The lakefront cabin wasn’t quite how Marianne had envisioned it when John showed her their surprise getaway destination online. The photos had promised airy, bright rooms with sunshine streaming over rustic armchairs and polished hardwood floors. She could practically hear the fire crackling in the river-rock fireplace.
Instead, the windows were streaked with mildew, the hardwood floors creaked every time someone walked across them and sometimes when no one did, and when she sat in the armchairs trying to appreciate the view, she kept thinking she saw something in the corner of her eye, in the fireplace.
But there was never anything there, not even logs, because the property manager kept promising to bring firewood and then forgetting.
John tried to make the best of it. He found candles in a kitchen cupboard and set them in the fireplace so they could have the ambience, if not the actual warmth, of a fire. Sometimes the candles blew out; John relit them, assuring her it was just the old drafty chimney. At least when Marianne saw something in the corner of her eye, she could now reassure herself that it was only the flickering candles.
He’d brought wine and strawberries and chocolates, but Marianne found herself continually distracted by the tricks her eyes were playing on her. If it wasn’t movement in the fireplace, it was patterns in the mildew, the green rivulets morphing into gaping faces.
She’d hoped for a romantic weekend away, but as the hours ticked away, she felt less and less in the mood.
She tried to read; the faces on the windows peered at her over the top of her book. She wrapped in a blanket and watched the ripples on the gray lake; she never felt warm, and shadows moved among the candles in the fireplace.
The second night, she sat up with the candles, staring past her wavering reflection and the mildew at the night, lake and forest and sky indistinguishable in the black. Marianne hadn’t seen or spoken to another soul since they arrived; John had been the one to talk to the property manager. He was sitting by the hearth, reading by candlelight, unbothered by the faces watching him or by the darkness beyond their walls. If there were other cabins out there, she could see no lights. She felt as if the lake was growing around her, encompassing her in an isolated darkness.
The candles flickered. The mildew faces twitched. The drafty chimney – or what John had assured her was the chimney – made the candles gutter, then blew them out altogether.
“This is ridiculous,” she said finally. Her own voice sounded tiny in the dark isolation of the cabin. The soundless night threatened to smother her words with its press of black. “John, will you please just go find the manager and get some firewood?”
She couldn’t see his expression, but he got up with a sigh. Not even his outline was visible in the blackness. It was as if he was already gone. Without a word, he fumbled in the kitchen for the flashlight, pulled on his jacket, and went outside.
Marianne relit the candles. The cabin seemed cozier now that it was just her. The faces in the windows smiled down on her. It wasn’t so bad, being alone – just her and her candles and the green smiles claiming their island in the black lake.
The candles burned down, and down. Red wax puddled among the old ashes. Marianne watched them melt. John was taking a long time. Maybe the creeping lake had reached him.
Another gust buffeted the candles, and they went out again.
Outside, someone shouted, close by. Something clattered heavily on the patio, but even with the darkness, Marianne was not afraid. She was alone now, and being alone wasn’t so bad.
She opened the door to the night, letting it mingle with the darkness inside. It was all the same absence of light. She didn’t even really want the firewood anymore, but John had gone to the trouble of getting it, so she took a few logs from his limp hands and went back inside. She left the door open. It was all the same night. She set the logs in the fireplace but she just didn’t feel like striking a match.
Marianne hunched in front of the darkened hearth. She didn’t have to turn around to know the faces in the window were smiling.