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The Lake

By Sasha McCallum

Copyright 2017 Sasha McCallum

Smashwords Edition

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Table of Contents

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

About the Author

Other titles by Sasha McCallum

Connect with Sasha McCallum

Part 1

Her mother’s face was pale and drawn in the Skype window, her expression somehow both worried and guarded. Lauren herself had made an effort to look more presentable for the weekly call, applying make-up, fixing her hair and clothing and pushing her tone to be less mechanical without seeming forcibly cheery. Her mother was a smart woman and she knew Lauren well.

"I am glad you are painting again," she said, not looking particularly glad at all. "It's good therapy." She sounded helpless, hopeless and another twist of guilt hit Lauren full force. She did not like doing this to her, but it was necessary.

"You look terrible, Ma. You look worse than I feel."

"No. I am okay, I worry about you out there in the back of beyond by yourself, that's all."

Lauren knew. She knew the only reason her mother wasn't here now was because her father had convinced her that what Lauren needed were time and space. She was grateful to him for that.

"I just want to paint. There are things I need to work through," Lauren filled in the silence with unnecessary words.

"I know," her mother responded with a momentary expression of pain before she managed to wipe it away. "You have the heart of an artist, you should never have stopped." An apologetic glance then; she was uncomfortable telling Lauren what she should or should not have done.

"Ma, listen. Don't give anyone else my address, okay? I really need to be left alone for a while. No doubt you will be asked questions."

"Leave it to me," her mother nodded slowly. "Lauren..." she looked like a lost puppy, "...stay warm," she finished awkwardly.

Lauren felt like crying, she struggled to maintain an appropriate outward demeanor.

"I will. I love you, Ma."

Lauren had been awake for three days. It was four o'clock in morning and she had abandoned her work for the night, having painted solidly for the past 12 hours. She sat in the back porch with the lights off and watched the storm flashing over the lake. It was a rough night, the roughest she'd ever seen here. She enjoyed the tiny dots of color circling in her peripheral vision, the effect of being awake too long. A contented smile played at the corners of her mouth. She would make this last as long as possible. No sleep for the wicked.

But her head lolled on the back of her chair and she dropped off. She knew it had happened when she woke with a start to a clap of thunder. It was still dark and she still felt delirious so she can't have been out for very long. Something caught her eye; in a flash of light over the lake she spotted a dark figure near the water’s edge.

She felt a surge of fear when she first saw it, perhaps because she hadn't quite regained full consciousness after her mini nap and she briefly wondered if she were still dreaming. Or hallucinating. It struck her though that it didn't really matter. As she watched, her fear was replaced by calm, simple curiosity.

Now she knew where it was she could discern the figure without the aid of lightning. A human certainly, battered by the wind, with loose material billowing violently around it. Lauren watched in silent fascination until the time came when she was both sure it wasn't a hallucination and that the person may be in need of assistance. Far be it from her to interfere with someone's 4am bout of eccentricity but a part of her was overly curious. Maybe she wanted to get in on it herself, she was at that stage of her prolonged wakefulness. She exited the enclosed porch via the ranch slider and raised her head to the angry, wet sky. Yes, she thought, a good night to be alive. A living night if ever there was one. She made her way slowly down the path toward the water line, delighting in the swirling raindrops, wind and darkness around her. Perhaps she would get lost in it, or walk right into the water and never come out again. The wistful smile played at her mouth and she squinted her eyes against the weather.

She searched and dimly picked out the figure still standing in the same place at the water’s edge. She stopped and observed it from the closer distance. The billowing darkness was a long skirt and long, loose hair. Wild, Lauren thought. A wild woman; untamed. As she watched the figure dropped to the ground, somewhat surprising her with its sudden movement. Perhaps she had passed out, or died. She searched the surrounding forest and edges of the lake for any possible companions but found none.

Lauren made her way closer and stood over her, slightly concerned. The woman lay on her back, eyes open, narrowed at the sky. She was obviously conscious. When she saw Lauren a flicker of surprise entered her eyes, then returned to the darkness above her without further reaction. Maybe she was prone to hallucinations as well, Lauren pondered and lay down on her back beside her trying to figure out what was so interesting about the overhead view.

Ah, yes. It was quite stunning, drops slewing towards them it was very much like being on a powerful drug. In fact, she thought, perhaps the woman was on drugs. It would explain a lot. Lauren herself was not, she was so far into her sleep deprived state she didn't need them.

Her clothes were soaked through and she was getting cold fast. She turned her head, stole a glance at the woman who lay beside her. She must be freezing, Lauren began to worry. Where was she from? What was she doing this for? Was she trying to kill herself? Under the circumstances, hypothermia was a very real possibility. Lauren decided to try to help. She rose and looked at the woman.

"You cannot stay there like that," she said, raising her voice above the wild weather. "Come up to the house with me. I'll give you something dry to put on." The woman peered up at her; she appeared to be considering the offer. She got up and followed Lauren back to the house in silence.

The house was not visible from the lake, but Lauren knew her way well. She switched the lights on when they were inside the porch and turned to study the woman properly. She was beautiful, long, black hair, messy and clinging to her rain slicked skin. Her eyes were a deep blue and her skin was alabaster. She was Lauren's height and she guessed around the same age. She peered at Lauren almost completely expressionless and without saying anything. Was she on something? Lauren looked closely at her pupils, they seemed normal. More normal than Lauren's did, probably.

"What's your name?" she asked. "Is anyone else out there?" She would prefer not to talk but certain things demanded answers. The woman continued to look into Lauren's eyes in silence. "Do you speak English?" Silence. "Do you speak?"

Lauren frowned at her, but it was probably just as well she didn't speak. Lauren was in no mood to have a conversation and attempt to get to know a stranger tonight anyway. She reached out and touched her arm. The raven-haired woman flinched just slightly but made no other reaction. Her eyes appeared intelligent enough but who really knew.

"You are frozen. Come with me."

Lauren led her into her en suite bathroom and gave her towels, turned the shower on for her. She didn't want a case of hypothermia on her hands. The woman understood, she began undressing before Lauren had even shut the door behind her.

She put the kettle on and checked the Glock 19 in its kitchen drawer was loaded and ready. The woman seemed to be more afraid of Lauren than any kind of threat but it was better to be safe. She felt a tiny hysteria rising within her. The woman was afraid of her? She giggled to herself, then quickly sobered when it hit her that she didn't want to be feared. She wasn't a bad person. Not too bad, anyway. Her current sleep deprived state did not allow for strangers with unknown issues entering into the picture and complicating matters.

She sat down and peered at the storm raging outside but she nodded off slightly again. Within minutes she came to and went to her bedroom to get some dry clothes for the stranger and for herself. The shower was off, steam still wafting from the bathroom, but the woman was curled up on Lauren's bed, asleep. And stark naked. Lauren was a little shocked.

Make yourself at home, please... She peered down at the sleeping stranger, noting her perfect figure when something caught her eye. A closer inspection revealed deep, old scars down the length of each of her arms. Fuck. Not wanting to linger creepily above her naked form she covered her up with a quilt and left the room.

She activated the house alarm system, retreated into her studio and began painting. She felt very inspired, the ideal combination of sleep deficit and an unexpected encounter with a beautiful and clearly damaged stranger.


When she woke she was lying on her back on the floor of her studio. She must have passed out from sheer exhaustion at some point. She sat up slowly and saw in a panic that the stranger from last night was in her room, standing in front of the canvas she'd been working on.

It was herself, lying on Lauren's bed, splendidly naked. Lauren was immediately uneasy with her looking at it. Aside from general discomfort in someone observing her mind-baby, this painting was not innocent at all. It was a dazzling depiction of the stranger’s beauty, she had to admire that looking at it now in the light of day and with a slightly clearer head. The unfortunate part was that the scars she had observed before she'd left her last night were open wounds. Blood dripped from them and stained the sheets beneath her. Behind her physical perfection the woman had a bluish hue. The painting was of a dead person. The scene was chilling and she felt unbelievably ashamed of herself as she watched the woman in front of it. She shouldn't be in here, Lauren thought, she shouldn't be seeing that. Or any of these pictures. But Lauren was paralyzed. She waited for the woman to do something. She couldn't see her face, she had her back to her.

When she turned around and came to crouch on the floor next to Lauren, her expression was not pained or disgusted as Lauren had expected; it was of interest, even respect. They regarded each other. The stranger appeared concerned then, she looked Lauren up and down as she sat on the floor.

"You're covered in paint," she said. She was American. Her voice was smooth and luxurious; Lauren stared. The woman stood and held out a hand to help her up.

"You can speak then," Lauren said pointlessly as she stood without accepting assistance. She stretched her sore body and the woman watched. "I am sorry you saw that," she gestured to the canvas.

"Why? It's stunning; you should finish it. What was and what could have been. I hope you don't mind, I borrowed some dry clothes."

Her feet were bare and she wore a pair of Lauren's jeans and a long sleeve shirt that clung to her curves. Lauren checked her watch to distract herself.

"Damn it!" she exclaimed angrily. "I've slept for too long." It was after 4 pm.

"What happened to your toe?"

"What?" Lauren asked in confusion then bent down to inspect her own foot. "I must have knocked it on something."

"It looks painful. Maybe it's broken."

"It's fine. I can't even feel it," she said, poking at it. She headed to the kitchen, the stranger in tow. She did not seem in any hurry to leave or to explain herself. Lauren put the kettle on and observed her as she sat at a bar stool. "May I ask you some questions now?"

"You're a very talented painter," she said simply. "I didn't realize."

Lauren frowned, not sure how to respond.

"Who are you?" she asked, only half expecting a straight answer.

"My name is Madeline Key. Thanks for helping me last night."

"Did you need help?"

"Perhaps..." She smiled mysteriously. "Or perhaps you needed help."

A riddle teller. Figures.

"What were you doing there? Do you live in one of the cabins on the lake?"

"No. I was driving. I ran out of gas west of here, along Highway 108."

"It doesn't explain why you were lying out in the middle of a storm," Lauren said warily. "Are you suicidal?"

"No. Are you?"

Her immediate thought was to deny this fervently but when she dug, death wasn't a prospect that particularly scared or repelled her. She stayed silent and made tea.

"What if I said I came here to find you? The tortured artist," Madeline said.

"I would suspect you of being a con artist."

"Hmm." The woman looked around the kitchen. "Do you ever eat?"

"No." Lauren sat down. "Drink your tea. Then I'll take you back to your car."

"It's out of gas."

"Yes, I heard you. I have gas."

"Okay." She looked crestfallen then she came over to Lauren. She stood in front of her, reached out and touched her face. "You are ...not what I expected at all. Why are you out here all alone?"

Lauren grimaced and pushed her hand away.

"I'm here to work," she replied. The woman saddened again and Lauren felt bad for being unfriendly. "Why wouldn't you speak to me last night?"

"I was very tired and slightly delirious, I didn't know if you were real or if you posed a threat."

"Yet you seemed relaxed enough to fall asleep in my bed. Naked."

She chuckled at this, but not with embarrassment.

"I suppose deep down I knew you were harmless," she said. "If you hadn't fetched me, I might have fallen asleep out there. I might be dead."

"Yes." The conversation was going in circles. "Should I be worried about you? Should I call someone?"

"No. I'm safe now. I've found you."

"You still don't know who I am," Lauren said, starting to question the woman's sanity.

"Yes. Yes, I do. You're Lauren Beaumont. You're a good person, but you have demons which won't leave you alone."

Lauren thought about this. The demons must have been obvious from her paintings and the woman would have seen her name on something around the house.

"What kind of tea is this?" she asked, frowning.

"Green tea with lemongrass."

"What are you, a health nut or something?" She made a face.

"No, I just like it."

"Jesus." She put her head in her hand heavily. "Don't you have any coffee?"

Lauren had to stifle a laugh.

"You are pretty demanding for an unexpected guest," she said. "I'm weirded out you saw my paintings. You were not supposed to. No one's seen them. I shouldn't have portrayed you like that."

"It's okay, I know you don't mean me any injury." She paused looking thoughtful. "When did you start painting? And why?"

"Nine months, maybe. It was necessary."

"You never painted before that?"

"Not since college."

"You need inspiration. Some of them lack direction."

Lauren looked at her in surprise. The nerve, she thought, but was charmed nonetheless; the woman was quite fascinating.

"The one you did of me was better. Would you like me to pose for you?"

"I don't really work like that."

"Maybe you should."

"Why would you do that? Doesn't my style disgust you?"

"Yes. But you're brilliant. With the right inspiration you could bring the demons to the surface quicker."

"What makes you think I'm in a rush?"

"You don't sleep, you don't eat. If you continue on that path, you're the one who will be killing yourself."

"How do you know all this?"

"I have eyes. A brain too, believe it or not."

"Okay, fair enough."

"Also, I'm a witch. I saw you in my crystal ball."

Lauren chuckled but the woman actually struck her as looking exactly how a witch might.

"Do witches use crystal balls?"

"You shouldn't be living here alone," she said, ignoring the question. "There are creatures in these forests."

"What kind of creatures?" Lauren didn't think she meant the usual wildlife.

"I could show you," she smiled mystically.

"Look," Lauren turned away. "I need to have a shower and then I'll take you to your car. Why don't you make yourself something to eat? There's food there, and, yes, coffee as well. Help yourself." She got up and glanced suspiciously at the woman. But she wasn't getting any negative vibes from her; on the contrary, she felt unexpectedly easy with her presence.

She took a long shower and dressed warmly. Madeline Key, she thought. What an odd woman. No worse than me though.

When she came into the kitchen a tempting scent hit her nose. Madeline had made her an omelet. She tasted it. It was perfect. Cheese and cherry tomato and other things she couldn't put a finger on and was too embarrassed to ask about. She ate it self-consciously as Madeline cleaned up and loaded the dish-washer. She kept stealing glances at Lauren and appeared pleased by her appetite.

"You know," she said nervously, "you don't need to deprive yourself of basic needs in order to produce good art."

"What do you know about it?" Lauren said defensively. "Sorry. Are you an artist or something?"

"I told you, I'm a witch."

"Right." She finished. "Thank you. That was delicious. So, where is home?"

"A complicated question. Do you mind if I don't answer it?"

"No. You don't owe me anything. You've answered more questions that I expected, considering what you were like last night." She smiled to herself.

"You really needed to eat, huh? You have the smile of an angel, you should do it more often."

She waved dismissively and wiped the smile from her face.

"Are you ready to go?"

They climbed into her car and headed south-west on Highway 108.

"How far is it?"

"I'm not sure. I was walking for quite a long time last night."

"You're crazy. Didn't you know where you were going? Don't you have a phone?" Cell phone reception around these areas was spotty at best though, she thought to herself. "It's risky behavior."

"I knew you'd come rescue me," she chuckled. "Anyway, you don't exactly take care of yourself either."

"I suppose I deserve that."

"This is it," she said, pleased. They pulled up behind a late model black BMW parked carelessly on the roadside. "I'm a little surprised it's still here. And undamaged," she said, surveying the vehicle.

"Sounds like you were expecting to be stuck out here without it."

"Maybe I was."

Lauren popped the trunk and exited the car, as did her companion.

"You have your keys, right?" she asked as she reached for the petrol container.

"Yes, I need to get something from it. I was so tired last night, I left everything." She appeared hesitant to approach the car closely and Lauren frowned in confusion. What was she ranting about? Get something?

"This much gas will get you to Gilford, about ten miles up. There's a station there."

"I can't leave," she said in panic and clutched at Lauren's arm.

"Why not?" Lauren questioned her frantic, cerulean eyes. "Something's wrong. Are you in trouble?"

"No. Sort of," she stuttered and Lauren sighed.

"Okay..." Lauren wasn't sure what to make of her and watched in silence as she unlocked the car, and shuffled around in the back. She withdrew a bag and came back to stand in front of Lauren as she waited by the side of the BMW.

She gave Lauren a long, lingering look.

"I can't leave," she repeated and Lauren furrowed her brow. "I was drawn here. Let me stay with you, just for a couple of days until I figure out what's going on."

"Have you done something wrong?" Lauren asked, eyes narrowed.

"No," she said quietly. "I'm trying to do something right."

"Could you pop the petrol cap, please?" She did so and Lauren contemplated the situation while she emptied the container. "We don't know each other, don't you want to find a lodge or motel or something?" she asked, though she couldn't think of any short term accommodations in the immediate vicinity.

"No. I'll stay out of your way. And... You could paint me more if you wanted. I won't hurt you." She seemed so fraught and Lauren thought again of the wicked scars on her arms.

"It's not me I'm worried about you hurting..." she said and studied the woman. She still had Lauren's clothes on and she had probably left her own behind. She didn't particularly care about the clothes but...

What harm could it do? Just a couple of days. And she could use the inspiration, the woman was interesting. Lauren bet she had a story to tell; several probably. She would have to be on her guard though.

"Alright," she caved. "Two nights." And she was given a wide smile from Madeline. "You will have to bring the car back. You're right, it shouldn't be left on the road any longer than necessary."

Madeline followed her back to the house and Lauren began to second-guess whether she had made the right decision allowing her to stay. She would lay down a few ground rules when they got back, she thought.

"I don't know what you're going to do while you are here," she said, deactivating the alarm.

"I don't need to be entertained," Madeline replied. She had two bags with her. "I have money if you're worried about keeping me."

"That is the very last thing I'm worried about, believe me. Okay, well…" She led her to the guest room. "Upstairs bathroom just there. This is good for you?"


"You can find your way around everything like you did with the kitchen. Put your clothes through the wash. I suppose I don't have to tell you this but I don't want you having any other visitors while you're here. It will upset my baseline. People piss me off right now." She almost added it was bad enough having Madeline there but held her tongue. "I would prefer it if you don't tell anyone where you are, if someone is going to come looking for you …causing drama…" She couldn't quite formulate her meaning properly but Madeline seemed to understand what she was getting at. She nodded in agreement.

"Thank you, Lauren."

She retreated back to her porch to drink coffee and smoke. She did not want to sleep tonight, she needed to get her deprivation status back. When she observed her work from the early hours of the morning she was pleased. Madeline was right, it was stunning. Possibly her best yet. It needed to be finished.

For the next 24 hours Madeline was as good as her word and remained very much to herself. Lauren wasn't trying to keep tabs on her but nor did she totally trust the woman. It seemed she split her time between walking the paths in the forest and around the lake and burying her head in her lap top. Lauren couldn't help wondering what she was doing on it, but she wasn't going to ask. She felt boundaries were important under the unusual circumstances and if she didn't want Madeline to encroach on her privacy she needed to give her hers. In any case she seemed content and Lauren began to calm significantly at her non-intrusive presence. If she were to be completely honest with herself, it was almost pleasant to have someone else in the house, which was a revelation. But Madeline wasn't an interfering friend or family member, she was a stranger; and yet, Lauren's suspicion melted away surprisingly quickly.

Well into her 36th hour awake she was in her studio working and was feeling good. A light knock on the door startled her before she remembered her guest.

"Yes?" she called out and the door was opened.

"Am I forbidden entry to this room?" Madeline asked her tentatively.

"You have seen them now, not much point in hiding." Lauren beckoned to say it was okay for her to come in. She studied the canvas with interest. "What's up? Are you ready to go home?"

"You haven't asked me to model for you yet," she said.

"It's okay," Lauren said easily, "you don't need to."

"I want to."


"We haven't talked properly. It will give me a chance to talk to you. There must be questions you want to ask."

"Are you not concerned about boundaries?"

"Me?" she laughed. "No, I understand that's more your domain."

A thought occurred to Lauren as she brushed against her canvas and contemplated the possibility of Madeline posing for her. She had been formulating an idea for the past few days and was heading into the Post Office to pick up a package she would be using for it. A large, ancient mirror. If Madeline sat for her, her ideas might flow better. She could turn out with something great.

"Lauren. Hello?" Madeline waved a hand in front of her face. "You okay?"

"Don't you have to leave? Go home? You must belong somewhere." Lauren observed her.

"I can't leave. It was all perfectly timed so that I ended up here."

"If you're in some kind of trouble, maybe I can help."

"You are helping."

Lauren shook her head in confusion.

"I don't understand at all but whatever. It hasn't proved terrible so far so you can stay a bit longer, if it's what you want."

"I want to pose for you."

"Maybe you could sit for me." Lauren turned back to her canvas. "There is an idea that you might fit."

"Excellent. When?"

"Don't get overexcited. Do you have any clue how boring it is modelling? Tonight, if that's okay. I have to go into town and pick up a few things."

"May I come with you? You have a pretty good supply of food for someone who never eats but you're still missing some important stuff. I'll make you something, I know you haven't eaten anything but fruit in over 12 hours. Look at you, you're wasting away."

Lauren started grumbling something about her mother under her breath and Madeline, apparently having achieved her goal, left the studio.


For reasons Lauren couldn't grasp Madeline insisted on driving her into town and then cooking for her later that night. It was delicious but heavy and Lauren ate very little. She noticed Madeline eyeing her while she ate slowly and finally gave up. Lauren gave her an apologetic look.

"It is really good, I just can't fit any more in," she said.

"Not surprising," Madeline said casually, apparently unoffended by her inability to finish the meal. "Your stomach is probably shrunken. That's what happens when you live on oranges. You had plenty of food here, why not eat it?"

"That was courtesy of my parents. They had a bunch of stuff delivered."

"Do they live around here?"

"No. New York."

After dinner they retreated together into Lauren's studio. Lauren went to bring the enormous mirror in and when she got back Madeline had taken off her shirt and was unhooking her bra.

"Ah, you don't have to do that." Lauren said, embarrassed. Had she really just assumed Lauren wanted her to model naked? What must she think of me? "This isn't meant to be nude."

"No?" She almost looked disappointed.

"Sorry to disappoint. You are not shy, are you? You can put this on." She handed her a white dress and went about adjusting the light in the room and placing the mirror correctly. She stepped back and observed the set-up from her easel. Madeline sat on a velvet chair in front of the mirror, awaiting further instruction.

"I am only going to start out doing some sketches. It is non-directional so you can move around, do whatever you feel comfortable with. If I see something I like I might ask you to stay where you are, or move you slightly, etc., etc. Is that okay?"

Lauren started her sketches. It was remarkable what she was capable of with a live model in front of her, especially one that looked like Madeline. She still felt a little insecure about using her for something that would probably end up being macabre. But Madeline had been adamant she wanted to do it, so...

"Your accent, where is it from?" she asked Lauren.

Oh right, the conversation part. Almost forgot.

"Originally... Belgium."

"How long have you been living here?"

"We moved to New York when I was thirteen."

"I mean, how long have you been here?"

"Around three months."

"How old are you?"


"You must have had a life before this. You changed it, came here to paint, uprooted yourself."

"Yes," Lauren said needlessly. Madeline did not phrase it as a question. "I like it here."

"What were you before?"

"I was in advertising," Lauren hesitated, but the communication was not inhibiting her imagination and she wanted to ask Madeline questions of her own when the time came. "Engaged to a musician. Superficial, wrapped up in image, shoes, fashion. Ugly. I woke up."

"Or were woken up..." Madeline said suggestively and Lauren ignored her. "You don't intend on returning to your old life, do you?"

"I couldn't," she replied blandly. "I've recognized my faults. There is no way back."

"You hate the person you used to be."

"You are very confident in your judgments. But I'm not fond of the person I am now either, so..." Lauren went over and adjusted the position of her arms, tilted her face more towards the mirror. "How old are you and where did you come from?"

"A year older than you. I only look younger because you never sleep. I drove here from Chicago."

"That is a long way to drive. Are you running away from something?"

"More like running toward something."

"You said you were a witch. What do you mean by that?"

"I saw you before I met you," she said. She held her position but appeared to tense up when she said this, as if bracing herself against Lauren's reaction. Lauren raised her eye brows in question. "I didn't see you, you. It was someone with two people inside of them, jammed together and warring with each other. This person was being ripped apart from the inside out." Lauren stopped sketching and stared at her and Madeline continued. "I didn't know if you were old or young, male or female, what kind of circumstances I would find you in. I didn't know exactly what significance you would have, only that I needed to find you, that you were important. I've learned not to ignore feelings like that. I spent most of my life being told I should ignore them and believing it. It didn't work out well."

"How did this image come to you? In a dream? Or were you serious about the crystal ball?"

"No. It couldn't really be described as an image. They're feelings, flashes, day dreams; sensations beyond the understanding of someone who hasn't experienced it. Beyond my understanding even. A sureness, a certainty that I can be of use and a pull in a firm direction."

"What do you mean, two people inside?" Lauren asked and flicked to a new page. "Do you mean like one good and one bad?"

"No," she said gingerly. "Two conflicting characters, each equipped with their own good and evil. Sometimes one feels more acceptable to you, sometimes the other. Neither will ever quite win out because ...you don't really like either of them. You feel an innate need to contradict yourself so you play them off against each other constantly."

That is fucking uncanny.

"And how do you know this person was me?"

"It’s here," Madeline said and gestured around the room, "and here," she put her hand on her chest briefly, "and there," she pointed at Lauren. "I can see it in your eyes. You're confused, but you know exactly what I'm talking about."

"You believe this stuff?"

"I believe that your true creativity will only be revealed if you learn to accept the apparently unreal."

Was Madeline proposing they enter a shared fantasy world, Lauren wondered. It was an interesting idea. Maybe it would be easier, I wouldn't have to stay awake so long to get myself in an altered state. An unsettling idea occurred to her.

"Did my mother send you here?" she asked.

"No." Madeline seemed surprised by the question. "Why? Does your mother know your head is a war-zone?"

"Well ...no. I doubt she would use those words." It was true, her mother couldn't have informed Madeline about things she didn't know herself. And why would she send a complete stranger who may or may not be unbalanced herself to help Lauren? It would never happen. "So, you think I have split personality."

Madeline laughed.

"I do not. I don't see things in terms of definable psychiatric disorders. Besides, what's happening with you is different. There is no sign of disassociation, both of your war parties are ever present in your consciousness. For better or worse. It's not surprising you feel the need for solitude, with all that relentless activity going on inside your head."

She certainly seemed to have an understanding of Lauren which went way beyond what she could have picked up on by simple observation and by deconstructing her art.

"You are very ..." Lauren began.


"Strange. And you came here to what, help me integrate these two identities?"

"No, you'll never be able to do that."

"I'm missing something. Why did you feel the need to find me?"

"It's hard to explain." She looked a lot like she just didn't want to. "I saw what might happen to you, saw that it was not just awful but also preventable. You are loved. And you're important; for now and for the future."

"You mean, the paintings?"

"It isn't just the paintings," she said awkwardly. "It's you. Don't ask me to try and explain it, I don't think I can."

"What about the creatures in the woods? I run and walk along the paths and lake often and I've never seen anything. Even at night."

"You shouldn't go out there alone at night."

"You were there alone."

"How long have you been awake?"

"I don't know."

"Liar. Are you having micro naps yet?"

"Not at present. Consider me riveted."

"I'll take you into the forest after this, if you want. I'll show them to you."

"Why would you do that? If they are so dangerous?"

"They're not dangerous to me. I know what they really are. Like I know what you are"

"Could you turn back towards the mirror a bit? ...Thank you. Tell me about the scars on your arms."

Madeline blinked her eyes twice.

"If you are uncomfortable with the question you can say." She clearly wasn't completely comfortable with it, but she did seem to want to tell Lauren. Perhaps she felt it would help Lauren with her work. "You shouldn't answer just to stimulate my creativity -that idea is quite unpleasant."

"It isn't that. I want to tell you, but I think you should keep an open mind."

"Has anything I've done so far given you an indication I am narrow minded?"

"Not really," she said with a slight smile. She studied Lauren for a moment in silence, then turned her head back toward the mirror. "I don't get feelings like the one I had about you very often. I hadn't had one in over a year before this and it wasn’t nearly as strong. The first noticeable one came when I was six years old. There wasn't much I could do about it at that age except tell my parents, but it had me so nervous I went overboard trying to convince them -they got the idea that I was developing abnormal tendencies. They began brainwashing me against it. By the time I was twelve I was repressing my feelings habitually. By 16, I knew how wrong everyone was. I had seen evidence that my ideas were real. I'd seen that if I had acted on them I could have prevented terrible things, or influenced wonderful ones. I was torn, I had no confidence in myself either way I looked at the situation. I decided I wanted to die, so I tried," she finished abruptly and silence ensued.

"You've had them since you were 16? They must have been deep, how did you survive it?"

"Barely. I was found unconscious and was hospitalized. I was given a psychiatric assessment, blood transfusions and my wounds were stapled not stitched. Probably why the scars are so bad. For a long time after I was ashamed of them, not so much that I had tried, but that I had failed. Eventually I learned to accept my mistakes, all of them. I'm not ashamed of them anymore, I think it's important to remember what happens to me when I allow others to dictate my behavior; when I don't listen to my feelings. Listening to them has brought me great happiness."

"'Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates melancholy from happiness,'" Lauren offered.

Madeline glanced at her in surprise.

"An apt quote," she said grimly. "You think I'm crazy?"

"Crazy? I have no reason to think such a thing ...yet. Many of the things you say carry importance. You are unusual, I'll give you that, but regular people can't hold my fascination for long. You've sparked my imagination. I'm excited about doing you in oils. I have not been so excited for... I don't know how long."

"I guess I better stay for a while then." There was light in her eyes.

"No pressure," Lauren said quickly. "I didn't mean to imply that."

"I'll stay here as long as you'll allow me."

"To what end?" Lauren had a vaguely troubling sensation.

"I can't see that far."

She was lying, Lauren could tell. Her earlier implications were quite explicit.

"I'll die, won't I?" she said, taking a chance.

"We all die," Madeline said looking at her strangely.

"Soon. I'll die soon. You plan to stay until I die."

"Do you want to die soon?"

"I thought it would happen. You must understand, having seen what you have seen. I've been living on borrowed time for a while."

"Maybe. Maybe not. Things have changed now."

Lauren was out of her depth, suddenly she felt very tired and confused. She didn't know where the conversation was going and figured she would only get riddles if she asked any more questions so she lapsed into silence and concentrated on her page.

"What's it like? Your mother country?" Madeline asked her after a prolonged hush.

"I barely know it anymore, I've only been back twice since we moved away. For my grandparents' funerals. Belgium is... I prefer it here."

"Why?" she asked and Lauren frowned into her sketch.

"In my opinion," she began, trying to be diplomatic. "In my opinion, Belgium is a socially divided, politically tangled country. The landscape is uninteresting, the cities are overcrowded and the people are uptight and temperamental."

Madeline raised her eyebrows in amusement.

"You don't think America is socially divided?"

"It is different. The divisions are blurred, people mix, cross-over, everywhere and in every way; they find common threads even when they can hardly communicate. In Belgium the French and Dutch cultures do not attempt to integrate, it is their differences which are recognizable, not their similarities. They keep their institutions separate, they feel no need to fully merge."

"But it must have been strange moving to America so young," she said. She was clearly trying to get Lauren to talk about herself and was probably confused by her apparent unwillingness to do so.

"Not at all," Lauren said. "I liked New York. My English was decent and I had few problems adjusting to the cultural differences. I missed my grandparents, that was all."

"You were close, huh? What were they like?"

"Ah," Lauren smiled at the thought. "They were immensely wealthy, they were partners in the running of a pharmaceutical company my great grandfather started. But they were not selfish people, they gave a lot to charities. I was their only grandchild, they showered me with love. They came over to visit us as often as possible."

"Why did you leave Belgium?"

"A long story." One which Lauren did not want to go into. "My parents hated Europe, wanted to get as far away as possible. Don't ask me why, that would be their story to tell. Their dislike has passed to me. Now that my grandparents are gone, I have no interest in ever going back."


Lauren cut the session off fairly early that night; since it was Madeline's first time sitting for her she wanted to give her the opportunity to opt out and leave before she started any paintings. She would probably start one without Madeline, based on the sketches she had done, some of which had potential.

Madeline offered to go with her into the woods again. It was after midnight and Lauren thought it odd and felt deep down that there was something wrong. She couldn't put her finger on what it was though, and she didn't particularly want to miss an opportunity to witness more of Madeline's peculiarity so she agreed. The night was clear and starry but cold; they dressed warmly.

Madeline led her along a path she had never taken before; headed deep into the forest to the north of the lake. Lauren's head started to spin not far in and she cursed herself for agreeing the excursion. Despite the chill in the air, she began to sweat. Her mind crowded with paranoid, delusional thoughts. Madeline could kill her out here and no one would know. She became convinced that was why they were there.

"I think that I felt safer along the paths at night on my own," she said breathlessly. "How do you plan on killing me? Is it going to be painful?" She was only half joking.

Madeline, slightly ahead, turned around and approached. She stood in front of her and Lauren, stared, wide-eyed at her dark outline.

"I'm not going to hurt you. I'm trying to help you," she said and reached out her hand to touch Lauren's face. In the darkness her expression was impossible to characterize. Lauren swallowed. Why is she always touching me?

"I don't feel so well," she said. "I think we better go back."

"Just a little further," Madeline insisted and turned back to the path.

As they pressed on flashes of brightness in the trees to her right caught Lauren's peripheral vision. Shit. I shouldn't have agreed to this. Then more flashes. They were difficult to pinpoint, as soon as one appeared in the dim star light, it disappeared behind a tree or shrub. She was hallucinating. She had to go back, with or without Madeline.

"Don't be afraid," Madeline whispered. She had materialized close to Lauren again.

"I'm hallucinating. I shouldn't have come, I must go back now," Lauren said weakly and the forest seemed to spin around her. There was no way that Madeline could see the flashes as well, she was being manipulated. Her state was far too suggestible. And anyway, hadn't Madeline already warned her that the creatures in the forest were dangerous? Lauren peered into the darkness. She was questioning her own sanity at that point as well as Madeline's. As if to prove her right, a flash came forward and pressed against her. She felt as if she was choking, her fear was complete. For a fraction of a second she believed Madeline's words -these things were going to destroy her, but Madeline's presence wouldn't stop them. She was a child again; the forest whirled and the darkness overtook her. She lapsed out of consciousness and crumpled to the ground.

Part 2

She stumbled through the trees. She seemed to have entered a much thicker area of the woods than she ever had before, the star and moonlight were not reaching through the canopy above and she could barely see the tree trunks and shrubbery outlined in the darkness. Her own footfalls along the forest floor made no sound, but there was rustling around her; the crunch of a dry leaf, the snap of a twig. There were other things here. She was terrified; these things were white and toothy, and appeared to have their own light to shed. They were humanoid, but taller, thinner; they taunted her, approaching her from every angle as she moved through the trees. As soon as one got close enough to scare her, it backed away. She was not on any path, she headed in no direction. She was alone with the creatures. She kept moving out of fear, not logic. There was nothing rational here, she was in trouble; in Hell.

When Lauren woke up she felt terrible. Her throat was sore and she was dizzy but she was in her bed. She sat up quickly and her head throbbed.

"Lie down," a voice said next to her. Madeline sat at her bedside. "You'll be okay."

"Did you see them?" Her voice sounded strained and high, even to herself. Her ears were ringing, she could hear the blood drumming inside them.

"See who?" Madeline looked at her, expression worried.

"The things that were chasing me." It hurt to talk, she rasped.

"What did they look like?"

"Don't you know?" Lauren's confusion was palpable. "You're the one that told me about them… They were pale. Big teeth and no eyes."

"It was just a bad dream. You're safe."

"We were in the woods," Lauren said, her thoughts jumbled. "How did I get back here?"

"You walked. With a little help from me. Drink this."

"What happened?" She sipped at the glass of water but it was hard to swallow, her whole neck hurt.

"You fainted. You've run yourself to the ground. Too little sleep, not enough food. It was going to happen eventually. Better sooner rather than later." Her honesty was harsh but her voice was not unkind.

"I don't feel well."

"No. You have a fever. You've been unconscious for six hours. What you've been doing is dangerous. It's probably just flu but even that can kill people. You could have collapsed out there while you were alone. There are easier ways to kill yourself, Lauren. But I know you don't really want to do that."

Her skin was clammy, her face flushed; fear lurked menacingly in her clouded mind. She felt tears forming in her eyes. Madeline placed a cool cloth on her forehead.

"It's alright," she tried to comfort Lauren. "You're going to be okay. Try to relax, you need sleep."

It was two days before her fever eased. She stayed in bed for the most part, always on the verge of delirium and worried about Madeline having free-range in her house. But Madeline stayed close to her, fed her medications, fluids and small, warm meals. She was grateful for her care so she followed her instruction without argument and slowly began to feel more clear headed.

"Is everything alright with the house?" she asked awkwardly one day. Her paranoia over Madeline had diminished significantly.

"The house is fine. Don't worry, I haven't been in your studio and I haven't stolen anything," Madeline said with a smile and Lauren wondered if part of her witchery involved mind-reading.

"I haven't been sick like this in years," she told her. "I'm not used to it."

"You have a strong constitution. But you pushed it too far, I hope you're going to start taking better care of yourself now."

"Yes. I don't like being in this position," she confessed. "Thank you for your help."

"You allowed me into your home, it's the least I could do. How is your toe?"

"My..." Lauren was momentarily confused before she remembered and managed a small smile. "What is your obsession with my toe?" she asked.

"It was swollen and almost purple. If you need a doctor... Can you show it to me, please?"

Lauren pushed the duvet down, withdrew her foot and Madeline studied it closely.

"Wow, almost back to normal." Madeline seemed impressed and Lauren tucked her leg back under the covers.

"I told you. The damn toe is the least of my worries," Lauren said and coughed painfully.

On the fifth night she awoke to feel a body lying beside her and a hand on her shoulder. She jerked her head around to see Madeline close. She did not get up or even shift her arm from Lauren.

"What the..." Lauren said in confusion.

"You were having a nightmare, yelling and thrashing around," Madeline explained. "The same thing I've heard you do every time you try to sleep since I arrived. I couldn't leave you tonight, and you settled when I came. I want to stay, you need to sleep properly. You'll recover faster."

"This is weird..." Lauren went to push Madeline's hand off her so she could move but Madeline held tight.

"Calm down," she said quietly. "This is innocent." She brought her hand up and stroked Lauren's cheek. "Just let me lie with you. You'll sleep better if I'm here, I would never hurt you."

"You will catch my flu."

"Your fever's broken, you're not infectious anymore. Besides, my immune system is healthy. And I can't sleep either if you keep yelling the way you were."

Lauren relaxed back, the hand on her cheek was warm, gentle. Her face was streaked with tears and she was still shaking from her night terror.

"What happened to you to give you nightmares like that?" Madeline asked, her voice quiet.

"Nothing," Lauren said and closed her eyes. Madeline did not question her further but continued comforting her softly.

She slept deeply that night. And for the next few nights, as Madeline developed a habit of crawling into bed with her. She became accustomed to it, trusted that no boundaries would be overstepped. Madeline's reasons seemed simple enough, she did not want Lauren suffering her tight terrors; she was there to help. No doubt so she could sleep as well without having to put up with Lauren's noise. Unlike Conner, she appeared to have no trouble providing emotional comfort. It felt close to the way her mother used to treat her when she had childhood nightmares. But Lauren worried that she was getting used to it. Madeline would leave soon, then she would be lost.

A week after she fell ill a different kind of nasty feeling came over Lauren. Madeline was in town and she got up and began cleaning her bathroom. She'd been at it for two hours before Madeline arrived back and came in. She watched Lauren for a full minute and Lauren tried to ignore her.

"What are you doing?" she asked finally.

"What does it look like?" Lauren said mechanically.

"It looks a lot like you're OC-ing." Madeline came and crouched next to her. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. This room was starting to look dirty."

"You don't seem to mind having a studio in complete disarray."

"Studio's different. It thrives on chaos."

"The room is not dirty, and I think you might be scraping the raw material from those tiles," she observed and put a hand on Lauren's shoulder. "Lauren. Look at me."

Lauren did not interrupt her scrubbing until Madeline actually grabbed the brush from her hand and pulled her chin around to stare into her face.

"Jesus. You're crying."

"I am not," Lauren said defiantly and tried to snatch the brush back off her but she held tight. It made Lauren angry. Why can't she just leave me be... Why does she care? "Why are you doing this?" Lauren asked in irritation. "Why are you helping me?"

"I like you," Madeline replied modestly.

Lauren felt herself start to hyperventilate. There was a lump in her throat and she tried to avoid Madeline's fretful gaze. She was losing it.

"Nothing can be done," she choked out. "I can't fix it, no one can. It's all so fucking pointless. Why do we even keep bothering?" The tears that had been building started to fall. Madeline pulled her close and talked softly to her.

"Okay," she said. "I don't know what you're talking about but I recognize the state you've brought yourself to. Shhh," she stroked Lauren's hair. "There are a lot of things that can't be fixed. You're torturing yourself."

Lauren cried into her shoulder. Eventually she sniffed and pulled back, wiped her eyes.

"I'm sorry." The episode eased with the knowledge she was hurting Madeline as well as herself. But it will be back, she thought grimly.

"It's okay, I get like that sometimes too. Come and eat dinner," Madeline smiled at her. "If you want to clean again afterward, I'll help you. Yes?"

Lauren nodded and straightened her shoulders.

Dinner was quiet. Thankfully, Madeline was not pushing her to talk about anything. She was grateful for that.


Another few days and her symptoms had almost completely gone. She was calm, contented, far more so than she had been before.

"You seem very pleased with yourself tonight," Madeline commented one evening as Lauren sat under a blanket in the lounge watching the political forum. "The Prime Minister of New Zealand looks even younger than Canada's," she added, observing the TV screen.

"By nine years. Jacinda Ardern, she's only 37. I think she will do good things for the country, she is not self-involved and she is not stupid. The last female Prime Minister of New Zealand is now a high ranking member of the United Nations. Jacinda Adern's deputy PM is a 79 year old man. The past and the future beautifully entwined."

"She's not bad looking either," Madeline said with a smile. "You seem to like her."

"I like the way things are going in the world when I see younger political leaders coming out. They will do far more about environmental and climate concerns than has been done before. New Zealand has a reputation for being clean and green but their policies have not always backed that up. It may be a small country but it has control in a large area of Antarctica which the rest of the world should be paying attention to. The Arctic is almost gone, Antarctica will be next. The Green Party has a much more active role in the new government, not a bad thing at all."

"Why do you know so much about New Zealand?"

"It's an interesting place," Lauren shrugged. "I follow what it does, what it says, what comes out of it. I like the adverts they make. They appeal to people with humor. At my old company it was always about sex; it became very aggravating after a while. I suppose I idealize the place."

"Have you ever been?"

"No," Lauren smiled. "I watch it from afar. It makes an impression, even at this distance."

"I've heard it's very beautiful, but a lot of places are. Why there, in particular?"

"I think it started with my parents, they wanted to move there originally, but found it was quite difficult to buy your way into New Zealand."

"What was the attraction?"

"They don't have the same problems with trafficking and terrorism as other countries because of their geographical isolation." Lauren was slightly uncomfortable talking about it. "They just seem to get on with their own thing independent of what any other country thinks of them. That's cool."

"I like how you take an interest in politics," Madeline said. "What's your take on Donald Trump?"

"Oh no," Lauren rolled her eyes. "Do you really want to open up that can of worms? I think I died a little inside the day he was voted in."

Madeline laughed.

"Sorry," she said, attempting to straighten her face. "It's not funny at all. It's just the way you said that. It's a relief."

"Good, because I might have to kick you out if you were a supporter." Lauren glanced at Madeline who seemed to be watching her with a smile. "I've noticed you looking at my necklace a lot."

"Yeah. It's quite unusual, where did you get it?"

"My grandmother gave it to me. I don't know where she bought it. Do you like it?"

"It's exquisite."

Lauren unhooked it from her neck and handed it to Madeline.

"It's yours."

"What? Why? I couldn't, no, it's important to you."

"It's not. You like it and I need to say thank you somehow for what you've been doing for me."

"I'm staying in your house. How can you be so generous?"

"I have a lot of jewelry from my grandmother," Lauren said simply and was pleased to see Madeline fasten the chain around her neck. She continued looking at Lauren though.

"You're still staring at me. Are you trying to read my mind?"

"No," Madeline chuckled then frowned at her. "The possibility I could read your mind doesn't seem to bother you as much as it might the average person."

"It doesn't really. I'm just trying to figure out what's so interesting about my face."

"You are quite radiant, I hadn't realized how beautiful you were before. You looked like a ghost when I first got here, but you're getting your looks back."

"Thanks," Lauren said with a touch of sarcasm. "So you are admiring your handiwork. I don't pretend to understand what the hell you're doing here but you might have saved my ass."

"It was a worthy ass to save. To be honest, from what I saw before I arrived, I half expected to find a drug addict or an alcoholic or worse. You've got a tough hand to play."

"That is funny because when I first saw you, I considered the possibility that you were on drugs."

"Yeah well, we were both pretty messed up that night. My point is, you were in bad shape but not nearly as bad as you could have been. You are a very resilient person."

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