A Tourist Again was the most heavily consumed piece of writing I've published on this website in its almost 20 years of existence. Thank you all so much for your interest, it has meant the world to me and has inspired me to continue with my little experiment in minimalist editing, straight-from-my-brain-to-your-eyes storytelling.
I announced last month that my next free, serialized story would be about a trio of hoarders in constant competition throughout the thrift and consignment communities of Southern Maine. And while that will come eventually (and is being written now), I was hit with an idea a couple weeks ago that I simply could not wait to jump into. The result is a 25,000 word short story called Forgetmenot that I'll release over the next ten weeks on earlyorke.com. I've included a very brief synopsis below.
In the not-so-distant future an app developer called Prizm holds an unbreakable monopoly over the communications industry as their flagship app, Forgetmenot, grants the already distracted people of earth the ability to text the dead. Years on, Forgetmenot has carried humanity into a new age of enlightenment, one where the spiritual plane is just another firewall and many of the questions that left us fearing the unknown have been answered. Most of them. There are still rules that govern those we've lost, and one of them stands unbroken above all others.
The murdered are at best quiet, at worst completely silent for all of eternity. Those who speak won't so much as acknowledge the tragic circumstances of their deaths, let alone discuss them in detail. No, those who've died tragically have been unflinching in keeping their business to themselves... until now
As a kid you tend to operate with this odd imperviousness to death. Climbing trees without a thought to the distance between yourself and the ground, collecting rock-dwelling ocean life as the Atlantic tries to sweep you out to sea, building snow forts that could easily collapse, pressing the air from your lungs and leaving you buried. Many of us grow up looking back and wondering how we’d survived it all while others like me grow up in an instant, stripped so suddenly of our innocence that we’re left wondering, so young, not just who we are but who we ever were to begin with.
Three girls went missing in Twisted Oak, Maine in 1993, all of them the daughters of Hadley Broomhill, a transplant from Massachusetts who’d set the gossip circles ablaze for the offense of being a Mormon in Southern Maine. Twisted Oak was no stranger to men with grand, albeit misplaced dreams. Broomhill had been no exception, moving his law firm from Boston to Maine without any apparent explanation. It wasn’t the first time the town had seized upon a soul it might use, and it wouldn’t be the last. His practice was a textbook failure in the years leading up to the summer of ’93 when each of his three children were plucked one-by-one from the world.
I was just a boy that summer, though my 14-year-old self would have insisted I was a man. My time was divided between an under-the-table job my mother had worked out with a produce shop in downtown Ogunquit and my insatiable interest in the opposite sex. The former would see me up at 5:00 and on my bike, speeding through the damp early morning air to fold newspapers and scrub muffin trays for the neighboring bakery. The latter brought me to the beach on all days where the weather was agreeable. Though I failed to attract even a single look from the girls my age visiting Ogunquit that summer, I felt more free than ever in my life, mostly because it got me away from my best friend (soon to be my former best friend) two towns north in Twisted Oak. His name is one I think of every single day of my life.
Owen Steadpool. Sounds so innocent, doesn't it?
We’d made fast enough friends in the early years of grade school where personalities tended to develop in earnest. Over the years we grew inseparable, acting out the same lines – all of them meticulously memorized – from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show on the playground and after school. I was always Michelangelo, which would have prompted serious argument in most kid circles, but even then Owen was already showing signs of being… different. He always wanted to be the villainous Shredder. Without fail. In fact, he played the bad guy in every one of our games.
Over the years we became permanent fixtures in each other’s homes. When one of us got a new CD boombox with power bass and turbo skip protection, the other always got the same thing in short order. We shared the same bands, movies, TV shows… all of it. But as age carried us toward those ever critical teenage years, our individual interests diverged in ways that left me struggling to cope.
Like the day I arrived at his house and he was all quiet on the steps, just staring off. The gray siding of his parents’ tree-crowded cape matched the subdued color of a sky threatening snow. I had a Penthouse magazine in my backpack I’d stolen from my grandfather (the same one I speak with regularly to this day, but I’ll get to that later) and I was dying to show him all the boobs and ass I’d already perused back home. The magazine was halfway out of my backpack even as my mother was still backing her blue Pontiac down the long dirt driveway.
“Dude, I stole one of my grandfather's – what’s wrong?”
He was so thoroughly lost in himself that he didn’t so much as shift when I settled next to him, ready to talk him through the worst as friends were expected to do. Well, my definition of worst has changed frequently over the years, all starting on that day as I took in the sight of my best friend gazing dejectedly at the ground, his freckled cheeks and eyes swollen from the tears.
It wasn’t his parents getting a divorce or his grandmother dying or normal earth-shattering kid stuff. No, when I finally talked him into showing me what was wrong, barely drawing an intelligible word out of him in the process, I was unknowingly on a course toward something my young mind could never have considered. As Owen led me out into the woods behind his house to the spot where we’d built a small fort in our younger years, a place we hadn't visited since a couple summers back, anxiety had my stomach folding over on itself.
There an image was seared into my mind that I’ll never banish, no matter how hard I try. It has come to help define me as a person in all the worst ways. Childhood is so fragile, the mind is constantly developing and it's ripe for seeds of what would become known in popular culture as PTSD to be planted. My mind didn’t break that day, but the seed that would break it was definitely planted.
On the dirt floor of our fort, fringed by the leavings of our youth (candy wrappers, old action figures, comic books) was the mutilated corpse of the Steadpool family dog, Bones. I gazed upon it only long enough to see it for what it was, yet the image is my clearest memory. Even at 40, I still see it sometimes when I close my eyes, how crudely the flesh on the dog’s chest had been divided to reveal what waited beneath. Years later I'd come to see it for what it was, exploratory surgery, but prior to that cold New England afternoon I hadn't yet been exposed to the horrors of the world... the real life monsters that are often so much worse than those in the stories.
Every patch of the Shelty’s formerly white fur was stained red.
- - -
Were it not for Owen collapsing in my arms, crying like a baby, I would have turned around and ran and never looked back. Not until I was home anyway. But instead I stayed with my friend and we worked through our feelings together. We buried the dog and never spoke of it again. Owen went mostly back to the boy he was, and for a time things were normal. This was a couple years before that pivotal final half of 1993 in Twisted Oak. That was the summer I asked to stay with Gram and Bamp, if only to get away from Owen.
It was the things he started to say, the observations he began to voice. The summer of ’92 had been our last together. Though the disparity in our interests was already as wide as the Grand Canyon, I’d still try to get him to ogle girls with me as they walked past in Kennebunkport. Owen’s responses were always so detached and clinical. His unintended catchphrase for the summer remains with me to this day: everyone looks the same under all that skin. As his musings grew more and more graphic, my excuses to avoid hanging out with him grew more elaborate.
As we approached 14, we saw less and less of each other. With the summer of '93 I became consciously aware of how much better my life was without him, and I considered asking Gram and Bamp if I could live with them full time. I'd had an entire summer of my grandmother waiting on and cooking for me and my grandfather praising me for the stories I'd write at work and hand off to him each evening. It was the happiest I've ever been or ever would be again. I knew they'd say yes if I asked. They wouldn't even think twice about it.
But I didn’t ask. Not then anyway. It all came down to the simple, one word question my mother and grandparents would ask upon my request: why?
I couldn’t tell my mother or Gram & Bamp about Owen’s… weirdness. Nobody even knew about the dog, and our parents had stopped keeping touch around the time we entered junior high. Even when that odd part of me that expressed the most unacceptable truths insisted that Owen was responsible for the widely reported Broomhill disappearances, I still couldn’t force the reality of the situation upon myself. I was a kid for Christ’s sake. Getting in trouble through association is a constant, universal concern.
Looking back now, I was so silly. That’s the only word I can marry to it. Silly. If I’d changed my silly little mind and told my parents about the silly psychopathic urges my friend had acted upon without me around that summer to reign him in, he’d still be alive. He’d be institutionalized, but he’d still be alive, and I might not be living a life peppered with weekly therapy sessions and a very, very unhealthy view of humanity as a whole.
But I didn’t tell anyone what I suspected about Owen. When I returned home to Twisted Oak and the news of the summer was drilled into me at the dinner table with the usual warnings about stranger danger, I found it impossible to convince myself that Owen hadn’t abducted and killed those girls. As if this wasn’t enough to live with, I also engaged for the first time in what would become a lifelong practice of blaming myself for everything. In my mind I was just as responsible for those deaths, and as the weather cooled and leaves began their earthward spirals, I reached the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore.
I spent the entire first month of our freshman year at Rysher Memorial in Twisted Oak trying to figure out how I’d take care of Owen. There were two particular methods that I wouldn’t consider, the first being to simply come clean with my parents about what I suspected. This idea was always trailed by the most exotic nightmares of gang rape in prison, among other colorful end scenarios. No, to tell the truth was not an option for 14-year-old me, which left the second method, one that didn’t occur to me until an unseasonably frigid October brought 18 inches of snow well before it was due.
That was the day I invited my friend over to build a snow fort, something he agreed to with his usual muted enthusiasm despite the fact that we were well past fort-building age. I’ve often read in my adult life about psychopaths and sociopaths exhibiting some flavor of mental retardation. If Owen had lived past age 14 he might have gone the rest of his days living with the mind of a child. But as I said, that day I finally found my out, the one option that a normal teenage mind was almost incapable of considering, and one wholly appropriate for one such as my friend: