She had jumped through so many photographs she’d lost track of the when long ago. She was tracing for a future that had Chloe in it. Chloe alive and vibrant, the town—Chloe’s family—not destroyed. She’d lived that future and saw it turn to dust. She could deal with anything else: Nathan, Jefferson, David. Anything to satiate that thing that required some death or tragedy.
She traced threads that different decisions led her to; she had nothing to lose at this point. Chloe was dead and not coming back in her timeline, and no matter what she did in that immediate past, Chloe remained dead—dead by gunshot, by bludgeon, by car accident, by suicide.
So Max pushed deeper into the past, traced more convoluted decisions—altering so much that she was lost in where and when as she came out of each picture.
The usual disorientation of slipping forward after a photograph change was different this time; this time Max settled into the new timeline on her side. She lifted her head from the pillow, wincing at the black specs in her vision that accompanied dizziness.
The sheets were coarse against her skin; she was half naked. Max jerked in surprise, further startled by an arm draped over her side. She barely suppressed a scream as the body attached to that arm shifted behind her. She’d hardly processed the implications of having someone in bed with her when a sleepy, familiar voice said, “Hey.”
Max rolled over, stunned—and then filled with relief so powerful it was close to elation. She wanted to collapse and cry except she knew there had to be some horrible trade-off, even if Chloe was here. Chloe lay on her side, her blonde hair mussed up, her face soft from sleep. Alive. Max pulled her into a tight hug, fighting to ignore the possible repercussions.
Chloe’s hands wrapped around her, and she tugged at Max’s hair. “Max? Are you okay?”
Max shook her head. “Bad dream,” she managed to say. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Depends on your definition of ‘okay’.” There was enough familiar teasing in her tone for Max to understand the statement wasn’t serious. One more fear resolved: this Chloe was happy too.
A phone vibrated on the bed-side table. Chloe pulled away from Max’s hug and grabbed at it. “Rachel,” she said by way of explanation, typing out a quick response with her thumb. Then she sat up in bed and stretched. Max was startled by how physically different this Chloe was than her other incarnations: there was substantial muscle along Chloe’s back and shoulders. Her hair was a straight shining blonde curtain down past her shoulders, and she tugged it back into a self-tying ponytail.
Rachel was alive too, a pang that Max had trouble processing. “What did Rachel want?”
“That stupid art project, what else?” Chloe grabbed jeans off the floor and pulled them on. “O’Leery is such a douche.”
Chloe turned around and stared at Max in surprise. “What’s wrong with you? O’Leery, your living idol, the woman you salivate over and want to emulate in every way? That O’Leery.”
No Jefferson in this timeline. And… She glanced around. The dorm room was Blackwell, and it was intact. No tornado here either. Or the warnings hadn’t come yet. She pressed a hand to her temple, pressing back the constant pounding headache.
Chloe was waiting for an answer, her eyebrows raised in what look liked true concern.
“Still shaking off my dream, sorry.”
“What was it about?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just glad you’re here.”
Chloe brightened immediately. She stepped towards Max and abruptly hesitated. That hesitation was new. Max took her hand and pulled her close for another hug. She smelled clean, with a hint of chlorine.
“Did you swim?”
“Uh, yeah, every day, sometimes twice a day. Captain of the swimming team, remember? Damn, that must have been some dream.”
Max laughed and shook her head against Chloe’s shoulder. She gave her one last squeeze and stepped back. Max was startled by the way Chloe was looking at her: wholly focused, and her eyes flickered from Max’s eyes down to her mouth and back up again. Then Chloe blinked, flushed, and turned away to grab her phone.
“I’ve got to meet Rachel now. My dad’s going to take me to lunch later. You want to come?”
William was alive then. No wonder Chloe was so happy and balanced. A drawback lurked somewhere in this wonderful future. What sort of sacrifice had been made for this all to be so right? “Sure. Just let me know when and where.”
Chloe raised her eyebrows again. “I don’t mind if you want to crash in my room for a bit, but don’t you have to meet Vicky—” She said that with a twist of her lips—“or something?”
Max glanced around for her jeans, realizing for the first time that the walls were decorated in concert and swimming posters, and ribbons and trophies lined the wall. She yanked on some faded jeans and glanced at her phone, abruptly overwhelmed by the number of texts she’d gotten: Victoria, Kate, and shit, Nathan. And… It was Sunday, Sunday after the storm would have destroyed Arcadia Bay. Whatever she’d done had fixed everything. Relief mixed with fear.
“Yo.” Chloe held out a brush, which Max pulled through her hair. She noticed for the first time that her head felt heavier; like Chloe, her hair was past her shoulders. Max wrestled with it for a moment before she gave up. Chloe then handed her a leather bag—that at least Max easily guessed was hers—and tugged on her own messenger bag. She locked the door behind her. After all the weirdness of the morning, the hall looked unchanged.
They took the side stairwell, and Max was surprised to pass Kate. “Hi, Kate.”
Kate glanced at Chloe with a deeply uncomfortable look but smiled brightly. “Hello, Max. Have a great day!”
“Fuck you too,” Chloe muttered under her breath as they continued down the stairs.
Max kept her question to herself. Chloe was already suspicious enough of her abnormal behavior. They stepped outside into the light of mid-morning. Chloe waved, and for the first time, Max saw Rachel Amber in person. She was beautiful in the sharp way that Chloe was beautiful, with the same sneering grin and sharp attitude.
“Kept me waiting long enough,” Rachel said with a twist of sarcasm that Max thought was more reminiscent of Chloe. Rachel gave a brief nod to Max. “Yo, Max.”
Rachel wrapped an arm around Chloe’s shoulders, and Max felt a pang as she watched them walk away like that. She and Chloe hadn’t touched with the unconscious ease of other timelines, and yet there she walked away under Rachel’s arm.
Max turned. Victoria approached, as recognizable in this timeline as any other, except she addressed Max without question. She rolled her eyes at Chloe and Rachel. “She wants you so much. I don’t know how you stand it.”
“Chloe, star swimmer, is a lesbian and wants to eat you out. I don’t know how many times I have to say it.”
Max jerked with that realization. Chloe had always joked about the possibility, and she had loved Rachel… But this was a sudden hurt on top of a shock as she saw Rachel and Chloe’s embrace in another light. “She and Rachel?”
“Yeah no. Rachel is as straight as you and I are,” Victoria said. Her eyebrow crept up. “You’re weird today.”
Max touched her forehead, wishing she’d woken with time to herself to figure this new world out. “Had a bad dream.”
“Probably fearing for your virtue. I don’t know how you sleep in the same bed as her.”
“Victoria, shut up.”
The surprise on Victoria’s face was genuine. And so was the apology that followed. “Sorry. I guess I sound as bad as Kate. I’m not against gays, it’s just she’s such a…well, dumb jock. You’re better than her.” Victoria raised her hands quickly. “Okay, done being a bitch. I’m still your friend, and the bitch part is only trying to protect you.”
Victoria was on her best behavior after that. She didn’t say anything about Chloe at all. They discussed photography, their own preferences and suggested techniques, how to capture that perfect shot. “I’d hate you if I didn’t respect you so much, Max,” Victoria said as they ventured to talk about themes for O’Leery’s photography contest. “You always win that shit, unless you don’t enter.”
Max shook her head. “I think your stuff is amazing.”
“Well, thanks for saying so.” Victoria bit her lip. “It’s just so hard with my parents…” She trailed off and winced. “I’m sorry. I know I’m lucky to have mine.”
It was a strange tangent, and it derailed their conversation altogether. Victoria left with a wave and a smile though. Max pondered that parting for a moment uneasily before she settled in a quiet area to thumb through her phone contacts.
The Max of this timeline kept in touch with almost everyone. Her texts with Victoria referenced photography mainly. Chloe had a string of silly texts, some during class, some teasing Max after this Max asked for help with her chemistry homework. Rachel Amber sent mostly one-word texts, confirming where Chloe was.
No texts from Warren in this world. Nathan, however, sent her pictures and notes, and quite a few of his texts referenced something that was definitely pot. Apparently this Max smoked weed regularly with him. None of the messages suggested madness or rage.
William and Joyce both had texted her within the week. Odd. Max flicked through their messages: a few questions about needing money or birthday gifts or coming over for dinner or staying the night.
There were no messages from Max’s parents, and her unease increased. She yelped as her phone vibrated. She’d received a text from Chloe. Meeting Dad at the diner for lunch. Want me to pick you up?
Sure. Will be in front of the dorm.
Max found herself smiling as an old truck pulled up. Some things didn’t change. Rachel was already sliding over to the middle seat on the bench when Max climbed in.
“How was your morning with Bitch-toria?” Rachel asked.
“Fun. We talked about—”
“Art,” Rachel and Chloe said together.
“Photography,” Max corrected. She felt oddly fragile to be with Rachel and Chloe and seeing their dynamic. They talked about music in a conversation that didn’t seem to need Max’s input. She wanted that to be her so badly it ached. Instead she looked out the window and pretended to ignore them.
The diner was essentially the same, though it looked more well-polished. William stood from his seat at a booth, and his smile soothed Max. “I’m a lucky man to get the company of such lovely women.”
“Hella gross, Dad.”
William kissed Chloe’s forehead, which made her wince. She sat across from her father, and Rachel slid in next to her, leaving Max to settle next to William.
“How’re you doing, Max?”
“Good,” she said with conviction, despite the odd troubled feeling that the other shoe had to drop. Something had to be wrong with this timeline. When Chloe and Rachel got up to use the restroom, William’s hand on her shoulder stopped Max from following them.
William’s smile was slow, not quite hiding his worry. “You can tell me anything, Max. I know this month can be hard one for you.” He put his arm over her shoulder. “Sometimes it just hits you again, doesn’t it? Just remember the good times. I’m here if you need it.”
“Thanks,” she said, marveling at the weirdness of that statement.
Conversation picked up, and Max focused on their little group through their lunch. Rachel and William left in opposite directions, and Chloe motioned for Max to climb into the truck.
“Where’s she going?”
“Meeting up with her dickweed boyfriend.” Chloe’s nose wrinkled, then she shook that expression off. “What was your dream, Max? About your parents?”
“My parents?” she asked, feeling ice slowly eat into her heart.
Chloe frowned at her. “About...when they died.”
And there it was. The other fucking shoe. Max put a hand over her mouth; tears filled her eyes. The sadness, sorrow, evil of this world was the same as the others, instead it was heaped on her. She’d killed her parents to find a better world for Chloe. What kind of person did that make her, to sacrifice her parents but not Chloe for Arcadia Bay?
“Max.” Chloe pulled off the road, ratcheted the emergency brake up, and climbed across the bench to pull her into a hug. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
It wasn’t, and it never would be.
There was always a price to pay. Always. Max put her head in her palm and shivered, newly mourning her parents. Dead, dead for Chloe’s happiness. And the worst part was that Max realized she wasn’t going to change this timeline. She wanted Chloe whole and happy, and someone had to pay for that choice.
It was a drunk driver. He’d run a stop sign four years before and ended both of her parent’s lives; her mother had taken a week to pass, her father only a few minutes. Max was an orphan that found a home with the Price family in Acadia Bay. She had a room in the Price house, kept clean and ready for her just as Chloe had one.
The Max of this world was quieter and more cynical yet made friends with almost all of her old classmates. Victoria and Nathan were the oddest additions—Nathan was quiet and steady in this universe. Rachel was a rebel, with a big laugh and an occasional nasty attitude. Chloe loved Rachel, though Chloe was calmer and sweeter and far less jaded in this world. Chloe didn’t smoke pot, though Max sometimes did.
It was weird to learn herself. During her last jumps, Max hadn’t cared about putting on a costume; she’d wanted to be herself, to love Chloe as she was. Now she realized she was here to stay. No more time jumps. She would have to do what she could with this universe as she’d created it. So she had to put on this Max’s skin and be her and gradually change her to the Max she was.
It was an exercise in exhaustion, but she reveled in the safety of this new Blackwell and the happiness that Chloe showed every day. Max found herself at swim practices, snapping shots of Chloe’s strong form sliding through the water, grinning on the wall between sets, shoving her teammates into the pool with a teasing grin.
Chloe didn’t extend that same casual familiarity with Max. Her smiles were wide, her looks were long, but she rarely took Max’s hand and always grew stiff if Max initiated the touch. The only true hugs she’d given were when Max was grieving or when she fell asleep and draped an arm over Max’s body when they shared a bed.
Max fumbled through the situation cautiously, reveling in those times they were alone and learning more about Chloe when they were with other people. Victoria and Nate both asked why she’d withdrawn, and Rachel told her to stop clinging so damn much to Chloe. They would never understand that Chloe always came first.
One weekend, Chloe drove her to her parents’ house, and they stayed there over the weekend. Chloe’s room was neat, with movie and swimming posters. There were no half-naked women, no ash trays, no joints. Everything in the room was now familiar to Max.
They stayed up late, talking about homework and their hopes for the future, and Chloe looked at Max more and more. Finally, she said, “You’re different. You’ve been different.”
“I think I’ve realized what’s important.”
“You stopped smoking pot.”
By Chloe’s guarded tone, this was important to her in this timeline. Max nodded; it was the truth. “Yeah.”
"Is that why you have so many headaches?"
Max shrugged. The headaches had been easing with time.
“Are you and Nathan still hooking up?”
Jesus. With everything she’d learned about the Max of this timeline, she’d never guessed that. Chloe had to be misinterpreting something. “No. No, it was never like that.”
“Bullshit.” Chloe was abruptly exactly as Max had expected: a sharp angles and harsh cynicism. “You can try that when I didn’t walk in on you two.”
“I don’t care about him like that, Chloe. You have to know you’re the most important person in my life.”
“'Most important person’. Great. I’m like your sister, right? The best friend, best sister you could ever want.” Chloe shoved past Max to climb off the bed and pace the bedroom floor.
“So much more.”
“I’m a lesbian, Max! ‘More’ to me means dating and love and sex so don’t fucking tease me! I can’t stand it. You’ve been making me hope again, and that’s so fucking unfair.” Chloe’s voice broke, and she wiped her eyes with the base of her hands. “I’m so stupid. I told myself I wouldn’t do this again, not after I walked in on you fucking Nathan. I thought I was going to die. I told myself I didn’t love you, but that was all a lie. I’ll keep thinking I’m going to accept that scholarship in New England just to figure out a way to be separate from you, and I can’t make myself do it. I should. I need to quit you.”
So that was what she needed to make Chloe happy. Max looked at her friend and knew she’d already made the decision. Anything for Chloe. Anything to make Chloe happy. Anything to keep her close. “I want more. I want you.”
Chloe sat down in the chair, abruptly silent. She stared at her hands and shook her head, fighting tears and a hesitant smile. She raised her gaze hesitantly. “You don’t really mean that.”
Max crossed the room to settle on her knees in front of Chloe. She stroked her finger along Chloe’s hand. “Kiss me and find out for yourself.”
She’d given up her parents for Chloe. She could give Chloe this too. Nothing was worth anything if Chloe wasn’t happy, and the fact she could bring that happiness so easily was…a relief. When Chloe kissed her, Max let her. She kissed her back.
Anything to keep Chloe. This was an easy sacrifice in comparison to the others she’d made. And what was the point of the other sacrifices if she didn’t give this up too?
No, Max pondered later, lying naked against Chloe. This sacrifice was nothing to her and everything to Chloe. She would choose Chloe every time.