Sam and I are showering together. The second Sam woke up and realized his plan was a success, he jumped out of bed, changed, and went straight to my house, so he hadn't had one yet. Dad had to get a little hint of possible abuse in order to accept Sam's sudden visit, but he's probably a bit confused right now even with that as a theory. He might come up and find me showering with a boy, but we're adults, it's not his business, and we need to save on time.
"First thing's first," I tell him, "I like your plan, nearly all of it. But there's one part I'm not set on."
"You mean spilling Holland's blood on other people?" he asks. "Getting them involved in this loop?"
I nod. "I understand that, for our sake, we need help. And Holland's victims are helplessly being murdered, tortured, exploited, over and over. Does the fact that they don't remember really make it okay?"
"Not to me," Sam says. "That's why I think they should be empowered to remember, and to do something about it, like we are."
So what's happened to us is empowering. What an incredible optimist.
"I agree." I turn to him. "But only the repeat victims. And we need to be careful, go about it gradually."
"Let's stay positive and plan out who we do first, then. I think it should be your father."
"He's an extremely strong and capable man. Clever and covert, as well."
I suppose that's true. He did go behind my back to have Sam look after me in that one branch, after all. But it would be such a shock to him. When I awoke on this morning for the second time, it was like constantly feeling the tremors of a shy earthquake. Even standing still, nothing was stable, and my theories on what was going on hardly eased the anxiety.
Then again, Dad won't be alone. He'll have us.
"Ideally," I say, rinsing lavender shampoo out of my hair, "we tell Dad everything that's going on. Leave a note or something, on the night of the Dance, maybe. We'll have to sneak some blood in his food beforehand, or something. Then, he'll wake up with us in the next branch, but he won't be drifting without a rope like I was."
"Well thought out," Sam says.
It's a good thing Sam has short hair. After a few minutes since drying off and redressing, you can hardly tell he was in the shower. Once we're in the clear for that, we go into the hallway and down the stairs together.
"Your father invited me to taste test this new menu of his," Sam says.
"Good. Your Englishman palate will serve as a good counter to mine."
"Morning," Dad says, checking a pot. "Last dish is about done. You two ready?"
We look at each other and smile.
If there's one mistake we could make that would ruin our plans, it's staying together too much and acting like we're both in on what's happening. If we go around investigating people together, and Holland sees, he could figure it out.
Sam, however, gets a brilliant idea. I'm going to visit him at his house after school and stay with him for a while. It seems like Holland is good at keeping watch on me. If he happens to be following me or posing as anyone who sees us, such as one of Sam's parents, it will look like I'm catching him up on everything all over again, begging him to believe me. Just in case, we'll even have a little fight where he doubts me. From there, we should have a decent cover, and even if we go places together afterward, Holland could fall for it.
But, for now, school awaits. Sam drove to my house, so he's fine with driving me to school. It's a tad bit suspicious, but it would look worse if he drove away without offering me a ride. There's always a good chance one of our neighbors across the street is whoever Holland's playing as this round.
"I was just wondering something," Sam says, as he pulls out of the driveway and accelerates past the RV. "What happens if I die before you do?"
"Well, when I die, the next branch rolls in, that's a fair thing to consider a constant. But you... maybe you just stay asleep, in a sense, until it's time for the next branch to happen? Weird to think of it as the 'time' for the next branch."
"Well, let's be careful and hope we never have to test that theory."
We walk together out of the bus and parking area and through the foggy courtyard to class. Once up the second flight of stairs to the hallways, Sam and I are intercepted by Cassie, wearing acid-washed designer jeans and a kimono-style shirt with a cute pink obi, one of those broad tied belts worn above the navel.
"Hello, Sam," Cassie says with girlish energy. She has nothing to say to me.
"Cassie," he says, like acknowledging inclement weather.
"I love your shirt!" I say. Not only is that true, but it throws her off her game and she's forced to pay attention to me.
"Thank you, Mellie, is it? I've seen ones in your size too at the store I went to. You should check it out."
"Oh, I couldn't pull off something like that. I'm more of a plain Jane type when it comes to clothes."
"I guess," she says, smiling with those gaudy pink braces. Go fuck yourself. "Anyway, Sir Edwards." She crawls two fingers up in a saunter up the middle of his chest. Keep your whore fingers off of my man if you don't want to eat them. "You still haven't given me an answer to my... question."
"Cassie." Sam takes her hand in a firm, aggressive grip and pushes it away. "Read my lips and listen well. I do not want to go to the Dance with you. I never will. I admit that I'm old-fashioned, and I hate to be hard on a woman. But I have my limits, and your parents have pushed them."
"W-what? Wait, my parents?" She steps back and shades her mouth with one hand. "What do they have to do with this?"
"Stop playing dumb and don't waste your time anymore," he says. "If I do go to the Dance, it won't be with you. I won't be intimidated."
Cassie lowers her hand and stares at the concrete for a moment. As we start to walk past her, she draws her head back up with a smile and intense inhale through her nose that makes me jump. "That's fine. Have a good time." Then she's walking away, very quickly.
"That was pretty brave," I say.
"It doesn't feel good. Even if she's a spoiled brat who thinks I'm owed to her for some reason... rejection hurts."
"Did I ever mention she once attacked me and called me curry cunt in one of the branches?"
"Oh, come on, don't hold a grudge. You did tell me that part, and you got to spray her eyes with pure capsaicin, twice."
"Her family put pressure on yours, which all concentrated on you. I'm not forgiving that."
He looks concerned but gives up as we walk into the Biology III Honors room and get to our seats in the back. A couple of students are giving us looks because we came in together, but not too many.
I sloppily descend into my seat with a groan. "I can't believe I have to take the same test a third time. It's all rote memory at this point."
"In that case, could you help me study a bit?" he asks.
We get out his flash cards and I hold them up for him. Considering the grace and ease with which he answers, I'm surprised he acts like he needs to study. I guess good students stay on top of their knowledge.
It's after the definition of triglyceride that I look to the front and realize that Ms. Collins isn't there.
"I noticed that, too," he says, realizing where I'm looking. "It's possible she's missing in this branch as well."
"And that she could be Holland again."
Just as I say that, however, the rear door opens and an overweight man, warty and swarthy, walks confidently to the teacher's desk. "Mornin', guys. I'm Mr. Gamble. Ms. Collins isn't here for today."
"Yo Gamble," a gigantic student croaks from the middle of the window seats. "Can I come late to practice?"
"Not without a note," Gamble says, switching to what I suppose is a stern coach persona, only for an instant. I once heard that the lacrosse team's coach was a big guy so this might be him.
"What's wrong with Ms. Collins? Is she okay?" a nice girl named Emily asks. Back in the first branch, she was one of the students who walked out of class, crying, a few days into Collins being missing. She wears shaded prescription glasses because of sensitivity to light, but everyone thinks it makes her look cool.
"Not sure. I got asked to do this class because she's not here. Apparently, she never called in to say she'd be out today." He sighs. If I had to guess, I'd say he's the type of teacher who expects students to always raise their hand. "Anyway, time for your exam, right? Let's get it ready before announcements." He starts passing out the little scannable answer sheets. He wouldn't be foolish enough to hand out the actual test questions before starting time.
"Could this person be Holland?" Sam whispers to me.
"Maybe. I'll check the desk during lunch, see if I can find the kettle. But right now, my guess is that Holland is posing as Collins, or possibly Lye."
"I can check and see if Lye's around at lunch."
"No, play it cool and behave normally."
The exam is long and boring, mainly because I finish it in half the time. Hopefully, I don't get accused of cheating when I turn in a perfect score. It would be insanely conspicuous to try and observe the teacher during the actual test hours since that would definitely look like I'm watching for a chance to cheat. After class is over, however, as I turn in my test like everyone else funneling into the halls, I hang back and see him leave the room.
I go into the class and look all through the cupboards underneath Ms. Collins' desk, but I'm not seeing anything aside from some hot cocoa and a tin of... oh my god! Are those magic mushrooms?
Yep. They're shriveled up to keep longer, but I'd recognize those wrinkly, phallic mysteries of life anywhere now. This might be a terrible idea, but I decide to sneak them away in my backpack. I'm not interested in tripping myself, but I feel like I shouldn't ignore any possible tool or resource that comes my way. There's no telling what several dry grams of mushrooms could buy you in the right situation. What's she going to do, anyway, complain to the police that they've gone missing?
Actually, as I walk to the courtyard to get some lunch, I get to thinking: what if Ms. Collins, regardless of being controlled by Holland or not, always had this psychedelic free spirit side? Holland admitted her sexual predator behavior was him controlling her, I know that. But maybe Ms. Collins has always been very good at hiding the controversial parts of her life. Then again, the jar wasn't hidden very well at all.
Thinking about Collins, I also wonder about Lye. Since he wasn't our substitute, I'm not suspicious of him so far.
Back in the first branch, Holland absorbed and killed Collins to take the role of Lye as he became my teacher, to observe me and get me into the exhibit. Since that hasn't happened so far, I think it's fair to say that Holland is planning something different. He has good reason to expect that I'll behave differently from how I maybe have in previous attempts at doing whatever he's doing this time, so he shouldn't be too suspicious of me hanging around Sam more than usual. I hope. Multiple timelines really complicate things.
Anyway, after school, I ride over with Sam to my house, then drive after him to his place. Once there, I see that he's still in his car, getting out at the same time as me. Then we enter together.
Amid the barking of dogs, I'm hit with that same slightly unpleasant smell. It's not something you might consider bad or unsanitary, like the pet hair from the crated dogs or any kind of mold. More like a clumsy spray of lemon air freshener, an attempt to cover up other odors. All of a sudden, I hear a refrigerator door slam shut, and before I know it I'm holding onto Sam's arm. Pathetic. You have faced many things, Mellie Walsh.
But my nerves are taut all the same. Sam's parents bring out this bubbling mix of justified anger, disgust, and a desire to impress my boyfriend's family that really shouldn't be there. But I know that Sam loves his parents, even after everything. He drove to their house to try and save them, in utter futility, after I convinced him to leave them behind and live for himself.
"Well, don't just fucking stand around," a thundering male voice says, preluding to Sam's brawny, unshaven father walking out into the hallway. The second he sees me, he stops and completely changes his tune. "Oh, hello, little miss. You a friend of Sam's?"
"Uh, yeah. I'm Mellie."
"Oh, right. I heard about you from my son. Thinks the world of you. I'm Arnold."
"Nice to meet you," I say, meaning the opposite.
"My wife's a bit busy right now with work," Arnold says. "You kids have anything planned?"
"I'm going to cut my wood for today," Sam says in a dead tone. "Mellie is just hanging out."
"Well, don't work yourself too hard." Arnold walks off into the living room and I hear a TV turn on. Sam stops gritting his teeth and I closely trail him through the kitchen and past the sliding glass door. Passing through that house made it seem like an intimidating border check. Now that we're back to walking on grass and breathing humid, smoky air from somebody's barbecue, I start to relax.
This moment is meant to be perceived as me telling Sam what's what all over again, so we throw in a little play-acting, but it soon turns into me genuinely helping. I move logs into place for him and take the cut pieces aside, bringing them together into piles to tie together with string. He has spare gloves for me so I won't get splinters, but within thirty minutes my thighs, back, and arms are all sore. I can't imagine the strain you'd have to go through to get Sam's level of endurance, to just keep raising a seven-pound splitter axe up and slamming it down, over and over, wrenching it free of the stump occasionally.
Once I get tired, I move to water duty, venturing back into the kitchen to get him an icy glass for both of us, and refilling it a few times. Going back inside every time sets my chest on fire and my jaw tight enough to pop, but the TV remains a source of constant, muffled sound and I don't encounter Sam's father again.
"So, tell me," he says, after gasping in relief from downing half of his drink, "how was I?"
"How were you..."
"In the woods." He motions back there with his head. "Was I gentle? Did you enjoy it?"
I grin. "Despite several drawbacks that weren't your fault, it was incredible. You did great, don't worry about that."
"It's an oddly comforting thing for a man," he says. "Knowing with some certainty that in his first encounter, he will indeed know what he's doing."
"You know what guys are way too focused on?" I remark. "Knowing what they're doing. Even if you didn't know certain things, and I had to ask you to do something differently, I wouldn't care. That would be kind of fun and cute. What really matters is being in the moment, and back then, there was no one else in the universe but us."
"Perhaps we could try it again, sometime..."
"It's not really comfortable. I think the heat of the moment made it worthwhile. You can't go wrong with a bed."
He shrugs. I'm not sure whether him not remembering is a good thing or not.
"Hey, look alive," Sam says, glancing behind me toward the house. "It's my parents."
Arnold and Jeanne are walking toward us, close together. I have a feeling they're united on something that they want. Maybe for me to leave, or for Sam to work even harder. Or both.
"Pardon us, Mellie," Arnold says. "I'm afraid Sam and I need to have a talk about something private."
"Oh, no problem," I say, not budging.
"That means it's best that you go home for today, dear," Jeanne says, her cocked smile waiting to see just how hard I push. She's about to be surprised.
"Oh, you mean right now? No thanks," I say, stepping close to Sam and wrapping a hand around his waist. "Sam and I are best friends, and anything important to him is important to me. I'm happy to help with any trouble."
While this does look romantic, it would be risky to outright profess to others that we're in love, because that brings continuity into things. If whoever Holland is right now happens to hear that, he'll wonder how Sam got publicly together with me again so quickly, and naturally wonder if perhaps, his feelings have not reset like everyone else's.
"Sam, this little filly is dangerous," Arnold says, crossing his arms. "I can see I misjudged her at first. She's the type to stand between a young man and his parents, to get what she wants."
"Depending on the parents, and on what the girl wants, that could be a very good trait," I say. I look at Sam. Although he's happy with what I'm doing, he's scared, just like I am. No, for him it's got to be far worse. But that only glues my feet in place, by his side. "For instance, Sam's 'parents' are dog-napping drug addicts who abuse and exploit their only child for petty personal gain. I, meanwhile, want him as far away from your toxic existence as possible."
"Sam!" Jeanne snarls and steps inches from my face. "Did you tell this brown slut?"
"Don't you worry, I had my ways of finding out. But your captive, I mean son, didn't betray your little crime ring."
"You know everything we do with dogs, honey?" Jeanne asks with a cackle in her throat. Her breath reeks, but I have no idea what from. Some chemical I've never experienced before. "Go ahead, tell me."
"You dog-nap high-value breeds and sell them for ransom to their owners," I fire back. "And the others are fighting breeds. It's obvious what scum of the earth take those."
"So you don't know the other thing." She steps back.
"What other thing?" I look at Sam, and my stomach drops when I see in his eyes that this is something he didn't mention to me. He left something out, and considering all that he was willing to confess, I'm not ready for what she says.
"The cheaper dogs don't just go to fighting breeds. We have some clients who like to make movies or hold parties for the bestiality crowd."
"You... parties? Here?"
I look at Sam, and he forces out a reply.
"It's happened a few times."
"So I'd be very careful about how you act around me, you little cunt," Jeanne said. "Or you just might find yourself chained up on all fours and attending our next one."
Sam, I'm sorry, but your parents are not redeemable. Just realize it and hurl your axe through their skulls. No, got to remain calm.
"I'll remember that colorful threat, in the off chance I choose to turn you in."
"Oh, so you're not going to do that?"
"I have no reason to. It would disrupt Sam's life, and I have other business. But if there's a problem with Sam, one I could help with, then I'll hear it and help if I can."
"In that case," Arnold says. "Let's just let her stay."
Jeanne looks back to him and then shrugs. "As long as she knows to watch her step."
"What's going on, then?" Sam asks.
"I got a call," Arnold says, "and apparently you brought poor Cassie to tears by brutally rejecting her. I didn't raise you to talk to women that way."
"The call," Jeanne seethes, "was to announce their lack of support to this family."
"So your legal parachute isn't coming because of what Sam did?" I ask. I refrain from commenting on the despicable nature of them even asking it of their child.
"That's not all, so shut your fucking mouth," Jeanne says. "They aren't just refusing to help us out, they're threatening to turn us in."
"What?" Sam says, dropping his splitter axe. "You can't be serious! It could expose their dealings with you, as well! Are they that set on me being with their daughter?"
"It would seem so," Arnold remarks. I'm beginning to think that despite everything, Sam took his speech patterns from his dad.
"Who were you talking to on the phone?" I ask. "Who are Cassie's parents?"
"You can look that up yourself. No reason to tell you," Jeanne says.
"Look," I say, hands out in a reluctant gesture of peace, "I'm only here for Sam's sake. I don't want things to get worse for him. Why don't you call and set up some kind of covert meeting, just with Sam and I? We can deal with it."
"Before you say that's ridiculous," Sam says, "she did figure out everything you two are doing, by herself. I didn't tell her."
His lie tips the scales. After looking at each other, Arnold sighs and turns to me, "We'll make a call and get a meeting, but we'll have to have a good pretext. Would Sam reconsidering be enough?"
"Yeah, I think so," I say. It'll be another lie, but it'll work.
"We'll do it now, then," he says. "Once it's done, Sam makes dinner and you get out of here, at least for tonight. Agreed?" He holds out his beefy hand. He must enjoy working out over actual work, because despite his muscles his hands aren't really calloused, like Sam's.
I take that hand, heart skipping as it starts to squeeze, but then that hydraulic grip stops a degree short of painful and we shake. He keeps his hand holding mine though, too hard to slip free. "There are a lot of ways to make money with dogs, Ms. Walsh. If you ever find yourself in a dire need for money, to the extent that your morals shift, I wouldn't mind taking on a helper."
"I'm sure that would make you feel more secure, turning me into an accomplice," I say. "For the sake of being civil, let's just say I'll think about it."
"Good." He lets go and Sam immediately takes my other hand and rushes off with me toward the gates and to the driveway.
"Mellie, you're the bravest human being in existence."
This time, I don't play modest and fight against that praise. "Are you going to be okay tonight?" The thought of leaving him here brings a furious ache, like a full-bodied migraine, but I can't be selfish. This is a delicate ruse we're pulling.
"Yeah. I'll be alright." He looks away with a frown after opening my car door. "Sorry, but I really do have to make dinner. If I don't after what's happened, they'll be furious."
Goddamn paramecia. I give him the best kiss I can, despite the shaking in my jaw, and head home, promising to text him constantly. He promises to reply back as much as he can, to prove he's alright.
Sam's parents do indeed set up a covert meeting for the next day, in the inner city. In fact, it's at some kind of art gallery, a place that feels familiar. I'm riding with Sam again.
"This is around where the world started flooding, in one branch," I say, looking out to the much brighter, fully detailed version of the concrete jungle.
"Despite everything," he says, "it's hard to believe something like that."
"I sure as hell don't want to believe it," I say, slowing down to ride the curve of the offramp. "Actually, I realize that's not how I feel."
"What do you mean?"
"For a while, I had to fight with the idea that maybe I was insane. Now I have someone else with me who can corroborate my experiences."
"A bit ironic, don't you think? Going to a mental institute again is what led to that assurance."
"I thought the same." I sigh as we wait at a stoplight. "But, you know, the fact that I can't fall back on insanity is also intimidating. If I'm crazy, I can give up and let other people take responsibility."
"But that's what made you afraid of it," Sam quickly replies. "You're an independent sort, Lee. You know this is ideal. We're not giving up and we're not deciding we're insane."
"Right." I smile. "But maybe we shouldn't declare our sanity right before we go hunting for parking spaces."
Fortunately, there's a lot nearby that doesn't tow or charge money, two blocks away. I suppose we aren't that deep into the city.
We walk together through the stodgy air, a mix of many kinds of edible and inedible oils all dispersed together. From the other side of the street, we see the gold letters lined up above the retracted glass walls of our destination:
Oil of Dreams, Water of Thoughts - Gallery
"Good thing 'Gallery' is tacked on at the end," Sam murmurs.
We walk under the roofed area, toward the front doors, standing rock ashtrays lining the place like gravestones. Then we're in, skin shocked by frigid, dry air, magically devoid of odor despite the number of smokers who must come here.
It's an attractively put together interior. Sandalwood floors in long beams contrast against crafted white walls that zigzag and form interesting maze avenues of paintings, all while still making it easy to look at each piece from multiple angles and distances. The lighting is a few shades above sleepy, which helps accentuate the soft lights directed on paintings, making their features pop out more. It's clear that the front area holds some of the more unique pieces, including some paintings on tripod easels, and a sculpture that's some sort of combination between mirror and kaleidoscope. That's pretty cool.
"My parents said we're meeting Cassie's mother," Sam whispers. "That we should go to the back and all the way left, to the corner."
"On we go, then."
We appear to be the only patrons of this gallery at the moment, leaving it uncomfortably silent, barring some chanting middle-eastern synth music on extremely low volume. Once we're all the way to the back of this fairly small area, we go left and pass white walls until we're at what seems to be a corner. That's when I stop and try to stay quiet.
The corner piece here... it's a charcoal sketch. My style is kind of fluid, so I can't be certain if it's something I could do myself. But what matters is not the style or the technique, which is immaculate, but the subject. I remember looking up these little creatures online before, and now I'm seeing a depiction of one up close, like looking into a microscope.
"What's the matter?" Sam asks.
"That's Noctiluca," I say. Curious, I study the label:
It looks impressive, but there's something more to it that I can't figure out. The shading looks a little blurry, in a curious way. I can't think of what tool was used to do that, but it's amazingly realistic, like an actual look through a microscope, where the center is sharpest and the edges are blurred.
Then Sam taps my shoulder, and I hear the footsteps that drew his attention. Coming the opposite way that we took to reach this corner is a woman in an extravagant purple kimono, her black hair tied in a bun that hangs at the nape of her neck. Her figure is phenomenal, and I catch Sam eying the two globes of good fortune at her chest.
"Greetings," the woman says, taking out a folding paper fan and cooling her face. "You wanted to meet me, and here I am."
Wait, this can't be who I think it is.
"You're... Louise Urbank, aren't you?" I ask.
She retracts her neck a bit, hiding her mouth behind the fan. "That's correct."
"You're Cassie's mom?"
"Who else would be here?"
"But... Cassie's last name is Urd."
"When I married, I kept my family name. She has her father's last name."
This is too weird. I never saw the two of them interact. I guess there's no reason for Cassie to hang around her mother at the Dance, either, just because she was visiting. No wait, maybe the fact that Louise failed to get Sam to be her date is what's kept them away at each of the dances, and hid this fact until now.
"So, I see you responded to my ultimatum," Louise says, turning to Sam. "I'm unclear as to why this random girl is involved, but no matter. What do you have to say?"
"We both know that exposing my parents is exposing yourself," Sam says. "You are just lashing out because of what I said to Cassie. Am I wrong?"
"The jury's still out," Louise says. "You made her cry. There's no telling what I'm capable of."
"Ruining your own reputation and facing jail time, potentially?" I ask. "How is that a good response to any of this?"
"You don't understand how much Cassie cares for you, Sam," Louise says, ignoring me. "If you're interested... we could arrange to have your parents put away without any blow-back on you. Then we could have you live with us. You'd want for nothing."
"You're crazy," Sam says. "You'd do all of that just because your daughter is infatuated with me?" It's a relief that Sam sees the difference in what I offered him and what Louise is offering. Of course he would, but still.
"There will be no deals," I say. "There will be no contact, anymore. You make any other threats or aggressive moves, and I'll be forced to act."
"Oh, you will act, will you? Pray tell, what would that entail?"
"I'll expose everything. I'm just a neutral party so it won't affect my family."
Sam and I planned this out beforehand. Obviously, we don't intend on actually doing what I'm threatening here if we can help it. The bottleneck would still clean it up by resetting everything, but it could waste the branch. Louise, assuming she isn't Holland, doesn't know that.
"Excuse me," a new, male voice says, and I look back to see Kirk walking up, dressed in a pink suit. Now I remember from having his card handed to me twice. This is his gallery. "Young man, I couldn't help but overhear, and I've been catching on to certain activities Louise has been trying to hide for a while. Are you the young man she is dead set on 'acquiring' for her daughter?"
"...yes, sir, I am."
"Kirk," Louise snaps, "I don't know how you found out, but this has nothing to do with you."
"You're discussing illegal activity on my premises," he says with a weak smile and a shrug. "Sorry, Louise. You and I go back, but you're losing it over your daughter. You've gone about this the wrong way."
"Oh, is that it? And how exactly would you deal with a daughter who has gone through five psychologists and refuses to take any prescribed medication, one who started leaking my secrets to rivals at my parties if I ever reprimand her for anything? One who called me a 'witch' all through elementary school, and then upgraded to 'bitch' promptly afterward? You know the story of when she tried to cut me when I tried to take her dolly away. You were practically there. That little girl has grown up, and she has not gotten easier to deal with. And you think when Cassie finally wants something I can get for her, something that she has said will change everything between us, I'm supposed to just ask politely and accept when he says no? Cassie has never cared about anything or anyone more than this."
"You could have approached the boy and his parents on a more honest level and tried to naturally bring them together," Kirk says, to which I emphatically nod.
"If you know what's going on here, then you know that this boy's parents are far too dangerous to approach in that way. I had to approach it as a superior, someone with power and authority, or I'd put myself and my family at risk."
I decide to intervene. "Look, I don't know what it's like to have Cassie as a daughter. What I do know is that she's scarily infatuated with Sam, and it's not healthy. Sam is already trying to escape his parents, and he doesn't need more people who think they own him. He's his own man."
"Can he say that by himself, to my face?" Louise asks, leering at him.
Sam has been nervously studying the Noctiluca sketch for a while, just as an excuse to turn away from the awful situation orbiting around him, one he never asked for or invited. He walks up to Louise.
"I'm willing to apologize to Cassie, for hurting her feelings. Then I will calmly explain that I have eyes for another young lady."
"Sam," I say, "are you sure—"
"—Yes. I've thought about this, and I believe that since Cassie sees me in a particularly strong light, it was irresponsible of me to reject her so harshly. In the same vein, I think hearing a simple, kind rejection from me instead would have prevented most of this. I can't neglect that I cowardly replied to her requests with 'maybe', for days on end, when a firm refusal would have spared her feelings and not led her to assume my interest."
Much as I hate Cassie, I have to admit, he's got a point. It's hard to relate to her since if I asked a guy out and he said 'maybe', I would just move on and assume it's a soft 'no' meant to spare my feelings. Apparently Cassie, for all her popularity and social clout, isn't experienced enough to have considered that.
Or maybe Cassie sees what I see in Sam, and won't take anything but a clear 'No,' if even that.
"Would you please tell your daughter that I'd like to talk to her, at lunch, on Monday?" Sam asks.
"...yes, I think that can be easily arranged. What's more... I appreciate it."
"I believe our business is done, then," I say.
"Thank you, Mr. Edwards," Louise says, before gratefully waving her fan at him. "Please keep in mind, I only tried to make my daughter happy." With that, she walks out of sight.
"Louise is a fine woman," Kirk says, kneading the loose skin at his brow, "but absolutely impossible when it comes to Cassie. For what it's worth, you two have my sympathy for getting involved in that."
"Thank you for showing up when you did," I say. "I think being an important friend of Louise, you were able to turn the tide."
His eyes narrow. "You're one daring young lady, miss..."
"Ah, I believe I've heard Mitchel talk about you. Are you a student of his?"
"You mean Mr. Lye? No, but I guess it's fairly well-known around school that I do charcoal sketches."
"Do you have any of your work on you? If you don't mind my curiosity."
"Sure, I always keep my sketchbook around." I open up my purse and hand him the black-covered, wire-bound collection.
"I'll be browsing near the front," Sam says with a grin, silently wishing me good luck with this art industry professional.
Over the next few minutes, Kirk essentially invites me to do a small exhibit deal with him. It's a bit like what he mentioned when he was impressed by my pieces at the Dance, but only about ten pieces to start. His enthusiasm is pretty infectious.
Now, I'm not ruling out the possibility that Holland is acting as this guy. But that possibility isn't developing into anything at this stage. Even so, I don't have time to waste making art.
"Sorry," I say, after explaining that I'm busy with exams. A fair enough excuse, and one that works better on someone who isn't a teacher.
"Oh, well, at least sleep on it, would you?" he asks. "Here's my card."
"I'm not making promises." I take the glittery card reading 'Oil of Dreams, Water of Thoughts' and pocket it as I find Sam and make my way to the door.
"It wouldn't have to be ready for several months," he says. "And you could even work in the studio upstairs."
"Right, right," I say, waving with my back turned to him. "I'll consider it. Thank you, again."
"It was a pleasure," Sam says to Kirk as he holds the door for me.
"Would you be willing to at least look at the studio?" Kirk says, walking out with us. "It's not very far from your school. It wouldn't be a troublesome drive."
Sam is deferring to me, but it seems like Kirk's asking us both, which is encouraging. I feel better about this guy if he's not trying to separate us.
Ultimately, I agree to Kirk's parting offer, if only to make it easier for him to accept my refusal. Plus, if Holland really is posing as Kirk right now, it might piss him off if I resist whatever he has planned too much. His message was clear: he's in control.
But not for much longer. We'll make sure of that.
The studio is on the second floor of a building near the off-ramps heading home, in a place that might have been a mattress store or something. The glass walls are all taped up now, though, advertising that this place no longer functions as a business. Hard to imagine how it could. This area is full of people blitzing by, and it seems like the shopping centers further down the road would be much better prospects for a shop location.
"It's upstairs, on the second floor," he says, as Sam and I follow him closer through the empty parking lot. It turns out that around the side, across from deeply grooved asphalt and sweet gum trees intertwined with the cage-link fence, a narrow stairway leads twenty feet up or so, to a door with a thick padlock. He takes out a key from a ring on his pocket and clinks it off the handle, opening the door with a groan. Hot air rushes out at us. "Sorry, it's not really ventilated well, and there's always sun coming in from above. But I have plenty of fans. Helps with drying paint and cooling off."
It's kind of amazing how much higher the second floor is. Above us are tinted panes of glass forming the roof and ceiling, littered with a few small dead leaves here and there. No idea how they got that high, except maybe a lucky gust from a hurricane.
I tilt my head down to study the actual floor, which Kirk is presenting with one extravagant arm out. It's far larger than the art room, and despite being hot, the tint of the glass leaves just enough light to perfectly expose the paintings. Steel folding chairs are littered everywhere, some just sad and abandoned, others serving as distant resting points behind where an artist would stand to work on their easel. The easels are completely disorganized as well, and there's plenty of them, most without canvases. Those that are there, however, are all finished, and I'm a bit saddened. When I go up to one, I can see the textured glimmer of dust on the paint.
"Sometimes I make work up here," Kirk says. "The stuff I don't like, I couldn't bear to throw out, so I just leave it up here. Ends up serving as inspiration." He points down the other end of the space, where I see a mattress and some blankets. "There's a place to sleep, even, although that's more for artists with big projects or stricter deadlines."
"Yes, she couldn't sleep here," Sam says.
Kirk snorts as he heads over to a small, distant room by the mattress, just an open doorway and what looks like a few square, white machines. "The life of a real artist begins when you make a commitment like that. Anyway, there's a laundry room in here, as well, and a shower across from this. Apart from lacking a kitchen, it could almost function like a typical home."
"I must admit, it seems like a wonderful place to work," I say, stepping into the distorted center of the room, brought on by the mixed shadows of the glass roof's sides. "Well, for when you have the time and are truly dedicated. But for now, that isn't me. But I hope you still consider me later on."
I hear Kirk walking quickly toward us as he replies. "Oh, sure. But I think you'll be starting sooner than you think."
Then there's a noise so loud that I can't figure out its origin. A cracking, lightning bolt of a slam that prevails in one long echo throughout this grand space. I feel something dampen my shoulder and a thumping force behind me that spikes in my toes.
I jerk back and look to where Sam was, but he's not there. My right eye burns from something wet. But it's not tears. When I blink it washes over my cornea and paints everything faintly pink. Squinting, I look toward where I think I heard the thump and find Sam laid on his side three feet from me. His head is half missing, and beyond where he must have fallen I see caked, gelatinous matter tainting the artwork nearby.
My body finally responds and I twist in the opposite direction, to face where Kirk was, but he slams something against my forehead just then and I fall against a folding chair turned away from me. My back painfully presses it into flipping over, slamming the seat against the back of my head and dripping sparkles in my vision. I can still make out that Kirk has a shotgun.
I should remain calm, keep in mind that Sam is no longer killed for good by anything, that with the next branch he'll return, good as new. But my body sends me soaring to my feet with the chair. Kirk catches my attack mid-swing with the gun before I can gouge an eye with one of the chair legs, and he's ducking under me and striking my stomach before I can even react.
I cough and double over, hurt more than I should be. Whatever was going on with me the morning this branch started is acting up again, and I spit blood that I'm forced to inhale by a savage fit of wheezing. My body wants to cough up its own muscles.
"At this stage, I should still be able to drug you," Kirk says from somewhere above me, as I feel a pinch at my neck. A needle stabs through, aggravating my moving throat, but then something surges in and my weakness escalates into unconsciousness.
I awaken on a mattress, its saggy springs failing to relieve the ache in my forehead. The air around me is cold and still like I'm low to the ground, and my skin prickles as I remember what happened and the bed that was in the studio. Am I still there? Looking around is easy enough, so I guess I'm no longer drugged.
I pat down my shoulder and face, but there's no dried blood. Sam had been right next to me when that psychopath shot him, painting the whole side of my face in blood. I'm only realizing it now, as I recall those few seconds.
There's a mattress in the middle of this space with a cold, tiled floor. It's about the size of my bedroom, and a decent rectangle with a ceiling I could just barely reach by jumping. Most of the walls are solid concrete blocks, but there's a door that I try, and predictably fail, to open. The wall sharing that door is made of thick glass, cemented together by white silicone caulk. I can see a figure on the other side, but not much about them, thanks to harsh lights shining in at me and this space, which would otherwise be dark without them.
"This must be your doing, Holland," I say aloud, voice hoarse. "Isn't it?"
"Hello again, Mellie," Kirk's voice says from above. Looking closely, there's a plastic speaker just like the ones used for announcements in all the classrooms at school. I guess this freak set up some kind of p.a. system for whatever he has planned. "Apologies for having to get rid of Sam this time. Things were deviating too much from my plans, so I had to be a little forceful. Fortunately, we're on track again, albeit much earlier than scheduled."
"What the hell are you saying?" I ask, trying to find some way out. My shadow on the far wall is cut in thick, sharp lines despite the light coming through thick glass. It's like an accomplice to the dark figure at my other side. Then I see a toilet and sink perched in the corner of this room, connected to a water supply line, and my whole body breaks into a sweat. "How long do you intend to keep me here?"
"Until the branch is over."
I can make out his figure pointing to the side away from the mattress, the best place to get a view of me. There, he's placed a chair and an easel, plus a number of art supplies, including replacement canvases stored in a crate with the top wrenched off. "I want you to improve your art. Make the best work that you can."
"What, are you playing the insane art collector this time around?" I ask.
"I'm just interested in seeing how far you can go," he says, crossing his arms. "I'm much more interested now that you keep your memories. That means you can get much better. If you make a piece, and I'm satisfied by it, you get food. Your own dedication will prove how comfortable you live in the rest of this branch."
"And if I tell you to shove these canvases up your ass?"
A pause. "Then I guess I'll have to be satisfied with this project itself as the interesting art piece."
"Watching an indignant, overly proud girl starve herself."
"So that's entertaining to you?"
"Well, the horror genre does exist for a reason."
"I can't believe this. How can you just kidnap me?"
"Mellie, making people disappear is the base of what I do. For instance, in Branch 115, the first you remember, I kidnapped Lye and Collins, killed them, and absorbed them to take on their appearances. That way, Collins was missing, and I could present myself as Lye to take her place in the classroom. I got that wound on my arm from the two of them struggling a lot more than expected that time around. There are always little deviations, even in a repeated formula of events."
"How are you able to avoid the police?" I ask. I have to, because it churns all through the air around me, from the subtle vibration of his calm voice, that the police will not be coming.
"I just have to threaten Cassie's family, anonymously," he says. "Once Louise is afraid for her daughter's life, she does what I say, without speaking a word of it to anyone. I use her influence to make sure the police don't investigate key points of what I'm doing, like the RV."
On the morning of the 11th, at the start of each branch, Dad tells me to avoid the RV and then calls the police, yet nothing ever happens. That influence on Cassie's family must be why. Sam told me they're a powerful, connected family, able to tamper with the natural progression of law enforcement.
"As another example from Branch 115, when Sam got to be too troublesome for me, I killed him and took control of his body as well. That's why he disappeared along with Lye at the same time. I can only hold two people at a time, as well, which is why the police ended up finding the remains of Ms. Collins. I had to drop her to make room for Sam."
"Why did you have to take Sam back then?"
"You know how I appeared in your room as Sam and tried to sweet talk you into enjoying the Dance with Drew? That's why. I had to become Sam to make him do something so bold. In all the other times, you took it quite well. You were downright docile."
"My point is that killing people and taking their place forms the basis of covertly making different routes occur. This time, you're the one who is disappearing."
"And this is all so you can see more of my art? It's so ridiculous!"
"In other versions of this branch, I convince you to take up the gallery plan, working in this studio willingly. But I think we both know that's not happening anymore."
So, we're still in the studio. It was a big place that I only saw briefly, but I'm surprised. I didn't see any sort of room like this.
I frantically search my pockets, but there's nothing in them, they've been searched. My purse is gone, too, but I see my sketchbook laid among the art supplies.
"Now then," Kirk says, after a crackle from him turning the p.a. back on, "I want you to sketch Camden in charcoal."
"Fuck you!" I grab the chair and hurl it toward him. It makes a dull thud against the glass and roars with the reverberation of metal as it sails back in the air and clatters to the ground. I didn't even scratch this foot-thick wall of melted sand.
"Give it your best. I expect it to be an improvement over your current standard of work."
"I'll kill you. When I have you at my mercy, don't even waste time begging."
"Calm yourself. It's a simple request. Think of it as a commission."
"Why do you even know about Camden or care? He disappeared a year ago. He has nothing to do with this."
"Camden is an inspiring figure to you, and I'd like to know how you see him. Sketch him, and I'll give you food."
"My best pieces were made in past branches, and those took days of effort."
"Oh, please. I know how much you spend your time in the art room flirting with Drew. You probably spend a solid eight or nine hours on each of your pieces, split apart amid two weeks. I'm sure you can manage without distractions."
"Well, have fun waiting out the next two weeks," I say, laying down on the mattress. It's over. Time to fold here. I've been trapped, but not yet caught. The most I can do now is give Holland nothing more to work with. Suffer until this branch ends, and then Sam and I will try again. We'll both be wiser and no less capable.
"Are you sure you don't want to get started?" Holland asks. "I do have to be away to run the gallery sometimes and handle other engagements to avoid suspicion. If you end up finishing a piece while I'm not around, that's even more time you'll have to wait before you're fed."
I turn on my side, away from the window lights.
I am awoken by the intercom, what must be hours later. My face feels greasy and I feel gross in general, sleeping fully clothed. Holland must have changed my clothes at some point before I first woke up here, considering that there was no blood on my shirt, and the idea that he just had a yellow shirt ready for me is disturbing enough. I couldn't strip down for the sake of comfort.
I didn't catch what Holland said on the intercom, so I stay still.
"I said, are you really not even going to try? Surely you must be hungry."
"Hungry?" I say, turning over. "You think that's what I'd be concerned about right now? How about my father, who must be worried to death that I haven't come home in over a day by now? How about all the people who love Sam, who wonder where he is? How about all the outrage and fear and confusion over what you've been doing to me and my loved ones?"
"Compared to those trifling matters, the simple demands of your human body reign supreme."
"Save it for a yogurt commercial. You're not tempting me with hunger." I sigh. "But I don't see a way to convince you to let me go. I don't see any way to escape, either, and frankly, trying would be too demeaning. If you want to prove that you can get me to do anything you want, then it won't work this way."
Holland cackles."You're a fiery girl, I must say. After the previous branch, you're still going to resist?"
"You pissed me off all over again." I go to lie down. However, the exertion of flinging words at each other has left my stomach gurgling. Shut up, stomach. Work with me on this. A little starvation is nothing compared to the fast-burning nightmares we've encountered before this.
Then I start coughing, and wetness climbs up my throat, not as thick as phlegm. Blood again, I'm sure. I swallow it down.
It's on about the fifth or sixth day in captivity that I start to sketch.
I just couldn't fight against the immense, cavernous tumbling, as if I'm slowly becoming a poorly-made machine. I can drink as much water as I want from the sink, but it stops helping to fill me up after the second day. I don't have much fat on me for my body to use, and I am now officially starving. The blood in my veins is coarse sand and these sensations dredge up the terror and misery I've felt at many points throughout this journey.
A long time ago, I saw a documentary on TV about prisoners of war and the policies for how to stay sane without giving up any vital information. The key to not breaking was to not cooperate any more than absolutely necessary, but not to outright defy your captor either. Do what you must, and dramatize your poor condition to invite sympathy.
I haven't found anything that I could use to kill myself in a way that wouldn't be extremely painful and miserable, and I couldn't try it because of that. I'm too scared of failing and living on in an even worse state.
So, I've decided that my only chance of making this any better is to play along, minimally. I am working on a piece.
But I will not sketch Camden. I will not make some graven image to my first love, especially not on request from this monster.
I finish in what feels like seven hours. It's a marvelous piece, definitely my best work yet. I've composed a young man of solid build, a full-body nude sketch in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu pose, knees and arms bent in that sort of creeping, ready-to-grab stance. I don't know why, it's just what I felt like doing, and it's a young man I can claim to be Camden.
When I finish, Holland is there watching, thank god. I slip out of my chair, snatch the canvas from the easel, and hold it up on one hand in front of the glass.
"Don't just hold it, set it on the easel in front of me."
Blowing air over my forehead as hard as I can, I go over to the easel, pick it up, and slam it on the tiles, setting the canvas upon it and standing beside it.
"Mellie," he says, and I can tell he's disappointed, the bastard. "I said to sketch Camden. I have no idea who this is."
"So, you really do know what Camden looks like," I say. I made a point of keeping the face and body similar, but not quite right, so someone who could actually recognize Camden in a crowd would know it wasn't him.
"You just wasted six hours. You even made your best work, here and now, in this context. Now you're not even getting fed for it. How unfortunate."
"What do you want?"
"I want. A sketch. Of Camden. Ideally just the face and shoulders. If you want to be fed, you're going to have to start again and make what I asked for."
"Never. Do you hear that? I will never draw Camden for you, you piece of trash. Why do you want to see him drawn so badly?"
"Your memory is failing. I already told you that he's important to you, which makes him an interesting subject that should bring out your creativity."
I almost say, "Then have me sketch Sam." Or my father. Both mean everything to me and are oceans of inspiration. But I can't muddy them in that way. Do not bargain or beg. Just cooperate at the bare minimum and play up your condition. I guess now I've done the former, so it's time for the latter.
Coughing on cue is unfortunately easy, and when I do I'm wracked with a chain of uncontrollable, bloody gurgles bordering on the heave before you vomit. I lay down on the mattress again.
I fight the urge to cry when I'm back in my seat again. I don't remember waking up, but I know I just did. The hunger is so agonizing, and the solution so obvious, that I crawled up and walked to my seat on shaky knees, just now, without realizing it. I am already sketching, opening up the locked chest in my mind to recover the images I have of Camden preserved in rock.
I loved the way his somewhat sunken chin shot forward and looked more manly when he tilted his face forward in a challenge. I loved his sharky nose that bobbed and weaved with him when he saw something he wanted. That was the way he looked when he approached me at the bus stop, on our first day of kindergarten.
"What are you cryin' about?" he said to me back then.
"I dunno," I said, the most five-year-old me could manage.
"Do you feel bad for the other kids in our class?" he asked.
Being talked to was helping me escape my anxieties of a teacher, tests, students, and things I would have to learn how to do in a public setting. I wiped my eyes for what I intended to be the last time. "Whadyo mean?"
"Because we're the only ones of our class who take the bus."
"Yep. I found that out. That means we're special."
I didn't see any holes in that reasoning. And of all the fears I had about going to school, riding the bus had been the greatest.
"I'm special." Testing those words makes me feel almost completely better.
"Hey, we're both special," he says, annoyed like I'm trying to take something from him. "We're both riding, remember?"
"Yeah..." I said defensively. In the moment, my childish mind thought he was only accusing me of forgetting something immediately told to me.
"There must be a special reason why we get to ride the bus," he says, tapping his sneaker on a tuft of grass growing in a crack at the sidewalk.
"It must be because I'm the bravest boy in school," he says, pointing a thumb to his chest.
He grimaces. "Because, um... because I'm not scared of riding on the bus. The other students probably are glad their parents take them there."
"How would you know that?" I ask. "Unless you're scared of the bus, too?"
"What's scary about a stupid bus? It's just a gigantic bright yellow loud thing. And it sounds like it's going to fall apart every time it stops." He clutches his temples and wobbles on his feet. "What were we talking about?"
"Maybe I'm brave, too, then," I say. "And not scared of the bus."
"I don't think a crying girl is very brave."
With the same hand, he extends his finger and points to me. "I've got it!"
"It must be that you're the prettiest girl in class. That must be what makes you special. I'm Camden, by the way. Hey, are you okay? Hello? Earth to... what's your name, come on, I wanna know!"
When you're young, you will believe untrue things as long as they give you peace. There are even adults who act that way. And you believe pleasant lies when they're packaged with truth.
"Oh, sorry... I spaced out. I do that a lot..."
"And your name?"
"It's Mellie. Mellie Ag-ni-ho-tri."
"Aack knee... how do you spell that?"
"I'm not sure yet, sorry..."
"Woah, your name is so long that you don't know how to write it." He looks up to the cloudy sky. "That's, like, amazing."
"Thank you..." I take a step too close to him and our eyes meet in surprise. I agonized for weeks over how people would react to my name. It wasn't something simple and graceful like Smith or Johnson. When he responded that way, my body moved on its own.
"Don't mention it," he says with a thumbs up, "Lee."
"Is that okay, calling you Lee? I think that's a cool nickname."
"I guess so... yeah, I don't mind."
I had gone from mortified to thrilled. I was already making a friend, a buffer for whatever waves of stress and humiliation school had prepared for me, and he had already given a nickname.
I knew Camden was the bravest boy in class, just like he said. It wasn't the full truth, though; he was the bravest boy in school. That fact became truer with every passing year. He got into fights all the time with that crass mouth of his, but I literally mean 'got' into them. He never took a swing at anyone, never even pushed other boys who got aggressive with him. It was almost scary how quickly he rose to a more mature position when tested that way. It soon earned him a reputation as an eccentric high achiever, someone who pushed boundaries and demanded more of the world. A natural leader.
The lie that I was the prettiest girl, meanwhile, didn't last one week of kindergarten. Still, sometimes my entire world flipped from Camden looking at me and saying something far too suave for his age. Other times, it was more about what he said to others. Like when Alicia, the most popular girl in first grade, started being friends with Camden and trying to get him to get or do things for her. But Camden was in control. One day, when Alicia annoyed him and loudly whispered to him "Why does Mellie have to hang around?" he told her to go away and we played together.
"I was just waiting for her to mess up and say something like that," Camden said, sharkily jumping and weaving in his run to the climbing dome. "My dad says girls like that, you gotta wait for them to slip, cause they will. They just want attention."
"I want attention," I said, oddly self-aware and confessional even then. "Only yours, though."
His face reddened. "Well, yeah, that's not the same. You're a different kind of girl."
"Yeah? What kind am I?"
"You're a girl you're supposed to stay friends with."
"Did your dad tell you that?"
"Nope. I just know."
I was running behind him, so when he stopped I kissed his cheek and zipped past, toward the silver climbing dome in the sandy part of the playground.
"You little!" he said, obligated by his gender to act outraged.
"Come on, let's play again!" I said, laughing.
We once made up a game called Sand Predator. The dome was like a giant shark cage, and we took turns playing the shark, who had to circle around the outer edge and tag the person inside, but only by sticking their arms in, no more than that. The person inside would have to get their shoes, one on either end of the dome. That got us in trouble for getting our feet sandy, though, so we put sticks in the ground at two points and played that way.
The scratch of charcoal against the fresh material is like teasing a chalkboard with a knife.
I'm brought back to the present. My tired arm needs to be told where to go on the canvas, and how. More details. Need more... what else stood out about him?
I hated his eyes. Their cloudy gray-blue made him seem sadder than he ever really was. Except for toward the end. Now I'm drawing those eyes and recreating that pallor in gray shades.
"No!" I scream, slamming the charcoal stick to the tile where it clicks apart into several bouncing pieces. I keep my face buried behind my hands and my chest pulsates like a heart. Silent, tearless, sobbing. "Someone help me."
I don't want to look at what I've been making, but I do anyway. It's good. It'll do, after a few more hours.
"There!" I say, panting and blinking until a bead of sweat stops blurring my sight. It's been a few more hours, that much I know. "There, it's done." I pick up the easel, a patent grin on my face that I can't take off, and plop it down where I did last time. "Well? Rejoice, you got what you wanted."
No reaction. Feeling like an utter fool, I look at the glass wall. Holland isn't here right now.
I slam my balled fists down on the glass, which rattles my elbows as I slide to the floor, legs folded and knees spread, and head lolling straight down. I could fall asleep right here. In fact, I'd rather do that than try to get back to the mattress.
After a while, I'm awoken, my back muscles knotted together, by Holland.
"So, you obeyed."
I don't move a muscle, aside from raising my head completely level with the bottom of the glass window. I'm not looking at him since he's to the left. I'm just staring at nothing.
"This is a little too young," he says. "I want to see him as he was before he disappeared. That said, I never specified that to begin with, so it isn't your fault. You met the commission. Well done."
I hear a noise as the door opens and shuts, almost too quick to register. Something fell on the floor, too. A few small objects covered in wrappers.
I scramble around my easel and find five energy bar... things. They're from a brand I've never seen before and are apparently called green bars. Think your typical energy bar, but full of minced green leafy vegetables as well to balance out the protein. I don't care what it is, I'm eating it.
I only taste the things once I'm on to the second one. They suck. It's like eating sweaty, partially-dried clay, tasting faintly of nuts and grains. But in my starvation, the sensation of getting nutrition makes me salivate and adore them, even when I know that this is a humiliating and sad meal, rations for a whore who sold herself because she couldn't go hungry.
No, I didn't just sell myself. I sold him.
"I'll give you many more bars if you make all the adjustments I ask for," Holland says. "Age him up to how he looked near when you last saw him. We can start there."
"So..." I say, voice strengthened suddenly by the rush of activity in my stomach. "That's how it is."
"Welcome to life as an artist, Mellie. Make what I want, and you get fed."
After wallowing for a moment, I take the remaining bar. The other four vanished before I could even think about portion control. This remaining one, I'll use to stay strong. I'll have only one big bite a day, as soon as I wake up. No, not then. Waking up with an empty stomach is normal. I should do it right before I sleep. The worst thing about hunger is how it changes the way you sleep.
It's been three days since then, and I'm about ready to start pulling my hair out and trying to eat it.
No matter how I make changes to Camden's image, Kirk isn't satisfied. He says I'm close, but wants the forehead to be a little more level, or the ears to be more realistically shaded, stupid microscopic changes that send me falling back into the chair like a cell within this cell.
"Almost there," Kirk says after I've presented the easel for the twelfth time. Every time he does this, he concedes and gives me one green bar, then sends me back with more revisions. He tantalizes me with the promise of as many bars as I could eat if he's finally satisfied. "Yes, we're nearly there, I promise. You just need a little more definition in the furrowing of the brow—"
"—You said before to smooth out brow!" I scream.
"You didn't let me finish. The definition is fine in the center, but I'm not seeing quite enough of a curvature change. Think of the muscles underneath the skin, and how those pull at the shape of his brow if he's furrowing it."
"This is how he looked." I face his dark silhouette, then start pounding the glass with my knuckles straight on. "This is how he looked! I don't care what you want, it's wrong! You'll never be satisfied!"
"Maybe I won't," he says, still not raising his voice. "And that's good, isn't it? The moment consumers of art are truly satisfied, your purpose has ended. In this room, Mellie, you are experiencing the life of anyone in the art and entertainment world."
"What?" I step back, bumping my canvas off the easel. He doesn't even care that I might have damaged his precious commission. He just keeps talking.
"The life of an artist is fated to the girl you are, isn't it? But you will never be happy that way. Not for a long, long time, if ever."
"I don't understand you. Why do you care? Do you not want me to have a career as an artist? If so, why?"
"I am just making a point."
"Badly, as usual."
"You just aren't good at parsing out the meaning in things. Not all artists are."
Then, there's a sharp pitch from somewhere near Holland, like one of those emergency broadcasts on a cell phone, making him turn.
"What?" Kirk disappears, his silhouette shrinking away from the distorted glass. I stay glued to that glass for a while, stupidly. Idiot, what if someone is here right now? If there's one time you should try to escape, Mellie Walsh, it's now!
"Help me!" I scream, slamming the metal door with my shoulder and all the weight I can muster. "Help! I'm held prisoner in here!"
Suddenly, I hear a boom, partially absorbed by the steel door. After continuing to attack the door for a few seconds, I can't scream, thanks to the grip on my lungs from a new coughing fit. Still, I bash myself against it, rattling it ever so slightly in the hinges, and I hear a man's voice screaming my name.
"Sa—" I hack blood on the door, unable to form words against a muzzle of tickling agony. But then I hear him again.
"Stand back from the door!"
Wait, no, that's not Sam. The cry of my name was definitely him, but that command just now was... Drew?
I'm out of the way and jump in fright as the doorknob and a good portion of the door's frame erupt into smoke and shrapnel, and it clatters at the perpendicular wall. My ears ring.
I can't even process what's happening, but it's happening. I'm being carried out of the studio on their shoulders, one arm over each of their backs. I think they're asking me questions, concerned, but the explosion has deafened me, or I'm too weak and strained to hear. In any case, we pass by a puddle of faintly glowing Noctiluca blood and Kirk's tattered corpse. Someone's nearby, doing something by the body. Soon, I am brought down the stairs into the night.
It was only for a week and a half, but the outside world feels new again. The tips of my toes bump every metallic step and then drag against the bumpy asphalt until Sam climbs up into the bed of a truck. It's Drew's, I remember from the first time I went to the Dance. With Drew holding me at the legs, they bring me into the spray-coated bed. Might as well be hauling an unusually shaped sandbag.
I know Sam is with me, not much later, and that we're moving through streets. My body senses the shifts in momentum from turns and stops, and Sam is stroking my hair.
I awaken in an actual bed, not a bare mattress reeking of my own sweat. The sheets are cool and rich everywhere that my body hasn't warmed them, and I smile and hum in thoughtless glee, sliding my limbs up and down. People could be forgiven for thinking that I am dreaming of making a snow angel.
Then I feel a hand at my shoulder, and I open my eyes, freezing. Embarrassment grips me before anything else. I'm in a large hotel room, some kind of grand suite with a view of downtown and the beach. Sam is beside me, moving to sit at my side after breaking me from my revels. There are others here, too, but I don't care right now.
"Don't talk too much, okay?" he warns. "You don't want to aggravate that cough."
I look down at my body, lifting up the rose-pink bed covers to let in some light. I'm in a boy's underwear and a bra that isn't mine, but a close approximation of my size.
"Your clothes were filthy," he whispered. "I didn't get a good look at the room the bastard kept you in, but I didn't see a shower or anything. You were at risk of getting a skin disease, so I... washed you and dressed you in what we could find. It was just me, don't worry."
I don't care. What matters right now is what happened. How did you save me, and who else did you get involved in this?
The movement and changes in my eyes communicate my questions well enough. He leans back a little to help me see the other figures around the bed.
Drew is at the other side from Sam, arms crossed and nervously looking around, but turned away from me, toward the window and balcony. Sue, of all people, is between him and the bed, watching over me with concern. At least, I think it's Sue. I didn't get a great look at her in the dark, last branch, and she's definitely a tall Asian girl, so I think I can be excused for assuming.
"It's the four of us, for now," she says in her tranquil but heartfelt voice, the one I heard over the phone, which perfectly matched the wonderful get-well card that no longer exists. "Oh, sorry, we haven't actually met yet. I'm Soo-jin, but I prefer Sue. Only... that's not true, from what I hear. That we haven't met."
My eyes feel dry when they stop blinking, and she explains.
"From what Drew and I have heard... we've met before. We just don't remember."
"Couldn't possibly remember," Drew corrects, turning from the window and motioning to Sam with his chin. "Ain't that right?"
"That puts it nicely, yes," Sam says, a little too forcefully. Something might have happened between these two, in the time I was trapped.
My voice is a bit hoarse, but I want to get my side of the story out first. It's not much, but it pains Sam horribly to hear it, and he stays much closer to my side, practically sharing the bed. Drew is not happy either, but that seems to be because the story shows how much I value Camden, someone he hates. In either case, I get that Band-Aid ripped off.
"Please," I say, voice still a bit hoarse. "Tell me everything that happened while I was kept captive."
We hadn't tested yet what happens when someone like Sam, let's just call them the Noctiluca Touched, dies. I am the anomaly, as Holland put it, around which all this revolves, so the results when I die are obvious: the world resets from reality moving to a new branch. But what about the other Noctiluca Touched?
Well, it turns out they regenerate, albeit far more slowly than Holland's body does. Sam woke up, bloodied but no longer missing most of his cranium, on the oyster bed in the swamps where Drew's parents had been dumped last branch. Apparently, Kirk had dropped him there, delivering him by foot after parking on the side of the road. It was daytime, so he was able to easily navigate, but he was weak, the mud clung to every step after the intra-coastal beach, and he didn't have his phone.
"It was a lot of trouble," Sam recounts, "but I managed to return to my house and my parents the night after Kirk killed me. It was quick enough that I alleviated suspicion that anything significant happened. The worst thing that could happen would be that Kirk was Holland, and that he saw me after I should be dead. The cat would be out of the bag then. My parents were upset, of course, but I dealt with it and they had no reason to make a fuss. Still haven't found my car, though."
From there, Sam was faced with a difficult question that he needed to be sure about, one I probably never would have even thought, were our positions switched.
Sam didn't know Kirk as a person. But he knew, from me, that despite Holland adding sexual predator to the list of Ms. Collins' qualities while controlling her, she really was a wild, free spirit who grew magic mushrooms and did what she wanted off the clock, all without letting a whiff of it taint her professional life as an educator.
"For all I knew," Sam says, "Kirk was always a psychopath looking to toy with you, and Holland had nothing to do with it this time. I had to be sure if it really was Holland because that would give me much more to go on. It would also tell me to be on the lookout for who else Holland could be. I wanted help, and I needed to be very careful about asking for it in front of the real Holland accidentally. Furthermore, knowing for sure would also help me gain resolve to use deadly force."
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"Even if Kirk was keeping you captive..." Sam looks away. "Forget it, it's not important."
"Yes, it is," Sue says, walking over to my other bedside and setting a hand on mine, a little bit of weight and warmth over the covers. "You have one beautiful soul of a man here, you know. Sam was afraid that if he killed Kirk, and he was just a human man, that he was robbing the world of a human life, one that had the right to a trial, and to be given a chance to atone and correct themselves. Someone with a family who probably loved and depended on him. Even if you may have been in danger, he couldn't go into a situation blind where he might kill a man."
"So stupid," Drew says, like dousing a cigarette into her tender words. "She was in danger, and he hesitated. He's a coward."
"Shut up," I snap, making his whole body quake for a moment. "This is the man I love you're badmouthing. The bravest man I know."
The room is still until Sue gives a warm, relieved smile. She likes knowing I'm not competition, I'm sure, but more than that, she seems happy for the two of us. Drew scrunches his face in a flurry of emotions, but relaxes into a chair. He looks distant, detached, unsure of what's real. I think I'll need to have a talk with him. I know he likes me a lot, and that was not a gentle way of dissuading his hopes.
"I saw all that glowing blood. So, on a pragmatic level," I say, looking to Sam, whose closeness dominates my peripheral. "We know that you did kill Holland. He was Kirk. So he's aware that something's up now. I almost wish—"
"—Don't even try to say it," Sam says. "Besides, saving you came with more positives than negatives. Allow me to continue the story."
Sam tried sneaking around in places that Kirk visited, including as bold as his office in Oil of Dreams, Water of Thoughts. The main thing he was looking for was what I mentioned, a tea kettle filled with ocean water. However, Sam had to be extremely careful not to be caught by Kirk, even indirectly by drawing the attention of others who may report back to him. He wasn't able to search Kirk's office after days of trying without rest, and all while still going to school sometimes to act normal.
Lost on what to do, and since he was at school, Sam decided to approach Cassie for help. He had the context of apologizing to her still, so he came to see her on Monday, two days into my captivity. Only, he had much more to talk about than him rejecting her affection.
"Cassie seemed like my only remaining hope to investigate Kirk," Sam says, "because Louise is close to him. It would be perfectly natural for Louise to investigate Kirk's office if she had a reason to visit and was subtle about it. It's ironic that we met with Louise right before Kirk made his move, because afterward I couldn't reach her without a contact."
"You couldn't visit other art people or look her up online?" Drew asks.
"Far too risky, swimming in Kirk's circle. I needed a personal contact. Her daughter was it."
"And I guess going to the police was out of the question in all of this?" I ask.
"My family and Cassie's are in shady business. There were many risky blow-backs and opportunities that would close up if I got the police involved. I was fairly confident, though I had no definite evidence, that doing so would also fail, because of how prepared Holland is for everything."
Since I've told my side of the story, we all know for sure that Sam was right. Holland had said to me that he uses the law to his own benefit by covertly threatening Louise and Cassie.
"I ended up learning the same thing, through Cassie," Sam says. "When I agreed to go to the Dance with her in order to get her aid, she saw how serious I was. That led to us talking after school, and admitting things to each other. I explained that the person who threatened her family could be Kirk, and that I needed help. She actually didn't know about the threats. We got to her mother and explained it well enough, and soon the three of us were working together.
"Wait," I say, "If Cassie and Louise helped, where are they now?"
"They're on the way, actually," Sue says. "Louise is the reason we're in such a lovely room, by the way. And she assured us it would be incognito."
After getting assistance from Cassie and her mother, Sam had Louise investigate for a tea kettle with ocean water. She didn't find it in there, but Cassie managed to trail Kirk when he mysteriously left in his car and went to the beach in the middle of the night. She couldn't hang close enough to see for sure, in such a secluded road as Stacie's Wildlife Preserve, but for Sam that confirmed it well enough. Kirk was Holland, so lethal force was more than acceptable. That was when Sam went to Drew and Sue, explaining the situation in greater detail.
"For the two of us," Drew says, motioning between Sue and himself, "he explained everything. Hard to believe, but he told me that you were in danger, and he said things that only a person who encountered this multiple branch thing would seem to know."
Sam did great. He must have listened well to everything I told him about the other branches.
Drew takes over the story and explains the actual operation to free me. It began with two other participants, who were left more or less in the dark barring a few snippets of info and a promise of no betrayal: Sam's parents. Sam found it too awkward to approach them, and they'd likely be suspicious of it, so Louise proposed the plan. She said that on a certain day and time, very soon, there would be a cut to the security services at Oil of Dreams, Water of Thoughts. That was a good time to break in and try to steal some of the flagship art pieces. Breaking the glass of the closed doors was no problem.
Sam's parents, happy and more than willing to do this favor now that their son was in good graces with Louise's daughter, went on the appointed night and threw a brick into the window. However, the story about the security was a lie. In fact, Louise learned from her visit to Kirk's office that he used a specific security company that sent unmissable alerts by phone in the event of an emergency, such as a possible burglary. That was the alert that Kirk suddenly got while he was taunting me about the perils of an art career.
From there, Drew had set up a bomb that activated upon opening the door to the studio. This unlocked the door for them and incapacitated Holland, giving them a chance to save me. Drew used another, mobile bomb for the door trapping me in that room. He had two others ready to go like that, just in case.
"You know how to make bombs?" I ask.
"That was the first time I actually made complete, active ones," Drew says. "But I had looked it up and dabbled a little in the past, for home protection reasons."
"Home protection?" Sam says. "Are you sure a heat-seeking missile turret wouldn't be more practical?"
"Ha ha. How clever. Yep, every homeowner who uses something you don't approve of is insane. It's not like every person has a unique home with their own circumstances."
"Gentleman, please," Sue says with a bemused grin.
In any case, the bomb worked. That was the boom I heard. Kirk opened the door, intending to rush downtown to his gallery and see what happened, but instead, he got obliterated into gore and Noctiluca blood, which Sue collected as planned beforehand.
It's a story that deeply inspires me. I felt alone in that room and hadn't considered what all might have been happening for my sake, outside of it. That was truly, utterly foolish.
"Wait," I say. "You didn't touch any of the blood, did you?"
"Sam explained what would happen if we got too much on us," she said. "I wore rubber gloves to be safe."
Now it's time for me to weigh in. Like it or not, I'm the anomaly, as Holland put it. I'm the person around which all these branches tangle.
Cassie and Louise both helped, and Cassie insists she be informed on what's really going on. They'll be here soon to discuss it. I have to decide if she should know.
"If she does hear the truth, about Noctiluca and branches," Sam says, "I'm fairly confident she'll want to touch the blood we've collected and be a part of this."
"And we want to help as well," Sue says, looking to Drew. "I think we could use all the help we can get."
I think back to Louise, and the way she looked when she tried to face us in the gallery. She was always a top-tier bitch during the Dance exhibits, but she never seemed to be enjoying that sort of behavior, like it was a natural part of her personality. It turns out she has an intensely strong-willed daughter, to a disquieting degree. In that sense, I think we probably shouldn't even try to turn Cassie down. If Louise is interested as well, I say she should be on our side, too.
By now, Holland's alarms must be ringing. He probably has figured out that other people besides me can become Noctiluca Touched. That means we should double down. No more secrecy. We find the best possible way to beat this thing, in the few days we have left before the 26th.
"So," I say, several hours later, deep into the night. "Now everyone in this room knows everything."
Cassie is in our room now, as is Louise, who fans herself from one of the gilded dining table chairs. I'm dressed in casual jeans and a t-shirt, seated on the bed with my legs crossed, with Sam next to me. Drew and Sue are both behind me in their places of comfort. There's been a lot of talking, all night.
I made a decision and hopefully won't regret it.
I raise up my drink, one of the many plastic cocktail glasses stacked in a cupboard in this suite. We have taken the little cup of blood that Sue nearly filled, diluted it with water, and distributed it into the glasses. Each of us holds one now, ready to toast to entering this fight together.
Sam is in this for my sake. The same analogy goes for Cassie and Sam, and for Louise and Cassie. Drew, despite the setback of me not being available to him, still values me as a talented person and a potential friend, and Sue will follow him. I think this time, though, those two might be doing this more for each other.
"A toast, then," I say. "To doing what it takes."
Most of the drinks are watered-down, glowing, blue goblets, coagulating at the rims like the salt on a cocktail. Sam and I are the only two with a drink of plain water from the sink, just a symbolic gesture. After all, this stuff can dissolve your flesh. Not as much as actual pure Noctiluca seawater, but it's still corrosive, and Sam and I are already Noctiluca Touched.
Hopefully, this action doesn't matter. We will find a way to work together without needing to enter another branch. It would establish a lot of complications in our lives, and I have no idea where to start, but I won't throw away the possibility just from that.
"Well, that was disgusting," Louise says, holding the empty glass to the light. "Didn't burn much, though."
"There was a bit of dirt from scraping it up from the floor," Cassie says.
"Sorry about that," Sue replies.
"We're in this together, now," Drew says.
"So," Cassie then says, "if time resets again, we'll remember this, right?"
"That's right," I say. "From this point on, I'm your leader, and we're working together to put things back to normal. Now then, I have something uncomfortable to say." I look to Sam, grimacing.
"It's not something a lady should say." Ever the antiquated gentleman, eh? "Let me."
"If you're offering, I really will let you."
I nod and sit still, letting the chills of this impending awkward moment blow over me.
"What's this about?" Sue asks softly. Her innocent question makes Sam hesitate, but then he bites his lip and answers.
"We need to be absolutely certain that no one in this room is Holland."
"Fair enough," Louise says. "But what do you propose?"
"There is only one way," Sam says. "By checking our bodies for hollow wounds."
"I don't like where this is going," Drew says.
"Seconded," Louise quips.
"I'm sorry, I know what I'm asking is demeaning," I say. "But I decided that we can't take chances. You have made the choice to involve yourselves in the affairs of a paranormal entity, one that has influence over time itself and could torment you infinitely. By comparison, I think stripping down to prove none of us are that entity is an acceptable sacrifice." No one replies, so I add more. "Anyone who refuses, I am forced to doubt. Do keep in mind... I even want Sam to do it." I put my hand over his, in apology, but he seems to have accepted it as best he can. I know he hates nudity, but that's mostly from being ashamed of his body, which he sees as a symbol of his abuse. It's a little late to reason with him now, though.
"Please state the exact actions you are proposing, little lady," Louise says.
"The way I see it," Sam says, before I can, "it's best that we all strip down, completely. That proves to all of us, with each other person as witnesses, that no one here is controlled by Holland."
"And does that apply to her?" Cassie says, pointing to me.
"Of course it doesn't," Sam says. "Why on earth would Mellie organize any of this if she's being controlled by Holland?"
"Even so..." I look down and grip the bedding. "For the sake of solidarity... I think it's best that I do it, too."
"No," Sam says, scarily composed as he shakes his head at me. "Everyone here has already proved that they trust you by drinking. Don't take up some reckless gesture to make yourself feel better."
"Sam, it's just nudity."
"Just nudity?" he says, turning to face me. I've pissed him off, now. "Try to think about how I feel."
"I know you've always hated being seen in that way, but—"
"—This isn't about me. I am specifically talking about you, the girl I love. I'm talking about sanctity and basic human dignity."
"But only for me, and no one else?"
"You are the top priority. I treasure you, including your appearance. I beg you to treasure yourself in the same way."
This sounds a lot like something one of my old Indian relatives would say, and I like the home comfort feeling of these ideals. They're warm and gripping like a Christmas sweater.
"You're right," I say. "But what other options are there?"
"Does everyone in this room agree that Mellie can be trusted?" Sue asks. "Please state if you don't." The room is silent, although Cassie is definitely rehearsing it in her mind. Sue then says something brilliant. "If we trust Mellie, then we should be able to safely trust whoever she trusts by proxy, right?"
"Oh, I see," Drew says, snapping his fingers. "That's pretty sharp."
"Wait, I'm lost here," Cassie says before I can. "What's the idea?"
"Mellie goes to the bathroom," Sue explains, walking in herself as if that helps us paint a picture. "Then, each of us goes in with her, one at a time, and strips down. Mellie sees each of us and knows for sure that we're not Holland."
"On a pragmatic level, that does sound like a fair compromise," Louise says. "After all, that's how it's done in prisons, most of the time. One guard watches and inspects a single prisoner at a time, in relative privacy."
"Absolutely not," Cassie says. "Nope, nah, nada. I am not stripping in front of the Hornet."
"Why don't we just have Mellie look someone over," Drew offers, "and then once she approves them, they can look at Cassie?"
"Too complicated," Cassie shoots back. "Someone could silently coerce Mellie to say they were safe."
"A bit of a long shot..."
Cassie repeats herself. "Too complicated."
"By the way, Cassie," I say, "nada is Spanish for 'nothing.' It doesn't work as a refusal."
"See? She's fucking awful. I can't stand her, and if you think I'm stripping down in front of her you guys are nuts."
"Sweetie, I know you've had issues with her," Louise says to her daughter, now in high-pitched conciliatory mode, "but if you want Sam to be happy and safe... this really does seem like the best option."
Cassie then curls her lips in a dead-eyed grin, the kind you'd see on some troubled teenager's face on a reality show. "We trust Sam, too, right? He can see me naked."
"Fuck no." I stand up off the bed. "Don't kid around."
"I wasn't kidding, curry breath."
"Why do you make shit up? I don't stink, I take care of my teeth and I'm nuts about keeping my breath fresh. Just give up the racist stinky Indian stereotype, you new money trailer baby."
"Unlike you, I have never even been inside a trailer. I was born in a hospital, and unlike in your case, one with indoor plumbing."
"You know what, Cassie? I don't blame you for rushing to get a man. You've only got another decade or so of good looks, little miss inbred forehead."
"Both of you, stop!" Sue snaps. "This is idiotic and shallow. You and Sam are a couple, right, Lee? What does Sam think of what Cassie's asking?" She looks to him. Sue's right, he's the one who can resolve this. I lost myself for a bit there and got sucked down to Cassie's level.
"I don't want to see you naked, Cassie," Sam says. "Not just because I don't find you attractive, but because I think the sight of another woman's body is a very dark thing for a committed man to stain his eyes with."
"What?" Cassie stands up, but her balled fists unravel with her lips. She's not angry about what I think she'd be. "What do you mean by 'committed?'" She crosses her arms. "Bitch should be committed, all right."
"Lee is the most important person in the world to me. I will spend the rest of my existence with her, as long as she'll have me." He looks down. Cassie is stunned, as is Louise, that I am comfortable with these words. "I know that you don't want to believe that, because it hurts. But it's the truth. So even if you think that the sight of your body will tempt me away, it only shows a misunderstanding about the relationship you are up against. Please try to understand. I'm not opposed to being friends. But it's not fair to you if I don't explain that without a shadow of a doubt, the person meant for me—"
"—Alright, alright! I get it." She sits back down and her voice weakens, but levels into a tone, like she's surprised at herself. "I get it." I'm impressed that she doesn't cry. "Whatever. Mellie can look at me. I don't care. Let her see what she's denying her boyfriend."
"Is there a contest for most conceited—"
"—Hey," Sue says, interrupting me with a finger snap. "No."
I scowl at her. I'm nobody's dog. I don't respond to finger snaps, whistles, or clapping. But because you're a sweetheart, Sue, I'll leave it be.
"Let's get a move on," Drew says. "We've only got a couple of days before the bottleneck."
"In that case," I say. "Louise, I think we should start with you." Louise and Cassie both got here after being outside and unaccounted for during our briefing, so they're the most suspicious right now. Not that I'm suspecting them as people. I know firsthand that you're not in control when Holland doesn't want you to be. He's the culprit, and we need to find him if he's infecting anyone here. There's a very small chance of it, considering he hasn't intervened in hours, but it's too serious to ignore.
"No," Cassie says. "Do me first."
"Because she's my mother, you freak. I'm not ready to have this done to her without knowing exactly what it's like."
I equally place them as initial priority for searching, so this isn't a problem. Boy, is it gonna be awkward, though.
I enter the bathroom. After a sigh, I hear her bare footfalls, heavier than mine, on carpet, and then the white and pink marble of the bathroom floor. She closes the door with a casual swing and immediately starts to strip.
Cassie is taller than me, bigger in frame, and the tiniest bit plump, not near enough to be called fat. With such a voluptuous body, she makes it work. Trying to go thinner wouldn't look right. Watching the process of her undressing, far more complex than what my own casual style would demand, I'm seeing the daily life of someone very different from me. But in the similarities, a lot of my anger leaks out. She still fusses her shirt over her hair like I do, setting it back into a decent condition afterward.
I get a vicious thought, then, one that shocks even me. If this bitch ever crosses me, I could sketch her nude body now. The possibilities there are... interesting.
"Okay," I say, once she's nude. "Make a complete turn at normal speed. Now show me the bottoms of your feet. Alright, one last thing." I reach for the light switch. "The Noctiluca wounds also glow in the dark. I'm going to turn the light off for only a second. As long as I don't see anything, you're in the clear. I'll trust you."
"Really?" she asks, arms crossed over her breasts.
"Yeah. I won't want to, but I'll do it."
"So generous. Does your cow God teach that as a virtue?"
"I'm nonreligious, you imbecile." I click the light off. Nothing, not even in the reflection of the mirror above the sinks. I turn it back on. "You're good."
Cassie redresses and tries to suppress a shudder as she hurries out. I can't imagine how awful that was. Even hating her, I feel bad for having to do it.
"Okay," I say from the doorway. "Louise, you're next."
She sighs and stands up, giving a look of confidence to her daughter as she fans herself harder than usual.
"The fan," I say. "Leave it on the table."
"What could I possibly do with my fan?"
"I've seen enough movies."
Louise narrows her eyes, but then rolls them and sets the fan down on the table. "I'm sure you'll be proud of that line for months."
I don't know why I feel suspicious about the fan. It just seems like a vital tool in her hands, and that the person being inspected shouldn't be armed, even with an innocent object like that.
We're alone in the bathroom, and as I study the detailed kimono and matching harem pants, I realize that this'll take a while, both the removal and redressing. "Sorry about this, again."
"It's fine," she says. "You do what you have to."
Her clothes are in a neat pile at the corner of the door, like a little, ineffectual stopper in case someone tries to open it. Now this body is one to envy. Although, such a large chest clearly lends itself to stretch marks in middle age.
"Okay, first make a complete turn. Not too quickly."
"Whatever gets you off, darling," she says with a smirk.
"Next, show me the soles of your feet, one at a time." She does, and I see nothing but pumice-scraped callouses. Finally, she passes the lights-off part with flying colors.
I pick Drew next, and Sam stands up. "I forgot about that," he says. "Please, Mellie, I would feel much better if you let me look at him instead."
We're all getting on edge and tired of this, so no one disagrees. Since Sam is in the bathroom then, I go back inside after Drew and check him next. Finally, I look over Sue's body, a curious meeting point between Cassie's pale bustiness and my lithe, tawny appeal. She cries a little, but I don't make it worse by apologizing again.
We soon decide that the group is tired, it's too late at night to start coming up with plans, and that it would be better to take a chance to rest while we can. There are a lot of people who are shaken up by us all being here instead of our homes, so we don't have much wiggle room, but I still think it's a good idea not to risk making a mistake or oversight due to lack of rest. One person at a time plays watch-guard outside the door for an hour. It'll be a pretty fitful rest that way, but it helps ensure we're not caught unawares.
However, my sleep after my turn of standing watch is light and fitful, unpleasantly lucid. I dream I am on a boat, in a sea so black and still that I cannot tell if it is actually outer space.
Eventually, I hear the faint creak of someone moving. I'm only now waking up a bit, so I don't fully remember what's going on or why this bed feels like one from a hotel.
Concerned by the desperate tone of what sounds like Cassie, I remember everything and tear myself into a sitting position on the bed.
Standing over her daughter's sleeping bag in the dark, Louise is heartlessly gouging through her eye and into her daughter's brain with her folded-up fan.
"Everyone up!" I scream, but I falter when no one responds.
"There's no point," Louise says, in a different tone and cadence than her usual self. I know this 'voice', one that has transcended many bodies. I am beginning to pick it up without having to be told.
"Holland." I grit my teeth, although they shake as if cold. "What have you done?"
"I killed them in their sleep when it was my turn to watch. Since my blood should save them like it did for Sam, they'll be back in under 24 hours. Not that it matters."
I look to Sam, who had been so close to me, and yet I had felt nothing, wasn't disturbed at all during my slumber. Sam's half of the sheets have blood on them, but it's barely perceptible. Every one of them was killed quickly and decisively, at such speed that they couldn't fight back.
"I took control of Louise days ago after I picked up on her unusual behavior. Good thing you didn't insist on her being present somewhere during the rescue. Can't be in two places at once. As for these morons, I pickpocketed Sue's blood and spiked it with a delayed tranquilizer, one that ensures uninterrupted sleep. Since you and Sam just drank water, I had to be more careful about you. I severed Sam's brain stem first, and it looks like you caught me just as I was finishing up with Cassie."
"How on earth could you kill that silently?"
"I've had many, many lifetimes of experience."
Holland shifts toward me. I move for the knife Sam got for me in my pants pocket at the floor, but he has my arm and twirls, whipping me into the glass of the vanity. I hear the cracks behind as if they're a part of myself and enter the worst coughing fit yet, blood pouring out like drool. It's overwhelming; I can't open my eyes, but I feel an inhumanly firm grip at my throat all the same. It's like a kink in a running water hose, and blood sprays against my palate and threatens to choke back down and stop all hope of breathing. That forces my eyes open, albeit blurry and blind.
"Your friends may have gotten a sneak attack on me," Holland says, "but it has already made you overconfident. You thought about this quite well, Mellie. I applaud the body searching part. But you forget something very important. The human body already has orifices. Chief among them, a mouth that can swallow poison. From there, I entered this body and controlled it without having to make a wound. Each time you've found a wound on a body I controlled, it was because I wanted you to."
Louise, controlled by Holland, lifts me by one arm still clamped at the throat and hurls me through the sliding glass door of the balcony. Painful chips of safety glass grind on my skin and I hear Louise's slippered feet make only a single loud crunch on the pieces before Holland has me up against the railing, then dangling over it like a fish. Knocked into survival mode, I try to attack the hand holding me up, even if its grip is the one thing protecting me from a fall.
"Now it's time to kill you again."
"Do it," I choke.
Holland hesitates and then throws me back toward the metal part in the door. It bends into a sideways V and several of my lower ribs break and crunch together into a union at my stomach, ripping through the tissue around it. The pain's dulling now. My body knows that more pain won't help.
"I'll break some more of your bones, and then take you to the beach," he says. "You'll die there, by dissolving."
"Why waste time?" I say, clawing on fingers that barely work up onto my hands and knees. "You can kill me now. Do it!"
Holland stands there. An idea grows more clear, shining atop the physical misery demanding that I say no more.
"You won't do it, will you?" I say with a drooling grin. "Or perhaps, it's that you can't."
"Consider more subtle possibilities. I prefer to deliver you to the Noctiluca. That is more productive."
I freeze. "Why tell me so much?"
"Because it doesn't matter now. You want this to end, but ironically, it's almost over anyway."
I don't like where this is going. Whatever Holland's version of things ending is, it can't be what we're trying to restore. Else, we wouldn't be enemies.
"You know what, Mellie?" Holland turns away and looks out to the lights of the city below, no longer as bright as they were before the creeping purple of dawn. It's a beautiful match for Louise's kimono. This might be the most beautiful way that I've died yet. "I'll do what you want. I will kill you now. And then we'll make things much simpler. No more games. No more murder mysteries. Since you became, what did you name it, Noctiluca Touched? It just isn't fun anymore."
All of this could be taken as Holland's defeat. He even sounds kind of sad. But I can't possibly take it that way. Holland's in control. Whatever awaits me in the next branch, I'm nearly pissing myself in fear. There's only one thing I can do, one act of defiance before it starts.
"Louise..." I manage to say. "I know you're in there."
Holland scowls, and then bony fingers crush me, a brutal necklace of knuckles.
I try to meet the eyes of my killer, and his victim, to say what I want Louise to know. It's okay. You can't control yourself when he has you. Don't blame yourself for what you're doing, for what you've done to everyone here... and to your daughter. It isn't you.
I don't know if she got the message by the time my spine ruptures and removes all control of my body. Then I'm left to lean against the railing and I watch the sunrise as my brain dies from suffocation.