The world is half red, half yellow. Banners tied from one roof to another hang signs of protest against the government made of hemp and colored tissue paper. Things like this are good for judging safety. If they're torn down by morning tomorrow, the police are well informed regarding this place. If not, I may want to try a different street.
This is one of the more British parts of town, clear from the brickwork. I walk with it now, taking a longer route home from my girls' school. As usual, I keep my legs close as I walk, watching them move ahead of me. I only strike the occasional glance upward to ensure I am not in anyone's way.
There are no street vendors selling pani puri here, no bustle of people, although I still hear the calming, random honks of horns from the traffic. The men here watch carefully from afar, still protectively rather than in lust, as they should. I am only ten, nowhere near the age to be married. Still, the skirt of my school uniform makes me feel small and disconnected. I can't wait to get home and change into my sari.
But I have a stop to make first. Well, you might say it's two stops.
The first place is one I reach by entering an alley and knocking three times on a door partly hidden by a low line of drying clothes. After knocking a fourth time, a man in a shirt a bit too small for him draws the door open in a fury.
"You come again?" he says, in sloppy English.
I hold my elbows with each opposite hand and nod quickly.
"A girl like you, not meant for here," he says. "Risky for you." When I don't reply, he asks my name in a much more composed and fatherly Marathi. "Thujha nāv kāy āhe?"
I answer plainly. "Māzha nāv... Mellie āhe."
"You speak well. You live here?"
I nod. I will not give anything more specific than that.
"I know men, friends of mine. They sell girls like you to make drugs, northwest. They make good slaves, don't talk back or fight."
"I am not like that," I say, eying him askance.
"You a bad girl, then?"
I try one of my half smiles and tilt my head, testing that title out a little. The man bursts out laughing. "You no movie actress yet. You a good girl meeting bad people."
"Please let me through."
After a sigh, he steps away and guides me through a smoky room lit by one light-bulb. Unlike many interiors, this one needs that bulb, even in daytime. Men are gathered at a table and playing Rummy.
The man leads me into a small closet. We've been through this a few times already, but he still feels the need to say "Wait here."
After standing around at the back wall, watching the door, it opens and a girl, no, compared to me she is a woman, enters. She is blond and free, dressed in clothes suited to Japan.
"Cassie," I say. "Nice to see you again."
"It's Cah-see. Not Cah-see. If that's really too hard, just say Cassandra."
Fast, angry English doesn't agree with me. I'm stuck at the wall, fidgeting.
"Let's get down to business," she says, crossing her arms under her round breasts. I have never seen ones so large. Questions come to mind that I shake away, so as not to offend her. "Have you had any luck yet?"
It takes me a moment to remember that phrase. She wants to know whether I have succeeded. "Not yet... I'm sorry."
"Ugh, shit." She falls shoulder-first against the wall and pinches between her eyebrows. "The guy is teaching you all the steps, right?"
"Yes... although, I wonder about his motivation for helping me."
"Look, it doesn't matter who, but this needs to be done as covertly as possible. That means no changing pandas or whatever."
"Pandit. And I am not going to a temple. He's just a yogi. Get it right, please."
"You have a real bitchy edge, you know that?" she says, lips forming into a smile. "Even as a ten year old. I'm remembering it now, seeing you here."
"What do you mean?" This girl says very confusing things like that sometimes. Add onto that how she insists we meet privately among criminals to assist with privacy, and I already feel like I am down a strange path. No, that is not quite right. I am overlooking a cliff and gaining the courage to jump. Where that cliff goes, however, and whether I should use that courage, is not clear yet.
"I was ignoring you. Stop asking vague shit like that."
"Look, we really don't have much time left," Cassie says, her tone softening. "I'm begging you to give this all you've got."
"I will. I promise," I tell her. "I just wish you could tell me more."
"If I told you, it would offset your own discovery and block you from ever truly believing. I am just trying to help you discover the truth."
When someone first pulled me into an alley a week ago, after school, I was sure I was going to be raped. The sight of a white woman removed that idea, and instead I wondered if she was a member of some strange cult or exploitative American group. So far, however, she has asked nothing of me, besides to go to the first yogi I find in the part of town hugging the fields and to meditate.
These meetings happen each time before I go, and I report on whether I received any wisdom-imbued kriya through my meditations. I have never been very spiritual or religious—not that I say so—and attempting meditation without cynicism has been difficult.
But every time, I see the strange look in this white girl's eyes and I vow to try harder.
"Can you at least give me a hint?" I ask.
After thinking for a moment, she raises her head.
"It'll be in the form of a question. That's the most I can do."
"Are you happy in this life?" She turns back to the door. "That's it. Please consider that as seriously as possible. It's very important, and not only to you."
I know better than to ask what she means. Instead, I watch her leave and then exit the room myself.
The challenge with meditating is that Cassie insisted my mother not find out. Thus, I only have a window of about thirty minutes as I'm walking home from school. Staying out too long would draw her eye, and she would begin asking questions. If Cassie was upfront about anything, it was that mother must not know. The guilt of hiding a part of my life from my mother, however, adds to that barrier.
The yogi is an old man on a broad straw mat, surrounded by the half-height walls of a demolished clay shack wrapped in a roof of paisley cotton. Many other people like him work throughout the day here, though they will be packing up and going home if they are wealthy. If not, they will build a fire, cook, eat, and sleep in their little squares.
I enter his shade and smooth my pleated skirt as flat as I can get it.
"Ah," the yogi says, grinning and raising a hand up to acknowledge me. He does not rise from his cross-legged pose. "You come again? Wonderful. Though I wish you would tell me your name."
This old man seems to think that speaking in English will bring us closer. I smile and remind him that Marathi is also acceptable by saying 'Good evening'.
"You are here for kriya again, yes? Come, sit with me and we will try it."
Sitting cross-legged in this skirt is not a good idea, but unfortunately, I don't have any other time of day that I can do this. Once I am in position, I set my palms at my knees and close my eyes, keeping my back straight.
"Breathe with me," he says, drawing out each word. His voice has much more impact when we are at the same height. "You want the same thing as before, yes?"
"Yes." I have not told him what I want out of meditation. He thinks I am keeping it a secret, when in truth even I do not know, because Cassie would not tell me.
"Focus on your breathing," he says, "and on the breath you hold, too. Hold every breath for one second, and focus on any little discomfort or worry. Just one. Bring it up to your chest... and exhale. Good. Now breathe in again. Another discomfort or worry. Hold it, let it build through the air in your lungs... and exhale."
First, it was a little rock that my shoe was resting on. Then, the odor of drying manure on the wind. One by one, every little problem, concern, or distraction unclasps and I am drifting down, or up. Or perhaps somewhere that common directions don't explain. For the first time since trying this, I unclasp my concern of taking too long, of my mother finding out. If I don't, this is not going to work. I finally realize that now.
I don't care what mother wants. This is about me.
Suddenly, I am not in Maharashtra anymore. Instead, I sit on the bottom of an ocean. Only, it's like nothing I have ever seen, not even in wild fantasy pictures when I surf the school's Internet.
This world is beyond life or death, preserved as neither. I am seated in the middle of a road in what looks like an American city. Grand buildings lined with English words and street signs around me all prove it. This place is completely alien to me, but I somehow feel like it is my home.
A gripping rope of warmth and water pulls me from around my middle through the water, straight up. I am a fish being reeled in from a darkness that may as well be the night sky. The pressure of the water shifts back too quickly and my blood erupts out of me in a trail that I see looking down.
The blood grows inexplicably large in my vision despite moving ever upward. I am no longer in an ocean, but in a stratosphere of vermilion clouds. In them, I see faces. There is a pale, strong white man, close to my mother's age. His gaze is incredibly familiar.
Then I see another pale man, only younger. The composure on it is a brittle mask. I reach out and try to swim toward that cloud, but it withdraws inward and reforms into the shape of a young man of similar age, with a strong nose and small chin. He looks goofy and fun.
I'm wrong. It's not about what things look like. It's about what I know. I do know these people.
They are part of my life.
My body explodes into stars. Every molecule goes on a separate journey, leaving behind the core of who I am. I realize that what I thought was me was only a detailed suit that my mother laid over that core, sticky strips of lies like paper mache.
I remember the Noctiluca, and the life taken from me and others. My father, my real one. Sam. Camden. Drew. Cassie. Sue. Collins. Lye. Over a hundred smaller figures in my life that I have forgotten for the past ten years.
The next thing I know, I've run back to the short, Terracotta-roofed house where I grew up. Only it's the second place where I've grown up. Once it was the most important place in my life. Now I don't even recognize it. Every detail sparks memories, and yet seems completely foreign at the same time.
I'm staring at the door, mind blank yet overloaded. Finally, it opens, and out steps my mother in her beautiful mekhela chador in gold and obsidian.
"Mellie? Where have you been? Dinner is ready. I even tried texting you."
"I got stopped by some older boys," I lie. "They kept asking me silly questions. It took me some time to get away."
"You have to learn to ignore that kind of attention, my flower. You aren't ready yet."
"I know, mother." I walk inside, chills erupting in tiny lashes all over my back as I pass her. I can't possibly eat.
"Mellie?" she asks, once the door closes. "Are you feeling sick? You seem tired."
"No, mother. I am well."
She touches my forehead with the back of her fingers regardless.
"Much warmth up here. I think you may have a fever, girl."
"I'm fine. I should skip dinner and get started on my homework. I have a lot today."
"That doesn't sound like you at all." She shakes her head, then takes my hand. "Come on, I'll lay you down and take your temperature—"
"—Don't touch me!" I shriek. My hand rips free of hers, a snapping rope that knocks my grandmother's painting of Vishnu over. I step back. Every muscle wants to push my body against her in a tackle. Maybe. How I feel and what I want have never been so confused, in either of my two lives. This woman has let me sleep in her bed after I have nightmares. She's taught me everything I know about cooking (in this life, at least).
I love her and see her as my mother. Underneath that, I hate her and see her as filth. They twirl around, yin and yang.
"Something happened, didn't it?" she says. Above her eyes, I catch the anger, the desire to scold me. But she knows I am well past being talked down. "You can tell me anything, my flower. Please don't hide. I want to help."
"This is your fault." I cling to the puffy shoulders of my school uniform, unable to rip the strong, dense cotton. I wondered why I never enjoyed wearing the uniform. I thought it was just because I needed to get used to being a part of the school culture, and taking pride in it. No. I fucking hate uniforms. Always have. It's why I'd never want to go to a private school. I've just spent ten years growing up among everything I didn't want.
"I don't understand you, Mellie. Just say what's wrong and I'll help you."
"I remember everything!" I shout. "The Noctiluca. The deal. Permanency. Going back. Every single thing."
She tilts her head. "I have no idea what you mean, dear."
"Don't even try it, bitch."
"Mellie Agnihotri! You will not speak to your mother like that!"
"My name is Mellie Walsh, and as far as I'm concerned, I have no mother."
She puts a hand to her mouth, holding it as her pupils dilate around teardrops. Then she runs around, clutching her stomach, into the bathroom. I hear her retching into the bidet.
This is no time to back down. I ignore the searing brand in my chest from upsetting her and stand guard in the bathroom's open doorway.
Her stomach was empty, making her stop after only a few heaves. She always waits before eating with me. The man she married to give birth to me, my 'father' in title only, ran away when I was three, just like how she ran away from Dad when I was three. That drew us together, two people who had only each other, who would wait for each other in every little part of our lives meant to be done in tandem.
Now, it's karmic justice. I'm glad the man she pulled into her web got away.
Once she stops, she falls against the side of the bathtub, listless. "But... how?"
"I decided to try meditating because I was feeling unhappy," I lie. "All of a sudden, I saw the truth of who I am. I am not Mellie Agnihotri! I'm Mellie Walsh!"
My brain is a coiling mass of tendrils, still figuring out what goes where. I have remembered worldly things that my ten-year-old, Indian girl's mind should not know. My head hurts from suddenly remembering English on a fluent American level, piled on top of the fluent Marathi I never knew in my Floridian life.
"Mellie, listen, I'm sure you're just confused. Your fever is making you believe strange things."
"You're not going to make me doubt this. Stop trying."
"...In that case, would you please leave me alone, for tonight?" Rahil says. "That look you're giving me, it hurts my heart."
"Sure thing, Rahil."
Her voice shatters. "Please eat something before you go to bed."
I turn on a heel and go to my room, slamming the door. I hate the pinks and sheer, draping curtains. This is pitiful. I should be doing something else, not hiding in my room like a... ten-year-old. But what is there? I bury myself in my bed and try the meditation breathing again. It eventually gets me to sleep.
When I wake up, it's early in the morning. I can hear the bang of pots and the rushing of water. Mother—no, not mother, Rahil—is washing dishes and will be making breakfast soon. Dread fills me as I wonder if she'll knock on my door, telling me to get up in the next 20 minutes so I don't miss school. Does it matter?
I get up and time my transition into the bathroom so that she doesn't see me, taking a shower and brushing my teeth. Once that's done, I feel the tiniest smidge better. Every bit of me is poisoned and filthy, it seems, even the house I grew up in. The more I can clean, the better.
I get dressed in another uniform and walk out to the kitchen, overlooking our little garden, and the urge to sob cracks into a minor sniffle. We were growing peanuts together. It was our little project. We get hardly any, but we've been saving up to make Pad Thai, do something exotic.
Now I'm the one who wants to throw up.
"You know, Mellie," Rahil says, turning around after putting a washed pot on the drying tray, "it doesn't matter if you've remembered. We are still living the life we're meant to have, and it's a happy one." A forced smile betrayed by reddened eyes. "You just have to stay in the moment, embrace what we have. I'll help you."
It occurs to me, then, that I am only ten. When I was eighteen and on full alert, this woman was able to hurl me through glass, choke me, and toss me against metal bars, making them bend. I was born at the same year and day as with my real life, but it's ten years earlier, in 2010. I'm a helpless string of skin and bones compared to my older self. Yet, she has not used force. I don't read any malicious intent, either. I might be getting fooled, though, so I keep my distance.
"Think about the things that you love about Becker and your home in Florida the most. They have a homeland, an origin. You are experiencing life within that place, that warmth. Instead of a unique accent to your life that makes you different, you have been placed where you know you belong." She stretches a hand out to me. "Tell me, honestly, do you disagree?"
"Yes," I say. "You have no right to place me anywhere."
"I don't understand." She pulls a chair out at the dark wooden table and sits down. "I was so sure that you'd never remember. The chance was infinitesimal. And I was so confident the ways that I hurt you wouldn't matter because even if you did remember, you would consider this life pleasant and worthwhile. It's not fair. If your father had stayed in this house, if I had found some more opportunities to work hard and spoil you... maybe you'd feel differently."
"Nothing can overwrite what you've done to me, Dad, and the others. It's been firmly proven, now. Memories endure even without being infected."
Even as I say that, I can't bear seeing her like this, the spirit leaving her body. There were times when boys insulted her while we were out shopping, and I punched them in the face. It only took one good strike and they ran away crying. That felt wonderful, punishing people for making mother feel the way I am making her feel now.
Not mother. Rahil.
Oh, this is pointless. She is my mother, and I do love her. If Sam can still love his parents, I have no excuse. What good is there in throwing away all the caring, pain, and laughter I've shared with this woman, in whom we see so much of each other? Rahil Agnihotri is brutally focused and devoted to an ideal. When she wants something, she takes any possible route to get it. But as Sam would say, it's motivated by familial affection.
I'd be no better than her, to abandon these past ten years and everything we've learned about each other. This game has to end with a truce.
"It's just like you said, Rahil," I tell her. "There is only one of each of us. One place we are meant to be, one life we are meant to follow. You have taken me away from that." I pause and consider whether I really want to say the next part, which awakens her corpse-like manner. "But you have also taken yourself away from yours."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Your real life starts here but continues in the United States. You meet a man who needs you. Why? I know, because he told me, many times. You were kind and encouraging. You weren't a pushover, either, and you expected a partnership as the two of you grew more attached. Then you lived your life together with him and your daughter, and there was nothing but surprises and peaceful adventure from there. That is what was fated for you." I take a deep breath. "But someone stole it from you, put you in a time cycle. That is not your fault, but you placed blame on Dad because he didn't help you in the way that Sam helped me."
She starts to look deeper into me.
"But don't you see? Sam was willing to believe the outlandish scenario specifically because Dad didn't, and faced consequences. Like it or not, you play a role in those consequences. You became a storm of misery, and you thought it would end with both vengeance on him and a peaceful life." I shake my head. "It doesn't work that way."
"Then how does it work?"
"You can't be happy this way." I lean forward until we nearly touch foreheads. "But there is another way. We can go back to the United States."
She shakes her head, weakly. I keep going.
"You already have most of your family living there. They'd love for you to move. I don't know how much you watched over them, after you made the deal and started doing time cycles, but they all missed you, even up to the end." I motion to the walls around us and the growing morning light on the garden. "What difference does it make whether you live in your homeland or the center of your culture? You have your own little culture and homeland waiting for you in Doctor's Grove." I take her hand. "Mom, please answer some questions for me."
She blinks. "I've never heard you address me that way. 'Mom.' It sounds nice. I think I like that better than Mother. I'm sorry, what is your question?"
"Are you truly happy here?" I ask. "And have you still not forgiven Dad? Do you miss him at all?"
"I... I don't know anymore."
I presume she means just the first question. "Shouldn't it be easy to know whether you're happy?"
"I suppose I was. The problem is the future. It seems this happy life between you and me has reached an end." She shivers a little. "If only it could have happened when you were a grown woman. Then I would feel able to let you go. But you are still a child and my responsibility."
"What about the other questions?" I say. "Have you forgiven Dad?"
She doesn't answer. I sit down at the table and take her hands in mine. This gesture has given the both of us strength many times, when Mom got fired for turning down a harassing boss or when other girls ganged up and spread rumors about me in school.
"Because of the life we've lived away from the United States," I say, "Dad might have never found the motivation to get out of prison early. He's probably out now, but he has no connection to you, meaning he surely doesn't have a job with your family's catering company. He could be living a far less happy life, right now. He has for ten years, at the least. Don't you think that's enough?" I say, voice dying toward the end. I'm getting hoarse, so I stand up to get some water.
"Let me." Mom gets me a glass and puts a single ice cube in it, just how I like it so that there aren't too many weird bits of dust in the water after it melts. All the while, she stays linked to me by one hand, gripping almost too hard.
"Thanks." I gulp it down. "What do you say we get some fresh air?" I motion to the garden outside.
"Oh... well, whatever you say, my flower."
Leading the bumbling, slouching woman outside, we walk between the peanut plants. Most people don't know, but the actual legumes grow in the dirt, alongside the roots of the little dense shrubs. We rarely get shells that contain two or three nuts, but our yields have been adding up. Out beyond this small, square yard is the rise of a hill carved into a dusty dirt road. A wiry old man rides a bicycle that flutters from a playing card in the spokes. Being audible and visible is always important, as seen when a honking pickup blows past him after seeing him from a blind curve. Mom and I laugh a little, relieved by the predictable parts of life in this country.
"You know," I say, enjoying the feel of the tilled dirt on my feet as I gently brush a hand over the young peanut leaves, "I never felt like I belonged here when I was younger." I look back at her. She's like a frightened dog, one who has been beaten by her master and then called to go on a walk with him. "Don't get me wrong, though. Growing up in Florida was exactly the same. I always felt different, but I thought it was because I was half Indian. It's kind of refreshing and... freeing, to know that even living here, that doesn't change. It's innate to me."
She smiles and nods. "Yes, that does sound like a peaceful thing to realize."
"Hey," I say. "Why don't we make something with the peanuts for breakfast?"
"Do you really want to?" she asks. "I thought you wanted to save them."
"We've got enough for a meal between us," I say. "That's good enough. We don't need leftovers on something we're testing out."
"Do we have everything, again?"
"We did already get the noodles. I think we have the spices and stuff, too."
"Well, that would be great, I'm sure!" she says, standing tall again. "I'll get the peanuts roasting."
"I'll help out."
The dish is fantastic, made all the more savory and sumptuous by the time spent working with my mother to create it. The noodles clump together, but I don't mind, and the mashed peanuts with tamarind is a combination that earns its place as a national dish of its homeland.
I was hungry after not eating dinner, so I finish my portion before her. She pushes the remaining quarter of her noodles over to me, insisting without speaking. I nod in thanks and smile, returning to that world of enjoyment accessed by food made with my mother.
"You are truly a fantastic chef, mom," I tell her.
"My dear, precious flower, I can't fathom why you are being so kind to me. Just last night, you said I am not your mother."
I shake my head. "No, you are. For every world I've ever lived in, I have a mother. I spoke out of anger, that's all."
"You don't know how much that relieves me. Thank you."
"So... I have to return to the question again. Have you forgiven Dad? Or not?"
She looks off in a random direction, basically toward a wall, and I don't see why.
"I love cooking with him, too, you know," I add. Then I get it: she's looking west, far, far beyond anything in this house.
"No. But I want to. I mean, I would like to, but I don't know if I could. I realize, after having years of peaceful living to think about things, that he could be forgiven. Perhaps even should. We were just a couple divided by a situation beyond us. But more than that... I don't think I could ever be forgiven."
"What do you mean?"
"Even if it was what I had to do, making a deal with the Noctiluca, and all the things I did to you and him, to grant us permanency, there's a limit to what anyone could drop into the past. You have to carry some of those wounds."
"You just think that. It's not true. If it was, I wouldn't have forgiven you."
"Mom, I forgive you. For hurting me and my friends. For cutting me apart. For throwing me into that looping world. Even for raping me. I forgive you."
"Mellie... you have to know, I never raped you," she says. "That was just something I implied to torment Becker. I could never do something so disgusting. Sure, I came close for the sake of tension, such as when Sam saved you from Collins, but no further than that."
"You did kiss me, though," I say, pointing. "That was disgusting."
"Indeed. That's why I don't know how anyone could forgive that, least of all the victim."
"I don't want to see myself as a victim. I'm telling you, you're forgiven. After all, could I make breakfast with you if I hadn't? And I hope that shows you how easy it is to let go."
She puts her hand on the table, eager for mine, and I give it. "You are beyond description, my flower."
"Are you at least willing to try and live with Dad again? To forgive him?"
"...for you, I am."
I smile. "Wonderful."
"And to answer the last question you gave, yes. I miss him. I missed him since the days of being killed and dissolved by the waves over and over."
"He's not gone."
"You're right." She stands up. "Damn it all, Mellie, you're right. I have to fix this. My daughter wants to go back and try our life in Doctor's Grove again? Well, it's a long shot, but we can do it. I'll start calling my family."
"Woah, wait," I say, laughing. "Don't get me wrong, this is fantastic. But aren't we getting ahead of ourselves? You need a green card to move to the states, right?"
She smiles. "That won't be a problem."
"Huh?" I stand up next. "But it takes years to get one, usually!"
She shakes her head. "I have a confession, my flower. I already have a green card. I'm a United States Citizen."
"...what? You have... you're a citizen?"
"That's right. And I can bring you, as my child, with me if I move permanently."
"This doesn't seem right. When did you get one?"
She looks down at her feet. "Before I was pregnant with you, I worked my way toward getting one. I had been thinking, after meeting your father in this life, what I wanted to name my daughter since Mellie is a very unusual name for India. But I couldn't decide on anything. I knew, in my heart, my daughter's name was already chosen. From there, I couldn't shake away the suspicion that perhaps I should have a backup. Blame the experience of running time cycles, but I always want to be prepared for the worst case. That is when I started the application process."
"This is wonderful!" I shout, hugging her. "You won't be sorry, mom, I promise! And I'll get perfect grades so schools are more interested in me. I'll be perfect, you'll see!"
The strict school life of this country has already bumped my grades higher than what I earned as a child of the U.S.A. Now, I'll study twice as long every day, three times as long if I can. As incredible as this is, it's still a precarious hope that may not work out. I won't let this fail and suffer afterward remembering little details, crumbs of effort I could have picked up to feed our chances of success.
Look out, Dad. We're coming home.
After school that day, I walk home with more energy and confidence than I have ever felt in these ten years, and it must show because people treat me differently. Less attractive boys don't bother me at all, while the handsome ones strike up conversations or excuses to interact.
As I'm going through the same street as last time, I knock on the alley door again. Three times I try, with no answer. I pound with my fist, but then someone grabs the sleeve of my shirt. It's Cassie.
"Don't bother them," she says. "This place is no good anymore. We can move somewhere else—"
"—It worked!" I shout, making her leap back like a spooked cat. "Cassie, I remember everything!"
"You do? Oh god, finally! Tell me everything."
We stay in the alley to talk since it's consistently quiet. Once I've explained, she kicks a crunched soda can down the alley.
"Looks like I succeeded at last. I was working toward it, getting more and more frustrated. Now that I made it, I don't even feel very excited. That's lame."
It's then that I remember how this all works, with the Noctiluca deals and the targets. "Cassie, wait... so you sacrificed yourself and made a deal?" That's the only possibility, considering that we're supposed to be the same age, and yet she's still in her perfect 18-year-old body.
"Yep. Right before you dissolved, actually, I had made a deal with the Noctiluca to do time cycles. Sorry to keep it secret, but I kind of felt like I needed to. To be fair, your shroom party is how I got the idea."
"You didn't need to do that to survive! You could have just lived on, forgetting everything." She has sacrificed an entire normal life of growing up as the daughter of a rich art aficionado and one of the most popular girls in school. She threw it away to help... me? I don't see why.
"I'll still be able to earn credit and slowly live my regular life. Besides, I needed to make this deal in order to travel to a time cycle around you and help you out. If I don't bring you and Sam back together, I'd just have to live with the guilt of ignoring that chance to make him happy." She crosses her arms.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm kind of shocked that you wouldn't take the time cycles as an opportunity to construe events and take Sam for yourself."
"Don't tempt me. I already did that to myself way too much. I saw you and Sam at that party, okay? I'm not blind. I can tell that you heal him. In fact, I think I know it way better than you do. That's part of why I didn't think you deserved him. You didn't ever fully realize how you affected him. But then I realized that it actually works out better for Sam, that way. Keeps his girlfriend's feet on the ground. I gotta admit... compared to you, I'm not the kind of girl Sam deserves."
Warmth spreads out through me, but it's cut short when I consider her situation. She said this run, this branch, was her last chance to get me to remember. But it won't matter anyway if the branch resets or I die.
"Cassie... if you don't kill me over and over like you're supposed to... then you'll be reneging on the deal you made. You'll die for good."
"Actually, you're not my target. I picked somebody at random around here. The problem, though, is that I can't kill them. If the branch resets, you'll wake up back home and forget everything all over again. You need to get out of here and get to America."
"Realistically, getting to the states is going to take months, at least. What will you do?"
"Tonight is my target's bottleneck. I'm not going to kill them. I'm going to renege. The Noctiluca won't be happy."
"You can't do that!"
"I can and will." She winks. "Don't worry. I think as long as I promise to do a different time cycle and not go back on it, I'll end up okay. I still fed it a little through the past branches of this one. My mom is also working for the Noctiluca, so that helps us both look better in its view. Actually, this might interest you. Camden made a deal as well. It was the three of us who decided to go for it, during the party."
Camden, who was terrified of making a deal to the point of abandoning any semblance of living or companionship, has become another tool for the Noctiluca as well?
"You'll probably see him around from time to time," Cassie says. "Like with Louise and me. Don't worry. You know that idea he got? About making the world better for terminally ill or injured people and harvesting humanity that way? Turns out it works."
"Really?" I stay, hands clasped together. "Oh, that's wonderful!"
"It's not easy, but it works. Camden's gonna be fine, and I will too. So all you need to worry about is Sam and your dad."
"Cassie, I was wrong about you. You have an incredible heart."
"Damn right." She wheels back her arm, palm open. "So let me get a good slap in, one worth all this effort. You okay with that?"
"Sorry." She lowers her hand but keeps it in front of me instead. "That was cooler in my head."
I take her hand and we shake like old men in a business meeting. I'm feeling the grip of a girl who gave herself up to a fate I could never try, for Sam and me both.
"By the way," I say. "I guess I'm going to have to save Sam from his mom and dad again, huh?"
"Actually, I already took care of his parents," she says. "You didn't think I was just going to leave that alone, did you?"
That does make sense, now that she has these powers. "Wait, what did you do? You didn't kill them, did you?"
"Of course not," she snaps. "I know how much he loves his family. I made one of their dog-napping associates a target. Then I ran a time cycle that ended with a branch where he turned in Sam's parents. They're in jail. Have been since he was five."
"Oh my god... then who are his guardians?"
"He ended up getting taken in by a lesbian couple, thanks to me."
"Wow... lesbians, huh? That's kind of a surprise, coming from you."
"What's that supposed to mean? I have nothing against same-sex couples or them taking in kids who need parents."
"Right. I guess racism is more your thing."
She flares her nostrils but does not deny it. Probably knows any protest of her beliefs and attitudes not being racist is going to have a reverse psychology effect.
"Basically, I looked over all the potential couples who could take him in, and they were clearly the best. So I construed events until I got the best branch, where he's not only freed from his real parents but gets taken in by Jade and Meredith. I've checked in every so often. He's living very comfortably. But he needs companionship. If there's any chance he'll be able to recognize you despite the time reset, you've got to take it." She sighs. "That is why I've helped you. Your little shroom tea party idea? How you wanted to do that because taking shrooms before gave you a memory from a past branch? That got me wondering if something spiritual, like meditation, could have a similar effect, and if I could restore your memory that way. A long shot, but I guess that stuff's legit after all."
I wrap her up in a hug before she can stop me, lifting her off her feet with abnormal strength and twisting her left and right. "Thank you, Cassie. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
"I did it for Sam."
"That's also why I'm thanking you."
I let go. "I guess... you're probably busy."
"Yeah." She grinds a shoe nervously on the stones of this alley.
"Don't be a stranger," I tell her, starting to back up and lean away. "Sam told you he wanted to be friends. After pulling this off, I think you always will be."
"Heh. I can get used to working toward a life like that, I think." She turns away. "Take care of yourself, Mellie."
I don't move until she's turned out from the far end of the alley, completely out of sight. I'm sure I'll be seeing her again, when she's cashing in her time earned living a normal life alongside Sam and me in Florida. Yet, I'm eager, and missing her, already.
Seeing the homes of Doctor's Grove again, two stories and surrounded in modest lots on curving, well-paved roads, I'm struck by how dreamlike India already feels. I kind of see it as a long trip abroad, pushed to feeling longer than it was.
It took eight months to complete the moving process, and I am now eleven years old. Looking online, Mom and I were able to find Jade and Meredith's home, and we've chosen to move into an aunt's home who lives near there and where Dad had been staying. Yep, we found him, too. Thank goodness no one involved had any reason to move.
During the process of selling our house, setting up the position of head chef in the catering company for my Mom, and other processes, I was able to look online and piece together some information on Dad, with shocking results. For one thing, he never went to prison. Even though Mom was responsible for him getting out early, since they met while he was incarcerated, for some reason this new world has left him never involving himself in crime in the first place.
How do I know this? Because I found his online dating profile. It's a sad thing to see. Not that I have anything against online dating itself. But seeing my Dad on there, looking for love, because the natural woman meant for him has run away to another world, it makes me cry some nights. I thought about contacting him on there or trying to reach Sam by calling Jade and Meredith. But I don't think a phone is enough to guarantee that a connection gets made, and first impressions are extremely important here. They could make the difference between our paths realigning or not.
According to that profile, he's living a careful, lonely life. Somewhere hidden within was the reason, one he can't fully understand until he regains his memory. I'm certain that he has still been affected by what he's gone through, despite the reversal of time. That's just how it works. One person, one life, one set of memories.
We've already moved in and gotten situated. Now, on a Friday evening, we are finally going to visit Dad's apartment, come what may.
"It'll be okay," Mom says, jostling my knee as I sit and brood in the passenger seat. "Right?"
"I'm just so afraid that he'll have a girlfriend, or a fiancee," I mutter. "What on earth do we do, then?"
"We be patient," she says. "If I've learned anything, it's patience. Besides, wouldn't it be fun, mother and daughter trying to reconnect with a father who's forgotten them? Sounds like a good romantic comedy movie."
"I don't want to live in a Hollywood comedy. I have brittle bones, so slipping and falling down once a day would really hurt."
Mom is just trying to be brave for both of us, so I put my attitude away and watch the houses and occasional lawn-mower pass by my window. I made the right choice, and her behavior proves it. It's in the hands of fate now. A roll of the dice.
His apartment complex is big, but the places don't look that great by themselves. The outer paint could use some touching up and I see a disconcerting number of stray cats slinking across the parking lots. We park and get out, blasted by the winter chill. Everyone thinks Florida is hot and humid all the time. Let me tell you, up north, four months out of the year, it really isn't.
Just to be safe, I bought clothes I would normally wear in this life: a yellow shirt and black jeans, only with long sleeves and wool gloves added on. The door to his room, numbered 3400, waits for us on the ground floor, next to a circuit breaker box.
"Do you want to knock?" I ask. "You're his woman, after all. Maybe he'll remember you better first."
"No, I think he's bound to recognize his child even more easily than me. Besides, you brought us this far. I want to just watch you two, at first."
My heart pounds itself into improper shapes, too hard and too rapid at the same time. Even lifting my arm is a challenge, but I bend my fingers into a pawed fist and gently rap the wood.
I hear the rustling of sheets. Don't tell me he's been asleep. After a few seconds of no other sound, I knock again.
There it is. A slightly irritated and sleepy version of my father's voice. I hurl my ear against the wood, which bumps my head and makes it seem like I'm knocking again.
"Jesus, would you hold your horses?"
Feeling a sudden puncture in my chest from those words, I compose myself and stand back. At long last, I hear a chain and two locks unlatching, and the door pops open with a suction noise.
He hasn't shaved in three or four days. The bags at his eyes tell me that he definitely was sleeping through the start to this weekend. Behind him, there's a couch with sheets on it. Doesn't he have a bed? The TV is on, I can tell, so maybe he fell asleep watching that.
"You... Mellie..." He swings the door wide open, making it squeal. "You're someone I know... I think?"
He snatches me off my feet in a hug and I can see that he's still connecting the dots, still remembering. But the core of who he is cannot forget. The sight of me has brought that world, the one we shared, up from an infinitely deep ocean.
"Oh my god, Mellie, you're back!" He pulls me in, the tips of my shoes dragging on the carpet. "I remember, all of it! This is what was missing for so long!"
"I missed you," I tell him.
"Where have you been?" he asks. "Where did you go? I'm so confused."
"I can explain that," Mom says, slowly allowing herself inside and closing the door, but keeping her head down. "Becker... I hope you remember me, too."
Slowly, Dad lets me down and walks over to the wife he has not married, the love of his life who he has not technically met, and a combination of murderer and savior.
"Rahil, darling. Where have you been all my life?"
They take each other into a kiss and start laughing at that corny line.
"Oh, Becker," she says. "I can explain it all. I'm afraid to, but I won't lie or omit a single detail." Looking over to me, she nods to show that she'll be alright. Despite my involvement in all of this, I don't need to be here for the moment when they decide to talk. Since I'm here, though, and I have no intention of leaving anytime soon, I change the subject.
"We can talk about all the details later. Tomorrow, maybe," I tell them. "For now, what are you having for dinner?"
"I was just gonna, well, heat up some leftover rice and beans," Dad says. Oomph. I forgot that Mom first met Dad through a college program to teach prison inmates cooking skills, and that because of Mom disappearing, Dad rose to the occasion and took over her job to support himself and me. Without events happening in that way, he has no introduction to decent cooking, it seems. A simple walk through his tiny kitchen area proves that well enough.
"Forget about that," Mom says. "Get in the car and we'll go shopping for dinner. We'll pick something great and I'll show you how to make it."
"Yeah, we can all work on making it!" I say, jumping in the air like a little girl.
"As a family," Mom says, kissing him deep on the mouth. Had this moment not been so important I would be grossed out.
"If this turns out to be a dream, I'm gonna kill myself," Dad says with a desperate smirk. But that side of him, the pessimism and fear of being alone, is already killing itself off.
"Nope," Mom says. "This is reality. And we have our daughter to thank for shaping it into something this good."
"If you want to thank me, then let's make rogan ghosht," I say. "I'm in the mood for something hearty and warm."
Dad gets dressed up a little and we head out together. The winter air carries something magical, now. I think, with it being so dry and the low temperature awakening the senses, I can detect so much more. I've been extremely alert, methodical, and intellectual over this entire adventure, but even when on shrooms I have not been so attuned with the present moment.
Oh, duh. There's a far simpler way to describe it. I'm living.
I guess it stands to reason that Dad would remember easily. Even the Noctiluca didn't understand why, but Dad was able to last far, far longer after being infected. Maybe he's just a particularly durable soul, able to withstand anything you can throw at him.
The next day, after staying the night, Mom explained everything to Dad. Taking from my example, he forgave her. Things won't be sunny and sparkling all the time. There is trauma running through this family like veins through human flesh.
Sam's place is close enough to reach via a ten-minute bike ride, so I go for that with Dad's old, unused bike. Once I stop at the driveway of the lovely, upper-middle-class Tudor and prop the kickstand, I start walking forward, energized by the natural harmony of my completed family.
However, the garage door starts to slide open in front of me before I can turn and head for the front. It's very quiet and moves quickly, so it must be a newer system. Outside, eleven-year-old Sam walks forward and stops, eyes wide as he looks this strange coffee-colored girl up and down. He's still fit, but in a much healthier way than before. Not as masculine as he'll become, but about ten times cuter.
"Uh hi," I say. Damn it. I probably could have said something better if I wasn't so nervous, something that would be sure to jog his memory!
"Well hello there," he says, after staring at me for a long time. "Can I help you?"
"Do you remember me?" I ask. Too upfront? It's too late to worry about it now. Please remember me, Sam. I'm glad that you're safe, but we both need to continue what we started.
"Yeah. We know each other. Pretty well, actually." I resist the urge to grind my teeth. "Do you recall...?"
"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm afraid I'm just not remembering. Could you give me a hint?"
"Mellie Agnihotri is my name. Or Mellie Walsh. Or Lee, that's my nickname. Ringing any bells?"
"Hmm... I do apologize, but it really doesn't seem like we've met before."
The world sinks under me. I struggle to maintain my smile, but it's no good. It falls away and I turn my face, pretending to look at a helicopter flying far above us.
"Oh, I see. Well, what can you do?"
"If there's nothing urgent going on, do you mind if we talk some other time? I'm a little busy right now."
"Yeah, no problem at all," I say, turning away. "I can come back some other time. See you."
"Hey, wait, we should plan a time, maybe exchange numbers—"
"—No, that's okay. I'll be going to the same middle school starting next month, so—"
His arms clamp around me in a soft embrace. My body freezes, totally thrown off. What's happening?
"Just a little joke, Lee," he whispers in my ear. "I don't know how you did it, but thank you for coming back."
"What? You mean you... remember?"
"The second I laid eyes on you, yes. I just thought it'd break the ice a little to pretend otherwise for a second."
"Oh my god, Sam..." I turn around and then scream in his face. "You are such a jackaaaass!" Then I push him onto the grass, but he grabs my arm and I fall with him. We laugh together, but before I can actually process what's just happened, and what it means for the future, I hear a deep woman's voice, something scratchy and suited to a female coach.
"Hey, hey, what's going on?" a Hispanic woman with bunned hair says. "Who is that, Sam? Are you okay?"
We look at each other and grin. Sam helps me up and says, "Madre, I'd like you to meet Mellie. She's my girlfriend."
The woman claps both hands to her cheeks and shrieks in glee. "You got a girlfriend? Way to go! Come on in, then, you two! I'm gonna tell Mom!" She runs inside, leaving the detailed glass door open.
"Mom and Madre, huh?" I ask, following him over the grass to the open doorway. I feel the warmth and smell cinnamon several yards before we're inside.
"Yeah, it helps avoid confusion," he says. "I have two mothers. You picked a good time to show up, by the way. The pressure to date from the two of them has been ridiculous."
"No kidding. I'd have to choke a bitch if you ended up with somebody else."
He laughs and closes the door behind me. The house is absolutely gorgeous.
I can't wait to tell Sam everything that Cassie did for him, how my parents are back together, how after so much pain, it's turned out more than okay.
My skill as an artist has now risen to prodigy levels for my age. I won't let anything stand in the way of the life that I want. The future is bright.
"Can I ask you something?" Sam says as he gives me a tour of the dining room, kitchen, living room, and a vast backyard connecting to a golf course.
"No need to preface it. Go ahead and ask."
"How do you say 'I love you' in Marathi?" Sam knows my mother is from Maharashtra, knows I've spent a full eleven years living there.
I grin. "Mājha tuiyāvar prem āhe."
"I'll be sure to say it like that from now on."
"Please don't," I say. "The way you say it is what I know."
Now I hear footsteps and giggling from adult women. It's time to make a good impression on the people who raised the man I love so well.
I better give it my best, because from now on, there are no repeats. Thank goodness.
Thank you for reading Noctiluca! If you enjoyed this story, please check out my others, available from this website.
If you'd like to help me make more stories regularly, the easiest way to support me is by sharing my stories online and spreading them to friends. Also, feel free to contact me anytime with questions, comments, etc. I love chatting with readers. Until then,