I'm in the shower now. I don't remember getting out of bed, but I must have. I'm turned away from the nozzle, and only now feel the freezing spray running down my back.
One term keeps echoing in my head. Noctiluca. At least, I'm pretty sure that's how I heard it.
"Go ahead and try to talk. I don't think you inhaled or swallowed any of the Noctiluca."
Once I'm out of the shower and dressed, I do some searching on my phone. The images nearly make me throw up, despite their dazzling innocence.
Noctiluca Scintillans: a bio-luminescent dinoflagellate, which is a type of plankton with little tails for propulsion. Each of the single-cell organisms has organelles that produce light, which are called scintillons, hence the latter part of the name, I guess. Colloquially known as "Sea Sparkle", it looks like something out of a Disney princess movie. It's majestic, gorgeous. I can't deny it when I look at pictures taken from beaches all over the world. It doesn't dissolve human flesh, though, of course. The most menacing thing some species do is consume too much oxygen, which kills off fish populations, like a red tide.
Obviously, there is nothing online about a hollow double-sided human skin creature, but there are plenty of urban myths and stories about monsters that take on the appearance of those they kill. Too many to be of help.
I walk out of my room, down the hallway, and into the storage room. Within that dusty, stale air, I am surrounded by cardboard boxes. There is no bed, no books, no desk. Sam's place in my home, and the life that sprouted from it, has been ripped out like a weed.
I never tripped with my teachers. Sam never saved me. I never made him a cake and visited his house. I never learned the truth and convinced him to take the first step away from his abuse. I never gave myself to him, never was his first. I never fell in love with him.
No, that is not true. It doesn't matter what gets undone, I remember. I'm the same person, and I love Sam.
But he doesn't love me. He said it himself, he loved me ever since he moved in. I'm sure he likes me, and has for a long time, but there were many important, life-shaking events that led to his affection cementing into love. Now it's undone.
"I refuse to believe." I stand up, giggling. "Sam wouldn't forget! Of course not!"
I turn around. Dad's silhouette is clear to me in this dark, lonely room. "Oh, hey. Couldn't sleep too well last night. Nightmares. I got up early."
"Oh. Well, are you looking for something?" I hope he doesn't think I'm looking for the note my mom left. Not interested in digging that old scab open.
"An old notebook. I'm not sure if I even stored it, though. Might have thrown it out or something." I know just the change of subject to try. "Something smells good."
"I'm making the dishes on the revised menu. Hope you're hungry."
"Very." Doing this for a third time is impossible. I can't just go through the motions again. If past experience is anything to go on, this isn't like time travel. This... what was the word Collins used? Branch. This branch is going to be totally unique from the others, just as the last one was unique from the one with Drew.
Once Dad and I are back downstairs, I crack and rush out the door, down the steps, and to my car. "Mellie!" Dad shouts. "What are you doing?"
"Sorry, Dad, just remembered! Emergency!" I'm pulling out before he can stop me, and zoom down the street, past the RV.
I'm speeding down the I-95 about 30 minutes later, just like when I was riding with Sam in what feels like two hours ago, but was apparently two weeks. Although it's Friday, we're still in the work-week, so the roads are less busy than usual. Still, I relish the presence of traffic now.
Unable to resist another second, I take out my phone and call Sam, putting it to speaker. It rings three times before I hear his affected gentleman tone.
"Well, hello there."
"Hi." I'm choked up past that word.
"Are you riding to school? I'm in the middle of driving there, myself."
"No, I'm, uh, driving, but not to school. Hey, this might sound weird, but do you have any memories or dreams of living in a different version of this stretch of time? Like, this week and the following one, up to the Dance?"
"...I'm not sure I understand. What's this about?"
"So, you don't remember us going? Nothing like that?" I bite my lip and taste blood. "Not even as a dream?"
"Lee, you're scaring me. My dreams are all random nonsense. Oohh, I believe I've figured it out now. You had a dream like that, didn't you?"
I can't concur with what is obviously now reality. My mouth won't let me. But what do I say instead? "No, it really happened, you just don't remember?" He'll think I'm insane.
"Do you think there are multiple universes?" I ask. "Multiple Sam's and Lee's out there, living out different possibilities?"
"...it's a bit of a startling theory. I suppose in the current scientific models of the universe, such things are possible. Probable, even."
"Don't you feel a little... competitive, then? With your other selves? Do you want to live the best life among them? Do you think you could, if you tried?"
"Lee, this is very strange, and if it's a joke, I don't care for it. Are you okay?"
"Yeah." I smile at the blurry road ahead. "I love you."
Empty silence. "Lee, where are you right now?"
"Did you hear me?"
"I just said I love you. What do you have to say to that? A girl's heart is a tender thing, you know."
Sam sighs. "It's not like I don't have feelings for you. But the way you're saying it—"
I hang up in a snap of my limbs, swerving a little on the road as my tires screech.
"Great, now you've gone and worried him, stupid cunt." I toss the phone to the passenger seat, and it plummets to the floor. "Of course it wouldn't last. You think you're worthy of being loved, really? After Camden?"
It's at that point that I realize I'm alone on the road. All other cars are gone, and despite it being close to 9:00 a.m., the sun is, well, not setting, but fading away, and the sky is darkening to achieve the same effect.
Soon it's night again, and my tires are skirting over an inch of water. There is no way to escape this thing by distance. Run out of the stage lights' shine, and you'll find only the dark.
I can still use my fog lights to figure out where I am, and I decide to climb the tallest building in the business district. My car takes on too much water and turns off a good five city blocks before I reach it, and I have to trudge through the waist-high water, then chest high, before I reach the doors to the massive skyscraper. It's probably seventy floors in total, not much better than before, but I need to move out of this water. I'm flailing, experimenting, playing trial-and-error with my own life, but other options elude me for now.
Pulling open the door just invites the water to suck in, shutting it hard, so I have to break the glass of a window with a floating piece of wood. That sends me pouring out into what is currently a dry lobby, and I squish and drip my way to the stairs. No electricity, no light, and hundreds of stairs. This should be fun.
I have to stop three times to catch my breath. My skin is chafing from so much motion in waterlogged clothes, but at least being soaked stops me from overheating. When I finally reach the roof and push open a door, I'm standing on a vast set of rectangular metal ventilation tunnels and a floor like coarse sandpaper scratching my bare feet. But I'm free from the rising flow, for now.
Getting here quickly wasn't that important, in hindsight, and I lay atop one of the warm metal tubes to rest and dry myself off. Nothing electric is functioning anymore, besides my phone and car, technically, but the hot air of these vents isn't going anywhere for a while.
I have nothing to listen to or contemplate, other than my own breathing and the approaching rustle of water. I might doze off, but I don't care. Everything I do, and everything I can grow to care about, will be undone. Why bother?
After minutes, or maybe hours, the door I took opens again, and I sit up. "Who's there?"
The large figure approaching is several feet away before I can make him out. It's Dad, still wearing casual shorts and a t-shirt, but different ones.
"Why did you run away?" he asks. I lay back down. "Are you really not surprised by any of this? The darkness, the water, your father finding you here?"
"Nothing surprises me anymore."
"Wait." He steps closer.
"If you're going to kill me, go ahead."
"Do you... have memories of going through this sort of thing before?"
I nod. I don't know if he can see it, but the silence also implies affirmation. I don't know if this is the right move to take. But it's possible that admitting that whatever's done to me isn't erased, that I remember it, that this creature's actions against me have permanence, will inspire reason or mercy.
"How many times have you remembered?"
"I guess it'd be two. Everything up to Drew and I facing... Mr. Lye on the beach, and being tossed in the Noctiluca. I assume that was you? That the same person is doing this to me?"
"More or less, that's right. And you remember the following branch as well, the one with Sam, the one that ended similarly to this right here?" 'Dad' motions around us, to the water that I'm sure is halfway up the building.
"You mean the one we just left, where you kicked me off the roof? Yes. This is the third time I've woken up on Friday, May 11th."
"This isn't right," he says, pacing. "You were supposed to all be completely separate Mellies, per branch. There was never any discussion of transferred memories."
"Well, that's what's happening. My sketchbook was the same, too. It still had my sketch of the RV, even though I only did that the first time."
"Hold on... I think figured it out," he says. "It must be my blood."
"When you shot me with that gun, it spilled onto your notebook and on you. Now, because of that, you're just like me. Who you are lingers, persists, as we jump into adjacent branches."
"Look, I don't understand any of this. Can you please just stop? Let time proceed normally?"
He shakes his head and crosses his arms. "I wish I could. I'm as trapped as you are."
I remember what he said last time. The fact that he's in Dad's form right now means he murdered him. That's probably what necessitated the change of clothes, and I bet somewhere on his body is a shining wound. I am trying with every shred of patience to appeal to this monstrosity's emotions, if it has any. I need to find any way out possible.
"Why can't you?" After a long pause, I strike again. "Are you that cruel? That you'll just keep doing this to me forever, without telling me why? Is Hinduism true, all along? Am I being punished for past lives, denied Moksha?"
After a long time, he replies. "Do you know what separates reality from every sort of imitation, for most people? It's that reality works without fail. There are no glitches, no mistakes, nothing that stops it or crashes it. It's not a video game or simulation. And yet, that distinction is completely ignorant. It is possible for reality to fail."
"And that's what's happening now?"
He nods. "It's centered around you. You did nothing wrong, believe me. This isn't your fault. But the world won't live on after the bottleneck, when all the possible ways the world can proceed, the branches, what you might call timelines, they all crash into a single stopping point. All beings lose themselves and stop existing at the bottleneck, and reality simplifies and cleans itself out."
"And the night of May 26th is the bottleneck?"
He nods again. "Sometimes, a bottleneck happens. No one understands why. Perhaps it's beyond comprehension. But you've become what I call an anomaly. All of your other potential lives are converging onto you, and that causes time to bottleneck. Think of it like a cancer of reality, where instead of cells overgrowing to a harmful degree, it's possibilities."
"I really don't get this."
"Imagine an extremely fat and wide bottle, the width of the universe. Inside are many galaxy-sized universes, you might say. Those are the branches. Now normally the bottle is meant to be wide-mouth, but instead it formed a neck. The bottle is tipped upside down and gravity is like the forward flow of time. The neck is wide enough that a single universe will fit through at a time. But because there are so many all cramming to get out, they get stuck, and none can get out. So, reality, the supreme being, whatever you prefer, tips the bottle upside down, reversing time, and tries again. Each time, however, it is my job to visit one of those universes and destroy it. And the way I do that is by killing the Mellie of that universe, and any person who has closely connected with that Mellie, such as Drew or Sam. If they experience the bottleneck alongside you, they must die with you."
"So when you replay reality over and over, you eventually reduce it to just one universe, and that one fits through the bottleneck and lives on?"
"No, not necessarily. When there's few enough and we get lucky, then time will flow, and all remaining branches will pass through the bottleneck with no issues. For you, that means your life will proceed after the night of May 26th. It just takes enough tries, enough clearing of the branches, one at a time."
"Look, can't I just not go to the Dance? Will that avoid this bottleneck thing?"
"It's not about that, the bottleneck is both a time and a location. The time, for you, is May 11th to 26th, and the location is Doctor's Grove. Once you start to leave either, reality is trapped managing an infinite number of yourself instead of just..."
"I'm going too far. Sorry. Just know that it's my job to fix these things. I dissolve the bottlenecks of this world. I've done so since the dawn of the human race."
"Well, what does that glowing stuff have to do with it? The Noctiluca?"
"It's my ally. To anyone outside the bottleneck, it's just an interesting type of plankton. But here, think of it as a kind of four-dimensional life form. Something above humanity in the safeguarding of the world. Its job is to fix reality, in the same sense that a plant's job is to produce oxygen."
"If you've done this before, then what, exactly, does it take to fix reality? Do I have to die over and over until, eventually, I just luck out? I live on and see beyond the Dance?"
"You always were a quick girl." He smiles. "I'm sorry, Mellie. Please don't blame anyone you know. I only make them my vessels, for the job." He motions to himself, Dad's body. Then realization ices over his expression. "Actually, I think I know what to do."
"You just said you have to kill me, and those closest to me, over and over. Believe me, if you have an alternative, I'm listening."
"I'm afraid there isn't one," he says. "But listen, I've been doing this for a while. To me, you are Mellie 117. Technically, you might consider yourself Mellie 115 with the memories of 116 and 117, or the opposite."
"Are you saying... no..."
"That's right. I've lived through these two weeks and reached the bottleneck over one hundred times. You have to understand, though. I have to take on the lives of others and try different things because it keeps me from going insane. I can live as Lye, Collins, anyone. And killing them might seem horrible to you, but it's necessary, and undone each time the branch ends."
"And what about the branch that doesn't end?"
He freezes up. He's not used to dealing with a version of me that knows what's going on, and I'm not letting him slip out of the implications of this 'job' of his.
"I'm afraid that is a small price to pay, in most cases. Now look, I could have easily kidnapped you today and taken you out here. If the Noctiluca doesn't dissolve you, it would mean reality is finally repaired and you may go on living. I even did that to you, many times, in the beginning, to make progress. After around the tenth branch, I tried explaining everything to you, like I am now. A few times, I was even convincing enough. But by and large you are a defiant and emotional girl, and I didn't enjoy torturing you, or your friends, or your father. I didn't enjoy any of the things I did, for branch after branch, to make you agree to enter the waves, and eventually, I gave up. I had an epiphany. It became my goal that every single Mellie I had to sacrifice would live the happiest two weeks I could give her."
"Happiest?" I shout. "You call what I've faced happy?"
"That's what I did at first," he clarifies, hands up. "But it didn't work. It made the need for you to die all the more painful for you, and you died with even more regret. But the last two branches, the ones you remember? Those were carefully crafted scenarios I engineered from constant repetition and testing. 115 was one of the best ways I knew of getting you connected with Drew, and 116, the last one, was the same thing, but for Sam."
"You didn't have to kill people or threaten me with rape to make that happen!"
"That's where you're wrong. You know that it was Sam saving you from 'Collins' that lifted your friendship into love, and it was the terrifying behavior of Sam and the confusion over Lye's arm that made you take solace in Drew. The fact that awful things were happening? And that other people comforted you about it and grew close to you? That is your bread and butter, Mellie. Trust me, more than anything else, you long for sweet romance against a dark background. I've seen your movie collection."
Everything is orchestrated. Even spotting Lye through the classroom door's window with Sam was an event this creature knew could happen. It just had to be in the right place at the right time, after setting up the right events beforehand. It had prior test scenarios to get everything just right.
"Well, there's no point anymore," I tell him. "The magic trick is spoiled."
He steps closer, looking down at me. "Just because you know that the next two-week branch might not last doesn't mean I can't do this job ethically. How about this: I have a pill in my pocket that I've used before, when I explained things to you. It will put you to sleep, and I will try to dissolve you. If you dissolve, you will painlessly proceed to the next branch. There, we can do something to your liking. We can do a branch where I don't kill anyone."
"And if I don't dissolve?"
"Then this is all over, and you continue in this branch. Don't worry, all of this," he motions to the water filling the land for as far as I could look, a new ocean, "will be undone. People disappearing, the water rising, none of that is permanent. Think of it as an illusion brought on by the bottleneck. When we pass it, it's gone."
"So all of a sudden you have a pill that will knock me out? Last time you took pleasure in tormenting me, said it would be anticlimactic otherwise!"
"Look, I apologize about this," he says. "I've gone through the Drew Confession branch plenty of times, and I've never been shot by you until that last one. There's always a little variance, a little chaos. I just never realized that my blood could spread my power onto the anomaly. When you do the same thing over and over, when time is more of a loop than a line, your ethics are curved as well. I did make your demise more painful and frightening than it needed to be. That was for my own entertainment. I wish you could understand, but I know that's too much to ask of a human."
Although I'm still furious, this thing may be right. It is above, or at least separated, from humanity and its morals. It thought I and everyone else would reset, 99 times out of 100, so it didn't matter what it did to anyone.
But the horror of this is in the luck. If, for example, Drew and I were never dissolved in our branch, then Ms. Collins, Mr. Lye, and Sam would all be murdered, dead and gone with no rational answer for their loved ones.
"I understand what you're thinking," he says. "That's why my offer is perfect. I will take you through a branch with no murders, where I kill or harm no-one."
"What happens in it?"
"You and Sam fall in love with each other." He winks, which is a creepy thing to see from Dad's face. "The rest I won't spoil."
"And if it's not the end of the bottleneck?
"We'll run it again, or we can plan out different ones that you consent to."
So I'm basically partnering up with a creature unbound by time and reality. On one level, the human level, I am outraged and disgusted. Every awful memory flashes upon me at once. But on another, growing level, the anomaly side of me, I consider the temporary nature of what has occurred. Only I and this creature remember, so we have a responsibility, in a way.
"It's almost like... running a play," I say. "You have the same actors performing night after night, but some shows will be better than others."
"A great way to look at it," he says. "Except we can make sure that whichever showing is the last, it's also the best."
Then I make a choice. It seems cowardly, but my conscience will only accept so much to begin with.
"I'll take the pill. But for the next branch, I..."
"Yes? Go on."
"I want to redo the last branch!"
He turns his head in curiosity.
"But," I add, "I want to stay with him at the Dance this time. And I want you to not call. Give us our time, and then... just allow me to explain it to him."
"And then what?"
"Then we'll go to the beach together." I take a breath to calm my quaking diaphragm. "If I dissolve and have to try again... so be it. But if the next branch is a chance for that night to continue, and for Sam and I to have our life together, I'm taking it."
"Even at the cost of Collins, Lye, and Cassie?"
"Is there really no other way than to kill them?"
"I begin that branch by killing Collins and taking her form one week prior on the 4th of May. That allows me time to form a relationship with Lye and manipulate him." Wait, he goes back to the 4th on every branch? I guess it makes sense for the entity doing all this to have a greater length to its backward leap through time.
"But... I'd also have to have you... do what you did to me, as Collins?" I ask.
"That is what Sam saved you from, after all."
My choice quickly loses its luster. But is his offer really okay, jumping into some constructed best-case-scenario, instead of the love I've already experienced? Will that experience tarnish whatever this creature has planned for me? What if that doesn't work as the final time, either?
"Not to pressure you, Mellie," he says, "but the water's nearly reached us, and the Noctiluca has a will of its own."
I sigh. "You got something I can call you? Other than whoever you're imitating?"
"Whatever you like."
"How about Hollow?"
"I'd prefer a name that doesn't raise attention in public. How about Holland?"
Holland the Hollow. Works for me. "Okay, Holland, you have a deal."
He takes a small baggie from his pocket and hands me a round, white tablet from it. I break up the chalky, tasteless, tiny brick of concentrated powder against my teeth and lay back, allowing it to dissolve under my tongue and swallowing it down. Soon, I fall asleep.