"Mellie?" Dad's voice is muffled behind the bathroom door. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, all good," I say, keeping my voice artificially calm and upbeat. Then I return to staring at the distorted pattern of the glass shower door.
I need to bathe. It's a basic function for anyone in society. Getting naked is all I've managed, though. The shower has me hostage as I stay in the fetal position on the corner of the cold, uncaring tiles.
It was the day of the Dance. The 26th. Saturday. Now it's two weeks earlier, the Friday when I...
Sketched the RV. Got suspiciously followed by it. Took my biology exam. Met Lye. Decided to join the exhibit.
I make myself chuckle, realizing that I have to take my exam for real this time, and that of course a B was unrealistic.
Is that really what's going to happen, though? As in: everything that happened was a dream? That explanation is so threadbare. What else is there, though? That I'm insane? No, I can't work off that conclusion. If I do, I can't trust anything. I could wake up again and realize I'm not even Mellie Walsh, that all along I was just some drunk old man in Guatemala who had a crazy dream about being a girl for 18 years, after watching too many American movies. If I think I might be insane, then it's the same thing as giving up and not finding an answer.
I clap my hands to the tile and push myself up to turn the shower on. I'm slightly out of its reach, but the initially cold water still stings. Maybe lifting my head has gotten more blood to my brain, because I'm visited by an extremely important revelation: Drew is alive. In fact, I haven't even had a conversation with him yet. It really is like I've gone back in time. Regardless, Drew is okay.
I want to call him, but if we're taking this logically... I can't. I haven't gotten his number yet, and I couldn't recall it from memory. I could try to look him up on social media, but that wouldn't give me a number. Also, I'm kind of scared to. Despite it colonizing the lives of my fellow students, social media's never been my thing, and now I'm paranoid to boot.
As I wash my hair and rake the suds out with my fingers, I'm struck by how ridiculous this is. I don't know Drew. For all I know, he doesn't even exist! Maybe there was no exhibit for the Junior Dance Social, either! For now, I can only assume that what happened was a dream, which means that Drew is, literally, a dreamboat. Yes, when I think about it more, doesn't it make sense that I just had a very long romantic dream? A lonely girl's mind cooking up an end-of-the-world Romeo and Juliet scenario, set in her very own school. So sad and pitiful she was, that she couldn't even imagine a happy ending.
Although this answer lightens my shoulders, it leaves me with this poisonous sting in my chest, right at my heart. I don't know for sure, but it would make far less sense for Drew to be a real person. How do you have a dream about a real person that you've never met in real life?
Unless, maybe, just maybe, I have met Drew before, and my subconscious was reminding me of him! Yes, that must be it! Ha, you're genius, Mellie Walsh!
I feel much better when I come downstairs to the table of saucy dishes, naan, and basmati rice in the kitchen. Sure, it's a little suspect that every dish is exactly the same, and organized in the same way, as in the dream. But it's testing out a menu, and he always organizes the dishes the same way. My mind could have worked off that. Still, how did my subconscious guess the changes he made?
"First of all, we're entering summer," Dad says, "so I've switched our staple bread to an onion naan. Give that a try by itself before you cloud your palate."
I was about to pick one up, and then it falls straight into the orange-red tikka sauce.
"Hey, careful! You make a mess, you're cleaning it." Dad steps closer when he sees I haven't reacted, that my hand is still unclenched in mid-reach and I'm staring at it. I don't know how I look, but it must be bad. "What is it? Are you okay? Tell me if something's wrong."
The same words. The same cadence. The same timing, flow, tone.
"First of all, we're entering summer, so I've switched our staple bread to an onion naan. Give that a try by itself before you cloud your palate."
Is this some roided up version of deja vu? No matter, worrying Dad will cause problems.
"Sorry," I say. "I just remembered I have an exam today. Ugh. I was supposed to study last night and now I haven't."
"Mellie..." He's disappointed, but darker concerns about my mental state have been waived for now. "You can eat whatever and spend some time to study, I suppose."
"No, it's okay. I can still study with Sam before the class starts. Everyone does that."
"You sure it'll be enough?"
"Oh yeah. I just need a little refresher on the terms."
Dad's got a quick mind. He knows I'm not making sense, but he seems content to let it go and trust me. We proceed with the tasting. It's not as fun and lively as it was in my dream.
Then I get an idea. It could be really stupid, tempting fate, but here I go.
"What do you think?" he asks as I crunch into a pani puri.
"It's great," I say, giving an exaggerated, mocking nod. It really is, but the point is what he says next.
The next thing he says is exactly the same as in the dream. His action, too. I'm pulled into it without thinking, behaving as I did back then, too, relishing in a force I don't understand.
"What did we say about generic adjectives?" he teases, snatching it away.
"No, gimme!" I say, trying to wrestle it back.
"Why do you want it back, huh?"
It's a different dish this time so I have to say something new. "Because you've added more sweetness to the chutney this time without under-performing on the spiciness! What is that sweetness from, though? Dates?"
"You got it, wow! Great palates must run in the family." Dad releases me from his abdominal stretcher lock and hands the pani puri back. Last time it was tandoori, and he ate it himself. This time it's a street food and not a great thing for an adult to have for breakfast, so he gave it back to me.
This is fascinating, nothing short of time travel.
He directs me from dish to dish and by the end I'm full, energized, and decidedly normal, mostly. This has all been bizarre, but I'm sure it's nothing to be afraid of. I'm in my home, safe. The world isn't ending.
"Well, that's the tour," Dad says after I take another bite of sweet, chilled modak. Eating it a second time, I focus on the chocolate one, whereas last time I picked mango. "Go ahead and eat whatever you want. Thanks."
I skip upstairs and load up my backpack with my books, folders, and sketchbook, but stop with my hand still clenched on the latter, pulling it back up. Do I really want to look? If what I'm imagining is really there, on the last page, I don't know what sort of explanation I could conjure.
Turning my notebook open, holding it by those reassuring black cardboard covers, I flip to the latter pages, and the most recent one I was working on. It's exactly what I thought, but didn't hope, it to be: a partial sketch of the RV from the view of my bedroom window.
Shaking my head, I close the book and ease it into the backpack, as if trying not to awaken a large, violent animal. I must have sketched something like that earlier. A day or two ago, maybe. I just don't remember it now, but later on, I might recall it.
I announce that I'm heading for the bus stop, and as I walk to the door...
"Yeah?" I say, conspicuously standing still, waiting for this moment.
His tone drops as he wraps up the dishes and sets them in the fridge. "Did you see that RV across the street?"
"Stay away from it," he says. "I think someone might be making drugs in there."
"Oh, okay. I will."
"I'm calling the police later today. Keep upwind of it if you can, just in case."
Dread pumps up my calves from every step down to the driveway. I'm now level with the RV, gaze fixed on the goofy smile of the rear taillights and curving bumper.
Am I going to re-live the moment that started my descent into paranoia? Right around now is when I should see Lye walking out the front door and into his RV, right as I finish reaching the sidewalk. Even my pace is the same.
To be honest, I'm ready for it. I've seen enough movies like this. The protagonist gets caught in some bizarre science experiment or unexplained phenomena or gains a special power to reverse time. But I don't want to have to deal with this again. Please.
I don't see him. No one leaves the home across from ours and the RV remains parked as I hurry past our next-door neighbor's house, crunching my sneakers on magnolia leaves. Lye probably doesn't live there. He may not even exist.
So then, it was a dream. Not everything is the same. I sigh and laugh, looking up to the encouraging, cloudless morning sky. I had a dream-adventure, probably from test anxiety and... loneliness. Not a happy answer, but better than anything else.
"Oh," I say aloud, gut clenching as I remember my classmate: Sam. My explanation doesn't cover why I had such a horrible dream about him. The armchair psychologist in me points to his popularity and air of gentlemanly brilliance. He comes across as perfect, and that's naturally suspicious and unsettling sometimes. Still, I know what a great person he is better than anyone I can think of.
I take out my phone as I walk past the greenbrier-infested chain-link fence at the bus stop and search "friend killed me in my dream" as that's the best term I can think of to simplify the concern. Sam didn't kill me, but I feared for my life when I last saw him.
I spend time on the bus reading what people say on blogs and advice websites. There are some scholarly results that look promising, but they're behind a ridiculous pay-wall. You'd have to be a university student, probably, to read those. There's no consistency among the results. It might mean something, it might not. That's psychology for you.
All in all, I think I have no reason to worry. At the most, good or inane details are being repeated, while bad things aren't. Let's hope that trend continues.
I make my way up the stairs outside and enter the main hall, where Ms. Collins' Biology III Honors awaits. I hear the same two girls at the balcony to my left whispering what they said last time. "Ew, it's The Hornet."
"Strange, calling me that." I shoot a smirk that startles them. "Since you're the ones buzzing in my ear." I brush my shoulder and walk on.
"Hey, Lee," that one short guy says from his locker. He flies a green bill between his fingers like a flag. "I've got ten dollars."
"And yet I'm walking away. Get used to girls doing that." That line was good enough to keep, I think. Thanks, dream.
Once I'm in class, my mood levels out and I slowly finish the last few steps to my desk in the back.
"Well, hello there," Sam says, perfectly creasing the top of the newspaper to look past it and check the clock. "We have a good ten minutes to study, if you'd like."
"Yes, please," I say.
He folds up the paper and turns to me in his desk. "Is anything the matter, Lee?"
"No, not really." I shrug. "I just had a... really weird dream last night."
"What sort of dream, if you don't mind my asking?"
"It had a lot of stuff in it. But one part was... you basically sneaking into my room at night, threatening me, and then choking me until I passed out."
I burst out laughing, scaring a few people and making them glare backward. "You didn't really do anything."
"Perhaps." He leans back in the seat and furrows his brow. "But the dream might have been brought on by something real. Maybe something subtle about my behavior makes you uncomfortable, and even you don't realize it on the surface."
"You're not microaggressing me, I promise. You're good."
He smiles at the ridiculous term. "Well, tell me if that opinion ever changes, alright?"
We get to studying. I've almost recounted the five nucleotide bases when a helium-pitch voice breaks my concentration. "Class, a little quieter, please," Ms. Collins says, lowering both hands.
"She's here," I say.
"She?" Sam asks. "Oh. You mean Ms. Collins. Was there a reason to believe she wouldn't teach today?"
If I talk about my dream a second time, Sam's going to worry about me. "I thought she was sick. Must have misheard someone." Despite the casual tone, I'm still looking ahead and smiling, teary-eyed, as Collins works the corner TV to the right channel for the announcements.
Ms. Collins is that popular, movie-once-a-week kind of teacher, but also a let's-forget-the-homework-and-do-something-unique-this-chapter one. Her hair and skin remind me of fresh cornflakes poured in milk, and with her petite but cute, feminine figure and upturned, Vietnamese eyes, she's a common topic of conversation among the guys.
She's also unflappable, able to handle the clumsily flirty attitude of senior boys in the front with the grace of a woman who has known how hot she is from an early age. Some girls hate her just for that, and even though I don't hold a candle to her, I identify with her a little.
Her eyes turn up and lock, curious, on mine. Damn, stared too long.
"Anyway, uh, nucleotide bases! Adenine, cytosine, guanine, uracil, thymine."
"Correct," Sam says, "but why recall it in that order?"
"You're setting yourself up for confusion with the U part."
I wave my hand to dismiss that concern. Soon the announcements are done and it's time for the exam proper. The exam is exactly how I remember it, problem for problem. In the dead silence of the room, I am left to dwell on this fact. I can't decide whether I am okay or not. I want to convince myself that I am, but that's all. Maybe I really do need to speak to a psychologist.
At least I'm better prepared for the questions. I think I'll do better on it than last time since I got to see my wrong answers in the dream version of the test that Lye handed back. Is that cheating? Best not over-think it.
Eventually, the class period is up and Sam and I are waiting for the crowd to thin out.
"You seemed to complete yours a little early," Sam remarks, raising his chin. "Well done."
"A bit early to say that, don't you think?"
"Indeed not. I can tell just looking at you that you conquered that exam."
My heart gallops and I fuss my hair away from my face. I'm split down the middle on this dream thing. For one, in the dream, Sam became a total psycho for no clear reason, after we saw the arm. But, he also confessed that he loved me. In real life neither is true... as far as I know. But his confession would be just as scary as his attack, in a different way. Not to say I didn't like hearing it.
"Hey, Sam," I say, "do you know of any teacher named Mr. Lye? An art teacher, maybe?"
"Lye?" Sam's mood sinks and crashes. "Yes, I've met the man."
So, he is real. But don't tell me his back-story with Lye is real, too.
"If you've heard any rumors regarding me and him, I should set the record straight. Lye and I were in a dispute over available space that could be used for either the wrestling club or his own club. That conflict has left things rather uneasy between us. I, for one, am leaving it at that. I don't feel particularly motivated to correct my perception in the mind of a man I hardly ever see."
"Right. Makes sense," I nod. "A very mature outlook."
Sam must have wanted to say more, and looks baffled that I'm not curious. That soon changes to a grin.
"You're a truly refined young lady. Most anyone else would be clawing for details."
We finally reach the door and hand in our tests to Ms. Collins.
The next day, Saturday, Dad drops me off at the therapist he scheduled for me. I was already feeling much better after a good night's sleep and was fully settled on what happened being some weird mix of dream and buried psychological trauma, so I was ready to bite the bullet and be scrutinized, on the chance that it might help lift me up a bit more.
When you think therapist, you might imagine a woman in a nice suit with a clean, flat-bottomed haircut, who wants to rip you open like a pomegranate and sort out all the arils for herself. Sadly, I've had an experience very much like that in the past.
This woman, Charlene Miller, is closer to the other stereotype, the fire-walking hippie who wants to find your spirit animal. She doesn't come across anywhere that extreme, though. Just an oddly casual sheer yoga blouse, and I see a couple of wire-wrapped crystals placed around her desk.
Charlene is in her fifties or sixties and reminds me of the school dean. Partly because I'm left sitting for the first minute of the session as she asks basic questions and fills out some paperwork. She had directed me to sit in one of the two couches, placed weirdly far off in the other end of the room.
"Alright, Lee," she says, closing up a folder and bringing it with her to sit across from me. "Sorry about the wait."
"No problem," I say. "Seemed a little punitive though, making me sit and wait while you took down my information."
"You certainly speak your mind, and quite well," Charlene says, crossing a stockinged leg. Her bright red pen has not left her right hand yet. "Is that a result of your past experience in therapy?"
"I don't have to tell you about my previous therapist."
"I'm not suggesting you do, particularly. I was only wondering if you gained a comfort with helping professionals or an introspective sense from it, or if it's an inherent part of your personality. If the past is a sensitive topic, we can focus on the present."
"Please." I don't want to suggest either way if the past is sensitive or not.
"Your father told me some things," Charlene says. He better not have mentioned Camden. "And, of course, that's because he scheduled this appointment for you, and seemed very concerned. But you're eighteen, an adult, so if you don't mind, could you tell me how you're feeling about being in a session? You had no obligation to accept your father's interest in professional help."
Unlike last time. That's what she's implying.
I speak carefully. "I accepted the idea of a session because I don't want my dad to worry. Refusing his idea would only bring on more pressure."
"Pressure?" There she goes, opening up the folder and scrawling that word on some paper. I can't see it, but I can tell. "That's an interesting word to use, Lee. Pressure. Could you elaborate?"
"Dad is a worrywart. Or like... a guard dog. He'll get excited and aggressive against any problem I have or anyone who stands in my way. Can be kind of stressful, sometimes. That's all."
"Aggressive, you said?"
"Yes, he can be very protective of his daughter," I say with a smile. "Not that I mind it."
"I see. That is fairly common among single parents."
That label pisses me off. Why does she have to see us through that pity lens?
"So, you had some sort of distressing dream, yesterday morning? That is what brought on your father's concern, correct?"
"Correct. I had a very intense lucid dream and woke up screaming. It took place over several weeks, and I really felt its length realistically. My sense of what was real got kind of shaken up."
"I see," she goes back to writing, though I'm not sure what. "First of all, you can rest easy. Dreams that are perceived to go on for long amounts of time are nothing unusual. There are those who spend what feel like decades in a dream, falling in love and even starting a family with a person who never existed, or enduring a tragedy that hasn't happened yet. I'm one to think that we shouldn't take these dreams too literally, or work too hard to interpret them."
"Oh. That's... kind of refreshing."
"That said, I am curious. What happened in this dream?"
This lady seems like a decent sort. I'm almost getting a cool aunt vibe from her, but totally different from my Indian aunts. I don't want to have a single scrap of fear toward this phenomenon anymore. Demystifying it into an unusual dream is too appealing. I tell her everything.
She has such an urge to write things down, and I have so much to say, that she requests that I consent to a tape recording instead. I'm a bit weirded out by the little device and its spinning, old-fashioned cassette wheels, but I soon get back into a rhythm.
"And as I was blinded and dissolving in the tide, I finally woke up."
"Ah, yes! That would certainly be an experience to wake up screaming from." Maybe I'm Charlene's most interesting patient in a while because she's a whole other person now. "And the similarities to your real life experience the following day... that is truly fascinating." She grins. "If I were you, Lee, I would find out for certain if this young man, Drew, really exists. When you met him in the dream, you knew his name. You recalled him from somewhere, right?"
"That's right... only, I can't remember such a person in reality."
"You might, but not on a conscious level anymore. Let's make that your homework, okay? Find that boy!"
I giggle. "Alright, that's some extra homework I don't mind taking on."
"Regarding the dream in general," she says. "Tell me this, do you think you made the right decisions in it? If given the chance to join this supposed art exhibit now, would you?"
I pause. "Yeah, I think I would."
"And going to the Dance with a boy, something else that is new to you. Would you do that?"
"That's harder to say. If Drew is real, and I didn't blow his personality out of proportion... if he's really that person... then yeah. Although, I can't say for sure if I'd have the courage. Back then, I was so emotionally drained that I sought his companionship out of survival, almost."
"Your dream, to me, seems to consist of you making some good decisions, bad things happening around and as a result of them, and those bad things eventually eclipsing what you worked for, killing you and the boy you connected with. It sounds to me like your mind was working through a fantastical, worst-case scenario. In real life, your teacher is not missing, nor is your best friend, and I think we can assume the world isn't going to go dark or that everyone will disappear. But you seem to have handled it, endured it."
"So, knowing that about myself, I should gather the nerve to do what I'm afraid to do because it definitely won't be as bad as that?"
"It's up to you how to look at this dream, to decide what to take from it. But as long as what you just said makes sense to you, then by all means, run with it and start living your life to the fullest. Junior and senior year in high school is an extremely important time in anyone's life, and every choice will have consequences for everything going forward."
"That's the kind of pressure that probably brought the dream on."
"You're right, my apologies," Charlene says. I kind of wish, now that the dream recounting is done, she'd turn the recorder off. "It doesn't make it less true, however, even if it pressures you. Perhaps it would help to not think of it as pressure, which is a constricting force, but a push, to move you forward to a more enriched person."
We end the session soon after that. Charlene is lax about me coming back, professionally suggesting that I'm not in need of further therapy unless I desire it. I tell her I'll think about it, since I feel great but might want more guidance. Never expected to say that, walking in.
The catering company has been really busy lately so Dad couldn't be around to bring me back. Sam was kind enough to drive me back from Charlene's office to my house, at Dad's request. I wish Dad could be a little more discreet about who knows that I went to therapy, but he probably figures I tell Sam everything. I basically do.
Dad called after the session, but it ended a bit early, so the call came while I was in Sam's old Civic.
"Did it go well?" The phone's on speaker for convenience. Sam's driving me back from the therapist, so what's there to hide?
"It went great. I feel way better. Totally fine now. The verdict is it was an intense dream about all the adolescent... pushing I'm feeling. I need to relax and not stress out about the things I want to do. I should just go for it. Move my life forward and become who I want to be."
"That's wonderful, honey. Your old pops might worry about you too much, but if you're still happy afterward, it's worth it, right?"
I never knew he looked at it that way, but it makes sense now. "Yeah. Thanks for suggesting it, Daddy. Love you."
"Love you more! By the way, we've got a little problem. This real big business client wants us to cater something called a 'power-moonlight breakfast' on short notice. I'm gonna have to work late. Probably won't be back till around midnight."
"Oh. Don't worry about me. I can heat up some leftovers from the menu tasting."
"Great. If you're tired of Indian, though, and wanna make your own food, you're welcome to it. Don't have anyone over, except Sam. If you need to leave the house for some reason, call me."
"Okay, got it."
"And go to bed at a decent time. I know it's the weekend, but you don't want to mess up your sleep schedule by the time Monday rolls around."
"But I want to give you a greaaat big hug you when you get home..."
"Alright, alright, but if I end up taking longer than midnight to get back, go straight to bed. Understand?"
"Loud and clear."
"Alright, honey, I gotta go. Call if you need anything. Bye."
The call ends and Sam releases a satisfied sigh. "Brings a tear to the eye, I must confess."
"He's a good dad." My response is cool, but my face is not.
"So, I know I asked yesterday, but the mystery compels me. What was in this dream?"
How can I just casually tell him that I asked him out and then he disappeared, turned out to be a killer, and strangled me in my own bed? I've told him that last part, but it's less creepy out of context. Even if it's a dream, that's a pretty wild thing to lay onto your best friend. He could feel guilty for no reason again. Maybe I should dole out just enough, to satisfy his curiosity.
"Well one of the things that happened is that there was this school event, the Junior Dance Social, I think it was called."
"Oh, the Social Dance? Quite the headache, that's been."
"Wait, so it's real?"
"Indeed, it is. You must have heard it mentioned before and forgot."
"Well, anyway... you had been asked to go by some girl you said 'maybe' to, foolishly. It's what you said in the dream, at least."
A long pause. "Huh. You must have great ears, or perhaps I have a poor memory, because that's exactly right, and I don't recall telling you."
"I know, must be a subconscious thing. Anyway, in the dream, I asked you to the Dance, because I was going to be a participant in its art exhibit and I needed a date."
He pauses and we start passing over the bridge on the river. The only sound is the regular babum, babum of the tires passing over the supports. There's a lot of boats on the water today, what you'd expect for the weekend.
"The Dance has an art exhibit?"
"Yes, jerk!" I laugh and punch his ribs. He winces more than necessary. "Sorry, but I was kind of expecting you to ask a different question."
"You're very right, my lady, pardon the offense. In this dream, how did I respond to your generous offer?"
"You were kind of a dick, teasing me before finally answering." I grin, feeling a little crazy for reminiscing about something that never happened. "But you said yes, and I had never been happier."
Another silence as we ride down the hill at the middle of the bridge. "I don't deserve that much praise from you, Lee."
"Why?" I ask, a bit scared by his low, sad tone. "Is there something about you that makes you unworthy in your opinion? Because you, in the dream, said there's no one else you could imagine dancing with."
"That... does sound like what I would say," he replies softly, "if the girl I fancied asked me such a thing."
I can't move a muscle. This part is real, too? Just how much of a dream clairvoyant am I?
"Sam... you like me?"
"My feelings are difficult to express."
We're off the bridge, passing the gingerbread-colored soundproofing walls of the highway. I see the triangles of fancy home roofs above.
What's an even more intense and difficult thing to say than "I love you?" Turns out the answer is "Do you love me?"
If I ask that, and he confirms, everything changes. I'm not ready for that. In the first place, I want to meet Drew if he's real. Based on how many things I've gotten right, I think he will be, and much as it may hurt the both of us, probably Sam much more, I can't leave behind whatever might blossom between that iridescent artist boy and I. I also want Drew, if he's real, to know that he doesn't have to punish himself for how he felt about me in the past.
It's an awkward ride home, with neither of us saying anything. After he's dropped me off and I thank him, it occurs to me that Sam probably also wanted to ask if my feelings for him are real. I asked him to the Dance in the dream, but would I really? I hammer myself in the thigh with my fist. "Idiot!"
I want so badly to pull out my phone and text something, but personal topics are for in-person meetings. We're both adults, although new to it we may be, and he'll be fine waiting to talk about this sometime soon.
Besides, what could I say now? "Don't worry, I totally might want to go to the Dance with you. :P"
I look back across the driveway and street to the RV still parked in the same spot. I think I hear music in it this time, though. It's nothing worth calling the cops over, but some kind of sound is coming from there, and there are a few flashes of light every so often, like a TV is turned to an exciting show in the window facing the street.
Like a human match, I'm struck against a very coarse idea and light up in flaming intrigue. Today I decided that I would live out my life to the fullest. That means if I'm curious about the neighbors across the street, and whether it's Mr. Lye, I should just walk over. Florida may be an east-coast state, but it's still southern, too, and in the South, you aren't afraid of your neighbors. You walk right over and say 'Howdy Doody'. Well, maybe not that.
Once I've put my backpack away, I have a light snack of chilled modak and some ice water to cool down, then change into a new shirt and head back outside. I remember what Dad said: to call if I have to leave the house, but this hardly qualifies. We don't have a house phone, so he'll call my cell to check in. In the rare chance that he needs me to do something back home, I'll know, and I can go straight there.
It's amazing how foreign and distant it feels, walking fifteen feet in a different direction from my school-day mornings. It makes you realize how crowded the world is. I am now on private property, unannounced. What if someone opens the front door and starts heading out, only to see some strange girl halfway up their driveway? Will they think I'm a thief, casing the place? No, ridiculous. I'm just nervous.
The RV shows far more signs of life than the house, and it's only a few steps away. If I want to say hello, I should try here.
I'm just standing in front of its plastic door, unable to block the music inside. It's very cheery, almost annoyingly so.
I robotically lift my hand and knock. The fiberglass bites back against my knuckles while damping the sound. As I wonder if I wasn't heard, the music dies down, and I hear footsteps approaching and lowering slightly to my level. The door flies open and I have to jump back.
"Oh, hello," Mr. Lye says, holding the door. At least, I think it's him. "I'm sorry, did I scare you? I would never want to do that to somebody..."
It's definitely him. I recognize the sunken eyes and the round gut, unfortunately accentuated by the scraggly limbs. But now he's wearing a T-shirt containing some heavily detailed metal album cover and cargo shorts. He could almost be a student.
"Sorry to bother you," I say. "I'm your neighbor, from across the street."
"Is the sound too loud?" He asks with too much concern like I'm his mother.
"No, not at all. I actually... just felt like saying hello. We live across the street, after all, and hearing you in the RV I just sort of felt like it." Don't ramble. Give him a chance to contribute. "I'm not intruding, am I?"
"No, not at all," he says with a deep nod. A nod means yes, so that's kind of weird.
"Miiitch!" a sharp, high female voice calls. "Who is it, huh?"
"Just a neighbor," he says back. Again, this odd tone, like one of relief, maybe. Then I hear bed springs and barefoot steps.
"Oh, it's you!" Ms. Collins says, slipping into the same spot next to Lye, oddly close to him. She's dressed in a sheer white skirt that contrasts against a poofy pink hoodie. As childish and ill-fitting as Lye's clothes, but in a totally different way. "Lee, how are you here? You're a neighbor?"
"I... uh... Ms. Collins?"
"Oh dear, looks like we've got the girl in shock," Collins says.
I need to get my bearings. One question at a time.
"Hey, don't mind me if this is wrong," I say, "but are you... Mr. Lye? From school?"
His eyes widen. "So you're a student?"
"Uh, yeah. I live across the street."
"Ms. Walsh here is a fine young lady from my Biology Honors III class," Collins says. "Always very well-behaved and quiet. Oh spoilers, but you did remarkably well on that test! I think you'll be very proud of yourself when I hand it back."
"Really? That's great." I work up a smile. "So... you two both live here?"
"More or less," Collins says casually, "but it's a recent arrangement. I'm getting my place bug bombed, so I'm staying in my man's castle."
The house of cards in my head has just been hit with a tornado. Her man? These two are together? I never heard even the slightest hint of such a thing.
"We've been together since fairly recently," Lye says, obviously uncomfortable talking about this with a teenage girl. Together fairly recently, and yet she's comfortable staying at his place? I get the feeling like Collins can get anything she wants from someone like Lye.
"Is your father out late?" Collins asks. I wonder how she could ask that off the bat, but maybe she just knows me that well, that I'm a bored young adult doing something unusual while her parent is away. When I nod her eyebrows arch up. "You should come in! Chill with us!"
"Oh, I don't want to interrupt anything—"
"—The more the merrier." She takes my hand and before I know it the door shuts behind me and I'm several feet above ground, standing in the middle of this Bakelite cavern.
There are little clip-on lights in blue and red colors, while the main lights are off, and it gives the place an alien glow. Toward the back, on the bed, I can see a boxy TV propped on a tiny corner table, showing a pause screen on some colorful video-game. The console is just underneath, with the wires to the controllers laying out on the bed.
"Liz", Lye says in a warning, but whispered voice as he moves around from behind me to her. A memory lashes my brain: the police Sergeant, Mr. Fox, giving his announcement that 'Isabelle Collins' was officially missing. Liz must be her preferred nickname.
"It's okay, really," Collins says in a lower voice. "She's cool, I'm sure of it." Where have I heard that before? Before I can think anymore, Collins turns to me and grins. "Do you have anything planned today?"
"Uh, no, not really. My dad has to work late, until around midnight. I would probably just watch some movies."
"In that case..." she turns her head, guiding mine toward a dark case with a lock on it. It's well hidden under the little rounded dining booth, but you'd have no way of knowing what's inside. "Would you like to trip with us?"
It's funny, being asked a question like that when it only makes me wonder if I'm already high. I look into her brown eyes, mouth gaping, and she's just waiting, confident and friendly, no different than when offering some hot chocolate in her classroom.
"What are you taking?" I ask.
"Psilocybin," she says. "Do you know what that is?"
"Shrooms, yeah," I say. My science teacher beams with pride, while Lye looks displeased by the state of my generation. Am I in another universe? Is this RV some insane pocket dimension? But I've just been asked to trip with someone. Regardless of context, it would be rude to maintain an awkward silence. "Where do you get them?"
"She makes them," Lye says, resigned that there's no point hiding now. "The RV is hers."
Dad's suspicions were right. I can't believe this.
"Have you two already taken some?" I ask.
"Yep, about two hours ago," Collins starts to do this sultry belly-dance as if that demonstrates. "This batch is my best yet. Very smooth, great if you're a first timer."
"I am..." I look down at the box again. Tripping with teachers. What is the protocol here? There simply isn't one.
But it hasn't even been two hours since I decided that I'm going to take risks and do things if I want to do them, even if they scare me. Do I want to try magic mushrooms with a couple of people I know... more or less? Yeah. That sounds like fun. The fact that they're teachers, despite it being very odd, might just be ideal. I think I can trust them more than some random people my age.
In fact, think about this logically. They stand to lose more than I do if this gets out. I'm just a young girl who didn't know any better, but they're teachers who got me into it. Their lives would be over for sure. Feeling oddly empowered, I look to each of them. Ms. Collins is friendly as ever and devilishly intrigued to see an all-new side to one of her quietest students. Mr. Lye doesn't know me, but he seems to be going with the flow his girlfriend established. Quite the strange dynamic. Even though it's his home and property, this is her RV and her drugs, and presumably the stuff in here is hers.
"Alright," I say. "Thank you. I appreciate the generosity."
"Let me get you a few," she says, bending down to pick up the black box. I realize it's not for growing the mushrooms. That must be somewhere else in here. This is where she stores dried mushrooms already harvested.
One look at them and my face turns bright red. You can probably guess what they look like. The most embarrassing thing you can imagine. Yeah, that. Only small and shriveled. They're the length of my palm, and she carefully and quickly removes two from a plastic zipper bag and hands them out to me. They feel light in my hand.
"Um... how much is this?"
"Roughly two grams. A good starting dose. You'll be fine, I promise."
These things look way too big. A little pill, a tab, a tiny bowl of ground bud, these are things you can look at and relax, knowing they won't be too much. But something that takes several mouthfuls to eat?
"So I just... down the hatch?"
"I'll get you some orange juice," Lye says. "It helps." He opens a fridge, its pure white light an invader in this dim environment. I don't want to just stand around waiting to be served before I begin, it'll make me look nervous. I bite off the cap and chew.
It's nutty, to the point of being bitter. It makes me imagine somebody skinning a hundred walnuts and then concentrating all that skin into a single object. But walnuts are oily, and this is extremely dry and jerky-tough. More than the taste, I nod with thanks and gulp down the orange juice just from the need to wash it down. It's not bad at all, chased with something sweet and refreshing. Before I know it, the last of the second stalk is mashed and coasting down into my stomach. No going back now.
"Yay!" Collins jumps up with her hands balled to her chest. Then she takes my hand and leads me to the bed and the video game. "Come on, let's play. It'll set a good mood for when it starts to come on."
"W-when does that happen?" I ask, following my science teacher's behind onto the high bed and getting into position by her. I am suddenly back to kindergarten, climbing through those little plastic tube jungles that kids love to explore in playgrounds. Following some girl who was my friend at the time, I think, through the tunnels. I guess I made the connection because it's a bit dark in here.
"Should be about an hour in by the time the trip is fully started," Lye says, climbing up and making the bed creak and tilt. "You'll definitely feel it within a half-hour." He seems a bit awkward about the fact that I'm now sandwiched between the two of them. I'm glad that Lye's here, and that he seems to be a different person than what my dream suggested. Well, now it's obvious both of them are more than what they seem. You never know what people do in their private life.
He hands me a controller. Turns out they're playing one of the older Mario Karts. I've never owned them, but I've played just from being at someone's house when they had it on. Collins is in control as player one, and she backs up out of the results screen of the last race to enter three-player mode.
After some cheery confirmations from Mario, we're selecting characters. Collins picks Donkey Kong, an amusing choice, and Lye goes with the classic, Mario himself. Both must be confident in those characters since they took no time. I hover through the options quickly before settling on Toad. It's fitting, in this context, to play a little mushroom guy, and if I recall his is one of the slower, better-controlling karts.
We begin going through the races. Because it's three players, Collins and Lye both get the top corners of the TV's screen, while I have the entire lower half of the screen devoted to Toad. Despite this mild advantage, my first race is a nightmare. They're doing the harder, more involved courses like Rainbow Road, and I'm simply not that great of a gamer anyway. That said, I am avoiding last place, so I try to just stay at a healthy sixth or seventh while occasionally checking on the madness between Collins and Lye.
"What have you got for me, huh?" Collins teases, as Lye approaches in second place behind her with a shell.
"Oh, you know," he says casually, arms higher than necessary as he drifts a hard curve. "Your just desserts."
"You're not gonna do it," she says. Tension rises as I realize that they're in the last stretch of their final lap.
"No, you don't have the balls! Damn it!"
He bid his time and waited to fire the shell just at the end of the race. As Donkey Kong bounces in mid-air from the hit, Mario zooms right under him and through the finish line with a little cheer sound effect. Collins still gets second once she recovers. They relax and banter energetically as I make my way to the same spot in the following few seconds.
For the next half-hour or so, we keep up the variety, moving to different multi-player games when one loses its novelty. We do some 2D fighting games for a while, king of the hill style, where the loser hands over their controller to the person not playing, meaning I basically get to play every other match. I'm really bad at games like this. The racing was continuous and you can look ahead to what you should do, but 2D fighters are just a jumble of hundreds of variables changing every quarter second.
They're paying rather close attention to how interested I am in a game, and it kind of feels like being babysat. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday, though. The bed's a nice substitute for a couch, too.
In the time that we've played, my eyes have grown better suited to the darker environment. The lights paint a welcoming hue that changes in well-placed stripes. When I look to my left, I see Lye, blue, and to my right is Collins, in a red suited to her. She could easily be the femme fatale of an old spy movie.
"You guys are good to play for a bit," I say, handing the controller to Collins. "I just want to chill and watch a little."
They get to the character select screen and talk, faking each other out. When one picks a certain character, the other will move to a character who hard counters that, followed by the former unpicking and moving to a different character that hard counters them, and so on.
"How's it feeling so far?" Lye asks. "It's always thought-provoking to hear from a first-timer."
"Well, I definitely feel different. Slightly euphoric." I give my eyes a break from the brightness of the TV, looking down that blue and red hallway toward the rest of this RV, which is suddenly looking far bigger, with a dense, gray, cement-like texture to everything, like I'm in a well-lit city alley in the quietest hours before dawn. "Hey, I still have juice, right?"
"Yeah, it's on the table," Lye says. "Feel free to get up and walk around."
"Okay..." I carefully crab-walk off the bed and lower myself to the floor. I can't believe how far it is, like jumping three stories. I call out in shock from the force and thump of my feet on the dense carpet. But it doesn't hurt. I only fell three or four feet.
"You okay there, sweetie?" Collins calls out with a giggle. I hear the constant, repetitive chants and taunts of their characters fighting in the game amid dramatic punching and sword-unsheathing sounds.
"Y-yeah. All good." I narrow my eyes and get on one knee, stretching my back to look up to the rounded ceiling. "The mission begins."
Rising to full stance would not be a good idea. I am hobbling around right now on the ground, truly infantile, but that is only to hold in my awesome power. If I were to stand up now, I would surely rocket through the universe and all matter itself. This would cause me to throw up, a.k.a. mission failure.
I reach the table, or rather, it looms above me. Somewhere past that foreboding barricade is my glass of juice. Warily, I affix myself up and into the plush booth seat, where I see the glass and drop my jaw. It's so beautiful that I don't want to touch it. The orange inside is protected by the empty upper half, blue at one side and red on the other.
How could I disturb this thing? What right do I have to consume this liquid flower, the last orange thing in this forsaken, dead city? No, this thing was made for me. Lye poured it, birthed it, so that I may have it when the time is right.
My hand extends from my view, out to the glass, a tentacle growing from my chest. It grabs the glass and I am invigorated by its cold, confident durability. Bringing it closer, I stare into that orange and its freckles of yellow pulp as I gulp it down like water. Then I think about actually tasting it.
The swish through my mouth... this must be what it's like for those kids in cereal commercials. I'm riding glistening waves on an orange ocean with a surfboard made from my own body. It's not body-surfing, though, because my perspective is above me, looking down as I twirl in the arcing tunnel of a constantly closing wave. Finally, I swallow, and zip free of the splash behind, coasting further on until I am back at the shore of whatever beach connects to the orange ocean. I flip my body-surfing frame to walking mode. My sight and self are aligned again.
Dad is standing and waving, wearing swim trunks. His hands inflate and turn into pixelated, stretched polygons like a glitched video game character. He shoots, or rather, flings one of those hands off into the jungle. Oh, right, apparently there is a jungle here. But it doesn't go horizontally. The jungle is a vast collection of wild trees and vines growing out from a cliff-face, one that I can see on and on left, right, and even up, to no end.
"You gotta go get it, honey," Dad says. "My hand's run off again."
I start laughing. It's happening again? What's up with that? Every beach trip, it's nothing but hands and feet getting lost in the jungle wall. I fucking love how that sounds. That sentence is giving me happy joints. I want to move around, give all my joints some much-needed love, a chance to strut their stuff. I'm moving arms, legs, knees, elbows, my neck, everything I can think of.
Then I realize I'm bumping against the table and soft leatherette cushion of the booth. That's right. I'm not on an orange ocean amid the endless jungle wall with Dad. I'm just in a booth in an RV.
At some point, I had been drinking my orange juice, and now the glass is proudly empty, filled equally with red and blue light instead. It seems thankful to have the orange out of the way, with the two colors merging now into a purple doomsday laser.
Wait, wait, wait... when the hell have I been a surfer?
"Leeee?" Collins says, her voice a ribbon snaking around my flesh. "How you doing so far?"
She giggles. "I'm glad. Whatcha doin'?"
"I completed my mission and consumed the orange juice," I say, with the gravity of a movie star. Both of them burst out laughing. I don't get it. I feel like I can stand up now, and want to. I slip out of the booth and walk over. Are human legs really this strong? They must be; hardly any other animals are exclusively bipedal. "How's the games? Who's winning more?"
"I am," Lye says.
"What? No way!" Collins snaps. "It's been fifty-fifty!"
"It really hasn't. You have selective memory." Lye's proud of this, I think, because after that first race, he was consistently getting second or third. Just goes to show, there are differences in male and female brains.
I'm standing around because I don't understand how to get back on the bed. It's just like that jungle wall, insurmountable. Is that because I... shouldn't be here?
They have good chemistry. What do I contribute to that? I feel immensely guilty for butting into this private moment between two adults.
This is a world I have no place in. What was I thinking, just walking off the ordinary path? Goddamn therapy.
Poor Mr. Lye, too. A student now knows things about him that could get him fired.
"Um, Mr. Lye? I just want to be clear: you don't have to worry about me telling anybody about any of this. I don't care what people do on their own time if they're not hurting anyone." I've never done any kind of drugs, except weed, whenever I joined Camden with his friends who smoked or vaped. I don't miss that sort of thing, even if there are some good memories connected with it. This is the first drug that could be considered a psychedelic, and that's a lot of responsibility for them to accept.
"Hey Mellie," Lye says out of nowhere, "I have this student named Drew. Do you know him?"
I go rigid, eyes as wide as possible. But I forget to nod. He seems to get it.
"He told me that you're a great artist."
Over what feels like eternity, we essentially have the same conversation that we did in my dream, only in this RV instead of in Ms. Collins' class. I'm elated, so many good things confirmed. I told him I'd happily show him my sketchbook later, and that I'd very much like to try and join the exhibit if he'll have me. Based on experience, I can expect that he will.
I realize how lucky I am. The good things in my dream, they've all come true, and the awful things, so far, haven't. Ms. Collins isn't missing. She's here right now. They've switched the games off and turned the TV to some wacky British comedy show. Lots of men in drag. Seeing her tight, elegant, wide cheekbones lift in laughter just reminds me of how terrified I was for her, during those initial announcements from Mr. Fox. Then being told that she was found dead, decomposed to hardly a scrap in Lye's house.
There's no way that sort of thing will really happen. It's just in my mind. I have nothing to fear.
"Lee?" Collins slides forward and sits up, studying me in the dark. I'm crying. The tears moving down. My face unzipping. "Honey, what's the matter? Are you okay?"
Lye is concerned now, watching as Collins thuds off the bed to her feet and hugs me. I burst into sobs and hold myself against her enviable body. The warm hoodie smells like cardamom.
"I'm just so happy you're okay..." I say. "You're my favorite teacher."
"What a gift to the world you are. Of course I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be?"
I know better than to talk about that horrifying dream. It could worsen their trips and vastly worsen mine. Right now I just need this, to be one half of a human embrace. Why aren't we born in pairs of people meant for each other? Who decided we should be born alone, be forced to spend our entire lives helplessly searching for the person we were meant to be with?
I don't even know what I'm thinking. Her hand rubbing the back of my hair is nice. To my relief, Collins and Lye seem to just roll with my outburst, expecting highs and lows from me. I wipe my eyes and tell her I'm okay now.
Something odd comes to me, then, as I think back to the dream. Never did I hear from Mr. Fox that the RV belonged to Ms. Collins. It was always presented as something Lye owned.
"Hey, Ms. Collins?" I ask.
"Liz, honey." She laughs then. "Guess who we are? Lye, Lee, and Liz!"
"Wow. A destined meeting, then?"
"Yep. Anyway, what were you going to say?"
"I was just wondering, when did you get this RV? It looks like it's from the 70s." That comment covers any suspicion, I think.
"It was an offer that I kind of had waiting for me, whenever I wanted it. A friend let me have it for cheap when I finally asked. I didn't want it around my place, so I got it and sent it here to move in with Lye for a bit." She winked. "Can't be too careful."
Basically, if it ever does get out that there are drugs in the RV, she could plausibly deny that it's hers. It was never seen on her own property and there is no record of her buying it. I can't help but find that wrong, piling that risk onto Lye instead. Perhaps he decided it was worth the free drugs and having his girlfriend around all the time.
I peek through the blinds, and a camera flash blinds me. Who did that, and why? Am I... no, wait, there's no camera. I'm just shocked by the fiery exposure of the afternoon sun. It feels like I've been here for hours. No, it feels like I've stayed the night and just woke up, and now it's morning. No, I've lived here my whole life. No, this is the world now. Outside is just The Bright. A savage, furious judgment that would dissolve me, skin to bone to nothing, if I went outside.
"It's too stuffy in here," Collins says. "Let's go in the pool!"
"No!" I say. "Are you insane? The Bright will destroy you!"
"It's okay, Mellie," Lye says, turning the system off. "There's nothing dangerous out there."
"Language has failed me," I say. "How do I explain? This can't be how humanity ends!"
"Lee, we're just going to take a little walk," Collins says, taking my hands. "Into Lye's house. He has a pool. Don't you think that would be fun? It's hot in here, isn't it?"
Hot? What is hot? She's just an overgrown baby to me, making strange noises. Haaah-uht. What does that mean? Like: "Haah, I sure want to be out of this place?" Then why not just say that?
After a minute or so of Collins reminding me what hot is, my infantile mind rediscovers the concept of cold. Feeling the metal of the stove, and thinking about swimming in that temperature. That sounds good.
"I'd need a bathing suit, though," I say. "And good God, I'd have to wear it, too." I don't have nearly enough mechanical engineering know-how to pull that off in this state.
"It'll be fine," Collins says. "Look, Mitch can wait by himself. I'll go with you to your house, just across the street. We'll take a little journey, you'll get your bathing suit, and if you need help changing, you have another girl ready to help. Sound good?"
Is this kind of generosity really possible? To my home, my room, she will escort me? But that's across the grand wastes showered in The Bright, and does she even know the 11,000 passwords for Judge Hermitcrab? Nonsense of shaft. Automatically painting reality to escape sacrifice. The grim reaper is forever stuck in a chase one second behind us until he finally catches your shoulder.
Something touches my shoulder and I gasp. I'm outside. A door closes to my left. Right, yes, I remember. Things are happening. That's a relief.
"Come on, you silly," Collins says, moving around in front of me. "See my back? Just follow it."
Right, following that. She forms a nice protection from The Bright. The grass of my house's little lawn is growing and dying in waves, like the flapping of a raised flag in slow motion. People say you get weird colors when on shrooms, but so far it's weird everything else.
This must look sketchy, this woman leading me along my driveway and up the stairs to my own home. But I reach normalcy for a moment and look around. There's nobody, and everything is fine. This is just another day in my life, only of a different flavor than usual.
Inside my delightfully cool house, Collins stays close to me and asks me to show her to my room. We go up the stairs and the physical movement has helped me level out a bit. This is some really good stuff. Dramatic, but good. I'm thankful that my favorite teacher is someone I can rely on for something so delicate as a trip. I couldn't ask Sam to do this. He hates all drugs. Doesn't even drink coffee or take vitamins. If it's not food or water, it doesn't enter his body. Considering all the chemicals involved in the majority of our food these days, I don't see the point. Drugs are just another part of everything. You could argue that salt and sugar are the most abused chemicals in America.
I regret not having a one-piece bathing suit. All I've got is a bikini with a yellow top that wraps in two broad ribbons down from the cups and around to a tie in the back, sort of like bandages at the top of my ribs. The bottom is all black, which I think is good as it helps minimize any perception of a broad waistline. I've got hardly an ounce of fat on me, but still. I'd like more emphasis on the chest region.
"I'll be right outside if you need help," Collins says, walking out of my room but leaving the door open. That was a wise move. A closing door would be way too symbolic. It would set me tripping again.
Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror is really freaking me out, and how everything I move is inverted on the glass. I'm just not getting it. It's really embarrassing, too, since I can't wear a bra with this. It's close to backless. Collins doesn't mind, though, and comes in herself around the time that I feel like asking her. I keep my hands on the cups, paying attention to my breathing and hers, as she easily ties the two back ribbons and clasps the hooks. It's only now that I see it: she's already changed into hers. She must have brought it with her to change in my house. Even though it's a one-piece, more dark-red leotard than swimsuit, she wears it with far more confidence than I do with mine.
"Funny," I follow her out, watching her hips sway. I'm not into women. At least, that's been the story in general. But old ideas of mine are starting to crumble. I think there was some kind of wall. On the other side is what guys see, and I'm peeking over.
"I bet a lot of guys in school would kill to be me right now."
Collins throws her head back in an understanding cackle.
Lye's house is a brown, calming place, and we skitter through it together like ants in a hollowed log. The pool awaits past two glass double doors. We make sandwiches first, mine being peanut butter and banana. They are charmed by my overt thankfulness, and I try not to grow embarrassed.
He slides the doors open and we walk out into the softer light of afternoon and on patchy, painted concrete. Collins closes the door behind me. As I hold my sandwich and staunch the permanent wound that is my hungry mouth, I come to a startling revelation.
What if I've been doing some kind of drugs like this since well before I recall it? That would explain my memory issues. Or, maybe by taking these drugs, I have so shattered my perception of time that I currently think that I have experienced all those bizarre things, the dream included. No, no, that would be disproved rather easily. There are no easy answers for reality sometimes, I guess. Strangely, I'm finally starting to accept it without any issue. In therapy, I found an answer, but here I think I found the mindset to carry it out.
"Someone needs to go in, seriously," Collins says. Even though we're warm, and have finished our sandwiches, we're afraid of the shock from the cold water. Or at least, they might be. I was thinking.
"I'll go in," I say, walking up to the shallow end. My feet, legs, and then the rest of me up to the chest disperses and becomes water. To me, it's more like the tiniest of balls filling a play pit. Splashing my arm through it only confirms. Collins cannonballs in at the deep end and I yelp as her cavalry fire round missiles at my face and shoulders. She erupts forth as a vague amoeba creature.
"Nice, very nice," I say sarcastically, splashing her.
"Ahh! Very naughty, Mellie, splashing your teacher." The amoeba shifts a section into an appendage and splashes back at me. The water stings like needles. Should have kept my eyes closed. As the pain subsides we splash each other back and forth with every tactic imaginable, laughing. She gets closer and I retreat, eventually caught in the corner away from the steps. Then her hands are around my back and she's pushing her lips on mine.
Oh my god, no, what's happening? So much pushing, her skin, hands, lips, tongue. All thoughts of confusion regarding my sexuality are vanquished. Her breath smells of peanut butter and her tongue is like a brain-invading slug.
Why is she doing this? What do I do?
Collins gives off an aura of control and severity. Her hands are clasping me in place at the corner, almost pinching. I haven't tried to move away, yet. Stupidly, unfathomably, I try to return the kiss. My overloaded mind sees it as another generosity when I know, on a higher level, that it isn't. Something is being taken, right now. Something is in danger.
Our lips smack in parting. Collins is backing away with an awful, satisfied smirk. She was thinking something about me, and now I've proven it, in her mind. I have been reduced to something far lower than student.
I look away from her and see Lye standing there in his trunks, mouth agape. Does he realize what's happened here? Tell me you're not part of this, Lye, please.
"Sorry about that, hon," Collins says, voice growing serious. "I really... shit. God damn it." Voice cracking, she rushes out of the pool while I'm still looking at Lye. The sound brings me back to the crashing waves when Drew and I faced off against that horrible creature.
"Wait, hold on," Lye says, suddenly calm and masculine compared to normal. Collins stands there, dripping, while he holds her shoulders. "That was not intentional, right, Liz?"
She nods, not looking sorry enough, in my opinion. Reality has come crashing down. Something in my brain must be fighting to deny all the psychedelic influence because this is serious. What she just did... well, it's probably not a felony. I'm eighteen. But it was awkward, confusing, and seemed to happen for no reason.
"I'm sorry, Mellie," she says, not looking at me. She lays a hand on Lye's shoulder. "I got carried away. I swear, you're a pretty girl, but that's not something I wanted to do. I never would, because you're my student. I'm so sorry."
I don't know whether to believe her. Her voice drips with regret, but she moves a hand down Lye's bare, pasty chest.
Is she just... really horny? Oh my god, what if she only did that to turn him on?
Lye seems to believe a mixture of both and forges a nervous smile. "That's one powerful mushroom." We both laugh nervously. He breaks from Collins gently and walks slowly toward me, crouching down to get more to my level. He forms a comforting shadow on me, against The Bright. "Mellie, are you okay? Do you want to go home?"
I never expected this, ever. Foolishly, I thought that taking shrooms would just affect my imagination and perception. I didn't think about what would happen in reality, while we're coasting along elsewhere. God, this is so weird. Maybe I should just laugh it off. She looks sorry. She's my favorite teacher, and I can't let this ruin her for me. She's a human being who makes mistakes. Let's make that the bottom line.
"That was pretty surprising," I say with a sigh, relaxing my face. "Don't worry about it, Ms. Collins. I should have reacted more. I was just really surprised."
"Oh, honey, that's not how it works. I did something wrong. You can't be blamed, innocent as you are."
Well, thanks for that, I guess? She does realize I've had a boyfriend, right?
"Well, since we're all keeping this day between ourselves," Lye says, holding out his hand. "I think we can just file that under crazy secret stories. Is that alright with you?"
"Yeah." I use his hand to pull myself out of the pool. A little dangerous, but I'm rather sober now, and I needed an encouraging touch from someone else. Out of the cold water, I'm feeling better. "Really, Ms. Collins, it's okay." I feel like I'm being a wet blanket somehow, or that my age compared to them is making them guiltier than they should be. Maybe I should bend a little. "Did, uh, you enjoy the show, Mr. Lye?"
"Huh? Well, uh..." He sighs and rubs his dry black hair. He never did get a chance to go in the pool. "Yes, I can't lie. It's a classically exciting thing for a straight man. The love between women has always been a subject in artworks—"
"Alright, pervert," I say with a laugh. He knows I'm kidding, and they both laugh as well.
"Say, Mellie," Collins says. "Do you think you'll be okay watching TV for a bit inside?"
That's an odd proposal. I see her standing close to Lye, and then I get it.
"Maybe I should call it a day—"
"No, no, it's fine," she says with a hand wave. "We both have to take a shower. You can go first. While you wait for us, you could watch something, right?"
"That's right," Lye says. "Feel free to make something in the fridge. Right about now is when I'd get hungry again if I dosed when you did."
"Yeah." I smile and nod, taking one of the towels hung at a chair. "I'll go take a quick shower then."
This has got to be the strangest day of my entire life. Taking drugs with teachers, getting kissed by a woman, and then taking a hurried shower so I can leave room for them to... most likely shower together and have sex.
Perhaps I'm still thinking like a child. I am an adult just like them. The law recognizes it. It's just this teacher-student dynamic, and being an outsider, these two compressing forces that squish me down so I feel younger than I really am.
Once I'm all done with my shower and dressed again, I'm still getting wild visuals, but I know where I am and what's happening. The lovers thank me as I sit down on the black leather couch and then Collins goes off to the shower on her own.
Wait, alone? Lye is changed back into his regular clothes. Oh, of course. He didn't go in the pool. What excuse does he have to go in the shower with her?
The TV is set to some survival reality show. The gimmick is that they're paired with people they hate or have a bad history with, like a father and the son-in-law who got his daughter pregnant, forcing a wedding. Lye sits down on the other end of the couch.
"Ah, I haven't seen this one," he offers.
"Do you mind if I speak frankly?"
"I'd like nothing less, of course. You're free to say anything."
I sigh. "If you want to be... intimate with your girlfriend, then I don't mind. If you intend to go in the shower with her or something... it's really okay by me. I'm not a baby." I shouldn't have tacked on that last part. Kind of defiantly immature.
Several emotions flash on his face before he rolls his head and sighs, then grins nervously. "To be honest, I was worried about letting someone else into the 'chill sessions' as it were, especially a student. But you're a unique sort. I really think you're trustworthy, and that there's no need, in this case, for the teacher-student act."
"I appreciate that."
"However, I assure you that Liz doesn't intend for me to shower with her."
"Oh. Er..." Sex is not scary and you are an adult, Mellie Walsh. Ask questions. "May I ask why?"
"Well..." He shifts closer and lowers his voice. "She's very self-conscious about the skin on her back. She told me she has a rather large birthmark there. I've assured her that I see beauty in all her features, but she's quite adamant about it. I've never seen it."
"Huh." I lean back and sink into the cushion. The woman who forced her tongue down my throat is self-conscious about a birthmark? Come to think of it, she wore a one-piece. That did seem a little tame, for her personality. "So you've never had sex?"
"What?" he recoils. "Of course we have. Why would you assume that?"
My face boils with summoned blood. I guess I just assumed people always get naked for sex.
"Pardon," he says. "Yes, we... we do. She just wears something over her torso. A bit limiting, from my perspective, but I've grown used to it."
"Doesn't she get warm?"
"There's a fan in my room," he says. We both stop talking, simultaneously realizing that this conversation is going to be in our minds now, in any interactions we have at school.
I decide to go and get my notebook while I have the chance, and show it to Lye. Once he's thoroughly impressed, and I've proved I can go outside the house and back with no issues, he's convinced that I'll be okay to go home, and also comes to his senses about letting a student hang out while he gets laid. I thank Lye, get his number and hers from him, and promise to come back sometime. Whether I will is up in the air.
I go home and cook up some leftovers from Dad's menu testing. I'm still getting visuals and it probably wouldn't be safe to cook. At least it tastes extra good.
Deeply thankful that tomorrow is Sunday, and that Dad doesn't call to check up on me, I lounge about and do whatever I please, rediscovering the house. I like being on shrooms alone, at least during the comedown. I'm seeing memories of myself, ghostly visions of me and Dad, in each room I enter. I spend most of my time in Dad's room, just sitting on his queen bed and enjoying this place. My dad lives here. This room is proof. When is the last time I truly appreciated that? The thought of losing my father is a thousand times worse than death. I stay snuggled on his bed, hugging the pillows with a stupid grin. He might notice that they were moved, but I don't care.
At some point, I dream about Camden. It ends with a revisit to that one day, in the convenience store. Fortunately, I accept it, and my mind doesn't fixate, moving on to other things.
The next morning, Dad's making breakfast and I'm mostly back to normal.
"You know," Dad says, oddly upbeat for someone who worked late. "I came home to something pretty rare."
I was chewing some corn flakes, but I stop and swallow it down before it's ready. I don't know if I should be scared or confused. Does he know what I did yesterday, somehow?
"What do you mean?"
"So you don't remember?" he asks, looking back with a grin. "Well, I called your phone as I was heading home. I knew it was late, so I wasn't surprised when you didn't answer. I figured you'd be in bed. What I didn't expect is to come home and find you in mine."
My whole body erupts into a weird, room-temperature sweat. I don't have any memory of getting up out of Dad's bed, after all. And yet, I woke up in my own, fully clothed.
"Yep, there I found you, cuddling with Daddy's pillows and smiling in your sleep," he says.
"Stop right now!" I say.
"I tried to wake you up and you said 'Daddy, you're home, I'm so happy!'" His high-pitched, dreamy imitation of me is infuriating because I'm sure it's accurate. "At first I thought you might be drunk, but your breath smelled completely normal and your eyes weren't bloodshot. I suppose I just caught you in some sort of dream state."
"Do I have to hear this?"
"I'm just telling the story. Anyway, I started to pick you up and carry you to your own bed, because I can't exactly fit well in yours. As soon as I did, you wrapped your arms around my neck and kissed my cheek."
"Was pretty hard to get you to let go, even as I set you in the bed!"
"Lalalalalala!" I cover my ears.
"Still... did you miss me that much, that you fell asleep on the bed?" he asks, voice low. "I know we don't exactly do anything together that often. Work has been really busy and—"
The groan of the chair's legs as I stand interrupts him and I hug him from behind. Maybe I'm still a little high, maybe I've rediscovered how much Dad means to me, or maybe I just hate that he might be worrying about whether he's doing enough. I don't know.
"I love you," I say. It sounds oddly vulnerable when I don't pepper it with a name, like 'Dad.' "You do more than enough. You always have."
"...I guess the therapist really knows her stuff," he says with a shrug. But he's turned the heat off and rotates in my grasp to hug back. "I love you too. What do you say we go somewhere?"
"Wherever you want."
"Okay. Um, how about the zoo?"
"That sounds fun. After breakfast?"
It is indeed fun at the zoo. Probably the best Sunday I've had in years.
We see those crazy alligators with the really narrow snouts, like living chainsaws. I do things I stopped doing around when I was nine, like feeding animals or going to the petting sections. I'm the oldest in these activities, but I don't care, because my dad is happy to see it.
In the end, I don't feel more certain about anything. The therapy session lifted me up, but then I followed its advice and came crashing down.
That's the reality of therapy, the one I wanted to avoid confronting. It's basically like getting a balloon from a vendor and then losing it five minutes later. And even if you clutched your hand for dear life, the helium drains out eventually. That kind of emotional security doesn't last. Like any doctor, they make a real living on your return visits.
I don't want to go back to Charlene too early. She said what I think is pressure might be me being pushed. In that case, let's wait and see where I end up.
The following day is Monday and the first day that I stay after school to work in the art room. School is unremarkable, and Ms. Collins is sly and natural, showing no evidence of lingering concern. What she really feels, I don't know. I don't want to.
I know the way to the art room, of course, so I find it earlier.
"Excuse me?" I say, easing past the double doors. The feeling of doing the same thing again has this curious sensation behind it, like an actor who has arrived just in time, in costume, walking on stage the second her appearance is needed.
"Ah, Mellie?" Drew says again. Drew is there, really there, and...
He's working on the exact same painting, looking back at me in the shade of the cardboard boxes. The cardinal on a dry branch, the wild swamps bathed in sunset. I dreamed his painting.
It's happened too many times for you to be shocked, Mellie Walsh. Just face it, you don't know what this is.
"Have we met before?" I ask. Before, in the dream, I said his name, implying the same thing, but let's try something different.
He hesitates. "Yeah... I'm Drew. We've spoken once or twice."
Of course he'd be uncomfortable. Dream-him said he used to have a real complex about me, angry about my relationship with Camden. He's over that sort of thing now. I know because he encouraged Lye to get me into the exhibit.
I'm so fucking stupid. He doesn't want to be reminded of the past. I should know that, when he didn't admit it until our world was literally disappearing.
I'm silent, and he reacts with a grimace. "Was it a bad experience?"
"Huh? Oh, no, sorry, not at all." I should lie here, test the waters. "I feel like I might have shown you my art before, is that right? I mean, that would explain why you recommended me to Lye."
"That's right..." Drew stands up and gets my own easel from the back. "Where do you want this?"
The question sends an electric current all through my guts. Last time he took the initiative and set it down across from me. This time I've upset him.
"That area you're working in looks nice..." I brush my hair away from my ear. "Maybe across from you? Unless you'd prefer no distractions."
"That's a great choice, and I don't mind at all." He gives me the smile I needed, and I go to get the same stool from a far corner of the same black tables as last time, picking it up.
This is so outlandish. I've already done my drawing once before. I could probably recreate it again, but the artifice would show. I made that thing, Spoils of War, from inspiration. Plus, we're having a different encounter. He's not being as flirty and cocky about his talent. If I made that drawing again, after this context, I think he'd label me a psycho.
Spoils of War is lost in a dream now. But Drew isn't.
"So, you're Drew... Stafford, is it?"
"You seem to remember me fairly well."
He really doesn't like being reminded of the guy he was, but I'm trying to avoid the land-mines. It's harder than it might seem, once a tone has been set.
What's the right thing to do, here? Think back to the first time. Oh, he called me a great artist. What was it that I asked, that led to it?
"So, if you don't mind my asking, why did you suggest that I'd be a fit for this sort of thing?"
"Oh, that's easy. You're the best in charcoal that I know of. When I saw your sketches I knew you were a great artist." He pauses. The next line is familiar, and I fall into the dream world again. "Should I have not?"
"Oh, no, it's okay," I say with a shrug. "I said yes, after all."
"Okay, cool." Even though I'm afraid of branching away from my dream's events, there's a particular thing I thought in this moment, but didn't say. I really, really want to say it. There's no way it could hurt.
"You know, I was just thinking... if someone walked in here, do you think they'd see us as two people doing portraits of each other?"
He laughs. We've got a winner! I'm funny! "God knows I'd kill for the chance to do your portrait."
I actually swoon in my stool a little. I've never had good balance with them, but what a line. Drew, you tramp, you can't say that to a girl coming down from mushrooms!
"Something wrong?" he legitimately asks.
"No, definitely not," I say, taking a deep breath. "That was just surprising."
"Oh, I nearly forgot!" Drew puts his brush in his mason jar and hurries into the storage room, coming out with that awesome tackle box full of vine charcoal, white charcoal, and all those other materials. Our school is legitimately great, and they spend their money well, not skimping on less traditional pursuits like music and art. The exhibit is a great example. Maybe that dream was some crazy cosmic will of the universe, to help me appreciate the things I have. Because right now I appreciate Drew, Dad, Sam, the exhibit, everything.
"I'm sure you've got your own stuff. But you're welcome to use any of this."
"This is awesome," I say. This thing's novelty hasn't worn off. "Thank you very much."
"No problem." He smiles. "You ever done charcoal on canvas before?"
"Can't say I have."
"The texture is great for making things that are really beautiful, or really scary."
"Why not both?" I ask with a smirk.
"You can pull off both." He goes back to his piece with a curious grin.
"You said that in an interesting way."
"Well, I wasn't kidding about the portrait offer. You would be a fantastic subject. Maybe... after the Dance?"
"After the Dance, when we aren't spending time on our pieces. Would you be interested in me painting your portrait? I have one idea."
"It should be a surprise." He winks.
"As long as it's not me nude and eating grapes."
"Okay, I have two ideas."
We burst into laughter.
Just like last time, I'm not coming up with an idea and getting started in my first session. I drift over to Drew's side and watch him deepen the greenish-white at the center of his sunset.
"Is this the piece you're doing, for the Dance?" I ask, knowing the answer as well as I did the first time. He doesn't answer, too focused to notice me. Yep, his attention isn't earned that easily, and I like him better for it. I step back to be respectful.
That long copper hair, curled into waves at the ends, reminds me of some sort of morning glory hanging down from a vine. The gym shorts and wife beater seem weirdly fitting, after seeing him handle a gun so well. I don't know why.
"Did you ask me something?" he says, withdrawing to look over his touch-up.
"Is this your piece for the Dance?"
"Yeah, but it's far from done. I'm gonna need those two weeks." He laughs. I stay silent as he returns to work with a larger brush, augmenting the swampy green in the background. "I'm glad you joined, by the way. It'll be a big event, and I want to do really well. I feel like I have someone to judge myself off of, now."
"What do you mean?"
"A standard to try and beat. I wanna make something better than whatever you make."
"You're a brash one, aren't you?"
"I aim to stand out. In the world of artists, that's all you can do to survive."
"Is that right...?" The world of art is not so scary as it was the first time we had this conversation. I've experienced a taste of success.
Still, it's pleasant to bring up the same concerns in slightly different ways. His assurances are like the one chair you come home to every day to relax. "You can get all kinds of work as a skilled artist. Character design, commissions, doing art for other creative types, police sketching. The world needs art. You just have to find who specifically will ask for yours."
"You really know where you're going in life, huh?"
He's taken aback. This time, I'm not bashful. I was right to say it last time.
"I wouldn't say that much. But I have goals, stuff I want to do, long-term. I'd like to be a concept artist for something big, like blockbuster fantasy movies or something. That's an amazing level of influence you can have on a creative work, the concept stage. I want to watch a movie where what I made is brought to life with the talents I don't have. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah. That'd be incredible."
Drew assures me, once my time is up, that I'll come up with something soon. I smile and say I believe him. I hope he's attracted to that confidence.
Being away from Drew, I think about what I experienced at my neighbor's house. The thoughts flow back in as I ride with Dad, physically growing closer to the site of the adventure.
Collins and Lye are definitely wilder than I expected, but they're not bad people. Collins got a little carried away and in a way, it was beneficial. I'm more secure in my sexuality. Consider me a stereotypical tree-house. No girls allowed.
Still, Lye's comment about her back is clinging to me. In the dream, Lye was infected, or something. All I know is he had a wound that he hid. For him, it was his arm. Could Collins have the same sort of thing, but on her back?
Teachers don't go around wearing backless dresses. I have no reference point, in the years I've known my science teacher. I don't think anyone else will either.
"Listening?" Dad says, breaking me from my thoughts.
"Oh, sorry. What were you saying?"
"I'm just dropping you off at the house because I have to work late again. Will you be okay making dinner?"
"Of course. Did you have something thawed out?"
"There's chicken in the fridge, yeah. We've got some mushrooms that need to be used too, if you can think up a way to implement those."
The word mushrooms, used innocently, throws me off for a bit. I pass it off as thinking about a recipe. "I'm sure I can come up with something."
Soon after, he's driving away, and as the overcast sky threatens to blacken with late evening, I hear light footsteps, quickly paced. I stop halfway up the stairs to the front door and see Collins, who waves. She's out of her conservative teacher attire and now wearing a large t-shirt and yoga pants.
"Mellie!" she calls. "How are you, dear? Did you enjoy class today?"
"Huh?" I'm stunned and a little on edge by the way she's coming up the steps. "Oh, yeah, it was good. What's up?" The question hangs wet in the air. Saying something that casual to a teacher doesn't seem right.
"I was wondering if we could chat for a moment. I had something important to talk about."
"Oh, okay. Come on in." I bend down to get the front door key, hidden under the potted aloe vera in the corner of the patio. She's seen it now. I should change the location and make up a reason when I tell Dad. I don't know why I'm so paranoid. This is a person who happily insisted that we be friends.
Once we're both inside, I set my backpack down in the corner of the kitchen, like I'm going to do homework in the middle counter-top.
Hospitality, right, don't forget. "Would you like a drink? Water, apple juice—"
"What's this here?" Collins asks, cutely zipping to the corner by the fridge and coffee maker. There's a nearly-full bottle of vodka. "Why don't we have a bit of this? You said you have apple juice, too? That's perfect."
I nearly say Are you sure you're old enough? Even I know it's imposing to go straight for someone's alcohol before it's offered. She's acting like a desperate teenager looking to have fun.
"I'm sorry," Collins says, cooling down and stepping away. "I saw your father's car drop you off and drive away. I was just a bit excited, thought you'd be home alone again."
"I am," I say. "And I don't mind if you want some vodka. And apple juice, right?"
"Oh, but honey, there's no point if we're not both drinking. Your dad is staying late again, right? Take the chance and have some fun!"
"I have homework, you know... in your class?"
"Oh, I'll give you a freebie." She waves her hand. "I know you're ahead on the chapter. You're a really smart girl, you know. It's not like you haven't earned it."
I need to change the subject. "Is Mr. Lye home?"
"Mitch has been busy kissing ass at art events." She pouts her lips melodramatically. "So I'm home alone, too. Will be for a lot of days up to the Dance."
That explains why she wants to have fun in a new environment. Still, this feels a lot more intrusive than when I took the initiative to visit her.
"You wanted to talk to me about something, right?"
"Yep. But no one died or anything, it's nothing huge. Vodkas and apple juice?"
"Look, shrooms were one thing. But alcohol is something I'm a bit more uneasy over. I don't want to throw up, and at my size—"
"Just drink water with it." She winks. "And eat something soon. Or just have one."
"Fine, one drink for me." Dad would flip if he knew I was doing this. Despite my experience with the odd drug or two, this is going to be my first drink of anything, besides the occasional beer from Dad when he was in the right mood.
Once we've both got our tumblers filled, the ice clinks to fill in the conversation gap as we move to the couch. She sits across from me and sips her drink, nodding and giving me a thumbs up to confirm that it's good. I'll try it after I know what this is about.
"So, what's going on?"
"Well," she starts, crossing her legs and joining her hands on her knee. "First I wanted to check on how you're doing. Psychedelics can have a lot of influence on some people. Do you feel okay? Are there any unpleasant lingering effects?"
"Nope, I'm all good now, thank you."
"There was a moment where I made you uncomfortable. I truly, sincerely apologize for that."
"It's fine, really. It happens, I guess." I sip the drink, and it's actually great. I could get a real taste for the combination. "If you don't mind me asking, though... did that come from anything? Besides shrooms?"
"Well, it's a difficult thing to say to a student." She shrugs and sips a few more times. "We all have urges, right? The important thing is not acting on them. But I can't lie to you. The thing is, my sex life with Mitch has not been great. He's been so busy and tired. I think some of that spilled over to you. I didn't see you as a student. Just a person. I forgot what matters."
That does make sense. She seems like the kind of free spirit that would jump at an opportunity without thinking. If I only ever saw her in school, I'd have never guessed.
"So you were just feeling guilty?" I ask. She nods. "Look, I'm fine. I promise that everything's cool."
She smiles and rests a little easier in the cushion. "That's a load off my shoulders. Thank you."
As we each take another sip of our drinks, I realize that this is a good opportunity to ask about the supposed birthmark.
"Hey, Ms. Collins," I ask. "That night, I was talking with Mr. Lye, he said something about you having a birthmark? On your back?"
"Right, I do." The short reply is bracing but expected.
"I was wondering... do you think that has anything to do with your intimacy issues with him? I ask because he said you've never let him see it."
"I can be a fine lay without showing off my hideous back, Mellie." Her words are chilling and sour. "He's just desperately curious, like so many others who think they have to see it in order for me to trust them, or like them."
"I was just thinking if it's not a big deal, and it's someone you trust, why not let him see it? I mean, it might help you if he affirms that it's no big deal."
"I don't need help in that department, darling. I'm perfectly comfortable as I am." After an awkward silence, she stands up. "I'm getting another drink, hon. You want one?"
Shouldn't I be offering that, as the host? "No, thanks, I'm good." Although, good's not quite the word. I have had only three-quarters of my vodka and apple juice, and I feel off. My body is like a weirdly-shaped balloon held down with four sandbags. Might just be unused to it. I had a light lunch today, too. Best to stand up. As I do, a hand pushes my shoulder hard and I fall back down. She's sitting next to me now, drink in hand.
"What the hell?"
"I could tell you were going to get up and start messing with homework or something. You got to learn to relax."
"If I was relaxed, I'm not anymore. Don't push me."
"Oh fine." She drinks half of her second tumbler dry. I keep all my senses attuned to this woman. My shoulder still hurts, the grab was that forceful. I think it might have been a horrible mistake to let her in. "Hey, Mellie, do you remember when we changed into our swimsuits upstairs, and I left you alone to change into yours?"
"What about it?"
"Well, I did something a little naughty while I was out of sight." She wiggles her ears. "I planted some drugs, somewhere in this place. Something much more serious than a few mushrooms."
"You what?" I turn and slide back against the leather to stand up, but she grabs my wrist and anchors me. I could probably yank my way free, but that will set off something that I can tell is waiting to be unleashed, still waiting behind the woman's huge, thrilled pupils for now. "Let go of me right now."
"You don't get to decide what happens, Mellie. Understand?"
"No, I don't, and I don't want to. Get the fuck out or I'm calling the police."
"No, see, that's my role in this." She smiles. "Anytime I could leave an anonymous tip on exactly where the cops could find those drugs. If that happens, believe me, it'll fall on your father. I know he's done time for drugs before. He will not see you graduate. High school or college. You won't hug Daddy for a long, long time."
It's an all-new, hot, painful tickling under my skin, like broken glass in my veins. I want to kill this woman. I want it to be sheer agony.
"Don't bother trying to find it, either. You won't. I hid it very well."
"Could be a bluff. Not easy to hide something that well in only a few minutes."
She shrugged. "You were struggling with the suit, remember? I had enough time. Now, you have two options. Do as I say, or your dad goes to prison."
"What the fuck do you want from me?"
"I want you back in that bathing suit," she says, pulling my hand to her chest, forcing me to feel her erect nipples. I resist the urge to throw up. Even if it would stop her, I'm terrified of it angering her too. "We're going back across the street, back in the pool, and we're doing it right this time."
My intestines are snakes of molten lead trying to escape. I don't feel the hand that's being made to touch her body. I just feel my free hand, clenching and releasing, ready for this to get violent. "You're sick. You're a teacher."
"Didn't matter two days ago, did it?"
"Is Mr. Lye involved?"
"Mitch doesn't need to know. Poor, gullible man would lose his mind."
A deep, composed male voice fills the room with hope. "That's enough."
I look over and Sam, of all people, is standing there with his phone held up, recording the two of us.
"Mr. Edwards, what are you doing?" she asks. She still hasn't let go of my hand, but the distraction allows me to wrench it free and run away, over to him. She stays seated on the couch.
"Sam, what are you—"
"—Your dad asked me to check in on you," he says, brow latched into a terrifying disdain for the woman I once called my favorite teacher. "Listen carefully, you piece of filth. I've just stopped the recording. It's saved, and I will have it saved in many forms and well secured. If you ever so much as speak to Mellie again, forget the police, your recorded attempts to rape a student are going to the principal and every member of the school board. They'll contact the police anyway. But that's for later. If you don't want me to send it right now, get up, retrieve whatever you planted in this house, and leave."
"I didn't really plant anything," she says. "It was a bluff."
"I will have to take your word on that. Just know that I could ruin your entire life with the push of a button."
I almost tell him to go ahead and send it right now, but my anger has waned enough to consider the consequences. I don't want to spend months or years in court, I don't want my dad and me to become some TV sensation for vultures to nibble on. Most of all, I can't take the tag that will be added to my name: Mellie Walsh, the girl who got Ms. Collins in jail. I want things to stay as they are.
Just let this all stop.
"I think we have discussed everything," Sam says. "Leave and never come back."
Ms. Collins stands up and walks out without so much as a glance to either of us. The door closes, her steps, short heels on wood, fade out into muffled concrete taps, and we stand together, listening, ten seconds after we've heard the door to Lye's home shut.
Sam tosses the contents of the tumblers into the sink, rinses them out, and places them back in the cupboards like nothing happened. Then he rushes back to me and guides me up off the couch, saying I shouldn't remain in the same place. He takes my backpack and leads me up the stairs to my room.
All of that was a blur. Now I'm standing in the middle of my room, looking out the glaring sunset of my window and the hint of the RV's roof below, and I sprint into the bathroom, dropping to my knees and bashing my chin on the toilet seat as I vomit my vodka and apple juice. Sam is there, rubbing my back and keeping my hair away. It was not even one drink, but it's not about that.
Someone wanted to rape me. Still does. Someone I trusted. And they live next door.
I don't understand. Everything was looking so promising. I thought it was going to be a happy two weeks, and that strange dream was just a prelude to help me appreciate it.
"What is happening..." I moan, and the attempt to speak causes dry heaves and a string of saliva to clamor out of me.
After a few minutes, he takes a knee next to me. "You okay to lie down now?"
It occurs to me that Sam has broken his prince-like, 18th-century gentleman character that he loves so much. I almost never hear him talk like a normal guy in the present day.
I nod, and he helps me up, though I'm okay now. I sit down on my bed, his jeans in my peripheral as he stands nearby.
"How... were you there?"
"When your dad worked late two days ago, he called me and asked if I could keep an eye on you. That night I was busy, but this time I wasn't." It makes sense for Dad to worry enough to ask that of Sam, considering how I woke up screaming a few days ago. Sam shifts his footing. "He told me that he told you about it."
It must have been something he said in the car earlier. I was too spaced out, didn't even catch it. But thank goodness Dad asked him to check on me again. If he hadn't...
I hug my arms and stay very still. It's one of the hottest times of the year and yet I'm freezing. He eases me into my bed fully dressed and sets the covers over me.
"Can you... get in with me?"
"Of course." He slips in. Now I have no chance of being chilly. I reach for his hand and grip it hard, then give up and turn on my side, burying my face in his chest and crying.
I hate how weak I am. This should be around the time where I pull out a kitchen knife, go across the street, and flay that bitch. She'll have no skin left except for the birthmark.
No. There's a big difference between strong and angry. I don't have the strength for this.
"You aren't weak. You're the strongest person I know."
I don't know how he can tell what I'm thinking, but hearing the opposite from him is convincing, but not enough.
"I should be doing something, telling someone."
"This isn't a movie, Lee. It's not going to tie up into a neat little bow at the end. If you want justice for what happened, I'll support you. But I want you to know what you're getting into, what you're inviting your life to become."
"Sam... there are no words. For what you did for me today. I'll never be able to repay you, for as long as I live."
"If you want to repay me," he says, looking in my eyes. "Then don't ever do drugs again. Pursue your life as an artist. Devote yourself to it. Become famous. I want to be known as the best friend of the legendary painter."
"I do charcoal..." I whisper with a giggle.
"I know." Sam was just teasing. He's not an artistic sort, but he knows me better than even Dad does, in some ways.
"But what about..."
"I'll deal with Collins." He looks away. "To be honest, I know how repugnant it is to hit a woman. But I could snap that animal's neck and feel nothing. She is not a woman. She is not a human being. She is an animal who should be put down."
I smile, elated that his anger matches mine. "How much of that conversation did you get?"
"Pretty much all of it. Though I didn't record until it was starting to look serious. You did psilocybin mushrooms with her and Lye?"
I nod. "She kissed me. I thought it was random, didn't think it was based in something this bad."
"And Lye doesn't seem to be like her, right?"
I nod again. Despite having a poor history with Lye, Sam is mature and is willing to accept his innocence.
"The sun's set now," he realizes, looking out the window looming over us. "Would you like me to make you dinner? Can you eat?"
"I, uh... I think so. My stomach has settled." It gurgles, an active participant in the conversation.
Many times, I've had this fantasy: Sam and I having dinner. Only, it's usually at the balcony of some fancy high-rise restaurant, not him cooking for me in my own house. And, obviously, the context is much better.
It smells great, whatever he's making. He's using the chicken, potatoes, the mushrooms Dad said to use, and a few other things I said were fine, and a wide skillet that has gone from sizzling to bubbling. It smells exotic to my Indian-accustomed palate.
I don't know what I'm going to do about Collins. She's been forced to back off for good, in theory, but you can't assume someone that amoral and unhinged will really do the sensible thing. I don't want to tell anyone about it, that's for sure. Even Charlene would be obligated to inform the police if it's her professional opinion that Collins is still dangerous.
Is she, though? What if I'm not the first person she's done this to? What if others... were not saved like I was? What does that make me, if I live past it and do nothing?
Most of these horrific stories, when they're finally dug up, are long. A series of abuse cleverly hidden for years, maybe decades. But I can't assume that. It's too terrible. For all I know, Collins has cracked and shown her true colors for the first time. I beg that it's also the last.
"It's ready," he says, ladling out a bowl for each of us and sitting down across from me on the kitchen counter. It's a little like chicken soup, but thicker, and filled with color from tomatoes, thyme flakes, and a bit of Parmesan cheese. My mouth is watering. Intense hunger is helping to push what's happened into the background.
"So? What's the chef's specialty?" I ask, spooning some up and blowing the steam away.
"Just an Italian stew. The secret is browning the chicken and then only putting it in toward the end of the process. I think that keeps the breast meat extra tender."
He's right. The flavors are all comforting and invigorating, chicken soup times two.
"The chicken breast is crazy tender," I say. "Where'd you learn this?"
"It's my first try. My goal was merely to use what I had available to me." He tastes it. Compared to his posture and table manners, I'm like a female Tarzan. "Yes, I think this might be worth making again someday."
"I didn't realize you were such a great cook. Did your parents teach you?"
"Er, no. They're not so reliable in that faculty. I'm usually the one who cooks dinner at my house."
"I gotta say, I'm feeling some competition. We should have a cook-off sometime."
"It would make me far too guilty, defeating a lady."
"Chauvinist." I stick out my tongue. "But really, I never thought you'd be much of a cook since you were so amazed when I made a dessert for your birthday."
"Oh, the forest cake?" He nods with his eyes closed. I made that for him last year when I asked what dessert he was having for his birthday and he said he and his parents didn't have time to make one. It warms the heart, seeing someone remember something you made for them that fondly. "That was genuinely impressive, Lee. Anyone would be shocked that someone made that themselves."
"Are you not much of a baker?"
"I don't have much experience making desserts. We eat rather economically at my home. Not a lot of spare sugar and flour to go around usually." I've never seen Sam as poor, just frugal and as he put it: economical.
"You know," I tell him, "it occurs to me that I've never actually been in your house."
"You've driven over to pick me up several times."
"Yeah, but I've never actually hung out, inside."
"It often isn't as clean as I'd like it," he says. "You aren't missing out on any grand shindigs, I assure you."
I'm thinking back, now, to the conversation we had in his car when he brought me home from the therapist.
"So... who are you going to the Dance with?" I ask.
"Cassie, most likely," he says, figuring correctly that I already know her. "Though I can afford to put off a firm answer for a few more days."
"Do you really want to go with her?"
"She's someone to go with."
"Not a glowing endorsement. Are you attracted to her?"
He seems uncomfortable with this conversation, but I need this. "She's very attractive, for certain. Any man would be lucky to spend that evening with her."
"Come on, it's me. You don't have to pretend."
"Fine, if you must know my true impressions, I think she's a petty, small, unappealing gossip. And despite her vanity, her forehead vein is too prominent."
"Then why this 'maybe' act? Why not just say 'no'? Why not ask someone else?"
He stares past me, frowning and perfectly still. There's something he isn't telling me. But it doesn't matter. I'm going to do this now.
"Sam, tell me the truth. Have there been any guys who approached you, asking you to ask me to the Dance for them?"
His head cranes up. "How could... the dream?"
I nod, then shrug. "Don't worry about it. Look, over the past couple of years... I've come to really like you." I stir my soup, and the tremor-inducing words rise up like steam. "After Camden, I wasn't sure I'd ever develop an interest in anyone again. You've defended me but never pitied me. And it's like I am at my most me when you're around."
His smile is low and sad. "I feel the same way about you."
"Then why not ask me to the Dance? Were you waiting for me to say something?"
"I'm sorry, Mellie." My regular name rolls clunkily off his tongue. "It's not something you need to get involved in. Especially not now."
"But what are you—"
He leans forward in his seat, puts his hands around the back of my neck, and plants a kiss on my forehead. My face is tilted down, getting a savory steam treatment from the stew. When he returns, my insides throb with spiky pain at the sight of his defeated expression.
"I don't get it," I say, voice cracking. This is not how it went in the dream. Things are only getting more and more different.
He lifts his head after a sigh. "That one fellow, the one who recommended you for the exhibit, Drew? I'm sure he's fond of you. You should ask him to the Dance."
Despite everything I went through with Drew, it was just a dream. This is reality, and I feel closer and more intertwined with Sam than I thought possible, toward anyone.
I don't know how I manage to sit through Biology III Honors. It's the day after, not 24 hours since the teacher, an authority figure, and a trusted and liked one at that, tried to use my body against my will.
The worst part of it all is that Sam isn't in class today. I take out my phone and text him, but I don't get any answer during the period.
Before, when I saw boys in the front flirting with Collins, it gave me a mix of camaraderie and gentle envy. Now it makes me angry enough to crack a pencil in my hand. Would these guys defend her if word got out on what happened? They'd probably think it's hot, maybe try and reach out to her to take my place.
There's no understanding what it's like to have what you are and what you want so blatantly violated, not until it's happened. I didn't really get it, until now. I hate that this woman is alive, allowed to live her popular, sociable, reputable career as an educator.
It's not much easier when I'm staying after school in the art room with Drew. It makes me think of Lye. He's someone who really deserves to know what Collins is, and yet, telling him would be the same as telling anyone else. It would suddenly make my entire life and identity into a mix of two titles: victim for those who believe me, and accuser for those who don't.
I've never wanted to be popular this badly. Sure, you can act tough and independent, saying it doesn't matter whether people like you or not. But the sheer knowledge that many, if not most, of the people in school would take Collins' side automatically... it gnaws on the inside of my bones.
Talking with Drew is comforting, at least. Once calmed, inspiration strikes. My piece is going to be the figure of Collins burning alive in a forest of flames. She'll be so charred that no one will interpret it as her, and I like the challenge of depicting fire, something deeply associated with its bright colors, in charcoal. It's an interesting departure from the bird's nest idea, too, with more of a wispy, ethereal aspect to the strokes.
"Going for scary, huh?" Drew says. "Let me know if you want any tips."
"I thought it was a competition," I say.
"Right, yeah, it is."
Whatever Drew I met in the dream, this is clearly the same guy. But things don't happen the exact way you want them too, and that's okay. I can tell we're settling into a complacent routine. We're friends. The flirting has mostly stopped on both sides. Not that I feel like flirting right now. I just want to survive my junior year.
That evening, I decide to make another black forest cake for Sam. I haven't baked anything in a while, and it's the least I can do.
Black forest cake is one of the most complicated desserts I know of, a combination of textures and flavors that requires a lot of work. Dad helps by getting the ingredients we don't have on the way home. He doesn't seem suspicious that I want to make a cake for Sam and must assume I'm happy with him for checking up on me. He probably feels satisfied, knowing he's the reason it happened. Although I'm a bit annoyed with Dad on principle, for going behind my back and having my friend check up on me, it obviously worked out for the best.
The next day, Friday the 18th, I text Sam while riding the morning bus that I have a surprise for him. The cake's too big to carry around in school, so I tell him it's a gift for him, and that I want to get it to him soon.
He's not at school again, which is really unusual for such a prime student, and I haven't gotten an answer to my text at any point during class. Once I check my phone during lunch, he's finally replied, and we start a little back and forth.
I made a cake for you. BFC. :3
BFC, is it? That's amazing. For what did I earn such generosity?
I think you know. 😉 I can drive over after school and bring it to you.
You mean at my house? No need to go that far. I'll come over and we can eat it at your house.
I get a slightly queasy premonition from that message. Does he not want me to come to his house? I type out a quick reply.
It's your cake, all yours! >_> Just let me deliver it.
Not an option. The house is too busy right now. I'll come to your house and get it after school, don't worry.
The words 'don't worry' have the opposite effect in print. He also conveniently left in no room for me to ask how the house is busy without sounding pushy. Then I get an idea.
If you're busy, then I should deliver it...
I'll get it. Just tell me when later. G2G
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I'm so bothered by Sam's texts that I skip working on my piece for the day and take the bus home at the normal time. Once I'm back, Dad isn't there, so I call and tell him that I'm hanging out with Sam for a bit so he shouldn't go to pick me up at school.
I gently set the tall maroon and ivory cake, caged up in a plastic tin, on the passenger seat of my car and make the brief drive to Sam's house. It's a rare enough visit that I have to concentrate to remember what it looks like.
Sam lives in an area called Duck Pond, across from another neighborhood of nicer homes set midst a public golf course. My Passat makes the graceful descent of the hill that the street cuts into, one of the few places in these flatlands where you feel the assistance of gravity. But then it's up a hard curving turn that wobbles the wheels and I'm on the long, straight path of Duck Pond Drive.
His house is a modest, tan, one-floor ranch, a small lawn with some flowering bushes along the outside, taller ones blocking the west-facing windows. A nice place, if a little nondescript. The garage is closed. In this area, people typically keep their garages open and walk in or out through there, saving the entryway from too much dirty foot traffic. His car is visible in the driveway outside of it.
I hope it's okay that I just went here. I didn't text anything after the emoticon, and he's probably expecting me to tell him I'm home in an hour or two, and that he can come over. I don't even know why he's stayed home from school for two days.
I park in the driveway, not far past the mailbox, and turn off my car. That foreign, trespasser impression is showing up again, like when I went to Lye's house.
Don't think about that. Just pick up the cake and walk to the front door. Every step on the cemented cobble is a bit uncomfortable on flip-flops. I walk carefully, holding the cake to my waist like a heavy baby, and reach the flaking wooden step of the front door.
I bump the doorbell button with my shoulder and hear a bell song chiming from somewhere inside. A rapid, nervous, yapping dog, maybe a toy breed, is serving as an alarm, but it's not getting closer to the door. Must be in a crate. After standing there and blowing my own hair away from my face, I try again, which sets off the dog again. The air reeks of gasoline and cut grass, two smells that exacerbate the humid heat of a late Florida afternoon. Good thing Sam's favorite dessert isn't anything frozen.
I must have waited ten minutes by the time I notice a crisp popping sound, somewhere far ahead, in the backyard. I'm not sure what it is, but it's inconsistent, and it's been going on since I got here. There's a lot of force and reverberation between each 'pop', but something a little chunky or wet to it initially, like 'pchwap.'
I'm not putting the cake down to text Sam. At this point, I'm driven to find somebody to talk to in person. Muttering "Please don't shoot me." I step off the porch and cobble path and onto grass, tracing the perimeter of azaleas until I'm facing the home's left side and the wooden gate to the backyard. There, I see that Sam's parents have rather generous woods filling out the back of their property, and it's there that I see what I think is Sam, dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans.
I open the gate without thinking about it. Calling out to him doesn't occur to me, because I want to observe him, creepy that may seem. I can't make out what I'm seeing. It looks totally innocent and mundane, but my throat dries just from watching and my breathing has stopped. I keep walking across natural mulch and small bunches of tall grass, to the ace student of Doctor's Grove High School.
Sam is caged by dead trees. He wields a splitting axe and sets thick, intimidating logs of oak, birch, something thicker and harder than pine onto a short, broad stump. Then he draws that heavy splitter high in the air, a little back behind his head, and slams the log in half—pchwap. The sound isn't just a hammering blow, but the reluctant rip of dry wood fibers splitting apart. All around him are bundles of eight or so split log chunks, worthy of setting one at a time in a decent fireplace and held together by ties of cheap rope. There must be fifty of the things, sitting around or stacked under a rough, DIY gazebo.
None of these is the problem. They're all just distractions my mind wants to fixate on. What hurts to look at is Sam himself. He's woozy and weak, his face red and lacking sweat despite the heat his exertion is surely building inside him. He could collapse of heat stroke if he did this for another ten minutes.
"Sam," I shout from twenty feet away. The next pchwap is where it stops, and he stays bent over, hands on his knees, trying to hide the gasping of his chest by pretending to inspect the cut in the log. I can't tell if his hands are shaking or his knees.
"Mellie." He summons a welcoming, regal tone as he walks toward me. "I thought you were letting me get the cake from you."
"I decided to deliver," I say.
"That looks incredible," he says. "You added icing flowers, too? You really didn't have to go to so much trouble."
"Sam, what are you doing?"
"You mean that?" He motions to the graveyard of trees. "I make a little extra money selling firewood. There's always dead or dying trees back there, but most of it I just grab from people's curbs, before yard-waste takes it. Yeah, you wouldn't believe how much I got after hurricane season, all those fallen trees partially cut for me already—"
"—How long have you been cutting wood today?"
"...I'd rather not answer."
"Because, Lee, I would never lie to you. But I don't want to tell the truth this time."
"Have you been here, cutting wood for the past two days?" I look behind him to the stack of firewood bundles. No single human being, armed with only a splitter and no apparent lumber machinery, could cut this much in one day.
"Alright, yes. You have exposed me. Most of that was cut today or yesterday."
"Why would you skip school to do this? I don't understand. And it looks like you're about to pass out! Are you taking breaks?"
"To eat, yes. I drink extra water, too, and the pines around here provide good shade. You caught me just as I was about to take a break for dinner, that's all."
"Sam, it's practically summer! Who's going to pay decent money for firewood?"
"Some businesses always need firewood. Then there's people doing bonfires, large barbecue events, and families are camping this time of year. I'm one of the fewer suppliers around now, compared to the winter. Competition's too heavy then."
Suddenly, like divine provenance, I remember something Sam once mentioned years ago.
"You told me your dad cuts and sells firewood."
"Well, I do too. I'm helping him." Clearly irritated, he whacks the splitter into a broad, stray log like it's a plastic whiffle bat, then stretches his limbs. I'm getting a sense of how strong Sam is. The exertion has left his whole body engorged, the muscles full of blood and pumped into an awakened state. But he can barely stay upright.
"How much does he pay you?"
Sam looks like he's about to either burst into tears or scream at me to leave. I'm ready to withstand either when the hard sound of a sliding glass-door being scraped open startles me.
A man with long black hair, tribal tattoos, and a build like Sam's storms out, then slows and relaxes into welcoming mode when he sees that there's a guest in the yard.
"Howdy," he says to me in a perfectly neutral tone. "I'm Arnold, Sam's dad. You must be Lee, right?"
"That's right," I say. "Mellie Walsh is my actual name, but Lee is fine. Pleased to meet you."
"I see you have a cake. Did you get that for Sam?"
"Actually, I baked it, but yes, it's a present."
"Wow." Arnold puts his hands on his waist. "What'd my son do? Sweet talk ya?"
"Uh, no..." What do I say that covers the truth? "We're friends, and he's helped me out a lot. I just felt like making his favorite dessert again."
"They don't make too many good girls like you these days, Lee."
A busty blonde in her fifties walks out after what I presume is her husband and speaks in a loud, smoker's voice. "What's going on? I don't hear the splitter."
"We have a guest," Arnold calls softly, partly in warning. I have interrupted something, and I'm not sure if that's good or not.
"Oh, hello," the woman says, now putting on a much sweeter voice, something you'd use for a five-year-old. "Are you here to see Sam, dear?"
"Mother," Sam says, tone stern as he walks to my side and partly in front, "this is Lee. She's here to deliver a cake that she made for me. It was a surprise. She's just about to leave."
"Oh, well that's just too sweet!" The woman giggles at her own pun. "I'm Jeanne. Were you worried about Sam being out of school?"
"Well, yeah, but also—"
"—It's all okay, hon. Sam was just focusing on work for the rest of the week. My husband cuts and sells wood, but he's gotten his neck injured, so it's not safe to do physical labor yet. It happens, and when it does, our reliable son goes out to the stump, scouts for more logs, delivers, sells, handles the whole business in his stead! He's almost ready to quit high school and take over the business, I'd say!"
I fight the urge to say "That's horrible." To many people, it's not. It's a nice, honest way of making a living and following in your father's footsteps. But Sam could do anything, get a scholarship anywhere. The idea of making him quit that to do physical labor is not funny. If it's not a joke, then that makes it vile.
"Come Monday," Jeanne says, "he'll be back in class, of course."
"We made sure he wasn't behind on anything," Arnold adds. "Talked to his teachers, got the homework and stuff in advance."
That would explain why no teachers reacted to his absence.
"It's true," Sam says, turning to me, standing defensively close. "I'm not falling behind, but I appreciate the concern, truly."
"Is he done for the day?" I ask both parents. "He looks like he needs water."
"Well, Sam is an eighteen-year-old man now," Jeanne says with a subtle lick of her front teeth. "We can't force him to work, you understand, and he's being paid. The more he wants to be paid, the more he works, and we're happy to have raised a son with such a work ethic."
"I'm done for today," Sam says all of a sudden.
"An honest young man, too."
"I'm going to hang out with Lee for a while. I won't be able to make dinner."
He makes dinner for them? What do these people do all day?
"That's fine, there are enough leftovers," Arnold says. Jeanne isn't paying attention to her son, no, her eyes are on me, skin-crawling ember of a smile still burning.
"Nice to meet you, Lee," she says, but her eyes say "Go."
The second Sam closes the passenger door, holding the cake for me, I rush out of the driveway and toward Cattails Park, stopping along the way to get several bottled waters for him from a gas station.
"Oh, you didn't have to do that," he says.
I hear him crack a cap loose. The sound of him gulping is nearly as refreshing to me as it must be to him. When I peek over, he's finished a whole pint bottle and is moving on to the next.
"Lee... are you mad at me?"
"What?" I snap. The question is so ridiculous I can't help it, but that shocks him and spills a little water on his shirt, not that you'd see it since it's soaked through already. "Of course not, Sam. I'm not mad at you. I'm just confused. Can you please answer my questions?"
"...I suppose you have earned that much, at the very least."
Cattail Park doesn't close at night, and there's no fee to visit. I've come here not just for the picnic table, but because it's at the end of a beautiful boardwalk going through a lush cypress swamp and fifty yards over the river, into a gazebo. Our steps rattle the boards and horny birds make thousands of overlapping mating calls to each other in the moss-infested trees, still not enough to block the growing explosion of purple-peach sunset.
"You must be quite relieved that my favorite dessert isn't ice cream cake," Sam says as he carries the cake behind me. I thought something very similar, earlier, but I can't express a light bit of amusement like that right now. I'm still boiling. I need to know what's going on, what has been going on.
We reach the table and sit down across from each other. I got little plastic-sealed packets of napkins and utensils and a slab of paper plates, both from the gas station. He finally frees the cake from its tin, looking hungry for the first time since I've seen him.
"Have a piece, too," he says, white fork poised to ravish the black cake and luscious, Kirsch-infused cherries.
"I made it for you," I say. "I don't need a piece."
"Lee, seriously. Thank you very much. But right now, I want to have a piece with you, not just in front of you."
"Oh, what the hell." I cut a slice with my knife and tip it onto a plate. "It was a lot of work."
"I can tell." He savors every bite, and I watch what part he's tasting, trying the same part on my piece. I want to share the experience in perfect sync. "You're so good at the things you're passionate about."
"Well, better than average." I shrug. "Shame I'm not passionate about things besides food and sketching."
"Being into too many ventures, too many possibilities, it'll tear you to pieces. Drawn and quartered."
When we finish, I say it. "Sam, you're my best friend, and I'm concerned. I need to know what you were doing the past two days."
He takes a deep breath through his nose, studies the remaining cake with appreciation rather than an appetite, and nods. "My father has put it on me to take over his business, for the rest of this week. I have to handle all of the labor and delivery of goods."
"Does he do this often?"
"Usually it's my choice. This time, I couldn't not do it, since he's allegedly injured."
"You're saying he's faking it?"
"They both have a tendency to fake or exaggerate injuries, for their convenience. I've grown to stop asking for proof."
"What does he pay you, for your work?"
"Eleven dollars an hour."
"That's not bad, right?"
"He takes it out of my rent, and that's too high for me to actually see a check, most of the time."
"They charge you rent?" I nearly slam the table with my fists. "You're eighteen! Your parents should be preparing you to move on for college soon!"
"But since I'm eighteen, in their eyes, I'm officially an adult and should pay for my lodgings. And since I have many chances of getting a full scholarship, they assume I will need no money and take as much of my time and money as they can get."
"Disgusting." I can't stop myself from saying it. "But... they got you your car at least, right? That's what you told me."
"Actually... that was a lie." He said he'd never lie to me, so this is hard for him to say. "I apologize. I bought my car. They pay the insurance, in theory, but I pay them for that."
I'm beginning to realize, on a whole new level, how lucky I am to have Dad. This sinking feeling, that Sam lives this way while I gossip with him over the phone about stupid nonsense, it makes me want to scream.
"What do your parents do?" I ask.
"My father normally works the firewood business, but he's doing it less and less. My mother doesn't work, really. Claims to suffer anxiety and panic attacks. The only work she does..."
"Something illegal. Occasionally the two of them..." Sam lowers his head, sniffling. I've never seen this before and I never want to, for as long as I live. I get up to sit by him, to hold his shoulder and calm him, but he's up and walking away from me to the corner. Then he starts punching the solid wood of the fencing that forms this square end of the boardwalk.
I feel it in my feet. The corner planks where I'm sure many happy people have leaned over to look at the river are now diagonal and creaking, nails exposed. He roars, a deafening sound when reverberated by the pyramid roof above, and it's not from physical pain.
The sound echoes across the uncaring, still waters of the river and I hug him from behind, hard. It's the second time I've done it recently, but last time I was happy with what I've had. This time, I'm petrified by what I might lose, shaking against his back.
There's no sound. His scream shuts up the wildlife behind us for a moment, but then they're back to business. But even that doesn't mask the sound of a drop of blood dripping off his knuckle to the boards.
"I shouldn't have asked. Please forgive me. I would never have asked if I knew."
"No!" he turns around and presses my shoulders to straighten our eye levels. "No, you... you of all people should not be sorry! You are trying to find out the truth, trying to help. I've never had that before. When you found me back there, I thought I could handle opening up, give telling somebody a chance. But I've buried a lot."
"We don't have to talk about anything if you don't want to. If it causes you pain, then I don't want to. I don't need answers that badly."
"No, really, I want to tell you everything, Lee." He looks at his knuckles. The skin is pretty badly scraped, but not cleanly busted open, thank goodness. I have a bit of alcohol in my purse from a mini emergency kit, so I soak a clean napkin with it and press it gently around those round, scary knobs of bone. There's nothing quite as sad to me as a strong person hurting themselves.
"You're not afraid?" he asks, looking from me to his fist.
"Not in the way you might think," I tell him.
"I'm sorry, I was talking about how my parents make money."
"Are you sure?"
He nods, and we go walking together, leaving the cake behind but no more than thirty yards or so, anything to release some energy. "Do you know what dog-napping is?"
"I can guess. Stealing people's pets?"
He nods. "They go to the city together, in their van. Scout out parks and neighborhoods. They steal 'money dogs' like Yorkshires, Labs, Pomeranians, and little dogs that look like they belong to a wealthy owner. Leave a note, where the dog was left, with an email. That's how they correspond with the owners, settle on a price and exchange point and time, and just like that, tens of thousands of dollars in some cases."
"I see." There is nothing less forgivable than exploiting someone's love, including love for an animal. Even if some of these extortions were done for wealthy owners of extremely valuable dogs, simply because the victims knew they could sell their dogs legally at a profit after the ransom, people who honestly cared and intended to keep their pets for life, regardless of money, were surely mixed into this evil racket. Yes, it is evil. I don't like to use that word, or good. Don't like to see the world in black and white dynamics. There may be worse criminals out there, but Sam's parents are still a menace to society.
"If they can't find money dogs," Sam says, "they snatch up anything they can sell to fighting rings or their underground breeders. Pits, Shepherds, Boxers, tough dogs. I feel much worse for them. To a money dog, you're just going on a weird vacation before your owner picks you up. But for the fighting dogs..."
"These schemes they pull... if that 'pays' well, then why do they want so much money from you?"
"Drugs." His answer is dry and weak, the anger evaporated long ago. "They're both hooked on their own vices, I don't know what exactly. But it's expensive. And it's not smoked since I've never smelled anything."
"Sam..." my voice is shattered, but I'm not crying. I refuse to weep when he has remained strong through all of this. "How much do you sleep, at night?"
"I get a good five to six hours."
That is barely enough, but I press on.
"And how much of your time is leisure?" I stare into his eyes. "How much of your day are you not sleeping or working on something?"
He remains silent.
"How many hours? Or is it minutes? Answer me, please!"
"I consider the time I spend getting ready for bed and falling asleep as leisure."
I always thought Sam was a dry, academic bore of a guy, but in an inspiring way. He never knew what I was talking about when I brought up video games, or the current movies or books everyone else couldn't shut up about. I thought that was just because he was mature, that he did his own things for fun.
"Wait, what about me?" I ask. "What about the times we've hung out? That's leisure, isn't it? Why aren't you counting that?"
When I hear his answer, I can't see, even though my eyes are open. All senses are temporarily void.
"My parents insist I have one activity after school, that's wrestling, and one friend who I spend time with, to alleviate suspicion. That's you."
"What... but... did you have someone else, before?" I only became friends with Sam late into my relationship with Camden. He helped me get over his disappearance.
"I did. Had to ghost them, fade it out. They were getting too close. That's the reason I talked to you, to begin with. I committed because you were a better one, more secure. You were naturally distant, to a degree, not fond of surprise visits. Till now, anyway." He smirks.
"Does this mean you're firing me?"
At that, he bursts out laughing, and I do too. We walk together, arms around each other, back to the table. "You are the only friend I need. I'm never letting go. And I don't care what my parents want when it comes to you."
I try to fight the guilt from what I might have set off by visiting his house. This is good, even if it's the worst nightmare I've ever faced. He needs a friend who can take this and be there for him.
"Sam, there's one thing I don't get," I say, seated next to him. "Why is your dad faking an injury to make you do his job? Are they focusing more on the... dog-napping?"
"Not really." He nervously sighs through his teeth. "You know Cassie? The girl who asked me to the Dance?"
"She's part of a really wealthy family. Connections in city council, the sheriff, probably more. Her parents contacted mine. Said that if I do end up going with her and leaving her satisfied," he says it like profanity, "they'll be sure to protect and support their business. Connections among the powerful are more valuable than sheer obscurity when you make money breaking the law."
"And because you aren't playing along, so far... your parents are working you harder?"
In their eyes, Sam's interfering with their 'career', so they're interfering with his, working him to exhaustion. I stop in my tracks, images flashing through my mind. "Sam... there were times when I hit you, just as a joke. But you reacted... a little oddly."
He just stares.
"Do they ever hurt you?"
"Not much anymore," he says. "No, if you ever hurt me, it was just because I was sore, from working."
So basically, the same thing. Instead of direct abuse, they make him abuse himself for their gain.
We stay together as the sun's last glowing presence fades out, leaving room for the stars. A light turns on in the middle of the pyramid ceiling, harsh and hot like we're on a stage.
"You know, I just realized," I say, pointing out to the river and the golden purple egg of sunlight sinking slowly under the distant trees at the other side. "This is just like a painting that Drew is doing for the exhibit. I can see where he got his inspiration."
"It's a beauty I don't believe you could find anywhere else," he says. "A wild and eclectic kind. It isn't a clean, grassy field to run through and pick dandelions. The beauty of Florida is more often something you admire for its indifference to humanity. Primordial."
I don't reply. I want to drink in every word. But he interprets that differently, holding his hand over mine on the boards of the table. "I don't want you to feel guilty about not knowing. That was something that just had to be. And I don't want you to fear for my life or that I'll be really badly hurt. I'm working as much as I can and saving as much as I can, out of their sight. I'll be able to just go when I graduate."
"As soon as you do?"
"On the day."
"You'll leave them behind?"
"Like they never existed."
"You are a miracle, you know that?" I say. "I realize that I got what you needed. My dad was a criminal, too." Sam's eyes widen. I've never admitted this to anyone. That Collins found out shook me hard. "But then he got caught, served time, and got his life together. Met a woman and had me. He's never gone back."
"But my parents have never been arrested," Sam says. "They bonded together on the jobs. Sometimes, I pity them. Less and less with each year, though." He looks to me. "Will you promise not to take matters into your own hands? Not to tell anyone?"
Squeezing my eyes shut, I nod. The thought of him helping me with Collins has reached an immeasurable new dimension. To betray him would make me something less than human.
"Thank you, Mellie."
"Sam... go to the Dance with her."
He doesn't answer.
"I don't know if you're just making a stand against your parents, or... if it's because of me. But please, just forget about that. It's just one night."
"No, it isn't. Cassie is a user. She's obsessed with me, too. If I cave on this, I could end up married to her."
If my dream is any indication, Cassie is indeed a spoiled, unhinged, dangerous person. That toxic encounter in the cafeteria flares back into memory. There's a lot more logic, now, to why she barely got in trouble for what could easily be interpreted as a hate crime.
"I'm just... going to hold out. There's only a week left. If I keep it at 'maybe', she might think I'm too afraid to answer. She could lose interest."
When Sam and I first met, he made a move on me, and I got a bit of a thug impression, someone raised in an unhappy household. Never could I have predicted that the background was real. Everyone said, for the first few months, that he only talked the way he did, the gentleman persona, around me. Part of why people think I'm weird, like I forced him to do it. But now I see: it was a sloppy cover, a poor boy putting on the airs of an aristocratic dandy.
But as we pack up the cake, walk back through the dark, and I drive him home, the same questions run like a conveyor belt: Why? What's so important about me that even after that initial bomb of an encounter, he kept it up, changed his attitude, to keep me as a friend?
When I pull up by his driveway, I ask.
"Sam. You could pick anybody as your one friend, so why me?"
He looks down at the cake again, setting a hand on the tin. "There aren't enough hours left in the night for me to answer that. How do you think I've made it this far?"
That does it. The boulder is moving down the hill on its own. I speak without thinking.
"Stay with me."
"I'm begging you, Sam. Let's go to my house. A sleepover. My dad would love to have you stay overnight."
"...and then what?"
"We can figure that out later."
"That's not responsible," he says with a drooping look to the bare lights outside his house. "You'll want me to stay the whole weekend. Then the week after. You'll get your dad involved in my family."
"He doesn't have to know there's criminal activity. Just that things are rough. We can make it seem like a rare thing, and you need help for a little while—"
"—Mellie. No." His short reply pisses me off, but I know he won't bend. I am dealing with enough, in his mind, after Collins. He refuses to risk my home and parent suffering some sort of retribution or entanglement with criminals and the many terrible consequences that could come out of his situation leaking to others.
"Let me stay over, then," I say. "We can pretend you didn't tell me anything incriminating. If a friend is over, your parents will have to behave, right?"
"You aren't listening! I will never let you into that fucking house, do you understand that? Never! The best and worst parts of my life are not supposed to mix together like that!"
"If my parents get raided by police, tonight, and you're in the house, it's part of your life all of a sudden. Never."
"If that house is a horrible trap, then stay out of it! Stay with me, please!"
"You're simplifying things too much. You can't just fix this because it makes you sad. If you want to help me... live as you have been. Do well in the exhibit. Go to the Dance with someone you like. Be happy. That is what will help me. Worrying about you will make it worse."
I'm gripping the steering wheel hard enough to risk cracking the plastic, and I'm not a muscular girl. I force myself to let go before I sprain something.
"Thank you again," Sam says, voice back to gentle and resigned. He opens the car door, carrying the cake. "See you Monday."
"Yeah," I manage to say, and the door shuts. I watch him walk to the front door, and then he's gone. The lights are turned off inside, and none turn on once he's in. Maybe his parents are already asleep, or lost in a trip, so they won't hurt him tonight.
I set my car into reverse and get ready for a hard ride home, and a sleepless night.
It's now Sunday, the 2oth, two days after my encounter with Sam and six days before the Junior Social Dance.
I've done a lot of thinking, alone, and I was able to conclude that since Sam is eighteen, he just needs the money to live successfully on his own. If I can get him more money, he can break away from them, live on his own sooner, before graduation.
But the complications of each option render me helpless. Someone would get in the way, whether his parents, Dad, or the law. Sam is not a doormat, and he's planning to get out cleanly and with no chance of those lampreys biting onto him ever again. The most I can do is make Sam's days happier, in my own way and on my own time, without trying to be the heroine. Eventually, he'll be off to college, far from their reach.
I've decided to change my idea for the exhibit piece. It's still going to be a figure in flames, but not Collins. She doesn't deserve my creative attention. No, instead of showing someone I want to perish in fire, I want to celebrate a real man, who has withstood a furnace and come out shining and indestructible. I'm going to sketch Sam.
But as I'm thinking about this, sitting on my bed and sketching prototypes of Sam's face, Dad calls out to me from downstairs.
"Mellie! Take a look at this!"
He sounds serious, so I rush down to the living room, where he's sitting on the love-seat and watching some kind of emergency breaking news bulletin, the kind that interrupts other channels.
"A student from your school went missing," he says, "and they just found her dead. Look, a picture!"
Sure enough, a phony-smiling blond girl is in a wall of embracing girlfriends, all jumping up in the air at the same time for the shot. The reason they're not using a more serious photo, one that would help you recognize her, is because she's—
"Cassie is dead?" I murmur.
"You knew her?"
"Knew of her. Saw her around. Wait, has it been three days? It's supposed to be seventy-two hours before you're considered missing." Then I remember that her family is rich and connected with the sheriff. They probably got the wheels turning a day or two early.
"Yeah, it's bizarre. They found her in the RV across the street, and that went missing two days ago." I realize he's got his phone to his ear. Must be on hold with someone, perhaps police. "It was parked in some trail cutting through a swamp, somewhere it couldn't drive back from."
"Woah, wait, wait. The RV is gone?"
"Was. Now it's found."
"And Cassie was found dead inside it?"
"Not just dead, dissolved somehow. They think someone tried to dissolve her body to hide the evidence. But it's her. Evidence is pointing to your science teacher. That's who Isabelle Collins is, right?"
I'm staring out the window by our door. I didn't even notice the RV was gone. The stress over Sam must have painted over my senses.
"Did you ever see Ms. Collins over there? Going into the RV or anything?"
"Yeah. She was Mr. Lye's girlfriend, and she was living with him temporarily in the RV. It's hers."
As Dad recounts this to someone on the phone, I realize the danger of it. The police are going to ask me questions. Every muscle contracts and I remind myself to think quickly and stick to whatever story I come up with. I don't think Mr. Lye will betray me, he has no reason to. Still, it'll be hard to pretend to be shocked that Ms. Collins did something so terrible. It's confusing and inexplicable, but the important state to portray is dumbfounded. Ms. Collins, the beloved teacher, my favorite teacher until recently, a killer.
"Who was that you said," Dad asks me, "Mr. Lye?"
"Yeah, Mitchell Lye. He's our neighbor and an art teacher at school. He was in a relationship with Ms. Collins."
"Wait..." Dad grimaces. "Is that the guy you talked about? The one who got you into the exhibit? That's our neighbor?"
"...he's missing, too. There's evidence of a struggle in the RV. The police are prioritizing finding Collins now—"
Dad keeps talking, as do the reporters on TV. I just sit on the couch. Dad is trying to talk to me, but I feel thousands of miles out of time and space, unable to communicate or even focus my eyes. No wonder the house across the street is completely dark. After Dad's given up talking to me, I think to take out my phone.
Sam has already sent a text.
Did you see the news?
I send a reply.
What do you think it means?
I don't know.
My stomach is a spin-cycle washer as I think about Cassie's final few days of life. Knowing what Collins is capable of, through experience... Cassie might not have just been killed. I don't care what happened in the dream, or what she's like as a person. I really, truly pray that what I'm imagining is incorrect.
I type out a reply. It's the only way to settle my nerves.
Look, if there's one good thing from this, it's that Collins isn't getting away. She's wanted now.
You're right. She can't hide forever.
I don't think either of us wants to suspect Lye as well, so for now, we're neutral on it. It's highly possible that he's a victim in this, an unwilling captive of his malicious girlfriend's freakish plans.
Something else comes to me, so I hurry and send it before a reply can arrive from him.
How are your parents handling this?
They haven't seen it yet. I don't think they'll be getting any contact from Cassie's family ever again. That's not ideal. But I'm sure they'll see reason eventually, and leave me out of it.
I want that more than anything right now.
I don't deserve to have you as a friend. You're wonderful.
You deserve better, but I'll keep the position until you realize it. 🙂 Going to bed now. Need to try to sleep, but text or call me whenever, day or night.
I end up talking to the police, early the next day. I confess everything: what she did to me, and even taking shrooms. They didn't care about the latter, to my relief. I don't even get a stern talking-to, probably because they see on my face that I will never take any drug like that again for as long as I live. Mr. Fox, another person who I somehow have met in the dream, tells me that no one needs to know, including my dad. He thanks me for the help, as the greater certainty that the crime against Cassie was sexually motivated will narrow down their options and help them build a better profile to track her down.
It almost makes me laugh, how the dream world and real world are reaching the same event, Collins going missing, in complete opposite contexts.
It's two days after Collins vanished: Monday the 21st, and five days until the Dance.
It's not like I'm legitimately counting the days out of girlish excitement for a social event, or eagerness to show off my art piece. No, now I'm confident that something terrible will happen on the night of May 26th, just like in the dream. I have no direct proof, nothing truly logical, besides past experiences that most likely were not real, and how they concur with reality. Who am I to make fun of therapists for being silly spiritual types, when my own connection to reality appears to slip more with every passing day?
It's a wet, foggy morning, not far past eight. I'm standing around, waiting for the bus to arrive and take me to the beginning of the school week. I'm holding my phone, and I don't know why until I'm already making a call. I start to walk out of sight, down the street where neither the bus, nor Dad as he leaves for work, will find me.
I'm calling Sam. The phone rings countless times as I get farther and farther down the road, passing one unfamiliar home after another. Then I hear the ringing stop.
"Lee?" His breathing is hard. I hear birds chirping, distorted through the speaker. He's outside. He's in his backyard.
He's still chopping wood.
"That is indeed my name. To what do I owe the pleasure of a lady's attention so early in the morning?"
My voice has hardly any energy, as it asks "Are you going to be at school today?"
I stop on the sidewalk. Far behind me, I hear the bus's brakes squealing, and the snap of the air pressure after it stops. It'll wait for me for about five seconds, and after no Hornet in sight, I'll hear it move on.
By the time I have, and the bus is out of earshot, he still hasn't answered.
"I'm coming over," I tell him, before hanging up.
I was thinking Sam might call me back, to protest, but in the time it takes for me to stand around and wait for Dad to definitely be gone, go back to the house, get in my car, and drive to his place, he doesn't. Probably knows he can't win this one.
It might sound horrible, but Cassie is gone now. Dead for sure. That means there is no deal for Sam to carry out, for the sake of the parents. That means Sam's mom and dad should leave him alone and let him go back to school.
But of course they didn't. Why would it be that easy? Their meal ticket up and vanished, and who else are they going to punish, to vent their anger?
It won't be their son. I don't care if it's me instead, but I refuse to stay practical. I tried doing that about Collins. Instead of trying to put that monster in prison where she belonged, I ignored what happened. Thanks to me, she was free to murder someone, maybe two people. If Lye's still alive, is he suffering, because of my cowardice?
So I'm ready. I'm getting in his parents' faces and I'm breaking down the whole structure. Let them threaten me, attack me, kill me. I welcome it, compared to something awful happening to Sam because I knew about the problem and didn't respond.
I walk around the bushes and into the backyard, following the pchwaps of the splitter. He's there. In this time of day, before the sun gets high enough to evaporate the morning dew, it's rather cool and pleasant. But Sam has been working hard since much earlier, because he's panting hard and moving in controlled, efficient motions, devoid of excitement or interest.
He's doesn't slow or look surprised when he sees me. I stand there, hands gripping the straps of my backpack, waiting for him to complete the next chop, and then I get too close for him to safely swing.
"What are you doing?" I demand.
"Shouldn't I be asking that?"
"Your parents have no reason to punish you."
"They're not punishing me. They're just lazy. My dad still doesn't want to cut wood. I'm taking the chance to make more money. More money means I don't fall behind in rent, and I can still get away when I graduate."
"There are all sorts of ways to make money! Far better on your body and mind than this!"
"If I stop doing this, people supplied by 'my dad' will get upset. Then he'll get upset with me."
"That's his problem. Not yours."
"You just don't get it."
"No, you don't get it!" I shout. "I want to help you, Sam, but the truth is that you're eighteen, like me! You have to want to help yourself, and actually act on it."
"If I do anything to defy them, Mellie, guess what happens? My rent gets raised for arbitrary, fake reasons! My mom hides stuff that belongs to me and pretends she doesn't know where it went. You have no idea how carefully I have to hide my money."
"Then move out. If you do, you don't have to pay them rent. You don't have to suffer their presence and be a part of their crimes."
"Where am I supposed to live instead? An abuse shelter?"
"Your dad is not some liberal pushover. He's never going to allow a boy to move into his daughter's environment."
"You aren't just any boy. And if I can convince him, then what?"
"I would have to pay rent to him. What am I going to do for a job?"
"Dad might need help at the catering company!" I'm grabbing his shirt at the chest with both hands before I know it. "It's a wonderful family-run business! It's my family! I want you to meet them! The thought of you working a fun job with them every day makes me so happy I can't stand it!"
"Shut up!" he screams. "You're making promises you might not be able to keep! Do you realize that that hurts?"
"It hurts because you want it, right?"
"Of course I do!"
"Then give me a chance!"
We are screaming in each other's faces, our saliva hitting each other's lips, and like flint sparks lighting a ball of tinder, everything ignites in the meeting of our mouths. Our racing minds still want to accuse, and we groan and hum noises into each other. I taste the remnants of icing, cherries, and the burn of kirsch on his tongue.
He had a slice of cake as a way to motivate himself to start yet another lonesome, back-breaking day of slave labor.
My hands roam his sweaty, Olympian body. I want to distract from his pain, however I can. I'm not thinking this through. For all I know, his parents could walk outside again, hearing that the woodcutting has stopped. But then he tells me what I need to hear.
"They're not here right now."
"Let's go inside," I whisper in his ear as he picks me up and sets my legs around his waist. "I want to see your room."
"No, the dogs are in there."
I immediately understand. That would be too horrible. But he has somewhere else in mind. My view of the house and its sliding glass doors bob up and down with his steps as they get further away. We enter the shade of the woods, to a point where I see no homes or yards. Our position doesn't change, but he drops to his knees and bends down to set my back against the prickly pine straw, laying atop of me.
We kiss again. The callouses of his hand tickle my neck as he rests it at my carotid, then down the collar of my bright yellow shirt. It hits me that perhaps with that color, animals will know to keep away. If not, this 200-lb beast pressing himself on me ought to do it.
"Do you have a condom?" I ask, heart thrumming, as his breath warms my nose.
"Yeah." Sam takes his wallet out from his unbuttoned jeans to keep it ready. "Don't know if you want to hear this, but I'm a virgin."
"I'm honored." I smile and wrap my fingers around his cheeks, bringing his face to mine again.
Although it's rapid, it doesn't end quickly. For a while, Sam and I are in our own world. We don't break eye contact; he's challenging me and I'm challenging him. Neither of us backs away, or stops to say "What are we doing? We're friends!"
When it's over, we're lying side by side, holding hands. His pants are still open, mine still down, because it's gotten hot out now and we need some way to ventilate.
This has settled all the disparate events of my life. They make sense, now. It's not a cognitive, higher-thought conclusion, but a euphoria, purer and more unflinching than anything drugs could give you.
"I have wanted that for a long time," I say, watching clouds move by through the filter of the treetops.
"How specifically do you mean that?"
"Well, I didn't exactly dream of getting fucked in the woods. But... I already said it, didn't I? I've liked you for a while."
"I liked you immediately. This still doesn't seem real."
"If this ends up being a dream, I'm going to get really pissed off."
"People are going to talk," Sam says. "At school. The two of us both missing class."
"The school might call your dad, you know."
"I'm an adult, so they have no right."
"Ah, good point. So... how's the exhibit piece?"
I turn on my side and put a hand over his heart. I want to gauge his pulse when he hears me. "I decided to sketch you."
Faster. The urge to grin takes over. "You did?"
"And how is it going?"
"I'd like to see it, when it's finished." He wraps an arm over and brings me to his chest. I feel like a small animal that has returned to the safety of its burrow. "At the Dance, I mean. But I'll need a partner to go with." When I don't answer, he adds "That was me asking you to the Dance."
"Are you going to move out of here?" I ask. "Today?"
"So we can ask if I can live at your house?" When I nod he playfully throws a bit of pine straw away. "Very well."
"You mean it? Really?"
"Absolutely. I want to. You saw past the facade, Lee. I wanted to leave this place behind, but I was afraid to try. And in case that your father says no, which I'm expecting, I can probably try to find some cheap arrangement online. Bounce around a few places. What matters is that I'm moving, walking out of this miserable life."
He knows as well as I do that his backup is not far from being homeless. We can't take that seriously as an option. Without a job and a stable place to live, Sam will be in free-fall. I will fight with everything in me to catch him before he's out of reach.
"So, I finally said yes, you won," Sam says, nuzzling noses. "Now what do you say to being my date?"
"Believe me, I want nothing more. I just... have this premonition. Based on the dream and how things have been for the past week. I think something terrible might happen at the Dance."
Sam has been really respectful about this dream thing. A less serious friend would think I'm nuts. "Do you want to cancel it? Not show up? Your work will still be shown. I could see it another time."
Whether there will be another time, whether the world will still be populated after the Dance, is something I'm not confident about.
We have reached the bottleneck.
"...no." I shake my head. "No, I don't want to just give up and hide at home. I hate the idea of giving up on doing something that I want to do, just out of fear!" I look up at him. "What a hypocrite I would be if I did, right? Besides, I believe that Mr. Lye is innocent, and when he comes back safe and sound, I don't want him to be disappointed that I didn't go to the showing."
He takes my hand and warms it in both of his, fingers rubbing flatly over mine.
"What?" I ask.
"Nothing. I'm just proud of you."
"Hey, hey! I should be proud of you."
Sam sits up, and I brush straw from his back. "I suppose it's better to just do it now. Don't delay, or it might be harder."
"I know it'll be hard to move your stuff, but—"
"—There's not really much of anything that's mine," he says. "It'll all fit in your car. We could load it up in five minutes."
Ignoring the ache in my core, I try to give him a confident smile. After how much I pushed for this, I can't show reluctance or second-thoughts. I don't even have any. It's just that deep down, from how I was raised and how society works, I think I should. Sam's life is going to change from this point, and mine will too, maybe just as much.
I finally see the inside of Sam's house. It's nicer than mine, with full granite counter-tops and more spacious rooms. I imagined garbage strewn about, but Sam probably cleans up.
Then I see the dogs. Some bark, most just watch me from their plastic crates and paw at the little cage doors, rattling them. They're all beautiful, healthy, and in good temperament. Money dogs, purchased by the wealthy and raised from good stock.
"I want to feed them, one last time," Sam says. "It'll only take a few extra minutes."
Frozen in place at the entrance to this living space, I nod. I should stay detached from all of this. I'm helping him leave it.
Each of the dogs comes over to sniff me and check me out, as he lets them out. I must smell a lot like Sam right now, and none of them are suspicious or unfriendly. A little Yorkie even stands up on his back legs to paw at my knee, and I take his paws and dance with him a little. Once Sam is pouring the food into bowls from several bags at the corner, they're surrounding him. He employs brilliant dominance, holding a hand that communicates for the dogs to wait until all the bowls are ready, and they actually sit and wait. Only someone whose job is to care for these dogs could be so good at it. I can't stand the thought that with him gone, his terrible parents will be in charge of caring for them. I can only hope that, given the importance of keeping the kidnapped animals alive for the sake of ransom money, they won't completely neglect their duty. I also completely understand Sam's reluctance to leave. That he didn't tell me about his role in caring for these animals, didn't hold that powerful argumentation point against me, is worthy of the deepest respect.
It hurts that we can't just let them go, but there will be no dramatic 'You're free now!' moment. They belong to people, and letting them loose on the streets could get them killed.
When he's done, he lets the dogs run around the house and heads elsewhere, presumably to his room. "We'll put them back in the crates when we're ready to go," he tells me.
Before I know it, I'm standing in Sam's room, nothing but a bed, desk, and many wicker bookshelves. Glancing at the titles, I see classics like 10,000 Leagues, as well as school textbooks going back as early as freshman year. I don't see a yearbook, however, which makes sense. They're kind of expensive.
"You can get books practically for free if you know where to look," Sam says.
It hurts more than I can convey to him that we can't bring all of these. I stand up and face him with a grimace, my resolve wavering. "Are there any books you want to keep? I'm sure there'll be room for some."
He smiles. "How about this: you pick the books."
"Whatever's interesting to you, whatever you'd like to read."
"I'm not... much of a reader, though."
"I can read to you," he says.
"That actually sounds really romantic. But... what's in that for you?"
"What you just said."
I take a deep breath through my nose and look over the titles, starting in the corner of the one near his bed. "Okay."
Sam's clothes fit into half of my back-seat, and the rest of that contains his school supplies. In the trunk, I fit books, as many as I can. I want to take some awards from his school days that he had left in the closet, but he insisted that he doesn't need them.
Then it's over. Sam's guiding the dogs back into their crates and closing them up. I ignore how much my heart hurts, watching this. It's not even a drop compared to the rainstorm that was drowning him.
On the way back to my house, with Sam's car close behind mine, I call Dad and set it to speaker.
"Mellie? What's going on? Are you calling from school?"
"Uh no. Actually, Daddy, something really important is happening. I'm not at school right now."
"Please, can you do something for me? We need to talk in person, back home. It's important."
"You can't tell me what it is right now?" I hear people calling to each other in Hindi. He must be busy. The family doesn't like him to leave work, either, since he's the best at speaking English, and the only white person, which makes him quite valuable in customer service matters.
Although it's awkward, I know how to play my cards. There is no way in hell that a daughter asking her father to let her newfound boyfriend (if that's what we are) live with them to escape his abusive household is going to work over the phone. He needs to see him and me standing together, the cars filled with his things, the commitment. He needs to hear and see us explain it.
"Sorry to interrupt your work. It's an emergency." I know this is better than not telling him, and having him come home from work to a shock.
"I'm coming home right now. Just tell me one thing: are you safe?"
"Yes, I'm fine. See you soon." I hang up before he can ask anything else.
I'm holding hands with Sam as we sit on the couch, and then I hear the engine of my dad's car before it turns off. I'm sure Dad is getting all sorts of ideas. I don't think he'd recognize Sam's car, so it just looks like a stranger's, stuffed with its owner's life.
The door opens and he stops a few steps in, looking at us. I stand up, lifting Sam as well, and then he lets go. It's my turn now, so he stays behind me. Time to justify all the bluster. If this doesn't work, I am literally worse than useless to Sam, a silly girl who got it in her head to save him, like he's a stray dog, and who got his hopes up for no good reason than to satisfy my own guilt.
"What's going on, Mellie?" Dad comes up to me, keeping his voice soft. This is a good sign. If this is about Sam, someone he respects a lot, it could honestly work.
"This is going to be hard to take in because I haven't talked to you about it," I say. "I wish I had brought it up sooner, or rather, could."
"You're in a relationship with him?"
I blink and look up at his searching eyes. I guess that is the first thing a father might assume, and he might not be wrong. I look back at Sam. His look reminds me to stay focused.
"We've gotten a lot closer recently," I tell him. "Dad, Sam is in trouble. He needs help."
A lesser father would surely rattle off more suppositions, hemming and hawing and assuming the worst. Instead, Dad sighs, gets a beer from the fridge, and sits on the couch across from us. "Alright, tell me everything. I won't interrupt. I want to hear all of it."
So, we sit down again and tell him everything. It's mostly me, but Sam jumps in to clarify certain details. My visit to deliver the cake, meeting his parents, Sam's hard labor, and more disgusting details from Sam that are new to me.
"I believe that covers it," Sam says, sat forward with his hands together. "Your daughter has insisted that we try this option. I did not want to. I found it humiliating, imposing, and unearned. She was convincing, though. I eventually realized that my reluctance was just the fear of breaking away. So, now I am here, dropping a request I couldn't begin to justify. I know we have gotten along, that we see eye-to-eye on many things, and that we both love Mellie, but we are not family, and I am still ashamed to ask this of her father, the man I most respect. Still, Mellie helped me, and I'm here. I have picked everything up that I own and do not intend to go back. It's either this... or living in my car and hunting for cheap temporary housing, something that would cost me much more money, destroy my chance of getting a stable job, and wreak havoc on my schooling. If you are willing to allow me as a tenant, I would be more grateful than words could express. I will pay rent, happily, even a higher number than my parents charge me."
"He's an extremely hard and honest worker," I say, trying to jump in before Sam throws out every shred of bargaining power we have. "He could work for the catering company, even as a dishwasher at first."
Dad studies his empty bottle of beer. It's his second one, now. "I'm stunned. I don't know what to say. I help my daughter bake a cake, and the next week she wants to save a boy's life and have him live with us." At the very least, he's not angry or outraged. In fact, I think he's looking at me with pride. "Sam, what you described to me, believe me, I can relate. I grew up with career criminal parents, too. I thought there was no way out of it, that I had no other skills than what I had learned from my dad. And when I ran out on my own, I lived that way. I made drugs in an RV and bartered them for anything I needed. It was a weird time in our country's history, where that sort of life was possible. But I regret how I acted. I wish... this is going to sound pretentious, but I wish that when I was your age, I had someone like who I am to you. Someone older, a platform to land on when you jump out of the speeding car that your life has been." He stands up. Sam does as well. I don't get it. What's happening? "But I have to keep my daughter safe. I have to think about what's best for her, in the long run. You have every right to hate me."
"I understand," Sam says.
I can't speak or stand. My blood has become cold syrup, and every part of me moves slowly and feels chilled beyond any hope of living.
"My parents were criminals, I was a criminal," Dad says, "and even though I know you're an honest young man, this connection you're forming with Mellie also connects me, and her, to your parents and their actions. There is a lot of risk there."
"Dad, you can't be fucking serious!" I shout, finally up on my feet. I'm so angry I could smash the table.
"I've made my decision," Dad says to me. "It'll be hard, but I think you got Sam to do the right thing. But not this part. Stay friends, start dating, even, you have my blessing there. But for all I know, Sam's parents could find out that he's living here and do something."
"They don't care about him! They won't go looking!"
"It sounds like their son is a reliable source of money and labor," Dad says, getting a reluctant nod from Sam. "Chances are they'll want to find him. Sure, if he lays low here and we get lucky, they might give up. But there are no guarantees."
"I better go now," Sam says, face stoic as a Roman bust. "Staying any longer will make this harder."
"No." I stand at the door, holding my arms out. "I'm not giving up, Sam, and you shouldn't either!"
"It's your father's house, and his choice," Sam says.
"Then we just have to convince him! Do you really want to go out there by yourself? Do you want to have no stable place to go home to? Do you want everyone you live with to be a stranger?"
"Of course I don't," Sam says, hurrying closer. He's sneering, pissed off, probably at Dad, me, and many other things.
I force out one little command, four words that slow him to a stop inches from me. "Show him the video."
"Are you..." I've stopped him. Knowing there's no point in finishing his question, he pulls out his phone and fiddles with it until the screen is a video, waiting to be played. After holding it in his hand for a long time, I take it from him, carefully.
"Daddy," I say softly, moving toward him. "I'm going to show you something, and I want you to know: I'm fine. I'm okay."
He just looks disturbed and disappointed, maybe with himself, for being out of the loop. This is going to hurt him, a lot. I would never burden my father with this knowledge, these sights and sounds, if I had any other choice.
Motioning for him to stay seated where he is, I hand him the phone and press the play button.
The minutes of watching that video, hearing it all over again, are a blur that my mind intentionally blocks out. I'm shaking, seeing Collins and feeling her iron grip on my wrist—no, that's my own hand. I'm grabbing myself. That's when I begin to feel warmer, and realize Sam is hugging me from behind. It's quite the healing gesture, now that I'm experiencing it from the other side.
I explain what I did, after getting back from therapy. The drugs, the kiss, and where it could have gone, had Sam not followed through on his promise to Dad and checked up on the house.
I watch the understanding flash through Dad's eyes. The night he found me in a sleepy, loving daze on his bed, the morning after when I got more emotional with him than I have in years. Many other, smaller signs, all snapping together like a puzzle.
"You saved her."
"Yes, sir," Sam says, "but only because you called and asked—"
Dad roughly waves a hand through the air. He doesn't want Sam's modesty, not here. He says it again. "You saved my daughter from god knows what. From a killer. A monster."
Sam nods, and then forces a tiny smile, that I see from craning my neck back and up at him. All of a sudden, Dad is hugging me from the front, his arms going around to Sam's back.
"Stay here as long as you like. You are always welcome."
Sam murmurs in a high pitch."H-huh?"
"I can get you a good job in the company. The best I can. But don't feel pressured to take it, because I'm not going to charge you rent."
A little raindrop falls into my hair, then another. Sam sniffles and I hug dad close to me, completing the weird, three-person family we are apparently about to become.
"Thank you so much," I tell Dad. "You'll never regret this. Never."
It's been almost a week. Dad and Sam cleared out our guest room, used for storage, and Dad insisted on buying a bed for Sam and setting it in. While I'd like nothing more than for Sam and I to share a bed, mine is a twin, too small for another person, and Dad would probably say no. It's the right thing to do, anyway. I didn't do this because I wanted Sam to sleep with me, but so he could escape his parents and thrive like I always knew he could. He needs his own room, a new environment where no one forces him to do anything, and where nothing is expected of him.
Not to mention, nothing stops him from sneaking over to my room, after Dad starts snoring across the hall. He reads aloud to me, painting stories behind my closed eyelids, and sometimes I blissfully fall asleep before we can do anything else.
Distracted by the tragedies, no one at school has noticed a change, so far, and we aim to keep it as subtle as possible. Sam has to leave for school in his car before I exit for the bus, to prevent us from being seen leaving the house together. If people do find out, well, they have no choice but to assume we're living together for romantic reasons, and that'll create a huge splash that could lead to people figuring out other things. It'll be much easier when we reach summer break. If people figure it out around then, it won't spread too quickly. By the time we enter senior year, we could go public with our relationship without it sparking a dangerous wave.
There I go, getting carried away. I hope I'm not, though.
It is now Saturday, the 26th, the night of the Junior Social Dance. Sam and I are going together. We never outright asked each other, but Sam knew I wanted him there with me, and I knew he wanted the same. Dad and I managed to get a nice suit for him, and I got the same blue chiffon dress as from the dream.
Dad has his tripod and camera set up, just like when I went to the Dance with... Drew.
No, calm yourself, Mellie Walsh. That wasn't real. This is real.
His suit is shapely, like something out of the 60's. I'm standing with him as Dad gets the camera ready. I feel like we're the rich Hollywood villain couple in an action movie.
"You look amazing," I tell him. He's not used to wearing a suit, and I want him to loosen up and look natural for the photo.
"I owe that to you and your father's good eye," he says, adjusting the collar. "You look far better, I'm sure. I just wish you could've let me get a corsage for you."
I didn't want to buy a corsage myself, and I'd never let Sam waste his money on that little piece of vanity for my sake. "Trust me, it doesn't matter."
"So you're happy?"
I can't believe him. It should be me asking him that. But whatever we have between us isn't one-sided. I'd have it no other way.
"Yeah," I say, taking his arm. "Stupidly happy."
Because we took several pictures, the ride in Sam's car ends with us having to park in the dirt lot, just like last time. This should be fun.
"Hey, uh, do you mind carrying me, just until we reach the paved section?"
He raises an eyebrow. "That's a little untoward, don't you think? What if someone sees us?"
He's right. Doing that with Drew was fun, but Sam and I need to keep things incognito. This needs to look like I'm going with Sam as an easy replacement for Cassie. That sad, gross Hornet, clinging to Sam yet again. I exhale the negativity in a quick huff.
"Yeah, good point. Can I just hold your shoulders, then? I need to avoid stabbing my heels into the dirt."
"Certainly." He gets around, opens the door for me, and thirty seconds later we're walking arm-in-arm, the vibrations of distant music awakening every pore of my face and arms. We enter the dim, flashy auditorium.
Everything is the same. The dance floor changing colors with every step, the wall lined with artwork, collages, and posters celebrating different clubs, groups, and events of the junior class, the photo booths blasted with stage lighting, and far off in the corner, a series of easels cloaked in gray sheets.
With Drew, we talked to one couple at a time, and I'm ready to do that again, but Sam is more popular. We have to fend off large groups of guys and girls who all came here as friends. It's hard to make conversation when I recognize a lot of them from teasing or light bullying. I don't want to let them affect me, to put on some smug, winking grin like I treasure the status Sam's friendship brings. I haven't embraced any of that, but that doesn't seem to be the right answer either.
That one short guy who did the ten dollar catcall has been hanging around us for a while, the last straggler before our arrival finally goes cold. "Still," he says, sipping punch, "Mellie must be a pretty awesome fucking wrestler, huh? To submission hold the head of the team into going with her."
"Are you attempting to insult her?" Sam asks, in control. "Last I heard, you attempted to buy her attention. Sour grapes, perhaps? Or are you just confused and inconsistent with your feelings toward the opposite sex?"
His hand shakes a little and he steps to the side, then leaves. I'm at a loss for words. This is fantastic. There's never been someone bold enough to insult me with Sam around before, and this could spread an important snippet all through the class: if you fuck with Mellie Walsh, Sam will know.
"I'm surprised someone would take a shot at me, with you standing right there," I say.
"I suspect he might have been drinking," Sam says back. "Perhaps we should avoid the punch."
Around then, I notice the substitute for Mr. Lye, Ms. Kimball, waving us over. I lead Sam over to the exhibit corner, and that's when I see a dashing Italian suit containing a young man with curly gold hair.
"Hey, you," Drew says.
"Hey, yourself!" I tell him. "Where have you been all this time?"
"Well, I'm not much for the crowds, and I'm here more for my career than to socialize."
"Sam, this is Drew," I say, looking back to him. "The best artist in school."
"Oh, I don't know about—"
—and he's the one who recommended me for the exhibit," I add.
"A pleasure," Sam says, holding out his hand. Drew steps forward and they shake, with a somewhat tense silence afterward. If my dream was accurate, then Drew likes me. I wonder if guys can sense that sort of thing around each other. "So," Sam says to me, "which piece is yours?"
"Oh, it's that one," Drew says, pointing to the one two over from the one he's standing by. "We're about to do the unveiling, so you should get ready to talk shop." He motions with his eyes to the same group of enigmatically dressed members of the Doctor's Grove art scene.
"I'll wait in the audience," Sam says with a grin. "Looking forward to it."
Once he's several yards away, Drew leans close to me and asks, "Your muse?"
Drew saw the progression of my piece, so obviously he recognizes Sam's face. I'm beaming when I say "Yeah, he truly is."
"I'm happy for you," he steps back and shakes a leg, stumbling a little. "I mean, happy that you have a friend who inspires your art. It's a rare and precious thing."
"Am I that to you?"
"What?" he says it too loudly, startling me.
"Well, you did offer to paint my portrait, after all of this, right? I was wondering if I'm like... a muse, for you? Oh god, that sounds conceited."
"No, it's right. You are an inspiration to me. If Sam wouldn't mind... then sure. I would love to paint your portrait."
"Uh, yeah. Why would he?" This is getting precarious. I don't want to give the impression that Sam and I are together, but making any kind of firm denials in that direction could backfire later. It could hurt Drew by leading him on.
"So you two are here as friends?" Uh oh, he's digging.
"Yep. I'm not brave enough to go by myself like you, and Sam was, uh... going to go with Cassie." I pause out of respect. "Poor girl. Terrible thing to happen."
"It sure was."
"So, yeah. It's been fun, seeing all these heads spinning, wondering if Mellie Walsh somehow got together with Sam Edwards."
"You know, you should put less thought into what other people think of you," Drew says. "It really doesn't matter. You're talented, witty, great as you are. If someone can't see it, it's because they're too shortsighted, focused on things that don't matter."
I smile. "I know. It's taken a lot of pain, but I've finally begun to realize it." I give him a hug, and he stands there, shocked, hands fully apart, probably to show that it wasn't his idea. "You've helped me with my confidence, you know. Well, not 'you know', because you've done more than you could ever know."
"I have no idea what you're saying," he says with a laugh, "but you're welcome."
"Okay, artists!" Ms. Kimball calls out, "the unveiling is about to commence! Please approach your piece and prepare to remove your sheet."
I take hold of my sheet like the rest of the artists. The group of students and adults gathered around us is no less terrifying and exhilarating than last time. A horrible premonition arrives: what if, unlike in the dream, my piece generates no reaction?
"On three, everyone," Ms. Kimball shouts over a louder song. "One, two, and three!"
It's easier the second time, these brutal few seconds of initial impressions. I hear a few "ooh"s an "aah"s, mostly in Drew's direction. I take a look at his again, and it brings me back to eating cake on the boardwalk over the river with Sam, such a complicated moment typified by his use of color and darkness.
I look back and freeze. Sam is walking toward mine, jaw gaping.
Sam takes up the bottom third and the center of the canvas. His bare bust, consisting of head and shoulders looking askance at the viewer, is surrounded in a blizzard of flames that use whites to accentuate the brightness and heat. It appears as if the room Sam stands in is completely dark, and his rugged beauty is birthed from the dozens of flames and shadows captured in that frozen moment of time, like the many lights and ornaments that transform a Christmas tree. It's just as much of an accomplishment as my bird nest piece, Spoils of War.
"I wanted it to be a surprise," I say next to Sam. "Do you... like it?"
He stands almost too close. Then he looks down at the label: Indestructible, by Mellie Agnihotri. Once he's closed his mouth and turned to me, he finally responds. "Lee, this is overwhelming. You spent two weeks making a sketch of me?"
"That's right." I don't think splitting hairs and mentioning that the subject was initially supposed to be Collins is a good idea. I hadn't even worked on the center subject until I decided it would be Sam. "Could you do me a favor?"
"Tell me what you think."
He looks again, runs his eyes over every inch. He might as well be examining me, only on a level beneath even skin, muscle, or bone. "You have successfully depicted how I wish to view myself."
I want to kiss him right here, but I restrain myself. Then I take a step back and almost bump into another guy. Because of Sam's reaction, and the work itself, people are swarming my piece! I never even considered this possibility, and now more and more people are calling over others who would likely have never checked out the exhibit at all.
"I knew your work could draw a crowd," Drew says from beside me, arms crossed and satisfied.
"It's because of the subject matter."
"Partly. But it's also the execution of the vision."
"Agreed," a man says from my other side. I look over and recognize the pink suit.
"Kirk," I say before I can stop myself. I don't actually know this guy, haven't met him in real life.
His eyes go wide. "My, my, I don't believe we've met!"
"I, uh, did a little research on the artistic community," I lie. "It's lovely to meet you in person."
"Oh? Likewise. You've created an astounding piece here, miss..."
"Mellie Walsh. Lee is fine."
From behind us, I then hear a haughty woman's voice and the whooshing of a straw fan. "What have we here?" I see her kimono, and in a surge of adrenaline I remember her preferred term of address.
"Ms. Louise Urbank?" I ask, and she lifts her chin up to better analyze me, then starts giving me a little tickling fan of air at my sweating forehead.
"Well done, dear, well done, indeed. I detect an industry natural."
"I think the same," Kirk says.
"Just be careful," Louise says, back to fanning herself. "It is possible to draw too much attention, to create too great of a first impression, from which one can only disappoint. A candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long."
Kirk and I have the same conversation from the dream, with him giving me his business card and discussing the possibilities of a six-month exhibit at his gallery. I also handle Louise's questions without flaw, making her look overly nitpicky. It goes so well that it honestly is a little boring, and unsettling.
I remember what happened after this. But it won't happen.
"Sam," I say after I've successfully introduced myself to the industry, "Sam, where are you?"
He has to push his way gently through a swarm of people who are asking about me. They must be too nervous to just ask me, but I guess that's okay. I wouldn't be able to handle this much attention.
"My lady, you appear to have stolen the show," Sam says with a grin. "I hope Drew isn't jealous."
"Oh, no, of course not. Drew is already an established artist. I'm just making a splash because I'm new."
"But you're going to work off this success, correct? I saw you chatting up those eccentrics."
"I have, potentially, an invite to one of the biggest art parties in Doctor's Grove," I say, as I lead him to the dance floor. "And the man in the pink suit runs a gallery, and is considering hosting an exhibit of my work."
"I'm so happy for you, I don't know how to express it," he says. "Is that not a problem for artists? Can they just say whatever they want to say?"
It's a difficult question. "All I know is that the work helped me say something. And you seem to have gotten the message."
"I'll never forget it. I mean that." He puts his hands around the small of my back, I link my arms at one of his shoulders. "You know, a lot of people were asking me if we were a couple."
"Sorry. I guess it's obvious people might think that, looking at the piece. It sucks that people have to look at everything from a romantic angle."
"So you saw me more as a friend, when you decided to make the piece?"
"I just... thought of you. There weren't any labels to it." I put my cheek to his heart. "Like I've said before, I've wanted this for a while."
"But I was your only friend, and you were afraid to lose that by getting greedy. Am I right?"
He is, so I nod. Our feet shift the glowing floor from indigo to fuchsia to crimson. We don't say any more for the slow dance, and I enjoy this moment, this evening, more than I thought possible.
"Sam," I tell him, "I'm in love with you."
He says nothing at first. "And?"
"And what?" I smack his shoulder. He takes that hand, entwines our fingers, and extends his arm out with mine, pulling me closer like the Tango.
"I've loved you since the day I moved in," he says. It's a good thing he's holding me closer because my legs are noodles. "I owe you my life."
"I owe you mine."
"So let's trade, then," he says, as we slowly rotate. "We live for each other." The world fades into insignificant color and serene humming. It's just us. I see only him, and a whole new face bathed in the blue lights above that inspires a whole other charcoal sketch idea.
"What do you mean?"
"I'll get a job with your dad's business, save my money. I'll work all through the year and the next. When we graduate, we'll plan out how to stay together."
"I'll go where you go," I say. "Seriously. I don't care if I have to get straight A's, I'll do it."
"I'll help you study," he says. "I love watching your face as you figure out a flash card."
"You really... want to do all of this? Make plans, a life, for me?"
"Who else comes anywhere close to you? Do you really doubt this is possible for you?"
"I'm just so happy, I think it might be a trap," I tell him. "In the dream... this is right about when things went horribly wrong. Everything promised was taken away."
I wait for him to hold me firmer, lock eye contact, and say that there's nothing to worry about. He does the former two, but not the last. He is worried now, too, and funnily enough, that helps, to know that he takes my delusions seriously.
"Whatever happens, I will protect you," I tell him. I need to stay alert, active, and focused. That means not waiting for the man I love to assure me of anything. I'm the one with experience in whatever is—possibly—about to happen.
When the current song finishes, we walk slowly off the dance floor, and just as Sam's walking off to go to the bathroom, I get a buzz in my purse. Someone is calling me.
It could be Dad. It could be any number of people. Even a wrong number.
Maybe this is the wrong choice, but I don't open my purse. The buzzing continues in one-second intervals, long after an ordinary phone call should stop and go to voicemail. Sam still isn't back yet, so I decide to peruse the exhibit one more time and get a good look at my piece. Drew is there, but turned away and looking out to the dance floor.
"Hey," I tell him. He doesn't respond. "Drew?"
His neck doesn't turn or flinch. The buzzing of my purse is now a furious electricity in my spine.
"Drew, what's up? Come on, don't ignore me."
He turns his head to me, but his eyes are staring far beyond my position. "We have reached the bottleneck."
I back away and look all around this vast auditorium, which now seems claustrophobic. None of the usual onlookers, whisperers, gossipers, are looking my way. I've gotten good at watching those who watch me, and I know: I am now invisible to this world, cut off.
It's all going to be undone.
You truly are a dumb girl, Mellie Walsh. Deep down, you knew this might happen. But you just had to lie to yourself, had to see it twice. Will you respect that it is a pattern now? Or will you have to go through it three times?
No no no no no no no
I didn't realize I was sprinting, my heels drawing painful, concentrated force up to my knees, and Sam's voice has stopped me in my tracks hard enough to break a heel off. I whip my arms around to stay upright and turn to see him.
I grab his sleeves. "Sam! You can hear me right? You can see me? I'm here to you?"
"What are you—of course you are! What's this about, why were you running?"
He's trapped too.
You did this. You just had to fall in love with him.
"I'm sorry..." I retreat from Sam, who stands there, confused and hurt that I am not explaining. I take out my purse amid Sam's concerned, loud questions. As he begins to realize that no one is hearing him or reacting at all, I answer the call from the unrecognized number and set it to speakerphone.
"Well, look who finally learned how to answer their phone."
It's a young woman's voice, hard to recall when I've only heard it a few times, but then the moment where I spoke to this girl rematerializes in my memory.
"Cassie?" I ask, and Sam stops upon hearing that name, drawing his eyes to my phone in cosmic revulsion and the onset of panic.
"How has the Dance been?" Cassie asks. "Wish I could go, but that's life in my family. Always busy."
"How... this can't be Cassie Urd." The police didn't just find Cassie, they found what little was left of her. Rumor has it it was hardly enough to fit in a half-pint jar. A human body dissolved into an unidentifiable slop.
"I wish I could explain it, but that would ruin what I'm doing." The sentence is identical to what the caller, 'Sam', said to me last time I was here.
Sam's tone seethes with disgust. "Who are you?" He believes someone is impersonating the dead, which I also want to believe.
"Ah, so Sam is there, too? Wonderful. Good job on giving him such a good time, Mellie."
"Stop toying with me!" I scream. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"I can explain what I want. I need you to cut the Dance a little bit early because we need to talk, tonight." Another exact phrase.
"I'm calling the police."
"You don't want to do that."
It's all the same, in the ways that matter. Cassie is going to ask me to go to the beach. She doesn't say that specifically, but I know it'll be that.
"They're going to announce the Dance king and queen soon, and then the final dance will be after," Cassie says. "Enjoy it. Then have Sam drive you home, get in your car, and go to the location I send to your phone. Get there before midnight. It's a whole two hours from now."
Sam flinches in my peripheral, and a chaotic noise, painful even from several feet away, streams out of his phone speaker. "I just tried calling 911, and it didn't work!" He looks to me, and fear mounts when I don't tell him to try again.
"Trying to resist will only speed up the bottleneck and cut down on your time," Cassie says. "I'm hanging up now. Make the smart choice."
In the second before the call ends, I'm sure that I heard the smack of a cresting wave.
After breaking my other heel off, I somehow convince Sam to follow me as we run out of the auditorium, back through the inky-black night toward our car. No one reacts. I even brush past a girl, and she falls to a knee. Looking back, she just gets back up without a fuss.
"Lee," Sam says, after we're panting and making clouds of dirt around our feet in the smaller lot, "you said this happened to you before, right? In the dream?"
"Tell me everything. Recount all of this part and how it ended."
"Sure," I say, getting in his car. "But get us out of here."
That plan is cut short by Sam's short gasp. I'm already in the car, but I get out again and see what brought it on. Apart from Sam himself, stumbling on weak knees and looking throughout the lot and beyond, we are the only two people here. Just like last time with Drew, leaving the Dance has erased it and everyone there.
"Did this happen?" Sam asks me.
"Yes, right around here, too. It's the same."
"Why? What happened? Where did everyone go?"
I shake my head. "They're just gone. I think everyone in town is, now."
"What are you saying?" he barks. "Everyone in town?"
His anger is making me defensive. "It was Drew and me last time, and when we drove out of here and through town, all the cars and people were gone. It was just us, and... Lye, at the beach."
He's back in the car in a flash, and I get in and shut the door just as he's finished backing out. He floors it, tires grumbling through the humid dirt of the lot and then screeching as he makes hard turns out of school grounds.
I tell Sam everything, as best I can, but I don't know how well he's taking it in. Around the time when I finish, I try to figure out where we are, which is very difficult with no streetlights, or lights of any kind. Then I recognize the rough bump that wobbles the wheels, followed by the steep rise onto a straight street of homes with spacious plots. Sam's going to his house.
He wants to check on his parents.
"Sam, I don't think you should do this."
He stops, parks in the road past his driveway, and rushes out into the darkness. I don't feel safe alone, so I run out after him.
The door bobs back on its hinges as Sam runs into pitch darkness, shouting "Dad! Mom! Are you there?" I'm surprised that after everything, Sam still loves his parents enough to fear for their safety and doesn't want them to disappear. But I don't think there's any way to avoid it now.
The silence is lonely and frigid, and my ears ring lightly to try and compensate. I follow Sam's form as my eyes barely adjust. Without the light of the moon barely coming in from the door, I can't see an inch in front of my face. Then I remember my phone, and take it out, setting it to the flashlight app. When I do, I scream as Sam lunges at me.
"This is your fault!" His hands dig into my shoulders and I drop my phone face-down, the light reduced to a faint, glowing rectangle.
"Sam no! I'm not doing this! I don't know what's happening!"
"Where are Dad and Mom? Would they have not disappeared if I didn't get close to you? If I didn't leave?"
"I don't know! You're hurting me, Sam, please!"
"I didn't want them to disappear!" He's rapidly turning from rage to regret, and that hurts worse.
"I didn't either. I'd never want you to lose your parents. I only wanted you to be safe and happy. For all we know, if I didn't do what I did... you might have disappeared, too."
"And then I'd be where my parents are!"
"Yes, but that might be nowhere!"
Finally, his fingers release me. I look for my phone, shaking and my eyes burning with tears, but I can't find it. "God fucking damn it, now I can't..." I feel it, then. The smoother side is full of cracked grooves, and the whole thing feels slightly bent. "No, no, not now."
"Mellie, I'm sorry!" Sam says, finally returning to his senses as I sprint backward, bashing my hip against some piece of furniture hard enough to break the skin as I rush onto the front lawn. In the light of the moon, it's clear: my phone was crushed, probably accidentally by Sam's foot.
No, wait, this is fine. Sure, I won't be able to communicate with Sam's phone if we get separated, but we just have to stay together. I'm fine with that, prefer it even.
Unable to see what I felt in the dark, Sam still thinks I'm running away from him. His footfalls swish over the grass and I whip around, backing away. He's getting down on his knees.
"Mellie, I am truly sorry for hurting you. I lost myself completely for a moment. It's just... I always thought there would be a day when things would be alright, for my parents and I."
"Should I have not—"
"—No. You saved me. You did more for me than anyone ever has. I know this, all of this insanity, isn't your doing. This is a test. I love you, and we have to work together. Now is the time when we have to stay together, now more than ever."
"Sam," I say, nursing the deep, pinched nerves in my shoulders, "I need you to listen to me very carefully, alright?"
He nods, planting his hands on the grass and fighting to control his breathing.
"I'm beginning to suspect," I tell him, "that between both the dream and right now, it's the same person doing this. Or maybe 'person' isn't the word. This is like being tortured by a god. It's fair to say that we're dealing with something paranormal."
"And this thing tormenting us," Sam says, "takes the form of people who go missing or die?"
Sam has always been this smart, and I'm thankful he's with me for this, despite what that might mean for him. I nod.
In truth, the concept of a hostile entity posing as or taking over the bodies of human beings... it actually explains most of this. Does it really make sense that the kind, courteous, and from what I hear, strongly religious teacher, Ms. Collins, is actually a shroom-cultivating rapist and murderer? How about Mr. Lye, passionate about igniting his students' potential careers, murdering people? Or even Sam, my Sam, strangling and threatening me to keep quiet about his potential crimes? It's all a perversion of this world. Something is ruining our happy, normal lives.
"So," Sam says, standing up. "You've been through this once before. What do we do?"
"We can't go to the beach like they want," I tell him. "That ended horribly for me and for Drew. I said I'd protect you, and I mean it. We're not walking into the creature's hands."
"I think, for now, we should try running. Get as far as we can. For all we know, only a specific several-mile radius was affected by whatever is happening."
"Okay, right, good idea." He walks up and offers his hand. I take it. "Mellie, your father is... probably gone too now, right?"
"Everyone is," I say, as we walk back to the car. "Until we learn more, that's what we have to assume. But I'm not giving up hope."
"Then I won't either." He kisses me more tenderly than he ever has before, and we split apart to get in his car. He drives back up the street. "So, where should we go?"
"Maybe we should just get on the interstate and go south. That's going to be a really straight path, hard to mess up."
"We won't be able to see the signs," Sam says.
"If you flash your brights and slow down for them, we should be able to read them well enough."
"It's kind of scary, you know, driving in this much darkness."
"Geez, you're like an elephant. Big and strong, but scares easily."
Like before, there are still some spoken-word radio broadcasts running. I think they might be pre-recorded.
Finding our way onto the 95 is doable just from memory, albeit more challenging with so little to go on visually, but as we're on it, I wonder about gas. His tank is half full, so that should take us a good hundred and fifty miles. Hopefully, we don't have to go anywhere near that far until we reach a sign of hope. How do you pump gasoline at a station in a world with no electricity?
As we're coasting at a hardcore fifty miles per hour on the I-95, passing exits and trying to ascertain any sign of active civilization, I hear a curious sound, sort of like "ihhh" but going on and on, with no signs of stopping.
"What is that?" I ask.
"Not sure. But I feel something different."
"What do you mean?"
"The car, especially in the tires. I think the steering is getting worse." He bobs the wheel left and right to demonstrate, and the car seems to slide as if on ice for a quarter second, before the front wheels actually start to steer. He slows down to be safe.
"What could that be?" I ask, and then, reaching up and turning on the cabin lights, I realize there are water droplets on my window. All of the front windows, in fact. "Is it raining? I didn't hear any drops."
"I don't think so."
Then something happens that makes our ears perk up. The interstate passes onto a short bridge going over a little creek off the main river of Doctor's Grove. It's only ten yards long, at best, but in that brief stretch the "ihhh" droning stops, only to begin again with a wet "splihhh" sound.
"I'm going to stop at the next exit," Sam says. "I think we should look around, try to figure out what this is."
"There's something," I say. Our eyes, spoiled by the cabin light, nearly miss that we're on an overpass, above the ground level, and just above the concrete barrier is the view of the on-ramp and some sort of town, visible only through four-story buildings and landmarks cutting a patchwork of deeper blackness against the moonlit sky.
Sam slows firmly to a stop, and that's when we realize, from the sound of screeching rubber, that our tires have been wet, and now they're grinding against dry concrete. But that would mean that the roads are wet, right? But it's not raining. Even stopped, no droplets appear on the glass when we turn the cabin light on again. Could we have just missed a strong shower in the area, perhaps?
I open the door, my heelless shoes firm on the concrete of this overpass. Even though we haven't seen or heard a single vehicle in all this time, it's still nerve-wracking to walk out into a place normally meant for fast, crowded traffic. Without other vehicles, it's unsettling, like pointless wounds mankind scarred into the natural world.
Standing out and leaning against the barrier, I trace my vision over the silhouette of the place beyond. I think I know it, although I never knew its exact name. It's a touristy spot with chain motels and breakfast restaurants, all advertised by extremely tall billboards made to be visible even from over here in passing.
When I hear Sam's door shut and listen to his steps, my whole back erupts into a chilling fire. I have been hearing something all this time, so subtle that I'm only noticing it now. Whatever it is, it's down below. It reminds me of...
The beach. I hear water sloshing. Nothing as predictable as waves, but there are the laps and tiny splashes of jostling water. Far in the distance, I hear water running over surfaces and streaming into storm drains.
"Another strange sound," Sam remarks.
"We need some light," I say, the faint sound overwhelmed by my beating heart. "Does your car have an emergency kit?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Would there be a flashlight in it?"
He snaps his fingers. "Good thought. I'll go get it." He rushes back to the light of his car, only visible as darkness against that. When he returns, a relieving spear of LED light exposes the oil-stained concrete by his walking shoes. He shines it over me, though not at my face to be courteous. Before I can ask to hold it, he stands by my side and shines it straight down, at what should be the perpendicular road that drivers take to get onto this highway.
His light warps where it lands. The ground is coated in at least two inches of water.
"What..." I can't say more as I follow Sam's slow search of the area. For as far as we can see, the land is flooded.
"It's not raining," Sam mumbles, stepping back. "I haven't heard any drops, thunder, even the air doesn't feel like it does when it rains!"
"What do we do?" I ask, and then correct myself. "Sorry. This was my idea, I should figure this out. Okay... I think we should keep going for now. We still haven't found anyone else or an end to whatever this is."
Sam can hardly offer a counter to that. The troubling part is that there's no great logic, no brilliant deductions possible. This world, or the thing toying with it, isn't giving us enough to go on. It makes every additional mile over the consistently wet roads feel like struggling against quicksand.
About ten minutes later, Sam shouts something in agitation just as I realize it. "The water's getting higher!" The sound of the wheels going over water has deepened, and now you can just barely feel the tap of splashed water hitting the windows. "What if we're driving closer to wherever the water is coming from?"
"I don't see how that could be possible," I say, though I have to concede that none of this is possible. We stop at the next clear overpass, and from the much higher and broader silhouettes leaving only a few slivers of the gray sky, we're in the city proper, the skyscraper-laden business district. "I think the water might be rising... everywhere."
"Higher ground?" Sam asks, driving slowly to not miss the curving off-ramp.
"Yeah. This area should be good. We can drive into one of those multi-floor parking complexes."
Once we're down into the city streets we're relieved to have none of the typical traffic or cars parked in every single possible meter space, so we have room to move where the water is lowest. But now it's close to swimming. Sam's car isn't very high off the ground. He drives as quickly as he can without risking churning the water and splashing it into the engine, which would erase any hope of driving further.
"There!" I shout, as the fog lights finally reveal open stacks of concrete extending far above us, and a little box at ground level where an employee would normally take money to allow entrance. The narrow wooden barrier hits Sam's windshield, bends as he drives on, and eventually snaps and tumbles over the roof, and the darkness of this place is like being trapped in an aquifer. We reach the first ramp and climb it to the second floor. I hear the tailpipe gurgle underwater as we tilt upward and to freedom. I realize I've been sweating, and now the AC threatens to give my fingertips frostbite. I turn it off and hold Sam's shoulder as he drives up to the third floor, fourth, and so on until we reach the seventh-floor at the roof.
Parking in the middle, he gives the car a much-needed break and we step out. I stick close to him and he rotates in place, using the flashlight to scan the area: broad, level, empty, but dry.
We walk over to the nearest side and look down. The water has now fully eclipsed the first floor.
"It's speeding up," I say.
"I have to keep fighting the urge to say 'How can this happen?'"
"There are no tsunamis in Florida," I reply. "That's for sure. And the water doesn't seem to be flowing very hard in any direction. It's like the entire world has become a bathtub."
"But who's filling it up? And how do we shut it off and drain it?"
But Sam's questions are only the first two of many. Even if, by some miracle, we survive this, the world is still dark and everyone is still missing. No, don't lose hope! I have Sam with me. The two of us can overcome anything. That's how it felt, when Dad moved a new bed in for Sam, and when he read to me, and even, briefly, while we danced together, even against this incoming doom.
But maybe we were naive. Standing against forces you don't understand, the power of love is a sad and naive cliché. This isn't abusive parents or facing down a murderer. This is the collapse of all I have known.
"It can only go so high," I announce, with nothing to prove it. We hold each other, and I'm reminded that we're still in our clothes from the Dance.
"But do you think maybe... we haven't gone high enough?"
Sam then turns and points toward the biggest dark monolith in sight, easily thirty stories. Its walls consist entirely of glass windows, which reflect a patchwork copy of the moon. Is that little chunk of lost earth our only ally? It has been guiding us since the world went dark.
"What is it?" I ask him.
"I think we need to get to that. The roof of that building."
"Sam, we can't drive now."
I think he shakes his head. Our communication feels limited in some ways, despite being heightened in others, when it's too dark to see each other. "You said it already, there are no strong currents to this water. I think we could swim over, once the water is high enough to safely jump in."
"I can't swim in this dress. I can barely bend over in it."
"Then rip it, or take it off. My point is, I don't think we'll have the option to stand here for very long."
"Fair enough. How do we get in from floating around halfway up, though?"
"We'll have to break the glass, probably," he says, wiggling the flashlight. "This is metal, so it should have enough force. Oh, and of course, can you swim?"
"Yeah. Dad taught me." I bite my lip for reminding Sam of parents.
Sam points the light down again. "Not good. It's going really fast now." When I look over, I see that the third floor is now partly flooded. Then he puts the light in my hand. "I think that's deep enough. We should jump and swim over."
"That's four stories, almost."
"It'll be less once we're ready. Come on, hurry. Do something about the dress. I think there are snipping pliers in the emergency kit. I can make a cut and rip a line for your legs to move."
"No... that's okay. Even then, it's going to get in the way." Feeling somewhat freed from modesty by the dark, I slip my slightly aching shoulders free of the straps and shift my dress down to my feet.
"It was a fantastic dress on you," he says. "I should still be able to swim in the suit. I can give you some of my clothes once we're back on dry land."
"Thanks." It's as if the concept of the beach is being forced upon me. I'm now wearing much less and am about to go in the water. We walk to the side of the roof across from the building. It'll be a good city block's length to travel, hovering over the streets. I can make out the upper halves of towering palm trees and point those out as good points to grab onto if we need a break. Neither of us is in bad enough shape for this swim to be that much of a challenge, though. As the water climbs and Sam remains silent, I shine the light over my body and strut from foot to foot.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting the blood flowing," I say.
"Yours or mine?"
"Both, I hope?"
"Indeed. Much appreciated."
"Happy to help."
With that last bit of humor, Sam steps onto the concrete rail. "You will jump in after I do, right?"
"Well, look, if something happens... I don't know what, but something, don't jump in after me. Promise me that."
"I already promised to protect you."
"I'm serious, Lee. If something happens in the first, say, ten seconds that shows it isn't safe to do this, then forget about me. I can handle myself, and if I can't, at least you learned to stay up here."
"It'll be fine," I say, avoiding a promise I could never make. I give him the light. He can more easily swim with something held in his hand, and someone needs to have the light to help guide the way, in case there are obstacles floating in the water, but also to break the glass of the building. I currently have the pliers from the emergency kit uncomfortably stuffed behind the crisscrossing back-straps of my bra, and that should also work as a hard object.
"Yeah." He takes in a deep breath and lets it out. "I love you."
"Love you, too," I say, and he's already out of sight. The horizontal beam of light plummets with him and prevails even underneath, highlighting a string of intersection stoplights. The splash is barely audible. Once he's up, I watch, and everything seems fine for a good twelve seconds, so I climb, unsteady, onto the rail, remember that balancing doesn't matter, and fall with my knees bent in a cannonball. There might be better ways to jump in, but I'm too terrified to move now.
I'm in the water, skin awakened by the lukewarm temperature and concerned by little bits of debris that may be dirt or garbage. I swim for the surface with my eyes closed, because I know opening them and seeing nothing will just make this far more upsetting. I think I've discovered a new phobia of mine: swimming at night.
I get into the proper form and paddle my way toward Sam. He's the one with the light, and now he's desperately waving his arms to get my attention. It must be hard for him to see just my head. I wave my arms up for a bit and shout "I'm okay! Go ahead!" In response, he proceeds to swim on, toward the grand glass tower, and I pursue.
About halfway through, I'm still energized and the fear is subsiding for confidence. I nearly pissed myself when the fronds of a palm tree's top, or what I hope was that, brush all over my body in passing. Apart from that, no events.
The water is probably filling up his car right now. Sam is only twenty yards from the building when I notice a new light, powerful, blooming, and a taunting baby blue, just like an indoor swimming pool with the lights turned on at night. It's about a mile away to our left and behind me. Sam hasn't noticed it, and it definitely just turned on, out of nowhere.
It's getting close, too, heading right for us. And I can tell it's underwater.
"Sam, hurry!" I shout, but that was a mistake. It causes him to look around and notice the speeding glow. It's the general area of a small house and looks exactly like how the water glowed and sparkled when Drew and I went to the beach, and Mr. Lye revealed whatever he really was. "Stay away from it!"
It's a person, rising to the surface and waving. In the glow all around, I can see the kicking legs and treading arms. It's Ms. Collins, I think, but completely naked. She's closer to me than Sam, so I'm able to see what happens next very well.
Imagine a basketball with a small hole cut out of it, and then turning the material inside-out through that hole. That is what I witness, but for a human being. Through what I guess is a hole in her back, just like Mr. Lye's arm from last time, her empty, rubbery form shifts, shrinks, and crunches inward, then bulged out from the same point and reemerges as the other form, the one kept on that inner side. The body changes, grows, droops, and shrinks in different places, and perfectly takes on the nude appearance of Mr. Lye instead.
If not for my mind knowing I had to keep above water, I may have passed out from seeing it. In either case, I scramble to take the pliers out from my bra. I need a weapon. This thing, however, zips through the water like a shark, completely passing me and heading for Sam.
"Mr. Lye?" Sam asks once the figure returns to ordinary human swimming. But then it's too late. The thing knew Sam would trust Lye more than Collins, and it only needed that extra second of trust. Sam is ensconced in the azure glow, and his fully lit clothes froth with red bubbles, but do not dissolve. His hands, however, churn with red ink and he says the only word he can think to.
I'm coming, Sam. I'll kill this thing. I don't care if I get half my body dissolved in the process. I swore I would protect you.
I'm entering the glow myself when Sam sinks, head fully under, the human equivalent of a red upset stomach tablet dropped into a glass of water. He leaves a scummy gunk bobbing and splitting over the surface that diffuses the light. All that remains after a dissolution, and probably what remained of Cassie. He keeps sinking, glowing by himself, and more of the water is spreading this sparkling, almost verdant shine. I am swimming in acid, flakes of skin flapping and loosening off my legs as they kick up a storm. I think back to one time when I saw a chef scale a fish on TV.
My mind remains simple and slow as I tear through the burning water, desperate to keep my head up and not let it burn my eyes, and I bump my forehead, bringing a splash of color at my closed eyelids. I'm at the building. I stab down with the pliers. The glass breaks in one hit, and I'm surging forward, into a place without water, and then I'm slammed into something and lose consciousness.
I'm awakened by a confused tangle of nerve signals, my body telling me "Don't move" at max volume. It's a bit pointless, though. I don't think I can move anyway.
I'm lying on my back. I'm not in water, but my body is wet, and in such extreme, itching agony that I can only perceive it in little places at a time. Even preparing myself to move a muscle is agony, probably because most of my muscles are no longer protected by skin.
I can't see. I'm blinded. The water got to my eyes. In fact, I don't have eyelids anymore. When I try to move them, nothing happens. There is no distinction between open and closed eyes and no way to blink.
"Can you speak?" someone asks above me. It's Ms. Collins. I'm not entirely blind, and I recognize her presence through a soft green patch at the bottom right corner of my 'vision'. "Go ahead and try to talk. I don't think you inhaled or swallowed any of the Noctiluca."
"Sam..." I'm so weak, every word takes a concerted effort.
"I'm afraid he's dissolved now. I've carried you to the roof of this building, like you wanted. Then I'll toss you down. The water's not going to stop rising, but I prefer to end this as soon as we're done talking."
"Why... did you take me here?"
"Because it would be anticlimactic for you to simply die after getting knocked out."
Is this monster seeking entertainment out of us? If so, for whom? Itself, or another?
"What are you?"
"The end of your story. That's as far as I need to explain it."
A pause. "What do you mean, why? I'm about to kill you, feed you to the Noctiluca. What good is there in explaining things to someone right before they die?"
"Isn't... that... anticlimactic?"
Collins snorts. "That's why I love you, Mellie. You always have something witty when it counts."
So then, this thing doesn't realize that I'm the same person as last time. It doesn't know that I've held my memories of the past. Yes, everything with Drew, that was not a dream. That was another... world. And I remember it.
Will I die here, wake up in bed again, and replay these two weeks in another version of the world? Remembering what happened last time and in this time? Though I hate myself for it, I welcome death. It's nothing more than a chance to hit rewind, in this case.
"Are you really Collins?"
"No. As you might have guessed, I take on the appearance of those I've killed, with certain limits."
"What are you, really?"
"I don't feel like telling you. It hurts, and there's no point. I've explained, over and over. But with each new branch, everyone is reset, including you. Trust me, it's better that you don't know. I'm saving both of us from that."
"How do I stop this?" I ask, then my underside is scraping, skinless, on the concrete as Collins drags me by what little hair I have left. "Please! How do I bring things back to normal?"
"Shh. It's okay, Mellie. Things will go back to normal, right now. You won't even remember any of this."
That's where you're wrong. The knowledge pumps one final bit of adrenaline, helping my half-dissolved jaw muscles crack out a few more words before my kidneys collapse.
"Leave me alone," I tell her. "I'm sorry if I did anything wrong. Just stop torturing me."
"This is for your own good. See you in the next branch."
A bare foot rolls me over the side of the roof, and I fall, landing in the water after only a second. I see nothing but white, hear none of the sounds associated with being underwater. What remains of my flesh rejoins with Sam.
When I wake up in my bed on a sunny morning, I don't scream. The sun creates four hot squares on my midsection from the window. Feeling things is all new and still losing its novelty. Skin, smells, sights, tastes, sounds. Living. The massive, fully-body pain is mostly gone, though a phantom remains.
I'm not surprised by any of it, not even when I reach over and check the date on my phone.
Friday, May 11