She was four years old.
Chloe sat in her booster seat, buckled in and more or less stuck as Mom and Vanessa buckled Max into hers. The younger girl was crying and struggling, but eventually both women working together managed to secure the squirming child, and they shut the door. After exchanging a few words with Vanessa, Mom got into the driver’s seat and started the car.
“Oh, Max, I know you don’t want to leave your mother,” Mom sighed, glancing back at the sniffling toddler in her backseat, “But it’s really not so bad as all that! Chloe, tell Max how fun preschool is!” Chloe thought for a second, trying to come up with something to say.
“There’s crayons,” she offered after a moment of consideration, “And blocks, and books, and Miss Emily is really nice!” It was the comfort of a small child, but really all she had to offer. It didn’t seem to have much effect, though.
“But I don’t got friends!” Max protested, squirming again in her seat.
“Oh, you’ll make lots of friends!” Mom insisted, giving a reassuring smiling over her shoulder as they stopped at an intersection, “Chloe will show you around and such, won’t you, Chloe?”
“Yeah,” Chloe agreed, nodding and leaning over to reach out and take the younger girl’s hand, “I’ll be your friend.” Max still sniffled some, but quieted down, squeezing her companion’s hand.
She was nine years old.
Max ran through the woods, with Chloe in tow. Both girls clutched handfuls of shiny plastic beads and jewels, with Max carrying a gardening trowel as well. Cardboard swords flapped at their sides as they ran, slipped through the beltloops of their jeans, and they wore costume tricorn hats, with a felt eyepatch for Chloe.
“Okay, here’ll work,” Max declared, slowing to a halt maybe twenty feet from where the trees gave way to open grass, “Nobody’ll be able to find our treasure here in this jungle!” She knelt down and set her beads and baubles aside, starting to dig. Chloe nodded and tossed her handfuls of loot onto Max’s pile, then pulled her play cutlass out of her beltloop, scanning the woods as Max worked.
“Think we were followed?” she asked, peering around trees and slowly circling the space, “I mean, this is a lot of treasure.”
“Maybe,” Max conceded, digging a little faster, “Keep standing guard!” Chloe held up her sword now as she walked, ready to lash out at anyone coming to steal their treasure. No one came, of course, but it was fun to pretend that rival pirates were darting between the trees, intent on making off with the priceless plastic trinkets she and Max had been stockpiling for nearly a year.
“All done!” Max announced after a few minutes, “Now nobody but us will ever find it!” Chloe turned to find Max patting down the dirt with her trowel, evening out the spot where all their treasure was apparently buried.
“Okay, I’ll mark an X on the map so we can find it later,” Chloe replied, pulling a marker and folded up piece of paper out of her pocket. The paper had a crude drawing of Lighthouse Park scribbled on it, with a large section labeled “trees.” Picking a spot within the “trees” boundary she gauged to be more or less where they stood, she drew and X and folded the paper back up, stowing it away safely.
The evening autumn sun shone over the ocean as they meandered out of the woods to where their parents were sitting on a picnic blanket, talking. Vanessa saw them and waved, and both Chloe and Max waved back in acknowledgment. They held back a bit, though, not wanting to return to real life just yet.
“How long should we wait before we come back?” Max asked as the two of them dawdled several yards from their parents. Chloe considered for a moment.
“Ten years,” she declared, “We’ll be grownups by then!” Ten felt like a good number. For a nine year old, it was more than a lifetime. Anything beyond that may as well have been forever.
“Okay,” Max agreed, nodding solemnly and looking Chloe in the eye, “We’ll be back here in exactly ten years. No matter what?” She held out a hand to shake on it, which Chloe took.
“No matter what.”
She was fourteen years old.
“Whatever happens, I want you to be strong,” Max pleaded with Chloe, taking her by the hand and looking her in the eye, “Even if you feel like I was never there for you… because I will never abandon you, Chloe. I’ll always have your back. Always.” The younger girl had tears welling up in her eyes, and she seemed super serious. Then, suddenly, Max snapped out of it. She let go of Chloe’s hands, looking a little confused, but then shrugged and smiled, so they just kind of went back to chilling around the house.
Chloe’s heart was pounding, though, and she couldn’t get it to calm down. What had that even been about?! Max was just going on like it hadn’t even happened, but Chloe couldn’t get it out of her head. She’d been crushing on Max, but she’d been too nervous to actually tell her. What if Max freaked out? Like, what if she wanted to not be friends anymore?! Max had never said anything to make Chloe think that, but with something big like this you couldn’t be too careful. Middle schoolers were mean enough to kids who wore the wrong brand of shoes, how would they treat a…
“I will never abandon you, Chloe. I’ll always have your back. Always.” That’s what Max had said, even if she hadn’t explained why she’d suddenly gotten so intense. If she could trust anyone, it was Max, Chloe decided. Besides, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Chloe took a deep breath.
“Max, I, uh, I wanna talk to you about something,” Chloe stammered. Max turned to her and shrugged, scooting around on the couch so she could give Chloe her full attention. That was a good sign, at least.
“Sure,” Max replied, “What’s up?” She had a relaxed smile on her face, but she leaned forward some and made eye contact with Chloe. Chloe took a moment to just look into those blue eyes for a second before she spoke, just in case it was the last time she had the chance.
“I’ve, um, well,” Chloe sputtered, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about-” The doorbell rang, stopping her short.
“Hold on, I’ll go get that,” Chloe mumbled, hopping off the couch and hurrying to the door. She wasn’t sure who was ringing the bell late on a Saturday morning, but maybe it was a package? Or maybe someone going door to door with a petition or something. Whatever. She just wanted to use the few moments away from Max to gather her thoughts.
Chloe opened the door to find Mom standing there, next to a police officer. Her eyes looked puffy, and she was sort of slumped, like she was really tired or something. For a second Chloe glanced at the police officer and wondered if she was in trouble or something, but that didn’t seem right. The officer didn’t look angry or anything. He actually looked bummed, too.
“Mom?” Chloe asked quietly, hoping for some clarification. Her mother took a quick step forward and pulled her close, starting to cry. Maybe she’d been crying. Maybe that was why her eyes were puffy.
“Oh, Chloe,” Mom sobbed, still holding her daughter tight, almost painfully so, “It’s William…”
She was nineteen years old.
Chloe was furious. Nathan had pulled a friggin’ gun on her! Lucky thing the fire alarm had gone off, or things might have really gone south. It wasn’t like things could get much worse, though. Rachel was still missing, step-douche was constantly on Chloe’s case about everything, and Frank was getting pretty aggressive calling in her debt. If she’d gotten shot and lived, maybe she could sue the pants off the Prescotts. Probably not a good bet to take, but it wasn’t like she had much to lose.
Chloe stumbled out of the bathroom and made a beeline for an exit. She caught sight of David skulking out of the corner of her eye, but his attention was thankfully directed someplace else. Taking care to avoid him, Chloe tried her best to just blend in with the tide of students filing out of the building. Once she was clear, Chloe slipped out from the crowd and jogged around to a safe spot to have a smoke.
“Well, that went well,” Chloe grumbled as she lit her cigarette, lurking in one of the nooks she remembered from her time at Blackwell, “Smooth, Price. Real smooth.” She gave the cig a long drag, trying to calm her nerves. Standing still for the first time since Nathan had pressed her up against a wall with a gun in her navel, she found she was shaking.
Once she’d finished the first cigarette, Chloe lit up another. Then another. Then another. At length, though, she tossed a butt to the ground and didn’t replace it between her fingers. Damn things didn’t come cheap, and they didn’t really help her relax, when all was said and done. What she needed was a joint.
Glancing around to make sure the coast was clear, Chloe stepped out of her hiding spot and trudged back to the parking lot. All in all, it hadn’t been a particularly productive trip, she admitted to herself as she kicked a rock. Maybe she shouldn’t have come to Blackwell today at all…
Nobody had ticketed her truck, at least. She’d been in a rush to meet her blackmail appointment, so she’d just sort of screeched to a stop over the handicapped spots and legged it to the main building. Probably not the best idea, but when had that ever stopped her. She climbed up into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
Circling to get out of the parking lot, Chloe slammed her foot on the brakes when someone was friggin’ thrown to the ground in front of her. Looking around, she saw Nathan standing by, clutching his face. Had he literally just thrown somebody in front of a car? Total Nathan move.
A hand appeared on the front of Chloe’s hood, presumably whoever was on the ground pulling themselves up. Brown hair rose up into her field of view next, followed by a pair of blue eyes. Chloe’s heart skipped a beat, and her eyebrows shot up. It couldn’t be, could it?