The stranger hovers above the water, perfectly upright, as though her body were an ornament hung from heaven. Her toes point down, rippling the surface ever so slightly. Max stops moving. The cold water laps at her as she stands at the edge of the red-orange square, looking up almost shyly, like a child encountering an imposing work of art. The stranger’s chin is tucked against her chest, and her long hair obscures her face, but the breeze shifts the strands and Max catches a shard of her unconscious, inanimate expression, a glimpse of her plummy, veined eyelids. Max breathes in sharply. The spell instantly breaks. The stranger, consumed by gravity, falls like a rock, straight into the water. The red-orange square vanishes.
Not thinking, Max rushes forward. The lake bottom drops underneath her, and she is submerged. Blind, she swings out clumsily, her open hand making contact first with the stranger’s hair, which she grabs by the fistful. She finds a limp arm, and then a shoulder, and Max reaches in to encircle the stranger’s waist and prop her up so her face is above water, just like Cal had shown her on the first day. Max pulls the body in towards her own; the stranger is warm to the touch, like peaches left in the sun. At this depth, Max can just barely touch the lake bottom, but she finds it in the blue-black darkness and she pushes against it hard, swallowing water in her exertion. The shore is hardly ten feet away but it takes all her energy to half-swim, half-drag, the stranger there.
Max leans down on the sand, her ear above the stranger’s mouth, and one hand on her throat. She waits there for a moment that feels like it expands like elastic into an eternity. But eventually she hears how the waves beat in time with the stranger’s heart and improbably steady breathing, and she sighs with relief. The rush of adrenaline that powered her disappears, and the weight of her exhaustion drops hard onto her mind and buckles her legs. She allows herself a moment’s rest, her chest heaving. A bird cries out somewhere on the other side of the lake. Max fishes out a walkie talkie from the zippered-up pocket of her canvas pants and presses the large central button. It buzzes, and a voice appears on the end of the line.
“Max? What’s taking you so long?”
“Hey, uh, C-Cal…” To her surprise and horror, Max discovers that she can’t answer without her voice breaking.
“Where are you?” She hears the creaking swing of the cabin’s front door as he steps outside.
“The l-lake, just off the path. N-Not far. Can you bring the truck around?” Her teeth chatter loudly. “And blankets.”
“Stay put, OK? Don’t go anywhere.”
Max laughs bleakly. “Where would I go?”
The line beeps, and Max sets the communicator aside. She drops onto her elbows, next to the stranger. Looking over, she remembers with a start that she is naked, and quickly she removes her t-shirt and drapes it over her. Unsure what to do but convinced this is not yet enough, Max arranges her arms alongside her body, and gingerly brushes the remainder of her wet hair onto her shoulders and chest. The glacial stillness of her features, freckled with water and sand, seem to suggest a rest far beyond dreaming. Max reassures herself that the stranger is breathing and then returns to the path, shivering in her sports bra, to watch for the truck’s headlights.