Kate started the sketch the minute that Max left the hospital.
She didn’t really know why, but after Max’s visit, she felt the urge to capture her, somehow. Perhaps, she thought as she opened her sketchbook and took out a piece of charcoal, she needed everyone to see the Max Caulfield she’d seen on that rooftop. An angel, sent by God in her most dire hour, to bring her back to the light.
Or maybe this was just for her, to see Max smile again. She’d worn such an expression of worry and fear for the last few days, and Kate knew it was somewhat her fault, no matter how much Max told her it wasn’t. She’d made the decision to go up on that rooftop. However much what happened before that might have been forced on her, that had been her choice.
So, start with the curve of her jawline.
She didn’t allow herself to be sloppy, this time. Though it was a sketch, she had to make it right. No shortcuts, no stylization. Like life drawing, with only her memories as a model. That thought brought a blush to her cheeks as she remembered the reasons she’d never actually taken such a class. Focus, Kate, she told herself as she guided her charcoal to create an ear. You’re thinking too much.
After a time, she forgot she was sitting in a hospital bed, after a suicide attempt, after being drugged and harassed for days. Max’s image took shape as she worked, the soft black eyes giving comfort as she considered how to lay out her freckles, how to start with her lips. A buzz from her phone on the nightstand draws her out for a minute.
Max, asking for her help. Nathan’s room number. That she could do.
She put the phone down and went back to work. It was easier to imagine Max smiling, now that she’d done something to help. Even if it was a little thing.
A nurse brought her lunch, dinner. She barely touched them. The freckles were giving her trouble. She couldn’t remember exactly the way they scattered across Max’s face. They were mostly near her eyes, right? She wished she’d brought a picture of Max, or that she’d had one on her phone. It seemed very important that she get it all right.
Frustrated, she went back to the hair, until she felt her eyelids growing heavy. A simple headshot sketch shouldn’t be this hard. Refusing to touch it until she knew exactly how to finish it off, she finally put it aside and let herself fall further into the covers. She stared at all the gifts people had left for her, but the sketch was what really brought her calm. Even without her freckles, Max’s smile and eyes were comforting, rendered in black and white. Before she fell asleep, she sent a text to her father:
I’m not going home tomorrow. I’ll be fine here. They didn’t win.
Kate can feel Max’s body behind her, warm and soft. One of her arms reaches over Kate and gently takes her hand. Kate is safe in her embrace. Alice hops into their bed and nestles under Kate’s chin, her ears tickling against her neck. Kate closes her eyes and smiles, and feels Max squeeze her tighter. It’s a dream, she knows that quickly; this is Blackwell, not a hospital room. But dreaming about falling asleep isn’t so bad.
She woke up late again. Today they were supposed to release her from the hospital. She found herself hoping that, once she told Max her plan to stay at Blackwell, she could meet up with her and celebrate. She checked her phone: One from Dad, one from Max. Dad, as always, was supportive and worried simultaneously, but he’d allow her to stay as long as she talked to him every night, which she could handle. Max...
In the hospital. Could use a friend. Room 311.
Kate’s blood ran cold. She threw off her covers and ran out the door, bare feet pounding against the hospital linoleum. 311 wasn’t far. Luckily. Kate knew she probably looked like a crazy person, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. She needed to know. She needed to see.
She stopped herself as soon as she hit the door, remembering that whatever had happened, bursting in probably wouldn’t be welcome. She took a deep breath and turned the knob, slowly pushing to see what she could see.
The waitress from the Two Whales sat at Max’s bedside, right next to David Madsen, of all people. And Max...
Max was okay.
She wasn’t in a good state, Kate could see that right away. Her hair stuck to her face, oily and matted with dried sweat, and distinctive tear-streaks marked her cheeks. But as soon as Kate opened the door, she looked away from David and looked straight at Kate.
“Max,” Kate breathed, crossing the room and heading for Max’s side, directly across from David and the waitress. She leaned down and hugged her before she did anything else.
“Kate,” Max said quietly. “I’m glad you’re here.” She broke the embrace for a moment to turn to her guests. “I—Can we have some time alone? She doesn’t know yet...”
The couple nodded, the waitress wiping her eyes as she stood up. “Stay safe, Max,” she added as she left the room, squeezing David’s hand.
“Kate,” Max began as Kate took a seat by her bedside, “There’s so much I need to tell you...”
Kate heard it all. Nathan’s dead. Victoria’s dead. Chloe’s dead. Jefferson’s in jail. The Dark Room. Max, drugged and bound, just like Kate, until David found her. But she remembered more. Max told her everything in a monotone, her eyes staring straight ahead. Kate took her hand, like the dream. It felt like a dream, a nightmare. She had nothing to say to any of it. She could hardly believe it but for her own foggy memories.
“David brought me here,” Max finished, rubbing her neck. “They did some tests, made sure that the drugs didn’t do any permanent damage. And then the police came. You’re lucky you didn’t get my text earlier, you would’ve had to sit all through that while I was crying my eyes out.” Max let loose a sigh and fell back into her pillows. “I think I got all that out. For now.”
Kate squeezed her hand. “I’m so sorry,” was all she could manage.
“Me too.” Max drew in a shuddering breath. “I shouldn’t have—I should’ve—” Shining tears welled in her eyes, and as she closed them, they retraced the tracks so easily visible on her face. “Dammit,” she whispered, furiously rubbing at her face, “I’m sorry, it’s—”
“It’s all right, Max,” Kate interrupted. “I’m here for you. Like you were for me.”
“I’m so tired, Kate.” Max looked over to her, her blue eyes bloodshot and wet. “This whole week, it feels like I’ve never slept, like disaster has just kept coming and coming and I thought I could stop it, I thought I could help, but—”
“You did.” Kate’s words were as firm as her belief in them. “You saved me. And without your work, David wouldn’t have ever found Jefferson. You did more than anyone could have ever wanted. You—you’re my angel, Max. I’ll never forget that.”
“I don’t feel much like an angel.”
“You don’t have to.” Kate squeezed her hand again. “I can’t imagine...all I can say is that I’ll stay with you, as long as you want.”
Max squeezed back. “Thank you.” She closed her eyes and laid back. “I really do need to get some sleep. Will you—will you stay with me? At least for a while? I don’t—I don’t want to be alone.”
Kate’s heart pumped as she remembered the dream. How nice it would be, to crawl in beside her, make her feel comfortable and safe. Even as she thought about it, she blushed and backed away from it in her mind; that was not a normal desire, not between two girls, not—no. She willed herself to stop thinking about it. “Of course,” is what she actually said. She thought for a moment. “But give me just a second. I’ll grab my sketchbook.”
Max nodded, and Kate quickly made her way back to her own room, where she found a nurse looking very flustered. “Where were you?” he asked.
“My friend got admitted here this morning. I was checking on her. I’m...” Kate looked at the clock on the wall. “I’m clear for release, right?”
“I was just coming to tell you that, but you decided to scare the crap out of me first,” the nurse said. “Yes, you’re free to go. Technically we’re supposed to make you head out in a wheelchair, but if you want to stay with your friend...”
“All right. Your parents called ahead. They said they’re going to be late, but they’re coming to help you move a couple of things out of here, get you back to Blackwell. What room is your friend in?”
“Okay.” The nurse looked at all her gifts. “I’ll let them know when they stop by, we’ll get the paperwork filled out then. Next time, tell somebody where you’re going, all right?”
“Okay,” Kate said, wanting to roll her eyes and dart past him but knowing that’d be rude.
“I get it, I’ll get out of your hair,” the nurse promised, stepping out of her way. She grabbed her sketchbook and charcoal and ran back to Max’s room as soon as she could, sitting down beside her again and grasping her hand.
Max looked at her, a little hint of a smile poking through her foggy expression. “You don’t have to do that, you know.”
“It makes me feel better. Do you...not want me to?” Kate asked, a blush growing on her cheeks.
“It’s fine,” Max said. “I-I like it. But you can’t sketch with one hand.”
“I’ll wait until you fall asleep, then.”
Max nodded at that, and closed her eyes again, breathing in and out, in and out. Kate studied her freckles, committed them to memory. When Max’s hand grew limp, she set back to work.
She took the sketch with her back to Blackwell, and once her family left, she pinned it up over her dresser. Alice, rescued from Max’s room, sat right under it. Looking over to the sketch once in a while made checking her email, her social media, a little bit easier as she waded through a bunch of ‘get well soon’s and apologies and prayers, and the headlines about Jefferson, and Victoria, and Nathan, and Chloe. News about how the school would be closed for a week for mourning and restructuring and all sorts of things. She read them with a kind of numbness, knowing that Max had to witness so much of it. Her own problems seemed so small and stupid in comparison. When she thought of that, of how something so much smaller had almost cost her her own life, she picked up her phone and quickly shot off a text.
Max, if you ever need to talk, I’m here.
Before she even set her phone down, several replies buzzed in her hand.
Coming back to Blackwell tonight
Don’t want to stay here
I’ll come and see you tomorrow for sure
Thanks for being here
Kate gripped the phone tighter.
She set it down, then shut down her laptop, got up, and knelt at the foot of her bed.
Lord, please see Max safely through the valley, she prayed, hands tightly clasped in front of her chest. Be her light in the darkness she walks in now. I ask nothing for myself, oh Lord, but for another of your daughters who has suffered more than I. Let her keep her love and her hope and her faith, so that she doesn’t falter as I did.
She stood up and crossed herself, just for good measure, and slipped under the covers. She fell asleep still staring at the sketch she’d made of a smiling Max, hoping she could see it again.
The flashbulb goes off, to a groan from Max. “Smile!” Kate shouts, passing the camera setup and slapping Max across the face. Max whimpers, struggling against the duct-tape bonds that bind her to the chair. “You’re going to do exactly what I say,” Kate hisses, grabbing Max by the chin. “I need this, the perfect photo to capture your image. You can’t take it away from me!”
Max’s eyes are a dead black. The Dark Room expands around them, the walls so far away from the studio that they fade into total darkness. There is only the white backdrop, the cameras, Max, and Kate, standing over her and leering. Kate leans down and grabs Max’s collar, meaning to rip her shirt right off her skinny little—
Kate awoke with a start, covering her mouth as ice gripped her heart. There was no sun outside her window, still just the harsh white light of the full moon. Lord, Lord I am sorry, she chanted in her head, wanting to throw up at the dream, the nightmare. But was it a sign? She was just as perverse as Jefferson, wanting to—
Kate threw the covers off and marched over to the charcoal sketch. With shaking hands, she tore it from the wall and with one swift motion, ripped it in half. As they fluttered to the floor, she covered her face with her hands. It’s gone, all right? I don’t—I have to be there for her. I can’t want anything else, anything... Her mind went back to the urge she’d had to crawl into bed with Max. Dirty.
As she knelt before her bed to pray for guidance, she heard a small click outside her room. And then, softer sounds. Max sounds. The timbre of her voice was obvious, even if all Kate could really hear was impressions. But they didn’t sound good. And against her better judgement, Kate got up and opened her door.
She met Max’s eyes as soon as she left her room. She hugged herself, standing against her door, shivering in her pajamas. Max looked away, her eyes moving to Victoria’s little memorial, a collection of flowers and barrier tape.
“Um, hi, Kate,” she said.
“Max, are you okay?” Kate stepped forward.
“N-no,” Max whispered. “Not at all.”
Kate embraced her, and Max gratefully leaned in and rested her head on Kate’s shoulder, sniffling. “I-I have to stay for the — for Chloe’s — but I hate this school, and that room, and when I woke up I thought I was back there, alone, while he was out doing whatever the hell he did, and, and, and...”
Max fell silent as Kate held her tight. “At least you made it,” she said after a long, deep breath. “At least I didn’t fuck that up. I’m so glad you’re here, Kate...”
Kate didn’t know what to say to that. Of course she didn’t mess up. She could never...she couldn’t have known. After a moment’s pause, she told Max, “If you...if you don’t want to be alone, you can stay in my room tonight.” Guilt prickled at the edge of her mind, are you sure this is just for her, but she put it aside. “If you have nightmares, or anything, I’ll be there. Okay?”
Max pulled back, staring into Kate’s eyes. “What did I ever do to deserve you?” she asked, a tired half-smile coming to her face. “I’ll take the couch.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I’m not kicking you out of your own bed because of my stupid nightmares.” Max turned back to her door. “Let me get some things. And Kate...thanks for watching out for me.”
The two of them gathered up Max’s covers and pillows and set them up on Kate’s little blue couch. As Max nestled in, Kate bent down next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “If you need anything, you can come and wake me up. I promise I won’t be mad.”
“You’re an angel, Kate.” Max’s fingers reached out and sleepily touched Kate’s cheek.
“I guess you rubbed off on me.”
Max let out a little chuckle, sending flutters through Kate’s stomach. “You’re too sweet,” she murmured, turning over. “Can’t handle it. Gotta sleep.”
Kate left her hand on Max’s shoulder for a moment, for reasons she didn’t want to consider. She shook it off and went back to bed, turning herself so that she could watch Max, make sure she really did sleep.
This time, thankfully, there were no dreams.