“Hi,” Max says. She gets up from the table, arms held stiffly at her sides. The stranger is sitting up on the couch, still wrapped in the sheet. Her face is covered in darkness, as though alighted upon by a black, tarry brushstroke. A thumbprint of charcoal. The braid swings across her back like a pendulum. Max wipes the sleep from her eyes like dragging a rag through a puddle, her heart rising, fast and hot as a cloud of steam, into her throat.
Max has awoken past dark a thousand times over in this room, but the dimensions of the cabin feel different now. The walls have closed in like the sides of an enchanted labyrinth. The night flexes, casting its shadows over the furniture, casually wielding its power to transform ordinary space by way of scattered moonlight.
She reaches for the propane lamp at the center of the table—her arm feels longer, her movements sluggish, her reach unending—and flicks it on. She meets the stranger’s eyes and is surprised by the plainness of her face. No trace of beauty there. But her eyes are shards of veined glass catching the reflection of the moon on the window panes, and she holds Max’s gaze with a sense of authority, of determination, that Max wants nothing more than to turn and run from.
Max swallows and put her palms up: a pacifying gesture. “I found you, you know, in the lake. I, uh, I’m not sure if you meant to be there, but that’s where I found you.”
The stranger gets up from off the couch. Her eyes stay fixed on Max as she approaches. Coolly, surprised at her own composure, Max takes a moment to weigh her options. Should she register the approach as encroachment, or unthreatening curiosity? She levels a calm, steady look at the stranger, the way she might observe a wild animal sharing the forest road with her. An incidental crossing of paths.
The stranger’s expression is unreadable, and as disconcerting as navigating by no light. But for a moment Max thinks she catches the look that lives between her furrowed brows and along her lips: the marks prompted by the anticipated arrival of a long-awaited desire. The stranger looks at Max like she is the object at the end of a long and bloody quest. The sword in the water, the potion in the vial, the animal at the altar, the maiden in the grove.
Cal opens the door of his room, startling Max and shattering the reverie that holds them in its thrall into a million glittering pieces. “What’s going on?” he says, sleepily at first and then again, as his gaze swivels around the living room, his voice rising sharply with fear as he takes in the scene.
It happens quickly after that. The stranger loses no time in stepping forward, two quick steps like a dancer crossing a stage, and is suddenly right in front of Max. Cal calls out her name, but she doesn’t hear him. She can feel the wave of the stranger’s breathing against her face and neck. The warmth of it is as striking as a physical blow.
Lightly, but purposefully, the stranger touches the center of Max’s throat with a fingertip. Max heaves in a jolting, staggered breath that feels as huge as a mountain, as wet and red as blood splattering, as jagged as broken granite. When the stranger breaks her fall, it’s with all the grace and strength of a guardian angel.
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