Consciousness would not be easily yielded from the great black mass of oblivion that held Chloe fast in its grip. Her cheek pressed against bathroom tile, long enough that the material was warm. Her body was not yet hers to command, but that suited Chloe fine.
She might have easily passed out again, were it not for the memories that were stirred up in her mind.
Hard….tile….bathroom. Bathroom...just like it was...back in Blackwell. Wait...is this the tile? Wait, wait...am I back there again?!
The resultant hypnagogic jolt was all it took to for her to rise up to her hands and knees in a brief but intense rush of adrenaline-fueled panic.
"Where am I! Where am…"
She fearfully looked about the bathroom. Details resolved themselves; the twisted, alien features, painted as they were by the blacks and blues of the dead of night, gave way to the dull but comforting familiarity of her own bathroom.
"Oh! Oh…..ohhhh. Home. Okay. I'm...just a dream...just…"
She paused, and realized her body was politely putting its own needs on hold while her mind caught up to the present moment; now, it was insistent. With a practiced calm, she clutched the toilet and allowed nature to take its course; first emptying out what was left in her stomach, then allowing the dry heaves to have their way with her.
This is...damn. It's really bad that I'm used to it, right? That I don't even feel so crappy anymore when I get blackout drunk, because it's not that far off from my usual state. Right?
Shaky hands reached up towards the sink, and with slow, diligent effort, Chloe pulled herself up to her feet. Her lungs filled with cleansing breaths. A giddy laugh escaped her chest, as she started to recall the details of her most recent experience.
Wow. Hella weird. Even for a booze and weed fueled dream, that was soooooo fucked up! Thematic though. Makes sense. Time of the year, of course I'd be dreaming about Max, and what happened. Huh...did I dream that Frank Bowers gave me the power to go back and change history? Hah, I bet if I explained what I remembered to a psychiatrist, they'd have a fucking field day with the "metaphor" and "imagery." Jesus…
Still, it would have been nice. If any of it had been real, if she actually lived in a world where those sorts of miracles and magic happened.
"But you don't," she sighed, eyes still closed as she regained her balance. "Always gonna be Chloe in Crappyland."
Her eyes opened and she caught her reflection in the mirror for the first time since waking up.
A good five seconds passed before she realized what was wrong.
She desperately tried to yank off the necklace wrapped around her neck. Eventually she regained enough self-control to quickly lift it up and over her head, before tossing it away into the sink, as if it were a venomous snake.
She flipped the lightswitch on, convinced she must be mistaken.
But there it was...the impossible proof staring her in the face: a simple military-issue ball-chain necklace, threaded through the remains of three brass cartridge shells; crushed, as if by a pair of small yet incredibly powerful fingers.
"No," she breathed out, shaking her head. "No!" she repeated.
It couldn't be real. She had to be asleep, this had to be a dream!
She felt foolish as she grabbed her toothbrush, and used the long, slender neck to lift up the necklace, before bringing it over for closer inspection.
She spent two solid minutes willing herself to wake up, two minutes demanding that life make sense; that it resolve the terrible, impossible paradox that placidly hung an inch from her eyes.
But there it was. Mocking her with it's mundanity. No crackle of power stung her fingers when she grabbed the necklace with her fingers. No soft whispering filled her head when she closed her fist around it. No strange or mystical vibrations emanated from the surface; it was only what it was.
A reminder of her failure.
Chloe was given not one, but three chances to make things right. And she failed each and every time.
She bowed her head, as one heart-wrenching sob after another tore free from her throat.
The gentle, golden smudge of false dawn licked at the eastern edges of the horizon. Chloe could appreciate its otherworldly power and meaning: the darkness driven away by the brilliant blaze of the pure white light, the promise of another day, fresh and new. Another chance, another hope, another roll of the dice. 'The Show' starts again, same as it always does, predictable in the unpredictability of what it offered.
Dawn in Vegas was the most terrible, beautiful thing she'd ever beheld.
And it would be the last sight she'd witness.
She stared down hard at the unlabeled bottle of oxycodone gripped tight in her hand; the funny part was that it wasn't hers. It belonged to Phaedra, and while Chloe didn't know the whole story - and knew well enough not to ask - it was apparently something offered in lieu of a cash payment from one of her roommate's clients.
She measured them out carefully in her hand - pausing for a moment to wonder at her own curious thoughtfulness, her desire to not steal more of the pills than she needed to get the job done.
Five should do. Right?
Ten. Better make it ten. Hell, down it with the bottles of MD 20/20 I just bought….that will definitely do it.
So this was it. The moment she always wondered about.
She was going to die.
Not all of her was on board with the notion, but how the fuck was she supposed to go on with her life?
"Seriously," she hissed at her self. "How do I keep on living? Universe probably wants me to fucking die anyhow, right? Gave me a chance, gave me all the chances, that everyone else in the world would sell their fucking soul for. But not me...noooooo. Chloe gotta fuck it up, 'cause that's what Chloe is the best at. Fucking up everything she ever tried or does."
It was better this way. She spent the last five years putting off the inevitable. The death that was denied her, back in the girls bathroom at Blackwell.
Wrong girl died. I can see that now. Max, you should have lived.
She thought about sending a text, writing a letter. At the very least, she ought to let her Mom know why she was ending it. And the Caulfields. And kindly inform her boss that she wasn't going to be in, like, ever again. Oh, and she had some good suggestions for replacements.
And it would have been nice to see Jim one last time...and…
The last thing she needed to do was find excuses to keep on keeping on with this pathetic mockery of an existence. A mouthful of pills, a couple quick chugs, and it'd be over and done with. She'd watch the sun rise, and go to sleep.
Damn. Guess I'm probably in debt to Frank again, for whatever shit he had to pull to get me those wishes. Hah! Isn't that the best? Owed him money when I was alive, owe him favors once I'm dead.
There was no point in drawing the moment out.
She lifted her hand up, opened her mouth, and tilted her head back.
A soft breeze sighed across the open desert, driven by the swiftly warming temperatures of the dawn.
Chloe paused instinctively.
She held her breath, waiting for a response. Then chided herself for being foolish.
Just hearing shit.
She tried again.
The same there-but-not voice. Heard, but unheard.
She didn't even make a third attempt.
Something deep inside snapped.
A great, primal rage bubbled up, pouring out of every mental wound and scar that festooned her mind. She threw the pills down in an angry fit, and screamed out, "Why!? Why!? What's the point? What's the fucking point of it all, Max?! Huh! God damnit, why did you do it?!"
She was screaming out from her balcony, high enough so that her fury-drenched words would barely be conveyed to the street below.
"Who takes a bullet like that?! Who acts calm when you're shot to death!? I would have been freaking out! I would have been begging not to die on that fucking dirty floor, but you...you just…..you!"
Chloe sank to her knees in despair, and sobbed, "I wasn't worth it, Max. Why would you waste your life on me? After five years. You never fucking visited me, you never called, so why would you throw it all away for…"
And then she understood.
It was a subtle yet subtly profound shift. One second, she was trapped in the dark of ignorance; the next, a light of realization flooded through every corner of her mind. That final, crucial piece of the puzzle snapped into place. The flap of the butterfly's wings that started the avalanche.
Maybe it was a stretch. Maybe Chloe was only seeing what she desperately needed to, deluding herself because the stark, impersonal randomness of a cold and uncaring Universe was more than she could bear.
But she realized, down to the very core of her being, what the answer she was missing all this time was. What her 'dream' revealed to her.
Max saved her...sacrificed herself...because she loved her.
Like….in fucking love…
It made sense now! At long last!
Max had powers...time powers. I don't know how she got them, but...but in a couple of those timelines she had the ability to go back and like...I don't know...rewind shit? But Reality didn't want to take the hit, it kept coming for her….the tornado! And didn't she say there was a tornado, that destroyed Arcadia Bay?! All because of her, all because she wouldn't let me….me and Rachel die?!
Well, Rachel was dead in this timeline, but Chloe herself was still very much alive.
Wouldn't be, if Nathan had his way. Asshole was totally gonna shoot me…
And there it was. Clear as day, obvious as the nose on her face.
In this timeline, the one I'm standing, right here, right now, Max must've had powers in this universe too! What if she got them saving me from Nathan, just like she got them before, saving me and Rachel from the train!? Rachel was already dead, so I guess the Universe was happy there, but me….I was alive. And fuck, I guess I shouldn't have been!
She looked down at the scattered pills on the balcony tile, unable to believe how close she'd come to finishing the job.
What if Max and I spent time together? What if there's a timeline where she and I were friends again, after that? What if the same shit happened again, and she was forced to choose between me and Arcadia Bay? And….and fuck! Yeah! Shit, I told her….the very last thing I told her was if she ever had to choose, to let me die. Oh Jesus, what if the Max I saw in 2008, was the same one who died in the bathroom five years ago?!
Chloe slumped hard into one of the nearby deck chairs, as the enormity of what was blossoming in her brain hit her in full.
It must have happened...it musta gotten bad! I don't know how, I don't know when, but same as the second attempt I made to change the past, probably a tornado or something like it, forcing Max to either take it all back, and let me die...or it was gonna take the town as payment.
It must have been a terrible choice. One life for many, but the one life was so loved. Chloe could only imagine how much time she and Max might have spent together in this hypothetical timeline she was constructing in her head, the one the materialized after Max somehow saved her from Nathan.
And then there was that other timeline, where I was crippled...shit. How the fuck am I even remembering it? And did I really beg Max to kill me? And I told her that...I loved her.
But of course she did.
Because that was the God-honest truth, wasn't it?
Chloe Price was in love with Max Caulfield. She understood this now. And she had been since they were kids. She immediately integrated these facts and accepted them as Sacred Truth.
And somewhere along the line, Max fell in love with her.
Or maybe she was always in love. Maybe that's why she never kept in touch, she was too confused, and hurt, and guilty, and embarrassed...
But that all changed. In the face of a terrible yes/no, black/white, good/bad dichotomy, Max broke through, and came to the conclusion that there was another way. That Three was infinitely more powerful than Two.
Maybe she always intended to die. Maybe not. But Max ultimately traded her own life for Chloe's.
Obviously, the Universe accepted the bargain.
The sun was fully perched on the horizon now. Dawn was here at last.
No wonder those were her last words. Max was trying to tell her what her life bought.
Continued existence for Chloe.
She looked down at the bottles of brightly colored cheap wine, scattered near her feet.
She bowed her head in shame, and covered her face with a hand.
She wept. She laughed. She didn't know where sadness began, and joy ended.
"Five…..five years," she sobbed between laughs. "Five years. Leave it to me to miss the fucking point!"
And to think what she almost threw away tonight. More to the point, how she was continuously throwing her life away, on a slow, self-destructive spiral towards inevitable oblivion. Maybe Chloe screwed up, and wasted three good chances to make her life and her world better. But then again, maybe this was the whole damn point: enlightenment.
Rising up to her feet, she walked over towards the rail, gripping it tightly. She stared straight towards the sun, narrowed eyes filling with liquid gold.
She'd wasted so much time already.
But that was okay.
Because suddenly, she found herself with all the time in the world.
All the time to live.
Chloe spent the remainder of her vacation week putting her life back on track. There were AA meetings to look into, and doctor's appointments to make; she quickly embraced the insight that her alcoholism was as much a physical ailment that required proper medical treatment as she slowly dried out, as it was a mental one. Like it or not, she had a hard road ahead, confronting and processing the life issues that drove her into the bottle in the first place.
But things were good now, or at least heading in the right direction.
Phaedra even forgave her for stealing her booze and trashing a bunch of her pills.
"I'm just happy you're finally getting your shit together, Chloe. I know I'm not around much, but that doesn't mean I don't care about what you were doing to yourself. Didn't feel it was my place to say anything. Not yet."
On the last day of her vacation, she spent time in Container Park; it never failed to strike her as odd, that her place of employment was nestled in the back of a place she actually enjoyed spending her off hours at. But a cup of strong, black coffee was perking her up, and she aimed to tell Jim that while she planned to keep patronizing his bar, he and his staff were, under no circumstances, allowed to serve her booze.
She was dismayed to find the door to Doctor Dunsel's locked; on a nice, sunny weekend day in October, there was no real reason for it. She quickly spotted the sign off to the side.
CLOSED FOR THE NEXT WEEK.
Huh. Jim take a vacation too? Never has before, but maybe he was saving up…
As Chloe turned to depart, an older African-American woman walked up from the inside and unlocked the door. She looked familiar, but the blunette couldn't put her finger on why.
"Sorry, we're closed but…," the older woman broke into a soft, sad smile. "You look just like he described you. You must be Chloe, right?"
"Y-yeah. Hi. Um...everything okay?"
The other woman clenched her jaw and squinted her eyes slightly; Chloe could see the answer in them immediately. She was too familiar with death and loss to miss it.
"Oh my God. When…"
"Three days ago. Heart attack. It was sudden. It didn't kill him, not right away, and we hoped he'd pull through." She sighed hard, and half-smiled with pained resignation, "But he didn't survive the night."
Then Chloe put it together.
"You're Fay. His sister right? Wow, you look just like him."
Fay nodded once.
"Shit. Wow, uh...fuck. I'm sorry. So, so sorry to meet like this."
Chloe allowed Fay to take her hands, as the other woman said, "It is. But I'm glad we're finally meeting, no matter what the reason."
"Heh...he - uh - yeah. He talked about you. I mean...he really loved you. Honestly, what little I knew about his past, seemed like you were the only family he actually cared about."
Fay laughed lightly. "Yeah. Jim and I, we really only had each other, growing up. I mean, it wasn't fucking sunshine and lollipops but it wasn't as bad as all that either, not all the time. Still…." she exhaled, long and slow, before continuing. "I'm happy we had time to talk. And say goodbye."
An anxious tension built up in the back of Chloe's mind. She breathed in deeply and let it out. She didn't want to make it about her, didn't want to look too deeply into a random tragedy, but the wounds of time still ached in her heart. It was difficult not to jump to the conclusion that once again, someone got too close to her...and someone died because of it.
That isn't true, Chloe. Maybe once upon a time, maybe you were cursed, but Max saved you. Saved you from all of that. Everything's been great since then, even if you couldn't appreciate it. Life is still going to happen, even as you're getting your act together.
She felt a squeeze on her fingers as Fay said, "Near the end, Jim was worried he wasn't going to make it, and I guess he was right. He gave me a few names. People he was - ah - concerned about. 'Favored Patrons' was what he called them. You, for instance. Especially after the last time you were here."
Chloe bit her lip and nodded, "Yeah. Hate to say it, but he wasn't wrong. I've been going through some shit a long time now. October, makes it all fall apart, and year by year, it was getting worse. But I'm getting through it now. At last. It's why I came, I was gonna tell him that; well, and no more rocket fuel for me anymore."
Fay laughed low, and then suddenly pulled Chloe into a hug. "Good. Good for you. I can see it. I like to think I get a sense of someone right away, and I can see it in you: bloodied but unbowed. Good for you. Jim'll be happy with all of that, wherever he is now."
Chloe swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, and hugged back. "Y-yeah. Too bad, I never got a chance to tell him. And I guess I'm losing my favorite hangout bar?"
Fay shook her head as she pulled back, "We'll be closed for a few more days while we all grieve, the staff and I. And as I go through the books and get up to speed. I actually owned half of the place; didn't help run it, seeing as I live up in Reno, but...I think it would break Jim's heart if the Double-D closed down. So I'll keep it open for a while; maybe sometimes, I can make myself think I'm keeping the place going until he comes back from...wherever.
Chloe reached up to dab at her wet eyes. She cleared her tight throat and murmured, "Sounds good. So hey...Jim was kinda cool, yeah? Let me know if there's anything I can do to help you out, alright?"
Fay reached up, and patted her on the cheek. "Yeah. You can come back, when we reopen. And keep coming around, let me know you're continuing to get through whatever it is you're pulling yourself up from, alright?"
"Ye-yeah. I can do that."
"Good! I figure, near the end of the month, we'll hold a little memorial. Private party, just us and some other of the regulars, and a few of Jim's other friends."
"You bet. That would be really nice."
They said their goodbyes and parted company. Chloe walked away in a soft daze, climbing up to the top floor and glancing out over the Arts district. She took a long, hard pull of her coffee and sat in solitude for over an hour, quietly grieving by herself.
Shit. I almost threw it away, all of it. But Max told me to live. She didn't promise me that it was going to be fucking orgasms and ice cream, but yeah...this is still…
"I'm alive," she whispered to herself.
And as long as she was around, Max, and Rachel, Jim, and her father?
They were still around as well, in their own way.
"Strewth! No more drinking. For serious, now?"
"Yup," Chloe answered as she worked on adding additional details to Dirk's latest tattoo.
"Bitch, did I stutter?" she asked, grinning at him.
"I...dunno. Doesn't seem right. I mean, good on ya, sheila, don't let me be a bad influence but...shit, gonna miss pounding them down with you on party night."
"Well, look at it this way: you lost a drinking buddy, but you gained a designated driver."
"Oi! That's right. Yeah, that'll save me a penny on cab rides now, won't it?"
The first Monday back to work passed pleasantly for her. Everything and nothing changed; Chloe was still the same, and yet she was an entirely different person. No one said much about it, but they could tell.
"The weight's off your shoulders," was all Roy remarked, when she took a break for lunch. "It's a good look on you."
Chloe walked down the stairs and sighed. She pulled out her phone, and started working on the same text she'd failed to send eighty-three times in a row.
hey, steph. just wanna say sorry…
Chloe nearly bumped into someone. Whipping her head up to apologize, she found herself face to face with the subject in question.
"Wow, playing something good?" Steph said with a smirk.
To her credit, Chloe managed to wipe off the 'deer caught in the headlights' expression from her face, but not nearly as quick as she would have liked. She cleared her throat, and said in a lackadaisical fashion, "I was engrossed in writing you a heartfelt apology, if you must know."
"Oh sure. I believe you," Steph said, crossing her arms and feigning indignation.
Chloe lifted up the phone, and held it close to the other woman's face, "See. Seeeeeeee." She teased.
"Okay, okay. Maybe I didn't believe you all the way. Jeez. Wait, how did you get my cell number?"
"Your Mom," Chloe answered, playfully invoking the same interchange from the last evening they saw each other.
They both started laughing.
"Buut….um...well here you are. Wait...why are you here?" Chloe tried to ignore the strange flutter in her stomach as she waited for the answer.
Crossing her arms, Steph said, "What, you think this is something to do with you? A girl can't randomly decide to go native and get a tramp stamp? Word is this is the place to go, if you're Downtown."
"Huh. I wonder what that would look like? 'Paladin on the streets, Succubus in the sheets?'"
"Wow. Nerrrrrrd. And this is me saying it."
"It's 2018. Everyone knows about your shameful geek stuff now, so it's okay."
They laughed again, and Chloe finally got to the point. "Hey, but look. Um...I'm am sorry, though. At what happened last week." She laughed nervously and reached up to rub the back of her neck. "You caught me off guard...and...I'm not….I wasn't in a good place mentally….and…"
"Damn, yeah, hey...look. It's alright. It's all on me, Chloe," Steph said, holding up her hands to interrupt. "I just, y'know, I made some assumptions, and I got kinda…" she sucked air through her teeth, and continued, "...got carried away in the moment. I suppose we could blame the booze. But if I haven't made things too weird, we could always forget about it, and start over. Friends?"
Chloe sighed, smiled, and said, "No, no...it's more complicated than that. There is so much I wish I could tell you and make it fit in thirty seconds. A lot of it boils down to it being a bad ten years, you know? First, with my Dad, and then with Max and Rachel. Honestly? I've been fucked up, and there's no way that I would be good dating material, for all sorts of reasons. I-I mean...a week ago, that was true. Shit, it's probably still true now, but for different reasons. Because...because I think I'm finally breaking through, and getting past so much shit in so little time, even though I've got a lot of work to do, and aaaaahhh…!"
She groaned in frustration and reached up to pull at her hair as she watched Steph's expression grow increasingly confused. Taking the other woman's hands in her own she said, "Let me try this one more time: , I would love to get dinner, or drinks, or something like that. And yes, I would love to show you more of Vegas. The cool stuff, and by that, I mean the shit only the locals have a clue about, because God fucking knows we need to get away from all the the tourists. But you hafta know that I'm a hot, recovering alcoholic mess right now. I'm gonna have some bad days ahead of me, but I'm finally moving towards a good place. So, I'm a bit of a risk, you know? As dating material? But it's Vegas, so - uh - thematically appropriate?"
Steph shook her head and gave a snort; her smile was wide, regardless.
"Dating material? Damn, getting ahead of yourself, aren't you? What makes you think I was asking you out on a date-date?"
Chloe took a deep breath and closed her eyes briefly.
Slowly, she opened them, gave Steph her winningest smile, and said, "Bitch, please. Of course you were asking for a date-date. I'm Chloe Fucking Price."
Four weeks later, they finally found themselves in a position to rearrange that particular word combination.
ONE YEAR LATER
Chloe kneeled down on one leg, hand reaching out tenderly to grip the headstone before her.
Max Siobhan Caulfield
September 21st, 1995 - October 7th 2013
"Death is nothing at all/It does not count
I have only slipped away into the next room"
"Sorry for not coming back sooner," Chloe said. "But I wanted to let you know that everything is okay. Actually, everything is pretty fucking awesome. Crazy year, hella eventful. But good, good shit mostly. And the bad shit? Was all stuff that happens when you're trying to be a better person, so it's in service to the good."
She reached into her jacket pocket and lovingly extracted the necklace. She draped it over the top, the ruined shells making little tinkling noises as they struck the granite.
Bowing her head, Chloe wiped at her moist eyes and continued whispering, "Couldn't have done it without you, Max. I want you to know that. You saved me, literally saved me, and it cost you. I still don't understand what happened, y'know? Not all of it. But I know you must have had a hand it it, somehow, even though you're dead. You must have realized how bad it was getting, how much I was in the dark, and you...did, whatever it took, to get me to see the truth of it all. To understand."
She bit her lip, and took a long breath.
"I have no idea what it cost you to pull it off. Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing. Maybe it wasn't you, maybe it really was all Frank, or something that looked like him. Shit, even with the necklace, part of me is still convinced it was nothing more than weed and booze, but I can't believe that it wasn't real, either. There's shit you see, and it's so real, and it's so true, and nothing in the world will make you think otherwise. I don't know what made us so special - why you got time powers, why you somehow...gave them to me? Is that what happened? I don't know. Shit, maybe this sort of thing happens to people all the fucking time, but we're too scared to talk about it, because no one will believe us. Or maybe I'm the only person in the world it's ever happened to. Either way? Thank you."
She stroked the headstone tenderly, tracing her fingertips across the debossed carvings.
"We loved each other. I see that. It's obvious. All the way back, ever since we were kids. We were in love, and we were too young, and too scared to know what to do, what to say. And if you hung around? We would have figured it out. I know it. I - uh." Chloe brushed away the tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Hey, there's a lot of different timelines, right? If what I saw is true. Like, parallel dimensions. I hope so. I want to believe there's a billion worlds out there, where you can I get it together. Where we figure out what we mean to each other. And we get married, and maybe even have kids, and ...all that happily ever after crap. But this isn't one of those dimensions. You died, but it was an act of love. I wish I could know what we did, what I said, how we got to that point - in barely a week. That timeline you had to take back, before you you saved me in the bathroom."
She smiled brightly at all the different stories that her imagination painted, trying to figure the answer out.
"I'm happy for them, the versions of us that got together. Hella epic love for the ages, no doubt. And I know you'd want me to be happy now, here, in this place and time. So this is me telling you: I'm happy. I'm really fucking happy. I've got a good life going. And it's gonna get better. All because of you. Thank you. Thank you for everything. Wish you were here. My partner in time."
Chloe leaned in, and placed a soft, heartfelt kiss over Max's name.
"I'll keep stopping by, and let you know how it's going. Even though I got a feeling you're going to keep watching over me. My angel. My own personal guardian angel."
Another minute passed, before Chloe was able to tear herself away from her friend's grave. Slowly, she rose to her feet and walked towards the exit, but not before meeting Steph; the other woman had been standing respectfully off to the side, giving Chloe her privacy.
They embraced, and shared a firm, deep kiss.
"Thanks for waiting, baby."
"Of course. I know how important this is to you. Besides, it gave me time to hang out with Rachel. Rose came by actually, she saw us from the side of the road as she was driving past.
"Oh?" Chloe asked, looking around.
"Yeah, she didn't want to bother you, so she left a few minutes ago. I hope you don't mind, but I extended an invitation to her and James. For the dinner tonight, with our parents. Already called the restaurant, they said they can easily fit in two more people."
Chloe snorted with bemusement and shook her head.
"What?" Steph asked with a grin.
"You're so good at your job, is all, with the planning and organizing. And hell no I don't mind. The Caulfields are gonna be there too. Guess that's the funny thing about tragedy, has a way of linking people together sometimes. Like one big family."
They laced their fingers together and started to walk towards the car.
Chloe traced her finger over the silver Claddagh ring on Steph's finger, its twin wrapped around the finger on her other hand.
"Hey, so….we're not tellin'em we're already married, right?"
Chloe laughed, "Noooo. They don't need to know about the quickie wedding. Seriously though, how often do you get the chance to have Hayley Kyoko officiate it, huh? Jesus Christ, we had to do it. They would have revoked our lesbian membership cards if we took a pass."
"Hee. Fuck yeah. Fringe benefit of the job."
"Damn right. Gotta love Vegas. So no, no. They don't need to know about us. Let'em think our little fairy-tale wedding we're planning in Arcadia Bay will be the first one. I mean, shit, if it were up to me, we'd get married every day."
Steph turned and asked, "That'd get expensive, not to mention exhausting. You haven't seen me at my worst, I think I'm gonna be a total bridezilla."
"Yeah, but think of all the goodies we'd keep raking in."
"Donnnn't think it works that way, cutie."
"Shit. Probably right."
Chloe turned her head and caught one last glance towards Max's grave.
I'm living, Max, I promise you. I'm living for us both. Hell, for all of us who weren't lucky enough to make it this far.
With that, Chloe turned and walked off towards the rest of her life.
Frank hums along tunelessly as he drives his RV towards the streaming light of the eternal dawn.
"Life is...a highway….ride it….all night long…"
Glancing towards his canine companion, he muses, "Yeah? Well, I knew it was gonna work from the moment we took the job."
"Bark. Bark bark!"
"Hah! Okay, fine, sure, you got me, buddy. But all's well that ends well, right? And shit, this is gonna end really well. Our day is here! Our ship's come in! All that happy bullshit that happens to other people. Except this time? It's you and me. We got the fucking brass ring. So let's just bask for a moment in our victory."
"I don't know. I'm not gonna ask. Sure, you think with the kind of pull they were showing, they could have gotten a better lift from someone else, but I ain't gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. One last good deed, before we go and we take our bow."
A young woman steps out from the rear of the vehicle. Frank never got the name; he and Pompidou have taken to calling her Our Esteemed Benefactor, ever since she hired them both for what seemed like easy pay for easy work, She wanted him to help her contact an old...well, not exactly friend, but Frank always liked Chloe, as annoying a bitch as she could be sometimes. He'd had to do a lot of shitty things to keep going, both when he was alive and...afterwards..
It was clean work, for a good cause. Well, putting aside the lies by omission, of course.
But she always kept her face covered by the hood of her ragged, brown canvas robe; he understood why people might want to conceal themselves, out in this part of the Universe, so he didn't question it. She'd been good to her word in all of their dealings up to this point.
He's shocked when unexpectedly, she throws the hood back, and loosens the robe about her. A pink t-shirt with a picture of a deer peeks through.
"Wait. I...I think I know you," Frank says, frowning as he squints his eye. "Yeah….yeeeeeah. Wait a fucking second. You were the friend! You were….the kid with the powers. What the fuck? I mean, I didn't know you personally, but I saw what was going down. Shit, I shoulda guess it sooner. No wonder you told us not to worry, after the kid's second attempt! Jesus fuck."
Max gives little more than a sad smile, but says nothing. She ignores the questions, as she reaches down and pulls out a small leather bag clipped to her belt. As she opens it, a pure, white light shines from within: it is warmth and comfort and joy and relief. She closes it, then places the bag in his hand.
"As promised," she states, her voice rough, old. Far more years than her appearance belies. "This'll get you to the Pure Lands. Just keep driving 'til you see the exit ramp, right next to Mount Lu. Can't miss it."
Frank's heart would be pounding, if he still had one. Even so, there is a feeling of excitement, a surge of anticipation, as he takes a peek in the bag.
The token is there. Enough power for the both of them to pass on through.
"Remember, you can still fuck this up. It's not Nirvana, but both of you get a better chance now. An easier starting place. A kinder rebirth. You still have some karma to work through, but life'll be a lot gentler, next go around."
Frank shakes his head, flabbergast. He looks over at his dearest friend, sitting in the other seat, and reaches over to scratch him behind the ears. Rebirth, and in the motherfucking Pure Lands at that! There'd actually be fucking tears in his eyes, if he could cry.
And they'd go together, they way they were meant to.
"Shit, I gotta ask. Probably gonna regret it...but why us? These tokens don't grow on trees. And not just anyone can hand them out, either. You got have some pull. So why did you need my help? Doesn't make sense, you were her best friend. Why didn't you go talk to her yourself? Why all the playing around and hiding?"
Max smiles patiently. She reaches out to squeeze his shoulder, and gives Pompidou a similar gesture of affection.
"Oh Frank. People like us, we've been playing The Game for how long? You know better than to question The Rules. We're all bound by our karmic limitations and penances. Besides, believe it or not, she was far more receptive to learning the lesson through you than she would be through me. Directly, that is. You...provided the appropriate distance, so that she could see the forest from the trees. Anyhow, drop me off here?"
Frank pauses, looking out towards the window. There's a lonely, beat-up diner coming up, on the right-hand side. It looks familiar, but shit. After a while, they all look the same. He doesn't plan to stay any longer than it takes to let the other woman out.
She starts to walk down the stairs, then opens the door. In a rare pique of compassion, he rises up halfway and calls out, with a surprisingly gentle voice, "Wait! Hey….hey….kid. Uh. Y'know. Why don't you come with us? I mean, y'gotta have one more for yourself, right? You could just skip whatever this is, and we'll drive off together."
She turns and looks towards him, genuinely touched by his concern. She shakes her head with resignation and says, "Thank you. Someday. But right now? I got a lot more karma of my own to work through. I've still...gotta earn it."
"Damn. Seriously? How much karma could that possibly be?"
She turns and answers, though he barely hears her as she walks out of the RV.
"'Bout a whole town's worth."
She closes the door, as Frank and Pompidou drive off to their reward. She tightens the robe around her, and pulls the hood back up. The parking lot of the diner that she walks through has seen better days; the asphalt is pitted, even cratered with potholes in many places. The exterior is rusty and corroded, yet stands against the inexorable grind of the Eternal, just like so many others of its ilk. A faint, dying light inside promises sanctuary, but the few stragglers gathered around various fires, desperate for warmth, can't seem to figure out how to get past the door.
Even after she opens it and walks inside, they still struggle in their ignorance.
She spots him immediately; he's even more haggard than the last version, eyes darkly rimmed, the glowing cherry of a cigarette between his lips burning down towards the end. It's Frank, but he's got red hair this time. The dog's there too, but her name is Laika, and she's a Doberman mutt.
Max slides into the booth without asking. Frank glances over, pursing his bean-stained lips.
"And who the hell are you?"
"A benefactor," Max answers. "I have a job for you. And payment that'll make it worth the while."
She can see it in his eyes; he's going to say yes. The dog, too. They all say yes in the end. They see her for who she is. An Operator Among Operators. Someone who can get things done like no other.
"Oh yeah? And what the hell could that possibly be?"
She smiles, knowing that it's the only part of her face he can make out.
"The same thing I offer all the others. A fighting chance."
A/N: Wow, so here we are.
Hard to believe it's over and done with. And in relatively short order, from what I was suspecting. barely a year ago I was reaching out to Tom and asking him if he would please help me brainstorm this "ideal I've got stuck in my head" and beta read the story that came from those sessions. So thank you so much to him, and thanks so much to Leosch for the amazing work he did proofing everything. I actually learned a fair deal about grammar from him!
And thank you to all the fans, especially the ones who have been around for years, and continue to be around for years. Including and especially Theodur, whom I have known literally since my first day on his site over five-and-a-half years ago, and who has always been so generous and wonderful with his support. He writes too, so I say ya'll should go check his stuff out!
Clever readers will note I have not hit the complete button on this yet. That's because another good friend and faithful fan, LonesomeBard, gave me the inspiration for a really nifty alternate ending. One that doesn't quite fit with the theme of the story, but one that I think Pricefield fans, and fans who believe that Chloe should have had a chance to "make life better" literally, as opposed to simply coming to peace with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, will probably like a lot. I just need to recover a little more, and get a little more time, and I'll do that thing!
So Jim dies at the end. I am sad to say that this was not planned for. You see, there's a real life Jim, and a real life Fay. And Jim was a friend who I'd known for years, but only just started to really bond with this year, after he supported me coming out. What started off as a way to honor his amazing existence as "Doctor Dunsel" instead turned into a memorial; as I was starting to write the draft for Chapter 7 in July, he died suddenly. The last time I saw him was in May, when we were driving to a party con on the Cape, and while he enjoyed himself, he kept complaining about an illness he couldn't quite shake. Two weeks later, we find out that there's a lot of cancerous mass in his lungs, and three weeks after that, he's dead from soft tissue sarcoma. At least he went quick, and in not much pain. One of the few good things that came out of that tragedy was meeting his sister at the wake, who is as amazing a person as he is. Anyhow...thanks Jim. I hope you're giving God shit, and getting all the angels drunk on rocket fuel.
I hope you all enjoyed this; I have to admit from a craft and technical perspective, I'm pretty proud of this one. It's nice to look back at my work over the past half decade an see how my style and technique have improved. It's not over-exaggeration to say that fan-fiction, and Life is Strange, have been a combination that completely changed the course of my life.
Have a wonderful rest of the weekend folks. Be excellent to each other, because you never know what the next day will bring.