Max’s vision narrows, then darkens, like the spiral of a camera lens closing in on itself. Far below, she hears water lapping against the shore. Light, misty and moody, reappears from somewhere above.
A soft wind, warm as an exhalation, ripples through. Max won’t be able to recall what she sees here, but the feelings will linger forever. A sensation like waiting in a tunnel.
Max feels the stranger’s touch again, this time on her shoulder. Something inside her sparks in response, as though struck with flint. A tendril of information enters her mind, softly but assertively, stripping away any other thoughts, like a melody triggering a childhood memory. But it’s not a memory belonging to Max.
Max looks at the stranger in confusion. The stranger’s face has twisted into a pained grimace. She’s on the cusp, Max realizes, of breaking into tears. It’s like seeing her mother crying for the first time; the shock and fear are crippling, and Max’s hand, possessed by a longing for closeness that confuses her later, reflexively moves up to cup the stranger’s cheek. Her eyes widen. Instantly, a fresh, smooth, dark heat like moonlight radiating through space—
Max snaps back into the present. The cabin surrounds her on all sides. Beyond it, the night.
Cal is saying her name over and over, both hands catching up one of her own. The stranger is gone.
“Max, Max,” Cal repeats, like it’s an incantation.
Max can feel the tears on her cheek: wet, hot. She looks out, to the forest past the windows, and squeezes his hand tight.
“What happened?” she whispers, though she knows he won’t be able to answer to her satisfaction.
He whispers: “You fell. It was so fast, but she caught you.” His breath catches in his throat like thread on a thorn.
“It’s OK,” Max says, as soothingly as she manage. Her voice sounds like the croak of a toad.
She can feel herself slowly rejoining reality; physical sensation floods her awareness. She’s lying prone on the couch. It’s still warm from where the stranger lay sleeping. Cooling sweat pools between her breasts. Cal is crouched next to her, on one knee, cradling her hand. A sheet has been cast over her. A dying saint and supplicating pilgrim.
“Then,” he continues. “The orange square came back. It filled the room with light. It was terrifying. When it…stopped, you came back from out of it. Out of the light.”
He looks at her with a plea in his eyes. “What does it mean?” he breathes.
Max shakes her head. She tries to move into an upright sitting position, her weight coming down on her palm as she pushes herself up. The immediate prickle she feels at the center of her hand is like the sting of a wasp, followed by numbness. She inspects the area curiously, but there’s nothing unusual. Nothing but the empty chalice of her palm, a cup of lined pink skin and pulpy fleshiness underneath, her bones as palpable in the mass of tissue as bitter seeds in a mouthful of orange.
Orange. Twilight over the lake. The vanishing square. Touching a face with this same hand. And before that, or after it, she can no longer tell: She had stood in that gauzy world between past and present, in front of a stranger. Max curls her fingers in, forming a fist, remembering what passed between them. Not a stranger. A messenger.