This time, this morning of May 11th, my house is empty. I know it in the silence, the lack of TV or sizzling pans. There is no smell of spices and naan. I don't feel the way my dad's voice rumbles a bit in the wall touching my bed when he's on the phone. Instead, it's just cold and silent. At first, I thought I was waking up somewhere else.
I turn over in my bed and get a good look at my black sketchbook on the nightstand. The rings are rusted and breaking. The paper is as yellow as one of my shirts, sometimes gray, even, like when a piece of newspaper is already burned and a delicate sheet of ash and ink letters still remains. Then it falls apart completely in my hands, just a pile of thick dust and chunks on the top of my sheets.
I get out of bed, whiff a bit of that dust, and immediately fall to a knee from a gruesome coughing fit. It doesn't last long, but I've lost a fair bit of blood in my carpet when it passes. Yep, I can feel it now. This is the last branch that I'll survive without making a deal. Although, killing myself early would delay it, starting another branch. But the others who are infected, Sam, Drew, everyone besides Camden, aren't targets. They'll still die eventually, and cutting a branch off early doesn't stop it for them. That's why Dad...
Suddenly, I remember. I was killed early two branches ago, at the hotel room. Thus, that one didn't count toward the progress of my eventual demise. And yet, the Noctiluca told me that on the next branch, had I seen it through to the end, I would have died.
So it looks like I've been ready to perish at the end of a branch since a while ago.
Killing myself early might make for a nice reset opportunity, but I can see that not working out. I know this because even being free to stand up and walk around in my room is a courtesy given to me by Holland. If he really wanted, he could do what he did two branches ago, but also keep me in a cage in some hidden warehouse until the 26th. The fact that he hasn't means that he has a sense of sport, perhaps.
Or maybe... he wants to see what I'm capable of. Get the most humanity payoff to feed to the Noctiluca. Well, if that's the case, he's going to be surprised.
I open the door to my room and face the long, chilly hallway. The railing to the left overlooks the kitchen and living room, but I can't bear to look.
If my father is no longer here, then nothing is stopping me from digging through his things. I head to his room and look under the bed, opening every shoe box and plastic tote and dumping out the contents without regard for ever putting it back. I tear through the closet, emotionless as I scan every object and surface. The floor is so cluttered now that I might not be able to walk out with my feet unscathed, so this better end up worth it.
Eventually, I find an old cigar box buried under supplies for playing horseshoes that I've never seen before. After I toss the last heavy slab of metal and it clanks with the others, I take the box and open it.
There's a piece of paper inside, and a Polaroid picture of both my parents. Dad's taking the picture, pointing it back at his smiling self and his wife. She looks troubled, but patient, holding what must be a baby version of me. I've never seen me like that before. Not very cute, but oh well.
My heartbeat stops as my fingers perch between the gentle fold of my mother's note, ready to unfurl what I'm looking for. I have wanted to read this for nearly all my life, ever since Dad told me about it. He forbade me over and over, and the only time he ever used corporal punishment on me was when he caught me searching his room like I am now.
For some reason, doing this now that Dad is gone is truly difficult. Why couldn't he have just let me see it? Why not destroy it if he really wants it gone? Is whatever I'm going to read going to make me wish I hadn't?
There's only one thing that I really don't want to be the case: that he was meant to pass away before I ever saw it. I refuse to believe that. There must be more to this.
I take in a deep breath and let it out slowly, focusing on my returning pulse. They don't matter, all these questions. I have to settle a burning suspicion, and this is sure to do it.
I unfold the paper and sit on the floor of the closet, holding it in both hands. It's small, fit for a decent grocery shopping list, and yet it contains a startling amount of text in disturbingly neat handwriting.
My Dear Becker,
I've had enough.
My parents may have sold themselves on the notion that we loved each other, just like you, but I got into this marriage from the appeal of having an ally. This practicality was the sole thread on which our bond dangled, and with your recent behavior, that thread is separated. It was not cut, but snapped through the application of more and more weight.
Out of anyone in the entire world, I was certain that one day you would believe the suffering I have had to go through. How every month is just the same, over and over again.
I told you about the glowing, the Noctiluca, the repetitions, the blood infection, so many times and in so many ways. How I was being tormented and murdered over and over, remembering each time. No matter what I tried, how I approached it, I had no way of convincing you. You didn't trust me, because I have had some psychological episodes in my past.
It is impossible to describe to you how unfair this has been. You are supposed to be the cushion I can land on, the last grip before I fall. Instead, you were the insistent proof that in all things, I am alone.
I wanted to live on after the time cycle, to see the gorgeous and intelligent critter we made together become a woman. Instead, I died more and more, while nothing really changed. That feeling, of my child staying at the same point in life, never moving, while I hasten to my own end, unable to stop it, that is something that I pray you never understand.
Oh, but I could make you.
I wanted to. All it would have taken was to get some blood in your food and you would end up in the same hell with me. But I couldn't. Mellie is already losing her mother.
I never even got to discover who my killer was. I suppose it doesn't matter. There is no way to survive what's happening to me unless I become just like them. I have to make a deal with the Noctiluca.
It's all just a bunch of nonsense to you, isn't it? Oh well. Perhaps that's good after all.
If you're curious, I'll tell you what's next for me. I'm going to make a deal that will spare my existence. I will also be freed from the branches and will go to another loop of my own choosing and length. Then another, and another. Gradually, free of linear time, I will work to feed the Noctiluca and earn credit towards a movement in my timeline.
I am going back. Back before we married. Before I even met you. Which means before I happened upon you in your darkest time and pulled you back into an honest living. It will all be undone.
Consider that your punishment. Sadly, you will remember nothing, so it is entirely pointless, in that respect. But punishment for vengeance is not the same as punishment for justice, and justice does not exist.
Enjoy Mellie while you have her,
I had wondered, in the back of my mind, why Collins, when controlled by Holland in the second branch, knew about my dad's criminal past. I tried to think of why Holland cared so much about my path in life, why everything seemed to be done with an almost organized care. Why Holland placed emphasis on learning lessons and guiding me at times.
Now I'm almost completely certain that the real identity of Holland is my mother, Rahil Agnihotri. Her goal is to get enough credit with the Noctiluca to undo most of her life, effectively erasing me from existence. But a lot of things still don't make sense.
I realize, after falling into a contemplative trance at the couch, that I need to go to school. I guess Camden wasn't able to reach me. Assuming that, back in this world, he appeared in his parents' house, they'd be confused and ecstatic upon seeing him again. Hopefully, his reappearance becoming public doesn't turn into a problem. I can't blame the guy, though. He was alone on a boat in the dark for who knows how long, and suddenly he wakes up and gets to see his parents again. Enjoy it, Camden. You deserve it.
However, a few minutes before I'd head out for the bus, I hear a car pull into my driveway, and look out the window. It's Sam. I get out with my backpack ready.
"Hey you," I say, leaning over and placing my elbows on the wooden balustrade.
"Oh, thank god you're okay," he says, standing still and looking up at me for a bit. I come down to him.
"Fine, of course. What happened? Did going through that vortex just reset for another branch?"
Reminded of everything, I'm left at a loss on what to tell him.
"It's a... really... well, let's just say I've seen a lot, and there are some new things this time."
"Like what?" he asks. "Oh, I haven't had breakfast yet. Do you mind if I eat with you again? Or did you already? If I can eat while you explain, that'd be preferable."
He means the menu test. My still expression crumbles.
"Hey, what's the matter?" He comes close as I turn to my side and every part of me withers like a desiccated flower.
"He's gone," I say. "My dad was infected all along."
"Wait, what are you saying? Gone?"
"Sam... Noctiluca Touched? It's really called an infection. And my dad had one since a long while ago. And it turns out that... eventually, it kills you for good."
He holds me in the back seat of his car for a while, a semblance of privacy and protection. I asked him to because my house is cold and I never want to go back if Dad isn't there.
"You shouldn't bother going to school," Sam says. "We'll go somewhere, gather up everyone."
"No," I say, wiping my eyes. "I'm okay for now. And going to school is important for my plan."
"You're the boss," he says.
"Drive us there," I tell him. "I'll explain."
Once I've told Sam what happened, and the plan, we're nearly to school. I guess what Holland, I mean, Rahil said about uncontrollable variance is true, because it's been unusually overcast this morning compared to all the other May 11ths I've experienced, and now it's raining.
"Do you really think this is the best idea?" Sam asks. "I'm sure we can fight through this."
"Even if we try... I fully understand what Holland wanted me to. In this world, this cycle of time, my mother is in control. The only solution is to leave for another context. That is what will save everyone."
"I still can't believe that your own mother would do this to you," he says. "In some branches... she took control of people and piloted them to try and rape you. Are you seriously sure that your own mother could do that?"
"To Rahil, I'm just an obstacle. She needs to go back in time and undo the major decisions in her life because she's upset with Dad. So anything that happens to me, the child that will be erased, isn't important in the grand scheme. It's like those sick monsters who don't care about inhumane practices in the meat industry since the animal dies anyway."
"And, don't forget," Sam says, "your suffering and joy from these encounters must be what feeds the Noctiluca enough for her leap through time."
"There's a lot I still don't know," I tell him. "Why she also did that to Camden, for instance. Whether she intended for things with Dad to end this way. The fact that in this final branch, I woke up untouched, tells me that Rahil wants to settle things. There is too much risk if we battle it out. But that doesn't mean we're helpless."
Once Sam parks in the lot, we run together into the courtyard and up the stairs. Despite the exertion of the two long flights, it's a pleasant break from the rain.
"Sam," Cassie says, after noticing us at the end of the climb. She's wearing the same kimono and jean pairing that she always wears on this day, only it was by her choice. Her tone, however, is different. She wants to catch up. She's still infected, like the others I foolishly brought into this. But I will take responsibility.
"I know who is threatening your family," I tell Cassie.
She cocks her head. "Did something happen after that last branch? I see that you're better, so that's nice."
"What I mean is," I rephrase, "I know who the culprit is. I know her true identity."
"Wait, her? Holland's not a guy?"
This is not going to go well if I say it here. "I shouldn't say who it is right now, but I have a plan. I need everybody on board. Everyone who was in the hotel room. Can you call your mom and give her number to us?"
"Sure, I guess." She blushes, not comfortable with this intimacy between her and what she sees as an enemy. But I think that's changing now.
"Thank you, Cassie," I tell her sincerely.
Once that business is done, and Cassie is firmly on standby to do what I need, Sam and I walk into Biology Honors III. We pass the catcaller as he starts to hold up a ten dollar bill.
"—Thanks," I say, snatching the money before he can react. We both walk into class. Collins is at the teacher's desk up front, fiddling with the TV in the corner of the room.
"Do you mind if I ask you something?" Sam asks once we're in our seats.
"About my dad?" I say, guessing from his tone.
"We have to give every possible speculation a shot. Don't worry about my feelings, just ask."
He squirms a bit, clearly upset and interested in consoling me, but there just isn't time, and I made that very clear. "In the branch where Holland was controlling you, where you went to the mental hospital..."
"You mean the first one, from your perspective?"
"Yes. I was talking to your father often. He was very regretful of how he treated your mother, but never very clear on it. Do you think he knew that it was your mother who did all of this?"
"I don't know. If he never, ever found out, that's fine by me."
After class, I say goodbye to that stupid test for good. Sam and I spend lunch by going straight to the art room and, luckily enough, finding Lye. He doesn't have classes this early, so the fact that he's in here is perfect.
"Oh, hello there," he says, standing up from his desk. Then I realize Drew is in here. He's working on his piece again. When we meet eyes, I can tell that he probably made Lye stay here for a bit, so that I'd have a chance to talk to him. Excellent foresight, Drew.
I have a talk with him about the exhibit and quickly, confidently assure him that I'm serious and would like to get started right away. He's thrilled and gets going when he sees that there's nothing else to say. Then it's just Sam, Drew, and me.
"Do you mind getting me some food?" I ask Sam, stomach gurgling. "Haven't had breakfast yet. I need to spend as much time on the piece as I can."
"I can go," Drew says, starting to get up from his stool.
"No, stay. I need to tell you the plan while I work."
As I set my canvas and materials up and get to work on my final piece for the final exhibit, I tell Drew the plan.
"Mellie, I'm disappointed," he says. "This sounds a lot like giving up."
"We're not living in an action movie," I tell him. "I know the kind of plan you'd want. You want to solve this with bombs and guns and force, but that didn't work. It may have gotten me free from her for a while. But you have to understand. Holland uses force, too, and we can't match it. We're dealing with someone who, at any given moment, probably knows what every other person nearby is about to do. Things that will happen that can be manipulated to her advantage. We aren't going to be able to match her in force or planning."
"Why are you calling Holland 'her' now?"
"I learned her identity," I tell him. "Don't worry, it isn't any of us."
"I don't even mind, you know," Drew says, "that the plan isn't as active as I'd prefer. The problem is that you're not telling us your role in it. Once you meet up with Holland, what then?"
"The problem is that I don't know." I switch from my charcoal pencil to a narrow blending stump. "I only know what I need to do."
I grow more confident in my plan once the days prove quiet and uneventful. I don't sleep at my house. Instead, I get a motel room with the little money I have. No one disappears. Rahil doesn't have a game for us this time. It's a final round for me, a victory lap for her. These two weeks may as well be a last meal.
I'm surprised that despite Camden coming back, it's not announced in school. The media swarms over him and his home for a while, but he feigns amnesia to cut off the attention. After a couple of days, we're all able to meet together in a family barbecue restaurant. All of us.
Over a long morning, I've told them everything.
"I don't like this," Drew says. "We have plenty of time to plan something else out."
I take out my phone. "At the moment, I have 34 missed calls from different members of my family. My father technically disappeared. He hasn't shown up to work for three days. Even the police are going to start looking for me, wanting to know what's happened and if I can give them any leads. I have no idea what to tell any of them. I can't get caught up in the search for him, and yet, I will. That is why we need to do this now. We need to have a meeting with Rahil and get this settled. I beat her game and found out who she is. Now I just need to know what she really wants. If it's just for this to end, and me to go down without a fight... then we can try something. But planning beforehand would be too aggressive."
"The woman has got to be the worst mother in existence," Louise says, fanning herself at the head of the table. She cautiously eyes Cassie, hoping to see a bit of relative appreciation.
"Surely there's something else we can do!" Sue says, nervously eyeing the canvas and easel wrapped up in butcher paper and leaned against the wall of the restaurant's corner.
"How can any of you still want to fight," Camden says, "after what you've seen her do to Mellie?"
Everyone stays quiet and looks at their food, their appetite put on hold.
"I don't want you guys to put aside any opinions you may have," I say, "just because of what's happened to me. We've all suffered. But I'm the leader, and this is the decision I've made."
"So..." Sue says, "I gotta confess. Despite hearing the whole story like everyone else, I'm still not really following. Sorry. Why are we here?"
"Because I've finished my piece," I say, "and it's time for the subject to arrive."
Louise pays for our lunch and we head out to the little public gazebo at the center of a quiet park. People throw Frisbees to each other and college girls chat on towels laid at the incline of a hill. Unlike when this branch first began, the noon sun is shining. The weather is not cooperating with my mood.
Sam sets up the easel in the middle of the gazebo and I tear the paper off of the piece that I finished over the past few days, setting it up and throwing the paper away. Then I take a seat on the nearby stone bench and wait, like the others.
A lot of this is guesswork, but I'm pretty confident that I've figured out my tormentor. My... mother. I did get plenty of stories of her behavior and thought processes from Dad, after all. Put it together with this scenario and her past actions so far, and it's not too hard to guess that, stalking me, she'll see that everyone's gathered and that I've finished my piece. It's way too symbolic to just ignore. Now's the time for the actor to go back on the stage and take a bow.
Sure enough, after a few minutes have passed, a figure wearing a pitch black Anarkali suit floats closer to us, the heel-length gown broad enough to hide the movement of her legs. She looks like a giant black chess pawn, being drawn over the game board by an invisible hand. As the others notice where I'm looking, and those who are seated rise to attention and readiness, I see that I have portrayed her well.
Her face is broad and strong, her skin the other ingredient to my mid-tone color, after my father's Irish paleness. In the dress, one can see she is voluptuous, yet petite. Her body interests me more than her face, considering that I have already spent a lot of time studying the latter.
I now hear the light knocks of her steps. She slows a bit from an already leisurely walk and I realize she isn't looking at any of us. She is facing the easel head-on, approaching it with a magnetic interest. The others, even Sam, give my work a second glance when they realize they can't draw her eye contact away.
The piece is my best work so far. A portrait of my mother from the head to the shoulders in such startling detail that for the subject herself, words fail. The piece is so complex that you sometimes forget it isn't colored. The gradation of the shading on the skin, the slightly impressionistic tangle of her hair, like black fire burning from her skull, and the eerily convincing eyes all come together like nothing I have ever made before. And it all came from the picture in my dad's little hidden cigar box.
Just to make things completely clear, I even printed out a little paper label, attached to the top point of the easel: The Culprit by Mellie Walsh.
"Oh my," she says, the spitting image of my sketch, even in expression. I guess she wants to humor me by mimicking it.
Her voice is not what I imagined. It's deep, and it has a direct line to her core. She doesn't speak with an aristocratic guard like Louise or Cassie, but she has more control over herself than Sam, Drew, or Sue. What her voice, sprinkled with that British-Indian flavor, does to me, though... that's harder to describe. The subtle, warm excitement sends electric tickles up my spine, and I don't know why.
Yes, I do. This is my mother. From the few short years that she was around, my body—no, something deeper than that, my self—feels that she and I are parts of a family. I don't remember my mother, can't summon up any memories on cue, but that doesn't mean she didn't have a formative effect on me. Science doesn't have a firm grasp on how early a human brain could make memories. In the recesses of my experience, who's to say I haven't gotten to know this woman?
But I can't let that influence or soften me. Rahil is the enemy. She's been responsible for all of this and much more that I can't remember, the things that happened to Camden and to me before I got infected. Atrocities for hundreds of lifetimes.
She sighs her next compliment. "It's like looking in a mirror."
"Indeed," I dryly answer, still seated. This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have discovered who she really is. Her coming without any of her typical, grotesque disguises means nothing. This is not her moment to say 'Here I am,' but mine to say 'Yeah, I know.' In some small way, I win.
"You could have made the eyes a little more prominent, though," she says. "You may have over-shaded a tad."
"Whatever, Holland," I say. "Although, that name is just one I picked for you, out of convenience. Maybe I should use your real name."
She turns her head, but only that, to me and stares. The rest of her is aligned to the sketch. I can't read the expression, so I release the words.
Her eyes close, as if in meditation. "It's a pleasure unlike any other, to finally be recognized by my daughter. You've grown beyond every expectation."
"So you admit to it."
"Yes. I am Rahil Agnihotri. The only one you could possibly be thinking of. I assume you've read the note?"
"That's right," I say, "you've got some explaining to do."
"Well, ask away. That's what this branch is partly meant to be."
"You went back on what you said to Dad." Violent, eye-gouging rage peaks from feet to brain, but I crush it down to stay composed. "You promised not to infect him, but you did."
"Things changed for me after I wrote that," she says. "It began when someone did to me what I have been doing to you." Rahil then looks to Camden dismissively. "And him. But I never got closure. I have no idea who did it to me, or why. But I did reach the Noctiluca. I asked what was happening to me, and I was lucky enough to get a chance to survive."
"By making a deal," Camden says in a low tone.
"Exactly. But I had time to think about what sort of deal. So I worked in different time cycles. I was permitted to watch the future I couldn't live in, either, the one stolen from me. I watched you grow up, Mellie. And I saw this boy hurting you." She points to Camden like he's a blood-gorged mosquito she smacked on a wall. "So he became the target of my next time cycle."
"You mean abusing her..." Camden says, "and making her help me rob a store?"
"He doesn't even remember doing that," I say to Rahil.
"Of course. Because it didn't happen. I made it not happen. Why do you think that after I made you confess to robbing a store, you didn't even have to speak to the police? They considered you mentally unwell because your story did not match with reality."
Rahil is trying to hide something here. Something deep in me that I can't explain in this tense moment is telling me not to believe the truth she's selling here.
"Why did I remember at all, then? If it didn't happen?"
She beams. "So smart. It's because there's always a little link. This isn't just some crazy world with an infinite number of separate people. Infinite Mellies, one for every branch that gets created. That's not how it works. There's only one of each of us, and your little persistent, inexplicable memory is proof that we are unified. Singular beings, tied to a spiritual network."
"Save it for yoga class," Cassie says. "Get to the point."
Rahil pays her absolutely no mind, doesn't even flinch at the harsh voice behind her. I wish I could react that coldly to someone like Cassie. Then again, maybe I shouldn't try to become someone like that.
In either case, Rahil continues. "I wanted to just erase the boy, but he escaped in a way that I hadn't considered, to the end of a branch. I could bore myself to death trying to find him in a gigantic ocean larger than the earth itself, or move on to other opportunities. Namely, Mellie herself."
It occurs to me now that Rahil moves less than anyone I've ever met before. It startles me when she finally does shift to look at someone other than me. Her gaze and step bring her into punching distance of Camden, who raises an eyebrow but cannot hide his rage and terror. "Let me be clear, though. Even if I had considered the option this little white maggot took, I wouldn't have ever taken such a lonely, sad route to avoid disappearing."
"You said you couldn't live in your future," I say loudly, turning her back to me. "What do you mean? What really stopped you from living a life with Dad and me? You'd only have to do time cycles to continue it, but it's not like working abroad. From everyone's perspective, you'd just be a mother, present in her family."
"That isn't good enough for me, Mellie," she says with a condescending smile. "Remember the note. I am not going to live with that man, never again."
"Why not?" I snap. "He loved you."
"Lots of men could love me. The real power of the Noctiluca is being able to start over. By racking up more sustenance for the Noctiluca through time cycles, I was earning credit to go back to my young years in Maharashtra. The mistake I made back then was to leave India for the United States. Instead, I would live where I belong, among my own culture. The Noctiluca was a spiritual gift, allowing me to revert to my true self and undo the errors that led me astray in this grand, sad wasteland of the west."
"When did you realize this possibility and make it your goal?" Sam says, standing close to me.
"Around the middle of my time cycle with the boy," she says, motioning to Camden again.
"You don't care if you undo the events that led to my existence," I say, "and yet, you felt obligated to punish and erase Camden for hurting me. Do you see how that doesn't make sense?"
"The answer to that depends on a certain detail," Rahil says to me. "One that caught your eye and has not yet been explained. Do you remember?"
I have a good guess of what she's talking about. In Oil of Dreams, Water of Thoughts, there was a strange piece in the far corner, anonymously donated and untitled. It was of extremely sharp quality, photographic, even, and thinking back, it was definitely a charcoal sketch in my own style.
When I offer that as what she's referring to, she gives me a big, marrow freezing smile of pride. It makes me want to run away.
"You made that sketch for me," she says. "It was about halfway into this long time cycle. Once you made it, the finished canvas was infused with Noctiluca blood, just like your sketchbook indirectly was. That allowed it to persist through the branches. Then, I started anonymously donating it at the start of every branch. I wanted you to eventually see it."
"Why did I make it?"
"It was from a branch when I came to you directly. I confessed I was your mother. I told you everything. And you forgave me."
"Get out of town," I say in a dry tone.
"Really. You did. It was then that I knew: you deserved a better life. You didn't deserve to just be erased."
I balk at that. "My sketchbook rotted away after only a few branches, just like how I'm about to. So why has that sketch I allegedly made for you persisted? It didn't appear to have deteriorated at all, and it has to have gone through, like, 60 branches or so."
"Because," she says, "the Noctiluca liked it."
"Seriously?" Drew says, "We're supposed to believe that? The omni-temporal entity has good taste in art?"
"It is a living thing, flighty as a human sometimes. Because it liked it, it bestowed permanency upon it."
The blood drains out of my face. "That's why you're doing this."
"All of this, everything you've done to me so far!" I say, finally standing up and stepping closer. "I read your note to Dad, remember? You were distraught because it was just an endless string of painful encounters, with no relief. You weren't brought closer to anyone, weren't given any closure. But that's not what's happened here, with me, in all of this. I have had ups and down. I've learned, gotten more independent and confident. I've developed my skills, and not just in art. And I've grown closer to the man who is right for me. Now, at the end, I've discovered the truth and am facing down the culprit. The storyteller, more like it."
Her smile is slow and motherly. "Not exactly right, Mellie. You missed one part, which I didn't see coming either: you exceeded my every expectation."
"I guess you even had the Noctiluca in on it, huh?"
"Indeed. You see, Mellie, once this story, everything that has happened between us, reaches its proper conclusion, the Noctiluca has agreed to give you and me permanence, as respect for our achievements. That means you'll be cured, and I'll be freed. At the end of this branch, you won't die. The world won't darken and flood. Time will continue for the others." She opens up her arms as if expecting a hug. "Well, then, all of you? Aren't you happy? No one has to die for good. The bottleneck is about to end. Every bit of suffering was a transitory discomfort."
"And you allowed me to get infected by your blood, just to tell this stupid story?" I say.
"What? No!" she says, shocked. "Do you really not understand?"
"No, I don't, so just say it."
"I had you get infected," she says, "because if a story emerged of you rising to the occasion before disappearing, then the Noctiluca agreed to give you permanency."
I freeze up.
"I discovered this possibility in the branch where I told you everything. I learned about what permanency is, and I decided to work towards that reward, for the both of us."
"What actually is permanency?" Sue asks, raising a timid hand as if she's in class.
"Permanency means that even if causality is interrupted, the object will still exist. I will meet a different man in India. A better one than Becker. But when I marry him and have a child, it will not be a random, new person. It will be you again, Mellie. Then the three of us will live normal, healthy lives. What's more, we'll never be able to even encounter the Noctiluca again."
"Oh, right, makes perfect sense! You're fucking crazy," I say. "I'm a result of my genetics. You can't get the same person if you switch out a parent. You couldn't even get the same person if the wrong sperm impregnated the egg!"
"You might be a little different from growing up in a different culture," she says. "But the Noctiluca guaranteed it will still be you who I give birth to. I even saw a preview of our life that way. We both did. It made me weep with anticipation. It is the life we were meant to have."
"Does Sam exist in this life?" I ask. "Am I an artist?"
She shakes her head. "Temporary things that are not fundamental to who you are. Those will not have permanency. But you and I, as mother and daughter, as a happy family, will. We will live together, without me ever having to serve the Noctiluca ever again. All you have to do is want it."
"So that's the end to this story?" I ask. "The patient, embittered daughter forgives her psychopathic mother, once she understands her motivations. Is that the hackneyed shit the Noctiluca likes?"
"Do you have something better?" Rahil raises a palm and cocks her face away with a smile. "Forgive me, that was combative. So, that is the situation. I am giving you all the rest of this branch to relax." She motions to Drew, Sue, Cassie, and Louise. "For you four, relatively little will be lost. Despite your opinions on the matter, your lives will be more or less the same without my daughter's involvement." Then she motions to Sam and me. "You two are the ones who deserve this branch, I feel. Take your final week and a half and live as a couple. It will all be undone, so do not waste time."
"This is assuming I accept what you're proposing," I tell her. "That I allow myself to be cured with permanence and for you to move backward in time."
"I've also given you this branch to seriously consider your other options," she says. "Hopefully, in that process, you'll learn to respect what I have done, and agree to live with me in your true homeland, where you belong."
I feel much better about Cassie when I see that she is not smiling at a line like that.
"Any questions?" Rahil adds.
"Why did you infect Dad?"
She blinks. "It was an honest mistake. I tried to not involve him in any of the branches, but one time I couldn't hold in my anger. I tried to kill him, and that's how he got infected. Some of my blood spilled on him when he defended himself. From there I made it clear that if he interfered, you would suffer. That scared him enough not to speak up and spoil the secrets you were meant to discover on your own."
You fucking vile bitch.
"Anything else? I have a spa appointment at three."
"Let's just say I agreed to what you want," I say. "Will I have my memories of everything that happened so far? Will I remember Dad, Sam, everyone? Will I remember what you did?"
"I will, but you won't," she says. "I am going back into a younger version of myself, but you will be unborn. It will still be you who I give birth to, eventually, but it will be an all new you, with none of the memories from a life that never happened."
She sees that none of us have any other questions, and walks past the painting, but stops when aligned with my side. I only hear her voice; she's not even in my peripheral.
"You've peaked as an artist, my little golden primrose. Be happy that you saw that passion through in a past life, and look forward to your next incarnation."
With that, she walks away. I feel a gripping at my back and realize that Sam is holding me, because I've been shivering.
So, this is it. The crossroads.
Sam is in my motel room. I think Camden needs space, and what he chooses to do about his own predicament doesn't really connect to me right now. Now we're just laying opposite ways face-up on the bed, my feet at the headboard and his feet dangling over the side.
We've gone around and around with this. The options are as follows:
Option one: I accept Rahil's proposal and live an all new life in India. I will have a different father, live with my mother, and the others will all revert, most likely forgetting me. And even if they remembered me, through some amazing miracle, it would be a whole other miracle if I didn't forget them.
Option two: I reject Rahil's proposal, and make a deal with the Noctiluca instead. Live immortally as a feeder of the beast, working in time cycles to create engaging stories of humanity, ultimately removing certain people from existence and potentially infecting others if I'm not careful. I would earn credit to live in other times through my work. If I took this option, I would definitely choose to go back to earlier in my life. Spend time with Dad and save Sam from his parents as soon as I could. I could still live my own life, in a way, through this option.
"I won't lie," I start to tell Sam, but he finishes the thought for me.
"You find option two appealing because it also shortchanges Rahil out of getting her happy ending." He turns to his side to look at me, delicately stroking my hair away from my forehead. "Am I right?"
"To the very word."
The remaining two options are not really viable, after minor scrutiny:
Option three: I refuse Rahil and the Noctiluca, and perish on the midnight of the 26th. This option feels easy, but it's irresponsible. I know that if I give up in this way, one of the other infected, probably Sam or Camden, will make a deal to see me again before this time cycle. And while it is a hell of a microphone-drop solution to everything, it's kind of scary to just disappear, for eternity. The only significant appeal is that if my father is waiting for me somewhere, I might see him again, in that place.
Option four (not really): I take everyone willing on a big yacht and flee to the end of this branch, escaping in a lonely, flooded world. Maybe we could do like Camden said, and find some sort of high land, or construct a home from a large collection of garbage. Maybe, despite being immortal, we aren't sterile. Life, humanity, could continue, in a pocket world unlike anything else, free of time, death, and the predators who use them against us.
All of the options will save the infected we brought into this. It's more or less a simple tie between one and two. I have a little more than a week to decide.
"I'm going to pick option two," I tell Sam. "I don't mind becoming like Rahil if I can do some good with that choice."
He sits up and watches my eyes. He's going to test my conviction, and he'll break me if I falter, so that I may form a stronger justification or a new, better choice. Thank you.
"I was talking to Camden," I say. "He says that he's wondering whether it's possible to gather humanity and tell compelling stories for the Noctiluca without causing intense suffering. At least not at the level that Rahil has done. He brought up a great point, too."
"What if he only entered time cycles with targets that are terminally ill? People in a lot of pain or who have no one to turn to, who would die anyway and prefer a painless method? Because if the dissolution has anything positive about it, it's that it's painless. Instead of being a mysterious unseen murderer lurking behind people's skin, what if Camden was just himself? He could be a kind, mysterious stranger who changes the timeline and makes the world a better place, specifically for the people on their way out of this world, and all those connected to them. Well? How do you like them apples?"
"It sounds very nice, dear," he says with a tight frown. "Too nice. We don't know if such a thing is really possible. The Noctiluca seems to be, well, let's call it a picky eater. It seems spoiled on the salty, sugary, instant gratification that is human tragedy and sacrifice."
"But there's a chance it'll work. And if it does, we can still live together."
Sam suddenly hugs me, a pulling force that lifts me up to a kneeling position with him on the bed. His breathing is ragged.
"Hey, come on," I whisper, rubbing his back. "What's the matter?"
"Don't you remember?" he stammers out. "If you don't take option one, your father will remain deceased since the 11th of May. The only way to make him come back to life is to take option one. That way, the very events of his infection and perishing will be revoked."
I had been unwittingly blocking out that detail. My anger flares out at him for no good reason, and I try to focus.
"But the only way to know my dad, to see him again, and to have lived a life with him... the only way he can be my dad is through option two, by revisiting the past. That's good enough for me. I can live as a better daughter than I ever was. He won't even know what to do with such a great daughter!"
"But it will be in days that have already happened," he says. "At least with option one... you get something new. Time will move normally."
"Let's take a breather."
"And there's always the slim chance that you'll still meet Becker Walsh, somewhere in the reset life from option one."
"Stop, please. I've had enough for now."
Reluctantly, he stands up off the bed and gets me some water from the little fridge, the one decent amenity here. I thank him and crack the cap off the bottle, guzzling down the cold water. It's calming, not really in that I'm thirsty, but that I've learned to hold in my vicious coughs so that no one notices, not even Sam, but that leaves a thick road of dried blood on my throat. Washing it down feels nice, healing.
"At the end of this branch," Sam says, "it'll be your decision. Yours alone."
"I know," I say, nodding frantically. "I'm not mad at you for testing my will. I appreciate it. More than you know."
"But you might end up making a choice," he says, "that nullifies our relationship. So just in case, you think we should enjoy each other's company as best we can. Am I right?"
"Yet again," I say, grinning. "Does that make me a horrible girlfriend?"
"Let me put it this way. Wouldn't I be a horrible boyfriend, to insist that you maintain our relationship and life together, at the expense of your father?"
"No... no, you would just be a human being who wants something important to you."
"When you simplify it that much," he says, "you make Rahil look less morally black, you know."
"Don't joke about that," I say.
"I'm not joking," he says.
"But... no fucking way. Are you really suggesting my mother might be in the right, here?"
"No, but I think she's a flawed person who did what she felt she had to, in order to live the fullest possible life with her child."
"She possessed the body of my favorite teacher and used her to kiss me. She threatened to rape me, Sam. In some branches, I think she actually did. She cut off my limbs, took my eyes and tongue—"
"—Maybe she saw how you let Camden treat you, because you loved him, and figured that if she made you retroactively love her, any means that she used would be forgiven."
"Are you saying it's all okay?"
"Absolutely not. None of that is forgivable. Trust me, I understand," he says. "But it's just..."
"I'm sorry if this offends you, but... at least it was all motivated to allow her to be your mother again. I'm sure she's regretful that this is the path she ended up taking, but the alternative was dying forever or living forever with you and your father, forever running time cycles and never aging, eventually outliving her own daughter, and unable to get any understanding or support from her husband."
"And what is this in contrast to, exactly?" I snap.
"My parents," he fires back, shutting me up. "My parents have never done anything to or for me that wasn't motivated by personal gain. Even their little moments of kindness were calculated tactics for damage control or to stop me from telling friends or authorities. To my mother and father, I am just a farm hand. No, I'm an extension of their bodies to be used. Lower than even the pets, because at least those are treated well before the transaction!"
I stay silent. Internally, I am shining with pride that he can say these truths about his parents. He has grown and changed into his own man, and I'm horrified by the thought that if it's undone, he won't reach such conclusions by himself.
He takes my silence for confusion and explains more.
"Here's what I've gotten out of Rahil's story, everything she said at the gazebo: she tried being honest, telling you the truth. In that branch, she did earn your forgiveness and you considered her your mother, without restraint. Everything turned out fine. And how much did that satisfy the Noctiluca? Did that end up enough to grant the both of you permanence? No. The most that glowing curse was willing to do is grant permanence to a nice painting you made of one of its cells. That's all. If you ask me, that explains enough. For a committed mother to do what she did to her own daughter and her friends and father, it was clearly her only option to entertain the Noctiluca. At the least, the only one she could think of. In its own way, I respect the valor in doing absolutely anything to live with her daughter."
What he's saying sounds ridiculous, superficially. And I hate the thought of accepting it because it's got to be exactly what Rahil wants me to figure out on my own. She wouldn't say it outright, because that would invite me to reject it entirely. Instead, she planted all the remaining seeds, and I'm supposed to grow the conclusion that option one is best. That I need to accept that what happened has happened, and it's time to reverse it all and start fresh, reincarnate as my mother's daughter.
I need to think of ways that the other options might be better, on a utilitarian sense, primarily option two—no, enough. Mellie Walsh, you have done enough thinking.
"I'm working myself to death trying to pick a logical answer when there isn't one," I say, plopping back down on the bed. "Like trying to pick who gets fed in a famine."
"Yeah." He moseys to the window and absentmindedly looks through a bent parting in the blinds. "By the way, is your cough a problem?"
"It comes in waves. I've learned to control it and not make a scene."
"Is there anything I can do?" he asks, sliding his finger just under the waist of my jeans. I've never seen him this brash. I guess that's what happens when you tell a virgin that he's definitely got what it takes.
That night, my relatives pray that my father will return from wherever he's gone and that I am doing okay despite not making any real contact with them. All the while, I am distracting myself by experiencing Sam as much as possible. I give all of myself to him.
I'm way too tired to judge myself anymore. In fact, I will never judge myself again.
It's Wednesday, the 16th. I've agonized over my two main options, even considered the two lesser choices behind those a little. Now, I'm considering the possibilities in a different way. It's all I can think of.
Biology III Honors has just finished. We were mostly just watching a movie about genetics and Mendelism, while students who wanted a cushion against the results of their exam could do worksheets for extra credit. I have torn through all three that Collins was willing to give me, which she says is sure to bump my grade to a low A when you factor in the perfect exam score.
"Hey, Ms. Collins?" I ask. Being quiet and demure in approaching teachers used to be my regular style, but now it takes effort to not act upfront and confident. I have to repeat myself so she hears me. "Ms. Collins?"
"Oh! Sorry, sweetie. What's up?"
"Do you mind if we talked about something for a few minutes, during lunch? If I'm not holding you up."
"Well, sounds okay to me. I usually eat in here. Take a seat and let's dish."
"Thanks." I smile and move to the central front seat. I have no idea how a student could stand being here. It's so awkward. I start unwrapping my lunch. Just some simple turkey and swiss wraps I made in my motel room after a shopping trip. Since losing Dad, Indian food has lost its appeal, probably for a long time.
"Whatcha got this time?" Collins asks after the door closes behind the last student out. I told Sam about what I'm planning here and insisted that he shouldn't back me up. It'll be too aggressive if she feels like we're outnumbering her.
"Oh, just turkey." I take a bite, not tasting it. "How about you?"
"Well, you picked just the right day to ask." She winks and lifts a little black bento out from under her desk. "This lovely sophomore named Soo-jin—"
"—Oh, I know her," I say. "A real angel."
"I know, right? Every Wednesday, she makes me lunch because I'm her faaaavorite teacher." There's that wink again. She flips the lid of the box away and rips free two bonded chopsticks.
"Oh, awesome," I say. "Is that Vietnamese-inspired?"
"No, Thai, actually."
She's Vietnamese, so you assume a lunch made for her would be Vietnamese. Nice, one, Mellie. Maybe you and Cassie should hang out sometime.
"So, what's the sitch?"
"Well, this is probably gonna be awkward," I say. "But I happened to notice that you keep a large jar of mushrooms under your desk.
Collins petrifies, mouth still open and inches from biting into some noodles. Her eyes crane up slowly to me.
"It's not a problem or anything, don't worry," I say quickly. "I don't care. I think it's pretty badass, actually."
"Um... listen, Mellie, I don't know what type you think those are, but they're for laboratory uses—"
"—Okay, okay, seriously, I'm not gonna call the cops. You're my favorite teacher, too."
She smiles and takes a bite of noodles. "Mm, that's good to hear. That's great. I nearly had to change my pants there."
"I know this is going to sound sudden, but the reason I'm bringing this up is because some friends of mine and I would like to try tripping on something. If you do that sort of thing... would you be interested in doing it with us? I'd pay for the product."
"That adds way too many risky variables," she says. "I would rather just give them to you guys and have us all trip without money getting involved."
"—Hypothetically," she says loudly. "First off, who are these friends of yours?"
"There's me, Sam, Drew Stafford, Cassie Urd and her mom, Camden, and Sue."
"What?" Her chopsticks cross in an illogical manner and fly off her desk in opposite directions. "Sue? You don't mean... Soo-jin?"
"And... Sam Edwards?"
"Well, getting him interested will be the toughest sell. But I think that'll be the gang."
"Wow, I don't know what to say, this is like alien contact right now. Especially since you're one of the quietest girls in class! Now you're organizing a trip party? Am I tripping right now?"
"Hopefully not," I say with a wink of my own.
"Well, listen, in all seriousness, that's quite a large group. It poses some challenges. I have enough actual product for a decent trip for everybody, but that's also a lot of people to trust, you know?"
"I give you my personal guarantee that none of them will tell on you or prove to be a problem," I say. "If I am proved wrong, I will personally take the fall for everything. Not that that's going to happen."
"Who is this girl in front of me right now? Because it's not Mellie Walsh, right?"
I smile through her comment, even though it cuts a little too deep. It's very much possible that by the end of this, there will no longer be a Mellie Walsh, only Mellie Agnihotri.
"Here's the deal," Collins says, pulling a plastic fork from a set of silverware, "answer a few questions, and you've got a shroom party."
I get excited and finish up my last bite of wrap a little too quickly. "Okay, fire away."
"Question one: did you cheat on that exam?"
"No. I just studied. Next?"
"Question two: what has been going on with you and Sam?" This makes me shift in my chair. "Because, well, I can tell you two have been different lately. A lot more serious and... observant of things other than each other. I know you two are best friends. Did you two get in a fight?"
"Oh, no," I say with a hand-wave. "No, no, actually, we're dating."
"Aliens!" Collins bleats. "Aliens have stolen my mind and are testing new bizarre scenarios in virtual reality!"
"Sorry, that is one-hundred percent real and happening." For now.
"When did it happen? Oh my god, that is..."
"Pretty recent, I guess, but it's been the best thing that's ever happened to me."
"I'm gonna cry, seriously." Collins' voice cracks and she waves her face with both hands. "I always thought you two would make a killer couple. I could just see it, like it was meant to be. But I assumed that it wouldn't happen because Sam wasn't interested or bold enough, and you wouldn't ever make the move."
"Actually, I did make the move, and it turned out he had been interested. Though, I knew that more or less. The first time we met was him hitting on me."
"Full circle!" She's really on a roll with these outbursts. "Holy crap, Mellie, I have had the most boring week, and then you drop this on me? It's too much!"
"Any other questions?"
"Just one more, I suppose. Is Sue really interested? Because that's a bit hard to see. She's like, a rainbow, shining through pure steam after a summer shower. I imagine her totally clean of everything. The thing that cleans other things. You know what I mean?"
"Well, she's a young'un like me and she's interested in experimenting. I didn't outright tell her who my potential contact for a party was, so she'll be in for a shock."
"Hoo boy. Lee, thank you. This is going to set such an awesome tempo for the summer break."
Collins and I eventually establish the date of the party: Saturday on the 19th.
The reason I pushed for the infected to all try mushrooms is because of the epiphany I had while talking to Camden. After taking mushrooms for the first time, I think I might have uncovered a memory that I technically shouldn't have. The memory of robbing the store. That shouldn't be possible, because it was undone by the time cycle. And yet, I recall it clear as anything, like a vision of a past life.
My hope is that if I and everyone else all take mushrooms, it might attune them to some kind of spiritual conduit to the other branches that have happened, or maybe even ones that will in the future, although I'm not sure that's how it works.
Sam really doesn't want to go through with it. I had to pull a lot of... favors, let's say, before he felt guilty enough to at least try a little. It's truly empowering, seeing what a little temptation can get from a man.
Now we're all together, in the RV at Lye's place. I knew better than to actually mention Lye or the RV as Collins' growing spot since that would set her firmly into paranoia. Now we're all spread out in different parts of the narrow Bakelite cave and Collins is proving an energetic, eager host, if a bit too focused on Sue.
"This is going to be so fun!" she says, bringing out what looks like a giant pear-shaped pitcher of iced tea, tinted pink.
"What's that?" I ask.
"That is our dose," she says. "Everybody come on up and grab a cup."
"So we're not eating dried shrooms or anything?" I ask.
"Nah, I've been getting sick of trying to work around the taste, so I thought, screw it, let's just make tea. It's super easy. Well come on, everybody, don't just sit around. This is where it all starts. We gotta take it together. Yes! Mellie's first to the water cooler, good girl. Who else?"
I get a nice red plastic cup filled with the cold beverage and stand nearby, looking out to the people here. Lye moves in to get his cup, mostly just going with the flow and bearing with the very large drug party that found its way onto his property. Sorry, man.
Sam is looking around at nothing in particular, avoiding the obvious social expectation, and Louise is doing the same. Cassie has her arms crossed and is eying me. What she's thinking, I'm not sure. Drew has his hands on his knees, ready to get up from his seat at the booth, but he's looking to see if someone else is going first for no real reason. Sue is on the inner seat, blocked in by him, so that gives her temporary immunity.
I see the back of Camden's head since he's sitting across from Drew. I think he must associate drug culture with the bad turn he made in life, but this has nothing to do with that.
The room starts to go from humid to chilly. I need to do something.
"All of you," I say. "Please get some tea."
A still, awkward concern radiates out from the scattered people before me.
"Just a little, at least. If you really can't, then meditate," I say, "or anything. Please, I think indulging in our spiritual sides could unveil some new solutions to our problems, maybe even some visions from past lives."
"Oookay," Collins says, enthusiastically nodding along and rubbing her palms together. "Weirdly specific, but cool."
I walk over to Sam and he readies his hands, I take them in my free one and smile.
"In Hinduism, there is something called Moksha," I say. "The ultimate fulfillment of who you're meant to be. The embodiment of inner peace. If there is an ideal life any of us is meant to lead, and ideal people to lead it with, finding our Moksha may be the way to bring ourselves together."
I'm not religious, never was. After everything I've gone through, the concept of an overseeing, supreme being is not comfortable. But a universal connectedness is possible, if the insanity we've gone through is also possible.
"Oh, why not?" Louise says, closing up her fan and getting her cup.
"Way to go, Louise!" Collins says.
"I guess for the sake of our... problems," Camden says, getting up.
"Camden, too? Hell yeah!"
"She's right," Drew says, looking to Sue, "come on, I bet this'll be fun, at the least."
"S-sure," Sue says, and then her whole face and body relax. "If you're going to, then I guess it's okay."
"Being surrounded by high people while sober does not sound fun," Cassie says, entering the line. "That's my only motivation."
I look at Sam. He's the last one.
"Don't worry," he says. "I'll do it. I'm just waiting till the line thins out."
"You really will?" I say, beaming. "You're the most amazing boyfriend in the galaxy. I know you don't like... augmenting yourself with substances. But this is one of the most natural drugs possible."
"You can save the arguments. I'm doing this because it's a good idea," he says, kissing me. "I just hope you can handle a psychedelically augmented gentleman."
"I hope you can handle the sporadic airhead I become."
"Well, I'm eager to find out."
We all get our tea, and Lye finds a chance to speak up by doing the toast.
"To Moksha," he says, looking toward me, much more relaxed. I nod and repeat that, as does everyone else from there, and we drink.
I really hope this works. I'm trying not to raise my expectations too high because that can be your downfall with tripping, so I hear. If I could just get another vision, revealed memory from another world, whatever... or even if someone else does, then we might have a final tool to throw against Rahil.
I'm curled up with Sam on a beach towel. The water of Lye's pool is a constant reminder that my world might be washed away.
It's been four hours, and nobody did anything wild. Don't get me wrong, it was a fun, solid party, and now we're relaxing in Lye's house. But it turns out the tea was a little weak. It must be tough spreading it out among so many people and keeping the dosage high. I'm having a good time, letting my imagination play jump-rope with my sense of time and continuity, but I think even without the drugs, I would be this happy nestled at his chest.
I'm dreaming of spin-dancing with a scythe through a sugar field when I hear him.
"Mellie." Sam's voice rumbles through me like I have my ear to the ground and can hear a deep aquifer running just beneath.
"Hmm?" I say, stirring.
"Can you do something for me?"
"Anything," I tell him.
"Pick option one."
I feel his heartbeat slow down. He's been nervous for a while, but now it's finally out.
I look up at the man meant for me. In the low light, his face is a mask carved from ancient fossils. Old things that will not change.
"We agreed we wouldn't talk about it from here on out," I tell him, sliding up to kneel with my legs spread, straddling him. I'm not horny, but I can't think of anything else.
"Your father guided us together," he says, looking out to space. "He had me watch you, knowing I could be counted on. When you were in the institute, he insisted I see you. It was because of him that I was willing to listen to the unfathomable things you believed."
This is too much. I lean down over him and kiss his ear. I am rain and he is earth.
"He deserves to come back," Sam says. "Bring him back."
"What do you want, baby?" I hum in his ear. "What can I give you? I won't say no. I don't care if it's right here. I don't care if everyone else sees."
"Pick option one, Lee. Save your father."
Finally, I break. I collapse onto him and weep for what feels like a thousand years, not making a sound except for my agreement.
I am picking this option because I love you, and I will give you anything. If you want to make this choice for me, take it. I know you want to give me a simple answer so that I'm relieved of the puzzle. In exchange, let's make every second count.
We see in our eyes everything we have to say to each other. We've formed a wordless treaty.
The days pass far too quickly, but the lingering effect of the mushrooms helps keep me in the moment. Now it's the final day, and it's nearly over. Sam and I are going to the Dance. He's not in a suit, and I'm not in a dress. Each repeat of this dance has been progressively stingier. Oh well. This is the last time, so I may as well enjoy it.
Then, after some dancing, kissing, laughing, showing off the sketch of Rahil, and assuring people that I'm okay and that my Dad is probably okay too, it's over.
Did I ever have a chance to appreciate the things given to me in this life? Can we ever truly appreciate things as if it were the last day? I don't know. Everything I am, everything I know about myself and the world, it's about to end and I haven't learned. I don't have a lesson to take with me.
But I have a warm hand holding mine. As long as it remains, there is no past or future.
What a silly line of thought. I tried to wax poetic on the final hours of my life, and I ended up too deep in my mind and lost the final moments. I'm on the beach, with everyone else.
The sea at night is so beautiful. Darkness is meant to be accompanied by vastness and water.
Rahil stands in the waves, naked, hollow, and glowing.
"Have you understood and accepted your true life?" she asks me.
Sam finally lets go of my hand and steps back up the beach. My heart breaks and withers, cracking into powder.
"Wonderful. You will not be sorry. Walk into the waves."
There is no point in looking back. Waving. Saying goodbye. Crying. And yet I do all of them for as long as I can until the last of me is swept away.