Max Caulfield can never sleep whenever a storm comes at night.
On this particular night the small brunette wrapped herself in a blue duvet with her knees drawn to her chest, gazing through open blinds at the rain drops splattering against the window glass. She listened to the wind against the side of the apartment walls, blowing trees around in the 3am world mere feet from her. The only light around streaked across her face from the street, a soft orange glow she focused on to calm herself down. Storms reminded her of nightmares, and nightmares reminded her of the burden she carried in her chest. Max didn't want to think about that.
Sighing, she broke from her trance by reaching behind her and flicking on a tall standing lamp. Eyes adjusted as the small room became softly illuminated, revealing the journal that sat at the foot of her blanket cocoon. Max didn't have much desire to pick it up and open its pages, she hadn't done so since that week in October. It was December now, a week before Christmas, and her world had been drastically different since its last entry.
Max was different.
The window shook as a light rise of wind pounded against it and Max's startled face was reflected back at her as her attention was again stolen the weather. With the lamp on it was much easier to see the changes to her face the past few months had brought her, even with the wooden slats in the way. Max didn't know if she recognized herself when her eyes looked so dark, her face so skinny, her skin so pale. Sighing again, her expression softened as she reached down and picked up the tattered journal in front of her. Underneath it lay a pen and a handwritten note from her best friend; the same best friend that was sound asleep in the room next door, oblivious to the storm and the girl wide awake on the couch.
"Max..." the note was titled, written in a scrawl that the brunette knew so well. Max had already read the message, but she reread it to help brace herself for what she was about to do.
"Max, I don't know how to say this, but I need you to read this and listen. I know you don't like talking about things any more, you hardly talk at all, least of all with me. It's so hard to see you shut down like this, Max. You shut me out and… I would do anything for you, you know? These past few months have been the hardest of both of our lives, but I am grateful for every second I get to spend with you. You're my hero, Maxine Caulfield, and you always will be. I need you to know that, okay?
It breaks my heart to see you so defeated and inward all the time. I try so hard to do everything I can to make things better for you, the best I can, but it's so hard watching you suffer. You barely eat anything and I'm worried, you're so strong but I can see the way the world crushes your shoulders and the way your clothes hang off you like you're wasting away. You'll talk about anything to do with me, always focusing on if I'm okay, but you won't let me in to see the hurt you're carrying. You won't tell me anything.
I know you're hurting Max even if you try to smile and reassure me. I notice how you stare off into the distance and get lost in whatever reality is flickering through that head of yours. I know how awful those nightmares are every night, you cry in your sleep and I feel so helpless when all I can do is hold you tight and cry with you. You always tell me you can't remember in the morning, but I notice how you will shake sometimes with whatever horror is lingering. It breaks my fucking heart!
If I could have the nightmares and the flashbacks so you wouldn't have to, I would Max! I don't fucking care! It's so unfair, you never asked for this from the universe! If I could heal every horror and heartache you carry in your chest, I would do anything. You think you are saving me by not sharing any of it with me but Max… I need you to let me in. Let me help you.
Please, Max? Can you please let me in?
I love you.
Max gently traced the last words on the page which were lightly smudged. A few of Chloe's tears had slightly warped the letters, and the next thing Max knew was the pain of her teeth against her knuckles and the struggle of holding back her own.
A state of numbness is Max's normal experience in lieu of tears ever since that fateful week of October, but if there was one thing that could break her in an instant it was Chloe Price.
Seeing Chloe's tears on paper was enough to light a small fire in Max's chest, a smoldering ember that gave her enough life to do what she hadn't done in months. Gritting her teeth as the storm outside jolted the window alive once more she was determined, she had take this next step. Max opened the journal to a new blank page, picked up her pen and put ink to paper.
She knew what she had to do, but not exactly what to say.
Max didn't want to think about it too much so she allowed herself to go with the flow, trying to make some sense to the chaos inside her head. She needed to do this. She knew the reason why she didn't tell Chloe about what was going through her mind most of the time wasn't because she wanted to protect her best friend, but also because she'd been shutting herself out too. Living in denial; trying to push it down and hold it inside, rather than face her emotions head-on.
After finding the note written before the forecasted storm was set to hit she knew she couldn't keep running from the past any more. Max needed to bring herself back to the present. Something had to change.
The pages began to fill with every memory she could think of, every feeling and thought without lingering. Every page that she turned meant Max felt a bit lighter, and it began to feel a bit easier. Catharsis was the word Max thought of. The night continued as the brunette wrote until her hands began to cramp. Nothing was held back, not anymore.
The lighthouse. Witnessing the vision come to life. A tornado tearing apart her home town, Arcadia Bay. Chloe Price, blue-haired best friend, holding her hand and holding Max tight while she said her silent farewell to her mother, her family and her life. Crushing guilt, sorrow, and eventual numbness. Chloe, carrying her from near-collapse to the truck. Strong, desperate arms embracing as they took shelter from the aftermath.
Max couldn't remember everything that came immediately after, her memories drifting in and out of focus as if she was torn between shattered realities. The storm lifted the remains of Arcadia Bay was illuminated by the afternoon sun. She doesn't recall the events that lead to her and Chloe leaving, she just remembers that they had to, with every fiber of their being neither girl could stand to stay. Max doubted they could have survived if they had. They left everything and everyone behind.
She briefly remembers a flash of deer leaping among the wreckage, and thought they weren't unlike the spirit doe she'd seen in the forest earlier that week.
The first week was the worst. Max can only remember slivers of it, and knew it would have been worse for Chloe. Max fell into catatonia. Couldn't stop reliving the storm or seeing deceased faces haunt her. She wouldn't talk for days on end, nor eat, and Max isn't even sure she slept. They avoided the news when it was obvious that there would be little to say. A handful of survivors, the lucky people who evacuated. It was evident there was nothing left of Arcadia Bay to go back to so they kept going forward. Sleeping in the truck, or cheap roadside motel rooms, they kept moving. Chloe made sure of that.
Chloe broke down the second week, something Max will never forget. It snapped her out of her trance and she's stopped forgetting so much since. Inside the walls of a dated and delipidated roadside motel Chloe screamed and threw plates before collapsing to the floor in a sobbing heap. Max felt that small fire in her chest that cleared her head, got her move to her Chloe and wrap arms around the frame of the tall, blue-haired girl. Much like Chloe had been doing for her every night, Max cradled the girl in her arms and tight to her chest, kissing her head with reassurances. It didn't take much to convince Max that from that moment forward she wouldn't ever let Chloe go through it all alone. Max began to talk and eat again after that, even if it wasn't much. She hated the thought of Chloe having to carry her burdens any longer.
It has been too difficult for Max to even begin contemplating facing her parents again, so she hasn't. Yet. Conflicting emotions tend to tear her apart if she thinks about it for too long. It doesn't seem right to carry the weight of everyone who haunts her nightmares and still see her own parents again. Yet. Chloe is orphaned. Neither of them bring it up. Then again, Max knows it's her own fault.
Motels, hotels, campgrounds – these are the places that became home. Taking things day by day. Getting by on stolen money from a school that no longer exists. Max doesn't journal. She doesn't take photographs. Instead, she has nightmares. Nightmares of tornados, torture, death. So much death. Chloe holds her in her sleep every night, without fail. Max isn't sure if her best friend ever gets a full night's sleep. Sleep has felt like a luxury long passed. Especially when there is a storm.
Max hasn't rewound again. Yet. She's not even sure if she could.
It's December and a few days ago they finally rented an apartment. They talked enough to agree that they needed to settle somewhere, stay put for a while and find…some sort of normalcy. Small, one-bedroom unit in an old block of apartments backed up against forest, in a small Washington mountain town. A month of rent paid for in advance. A long way away from the bay of ruins or the sea.
Christmas will be soon. They haven't talked about it. Or about family. Max never hears Chloe talk about her mother, Joyce, or even her stepfather, David. Except for tonight. Chloe whispered Joyce's name in her sleep and Max couldn't bear to wake her up when the storm came, because for once she didn't sound sad. It sounded like a pleasant dream. Chloe deserves some peaceful sleep.
Every page but the last filled, Max dropped the journal and her pen down at her side and closed her eyes, allowing the moment to wash over her. Breathing deeply and exhaling just as slow, she felt something come over her that she couldn't even recall the last time she had felt it. Contentment? Or at least some ounce of it was now there. Acceptance? Perhaps.
Max's head doesn't feel quite as fogged as she's been used to. It takes a moment to realize that the storm outside had finally ceased, and when she bent down to pick her phone up off the ground she learned it was nearly 6 in the morning. The sun would soon be rising above the mountain tops to leak into her apartment.
A soft murmur could be heard from the other room and Max let her gaze drift to the bedroom door. In that moment, Max couldn't help but allow her heart to swell at the thought of the girl laying in that bed.
The fire in her chest grew, so she grabbed her journal again and tore out the last page. Putting pen to paper once more, she knew what she wanted to write this time.
I don't know if I'll give this to you right away, but fuck it, I've got to put this in writing!
Chloe Elizabeth Price… I love you with all of my damned heart, okay?
You're right, I've been shutting you out and falling into my own internal world and…
I'm sorry. Because that's so unfair to you.
You deserve so much better.
You say I'm your hero but don't you know you're mine?
You've carried me across this country, held me every night without fail, and you never give up. On me or any of this!
You deserve all the credit in the world for it because you're incredible, okay? Your strength has been incredible. You drove every day without complaint, you have stayed by my side… even though you've lost everything.
Chloe, I'm so grateful for you.
I promise you I'm going to do things differently from now on. I need to let you in. You've earned it.
I promised you that I'd never leave you. You are my number one priority now.
You deserve every ounce of me that I can give you. Every bit of truth you need.
We deserve so much better. Neither of us asked for any of this, but destiny... brought us together. We deserve to live better, happier.
I believe this now, because of you.
We deserve to live better, happier.
You're my partner in time.
I'm in love with you.
Dawn light started to crack through the blinds instead of the streetlamp glow as Max contemplated the page before her, then folded her letter before tucking it back among the pages of her tattered journal.
Max could hear something start land softly against the window and looked up again when she realized it wasn't rain. As dawn was broke on the horizon, it was snowflakes that were now falling from the sky.
Reaching behind her to turn off the lamp, Max pulled a few blind slats down with her fingers to inspect the change in weather. There was something about the falling flakes that looked beautiful in the soft light that she couldn't help it when the duvet fell off her figure as she leaned across to open the blinds fully, hoisting herself up to the windowsill so she could see the outside world.
A small smile crept across her face as she observed the forested hills in her view. A winter wonderland was beginning to be made of the small mountain town.
Her attention was caught by a moving blur on the ground below, and Max gasped when she sighted a light brown doe standing on their block's lawn. Leaning forward and watching, Max met it's eyes when it looked up, flicking it's ears in the snowfall. A sudden wave of inspiration overcome her so she leaped from her perch and ran to the other side of the room, pulling open a low cabinet door to run her hands along a shelf.
"Come on, it's gotta be in here- ah! Yes!" Max's fingers clasped around an object and she falls over backward in her sudden excitement, a Polaroid camera in hand.
She leaped back up onto the couch, looking back out window. She's glad to see it hasn't moved, still sniffing the air.
I gotta get outside! This would be such a beautiful shot!
Max's balance is momentarily off thrown by the spongy couch seating and she wildly throws her arm out to stabilize herself, but accidentally knocks the lamp over - throwing it against the wall with a loud smash.
"Fuck!" She exclaims, but chooses to ignore it as she runs over to throw open the front door. As Max runs bare-foot down the apartment stairwell she can hear a startled Chloe in the bedroom yelp, "Max!?"
Tiptoeing the rest of her way down as fast as she can, she manages to reach the lawn without making enough noise to startle the doe on the edge across from her.
The doe is still standing there, but now it's gaze has been captured by Max's appearance. Not wanting to hesitate for a moment Max lifts the viewfinder to her right eye and frames the deer. The shutters click and camera flashes before it can move, and just as she thought the doe starts to make its way towards the trees behind it.
Max is still watching it as she instinctively grabs the ejecting film from her camera, then her breath catches as she notices the doe change its mind and softly tread towards her instead.
Max can't help but feel as if something was really familiar about what was unfolding right in front of her, and without thinking she raises her hand out toward the doe. She's motionless as it sniffs curiously at her palm, then audibly gasps when, for a split second, all she can see is a vision of Joyce Price smiling at her while a warm tingling emotion fills her chest.
The moment feels so inexplicably loving that Max doesn't ever want to leave from that spot.
"MAX!?" Chloe's fearful voice from above breaks through her illusion, and just like that the deer sprints off into the forest. Max feels the wet snow meeting her knees as her legs collapse from underneath her, Chloe's footsteps pounding towards her, but she's so overcome with emotion that she just stares at the polaroid she's dropped onto the ground. Chloe is behind her within a few seconds, panic on her face settling as she puts her arms around the small brunette and also joins Max on her knees.
"Max?! Are you okay?" Chloe is frantic, searching Max for injury. "What's going on, why are you outside?"
When she sees the tears falling from Max's eyes and the girl starting to sob, even more fear seeps into Chloe's voice.
"You're crying! What's wrong? Max?"
Max lifts the photograph off the ground and holds it in one hand with her camera, rocking back on her heels to look at Chloe, unable to stop the sobs from rolling up from her chest into her throat. Chloe looks as if she's about to ask something else out of fear before Max raises her free hand to her cheek to comfort her.
"Shhhh…" Max whispers reassuringly, "I'm okay. I'm okay."
Chloe's hand places over Max's, muscles relaxing a little, but never takes her wide eyes off of her face. Max smiles sweetly, and the expression takes Chloe by surprise.
"Max," Chloe starts, "I heard a crash and when I woke up you weren't there, the front door was open… I was so scared. Are you sure you're okay?"
Max nods, then can't help herself as she pulls the blue-haired girl into an embrace as she rises.
"I'm right here, Chloe. I'm okay. I promise."
She can feel her best friend relax against her before pulling her shoulders in tightly, and closes her eyes and lets herself feel the security Chloe brings her in the embrace. Chloe doesn't say anything, wordlessly conveying her care, gently rocking her.
When Max opens her eyes again, she sees over Chloe's shoulder with a hint of surprise tiny hoof prints in the snow, then turns and buries her nose into Chloe's neck. In this moment, Max knew what home really felt like. It was Chloe Price's embrace and the warm fire it ignited in her chest.
"Let's get inside, I've got something I want to talk to you about." Max whispered.
Before Chloe could respond, Max began leading the bewildered girl back up the steps by her hand, careful not to jostle the picture with the camera in the other. She looked down at the image with a smile.
The polaroid had finished developing, revealing a patch of white lawn and falling snowflakes, backed by the edge of a forest.
There was no doe to be seen within its frames.