because nobody else will.
Time to truly start anew with Victoria.
“So, let’s head back in and eat some fucking disgusting, unhealthy food,” Victoria says.
Victoria stands up and waits for Max to follow suit. After a brief moment of crushing indecision, Max stands up as well. They head back inside and, after assuring their waitress that they’re there to stay, order their food and continue their lunch.
It’s late in the afternoon by the time Victoria drives Max back home. Max isn’t sure if she feels better, necessarily, having spent time with Victoria, but she certainly doesn’t feel worse, and that’s really all she needs right now.
“Hey, thanks for hanging out with me,” Max says.
“Yeah, whatever,” Victoria says. “Don’t act like I’m doing you some big favor.”
“It is, though,” Max says. “I know I’m a total sad-sack right now.”
Victoria opens her mouth to say something, but apparently thinks the better of it and instead gestures dismissively at Max.
“Fine, let’s go with that,” Victoria says. “I’ll see you around.”
Max waves as Victoria drives off.
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Chapter 4: It's Time
Max plans her return to Arcadia Bay
Quick July 4th bonus chapter!
Max (9:45 AM, Sun): Kate, I think I’m going to do it
Max is sitting at her desk, a map of train routes to Arcadia Bay open on her laptop. She stares at the way the highlighted course makes its way down the Pacific coastline before curving off into Oregon. With her eyes tightly shut, she can imagine being on the train itself – her therapist once told her that envisioning scenarios that worry her in a safe space can help lessen her anxieties. It’s just a train. It’s just a quick trip.
It’s just Arcadia Bay.
The further away that Max gets from Arcadia Bay, in both distance and time, the more grand and mythic it seems in her mind. It helps that her most recent memories of the town are so strange and heightened, but something about the place simply doesn’t seem real. The people she once knew feel more like caricatures than actual human beings; human beings that held so much power over her life not so long ago.
Max sighs and stares out her window at the gray Seattle skyline. Maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s time to lay those ghosts to rest.
Max’s phone buzzes, and as always, it doesn’t fail to make her jump.
Kate (10:38 AM, Sun): Sorry it took so long for me to reply! I was at church :) And you should! It’d be wonderful to see you again. How long is your winter break?
Max can’t help but smile. Kate never fails at having that effect on her.
Max (10:40 AM, Sun): My parents looked up the Blackwell schedule and it looks like you guys start a week earlier than I do. It might be nice to see everyone then
Kate (10:42 AM, Sun): Yes do it! Everyone would love to see you, honest. Dana’s been asking about you so much lately and I’ve been having a hard time deflecting her questions
Max laughs. No doubt that Kate hates having to lie, even by admission, to any of her friends.
Max (10:44 AM, Sun): I’m sorry, you may have to keep deflecting. I don’t want people to make a big thing of me coming back, so I don’t think I’m going to tell anyone. Besides you, obviously
Kate (10:45 AM, Sun): I totally understand :) I’m looking forward to seeing you!
Max sets her phone down and grins. If everyone is even half as nice as Kate is, this trip will be completely fine. Of course, expecting that is still absurdly optimistic, knowing the student body of Blackwell. Still, the positives of returning to Arcadia Bay seem to outweigh the negatives.
Max heads downstairs, where her parents are preparing lunch. Whatever it is, it smells delicious, and Max’s dad even has his novelty apron on. Things are getting serious.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Max’s dad greets. “How’s it hanging?”
Max just looks at him, confused, as her mom rolls her eyes.
“Dear, the kids don’t talk like that,” Max’s mom says. “Max – how’s it hanging?”
Max snorts and sits down at the kitchen island.
“I’ve been planning my trip to Arcadia Bay,” Max says.
Max’s parents both look at one another.
“So, you’re sure about going?” Max’s mom asks.
“I think so,” Max says. “It’s still a little scary, but I’ve been looking up train routes and trying to visualize the whole trip. I think it’ll be good for me.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to take one of our cars?” Max’s dad asks. “We don’t mind carpooling to work while you’re gone.”
“Or maybe you can go with Victoria when she has to go back for school?” Max’s mom asks.
“No, I want to do this on my own,” Max says. “Though I don’t really want to be driving alone, I trust the train a little more than I trust myself.”
“Okay, if you say so, honey,” Max’s mom says. “Where are you going to stay?”
Max just stares at her for a moment, before deflating, her chin resting against the cool counter tile.
“I didn’t even think about that,” Max says.
Max’s parents look at one another once again.
“Well, we may have an idea,” Max’s dad says tentatively.
“Yes, we do,” Max’s mom. “We’ve been keeping in touch with Joyce, of course, and she suggested that you can stay at their house.”
Max wants to suppress the look of panic that comes unbidden to her, but given her parents’ reactions, she’s not successful. There’s no ignoring the way her heartbeat speeds up at the mere suggestion that she stay at Chloe’s old house.
“You don’t have to, of course,” Max’s dad says. “We’re more than happy to put you up at a hotel for your trip. Just a thought.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Max says.
Max’s mom sighs and goes to sit next to her.
“When I was talking with Joyce, she mentioned that it can be helpful to really immerse yourself in the person you lost, once you’re ready,” Max’s mom says. “Even if it hurts at first, allowing yourself to feel everything you’re going to feel can help.”
“I’ve been avoiding that this whole time,” Max say softly, miserably.
“I know, sweetheart,” Max’s mom says. “But maybe it’s time.”
“Maybe,” Max says. “Maybe it is.”
Soft acoustic guitars and gentle vocals provide a soundtrack as Max packs up her things for her return to Arcadia Bay. She keeps things simple – an assortment of graphic tees, some hoodies, some skinny jeans, and her “Chloe jacket.”
She’s planned on leaving the next day, around mid-morning, but she wants to make sure she’s packed up now and has everything that she needs. For a moment, she thinks about taking a camera, but she quickly shuts that down. No more photography. Not now, at least. Not there.
Still, though, her gaze falls at the shadowy gap between her bedframe and the floor, where her shoebox filled with memories lies. It might be nice to take it with her – but she quickly remembers that many of those memories captured in her polaroid pictures and her journal would seem impossible to anyone else. Now, that shoebox is filled with memories siphoned from an aborted timeline.
Max’s phone buzzes, rattling worryingly close to the edge of her desk. She grabs it before it can fall.
Victoria (9:30 AM, Thurs): I can’t believe you’re not going back to Arcadia Bay with me
Victoria (9:30 AM, Thurs): Do you not trust my driving???
Max rolls her eyes and begins typing.
Max (9:32 AM, Thurs): Sorry :( Wanted to take the train. I’ve always liked taking the train
Victoria (9:35 AM, Thurs): God, you’re such a fucking hipster
A pang of annoyance jolts Max’s chest when she reads that text, but it quickly fades. She knows Victoria well enough now to realize that it’s just some friendly ribbing.
Max (9:39 AM, Thurs): I’ll see you on Sunday though when you get there!
Victoria (9:45 AM, Thurs): Fine, Caulfield. Weirdo. Have it your way.
Max can practically hear Victoria sighing over that text. She just texts back a smiley face before returning to packing. She finishes shoving her clothes into her duffel bag when her mom pokes her head in through the doorway.
“Hey, honey, we should head out pretty soon if we want to make it to the station in time,” Max’s mom says. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah, Mom, almost,” Max says. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Of course,” Max’s mom says. “Don’t take too long!”
Max just grins and nods, and her mom heads back downstairs. With a deep sigh, she spares one last look beneath her bed. With memories of that week rattling around in her head, she quickly reaches beneath the bed and grabs the lonely shoebox. Just so that she can’t think about it too much, she shoves it roughly into her duffel bag.
With that, Max heads downstairs, ready to return to Arcadia Bay.
“Are you ready, Max?” her dad asks.
“Yeah,” Max says. “I’m ready.”
Chapter 5: Dream of Thaw
It’s a lonely train car.
Even going through the station was like going cross-traffic. Everyone wants to be in Seattle, but nobody wants to leave, making Max’s journey through the station and to the train itself easy.
The train isn’t completely empty, of course, but the car that Max is sitting in is. It’s kind of nice, in a way, but eerie at the same time – there’s something so melancholy about being in a public space so devoid of life. To pass the time, Max puts in her earbuds and listens to soft, calming music. She stares out the window, watching the scenery flying by. It doesn’t take long to leave the city proper, and soon the train is carving a path through wilder scenery.
It’s nice. Max rests her head against the tall window and watches the Douglas firs pass her by. Between the gentle rocking of the train and the soft music she has on, it doesn’t take long for her eyelids to droop before she eventually falls asleep.
Max flinches, coming to with a start. She blinks slowly, trying to clear the gauzy haze from her vision. Her surroundings are slowly becoming less blurry, but they already seem different than before. It’s certainly not the empty seat that it was.
Max’s eyes widen as her brain finally registers what she’s seeing. It’s Chloe, sitting in front of her, a big smile on her face. Max feels like a lightning bolt just hit her sternum.
“Chloe?” Max blurts out, not caring how loud she’s being. “What are you – how – how are you here?”
“Max, it’s okay,” Chloe says. “I just wanted to tell you that I think this is a good idea. Coming back to Arcadia Bay is good.”
“Chloe, what’s going on?” Max asks. “Did I do this? Did I screw up with my time travel again?”
“Max, it’s okay,” Chloe says once more, for emphasis. “I’ll see you around, first mate, alright?”
“Wait, no, what’s happening?” Max asks as her vision once again becomes blurry.
Max gasps as she wakes up. She looks around the train car again, realizing that she’s no longer by herself – there’s an old woman sitting on the opposite side of the car and a young couple sitting in the second level. She cradles her head in her hands with a groan.
It was just a dream. It’s okay.
Max doesn’t know what’s happening to her. It’s almost as if the moment she left the city limits, the energy around her has changed. She has no idea what being back in Arcadia Bay itself will be like, given that it’s practically a whole different world compared to Seattle.
Max pulls her earbuds out and grabs a book from her bag. She needs something solid to focus on – no more drifting off. Now, she only hopes that her dreams at night will be normal, especially since she’ll be staying at Chloe’s old house.
Max walks slowly through the tiny train station in Arcadia Bay, searching for Joyce. Just as she’s about to take out her phone to call her, the ocean of people milling about in front of her seems to part and there Joyce is, standing near the exit. The late afternoon light streams in through the windows and all-glass doors, making Joyce glow golden. Max’s heart breaks for her – there’s a deep sense of sorrow to the lines of her face.
She’s lost so much.
Joyce smiles and waves when she sees Max, who smiles in return and quickly makes her way over.
“Hey, Max,” Joyce greets warmly. “It’s so good to see you.”
Before Max can even respond, she’s wrapped up in a tight hug. It feels good – not quite like coming home, but something close.
“Hey, Joyce,” Max says. “You still look great.”
“Oh, you little flatterer,” Joyce says. “I can’t believe you’re really back. How many times are you going to leave and come back?”
It’s said in a jovial tone, but it still makes Max think. What is it about Arcadia Bay that calls her in only to push her away?
“Hopefully not too much more,” Max says. “After this.”
“It’s good to have you back,” Joyce says. “Though I don’t begrudge you for leaving. Maybe it would be for the best.”
Sorrow weighs heavily on Max, slowing her pace as they begin walking to Joyce’s car.
“Is the town still struggling?” Max asks, a broad way to broach whatever it is Joyce is feeling.
“Seems like it’s getting worse than ever,” Joyce sighs. “The Blackwell scandal did us no favors, and it’s not like kicking out the Prescotts brought the fish back.”
Though it all makes such plain sense, in the back of her head Max was holding on to the hope that sacrificing Chloe would’ve saved the town entire. The whole time, she’s known it was a naïve hope, that reality would catch up with her sooner or later. There are no silver bullets, only the normal ebb and flow of life.
“You want to know what the worst part is? The town is struggling even more without the Prescotts,” Joyce says as her car coughs to life. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they’re gone. But they’ve always brought in money and created jobs, even though none of us very much like those jobs. Now there’s not a whole lot out here.”
“Wow,” Max says. “I had no idea it would be like this.”
“People tolerated the Prescotts for a long time just because of that,” Joyce says. “But sometimes, enough is enough. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, though.”
Max almost laughs at that. She’s learned that lesson over and over again.
“It’s worth it, though,” Joyce says. “It’s always worth it.”
“I like to think so,” Max says. “How’s the diner doing?”
Joyce smiles weakly.
“Still trucking along,” Joyce says. “People still need to eat.”
“That’s good,” Max says. “It wouldn’t be Arcadia Bay without the Two Whales.”
“That’s sweet of you to say, dear,” Joyce says. “I imagine it’ll be one of your stops now that you’re back?”
“Definitely,” Max says.
The rest of the car ride is relatively silent, and Max contents herself by staring out the window and watching the town pass her by. It’s incredible how unchanged it is – even her memories of Arcadia Bay from when she was just a young girl are no different. Maybe time really is different here, broken, and Max simply tapped into that.
“We’re here,” Joyce says, rousing Max from her silent introspection.
Max looks up at the house as Joyce pulls into the driveway. David has clearly finished the new paintjob, and the stunning blue color is a vast and surprising improvement over the peeling, cracking paint of before. Still, for Max, it hurts just to look at. Joyce is still here, but what is left of the house of old? Chloe’s gone, and nothing will ever be the same.
Joyce’s keys jingle as they walk up to the front door. Seattle feels like a million miles away as Max crosses through the threshold and steps inside, treading the same path she did so many times when she was young. If there was any time at all that Max felt like she was stuck in a time loop, it’s right now, stepping into this house that’s so steeped in memories.
“You can stay in Chloe’s old room, if you want. We haven’t had the heart to clean it out, except for tossing out some old beer bottles and cigarette butts. It looks exactly like it did before,” Joyce says. “I can understand if you don’t want to, though. The couch is plenty comfy, too.”
Max’s throat clenches shut. This feels like an important moment, one that she’ll look back on and lament her choice, one way or another. Only this time, there’s no going back. Only forward.
“No, it’s fine,” Max says. “I kind of want to see her room again. Or I think I might need to.”
Joyce nods knowingly.
“I’ll let you go ahead and get settled, then,” Joyce says. “I’ll start whipping up dinner. David will be home soon – don’t worry, he knows you’re here.”
“Thanks, Joyce,” Max says. “I’ve missed your cooking so much.”
“I always knew there was a reason I like you so much,” Joyce says, smiling.
Joyce squeezes Max’s shoulder before she heads into the kitchen. Max just stands there for a moment, taking it all in. She’s back. She’s really back in Arcadia Bay, and she’s back in Chloe’s house, a place she once swore she’d never return to.
Max looks up at the stairs. They seem so much steeper than before, looming up before her and stretching into eternity. Her legs feel sluggish and weak with each step she takes, and a deep sense of dread grips at her as she stands in front of the door to Chloe’s room.
“I double-dare you. Kiss me right now.”
Max’s hand wavers as she reaches for the doorknob.
“My powers might not last, Chloe.”
“That’s okay. We will. Forever.”
Max rests her forehead against the door, her hand loosely clasped around the doorknob. Sorrow weighs heavily upon her heart, and it all begins to feel like too much for her. Chloe is gone. She’s gone and she’s never coming back and Max is trying her very hardest not to lose it completely.
With a deep, shuddering breath, Max opens the door and steps into Chloe’s room.
For a second, Max swears she sees Chloe right there on the bed, lying on her back, smoke drifting up from her mouth. Her eyes widen in absolute shock and she blinks firmly. As she opens her eyes again, whatever vision she had of Chloe – imagined or otherwise – is gone.
I think I might be losing it.
The room is exactly as Max remembers it, otherwise. It’s chaos, barely distilled into a livable room and filtered through Chloe’s distinct personality. The mess has been cleared up somewhat, but the distinct features – like the posters, Chloe’s messy scrawl on the walls, and the American flag – all remain. Max wanders aimlessly around the room for a moment, simply taking it all in. It’s late in the day, and golden sunlight, burned orange around the edges, floods in through the window above the desk.
The room looks almost exactly as it did on the day of her sudden reunion with Chloe, right down to the quality of the light. Max can feel tears welling up behind her eyes and her legs begin to feel absolutely feeble, so she stumbles over to the bed and sits down in a heap.
Max hates that she can remember that week with such absolute clarity. The memory she’s confident in calling her last happy one happened in this very room – waking up in here with Chloe, after having successfully snuck into Blackwell, was one shining moment in an otherwise pitch-black week. Max can still remember exactly how it felt: the warm sunlight, the rough sheets against her skin, Chloe by her side. Though it didn’t last, she had felt completely safe in bed with Chloe. Max still wishes she could’ve stayed in that moment forever – but she knows the drill now. Time isn’t something to be trifled with.
And now, Max is going to have to sleep in here every night that she’s back in Arcadia Bay. What more divine torture could there be?
Max begins to unpack, her hand immediately bumping against the shoebox as she reaches into her duffel bag. With a deep sigh, she unzips the bag and places the shoebox with a quiet sort of reverence on Chloe’s desk.
“I think I have to return this, Chloe,” Max says. “Sorry I couldn’t do more with it.”
Max begins hanging some of her clothes up in the closet when there’s a knock at the door.
“Max?” Joyce’s voice sounds from the other side. “David just got home, so we’ll be having dinner in just a sec.”
“Thanks, Joyce,” Max says. “I’ll be down soon.”
“Okay, Max,” Joyce says.
The sun has just set, leaving the house in relative darkness besides the light above the dining room table. It’s as if they’ve been caught in a cocoon of glowing light, completely separated from the rest of the world. The sound of chewing and of silverware clacking against plates provides the only soundtrack to the moment. Sorrow clings to every inch of the house like humidity, and Max is drowning in it.
“So, Max, how’s Seattle?” David asks gruffly.
The concept of David attempting small-talk with her is foreign to Max, but not entirely unwelcome. It’s better than the brief, accusatory conversations they used to have.
“It’s fine,” Max says. “I mean, it’s a great city. I just don’t really feel settled there, I guess.”
“Well, we miss you back here in Arcadia Bay, honey,” Joyce says. “It’ll be nice to have you back, even if it’s only for a short while.”
Max nods as she idly runs her fork through her food. Joyce’s cooking is delicious, as it always is, but Max just can’t seem to find her appetite.
“How’s Blackwell doing?” Max asks. “After – y’know – everything.”
David and Joyce share a quick look, before David clears his throat.
“School’s not doing so well,” David says. “Folks are still freaking out about Mr. Jefferson, not that I can blame them. To have that sort of evil take root in your hometown is unthinkable to most people around here.”
Max nods thoughtfully.
“But it did. It happened,” David says.
“Right, of course,” Joyce says. “All we can do now is pick up the pieces.”
“Yeah,” Max says softly. “Pick up the pieces.”
“I just can’t help but think that things could be different,” David says, beginning to clutch his fork more tightly.
“Different how?” Max asks.
“A lot of things,” David says. “Maybe if I convinced Mr. Wells to put cameras up sooner, or if I had been smarter about my investigation…”
David’s fork lands on his plate with a loud clatter, making Max jump in surprise.
“Damn it!” David exclaims. “Sorry.”
The house is utterly silent for a moment, though Max’s heart is beating so loudly that she’s surprised that Joyce and David can’t hear it.
“Honey, it’s okay,” Joyce says, rubbing his arm. “It’s not your fault.”
“I know,” David says. “I just wish things could’ve been different, is all.”
You and me both.
They fall back into silence. Max tries to recognize just how good the food tastes, but ends up simply going through the motions instead.
“You must miss her, huh?” David asks. “Probably even more than I do.”
Max isn’t expecting that question, and her heart shoots up into her throat. Being back in this house is too much. Being back at all is too much.
“I do,” Max manages to say, weakly. “I miss her a lot.”
David nods knowingly.
“I do too,” David says. “I wish I got to know her better. The real Chloe, not the one all torn up with anger and grief.”
For a moment, indignation flares up in Max’s chest, but it quickly subsides. Because she gets it. She gets where David is coming from, even if having to deal with all this perspective is overwhelming.
“I think that was the real Chloe,” Max says. “For better or for worse.”
“I suppose so,” David says. “The world just isn’t fair, huh? You two almost reunite and then, that happens.”
That makes Max pause. The time she spent with Chloe in that week is so utterly distinct that she sometimes completely forgets that, to the rest of the world, it doesn’t exist. In this timeline, Max never got to say so much as hello to Chloe before she was ripped away.
“Yeah,” Max says. “It’s really not fair.”
“We’re both so sorry, Max,” Joyce says. “I remember how close you two were all those years ago.”
“She was the best friend I ever had,” Max says, that familiar feeling of sorrow welling up in her chest. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” Joyce says. “It’s okay to cry.”
Oh. Right. I am crying.
Tears are falling from Max’s cheeks onto her plate of food. She stares down at her plate, momentarily fascinated by the sensation of wetness against her cheeks.
“Sorry,” Max says, sniffling and wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand. She doesn’t quite know what to say, so she goes with the first thing that comes to her mind. “My food’s going to get all soggy.”
Joyce laughs fondly at that.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Joyce says.
Joyce puts her hands on the table and slowly pushes herself up.
“You know what? I think it’s about time for dessert,” Joyce says. “Dessert always makes me feel better. I’ll bring some out for all of us.”
“No, it’s fine,” Max says. “I haven’t even finished my meal.”
“You’re an adult now, Max,” Joyce says. “You can eat desert whenever you like.”
Max manages a weak smile at that and wipes some more wetness away from her eyes.
“Alright,” Max says. “Thanks, Joyce.”
There’s the metallic creek of the oven from the kitchen, and Joyce walks out a few moments later with a pie cradled in her hands that smells so strongly of cinnamon and a crust that looks ready to burst.
“I wanted to make something nice, to celebrate your return,” Joyce says. “I’ll give you the first piece, Max.”
“Wow, this looks great,” Max says. “Thank you so much, Joyce.”
“Of course,” Joyce says, a warm smile on her face.
David clears his throat a bit uncomfortably.
“I, uh, I helped out too,” David says. “Buddy of mine grows apples in his backyard; he let me pick a few.”
Max smiles fondly at him. David can be kind of sweet, in a weird and distant and gravelly way. After everything they’ve both been through, Max doesn’t want to let old, presupposed notions get in the way of anything. David gets a pass.
“Thank you too, David,” Max says.
Joyce cuts a piece of the pie and slides it in front of Max. She smiles in return and digs in, nearly moaning out loud in satisfaction. Joyce is an amazing cook, and this pie is definitely a testament to her skill.
It’s not much – it’s not as if a really good dessert is going to solve all of Max’s problems – but it’s enough for the moment. Max can feel her spirits being lifted, even if not by much. Anything is certainly better than nothing. And at that dinner table, caught beneath the glow of the single ceiling light, sorrow and warmth mix in Max’s chest. She figures there’s never going to be a time that Arcadia Bay isn’t absolutely drenched in regret and melancholy.