"Arcadia Bay Police have now called off the search for missing Blackwell student Rachel Amber, as she was found unharmed at a friend's house early this morning. Police would not confirm whether the teen ran away, merely stating that she is now at home with her family."
Max blinked awake slowly, fighting off the glare of sunlight in a very white room. Her mind drifted awhile before she realized the voice she was hearing was the drone of a TV suspended somewhere above her.
"Can you believe that girl, scaring her parents like that?" came a different, familiar woman's voice off to one side.
"At least she's safe," replied an equally-familiar male voice.
"Mom? Dad?" Max rasped.
"Maxine? Honey?" Vanessa Caulfield appeared at her side in an instant, leaning into view with an alarmed look. "Are you awake? Can you hear me?"
"Yeah," Max replied, inhaling sharply. "What happened?"
Her dad crossed around the bed to stand on the other side. "Take it easy, Max. You've been sick, and you had surgery. What do you remember?"
Max blinked, and realized a haze of white gauze obscured part of her vision. She lifted a hand to reach for her head, only to tangle her fingers clumsily against IV tubes. Very little about the entire situation made sense, especially the news report droning on in the background about that Rachel Amber girl. Her parents exchanged worried glances, but Max ignored them and tried to concentrate.
"The storm..." she murmured. "What happened after the storm?" She jerked in sudden realization. "Where's Chloe?" she demanded.
"Chloe found you during the storm," Vanessa said, as her hands fluttered over her daughter, trying to ward off the building anxiety. "She called for the ambulance. She saved your life."
Ryan stepped away, leaning out of the hospital room to get the attention of some doctor.
Max almost laughed at the bizarre notion of Chloe saving her... but why was that funny? She couldn't focus, couldn't understand what had happened, and really couldn't understand why her head hurt so damn much.
Her ears began to ring, drowning out her parents and the young doctor who hurried in to shine a bright light in her eyes, then she mercifully lost consciousness again.
A few hours later, after a thorough check up and a lot of medical jargon involving words like "cerebral aneurysm" and subsequent brain surgery, Max's parents left to let her rest.
Max was dozing when she heard the door open. Chloe peeked in, and grinned when she saw Max smile sleepily back at her.
"Dude! I heard you were awake," Chloe said cheerfully, as she loped into the room. The soft, affectionate look on Max's face made her unaccountably bashful, and she ducked her head in sheer reflex.
"Dude," Max replied. "I heard you saved my ass." For some reason, she was vaguely disappointed that Chloe's hair was its natural blonde color. Weird.
Chloe grimaced. "Yeah, well. That sucked, by the way." She wandered up to the bedside and shoved her hands into her pockets. "You okay?"
"I feel like shit," Max admitted, as she slumped against her pillow.
"Not surprised," Chloe replied. "They leave the important parts behind?" she asked, lifting her chin to indicate the bright white gauze wrapped around Max's skull.
"Hope so," Max said, as she fought off a yawn. She reached out, intending to take Chloe's hand and pull her closer, but stopped herself with an awkward wandering movement.
Chloe blinked but didn't comment, then puffed out a breath. "Gonna have a gnarly scar, though," she said. "Chicks dig scars." She blushed a bit, and rubbed the back of her neck. "Or so I hear."
Max chuckled. "So I've got that going for me, which is nice."
"Dork," Chloe accused gently, before stepping away to grab the reclining seat by the window and drag it closer to the bed. She sprawled across it and kicked her feet up to the bed rail. "You scared the shit outta me, yannow."
"Sorry," Max said, still smiling.
Chloe fidgeted a bit and looked around the room, noting the balloons and flowers piled up across all available surfaces. "But your Blackwell posse really came through. Suppose they're good for something."
"Yeah," Max agreed. She was exhausted, and Chloe must have finally noticed.
"You need to rest, huh? I'll just bail," Chloe said, as she moved to get up.
"No, please," Max murmured, even as her eyes fluttered shut. "Stay. Missed you."
There was no earthly way Chloe was going to ignore a plea like that. "Okay. I could read you highlights from the Arcadia Bay Police blotter," she said, holding up her phone. "Truly exciting shit going down in the 'Bay, and I only did some of it." It seemed gratuitous to mention that she'd read to Max every night since her admittance to the hospital, desperately hoping her voice would reach her friend, wherever she was.
Max smiled faintly and closed her eyes. "Sounds awesome," she said.
"Hell yeah," Chloe agreed, as she settled in to read the latest in the saga of dog fights in the area, all broken up by an unknown vigilante.
Some time later, her voice trailed off as she watched Max sleeping peacefully, feeling an intense wash of relief to see natural rest instead of the induced unconsciousness of a body recovering from trauma. She stood up and stretched muscles badly abused by the terrible hospital furniture, then carefully shuffled the chair back to its usual spot so that Mrs. Caulfield wouldn't notice and ask annoying questions.
Speaking of... Chloe checked the time. The Caulfields were likely to stop by and see their daughter again before visiting hours were over, and that was a pile of awkward Chloe would rather avoid stepping into. Max's parents were nice enough, but they tended to get pushy about their daughter's health and Chloe's own involvement in her illness.
How did you find her?
Why didn't we know she was sick?
Why didn't you know she was sick?
You don't have to come see her every day, you know.
That last one was especially annoying. She didn't feel like she had to justify her presence, or explain their relationship...
... but shit, it'd be nice to have an explanation for their relationship. Max left, then she came back. Max didn't even bother contacting her, then suddenly she's blowing up Chloe's phone with urgent and increasingly alarming texts. They spend countless hours together like nothing's changed, except for the sharp catch in Chloe's chest that reminds her that everything's changed.
They're friends. Maybe they're something else.
And oh, by the way, some doctors just cut out a fucking chunk of Max's skull, and no one was sure how much of "Max" they took with it.
Chloe stood at Max's bedside and studied her friend for a moment. With a sigh, she reached out to fuss with the edge of the blanket, then ran feather-light fingertips across the border of the white gauze across her friend's forehead. "Gnight, Max," she whispered. "See you tomorrow."
"'Night, Chlo'," Max slurred in return, turning toward Chloe's voice with a smile but not actually waking up.
Chloe closed her eyes to fight back sudden, stupid, ridiculously-fucking-happy tears, then crept out of the room.
The next day, the doctors prodded Max to get up and start moving, insisting that she would heal faster if her body was active. It may have been logical and in her best interests or some other medical bullshit, but Max was pretty sure she wanted to stab the overly-cheery nurse who wandered in once an hour to insist she get up to pee.
In between bouts of dizzy shuffling through the hospital corridors and fending off her overly-solicitous parents, she struggled to recall the events of the past week. There was class, something about Kate Marsh that worried her profoundly (which seemed unfounded, given the balloon and the cheery note her friend had sent her), and Chloe. The vagueness of her memory only compounded her annoyance, feeling like something vitally important dangled just outside of her reach.
Thankfully, when Chloe wandered in to the room that evening carrying an enormous teddy bear, Max's irritation evaporated immediately. "Hi," she said, with a smile that was surprisingly reflexive. "You didn't have to come back. I know you don't like hospitals."
Chloe shrugged. "Dude, no one likes hospitals. But that wasn't going to keep me from seeing you."
"Aww," Max said, blushing a bit. "Is that for me?" she asked, pointing at the teddy bear.
She feigned nonchalance. "What, this? Nah. I just carry stuffed animals around now. It's cool."
Max reached out and wiggled her fingers, so Chloe obligingly handed over the bear.
"His name is Thomas," Chloe announced, very seriously.
Max smooshed her face into Thomas' soft fur, and hugged him tightly. "Of course it is," she agreed. "Thank you."
"I figured he could keep you company when I'm not here," Chloe said, stifling a doofy grin as she watched Max assault the toy with snuggles. "And they wouldn't let me into your dorm room to rescue the Cap'n."
"Now he has a first mate," Max said happily, smiling up at Chloe from behind a fuzzy ear.
Chloe reached to her back pocket, pulling out a folded copy of Blackwell's student newspaper. "Also, this happened," she said, handing the paper to Max with an apprehensive look.
Curious, Max unfolded the paper to read the headline.
BLACKWELL STUDENT WINS 'EVERYDAY HEROES' PHOTO CONTEST
Winner Maxine Caulfield honored while hospitalized after brain surgery
Max blinked. "Holy shit," she said bluntly. She paled and looked up at Chloe in alarm. "But I didn't enter anything," she added, starting to panic. "Did I? Chloe, I don't remember."
"You didn't," Chloe said, rushing to assure her. "I sorta entered for you. Please don't be mad."
Oh. Her anxiety derailed abruptly, leaving resurgent annoyance in its place. "I'm not mad," Max lied with a scowl. "Which photo did you enter?"
"Page 4," Chloe replied.
Max thumbed through the pages until she spotted the scan of a polaroid. She recognized the setting immediately, if not the subject matter. It was the garage at the Price household, where a bird's nest was tucked behind some spare lumber. A figure in the background held a couple boards away from the nest while a proud mama bird stood sentry at the periphery.
A handwritten note on the photo's border dubbed the image "Guardians."
It was a great shot, with a baby bird's oblivious and serene gaze captured in sharp focus, with the other bird and person - Chloe, Max realized with a squint - in the background progressively less distinct. Max immediately loved the picture, even though she couldn't remember taking it.
"You took that just before you got sick," Chloe said, as if reading her confusion. "We heard the birds chirping in the garage, and the lumber had fallen over so the mother couldn't get to the nest."
"So you saved them," Max murmured, still staring hard at the photograph.
Chloe snorted. "I picked up a couple pieces of wood. Nothing special. But it fit the contest, and it's a great shot. Since you were too chickenshit to enter yourself, I thought I'd surprise you."
Max looked up at her, eyebrows raised in escalating disbelief.
"So, surprise?" Chloe said tentatively, raising both hands in mock triumph. "Go Super Max, the famous photographer? Yay?"
"I can't believe you did that," Max said, staring back at the picture. "You can't just..." she trailed off, unsure if she was happy, proud, or really fucking pissed. She crumpled the paper in her fist. "That wasn't up to you, Chloe. It was my picture."
"I know," Chloe said, in a hurry to mollify her friends anger. "Dude, I know. It wasn't cool. I'm sorry. I just wanted you to stop doubting yourself. I know you're amazing, and I wanted you to believe that too. For once."
For a moment, Max glared at the crumpled paper in her lap, simmering in frustration. Suddenly she realized her fingers had cramped, fisted deep in Thomas' chest, and immediately forced herself to relax. She wasn't really angry at her friend, just at being sick, at feeling like her own life had happened in her absence, and wondering what else she had missed. She took a deep breath, then looked up to meet Chloe's worried gaze.
"Check with me next time you want to make me famous, okay?" she asked, with a faint, apologetic smile.
All the tension immediately swept out of Chloe's posture, and she heaved a sigh of relief. "Okay," she agreed. "I really am sorry."
"'Sokay," Max said, and gave Thomas another hug. He smelled vaguely of the leather of Chloe's coat, which was inordinately soothing.
For a moment Chloe rocked back and forth on her feet, then went and grabbed her favorite chair to drag it to the bedside. "So how are you doing today?" she asked, as she flung herself across the seat in her customary boneless posture.
Max shrugged, not looking up. "I guess I'm okay. Still trying to figure out what happened this past week."
"You and me both, dude," Chloe said.
"I feel like I'm missing a lot of stuff," Max continued. "My mom said you found me standing in a storm, but she wouldn't tell me any more than that. And I don't have my phone, so I can't check my texts or anything."
For a moment, Chloe considered lying to dodge the hopeful look on Max's face. Then she sighed, and dug into her pocket for her phone. She swiped at it a few times before handing it to Max. "You were sending me weird texts all week," she said.
Max scrolled through their conversation, alarmed and disconcerted by the disjointed fragments on the screen. Something about an eclipse, something about a junkyard, increasing anxiety and disconnect, and the last messages that made her heart race:
I LOVE YOU
ILL ALWAYS LOVE U
SEE U AGAIN AT THE LIGHTHOUSE
The phone dropped from her suddenly numb fingers, and Max looked up to see Chloe desperately avoiding her gaze. "You came to the lighthouse?" Max whispered.
Chloe gave her an exasperated look and jabbed a finger toward the phone. "Of course I did. You were fucking scary right then, Max. What does that even mean? I thought you were gonna off yourself or something."
Max barely heard her. "The storm," she said, grasping at the sudden, faint fragment of memory.
"You were standing there, ankle deep in mud, holding out your hand," Chloe said, mimicking the motion with her own arm, then waving it about in agitation. "Blood was gushing out of your nose, and you were muttering about how you 'couldn't save them.'"
She didn't bother mentioning that she'd broken several traffic laws to get there, then sprinted up the hill and nearly broke her own neck fighting past fallen logs and sharp rocks. Nor did she feel the need to describe the desperation she'd felt when Max collapsed in her arms, covered in blood and barely breathing.
And really, it was best not to share how she'd just fucking panicked when the rain killed her phone in the middle of the 911 call, and how she'd screamed herself hoarse into the storm until she saw EMTs climbing the hill.
She certainly didn't bring up the creepy-ass deer she'd seen watching them from just beyond the tree line.
All of a sudden she could feel the weight of Max's gaze, and Chloe wondered just how long she'd been sitting there, looking shell-shocked. She cleared her throat and leaned forward to pluck the phone from where it had fallen on Max's bed. "So yeah. Not the top of my 'been there, gotta do that again' list."
Max could find nothing to say. Nothing to explain what she'd done, or what she'd written. The missing pieces that explained her behavior were starting to take form, like the figures out of focus in her winning photograph, but she still had no words to describe them. She looked at Chloe, willing her friend to understand what she herself could not.
Chloe, for her part, fiddled with her phone before tucking it back in her pocket, and kept her eyes averted. When she could bear the silence no longer, she got up, carefully put her chair back near the window, and stopped to give Max's hand a squeeze before shuffling back out of the room.
Her parents arrived sometime later, made vague, concerned small talk, and left her to her distraction again. When Max finally fell into restless sleep, she dreamt vividly of murder, of time, and a dark room. A bearded man approached her from the shadows holding a syringe.
"No!" Max screamed. She jerked, and nearly panicked at the sensation of the IV in her arm. She fought at the tubes and sensors for a moment before registering familiar hands and a quiet voice trying to talk her down.
"Easy, Max. Chill, okay? You're fine," Chloe soothed. "I've got you." She put her hands to Max's jaw to guide her eyes, trying to get her to focus.
"Chloe?" Max said. "You're here?" She cried out in relief, and threw her arms around her friend. "Oh thank God," she said, shuddering as she buried her nose into the crook of Chloe's neck. "I wasn't sure you'd come back."
"I couldn't sleep," Chloe admitted, as she hugged Max back with gentle pressure. "I'm sorry for walking out earlier. This whole thing is just hella awkward."
Max laughed at the understatement, then pulled back and wiped at the tears in her eyes. "I had this nightmare..."
"It was just a dream," Chloe insisted. "You're okay now."
A nurse strode into the room, looking over the two girls to ensure nothing terrible had triggered the alarm at her station. "Everything okay here, Ms. Caulfield?" she asked, as she took hold of Max's arm to verify the IV was intact.
Max nodded. "I'm fine. Sorry about that."
"No problem," the nurse replied. "Ms. Price, you come by if you need anything, okay?"
"Yes ma'am," Chloe said with a grin.
They waited for the nurse to leave, then Chloe turned her attention back to Max. "Seriously, dude. Are you okay? You scared the shit out of me." Again.
Max nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine, now. What time is it, anyway?"
Chloe checked her phone. "Four-thirty."
"In the morning?"
"Yeah," she replied, with a chuckle. "I came back around midnight, but you were already asleep."
"Is it okay for you to be here?"
"Oh yeah. The nurses and I are cool. I may have dropped the word 'partner' a few times when your parents weren't paying attention," Chloe admitted.
Max let her head drop back against the pillow with an exasperated laugh. "God, Chloe. You would."
With a blithe shrug that indicated she'd gotten exactly what she wanted, Chloe leaned back a bit, retreating from Max's personal space. She could see the haunted look in her friend's eyes, and opted to distract her with humor. "I think you should take my name, by the way," she said, grinning.
It was too early in the morning to keep up with Chloe's wit. Max scowled for a moment to decode what she'd just said.
"You know," Chloe said, turning a touch apprehensive. Maybe she'd finally taken the joke too far. "When we get all official with the 'partner' thing?"
Ah. This old routine. They'd been making this joke since they were twelve - Ha ha, what if we got married? Our parents would freak! Unfortunately, the topic was starting to get a little sensitive, especially after the text message revelations earlier in the day. Rather than address that at zero-dark thirty in some godforsaken hospital room while recovering from brain surgery, Max just played along, as usual. "'Max Price?' No way," she replied. "Too many puns. We're hyphenating. Alphabetically."
Relieved, Chloe settled into the comfy banter happily. "Oh, that'll work too. Especially for the kids."
"We're having kids?" Max asked. At least that was a new twist on the old joke. "Your uterus or mine?"
Chloe nodded enthusiastically. "We'll adopt a pile of 'em from like, China or some shit. They'll be the crew for our pirate ship." She'd reached out and taken Max's hand before she was even really conscious of doing so, and bounded forward with the tall tale to cover her sudden nerves. "We'll go plunder... I dunno, Canada? They have stuff, right? We'll go take it."
She kept yammering, spinning the story larger and larger while reveling in the heat of Max's fingers clasped around her own.
"Or maybe we won't have kids. Just a bunch of cats. We'll name them after boy bands. Little 'One Direction Fluffy Britches the Third.'"
Chloe was aware that Max wasn't holding up her end of the banter bargain, but she felt like she'd gone too far to back away from the truth she'd buried in piratical fancy. So maybe this was the moment she could admit she wasn't really kidding about wanting to spend some non-platonic together. Maybe this was the time to talk about those text messages. Maybe this time she could just admit...
"Kidding," she said despite herself, with an easy smile that belied her own frustration.
Naturally, Max had stopped listening a while back. She was looking at the skin of Chloe's wrist under her fingertips, then suddenly she lunged forward and yanked at Chloe's sleeve.
"Whoa! What the hell?!" Chloe demanded, batting away her friend's insistent hands, but not before Max caught glimpse of what she'd been looking for.
The blue butterfly tattoo on Chloe's forearm was familiar for too many reasons, and Max had to swallow back a sudden rush of bile. "When did you get this?" Max demanded.
"A year ago, on my 18th birthday," Chloe answered. "Dude, I told you that already."
It hit her then, fittingly like a bolt from the blue: a bathroom, a butterfly, a bullet.
Max reeled, clinging to Chloe's hand. "Oh my God," Max breathed. "I remember..." She exhaled a faintly hysterical laugh. "You won't believe me."
Chloe leaned in, reaching for her friend's shoulder and keeping Max's gaze locked on her own. "Tell me, Max."
"I was somewhere else. A different place. You were different, and you... died." Max choked on a weak sob. "I got drugged and kidnapped..."
It was all Chloe could do not to climb up onto the bed and wrap Max up in her arms. "You're okay, Max. You're safe now."
"I know it doesn't make any sense, Chloe. I know it's fucked and I sound like I'm crazy. But I swear to you..."
She trailed off when Chloe dug into her pocket and produced a photograph.
It was a polaroid shot of another Chloe, with a vibrant tattoo and bright blue hair, lying across the hood of a junked car and holding a gun.