I wake up, but it's a vague and indistinct thing, compared to before. It doesn't surprise me, though. I'm in the next branch, and just like how it will always be, now, Holland can get to me before I become conscious on the 11th and then do whatever he wants to hinder me. None of us have the power to stop him. He wakes up earlier in the branch.
Wait. Something is really off now. My whole body is wracked with the worst pain I've ever felt before. Pain, and something else, a nothingness similar to whenever I'm fully dissolved by the Noctiluca. Even breathing hurts in a more up-front way than through my lungs. Then I realize that there's something in my... genital area. I've been fitted with a urinary catheter.
I try to speak, but it only leads to a buried scream. My tongue is missing. I feel permanently choked by a staunched, stitched piece of meat in my unusually empty mouth. It's what remains of the muscle that controls speech. You fucking bastard Holland—
I can't open my eyes.
They're not there. I don't even have the darkness of shut eyelids to greet me.
Sweat erupts and trails in jagged directions from the goosebumps on my flesh. But I don't feel them on my arms or legs. They're gone too. I think that I feel them, a slippery fire in my fingers, but then it's gone, and I'm not able to control them. There is no kicking for my feet, no reaching and grasping for my fingers. My arms are cut off at the elbow and my legs are amputated at the knee. In the little caps of bandages over each limb, it feels even... professionally done.
I smell my own stench, an unwashed body mixed among pungent chemicals. Moving a little left and right on my small bed, I realize that this must be a hospital. It helps that I can hear beeping and the hum of electric machines from multiple directions.
Then I hear a voice. Unmistakable. Dad.
He's at my left side. I turn to stone, unable to respond. It might seem stupid, but I feel like I've been caught doing something wrong.
Although his voice is on the verge of shearing in half, it's fairly calm. He didn't just arrive here. He's not too far above my head and close by. I bet he's seated in a chair, and I'm proved more or less right when I hear a creak from his direction.
He lays his arm at the end of my pillow, and then I feel something at my cheek. It's his fingers, including the little hairs between the knuckles and the rough, short nail. He's stroking my cheek, tenderly.
He's experiencing this. The result of acts committed against his daughter that defy comprehension.
I'm so sorry, Daddy. You don't deserve to see this.
I guess I still have tear ducts, because water flows from where they should be, moistening the bandaged patches I apparently have over my eyes.
"Oh, baby..." Warmth. Skin contact at the left side of my forehead with something solid and round. He's touching his forehead to me. His voice is much closer now, safely audible despite him whispering quieter than I've ever heard him. "You were attacked. They did this to you. The police found you in a warehouse and saved you in time."
I stay blanketed in the voice, not thinking of anything.
"You're probably wondering why I'm saying that to you," he says. "Something you should already know, right at this very moment, on the morning of May 11th. I'm speaking as if you've forgotten everything up until now, or rather, that you've only just now woken up into this reality."
What are you saying? Don't tell me...
"Mellie, I'm like you," he says. "I remember. I've remembered for what must be 100 times." He lets out a dry, depressed cackle. "I'm more sorry than I could ever express, my beautiful daughter."
Dad, what is this? I'm scared. Just tell me what's going on!
"I was killed," he says. "Such a long time ago, and yet technically it was today. It was some guy, one I didn't see after that. But I fought back, as hard as I could, and I got some of his blood on me. It had this strange glow."
My father... has been through this since long before even I was. But Holland only found out about the Noctiluca Touched from me and my behavior. Was Dad more careful? Did he not act out of the ordinary?
"I have relived these two weeks over and over and over. I never stopped caring, never stopped wondering what it all meant. I didn't want to believe that I was insane. It had to be something more. But I was alone. For some reason, every two weeks was slightly different, or sometimes really different. But I was never killed beyond that first time. I wasn't involved, it seemed, in what was going on. Things just happened and I knew better than to reveal that I could remember the past. Trying didn't fix anything, in the beginning. I couldn't understand, but it seemed like, somehow, everything that was happening revolved around you. So I tried to be supportive and aware of what might happen, without revealing that I knew. It's the strangest thing, honey, like another sense. Something just told me, I was too risky to expose what I was going through. I was not meant to get that blood on me, not meant to maintain my memories of this looping time."
He was so good at sticking to a routine. Those morning menu tasting breakfasts, the words and actions... those stayed unusually similar not because he was subject to the looping of time, but because he wanted them to.
I lean my head harder into Dad's, gritting my teeth and kissing his jawline.
"Sometimes the same things happened, and I could predict what kind of two weeks awaited you. So I tried to make it easier, but nothing worked. I knew that RV was bad news, but warning you and calling the police were the brashest things I could try. I got Sam to watch after you in the loops where you were... I'm sorry, honey. I couldn't stop it every time. Sometimes things happened that will haunt me forever."
My father has been suffering all along.
How many times did he accept the end of a branch, and the darkness and flooding of the world leading up to an instant awakening, back on the 11th, like it had all been a dream?
How many times has he let his daughter go to the Dance, where everything seemed happy and promising? How many times has he taken a photo of his daughter on a dapper young man's arm and watched them back out of the parking lot, toward their demise?
How many times have you supported my decisions and comforted me, saying the future would be better when you knew that there was no future?
When Holland was controlling me, you knew everything. But you couldn't fight it, or who knows what else he'd do to us? He's had his vines ensnared around this family. We're puppets for his amusement.
If only I had confided in you from the beginning. Why couldn't I put my pride away? What did it matter if I had been institutionalized before? I knew you'd believe me, deep down. I was just too cowardly to risk it. Pathetic.
"But honey, for the past few loops, things have been very unusual. I've seen it in your eyes, too. At first, I wasn't sure. But now I am. You remember, like me. You got the blood on you. And judging by what's happened, you tried to stand against it."
Tears spilling down the side of my face, I nod against him.
"I am the lowest form a father can take." Despite my manically shaking my head, he keeps talking. "I tried to convince myself that you would keep resetting like everyone else. I wanted to believe I was in some form of purgatory afterlife. I couldn't accept the idea, though, that just because your memories were lost and the damage was undone, that anything could be done to you. That isn't right. And even so, I let it happen and didn't expose myself by telling anyone, not even you. But no more. I don't know who's doing this, or what it is, or why it's happening. But we can both at least know that we're not alone. I love you, Mellie, so much."
We stay that way for a long time.
After a while, I hear Dad stand up from his chair. Visitors.
"Sam?" he says. I hear many feet moving around my bed, slowly. Gasps and hisses of sympathetic pain. Sue is turned away and sobbing into a man's chest, probably Drew's. I'm getting used to figuring things out without being able to see. "What's going on, here? Why are all of you visiting?"
"Mr. Walsh," Sam says, "Mellie is... connected to us in a special way. We're comrades, you might say."
"Wait, did you all get the blood on you as well?"
There's a long silence until Sam finally says. "...you mean... the glowing blood?"
"We have. But how..."
It's a long conversation, but once it's over, the group is completely caught up. Dad knows what I've been through and what they've been through, and his situation is shared amongst them.
"So, you called this thing Holland, huh?" Dad says near what I think is the window. It's warmer on that side of the room. "Doesn't ring a bell."
"I don't think that name has any significance," Sam says. No longer shackled to ordinary eyes, my mind creates insanely vivid images of him talking, and the others around him. Living paintings. "It was just a name that Mellie and he agreed upon."
Louise was conscious while Holland was controlling her, so she recounted what Holland said to me in the hotel room last branch. Apparently, this is nearly over, and not in a good way. That corresponds well with Holland's extreme behavior, too.
"What are we going to do?" Cassie asks, in a frail tone I've never heard before. This is pretty terrible of a foot to land on as the leader of this group. Seeing me limbless and completely ruined in a hospital bed is not good for morale, and I'm sure that was an additional inspiration behind doing this. The message from Holland is simple: 'I know you're working against me, and that you have memories of past branches, and I don't care.'
I realize that I haven't heard Louise say much in a while. I just hear the constant, faint flutter of a fan in the corner.
"Ms. Urbank?" Dad asks. I think he's appealing to the other parent in the room. "Do you have any ideas?"
She stands up all of a sudden and goes to my side. "You brave girl... I did what you said. I don't blame myself." She drops to her knees. "Do you want some water?"
I'm thirsty, so I nod and try to smile. A straw taps between my lips and I suck in some cold, slightly chlorinated water.
"We need to know what Mellie's thinking right now," Sue says. "We got into this with her as our leader. That shouldn't change."
"We have this system we can use to talk," Drew says. "It's a little board with the letters of the alphabet, in order of most used to least. If you want to say something, we'll do one letter at a time. I'll call them out, and you just nod if that's the letter you want, Lee, okay? It starts with E and goes down the list. Are you ready?"
I nod. I've been thinking about all of this just like they have, and at this point, I only see one solution.
"Okay, let's start. E, T—" I nod. "Okay, T. Next letter: E, T, A—Okay, T A. Next letter: E, T, A, O, I..."
Sneaking me out of the hospital when my condition is barely stable, and the press smells a story, is an insane long-shot to attempt, and to trust me on. Fortunately, everyone believes that I have an idea that is worth it. Hopefully, they're right.
They manage to steal a wheelchair, fit me into it late at night when the shifts are thin, and get me into a car, driving to the beach. The wheelchair is folded up in the car and I'm kept in the back seat. Sam keeps a hand at my shoulder, gently stroking where it meets my neck.
Sitting in a car without arms or legs is so dehumanizing that I temporarily forget who I am and what I'm doing. I've never felt so helpless and pitiful in my life.
I intend to make Holland pay for it.
"We're here," Sam says. I feel the car pull into a stop, at the side of a road, shifting a little downward on the right. I'm brought back to the first time we came here. Somehow I know, just from the sensations now and leading up to it.
They've taken me to the beach. I knew they'd get it right.
They can't really wheel me through the sand, so Dad carries me on his back as the group walks up the trail of sand and leaves and to the roaring decline of the beach. The precarious balancing takes me back over a decade when I was little and asked this of him. Now it's more like a desperate procession of humans who are lost halfway into a terrible game.
I don't know if my idea is going to work. I'm no longer operating on logic, here, not really.
We are humble victims, as we are now. There is no stopping someone if they are guaranteed to be able to hurt you before you're even in control of your body. There is no preventing Holland from doing to the others what he's done to me. So, there is only one final possibility, I think. We have to appeal to the Noctiluca.
"My god," Dad whispers, as I feel a brightness that should be impossible to detect.
"There is Noctiluca here," Sam says. "Do you want to be brought closer?" I nod. He takes me from my father's shoulders and holds me how he did when he carried me out of the Dance, post-wedding style. I smile, but I know he's risking a lot of suffering. They all bought wader boots to help guard against the Noctiluca, but there could still be a splashing wave that reaches above that.
Your steps soothe my ears, Sam. I'm blessed to have you in my life.
"Mellie," Sam says in my ear. "Something's different this time. There's a... vortex, in the water. It looks like it goes somewhere... completely different. Are you sure you want to try this?"
I nod, pursing my lips.
He laughs. "Very well. I have faith in you."
He kisses me for a long time, and then I'm lowered into a spinning, destructive storm.