Soon, my skin graces the sun-warmed cotton sheets of my bed. I'm waking up in my room. Yep, I guess I dissolved. Welcome to branch... 118, I guess.
This still doesn't seem real, but if one thing has remained stable in all of this, it's that I still refuse to accept that I'm crazy. Don't crazy people have completely illogical trains of thought? So far, this is more like a confusing but consistent phenomenon. Or maybe I'm lying to myself.
I walk into the shower and get myself ready for the day. Minutes later, as I'm brushing my teeth, an odd premonition crawls up from my feet. Since waking up, I've felt... disconnected from everything. Like I still haven't quite woken up.
My arm monotonously draws my electric toothbrush around and over my teeth. What happens next is too upsetting for my mind to contemplate, until it's happened several times.
I am trying to stop brushing, to put the toothbrush down. I like to spit out the gross foamy toothpaste a few times in between the process. But now I can't. I try to stop brushing, stop my arm from moving. I can't even control my eyes, can't blink. Although, I do, it's just not when I want to.
What is this? Am I in a dream? Have I lost control of my body somehow?
"Take a look for yourself," 'I' say aloud, after rinsing. Although, there's only one person it could really be.
Against my will, I toss my foot up onto the bathroom sink, allowing me to see the tiny, quarter-sized hole in the center of my foot, glowing blue and hollow on the inside.
Holland, no. Please, not this. This wasn't what we agreed.
My mouth, my voice, everything but my own self, move against my will as Holland replies.
"We agreed on a branch where I don't kill anyone. On a technical level, I haven't even killed you. I have taken your body as one of the two I can switch between, that is all. You're the only person I've taken so far. As long as I don't have to take up the appearance of anyone else, even you won't die. You'll remain bonded with me for this branch. And besides, I need to keep it this way. I don't need you seeing the real me, on the other side of your skin."
What do you intend to do, you fucking monster? Let me go, right now.
"The only way to free you from this is for me to transfer to someone else, and discard you. Then you'd end up just like Cassie."
The puddle of decomposed muck, identifiable as a human being only through forensics. What if that does happen to me? And what happens if this... is the last branch?
"Don't worry about that. I have good reason to doubt that it will be."
What does that mean? Tell me, you piece of shit. You have no right to do this, but you could at least explain yourself.
Underneath the cabinet at the sink, Holland reaches deep past the toilet paper and cleaning supplies. My hand grabs a smooth, curved object, and as it retreats I see a tea kettle, the same kind Ms. Collins uses.
"This is just ocean water," Holland says, I say, as he lifts my foot high on the sink again and tilts the kettle to pour something in. "It helps keep my strength up. Our body will disintegrate over time as we approach the bottleneck, but it can also dry out and grow stiff if I don't feed the Noctiluca. Sort of a symbiotic relationship, only we're a lot more dependent on it than it is on us."
The feeling of that water flowing over whatever is inside, how it channels easily up my raised leg and disappears, makes me retch. My face and diaphragm respond, but only for a second. Obtaining control is more like a confusing physiological reaction than something I can push for.
What do you intend to do?
"Make a point."
Breakfast, the menu tasting, it's all more or less the same, only subtly different and entirely forced. Every second of it I scream and struggle, but only internally. Dad is blinded by his daughter's happy smile and our regular rapport. If I could just get him to look close enough into my eyes, maybe...
No. I might as well be trapped in a tunnel of rock perfectly carved to my dimensions, where even wiggling my way forward or back is excruciating.
Before I know it, I'm getting off the bus and walking my way to the main corner entrance of the school courtyard. That's when I realize that I didn't come to school with my backpack. Did you make me leave it at school?
"You'll see," Holland says, ripping my dry lips into a smile as my hands move down against all resistance.
No. I swear to god, Holland, whatever you're planning, it won't make any point with me, do you understand? I will enact vengeance on you.
My shirt slips past my face and hair. I'm sure it's lying inside-out on the concrete somewhere behind me. The cold morning air on places not meant to be seen at school is repugnant. Distant students are pointing.
Fuck you. I will make you suffer.
"Let's see how long you hold that attitude," Holland says, stepping out of my shoes and peeling off my socks. My jeans are already undone, and soon I'm out of those as well. Some students are running away, probably to alert authorities that a student has lost her mind.
The ones with their phones out... the flashes, these images will be forever branded in my mind, I'm sure of it. Male, female, everyone has their reasons to see the Hornet at her breaking point, of course. If there's any reason humanity deserves to be eradicated, this is a contender.
My bra is being unclipped. Then it's gone. I hear gasps, and loud, approaching footfalls. More than any sound, I hear my heart pounding, a part of me that Holland can't control.
The second I've slipped my underwear off, someone's vinyl jacket is thrown over my back like a trap net. It's the dean, a white-haired old woman I once found slightly pathetic due to the clear outline of incontinence diapers under her pants. I guess I don't have much room to talk anymore.
Help me! I'm not in control. I would never do this. But no matter how much I want to shout these things, Holland just forces me to stare at her with a broken grin that dissolves the woman's anger. Behind that are pity and fear.
The dean, highly displeased, pulls me into the front offices past the gasps and craning necks of onlookers, forces my clothes back into my hands, and pushes me into the small bathroom there.
I can't believe I forgot about the first branch, or rather, the 115th. The first one I remember. Holland, using Sam's body, was able to visit me in my room, sneaking in undetected somehow. Now something like that must have been done, even earlier than today, when I gain consciousness in the new branch. I can be infected by Holland in any branch before I have any hope of stopping it.
"You're right about that," Holland makes me say as he dresses me again.
The first class has still not started by the time I'm seated in the principal's office, waiting for the consequences of the worst thing I can imagine happening. I have had nightmares of being naked at school for a long time, but nothing compares to the reality of it. It's like I am sinking, getting smaller, and fading all at once, through sheer desire to do so.
Apparently, the principal was busy with something, and he returns through loudly opening and shutting the door. Why he's approaching this with anger, I'm not sure. Does he honestly think I would do this for fun?
Where are you going with this, Holland?
"You have just done something that could land you in prison, Ms. Agnihotri," he growls, roughly pulling his wheeled chair away from his desk and over to me, sitting down only two feet across from my spot. "Does it occur to you that you're legally an adult, and that you exposed yourself to students, some of whom are minors?"
What, no answer, Holland? Whisper it to me. Show me what the lesson is.
"You better explain what brought this on. If not, I won't hesitate any further to involve the police." He sighs. "Look, you've been a good student, always have. I'm not assuming anything. To be honest, things like this can get very damaging to the school board's funding, if they blow up in the media. Preferably, we could handle this only with your father, yourself, me, and the dean. I think you'd prefer that as well, right?"
Holland makes me shake my head, and then this comes out of my mouth: "I'd prefer if it was just you and I who resolved it, sir."
"What are you—" he violently slides back in his chair in reaction to my hand caressing his thigh. He's stumbling now, walking into his chair and then desperately gripping the back for balance, as he stares wild-eyed at me, the whites of his eyes matching the reflection of two lights on his balding scalp. Then the part I really fear comes, as he loses his patience and reaches a judgment. "I expect much, much better of the students at Doctor's Grove than that, Ms. Agnihotri."
"Oh, I can do better."
"Your father is on his way. I expect you to start explaining yourself by the time he's here. Sit still in that chair and collect your thoughts." Despite it probably not being the professional thing to do, he leaves, slamming the door behind him. I think the proposition really flustered him.
Do you simply take pleasure in humiliating me, Holland? Because I don't give a fuck what you try. If this is just one branch, another layer that'll get peeled back and undone, then none of it matters.
"There will be more meaning if I don't explain it," Holland says, setting my hands in my lap and straightening my back like I'm some innocent schoolgirl now. "Let me know when you get the point."
A few minutes later, I am shocked by the sound of an impact and a body hitting the floor, outside the principal's office, followed by a hectic commotion and female screams. After what sounds like a small commotion that slowly dies, the door opens again and the principal walks through. Blood stains his white shirt in red pearls that dripped from his nose, which is now plugged with tissue paper. Behind him enters Dad, baring the hungry snarl of a wild animal.
I'm scared all over again. Anything involving Dad is probably going to be too much to handle. Holland, can't you be reasonable with me? I don't need to be humiliated in front of my father. What you've done has already humiliated him by proxy.
"Mellie!" Dad rushes over and drops to a knee to level our gazes. "This old pervert didn't do anything, did he?"
"No, Daddy," I'm forced to say, "he was just doing his job. I thought maybe I could squeeze in some fun before we get to the tough part, but he wasn't feeling it."
Dad's face sinks, dumbfounded and confused. Stop it, Holland. You can do whatever the hell you want to me. Send me to whore on the street every night, but don't make my dad guilty. He doesn't deserve any of this.
"I'm sorry," the principal says, standing aside of us. I can tell he feels vindicated, but still empathetic, to the father who just punched him in the face. "Well, Mellie, I've given you time. Now, you will either explain yourself, or I will call the police. What's it going to be?"
"I'll explain myself," I say calmly, despite my real self shrieking for help.
"Then please, go ahead—" the door opening again interrupts the principal. It's Sam, panting from what must have been a sudden, hectic run from class. "What are you doing here? Whatever you need will have to wait."
"Mellie!" Sam rushes past the principal and stops between my dad's back and him, hands out and low, unsure of what to do. He's heard what 'I' did. He reacted without thinking, and now he's worried that his presence will worsen things. "I..."
"Please, let him stay," Holland says through me. "He should hear this as well, since he's my best friend."
The principal casts a worried look to Sam, but he's already straightened up and accepted whatever it is 'I' have to tell him. "If it will encourage you to be cooperative... then very well." He walks over and locks the door, however, probably to set four as the cap to this little party. "Let's start simple. Why did you do that?"
"I decided that I will no longer hide what I am."
"And what exactly are you, in your opinion?"
"An insect. Something insignificant and disgusting, worthy of scrutiny under a microscope."
The principal digs deeper before Dad or Sam can react. "And why did you feel the need to express these feelings so graphically?"
"I needed to draw attention, for what I'm about to say. Nothing else really sets the stage right."
"Mellie, whatever this is, talk about it with me first," Dad whispers.
"No, I have to let the world know what I am, and why." Holland commands my lungs to take a breath, in and out. "Jessica Nicholson, Ian Chen, and Jose Quintero."
The principal's eyes widen and he moves to a filing cabinet, sorting through records to find those students. It shouldn't be difficult since they all belong in a special, very small category of papers. These are names he probably remembers, students who have probably sat here, just like I have.
Stop it. Please. What do you get out of making me say this?
"Those three students," I say, "were falsely accused and expelled for cheating on exams, and assisting other students in cheating. All three of them were innocent. I set them up."
The principal drops the Manila folder back into the drawer he was pulling it from and turns to me, as Dad stands up and steps back. His thoughts have crashed, unable to go in any particular emotional direction from hearing just how terrible his daughter is. Based on what Holland's done so far, it's about to get a lot worse.
"Why?" Sam's the one who finally asks, breaking the silence.
"For Camden," I'm forced to say. "For all the time that I knew Camden in high school, I was his biggest proponent, supporter, and defender. But deep down, being his girlfriend, I saw the other side of him."
Stop this. You have no right, Holland.
"I knew Camden since we were both five. He was a sweet, sensitive boy. But in high school, something changed, in that last month or so we were together, before he vanished. Camden became a thug and abuser, of me especially, but also others. And I helped him. For eighteen months people have missed him, and as much as I do, too, I knew he didn't deserve it. Those who I made take the fall for him, they didn't deserve that either. I was blinded by love. No, it wasn't even love. I just called it that to comfort myself when really it was more like fear and Stockholm syndrome, only a fucked-up version where even the hostage is barely wanted and called useless. You name it, I did it for him. I cut out my dignity and served it to him. That's how good of a person he was, for over a decade, as we grew up. I thought none of the bad stuff mattered, that Camden was just going through a hard phase and I could get him out of it before he landed himself in jail. I thought no one could understand the 'love' we had, and that we'd be closer than ever when he saw the light. And because of my stupidity and ignorance, people suffered."
"Are you saying the three students I expelled were close to exposing Camden?" the Principal asks, completely calm. "That's why you framed them?"
"Yes. Or rather, that's what Camden told me. It might not have even been true. Maybe he just had a grudge against each of them, and he made up that reason to get me to do it."
"That does sound more logical," he says, scratching his chin. "None of them ever mentioned Camden."
I'm begging you, Holland. You win. Just stop here and I'll do what you want. What does it take?
"There was even a time when Camden wanted to rob a store. You remember that one robbery that happened back in October, two years ago?"
"Wait, you mean the one on the news?" Dad shouts.
"Yes. That was Camden and me. He didn't really need money or want anything in particular at the store. When I asked why he wanted to do it, he just said 'Doesn't it sound exciting?' He downplayed the impact, said a few hundred dollars taken from one store wouldn't be the end of the world. Personally, I think he somehow got an addiction to the danger. I kind of felt it too, vicariously."
"This needs to stop," Dad says.
"No, please do not interfere," the principal says, clearly implying that to do so would make the legality of this worse.
"He put me in charge of the gun. It was just blanks. That was supposed to help in the rare case that we were caught and taken to court. But putting me in charge was surely a way to offset the risk on himself. Still, I was a good little lamb and fired that gun. I got to see how scared the clerk got, the cigarettes falling over from behind him, the snot and piss running out when I kept the pistol trained on him. To be extra safe, I wasn't aiming at him, but slightly off. You never know, right? Once Camden got the money and we were out of there, driving in a random direction, no destination, he stopped in some part of town I had never seen, and on a whim, gave all the money to some homeless guy by a dumpster. Dropped it on him. Guy hadn't even woken up by the time we were out of sight. That's when he said to me 'There, that ought to balance out the karma, right?' I felt so bad for him. I couldn't get Camden to explain why he wanted to disrupt everything around him. Of course, I can get lost down one train of thought, and when I pushed too hard to get him to tell me, he'd abuse me. He didn't hit me, not then, but man, he had an incredible memory. He could drag out these lists of hundreds of things about me that were flawed, reasons he was considering just dumping me. I'm not fit enough, yet I need to eat more. I'm probably cheating, and yet I'm too much of a prude who won't do everything he wants. I don't talk to enough people, but if I so much as made eye contact with another guy by mistake, he'd somehow know and then it got really bad. There was no winning, and yet somehow I stayed in this fantasy world where I perpetually thought I was still hanging on, still had a chance, and that he was a great guy for continuing to give me one."
All of this is true. Thinking back on it, I suppose it's also why I reacted so strongly to the knowledge that Sam was being abused and manipulated. I know the sheer pit it becomes, like a well. You trick yourself into staying in, that there's no point calling out to the surface. He said he would get out on his own, and I knew, from experience, that he probably wouldn't commit to that. I know that if someone had ever found out about Camden's behavior while we were still together, the first thing I'd say is not to worry about me or make a fuss and that I was getting out of it soon.
"I'm pretty sure his disappearance has something to do with suspicion rising too much. Or maybe he was safe, but got paranoid and felt like skipping town. In either case, he just vanished on the 18th of the same month. Left his parents and me behind. Nothing remained for me to take closure from. That's when reality started to sink in. I am less than worthless, a net negative on society. And once it started to soak in, how much of an idiot I am, I had no one to talk to. Every encounter with Camden's parents, I was one sudden movement away from throwing up. Having to act like he was perfect, and that what happened was a tragedy, and knowing I still wanted to believe that. Two months into him being missing, I couldn't take it anymore. I was sure he abandoned me. Still am. I tried to kill myself."
Dad grunts in agony and covers his face with a hand. He remembers this part.
"I got put on suicide watch, eventually got diagnosed and prescribed. Even afterward, I had really strong nightmares. I don't have to take the meds anymore. Not because I'm fully recovered. There's no recovering for me. Eventually, I figured it out: I don't deserve the release that killing myself would bring. All I have earned is the right to live on in agony. But the problem is, I couldn't commit to that. Real agony would be to face what I've done, to endure the scorn and humiliation of all my secrets being exposed. But for months, I avoided it, pretended I still had dignity, that I had gotten better and didn't need to torture myself. But it was all built on sand. The real problem with me is not that I did those things. It's that no one knew, that I had a full lease to live on with no hindrance, and I squandered it. I couldn't overcome the guilt, and now everyone calls me the Hornet, thinks I'm naturally unfriendly and antisocial. Not that they're wrong. And this morning, I woke up and knew that it was time to end the charade. Nothing special about it. Nothing happened, really. Like a divine message, I just knew, this is where my comfortable life ends. Please tell Camden's parents that I apologize, both for keeping this locked away and for finally releasing it, because I'm sure both will hurt them. So, yeah, that's the deal. Whether I just let things proceed from here or kill myself for good... we'll see—"
A hand whips my cheek, and I feel the sting all in my jaw and opposite ear. Sam just slapped me. I'm sorry. I never wanted you to know. Never wanted anyone to. I'm being forced to admit this, Sam. Can you see that?
No, of course you can't.
"I'm sorry, Mellie," the principal said, sitting at his desk and pulling his phone from the unit. "But I'm going to have to report this to the police."
Holland makes me nod, and my hearing fades, barely capturing the sounds of Dad trying to negotiate with him.
It's been three days. Holland hasn't done much, mostly just force me to stand around, behave normally, and witness the fallout of my life. He's given me control back at times, so that's apparently something he can do with his victims. I guess at this point, it doesn't matter if I'm in control. No one would believe anything I say.
I'm back in the same hospital I was in suicide watch for, over a year ago, and once again the length of the stay is not clear. I was tested, of course, and my doctor decided that my major depressive disorder was back and raring to go, with a new sidekick of borderline personality disorder. The doctor thinks I always had these things, but my newly exposed past with Camden grew and matured them into ongoing problems that I couldn't handle on my own. I struggled with this for 18 months, and then finally cracked.
Do I agree with any of that? No. But I wasn't the one in control during the testing.
This is all what you want. But I still don't get the message, Holland.
I'm in the same ward as before, though not the same room. It reminds me of travel. Nasty green wallpaper and a stiff bed worthy of a motel, and, of course, anal retentive searching and sectioning of your belongings that could put airport security to shame.
When it comes to psych wards or entire mental hospitals, there are two very distinct experiences you can have.
1. You admitted yourself.
2. Someone with authority admitted you, and there's nothing you can do about it.
My experience has only been with #2. Fortunately, Holland has the decency to make me act amenable to this treatment. It wouldn't be in character if I wasn't. Apparently, branch 118 is the one where Mellie Walsh destroys her life. As long as I die in 12 days, I don't care.
I'm wearing my typical clothes. Yellow t-shirt, black jeans. Most clothes that don't have violent imagery are okay, but no belts or strings, so I'm stuck with flip-flops for shoes.
Right now, I'm in control. I have been ever since they admitted me. But I'm not going to do anything special. I don't want to show Holland any signs of what I would like to do. For example, if I go out for a walk in the garden, or play chess with another patient, or even watch videos on my phone, that will show the bastard that that's what I like to do, therefore something he could stop me from doing to be cruel. Better to keep lying flat on my bed like this.
I take a glance at the tracking bracelet on my nightstand. While in their rooms, patients don't have to wear them, but they have to put it on in order for the door to unlock, and it sets off an immediate alarm if you take it off while outside. I heard it's kind of controversial, but there's not much interest in making mental hospitals better. I think most people, when they think of places like this, still imagine pale white walls and lobotomies, and they're somehow okay with that.
There's a knock at the door and a nurse enters. One of the older ones, damn. The older ladies get this sad look in their eyes around me, I guess because they see me as a sign that the younger generation is in trouble.
"Ms. Walsh? Time for lunch." They're not so bad, I suppose. They're more experienced and they remember that I prefer my father's last name over my mother's, so that's nice.
"Right. Off we go." It still feels nice to do and say things in the way I want to, and that's the only solace I have now.
I don't really have any choice but to eat what this place offers, and like any hospital, it's not great, and it follows a rotation of things I wouldn't go out of my way to make for myself. Still, getting out into the cafeteria is something to do. You might be getting the impression that staying in a mental hospital is not far away from ordinary high school life, and frankly, you'd be right. I still go to classes, and I have a strict schedule on where I have to be, only much more so.
The biggest problem with this place, something that eats at me and wasn't a factor one year ago, is that I don't want to be here. I know I'm not crazy. Yeah, sure, they all say that, right? But I'm seriously not. I was literally forced to act the way I did.
Suddenly, Dad calls my phone. It's set to vibrate, so no one notices, and I'm in the corner, so I don't think anybody would notice. Obviously, the logical thing is to wait until I'm done eating, go back to my room, and call him back, but he's busy like anyone else. This might be my only chance for today to talk to him without keeping him up at night.
"Hey, sweetie," he says, amid a background chatter of Indian brothers laughing and shouting out info. "How's your day going?"
"Good. I've done my classes for today."
"Yeah? How were they?"
"Okay. Still not really used to talking about myself in a group setting, but they say I respond well to it anyway."
Also, this place is terrible with patient confidentiality. Somehow it must have leaked that I exposed myself in school because male patients talk to me all the time and ask if they can paint my picture. Art classes are still nice, though. I got good at drawing with dull charcoal pencils the first time I stayed here.
"I miss you a lot," I say.
"I miss you more."
After it got out that Dad hit the principal, the hospital has been really strict on him visiting. They've kind of forced him to back off, letting him visit only once, after I was settled in two days ago. Haven't seen him since then, but he's still allowed to call me, and I'm still allowed to have my cell phone, as long as I don't take calls or show it in the presence of other patients. Better not press my luck for too long.
"How's the food?" Dad asks.
He laughs. "Well, we'll have a big party when you're out—"
"—Don't... do that, please. I appreciate the thought, really. Maybe after I've been back for a while. But when I come home, I want everything to be normal. Like this never happened."
"Of course, honey. I wasn't thinking."
God damn it. Even though it's wonderful to hear from him, it hurts just as much. I can't stop thinking of how late he must stay up, reading one article after another that tells him this isn't his fault, and that nothing has changed for the worse. How is a parent supposed to believe that?
"Well, I'm taking a call from somewhere I technically shouldn't," I say.
"Oh, well don't let me get you in trouble."
"Can we talk tonight? When you're off work?"
"Of course. I love you."
"Love you too." I wait until he's hung up. I can't do it. Once he has, I get back to my soupy mashed potatoes.
Dad's the only family member I'd want to visit, and the hospital won't even let him. I don't want the rest of my family, all the Indians on my mother's side, getting involved in this. It was hard, but I think I managed to communicate that I'm fine and I don't want them to take the time for my sake. The real reason, though, is that they're too separated from this side of the world. They probably want to bust me out of this place and take me to a temple, thinking that will 'cure' me.
Much as this feels like hell, I really don't want to talk about god with anyone.
A few minutes later, once I'm back in my room, I rip off my bracelet and go to toss it on the nightstand, but stop myself. I apparently had a gift delivered, now blocking my bracelet's usual resting place.
There's a clear vase filled with water and gorgeous primrose, lazily placed off-kilter by a nurse, I'll bet. But who would send me my favorite flowers? I instantly recall the corsage Drew got me, the tender, creamy yellow of key-lime pie and autumn gold centers.
As I marvel amid the touch of the petals, I notice a blue envelope with a heart sticker over the seal. I open it carefully. Even this outer wrapping, a medium for safe delivery, feels like a precious artifact.
Inside is a card, handmade from thick, glossy printer paper. It's loaded with collaged letters and shapes, spelling "Wishing You Well." Whoever made it has a strong interest in airplanes, skies, and clouds. When I open it up, I gasp. There's an actual pop-up of a bright, cartoony sun at the top and center.
Again, let me say that this is homemade.
I read the letter, and it is definitely long enough to be called one, typed professionally within both inner pages.
You probably don't know me. My name is Soo-jin, but sort of like with your name, I prefer that people shorten it to "Sue", and spell it that way. I'm a sophomore, so one year behind you.
Although I've spoken English probably as long as you have, I've never been very good at writing, or English as a class. The things I want to say don't come out quite right. Sorry if this is awkward. I'm much better at making pretty stuff, I think. Maybe you can relate, since you're an artist?
I made this card for you because I heard a little about what happened. At first I was worried that I was being nosy because I didn't hear about anyone else sending you anything. But, well, it's hard to explain why I'm doing this.
Okay, I've stopped writing and came back to this the next day, and now I've got it. I'm kind of worried about the future grades, junior and senior year, I mean. They just seem so stressful. I'm not saying you're in hospital care just from school or anything. They won't really talk about why. The principal has been shutting down any rumors, hardcore. I think he respects you a lot, and he'd probably contact you like I have, if it wasn't so risky for him.
I'm rambling, I think. What I was getting at is that when I heard about something like this happening to a well-known and respected upperclassman, it worried me a lot—
Well-known and respected? Huh? What planet is this girl from?
—Just from having the same fear of that happening to me. So it felt like I needed to reach out. Does that make any sense?
I know what she's getting at, even if she doesn't. This is SAT and college application time, pretty much the worst part of your life to explode like I did and end up a repeat psych patient. This Sue seems like a very sensitive girl, and I feel bad that my own business is making her worry.
Actually, I think I never would have met this girl, had I not been taking this path, this branch. Having a mental breakdown and exposing myself to the entire school seems to inspire her to act. This might have something to do with Holland's point, so I should pay attention.
She's quite a charmingly goofy sort, though. Although she typed up this letter, obviously, the language is a little childish, and it's got all sorts of stumbles and rambling spots like it was hand-written by someone with only one piece of paper.
OMG, I can't believe I forgot to write this earlier. I'm one of Drew's friends! That's how I knew to get those primroses. Do you like them? I hope they look nice in your room. He's also a really great artist, and he said you'd love primroses for sure. I asked if someone told him that, and he said no, he just knew! Between you and me, Drew's really cute, and I think you two should maybe meet up and talk. He likes you a lot, and he's been really worried. Don't tell him I spilled that, though, he'd flip. Also, he might ask you if he can visit in the next few days. I hope you're feeling up to it. It would really make his day if he got to see you. He's got this super fun idea that I bet you'll love.
She must be talking about the exhibit. How coy of her, to not spoil it until I'm talking about it in person. A visit from Drew would certainly be nice. The thought that even after this, he wants anything to do with me is... I don't know.
I put my number at the end of this. I don't really know if I should tell you to do anything. That doesn't seem right. But somehow I felt this urge to send you this because you're an awesome artist, you're important to people (like Drew), and I think you maybe don't realize those things enough? Forgive me if that's wrong. I'm just saying, if you think you're alone, or that you don't matter, or that you're not impressive to anybody that's NOT TRUE!!! I look up to you, and I know a lot of people in my classes that do. It might be different in your class, for one reason or another, but there are underclassmen who care. Like me.
Hopefully this doesn't come across too conceited. This isn't exactly a letter, but I'll go ahead and ask a few questions. Do you like the primroses? How has your stay been so far? Do you have any sense of how much longer it will be? Are you making friends there? Do you get to draw or paint there? Also, do you have to use those kiddie dulled scissors for paper crafts? I hate those.
Call or text if you ever feel like answering! 🙂
This wasn't some afterthought of a school assignment. In such a case, I'd have gotten a whole class's worth of these, and in much lower quality. She spent hours on this thing. Days, technically, since she stopped writing and came back to it later. It makes me think that greeting cards should become a more respected form of art.
My eyes hurt because they want to cry and the medication fights tear production as a side effect. I have never felt this kind of pain before.
Somebody cares. A stranger. Even if I didn't know about them at all, and even if their gesture had nothing to precede it, people can care.
I stay curled up in bed with the card and end up falling asleep, forgetting to call Dad.
Holland doesn't interfere when I decide to call Sue the next day, right after dinner.
"Hello?" the girl's voice is naturally high, but breathy.
"Uh, hi, this is Mellie Walsh."
"I got your card yesterday. The flowers, too. It was really touching. Thank you so much."
"Not at all, I whipped the thing together on a few free hours after school and hired one of those delivery services for flowers to bring along the letter." She pauses. "I wish I could've delivered it myself—"
"—It's more than anyone else has done," I say. Perhaps that's too vulnerable, but I have to remember that I'm a mental patient again. I shouldn't hide anything, or it could get ripped out later, kicking and screaming, in therapy.
"Well, I meant every word of it. So, uh, I'm actually hanging out with Drew right now. Would you be interested in talking to him?"
"Sure, if I'm not interrupting something."
"Great. Drew, phone's for you..." Sue puts a teasing emphasis on that statement. Soon I hear the familiar, comforting, easy-going tone of the school's best painter.
"Hello? This is Drew."
"Hi, this is Mellie."
"Oh." His voice heightens. "Hello. You prefer Lee, right?"
"Yeah," I say. He's nervous talking over the phone. Whether that's because of my situation or just a quirk of his, I'll never know.
"I was hearing about the card Sue made earlier. Did you like it?"
"Yeah, I loved it. It was one of the most heartfelt things anyone has ever done for me."
"Sounds like Sue, alright."
"She must be a nice friend to have." In fact, I'm kind of confused as to why he never mentioned her, in all the time we spent together in the school art room.
"She's one of the few students I know of who looks outside her grade to meet people. Even though you and I are both a grade above, she doesn't let it intimidate her. She doesn't look down or feel too old to talk to freshmen, either. We could do with more of that attitude in a place as segmented as high school, I feel."
"It's funny, I probably wouldn't have even agreed, until yesterday."
"Well, I'm glad her efforts were happily received."
"Anyway, her card mentioned some idea you had?"
Over the phone, Drew and I have a similar conversation to the one I've had with Lye twice now. I play suitably coy as if the idea of the exhibit is new and unfamiliar to me, but in my head, I'm already thinking up ideas.
"I'm so excited that you're going through with it," he says, definitely more energetic than usual. "I'll be sure to tell Mr. Lye. He and I can visit and bring you a canvas. You know, it's probably out of the question that you could leave to go to the art room after school. But do you think it'd be possible to have me visit your place after school? To work on mine, while you do yours?"
"You mean... regularly?"
"If it's not a problem for the hospital... and of course only if you're comfortable—"
"—I'll mention it to my doctors and instructors. I think they'll be fine with it. Just call and mention it as well. If I've warmed them up to the idea, there should be no problem with regular, scheduled visits. The only thing they don't like here is unannounced visits."
"Right. Well, I'd be sure to call and double check each time."
"Great. So you and Lye are coming tomorrow, is that the plan?"
"Yep. I'll give you my number through Sue's phone. Go ahead and add us both."
"You got it. Looking forward to it, Drew. And thanks."
"No, thank you. I'm really eager to work with another artist on my level."
"So, one last question," I say. "I'm not gonna be able to... go to the Dance. Therefore, I won't be at the actual exhibit. Is that okay?"
"Oh." I can hear his disappointment. "Well, you're doing something much more important right now. It's no big deal. I can campaign for you, the day of."
"Although, I would ask that if it's feasible, you try and get permission to go. You won't regret it if you do. I promise."
I nod, starting to smile for the first time in a while. "I'll ask, then."
To my surprise, Sue doesn't come along with Lye and Drew to deliver my canvas the next day, and Lye doesn't stick around, although I'm sure he's busy marketing. Showing up at all tells me just how nice the guy is when Holland isn't controlling him. A bit stare-y, but nice.
Drew brings his own canvas as well, so we're able to work together in the smaller, brighter, windowless art room of the hospital.
"Thanks again for letting me work with you," Drew says, setting up his easel and squirting dabs of acrylic on his palate. "I'm already seeing new ways to improve my painting, working in this new lighting."
"Really, it's fine. I should be thanking you. So, yeah, thanks."
"I guess we can both quit saying that, huh? It's starting to get awkward."
"Sure," I say with a smile.
"So, any ideas so far?"
"Well, let's see. I've done nature, human subjects... I'm kind of itching to do something geometric. Something constructed."
"That would make a great contrast for mine," he says with a wink.
"You'd better watch out, then. Crazy people make some of the best artists."
Drew laughs, nervously. There's a dead lull in the conversation. He's gone very far into my world. He's been brave. But just like for me, it'll still take some time to acclimate, to find what's okay to say and what isn't.
Case in point, what he says next.
"You know... I've been hearing a lot of rumors passed around in school."
"Not much of a surprise. Sue said the principal is fighting to keep it under wraps. Rumors are only natural."
"Well, do you mind if I ask whether certain ones are true? Particularly about... Camden."
My stomach tightens. I want to just avoid talking about this, but at the same time, rumors don't stay accurate for long. I'd prefer for misinformation not to spread. I can trust Drew not to gossip, though, and I don't want him to anyway. It's all mixed up in my skull.
"I heard that Camden was abusive." Well, just gonna drop it right on my feet, huh? "That he... manipulated you into helping him commit a crime. People aren't sure what exactly, and I don't want to know, either."
I found out, a few months after Camden disappeared, that the three victims I framed for him all moved out of state with their families, to start over. Perhaps considering their distance now, the principal and police have decided to drop the matter. A few cheating students isn't a big enough deal to cross state lines.
It might be the same scenario for the robbery. That or the police don't trust my possible testimony of being the one who helped him rob the store. Camden and I were both well disguised, so they only have my word to go on.
"What do you want to know?" I don't say it in a welcoming way.
He's been silent and frowning, soaking in the lack of denial regarding the abuse, but then he answers. "I guess my question is 'why?' Why stay with him when he's hurting you?"
I could give fake reasons or incomplete ones. The same "I can't leave him, I love him." shit that women say all the time on TV. Sure, I did love Camden, since we were ten. It just happened. And I continued to love the person he was, before he changed. It was only a few months of abuse, compared to an entire childhood of him being my only friend.
But there's more too it than that, things that make me sick as they even begin to revisit the forefront of my thoughts. No, I can't do this.
"I'm sorry, Drew. I can't give you an answer. I don't have one."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't actually know why I stayed with him."
"Is that a fact?" he leans to the side on his chair, and past his easel and canvas, I can see frighteningly sharp eyes. Skeptical. I didn't realize he was this good at reading people.
"Part of the problem is the difference between what people think and what I know. Camden was a kind person, but no one has any reason to trust me on that, now that the truth is more or less out there."
"Well, I get that he was kind. But then he wasn't. Can you really value the behavior of the past over how your relationship turned out?"
I don't answer.
"I don't think it's natural to bottle things up." I remember him saying something like that in the first branch. At least he's consistent in his annoying traits.
"It's not bottled up, it's set aside, and it has been for a long time. Please, Drew, I don't want to talk about Camden, okay?"
"That's a bit odd, considering that you chose to do so several days ago."
That pisses me off, but he's not wrong. Holland forced me to expose everything about my relationship with him. Perhaps I could just go with that.
"Look, I wasn't in a healthy state of mind then, as you can surely guess. Talking about Camden hurts, and I'm fully aware that what I did in school was reckless and dangerous. I have returned to my senses."
"Can I just ask one more question?"
I sigh. "Yes. Can't promise an answer, though."
"You knew him far before, right?"
"Since we were both five, yeah."
"Why did he change so much, so suddenly?"
I stare hard at him, and he adds more words, carefully, and without softening his tone.
"What I mean is, do you believe there was some reason that he was behaving differently toward you in those brief months before he vanished, that he wasn't himself? Perhaps that someone... forced him to do what he did, for some reason?"
My eyes widen and I'm running my mouth before I can stop. "You do realize you're feeding conspiracy theories to a mental patient, right?" This time, he doesn't respond. I sit back and look up at the popcorn ceiling. "Yeah. That's what I think happened. I believe that someone forced him to do what he did." I can't explain exactly what I think it is, about Holland and the Noctiluca, but that has given me a definite answer I can confide in, even if it's not proven yet.
"I see." Drew returns to his painting. "I suppose that's comforting enough. Thank you."
He doesn't sound happy, though. In fact, he seems to be hiding just as much as I am. Something tells me it's more serious than what I already know from the first branch, too.
"Drew," I ask. "Did I say something that offended you?"
"No," he says quickly, without letting my words interrupt his brush strokes. "You've done what you can, I can tell. Don't worry about me. Some things, you just can't help."
What is that supposed to mean? The pessimistic side of me wants to believe that he's being intentionally mysterious as some kind of vindication, but could it really be that?
After an hour or so of silence, Drew says he's done for today. After giving his canvas a few minutes to dry, he packs it up. My whole body tenses at the sight of it.
"You're not going to leave it in the art room here?" I say.
"Oh, well, I might want to check on it or do some work outside of my visits."
"But it's not dry."
"I'll be careful. I only worked on the middle today."
I remember how opening up to Drew and telling him what I was going through in the first branch got him a lot closer to me. That probably helped convince him to confess to me, as well. But I didn't realize that our relationship was predicated on that information and that not telling him what he wanted to know would make him give up on me again.
Is that just the kind of guy he is, after all? Or am I freaking out and assuming way too much?
No, I must be. In the first branch, as the world was falling apart, he didn't want to hear about my past with Camden. He respected that. So what's got him acting differently now?
And is he going to come back after all? He's out of here before I ask, and I'm too nervous about asking over the phone.
I get my answer in the following two days. Each time, Drew doesn't show up to work alongside me. The staff I asked had no record of a 'Drew' calling to schedule more visits.
Still, at least on the second day I have something to distract myself with: Sam is visiting.
"How are you doing?" he asks, giving me a human straight-jacket of a hug. It's like I'm algae growing along the pathways of his chiseled front. He's visited while I was doing my scheduled outside time in the gardens, and although there are orderlies positioned to keenly watch, I'm not actually holding up a chaperon by standing here with him under the shaded gazebo. Don't get me wrong, I had to actually meet him at the family lobby in the front and lead him over here, on the other side of the property, but I didn't want to start a conversation in a place with so many eyes and ears.
I always wondered why Sam was so shy about showing his body. I got the answer when we made love in the woods. Sure, he had little bruises here and there, stuff the unassuming would not think much of. But I think he's ashamed of his body. Bulging muscles take the place of any semblance of fat. You could sneak a photo of his abs and sell it to some shitty romance novelist for a cover. They'd assume it was an amateur photo edit. He looks a little too close to starved, underneath that shirt. He needs more cakes, stat!
This is one long hug, isn't it? I tap his back like I'm submitting, and he lets go.
"I'm sorry for not visiting sooner," he says, sitting down with me at the plastic table. Out around us, my eyes can barely see anything, adjusted to the shade here. It reminds me of when I was tripping in the second branch and got paranoid of sunlight, calling it The Bright. In some freakish interpretation of space-time, that happened only a few days ago.
"Not a lot of outdoor types here, I take it?" he asks, looking around at apparently a lack of other patients.
"It's a bit hot. That's why I wanted to talk here. Not crowded."
"We could've gone to your room."
"You're not seeing my room," I say with a nervous grin.
"Do they not allow that?"
"Nope." That's a lie. In lesser cases like me, they don't mind visitors entering patient rooms. It's not rational, but I just can't let anyone see the evidence that I live here, even though I myself qualify as that. "Anyway, thank you for coming out here. I think you've earned a black forest cake, mister."
"You don't have to reward me, Lee, I was worried." He looks to me, waiting. "You're not going to ask what kept me too busy to visit earlier?"
"Not unless... you're okay with telling me." I now know about the life chained around Sam, his dog-napping parents, being stuck working a firewood business, and the pressure to whore himself out to a rich brat named Cassie Urd so her wealthy family will give his parents a legal parachute. He never told me about any of it until I stuck my neck out and walked into his backyard.
"No, it's okay," Sam replies. "You're dealing with enough, and it wouldn't be right to pass my problems onto you." He looks straight ahead, toward the giant aloe plants. "Actually, I already have something to tell you, and I really wish I didn't."
"What is it?"
"It's about your father."
"He's not in trouble is he?" I snap. "Did someone make a fuss about the punch?"
"No, nothing like that. It's just something he's dealing with. To be honest, I don't think he'd be happy with me, telling you about this."
"Well, you can't hide something about my dad from me," I say, voice low. "I can take it. Please."
"He's not going to visit you again."
I hear the light creak of molded plastic on metal as my body sinks back against the tabletop. "He's not?"
"We've been talking, him and I, and that's what he intimated."
"Mellie... before I tell you this, I want you to remember: I am recounting what someone else said. What he says, and the way he says it, is not what I think or how I'd say it."
"Yeah, I get that. Come on."
He sighs. "He said to me that he's ashamed." When my whole body goes limp, he quickly continues. "Of himself! Not you!"
I almost laugh from relief. Might seem like a small thing to other daughters out there, or daughters of bad fathers, but if my dad was ashamed of me, I would consider myself a failure.
"He shouldn't blame himself for this," I say, fingers digging into my knees. "It has nothing to do with him. This sort of thing doesn't come entirely from upbringing or genetics."
"That's not quite what he meant," Sam says. "He told me... your mother also suffered from mental illness."
A mention of my mother leaves me still for a moment. I want to fire back "I'm not mentally ill," but I know better.
"It was what your dad said, remember," Sam adds. I smile, thankful he hasn't agreed with the general medical consensus, and that he still sees me as a sane and reliable person.
"My dad has never told me that about my mom, ever. He only ever had positive things to say." Telling the truth, that is what made me suspect that my mom was a heartless, selfish animal who abandoned her family out of some bubble-headed sense of being 'constricted' by marriage. I never got any hints from dad's stories that she had actual psychological issues. I thought she just left, completely of sound mind, but devoid of morals.
"There was a note my mom left my dad, that he never let me see," I think aloud. "It was obvious the note would ruin the way he wanted me to imagine her, but I didn't think it was because she was mentally unwell. Did he say what she had?"
"She never saw anyone professional about it. But there were signs, and in his opinion, he ignored them, and he thinks she would still be around, that you would still have a mother, if he had done something."
"My god... honestly, I could see it. My mother's side of the family has never been very understanding about that sort of thing, and Dad said she wasn't very skilled, socially. He might have been all she had, and it wasn't enough." For the first time, I can slightly empathize with the sentiment of my father not being enough, even if it still offends me.
"I think," Sam says, "that's why he was thorough about getting you help, after Camden. Anyway, he told me... that he is a worthless father, for not being able to help yet again. He said 'I might lose her, too.'"
"He hasn't lost me!" I shout. "How can he blame himself? Is that why he's not visiting?"
"It's a reason. This place doesn't have a high opinion of him anyway. But I think he's in shock, Lee. Over what happened. I don't believe he'll be able to simply roll this off as an occurrence he couldn't have prevented."
"I need to call him." Once I have my phone out, Sam's reaching out for it and I instinctively draw it away. He's always had slow reflexes. "What the fuck?"
"You can't talk with him about this right now, trust me," he says.
"Why? Cause he'll kill you?
"He wants to try distancing himself, at least while you recover. That's why he's only going to call every so often. Feel free to call him, although I wouldn't overdo it. Can you handle this without him, for a little while? I mean, you have plenty of resources here, it's kind of what this is for, taking you away from your normal home life for a while. Your dad can get his bearings, and maybe away from your regular family interaction you'll get some breakthroughs."
"Sam, you're not making any goddamn sense."
"I'm begging you not to tell him. It'll only hurt him."
Grimacing, I nod and put my phone away. That was definitely a risky move he just made, grabbing at a patient's phone, and my adjusted eyes see a few orderlies watching from a closer distance, like a white-suited version of stalking government agents.
"This fucking sucks," I say, voice breaking. "I can't even slam a fist on this kindergarten table, or they'll sedate me and mark it on my record."
"Your dad loves you more than anything. That much is clear. He's strong, too. I promise you, I'm talking to him every day. We've formed a closer friendship, and I know that he's staying strong for you. He got it in his head that he needs to keep scarce, and I believe you should just let him explore that for a while. I'm sure he'll come around. I'm working on it."
"What would any of us do without you?" I say, looking into his eyes. "I'm a big girl, I can handle not seeing my dad for a while. But I'm gonna need a replacement."
His face sinks into a hilariously confused frown.
"That didn't come out right at all," I say.
"That certainly brought some images to mind."
"Forget about that, perv. Just tell me... I know it's selfish. But are you able to visit again, soon?"
"I'll visit you every day."
"Wait, no, that's not... your already helping my dad and you have your own problems, remember?"
"What do you think I was taking care of for the past few days?" he says. "I'll be able to visit every day. I'll tell you how your dad's doing, too, and what we talked about recently. Is that alright, to you?"
I shouldn't say yes. I can't imagine the added trouble Sam must have to go through, to make several hours for me. Will his parents retaliate? What if word spreads outside the hospital, and Cassie gets the wrong idea, and then her parents do something? It wouldn't even be the wrong idea, really, because I know why he's doing this, have since the second branch. I thought it was something milder, that grew after I reached out to save him. But that's all been undone. Now I need saving, and he's doing something far more costly and meaningful than taking a video of an attempted rapist. This man refuses to be scared off by the complexities of his own life and mine.
This man loves me. He doesn't know it yet, but I love him, too.
"More than alright. Thank you."
I'm not that stupid. I know that even as I welcome Sam deeper into the madness around me, Holland could take control at any point and make me do something horrible. It's possibly the most irresponsible thing I've ever done. But then again, this might be exactly what Holland is going for, and if I tried to avoid it, he would step in and steer us on this path anyway. In that sense, is it better not to fight it, and to do what I want to do? Talk about doing a 180 on my last strategy. But this isn't about how I spend my time in a psych ward. It's about Sam.
I've always been afraid of how my mind wanders, and my emotions slip, and I've never thought of myself as particularly in control. If I remind myself of that, it helps me deal with the monster infesting me, ignoring the implications. Maybe... this is not too different from how I always am.
I got by in all of this by telling myself I'm not crazy. But it's harder now. Especially when you're alone with the knowledge and memories I have.
Sam really does come back tomorrow. I'm glad he did, because I get no contact from Drew, yet again, and it feels like breaking the rules, somehow, to push for Drew's attention when I have Sam's. Sue hasn't made contact, but that's okay. Maybe she's just the type of person to do light, warm gestures to strangers without much thought behind it, not really intending to form a friendship. I find that a little irresponsible, but I'm not in a position to judge.
Now Sam and I are in the outdoor garden again, or rather, adjacent to it, on the basketball court. I feel guilty about it, trying to gauge how tired he is, but he seems pretty fresh, so maybe he found a way out of his endless physical labor. Not that HORSE is some grand Olympian struggle on par with triathlon, but the sun out here also wears you down.
"I should warn you," Sam says, dribbling the ball with both hands to his chin's height, orienting himself with its momentum. "I've never been good at basketball. It's a speed and reaction sport."
"We're only shooting baskets, it's totally even," I say with a wry grin. "Or would you prefer your natural talent, wrestling?"
"That might not go over well with the orderlies."
"Do you think I couldn't beat you? Because if it's the kind with steel chairs and thumbtacks, I might have a chance."
"So, shall we flip a coin to pick who goes first?" he asks.
"As if. Let's shoot baskets. It'll be a warm-up."
"Fair enough." He moves to the three-point line and does some more test dribbles to concentrate. Then he vaults the ball gently in a classic arc, but with a smidge too much power, so the ball hits the backboard and both sides of the rim, then almost back to him so he catches it on the bounce.
"Ooooh, super close," I say. "Now let me show you how it's done."
"Please." He moves aside and passes the ball.
I take aim at the line, bounce three times for my ritual, the one Dad taught me, and send the cow over the moon and... got it! A shaky passage, but I am going first. "I think I'll start with a shot from..." I move to the right side of the three-point line. "Here." My shot from there is a success. "I'm on a roll!"
"Let's wait and see who gets an H first before we make grand declarations." Sam moves to the exact same place, looks up to the hoop, dribbles a few times, looks up again, dribbles again...
"You growing attached to the ball?"
"I intend not to miss, no matter how inexperienced I may be. Besides, you love the tension." He shoots and gets it. Nothing but net.
"It seems this is gonna get interesting," I proclaim.
"That I can agree with."
For the next three baskets, him, me, and him again, neither of us gets a letter. The suspense of who will mess up is exhilarating.
"You know, it wouldn't surprise me if I ended up failing before your consistency," Sam says as I plan out a new shot. "After all, those hips and legs give you more stability for such a still, controlled action."
"That is ridiculous. You have huge arms and a power-suit of muscle. You have far more control in your shooting."
"Bigger muscles do not necessarily bring more control for precise actions."
"But developed muscles do not get tired as quickly as undeveloped ones. If this really turns into endurance over precision, my arms could get tired and slip up before yours do."
"Well, I will admit to having high endurance."
"I know that you do," I say, taking a shot and making it, after a bounce on the rim that leaves me biting my nails. "Yes!"
"Wait, how?" he asks.
"You said that... strangely. That I have high endurance. It doesn't seem like you were talking about wrestling."
I was lost in the moment and made a quip about when we had sex in the woods. Damn, this 'version' of Sam, as it were, didn't experience that. I hate the idea of different versions. It's like I'm drifting farther and farther away, or rather, he's getting his experiences cut away, and it's happened over a hundred times.
"Well, you know," I say, thinking up a cover, "you tolerate me. That takes endurance."
He frowns. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah. Just kidding around." I take a shot and miss. "Ugh, fine. H for me."
The game proceeds for a while, and we end up close to the end, with HOR for me and HORS for him. More dirty jokes abound.
He misses a distant shot I risked making toward the bounds and center-line, and I jump up in the air. "Horse!"
"Quite the game," he says, going after the ball as it bumps the cage fence. "You played better than I expected."
"I mean that you aren't the sporty type, from what I've seen."
"Dad taught me how to shoot baskets a long while ago, that's all. I'm not really good at anything else."
"Well, I found it stunning, watching you do that."
My eyebrows shoot up. "Staring, were you?"
"Analyzing, to see the best technique."
"Well, don't look. I'm sweaty and my hair sucks now."
"We have been out for a while. Do they have showers?"
"Not for visitors, sorry."
"I think I better head back for now," he says as we go to put away the ball in the equipment boxes. "But this was quite fun. Next time, why don't you show me your room?"
I guess he looked up the visitor policies beforehand, and he knows that I lied. I grimace. "Why do you want to see that?"
"We've hung out in your actual room countless times. I don't see it as any different."
"You have nothing to be ashamed of."
I stay there, my legs two stakes jammed into the concrete, as he gives a cute wave and turns to leave. I watch his high shoulders until he's out of sight in the building. Patients are supposed to lead visitors around wherever they go, including back to the lobby, but I'm fine here.
"Okay," I say the next day, opening the door to my room. "Here it is."
Sam nods respectfully and takes a good look from outside before walking in. I enter after him and let the door shut at my back, standing like a guard. I slip my bracelet off and toss it on my bed, locking the door. He wanted to see my place in a mental health facility, my seat in the ongoing concert for society's losers, so now he'll get it.
I can't read his impressions of the place. He looks at the bed for a while, probably wondering if it's comfortable (not very). Then he studies the primroses and card. "What's this?"
"Oh, a nice gift I got from a sophomore. Sue. She made the card herself." I'm kind of embarrassed about him reading that long message inside, but thankfully he doesn't open the card. "So? What's the verdict? Is it as heart-pounding as you envisioned?"
"It seems nice. As long as they're treating you well in here."
That flusters me. I was expecting a more selfish curiosity. Should have known better.
"So, how's my dad?"
"No progress yet." He points a finger gun at me. "But he'll come around."
This is torture. Sam is a godsend, an angel, and I'm negligently allowing him to spend his time on me when I know the hell that awaits him every night. I have to do this my way.
"Sam, sit down, please. I want to talk about something important." I move to the bed and sit on the far end. Warily, he sits next to me, the bed grumping and clacking in the springs.
"What's the matter?"
"I know about your parents," I say, turning to look at him. "The dog-napping. How you work yourself half to death cutting firewood. How your parents are forcing you to go to the Dance with Cassie. How much you want to escape it all. I know."
He stares, then presses a temple. "But... how?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Not cutting it, Lee," he barks. "How do you know?"
"I... Sam, I swear, you're going to give up on me. You're going to decide I'm a total fucking basket case if I explain."
"You always assume the worst in how people will react. Just tell me."
I sit forward, putting my face in my hands. "Because I helped you get out of it. In another world, you might say. Another life. Technically, it's called a branch."
I explain everything, how this is the fourth time up to now that I've woken up on May 11th. How I've gone to the Dance twice, and what happened each time. Then the third time, after our adventure, and our effort spent saving him from his prison of a life all went to nothing. And now what's currently happening, how I am the next victim being controlled by Holland, and that is the reason I acted so out of character.
Sam takes it all in for a minute after I'm done. Then, he says something that I have mixed feelings about.
"Can I communicate with this other person? Holland?"
Holland answers through my body. "You now are. Hello, Sam."
He narrows his eyes, and I see that he actually believes. Sam, oh my god, you're too good for me.
"How many more times do you have to run this loop?" he asks.
"As I explained to Mellie, it's not like counting down a number. More like playing bingo. It takes time, but eventually you've got a full card and you're done. But you never know when exactly it'll happen."
"Why are you torturing her like this?"
"Just to send a message. One that I believe she'll understand, by the 26th."
"And you just allowed her to explain everything to me. Is that part of the plan?"
"It neither matters to the plan, not interferes with it. It doesn't matter what you do, because you'll forget. It'll all be undone, more or less."
"You've hurt a wonderful girl and her father. Many other people as well. That's how you send a message? You clearly aren't human."
"Yes, but try not to say it so pompously," Holland says, forcing my face into a dark grin. "I have insecurities, just like a human."
"I'm done with you, creature," Sam says. "Put Mellie back in control."
"I'm back," I say, the second I feel the iron grip in my bones receding. We take each other's hands. "Sam... now would be the easiest, fairest time to tell me that I need help. Do you really believe all of this? Don't forget where you're sitting right now. What this place is for. The people who stay here."
"You are staying here, and I believe anything you say when you're this serious." He smiles. "You convinced me to leave my parents, right? I think good things happen to me when I listen to you."
I'm so happy, I want to beg with Holland, plead with the creature, to let things stay, and proceed past the 26th. Even in this dumpster ending where my reputation will probably never recover, I could happily live on and commit, if it meant Sam and I were together.
But that's not under your control, is it, Holland?
"Sam, this would normally be really pretentious, but I'm pretty sure that you love me." I cup his jawline, holding his gaping mouth back together. "And you're everything to me. I had a crush even before the bottlenecks, but now I'm crazy about you."
He chuckles at the obnoxious pun, scratching my fingers with his stubble. "Well, it's true. If I said back then that I loved you since I moved in with you in the last branch, that had to be me lying, out of fear. I actually... love you right now. I have ever since you made that first cake for my birthday."
"But... that was months before any of this!"
"No one had ever made my favorite dessert for me. It kept me happy and going on, through a very hard week. You're the reason I even got into cooking myself."
"I can't believe it. In that case... why did you lie, two branches ago?"
He shakes his head and looks away with a smirk. "Well, I wasn't exactly there, in a sense, but just knowing me, I think I was afraid that opening up that much would put too much stress on you and your father to look after me. The hospitality and the lengths that you two went for me would already be nearly too much to accept."
It's so twisted, loving someone for what didn't happen, for what they couldn't possibly remember or relate to, for what amounts to them as only a dream. But if there's one person who could take my ethereal experiences and step into them, allowing me to share them and continue where we left off, I believe that it's Sam Edwards.
I want nothing more in this moment than to be free of the invader under my skin. I want Sam and I to be alone. But for now, it's a crowd of three.
It's a little more than a week later, and I've been discharged from the hospital for the past two days. Knowing I had an ally in the man I loved helped reaffirm my mental stability and confidence. Since I wasn't mentally unsound to begin with, the somewhat perplexed doctors wrote me off as an acute case with the risk of occasional episodes with enough factors at play.
I'm home again, and Dad ensures I take the medication I was on at the hospital, but to be honest, I don't think the stuff even works on me. After all, I'm, on some level, a hollow skin-creature full of glowing blue cysts of Noctiluca underneath. I still get hungry and thirsty, but soon I encountered a very disquieting new fact. I don't... excrete anymore. Nothing. Food and water just disappear like there's a tiny black hole in my stomach. My heart is still beating, but it almost comes across like I'm a zombie.
Sam is living with his parents, but he refused Cassie and has been following his heart, spending more time with me and not rising to anything his parents do. They've threatened to lift his rent, but he said that if they do, he'll move out. Even if Dad won't be convinced to let him stay with us, Sam's parents don't know that. For now, they've backed off.
Dad is happy I'm better, but still a little cold and nervous around me. I think he's also concerned about my sudden relationship with a boy, in what looks like a very sensitive time in his daughter's life. I'm sure, even knowing how great Sam is, that there's a risk of things not working out, and then I could do something crazy again. I try not to let it bother me. The calmer and more in control I seem, the faster things will readjust and go back to normal.
But then again, there's not much point to that line of thinking. Today is the day of the Junior Social Dance, the 26th, the day the branch ends.
"I'm sure it's frightening," Sam says. We've just been laying together on my bed as the sun goes down.
"Well, it must be worse for you. For you, it'll be a first time."
"And then after that... it's just over? I'll forget everything?"
"Yes. Everyone will, except for me. On some levels, I kind of look forward to it. Try not to take it personally. It was just a really rough two weeks."
I've gone over every detail of how the bottlenecks occur and what I've experienced so far, answering every question that comes to him. Over time, he's accepted the transitory nature of this relationship. For him, it's the culmination of feelings he's had for me over a long time, but even so, he picks up well where we left off.
Maybe for the right person, this would be paradise. A serial dater, someone who loves the thrill of a new romance but never enjoys seeing the relationship grow stale. Personally, I do value every time I get to grow closer to Sam. That is a luxury the ordinary flow of time doesn't allow. But it comes at a horrible cost.
Oh, and I'm going to the Dance after all. He's my date. We need to get going in a few hours.
The Dance is just as it was the other times. We leave early, not taking pictures. Dad didn't even set up the camera or really say much, which makes my chest ache. But I kiss his cheek and promise him I'll be fine, and it seems to quell his concern.
Since we left earlier, we get to park in the regular lot, not the dirt one. We walk together arm-in-arm, and Sam looks down at me as I nervously check for onlookers. I don't have to look hard.
The first few minutes in that dim, suave auditorium environment are agony. I remember doing this in the second branch, and how everyone crowded Sam. He's a popular guy. But now he's going to the prom with the wack-job, the Hornet, Mellie Walsh. What's more, he turned down the popular Cassie Urd to do it. People think we're both crazy now.
"I'm sorry," I whisper.
"Don't be," he says with a calm sigh. "I'm not."
"It's like you said," Sam tells me. "This will all be undone. I already didn't care what people think, so I have even less reason to now."
I act without thinking, grabbing his tie at the knot and pulling him into his first kiss with me, in this branch. I make it good. Outrageous.
"Wow," Sam says, out of breath. "My ears were ringing for a second, there. How are you so good at that?"
"I've had a fair bit of trial runs to learn what you like," I say with a wink. "Want to dance?"
He nods, still dazed, and I lead him to the glowing floor, our steps creating fuzzy yellow footprints in a patch of blue.
Once we've danced for a few songs, I feel a bit thirsty, so we walk back and go to the punch table. Normally I'd enjoy my knight going off to get a drink for me, but there is no way I'm leaving his side. If I'm by myself, people will get even more nervous.
As we both tilt our plastic cups to our lips, I hear a passing girl say something.
"They need to improve security at this school."
That had to be aimed at us. Sam closes his eyes and brushes it off, turned away, but I look back. I'm pretty sure those blond, ramen noodle curls belong to Cassie. What a shock.
Sam is still and only breathing. I didn't think a reminder of his parents would affect him this much.
"Hey, let's get out of here," I say.
"What?" he opens his eyes. "It's hasn't been more than half an hour."
"I don't want to do this all over again. Standing around waiting for the bottleneck. I'm tired of it."
"But what about your exhibit?"
"I just sketched a long geometric corridor. I don't care about it. I don't care about Drew or getting attention as an artist in a world that won't last. If this is going to end up like a dream, then let's make use of it."
"I don't know, but we should go somewhere, try something different. Just waiting here... I know exactly how that's going to turn out."
"Well, I'm not exactly in love with this atmosphere," he says, flicking his eyes around to indicate the rubberneckers. "Let's go then."
He sets his cup of punch down. "Oh!"
I gasp and drop mine. He's carrying me! Like we're newlyweds! People are gasping and pointing. The security guard is turned our way as we head out the entryway, but Sam shuts him down with a firm tone.
"We're leaving, don't worry."
The man must not get paid enough to make this little scene a big deal, so he steps aside. I rest against Sam's front, enjoying the bobs of his walk. It's over too soon, and he sets me down to open my car door. I relax inside.
Just as Sam gets in his seat and shuts us in what we think is a private space, I hear shuffling behind our seats and Sam grunts. I try to look at him but something sharp bites a line into my neck, right at the carotid, and I stop just in time. Someone is holding a knife to my neck, and another person is holding one to his.
"Easy. What's going on?" Sam asks, as calmly as he can.
"Drive," says whoever is behind him. As I get a better focus on the shape of the figure, I see that it's Drew.
"Drive out of here," a very high voice says behind me, clarifying. "Don't try anything, or you die, Sam."
Wait, that voice... I haven't heard it in person before, but I'm sure of it. Sue.
What is going on?
But before I can try to speak, someone else does for me.
"Sam, this is Holland," I feel myself announce. "Do what they say. I'll give you further instructions."
I assured Sam well before this that if Holland ever takes control, I'm not gone. I'm still me, deep underneath, and I'm conscious, fighting. I see that he remembers that as we drive down the main state road connecting to the school.
Holland has been giving directions through me, sending us toward Stacie Wildlife Reserve. Are the three of them working together? It's hard to tell, but I think even Drew and Sue don't know where exactly to go. Sadly, I'm fully entrenched behind Holland at the moment, and I can't even flex my lips, let alone form words that he doesn't want to say.
"Drew," Sam says. "Why are you two doing this?"
I hear Drew click his tongue in anger in the dark, and I think I see his eyes flash with a reflection as he looks toward me. Or to Holland, I suppose, since he answers.
"At the start of the month," Holland says, "I took control of Mellie's body and made her capture Drew's parents. I then ordered Drew not to interfere."
I see now. Holland told me in the previous branch that he 'wakes up', as it were, in a new branch earlier than I do, on the 11th. That's how he was able to take control of me before I had any chance to consciously resist. Seems he was busy during that blacked-out stretch of time.
"If Drew ever wanted to see them again," Holland explains, "he would have to get Mellie to agree to go to the Dance. The exhibit was the simplest opportunity. Then, he would wait in the vehicle she took to do this. Now things are moving toward their conclusion. Drew will reunite with his parents, and the bottleneck will arrive."
"As you can see, the bitch is dangerous," Drew says through clenched teeth. "Multiple personality disorder, or something."
"No, that's not it," Sam says. "I'm telling you, Mellie really is possessed by another entity. She's being controlled against her will whenever the creature wishes. Its name is Holland—"
"—He knows the name!" Sue shouts, making Sam flinch. I'd never have imagined her voice alight in hatred like it is now.
"Are you helping him?" Holland asks her. "That's an interesting consequence. I didn't contact you about any of this."
"Yes, I'll do anything to help him," she replies. I can't see her well, but her oriental features are disturbingly still and calm right now.
"I saw the card you made," Sam says to her. "Are you saying you made something like that, planning to do this?"
"I wanted to help Drew. He hadn't told me what was really going on back then, so I thought he just liked her. Later, he told me, and I demanded he let me help with this. The thought that I put time and care into that card makes me sick."
Since it's involuntary, I'm at least able to choke at her gouging voice.
"You captured my parents," Drew says to me. "That's all I care about."
"Don't worry," Holland says, "you'll meet them now. Make a left when you see a little break in the ditch."
We're moving north up the coast right now. The beach is to our right, and the left is all an estuary and bogs fed by the intra-coastal waterway. In a sense, this place is like a little peninsula of land, surrounded by water on two sides just like how Florida is, and of a similar shape but smaller. It's almost... fractal.
Sam slows down and we eventually spot what looks like an extremely thin trail. It's the one spot in this area, bordering a swamp, that isn't cypress knees and standing water. But even then, it looks too risky to go through, even in an off-roading SUV, let alone a coupe.
"You can't mean this, right?" he asks.
"Drive," Holland says, and I hear Sam hiss in frustration as Drew adjusts the knife tighter on his neck. Doesn't he realize you need to be able to move your head to turn well?
Suddenly, I feel control returning, being given back to me. I know better than to do something stupid.
"Drew," I say. "It's me, Mellie. The real me."
He doesn't respond or move as Sam guides us over the grass, muck, and reflective saw palmetto leaves, brushed aside by the windshield. The sounds of foliage, thick branches, and some things I couldn't even imagine all cascade over the car like rain. I have to raise my voice.
"Please don't hurt Sam. I understand that I did something unforgivable. I don't remember it, but I'm truly regretful for hurting you. I'm fighting as hard as I can, but Holland is thorough. I probably won't be given control here, besides now. But just know, I see you as a friend—"
"—Mellie, stop," Sam says. "It's not going to help."
He's probably right. If someone captured my dad and ordered me to do this in order to save him, I wouldn't hesitate, and anything a victim said to me would be white noise.
But I still don't understand what you're getting at, Holland. What's the moral? What's the takeaway?
"We probably won't be able to go back," Sue says, looking back at the way we've come, mud and leaves painted red from the brake lights. "The deep tracks in the mud will be way too slippery for these tires after they're already dug."
"It doesn't matter," Drew says. "We'll walk out. With mom and dad."
Sue nods. If not for the circumstances, I'd respect her dedication to her friend. No, my adjusted eyes now see how she looks at Drew. She loves him. It's a real shame he doesn't feel that way. Although, maybe one happy coincidence of this insanity is that it will show Drew the depths to which she'll go with him. You might think I'm completely ridiculous to think it right now, but I wish them happiness. They're suffering more than us right now, drifting in a world they think is continuous and permanent.
The front wheels buck up for a moment, and then we're in a more open beach, only for the intra-coastal instead of the ocean. The beach is only about the size of a decent house and shaped like a bell curve, going further in the center, which we're facing. Beyond is an expanse of calm, pitiful waves of brackish water, a bizarre mix between ocean and fresh.
"There's an emergency kit under your seat, Sue," Holland says. "You'll find a flashlight in there. It should help light the way, though we don't need to walk very far."
"Where are they?" Drew snaps. "I thought we were going to a building or something."
"Relax, it'll take one minute to get there."
With the light in hand and showing a constant shadow ahead of me, Sue pointlessly holds a knife to me and guides me out with the others, onto the hard-packed sand-mud mixture. It's dry, but every little step pushes the little water there out and wets my dress shoes. Sometimes my pointed heels hit softer parts and I nearly fall over, making the knife scratch my neck.
With Sue behind me and Drew behind us, leading Sam in the same way, Holland points to guide her. We reach the thinner part of the beach's left end, with hundreds of nickel-sized fiddle crabs, no, thousands. It's like a one-inch sea parting at the frightening visit of human feet and a powerful light. Many of them go up to the drier land, into tiny holes carved out of the foot-high cliff-face of clay.
It's nerve-wracking being in the front of this journey, but unable to redirect or stop it, predator and victim combined. Holland starts leading us into places that are not really a beach, at this point in the tides. We're just walking alongside the crab-infested mini-cliff to our left and splashing through inch-high fluctuating waves and over unpleasant, tickling things that must be dead leaves from the palms above. After curving around for a bit, we finally reach another spot high enough to not be wet.
I've seen these a couple of times, but I've never actually walked on one before. It's a midden, basically an ancient trash heap. The natives of this land, thousands of years ago, must have dumped the refuse of their daily lives here over and over again, to the point that it still forms a stubborn beach higher than the regular ones, even now.
Specifically, the midden is made of oyster shells, bleached white with age and grittily clacking with our steps like unusually-shaped gravel. It's only about as big as Lye's swimming pool, but it goes up to about six feet at the highest point, further back. There are two figures, I realize, lying face-up at that summit, just before the large step someone could make to stand atop a kudzu-strewn sand mound.
"Oh my god, no..." Sue says, hectic breathing tickling my neck. "No! Why?"
"What is it?" Drew shouts, crunching ahead by himself, leaving Sam. He sees what remains of the two bodies, dressed in casual clothes fitting a lazy Saturday.
A man and a woman lie side-by-side, covered in holes, in and out from which crawl so many fiddler crabs you can hardly see any skin. What you see of their clothes wriggles and pitches with the movement of crabs underneath. Drew's scream, punctuated by the senseless, desperate swiping of crabs off his mother and father's bodies, will never leave my memory.
"I told you," Holland says, "that you'd see them again if you did what I said, not that you'd see them alive again. Surely you must have expected this."
Fuck you. There are things human beings will refuse to expect, even if they may be the most logical.
Sue pushes me down to my knees, hard enough to cut the dress and my skin on the shells, and points past my head with her knife, wailing in my ear. "Look what you did! Look!"
The instant that Drew wrenches his body away from his parents and toward me, Sam rushes to us from the darkness and drops a long brown object, probably driftwood, hard on the back of his head, stunning him. The knife clinks on the shells and Sam grabs it in time, but then I feel Sue's blade ripping my throat open. It's the strangest feeling, like it doesn't matter. Glowing blue blood trails down my front and I take the opportunity to play dead, quivering, as Sam rushes Sue with the stick in his dominant hand and the knife in the other.
They both have someone they want to protect. Despite having the flashlight and trying to blind him by shining it in Sam's face, Sue is further down on the shells, and she miscalculates the length of his stick when it whacks her on the chin. His strength breaks the skin because I hear blood dripping in the direction of the hit in a little spray, followed by her falling forward on the slope of shells. She brings out her hands to try and stop the fall, a horrible mistake that leaves her sliding down anyway and screaming from the pain, like sliding on your palms down a giant cheese grater.
"Sue!" Drew has gotten up, but I only hear him. Sue dropped the light with her, and now we are in complete darkness. "Are you okay? Sue!"
"My hands... I can't..."
"Sue!" Despite his pain and loss, Drew knows what really matters: the people who are still alive. I start to see in the modest moonlight as he crunches and tumbles his way down to her, standing knee-deep in the charcoal-black water and weeping as she tries to get the light, clearly shining by her feet. Each time the pain of sending her shredded hands into the water forces her to stop. "Sue, it's okay! I've got it!" He splashes in, reaches down, and gets the light for her, shining it on her hands. "Let me see..."
"Oh god, Drew, I'm so sorry." Sue sobs. "I'm useless to you."
"You're all I've got now! Don't say shit like that!" he shouts.
"But your parents..."
"That wasn't your fault."
It's then that I realize it: they really do think I'm dead. It would make sense, seeing as Sue cut my throat, a wound that is already sealing up. They haven't noticed the glowing blood, and I'm face-down, so that's more or less concealed if I stay this way. You're not that easy to put down, Holland. I know.
That's when I hear Sam loudly crunching as he makes footfalls by my head. "Excuse me," he says in an exhausted, irritated tone to the distant couple. "I believe we're done here. Mellie is dead, and I was only a bystander in this. Shall one of us call the police, and then we can head back to the car?"
There's silence for a while, aside from the odd insect buzz and long frog croaks. Then I hear whispering among the couple. Finally, Sue replies.
"Fine. I guess you're innocent, after all."
"For what it's worth," Drew says, "she insisted you get dragged into this point as well. You should count yourself lucky that the cunt is done for."
I shiver, though not hard enough to make any noise on the jagged surface. Then I hear Sam sigh.
"I have one of the knives," Drew says.
"As do I," Sam returns.
"That's good," Sue decides. "Balance of power. Safer that way."
No one speaks for a while. Instead, I hear Sam's feet crunching slowly down the oysters and the others' churning steps. They could go back up the way Sue fell, but instead of approaching Sam while he's at a higher position, they're circling, and Sam is still fairly close to me, hesitant to give up the height advantage completely.
What's the matter, guys? Come on, I'm dead. You don't have to fight each other. Don't give in to baser impulses just because you fought for a few seconds.
Then I hear a sharp, overwhelming sound that echoes in my ears, so loud it made me jostle against the shells. A gunshot. It's not loud enough to have come from Sam.
Sam grunts and I hear stumbling. God damn it. One of them must have been concealing a gun. Drew made it clear he's into guns, and this is the most important moment of his life, a chance to save his parents. I'm such an idiot for not even considering he'd be armed.
I don't even realize that I'm in control again by the time I'm up and moving down to Sam, laid on his back. My glowing blood down my chest helps illuminate him a little, but in this dry environment the Noctiluca fades away quickly, and I can only tell that he was shot in the middle, probably around where the liver would be.
I know this doesn't make sense. Sam will be fine in less than an hour, probably. I could walk back through the mud, across the street, and down the beach into the waves and end this right now. Assuming I remain in control, of course. In other words, as soon as Holland's ready, this all gets undone. So why does it burn like hot sewing needles through my face when I hear his hectic, pained breathing? Why am I shouting profanities and nonsense as I jump down in the direction of the flashlight below, amid shocked screams? Why do I not even feel or mind getting shot in mid-air through the eye? Why did I not notice picking up Sam's knife, and am now breaking my fall with my knees against Sue's shoulders, causing two loud pops of dislocation before I straddle her in the water?
My strength is superhuman, driven by thoughtless rage or merely the added force of being what I am, I don't know, but I've nearly sawed off Sue's head by the time Drew's chamber clicks empty. His hands were shaking so much that he didn't even get me a second time, and my eye has healed up.
You just love technicalities, don't you, Holland? You killed his parents, which aren't people I knew, and now you've gotten me to kill Sue of my own accord, without being controlled. So you've killed no one I know in this branch. I think I've learned my lesson regarding any deals you offer.
I turn to Drew, my neck and eye wounds totally healed.
"Please just run away," I force out, almost too quiet to hear. I look for the flashlight Sue was holding, but it's like a little submarine several yards off, rolling away in the tide.
Drew is staring, eyes black pits from this angle of the moonlight. All I can see of his face are those pits, the bottom one a gaping, frozen laugh.
"Run away!" I shout, approaching with the knife to try and intimidate him.
Slowly, as if he hasn't noticed me, he turns and runs, making some kind of noise between coughing and laughing. But he's going the wrong way, splashing deeper into the black waves.
I try to call out to Drew as he sinks up to his neck, but then he's gone and I only hear bubbles. You can't swim in there at night. We're at the onset of alligator nesting season, and they feed after dark.
But I can't speak now. I can't even check on Sam, who isn't moving. My control has rescinded again and I'm sloshing back around the shore in the dark, crushing the occasional fiddler crab or five until I'm back to the car, then walking between the tracks of mud and tender walls of disrupted foliage to the road, shining grayish blue from the moon. My shoes still squish with mud, even on the dry asphalt. Then it's a straight walk up through the sensitive dunes, not on an actual trail. My hands rip and tug through roots and sand to stay upright.
You shouldn't do that, Holland. There are turtle and gull nests in these dunes.
"Funny," Holland makes me say, as the coast far below appears, "that's what you're worried about?"
I don't know what to worry about.
"Maybe you're learning, then." Holland discards my shoes and starts skirting down the slope, to the edge of damp sand licked by the much more powerful tide of the Atlantic Ocean. Slowly, shimmering blue dots appear and spread their harsh glow all through the water ahead of me.
"Now do you understand, Mellie?" Holland asks as I watch the glowing waves.
Yeah. You're in control. Even if I'm not always in control, you are. I'm not getting any ideas. I won't get in your way.
I want to vomit, but I realize I can't anymore. I don't have a stomach, bowels, a bladder, tear ducts, saliva, nothing. I feel air flowing all through me like I'm a living, haunted wet-suit. I can't even move my eyes. They're not eyes anymore, just conical curves on a mask that somehow maintains its shape while empty.
Please, stop. You don't have to prove anything to me. I get it. You win.
"Good girl," Holland says. "In that case, this little detour has served its purpose. I'll put you in control. Go ahead. When you're ready, walk into the waves."
"What happens in the next branch?"
"It'll be a surprise. Don't worry, you'll like it. I just had to be firm with you this time."
Maybe you had a right to. I don't understand any of this. Even now that you've explained it, that doesn't mean a human being can work in this environment. I need time, causality, life to continue, to have consequence. Please, just keep doing what you're doing, then. I don't care. Just make it so this ends, eventually. If you have to do things to entertain yourself... I don't mind that. I understand.
"Looks like this branch was a resounding success," Holland says.
No matter what else I say or ask after that, it's just me, alone. I don't get an answer.
I take a deep breath, experiencing the hollowness filled by exchanging air. It's an odd feeling, predicated by how unnecessary it felt to breathe in, and that when I did, it was more like all of my being filling up, and not just through the two little holes in my nose, but many others on my calves, back, chest, and neck. I look down and see glowing yet dark patches in my dress, places where the lack of skin is covered, but not concealed. Did the proximity to this beach bring on this decay? Is the Noctiluca within me working overdrive out of excitement, ready to dissolve this body, this time and place, to start anew? Who knows.
I take a step and let the white and blue acid coarse over my toes and fizz them away, and then I hear a voice, raising itself to be heard despite being only a few feet behind.
"Well hello there, Mellie Walsh."
I turn, ignoring the agony of sand on disintegrating skin, and see Sam, free of his dark suit jacket and hunched over with a hand at his wound.
"You better not be thinking of starting without me," he says.
It's a miracle his lungs weren't punctured, but the effort taken to follow me brought most of his blood coursing out in trails down his white shirt, like a body-painting of the human circulatory system.
"Sam... I'm so sorry. Holland made me walk here, but now I'm me."
"I figured," he says, wrenching his lips into a weak smile with one eye shut. "I'm going with you."
"Into the waves?"
"Don't be ridiculous. Either way, I die and this world resets. You don't need to feel your body dissolving before it happens. Trust me. It's awful."
"No, trust me. This time, we go out together."
"It's not pleasant, okay? We're not going to disintegrate together peacefully. When the Noctiluca consumes you, it fucking sucks. It's the worst feeling in the world that doesn't actually hurt. I don't want you going through that."
"And I don't want you going through it alone." He steps forward. I don't have it in me to push him, and he wraps our bodies together like when we were on the dance floor. "Don't be stubborn. Trust me."
Why is he repeating that? Trust him on what? That this is how he wants this temporary story, that he'll immediately forget, to end? Or is he talking about something else?
Either way, I won't refuse that request if he gives it twice.
"Okay," I say, quaking. "I trust you."
"It'd be nice if we kissed," he says, clearly expecting it.
"I'm just a walking skin right now. I don't even have a tongue."
"Look at you, thinking of frenching at a time like this."
I sigh. "Fine. You asked for it." I bring my lips, shut tight, to his. I'm thankful he doesn't try to part them and explore the creature my body has become.
"Let's go," I say.
We enter the waves together. He has to hold me up as my smaller, thinner, empty skin dissolves and fizzes like baking soda and vinegar. He holds my legless body, his own legs injecting redness into the glow as we become a soup of indigo. I want to close my eyes as we fall and a wave claps my back, tearing it open and leaving me flapping around him. But I can't. I don't have eyelids now. I see his face before me, the hair vanishing and a bloodied skull before my own sight is also prevented and we are returned to the whiteness, the place where you are left waiting for time itself to load.
For the fifth time, I wake up in my bed, perfectly fine, on the sunny morning of May 11th. It's not a shock anymore. I force myself out of bed, every muscle movement and tickle of carpet on my feet a spoiled blessing.
I give up. My only hope is to do that. Maybe if I try, I can get used to this for as long as it has to last. I can enjoy falling in love with Sam in new ways, ones that leave him better than even in the one where we ended up living together here in my house. Holland will have his machinations going on, but I'm not getting in his—
I stop in front of the door to the bathroom. There are razor blades in there. I use them for stubborn plastic seals.
What if I ran a bath and opened my veins into it?
That would end this branch right here and now, wouldn't it?
But then, this right here could be the last branch, the one where the bottleneck won't happen and time will behave normally again. And if I kill myself in that branch... bye bye Mellie.
That's not much of a gamble though, is it? It's pretty clear that this will still take several runs, otherwise Holland would have mentioned that we were close to being done. It could be a 99 percent chance that this isn't the last branch, and I'll just save myself that much more time.
What am I thinking, here? Have I lost it? If I really wanted to do this, I could just drive into downtown until the world started to flood. But Holland would probably get angry and punish me for that.
Come to think of it, why doesn't Holland want me to repeatedly kill myself on my own? Is there some reason being fed to the Noctiluca is important? I just have to die, right? That ends the branch, if there are others blocking, and then we move to the next.
It's an acceptable risk. Surely. Two more weeks of this hell shaved away. The cost: a little bit of pain I could mask with pills and the risk of staying dead forever.
I open the door to the bathroom, still not sure whether to do it or not, when I hear a sound that was muffled before. It's the sink faucet.
"Mellie," Sam says, turning it off and drying his hands at the towel rack. "Are you back yet?"
I've been so out of it I don't scream in shock. I just blink and step back. "I... huh?"
"Mellie, I remember," he says, stepping closer. "When the branch ended, I woke up this morning. Good thing I'm an early riser, because I knew I needed to catch you before you did anything rash."
This is a joke. This can't be right.
This is why he wanted to embrace me at the end.
"Mellie," he says with a smile. "Holland was wrong. He thought that it was just you who kept memories after getting Noctiluca-hybrid-whatever blood spilled on you. But I had a hunch that just maybe, it could also work on me."
"What are you talking about?"
"Mellie, what if it's anyone? Anyone that gets enough of Holland's blood on them, in them, whatever, becomes able to remember the branches they've gone through since then?" He grabs my arms, thumbs gently pressing my biceps and reminding me that my body is alive and intact, not hollow. "We've got to test it, together. We've got to get Drew, Sue, everyone on our side and remembering what this monster is doing."
"You idiot!" I say, pushing him and stumbling back like he's a wall. "Do you realize what you've just done to yourself?"
"It's my choice," he says, smile waning into determination.
"You're going to remember now... the suffering is just going to stack and stack until you're thinking of killing yourself the second you wake up!"
"No, because I have someone who understands. We have each other. We can work together to fight this thing."
"—Yes!" he smacks my face and pulls my earlobes back and forth. "Yes, Lee! Get that word through your head. Store it away. Surround it in barbed wire. We have options, now. Particularly, one very good one."
"And what might that be?"
"We find where Holland is on this branch, who he's infecting." He gives me a dark smile. "And we get his blood. Store it safely. From there, we give it to others. We derail this little plan of his until he's stopped for good."
"What Holland is doing is necessary to repair reality. Even with him caged up or something, reality still floods and collapses after the night of the Dance."
"You're just going to believe that?" he cocks his head. "The girl I fell in love with might be a bit quick to space out, but she's not that naive."
"Okay, I admit, it is possible Holland is lying." I nod, but it feels like I'm taking energy away from the fastest thinking I've ever done. "But even if we somehow blow Holland to pieces with a bomb and take his blood, that won't kill him. He'll recover like he always does, and then he'll put the pieces together."
"Figuratively and literally, aye?"
"This is not funny."
"Some things that shouldn't be funny are, when your adrenaline gets high enough."
"You are impossible sometimes!" I say, smacking his shoulder. But I do so with a laugh I can't control. "Holy shit, Sam... I'm speechless."
"Stay focused. He'll recover, yes. But maybe there's a way to set things up so that it seems like an accident, one we weren't involved in at all. We get his blood without being figured out. We'll plan something together. Don't you think that's possible?"
"I guess? But first we'd have to—"
"—Find out who he's infecting, yes, yes, I know. That's goal number one. Are you with me on this?"
I crouch down and pull at the carpet hard enough to rip out some strands. This is just like with the branch where I saved him from his parents. I'm constantly fluctuating from 49 percent excited and 51 percent terrified and vice versa, an election of my emotions.
But I kind of like it.
I look up at him. He's offering his hand, and I take it. "Okay. I can't believe it, but we're doing this. Together. Let's punish this son of a bitch—"
But as he pulls me up, I start coughing, like he's jostled free some fluid in my lungs. He holds me close and pats my back. "You okay?"
"Y-yeah..." but I'm still coughing and have to go to the bathroom to get a tissue. I'm ready to spit some gross mucous out, but before I can my arms go weak and the tissue flutters away to the tile. He catches me before I bump my head on the sink, and then the blood that's been raked up from the coughs finally dribbles past my lips a little, staining the porcelain in a line crawling to the drain.
My coughing fit stops. He holds me tight and looks to that, then to me, and back again. His confidence has imploded, and it's up to me to save it.
"I'm okay," I say, spitting way more blood into the sink and washing it away with the faucet, cupping some water to rinse my mouth.
"What was that? Are you okay?"
"I said yes."
"But what happened? Have you ever had that happen before?"
"No. I don't have any lung problems, asthma, nothing."
"Then what the hell—"
This time, I slap him. His mind is going in circles, trying to find an answer to a question we're not getting right now.
"This is just a guess, so don't fixate on it," I tell him. "But I think it might be possible that Holland did something to me before today, in this branch."
His face fills with hatred that has nowhere to go. It's a hasty conclusion, but a rational one considering what we've experienced. "Does your throat hurt? Lungs? Anything? We should take you to a doctor—"
"—Only if this gets worse. Otherwise, we take down Holland and we don't let this distract us. That's the way it's gonna go."
He puts his hands on his hips and looks to the sink, now washed clean. "But what if this branch is the last one, and whatever's wrong with you is serious?"
"Please, don't. You'll get me thinking it, too. Look, the easiest way is to just covertly visit the beach. If I dissolve from contact with the Noctiluca, there's definitely another branch after this one."
"But where are you going to just find it in the ocean?" he asks. "Sure, it appears during the bottleneck, but I think that's more of it finding you."
I snap my fingers. "The tea kettle! Of course."
Despite all I've told Sam, I forgot to mention that first unsettling encounter we had together: watching Lye, infected by Holland just like I was, pouring something from a kettle into a gaping wound in his arm.
"Whoever Holland is, he keeps a tea kettle around filled with ocean water. If we find that, we find out who Holland is, and I bet we can trail him when he needs more water."
"And that might lead us to a part of the ocean with Noctiluca in it?" he asks.
"Yeah. It's better than cruising the beach. Sea sparkle is normally very rare."
He nods and I see admiration in his eyes, something I may have actually earned in this case.
Yes, this ride isn't just going to keep running and running, Holland. Sam and I will never be broken apart again.