“Hi, Acorn,” the Leaf mewed cheerfully, but the sound was compressed in its throat.

The next things to happen were beyond his belief: the kit suddenly collapsed to the floor, and then began to shrivel. It was as if all of the fluid was being sucked out of them.

He jumped up and tried to grab onto the cat with his forepaws, as if he could somehow prevent this horrible action from happening, but it was quickly starting to lift off of the ground, as if pulled by a string. That’s when he saw it – a thin brown appendage, attached to its back. He could imagine easily that this was where the fluid was rising into, like some sort of horrible straw.

His eyes traced the length of the limb, and eventually landed on Bark.

A wild-looking canine with several branches coming out of it, extending out and to the sides.

Bark was no longer the lithe black tom he once knew.

Acorn said the only question he could pull together out of the collective soup that his mind had been reduced to over the past few loops: “Why?”

They stared at him, silently at first. They licked their chops, and then they lifted a single paw to point at them. “You should have tried harder.”

That’s bullshit, he wanted to say. But he just sat down and said “I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter. The rest of the Leaves finished their rites, and now they’re on their way to graduating.”

In that moment, Acorn finally realized that he was an acorn, not a leaf. It did not matter how hard he tried, because he would never have belonged in the first place.

And as that realization fell into place, something in his head began to hurt terribly.

“That’s bullshit,” Cornflower said. Acorn recoiled in horror – Cornflower had never spoken in front of another before, at least not as far as he had ever known. But it continued: “I tried my fucking hardest.”

“Don’t use that tone with me,” Bark growled, and then walked closer. Acorn could smell the rotting drool as it splashed against the grass; the stench overpowered the smoke in the distance.

“Fuck you.”

Bark’s eyebrows raised. “You think you’re cute? We’ve done this before. You know what’s going to happen here.”

Cornflower was shocked to hear that Bark had recollection of their previous loop together. “Then you know I’m just going to keep trying,” it said, though it felt like it was bluffing, and it was starting to shake.

As Bark and Cornflower fought, Acorn’s eyes (the only part of his body he could control at this point) drifted lower. He saw something that sent a chill through him – Bark’s legs were beginning to melt together into a single mass. It was like they didn’t even notice, as they kept talking.

“You know fully well that you will never be one of us,” Bark snarled. Then their entire body contorted and spasmed in a way that made Acorn feel sick to his stomach. It looked like new muscles were growing in their skin, fighting with the old ones. Their skin was calcifying right in front of him.