When I wake up, I know I have limbs, and eyes, and a tongue. I'm also wearing my typical school-day outfit of a yellow t-shirt and black jeans, despite being in a hospital gown when last I remember. I haven't looked yet, but I just know, from how familiar these clothes are.
I'm on something firm. It's dark, but as my eyes adjust, I can tell it's a flat white surface, slightly tacky and rumpled, a fiberglass mold. Then I notice my body is shifting, my sense of balance bobbing left and right for no apparent reason. Am I on a boat?
When I stand up, the telltale unease and sight of black water as far as I can see confirm it. The night sky is contiguous tar, except for an over-sized moon. It's so large that it forms an illusion; ever coming closer.
What is going on here? Where is this? Despite being normally clothed, I don't have my phone, so checking the time is out.
I must be way into the ocean because there's no land in sight. Turning around, I see that I'm indeed on the stern of a boat, probably a twenty-footer with a nice cabin sunken into the middle, right by the shaded captain's chair. None of these show signs of life. Leaving that behind, I step past the steering wheel and work my way up toward the raised portion of the bow.
There's someone there. A figure in cargo shorts and a long gray hoodie that sets my feet into cement. It's a young man, my age, huddled at the bow with his hands around his knees. I can't see his face, and the hood protects his hair from the cold.
This person doesn't know that I'm here. All I have to do is say his name, or what I think it is, and he'll notice me. Whether I'm right or wrong, I should just do it.
Slowly, his sleepy face lifts and erodes at the sight of me. My god. It's really you.
"Camden, I'm here," I say, stepping closer with a hand to my chest. "It's Lee."
"No..." Hearing his voice again is a pleasure I thought I'd never revisit. He stands up, slowly but in control. He has spent a lot of time on this boat, and it shows in the lack of balancing or stumble. "Lee... how?"
"I came through a portal in the shore," I say. "Or so I'm told."
"This can't be. I'm seeing things." He takes a step to the side, looking askance at me in bite-sized increments. "I thought I'd never see anyone again, let alone you."
He walks a few steps opposite the way he did, still closer to me, looking askance from the other eye. His sharky zig-zag is the cutest thing ever.
"Camden!" I'm up on the bow in a sprint and we hug each other for hours.
"Where are we?" I ask him, still embraced as our feet dangle over the bow's tip.
"One of the branches the Noctiluca consumed," he says. "Like the ones you've experienced, I suppose."
"How long have you been here?"
"I don't have days to count, so I don't know. It feels like months." He takes my hand. "You've got to tell me everything. But not too quickly. Don't worry, time doesn't move here. We won't get hungry or thirsty. I even forgot what it feels like to shave my face or have stubble."
"Do you bathe at all?"
"I don't have to. But sometimes I go for a swim. For the first few months, I was terrified of trying. But don't get me started on what I've gone through yet. Tell me everything. What has the Noctiluca entity done to you?"
I tell him everything, wasting not a single detail, even the personal bits about Drew and Sam. I could never hide anything from the boy who taught me not to hide the truth.
"I see," he says when it's finally over. I realize that I never coughed during that long recollection. My throat didn't even get sore. "It's very odd that the Noctiluca brought you to me when you visited the beach. What could it mean...?"
"Now you," I say. When he looks up at the moon I capture his face in my hands and draw it over to mine. "I have wondered and worried about you more than you could imagine. Don't hold back. Please."
He nods, and his eyes almost close. He's squinting in pain, but I'm ready to know. It might be shameful, but that is the most important thing to me right now.
"I went through the same looping torture that you've gone through," he says.
I let go of his face and listen.
"Only, it was for a month, each time. Things would happen, strange mysteries and disappearances. At the end of one struggle at the beach with this 'Holland' entity, I got some of its blood spilled on me. From then on, I remembered each branch that happened. I tried my best to protect you and handle it, but what can you do, really? Eventually, I started to get what you've been having. The coughing fits, the blood. Repeating the same stretch of time was killing me, I think. Now it's happening to you."
"You mean, the branches themselves are what's killing me?"
"Possibly. If I had to guess, after thinking about it a lot, though, I would venture that it's being Noctiluca Touched. There's a gradual influence over your body and life that continues even after time resets. The human body just isn't made to relive the same scenario again and again. I'm fairly certain that that is what has been killing you, and was killing me. Even though I didn't have these explanations back then, I knew that I wouldn't last much longer. So I ran away at the start of a branch. I chose to become the mystery, you might say. I stole a boat at the pier and fled as the whole world went permanently dark. The water rose to impossible levels, swallowed up everything. Every building ever made is somewhere under the water, too deep to even think of swimming down to."
"Is that why the moon looks so close?"
He nods. That is an unimaginably high sea level, and the pressure of all that water must have crushed every building on 'land' by now.
"Did Holland chase you, like he did with Sam and me?"
"Oh, he tried for a long time. But I had brought plenty of extra gasoline in the boat, plus a hand-operated outboard for when I ran out. The latter wouldn't get me away in a pinch, but it would let me move if I ever wanted to. Eventually, I got far enough on this landless, brackish waste-ocean that I didn't have to worry about moving. I haven't seen a glow since, and I think Holland gave up. Maybe he wanted to try a new victim instead, so he went to you." He digs his fingers through his hair. "If I knew that would happen, I'd have let Holland do whatever he wanted."
"You don't know if that's the case," I say. "Wait, I just thought of something. Holland probably knew about the Noctiluca Touched after you went way out of your ordinary behavior in each consecutive branch, right?"
"So why was he acting unaware of it in my case?"
"He was probably bluffing. It would help to deceive you."
That is a mystery I'll have to chew on for a bit.
I think back to what he said about the coughing. "Are you okay now?"
He knows what I mean. "Yes. You might have noticed that at the end of every branch, when you're leaving the area or it's close to midnight, the coughing stops. After I escaped to the end of this branch and stayed floating around here, I've never felt weak or coughed up blood. It's time that both causes and accelerates the infection, and here, there is no time, so there is no infection."
"Are we immortal, here?" I ask.
"Well, I think we're beyond dying. Whether that means dead, immortal, or something completely new and unheard of, I can't say."
There are still things I don't understand. Camden fled on this boat at the start of his branch, and that was several weeks before the last time I remember seeing him. Reality is not matching up.
"So you don't remember making me rob a store with you?" I ask. "None of that?"
He grimaces. "I don't deny that I might have done it in a branch before I became Noctiluca Touched." He takes my hand in both of his. "Mellie, I am forever ashamed of how I treated you. Even if I don't remember it personally, I can believe that I would do those things. I would have reasons to do so, ones I found acceptable at the time."
"Just explain why you did, Camden. Or why you would. That's all I need, and I'll forgive you."
"You can't possibly mean that."
"Don't be like that. I want to forgive you, and in order to do that, I have to understand."
"I'll take up the chance, although I don't believe you'll be able to put it behind you. You still sure?"
"The truth is that there is no grand reason. I just had this lens that took over my view of everything. I don't want to put a convenient label on it like depression, but it might help if you consider it that."
"Why would you be depressed? You seemed really happy and successful from the day we met."
"Obviously people change."
"Everyone said you were sure to achieve great things."
"That's exactly it," he says. "Eventually, when you hear something too many times, you start to question it. I stopped believing that I was meant for greatness in the ways that people expected. I got in with a rougher crowd, and I was stunned with how many of them had been in my position during high school. Sure to succeed. But they felt that they had peaked in their youth, and that was how I felt, too. So I got closer to them."
"Camden... I don't want to distress you, but you abused me sometimes, in the last month before you vanished," I say. He looks up in horror. "That's what I remember."
In fact, I've remembered this truth ever since I took mushrooms with Collins and Lye. I assumed that it just brought that memory back after a lot of repression. But when you think about it... what if it didn't really happen, literally, to the me I was back then? Maybe, through some kind of spiritual, connected experience, I remembered something that happened to me in another branch, before I got the blood on me.
Did I, the me that I am, really ever fall down a dark path with my boyfriend? Did I ever really rob a store with him? Or was that another me? I found it strange how after Holland made me confess in one branch, I didn't even end up talking to any police officers. Instead, they shipped me straight to the mental hospital. If they didn't even see a point in interviewing me... then maybe it's because, in that reality, I was confessing to a crime that never even happened.
I just find it strange, though, that no one would tell me. Wouldn't a psychiatrist or somebody say "Mellie, you mad curry bitch, there was no robbery on that day. You're clearly out of it." Unless... the robbery was committed by someone else. Maybe Holland engineered that. So the authorities must have thought that I was a crazy girl who saw a robbery on TV and confessed to it since the criminal was never found, to add more spice to her confession. That works out well enough to get me institutionalized temporarily, with no risk of me going to prison, a far more prevalent stay that wouldn't let me go to the Dance like Holland wanted.
This theory of mine, however, is too much to throw at Camden. What matters is that I have to know why, in some world, to some version of me, Camden changed, and betrayed our love.
I've been silent for a long time, so I look him in his sad, gray eyes. He's ready to hear me ask. "Is what you're saying, the feelings you were going through, the reason that you would hurt me?"
"I think... it could be. I had watched you grow since we were five. By the time we were in high school, you were unrecognizable, you know? So confident and sure of your talents, even if you didn't think so. I was jealous of you, Mellie. I felt like I hadn't changed at all. I thought becoming a brute and a criminal was a daring change. I'm a scumbag."
Silence prevails amid the sloshing and slaps of the water against the boat's hull.
"I forgive you."
His eyes stay shut hard.
"Hey, come on," I add, guiding him to rest his head on my lap. "I'm not hurt by that anymore. All is forgiven."
"I've missed you."
This is the loneliest fate I could conjure up for anyone. My heart aches as I look out at the waves. "I've missed you, too," I reply, stroking his hair.
"What will you do?"
"Well, don't take this the wrong way," I tell him. "But is there a way out of this place?"
As soon as I ask, a swirling blue vortex appears in the distance, like a shining waterspout. Camden jerks upright, but I put a hand to his shoulder.
"It's okay," I tell him. "It's the Noctiluca's answer to that question. They'll let me out of here when I'm ready."
"How could this evil thing bring you back to me, and help you? I don't understand."
"Maybe the Noctiluca isn't evil," I say. "Maybe it's neutral, and what matters is who's using it."
For some reason, he doesn't answer.
"When I woke up blind and without limbs or a tongue, my last hope was to try and get help outside of humanity. It looks like... the Noctiluca is amenable to that."
"What are you thinking, right now?"
"My theory," I say, a grin chasing its way up my cheeks, "is that the Noctiluca has to survive on humans. Or the reality around them. Something like that. Maybe we can work something out."
That's when I notice the vortex coming closer, and a sound crawls through my skull, like a fungus taking over my brain, but with words. I'm not hearing or seeing them, but I'm perceiving them in a way that cannot be described.
Human, you seek answers. That is why you were taken here.
I don't have to say yes or even nod. It knows that I want to understand all of this. When I look at Camden, I think he's able to perceive this, too.
What are you?
Okay... what do you want?
Humanity is sustenance.
You mean you eat people?
Not flesh. That is just a needed process. Humanity is sustenance.
I probably haven't had enough mushroom trips to understand that. Keep it simple, Mellie Walsh. Stick to practical questions.
I'm guessing you are some sort of all-seeing entity. Let's go back to the conversation Holland had with me on the roof. How much of what he said about bottlenecks and branches and errors in reality was true?
I thought so. Alright, best start from the beginning, then. Who is Holland?
A human who made an agreement.
What is their real name?
The name will not be exposed, as per the agreement.
Guess I should have seen that coming. So then, what was the agreement?
The human received the power to remember other branches, and of disguise.
You mean, received those powers from you?
This might be easier if you use pronouns, you know.
The time cycle the human desired was established, and it provided sustenance through the branches.
I see. That would explain all the killing, plus the preference for dissolving people in Noctiluca directly. I'm guessing that's how you actually get fed?
Dissolution contributes more to our sustenance. But it must be a fully experienced cycle for the target. It must not end early.
I'm guessing by 'target', you mean me? Why am I so important in all of this?
Each time cycle revolves around one human target. The human beside you is also a target. Your humanity, born from your emotional experiences, is fostered and made into sustenance. After a certain degree of feeding, the deal is honored.
You really are a creature beyond all others, huh? A being that lives on the emotions of humans. No reply to that? No problem. I'm just a lowly human, I can't comprehend you. But please tell me, what is your end of the deal? What did Holland want from you?
To be moved.
Huh? Moved? Moved where?
To both a when and where different from the one natural for it.
Are you saying Holland wants to travel through time? And you can do that for them?
Yes, but first we must be fed.
Where does Holland want to go? The past? Future? And isn't the loop Holland chose already a form of time travel?
The human wants to travel far. This requires great sustenance. The destination will not be exposed, as per the agreement.
Interesting. So Holland was talking bullshit when he said reality is broken and I need to keep dying. He's just using me as fuel for a trip through time. Have you considered how I feel, Noctiluca? These deals seem to be made with no consideration to people like Camden and me.
Humans who have not made a deal are sustenance.
Nice. Let's move on, then.
Why am I bleeding and coughing more and more after each branch? Is that killing me, somehow? Is it about Holland's blood touching me?
You are infected. A human who makes a deal can infect others. When deal-maker's transient essence spills onto other things, they gain memory and persist as they are despite the branches changing. Slowly, they are destroyed with every passing branch.
How many branches... do I have left, before that happens?
You will survive through one more branch.
"You can't be serious!" I say aloud standing up and pointing to the vortex. "Are you saying that no matter what happens, I'm going to die? Disappear?"
There is only one escape. Make a deal.
"What sort of deal?"
The same. We only make one kind.
"So in order to not die for good at the end of the next branch, I have to agree to do what Holland does? I have to torture someone over time loops again and again? And then live in another time when it's over?"
You may choose the when and where natural to you. A closer one will require less sustenance. Giving sustenance is required for any deal. Fail, and disappear forever.
"Okay, so... let's say I wanted to make this deal."
"Lee!" Camden says, standing up, but I hold a palm at his chest.
"In such a case, what would I have to do?"
You must offer a time length where you will provide sustenance. The more sustenance you provide, the longer you may live in the when and where of your choice, without perishing. But only when you have fulfilled the cycle.
So basically, I have to work for you... forever. Off and on. Even so, if I stopped Holland for good, could I end the deal you had with him? That would at least stop the branches and save everyone else I infected, right?
Yes. If that human could not finish the time cycle, then the deal would break and we would have no use for it. There would be no bottleneck. Time would proceed and the other infected would live naturally. You would still perish, however, if you did not make a deal by the branch's end.
How many more branches does Holland have to run through, by the way? When will his deal be fulfilled?
The amount of sustenance was already met. However, the target is infected.
You mean me?
Yes. This means the target will persist, as will the branches, until they die. Then the deal will be complete.
"So, that's why Holland was so confident that he's already won. All that's left is for me to disappear." My body erupts into chills. "No, wait... Holland can reach me before I'm even conscious on the 11th. That means he can just kill me and end the branch. I don't even have a chance!"
That would not be a complete branch, thereby not ending you. As the target, progress is made toward your infection only on the addition of another completed branch. You must have not made a deal by the end of the next branch in order to perish.
So basically... if I hadn't thought of going to the beach last branch, and instead just laid in my hospital bed until midnight of the 26th... I'd disappear forever. In all branches. Is that right?
Yes. You would no longer exist in any branch, since the point when the time cycle began.
"So in all possible worlds, on the 11th, Mellie Walsh would disappear. It would be kind of like what happened with you," I say to Camden. "Although, you technically escaped it."
It's then that I think of something that doesn't match up with what the Noctiluca is telling me.
"My father said that he got infected early into the branches of Holland's deal," I say. "But he's still alive. How could that be?"
Not correct. That human perished after the branch you just left, from infection.
I die without losing consciousness. All sensations are rushed out of me and I stand there, totally disconnected like I'm watching a movie.
I don't know what you mean. Could you please repeat that?
The human you refer to no longer exists, after the origin point of the branches. It suffered the fate you would have, had you not come here.
This is idiotic. Who spoke to me in the hospital, then?
That was the last branch before the human perished. The survival of the human your refer to was unusually long. Most infected humans do not live after roughly five complete branches. We do not know why that one was different.
"You're not making sense," I say, anger clouding other feelings. "What human? Do you mean my father? Becker Walsh?"
Yes. That human perished and does not appear in any branch, after the origin of the cycle.
"What kind of silly nonsense is this thing telling me?" I say, looking to Camden with a smile. "My dad is dead? Gone?"
Camden stares, face still and fear mounting for some reason.
"No," I say. "Stop it. My father is not dead."
An infected human being can't survive the progress of time. The human eventually perishes, no longer existing in time after the point where the branch began.
"Perish, perish, perish!" I shout. "Is that all you know how to say? Alright, fine! Let's just say that he perished the instant I went through your portal. He's just going to be back when I start the next branch, right?"
No. That human has perished and will not exist in any branch, after the origin point of the cycle.
"Oh my god, this is so repetitive!" I stumble. It suddenly feels like we're in a storm, though the ocean hasn't changed. My knees clack together and I fall onto them. "Dad?" I can't stop laughing. There's a cockroach running up and down my throat and it tickles. I bite down on a finger and break it in two places, but the laughter still won't stop.
"Mellie!" Camden says, grabbing me from behind. "Stop it, please! Don't hurt yourself!"
He has to pry my jaws open before my finger gets ripped free of my fist.
"Ah..." My jaw clicks wider than it should go as I tilt my face to the moon and laugh even more. Lungs empty, I draw in another breath and then I shriek until my ears pop.
Camden's hands are all over me to try and hold me still. I want to cut these vines off and get away from here. Where doesn't matter. The fact that there is nowhere doesn't matter. But he's too strong. I jerk and knock his teeth by throwing my head back. I fight until my common sense tells me I'm hurting him.
"Get off of me!" I scream, reaching back and clawing his face. "I need to see Daddy!"
"Please, calm down! Just breathe!"
Every salty breath is like chlorine gas now, but I do it. I'm not feeling any different. This eruption going through my chest is not going away. I'm not taking in any information. I don't know what's going on.
Something happened and I went a little out of control, that's all. What was it again? Ah, best not to consider it right now. I'm in a blessed moment where my psyche will allow me to forget it.
When I've gone completely limp, I start trying to gradually stand up, and Camden helps me, hands pulling from under my arms. I'm on my feet.
It feels nice out here.
That human perished. You will also perish if you do not make a deal by the next branch's end.
I'm enveloped in a full-body hydraulic pressure and intense, shocking cold. I dove into the water off the bow and now I'm swimming as fast and hard as I can down, straight down.
My Daddy is gone.
He was suffering while I obsessed over myself, for who knows how long before any of this started.
All those tender moments with him. The breakfasts, the phone calls, consoling me as I wondered what was happening to me, he bit his tongue and hid the truth out of fear.
I sob into the water, bubbles tickling along my upside-down form.
I dove off the edge of the boat and now pressure is building around me, making my ears hurt and the swimming more difficult.
When Dad and I talked over the phone three branches ago, in the mental hospital, he was dealing with the same things that I was. He must have wanted to open up and say something, just like I did, but knew better.
He must have been dying. He literally was.
And he only decided to tell the truth right before he perished forever.
He trusted me, thought for sure I had a way to save us all.
And I just killed him.
My undying body is emptied of all strength. I look up and see a pin of light from the moon. My lungs are turning inside out. I want to breathe in so badly that I try to do it with my stomach, sucking in water and choking more thoroughly.
The immediate feelings take over in place of my grief. But it's okay. It's fine. I can't die. I just have to pass out and my healing form will float up to the surface. Camden will find me and bring me back into the water.
Wait, I'm not floating upward now, because my lungs are empty. In fact, given that water is denser the further down you go, this might be a point where the pressure wants to keep me down.
I'm sinking, and I'll never have any way of swimming back up.
This is my new fate. Instead of dying and no longer existing, I've idiotically chosen a much worse alternative. I'll stay down here, cold, crushed, drowning, and alone, dying and coming back, never feeling relief until the end of time, in a world where time does not end.
I'll never take in a breath again.
I awaken colder than I was in the water, and with the active rustle of waves at my ears, curiously above my head. I'm on the boat, in the cabin. Camden sits over me, as I lay on the textured fake leather of the cushions.
"Hey." He takes my hand, and I can tell that the finger I bit has magically healed. "Don't scare me like that. I nearly lost you."
"Dive in after you? Of course. You're one strong swimmer when you want to be, though. Or maybe my body is more buoyant."
"That must have been really painful," I say, strength returning at an unnatural rate as I sit up. He leans over me and sets a hand on my shoulder.
"Stay. You may be immortal here, but you still need to rest if you're hurt."
"I guess I have the time," I say with a smirk.
He keeps looking into my eyes with an unusually stoic face. Then he brings himself closer over me, inches from my mouth.
"Camden, we can't."
He stops. I say more, feeling slightly afraid.
"I loved you and still do. But my feelings have changed and I'm with Sam. I can't just go back on that. Nor do I want to."
"Can we at least kiss?" he asks. "You don't know how badly I've missed you, Lee."
"It's not a good idea."
He sighs and then backs off of me. "I know. I just had to try regardless. Hopefully, you can understand."
"Were I in your position, I definitely would try. I'm not ashamed to admit that."
I get into a sitting position and we just ride the light sways of the boat's inner chamber for a good five minutes. Then I break the silence with a sigh. My heart was beating like mad there, and I'm not as cold after that.
"Your father was an incredible man."
Oh, right. That was why I jumped in. Because he's gone.
I can't think about that right now. If I try to address it, I really will lose everything that I am.
"Camden," I say, changing the subject. "Why didn't the Noctiluca reach out to you here, like it did with me?"
"Actually, it did," he says. "But it told me the same thing it told you. If you want to be freed from an ended branch, you have to make a deal. You'll have to make deals like that to keep living 'normally'. You'll never die unless you stop feeding the Noctiluca. That deal is the only way out of here, and I'm not doing it."
Camden is an infected target, like me, and his time cycle wasn't fully complete when he escaped to the other side of a branch. In this place where nothing changes, where time doesn't move, we're both safe from ever dying. Even if we're infected. Even if we want to, and try with all we've got. There is no dying for him, ever again.
Unless he makes a deal. Then he'll live on. In fact, he'll get to go to other times and places that would be impossible otherwise. He'll live a life that I'm sure many people only experience piecemeal in their dreams.
That is exactly why the Noctiluca sent me here. It wants to make a deal. That is more productive than just absorbing me for good like it did with my father. It's planting a kernel of corn instead of eating it.
"I know what you're thinking," Camden says. "I've already talked to the Noctiluca. Don't do the deal."
"—Let's say you do it," he says. "It doesn't change the fact that you're infected. So you agree to go to, say, four years in the past and kill some sex trafficker or whatever and make him a target until he disappears for good. When you're done, you can't just go back to your own time. In that time, you're still infected. That doesn't change. Eventually, you'll have to earn more time to spend in your own life, by doing another cycle. And another. Etcetera."
I had been imagining that if I took the deal, then did to someone else, who deserved it, what Holland has done to me or to Camden until they were gone for good, that I could return to my old life without a problem. But clearly it isn't that simple.
"Even so..." I sigh. "Surely this power could be used for good. Maybe it's not so bad, then."
"Mellie, I've had a lot of time to myself, so I've thought about this," he says. "Every cycle you do, there's a risk of infecting other people. Making them go through all of this."
I hadn't thought of that. He says more.
"You'll never be able to proceed with your regular life, Mellie," he says. "It will always be interrupted by you doing exactly what Holland has done to us. Do you think I'd be here if that was an option for me?"
"So that's the real reason why you're staying here," I say. "You're not actually trapped."
He gives me a furious look. "You think this isn't trapped? I would never hurt people, or even risk it, to get out of this world. Even if I stay alone forever, I can be proud of myself."
This is the kind of man he is. Gallant like Sam, but prideful like Drew. Those traits, when mixed together, have doomed him to an unending fate, and I'm not sure I can free him.
"Do you think..." I start.
"Do you think that Holland went through the same thing we did?"
He goes silent for a while, tapping a bare foot on the floor. "I could see it."
Camden reached this place, created it by escaping, like how Sam and I tried to escape one time, only we were caught. Here, he no longer poses any value.
"Hey, why doesn't Holland just approach the Noctiluca and ask it to teleport him to you, like it did with me?"
"I'm still not really clear on what this stuff feeds on, precisely," he tells me. "But I think that in its' perspective, doing that would spoil the meal."
"Or, it feels like one of us will eventually make a deal if it waits us out."
My clothes are dry now. My body persists in a healthy state of survival, which means that even though I feel very cold, it's because of the water on my hot skin. Eventually, my body self-dries through that consistent heat.
We're in the cabin, still. Camden has taken a table, scored a rough checkerboard with scratches and burn marks, and created a chess set out of carved pieces of floating debris he'd occasionally find on the water. Now he's thrilled to have somebody to play with. Poor guy.
I pick up a rook and study its intricate, grooved crown. It appears to be made out of driftwood. The other one, on my left, was carved out of some sort of wax. It smells like vanilla.
"That one I made from some candles in a sealed metal box," he says. "Yep, it's always a trip, finding something like that. Makes me wonder. If you really did swim and sink all the way down, would you find the world we know, just waiting down there?"
"Who shall go first, then?" I say since I don't want to think about the bottom of the ocean.
"Well, you're the newcomer," he says with a smile. "Please, go ahead. You have—" he stops himself. "No, forget I said anything. Your turn."
I take the second pawn from the right, which is part of a railing spike or something, and move it one space forward. I'm not good at chess at all. I know how to play, and the fancy moves, like castling and en passant, but I have no knowledge of the strategies.
As we play, I realize that he's confident in every move. The first piece he reaches out to ends up being the one he moves, every time, although he does think it through for several seconds. Maybe he played both sides a lot. I remember an old cartoon where a guy in prison did that.
"So," I say, taking a pawn with my wax rook. "You get a lot of stuff on the surface?"
"Oh yeah. Wooden boards, basketballs, empty glass bottles that happened to be sealed up. I've gotten some crazy ideas before," he says. "Like collecting up enough stuff to build a submarine or some type of Waterworld construct. It'd definitely be nice to walk on something other than this boat."
He's kicking my ass. He never pulled punches at games before all of this, either. Eventually, he gets me into an effortless checkmate.
"Well," I say, putting my pieces back on my side. "You certainly know your moves."
"Want to play more? I'm sure you'll get better."
"No, that's okay."
"I'll teach you how I won. The strategies. I think it'll be more fun once we're at similar skill levels."
I stare out from the stern by the prop. My jeans are bunched up at the knees and my feet are perched on the swim-step, rhythmically brushed by the tiny waves of this calm sea.
"Hey," he says.
I look back and put on a welcoming face. "Oh, hey."
He's holding something. A plastic box, I think.
"I once found this floating around out here," he says. "I was saving it for a really bad day, so to speak. I say let's crack into it now instead."
He hands it to me, a slight quiver in his hands. This is something he's held onto for a long time, and accidentally dropping whatever's inside into those black depths would crush him. Carefully, and standing back in the boat properly, I pop the lid and yawn it open.
It's a collection of decorative cookies. There are shortbreads, gingerbreads, chocolate chip, all sorts mixed together. Each one has its own crinkly plastic wrapping to preserve it, even though I bet they'd stay exactly as they are in this world even without them. They're all cut like stars and given icing that makes them look like snowflakes, except for others in the shape of Christmas trees. Must be a winter holiday theme.
"You saved this?" I ask.
"Yep. Why don't we enjoy it together?"
Eyes watering, I nod. The guilt is there, but it's what he wants to do. I open up the wrapping on a snowflake gingerbread cookie and bite into its soft, spicy grittiness. I love the coarse brown sugar sprinkled over the top.
"Yeah, you can keep the stinkers," he says with a chuckle. "I'll be taking the chocolate chips—"
"—No, gimme!" I say, grabbing for one. He laughs and we struggle over it, then concede and do halfsies. The chips are still moist and melt easily with the more tender and neutral dough around them.
After we're feeling a bit too edgy from the sugar, we sleepily collapse in the cabin again, looking at each other.
"The only way out of here," I think aloud, "is to inflict suffering onto others, removing some people from history completely and possibly infecting them with the degenerative disease of branch memory. Holland is just a human who went through that and made the opposite choice from you. I'm fairly certain of that. Which means there are others, working through time, establishing cycles."
"When you think about it, it's all just one big four-dimensional organism, this Noctiluca," I say.
"Fourth or fifth, but let's not split hairs."
"So if you get infected, there's basically three options: make a deal and torture people in branches, disappear completely, or run away and live completely alone as the last remaining person in your world."
"Yeah," he says, looking annoyed. "In theory."
"What do you mean?"
"The third option isn't really accurate. I'm not completely alone. You came here."
The cookies suddenly weigh down in my gut, like I just ate cement and now it's hardening. I get up and walk out to the bow.
"Noctiluca," I say, and the vortex appears in the water. "You hear me?"
"There are other people like us, right? People who make deals, get infected and all that? Other time cycles going on?"
Yes. All around your world.
"Can you let me contact them?"
This is not a telephone. Do not interfere with other time cycles and the humans involved.
"Hmph. A four or fifth-dimensional algae with attitude, I see."
"But would you ever send others here, like you did with her?" Camden asks from behind me. I hadn't realized that he followed.
No. Not to this branch.
"You can't seriously consider staying," I tell him. The balloon's been popped now.
"And you can't seriously consider leaving."
"Camden... what is there for you here?"
I sigh. "This isn't a full life. And I'm not your little brown beauty anymore. You have to move on and face what's happened to you, and to me. We're together now and that means we can beat this. I bet this sort of teamwork has never happened before."
"At the end of your next branch, you'll die," he says. "I'm just as close. I will, too. The only way out from there is to make a deal. You can't just walk up to the beach and go back in here five minutes before it happens. I asked already. So why would you force that ultimatum on yourself?"
"We are already in an ultimatum. There's no escaping that. All you're doing is giving up instead of making the scarier choice."
"What's the matter with just staying with me? Your father is lost now, so you don't have to grow up in a world where everyone else in your family grieves for him."
"There may be ways around it. I might be able to see him again."
"The cost would be too high."
I punch him in the face and he stumbles back, gasping and holding his bloodied nostrils.
"No cost is too high!" I shout. "Not for him!" After a pause, I calm down.
"Please just come back to the cabin with me," he says. "You can have all the cookies."
"I'll teach you to play chess. You'll become a master. We'll have amazing games that pass the time. When we get bored, we can make new games, add new pieces."
"I can love you better than Sam ever could. You would have me for every moment of our lives. I would do absolutely anything to please you. Eventually, you'd forget all about him. You know it's true."
I shake my head.
"We can go fishing for debris and build things. Search for a place that might be high enough to live on, like the top of a mountain. This world isn't completely empty, Lee! Not with you here. I could be trapped at the bottom of that ocean and I wouldn't mind, if you were there."
I shake my head.
"Please, for fuck's sake! Can't you just give it a shot for a little while?"
I repeat the motion. "It's not what I want. And it shouldn't be what you want, either."
"Please." He gets on his knees. "I don't want to disappear forever. I don't want you to disappear. And I don't want either of us to become like Holland."
"We may have not seen all the possibilities here," I tell him.
"I don't get it. You know: right now, all the other people you infected may as well be asleep, dreaming nothing. It's not like they're consciously waiting for you. They're between branches."
"So, in other words, they're dead. If I stay here, I'm accepting their deaths."
"Is that so bad? Why risk more death and suffering instead?"
"Because I love Sam!" I tell him. "He's the bravest man I know, and I can't just leave things unsolved. I will form a life with Sam Edwards, whatever it takes."
When had it happened? For the longest time, I considered Camden the bravest person I knew. But lately, haven't I been calling Sam the same?
He stays on his knees, head down. "To think that such a lucky man was originally me."
"Come back with me, into one last branch," I say. "We don't have to make the deal immediately, just by the end. Maybe we could figure something out before then."
He takes his time getting back to his feet and then meets my eyes.
"You have something powerful with Sam," he says. "I can tell. So don't waste it."
"Camden, you're a fucking idiot!" I scream as he turns away. That gets him to stop. "You know what's going to happen if you stay here and I leave. You're going to wish you had gone with me, but it'll be too late."
He turns, but only until he's looking at me askance, with one eye and his sharky nose.
"Isn't that right?" I say, looking back to the vortex. "If he doesn't jump in with me, then the last branch starts without him."
Correct. Jumping in afterward would only allow him to enter a new branch in his own time cycle.
"If you love me," I tell him, "then see this through with me, until the end. That's what love is, dude."
He cracks up. "You know, part of me wants to just pin you down and tie you up. But I realize that I don't have it in me. I'm not truly committed enough to stop you." He stands straight at me and leans over to look at the vortex. "So I guess I have only one other choice."
"It's not that you aren't committed," I tell him. "It's that you're a peaceful person, and you could never imagine becoming like Holland. That's why you won't use force on me, even if it means being alone in an empty ocean, forever. That's the real you." I walk up and hug him. "That kindness is wasted here."
I feel him nod his chin against my shoulder. When I step back and take his hand, leading him to the point of the bow, he begrudgingly lets me pull him there.
"When you're in the branch," I tell him, "come to my house if you can. We'll convene there. Otherwise, I'll find you."
The vortex is ready, just a short fall below us. I'm suddenly afraid of Camden pushing me in alone, but fortunately, he's never been a deceptive sort of guy. We fall in together, hand in hand.