“Thought you’d cry out,” Broomhill hissed, stirring the leaves with the toe of a boot. “Then again, animals like you don’t tend to feel things the same way, do you?”
I could feel his eyes on me, hating me. I was vaguely aware of the pain in my leg and the warmth of blood on my hands, but I couldn’t bring myself to lift my gaze from his feet.
Broomhill let the rifle talk for him next. My gaze lifted to his filth dusted hands as he worked the bolt, chambering another round with a stomach turning click-click. Fire bloomed in my knee as I recoiled, making it maybe a foot toward the Japanese maple before realizing I had use of only one leg.
Hadley Broomhill leveled the rifle with my chest, the barrel slowly sinking toward my crotch. “We’ll see if you cry out this time,” he said. His tone warned of torture.
“Wait!” My hands gripped the bulge of my jeans as if they might somehow stop a bullet. Again I tried to kick backward and away with one of my legs little more than a phantom limb. Hadley didn’t move, but the mouth of his rifle stayed on target as I shifted another two feet or so, dragging my bloody leg through the leaves. When a few seconds passed without a shot, I brazenly stole a glance at his grizzled face, seeing a mixed cocktail of exhilaration and agony in his eyes. There was clearly conflict there.
“I know who you are—”
He jerked the rifle upward so suddenly that I didn’t have time to react, not that it would have mattered. Even before the crack of the rifle gave way to a hollow ringing in my ears, I felt the hot impact of the bullet in my left shoulder. The force of it drove me to the ground on my back, and this time I did cry out as Hadley Broomhill wanted. I cried out so loudly and so long that the sound of my own shrill voice soon overpowered the ringing, and even then I didn’t recognize it as my own. It only stopped briefly as I drew in a fresh breath of air, the world smelling and tasting of gunpowder.
“Where are they?” Broomhill asked. The rifle was back resting on his arm. His eyes worked to drill themselves into mine.
What I thought were words must have emerged as gibberish because his face quickly scrunched into a portrait of waning patience. A couple of twitches separated by a second or two crossed the man’s face as though a mild electrical current had been applied. Then all at once he took the rifle in both hands again and lifted it, barrel toward the sky, over his head.
“Wait!” I cried again, catching the mania in his eyes only briefly before stars exploded and blackness filled the void.
- - -
The sound of crackling fire registered before the pain in my face, shoulder, and knee. My first thought was that I was off camping with Bampy even though it had been decades. For a moment it felt all too real, and as my eyes opened and peered through the enveloping darkness, I expected to hear Bampy’s voice retelling all those old gut-busters he’d heard that the barber shop. The forest floor lay vertical before me. I’d been sleeping on my side. Framed in the orange glow of a small campfire was the thin silhouette of…
I struggled to sit up as the truth of the situation washed over me. Hadley Broomhill sat by the fire, his emaciated form exactly what one would expect from a man who’d suffered so long. I couldn’t help pitying him despite the circumstances.
It was as I placed a little too much weight on my left arm that the pain in my shoulder drove me back into the leaves, unable to stifle the yelp that escaped me. As I blinked tears from my eyes and the watery form of Hadley Broomhill clarified once more, I noted the change in his posture, how rigid he was now that he knew I was awake.
Broomhill’s shoulders rose and fell as he took a deep breath. “The worst is still to come for you.” He spoke as though addressing the fire. Above us the light reflected off the waxy varnish of a million red leaves, indistinguishable from batwings as they fluttered in the wind.
My mind was awhir with colliding thoughts, but I worked quickly to find clarity. I had to if I was going to get out of whatever this was alive. More than anything, as my survival instincts kicked into gear, I wanted to message Owen. There was obviously some horrible (grave) misunderstanding, and Owen could almost certainly clear it up.
“Mr. Broomhill, I—”
“So you do know who I am. Big surprise.”
I didn’t say what first came to mind, that everyone who lived in Twisted Oak circa 1993-94 knew who he was. The worst tragedies made celebrities of those left in their wake..
“I remember seeing you on the news as a kid. That’s all.”
His back still turned, he spoke again to the fire, “Oh, I’m sure you were following it, Mr. Duggery. I’m sure you followed it very closely.”
The pain in my shoulder had subsided just enough for me to prop myself up with a greater degree of care. I gazed up and down my broken body in the flickering firelight, wanting to throw up at the sight of the dark patches in my clothing.
“June. July. August.” Hadley’s voice was the soft whisper of a wraith. His words emerged in a drawl, rolling flavorlessly off his tongue like a speech rehearsed too many times. “Danielle. Monica. Amy.” He left the names hanging there beneath the ancient tree for a moment as I chose silent reverence over engaging with him further.
If I had any chance at survival it was in not further agitating this man.
“We barely had Danny’s picture up before Monica went missing,” he said, voice barely loud enough over the crackling fire. Hadley produced what I first thought was his rifle from somewhere in the shadows around him, but as he used the object to stir the coals I realized it was just a poking stick. “June used to be my favorite month of the year. It’s my birth month…” his voice filled quickly with hatred, “as you probably know.”
I didn’t know this. I knew very little about this man, despite his apparent belief otherwise. Still, I said nothing.
“Caught my wife with a bottle of gin the second week of July. She’d locked our youngest daughter, Amy inside her room and was sitting against the door crying with the bottle in her hand while our girl pleaded to be let out. I thought she was going crazy. The truth is we both were. After I put her to bed and went in to check on Amy I found nails of all shapes and sizes from my workshop driven into the windows. I pulled every one of them while my little girl… my last little girl clung to me, terrified of her mother and what she’d done. She was only four. She didn’t understand.” His tone darkened further, going so black and thick with hateful intent that I could almost feel the weight of his emotions as his voice washed over me. “What a joke Heavenly Father had to play on me… making sure my pain was made as exotic as possible in making me pull those nails only to find my girl gone in the night, her window open…”
I wanted to ask if there had been police outside his house. I wanted to press him on why he hadn’t slept on her floor or even in her bed if he was so concerned. But I didn’t, thinking that if I didn’t engage him I would live to see my work with Owen completed and my book published.
Nothing else mattered.
“How did you do it?” Hadley asked after I’d been lost in my head for a bit.
I had no way of knowing how long I’d been zoning out, but it didn’t take long for his meaning to hit. All at once everything since I’d found the tree made sense. I struggled to draw breath as anxiety flared in my chest, seizing my heart in its cruel, relentless grip.
“Wait, you think I… you think I…”
I couldn’t say it. You think I murdered your daughters.
Broomhill pivoted toward me now, his face a slab of stone chiseled with contempt. Somewhere off in the dark an animal shrieked, but the silence of the forest was disturbed no further as we sat there sizing each other up.
“Finish,” he said after a few moments. Like Dr. Maureen Shakes, and then Owen, he wanted me to say it. He wouldn’t supply it for me.
“But I didn’t!” I exclaimed, nearly losing my strength and adjusting the weight on my elbow. I realized that I was trying to scramble toward him in the leaves, as if the gesture somehow made my appeal more convincing. The pain halted me, but my mouth continued to run. “Whatever you think, I didn’t do it! God help me, I’m an innocent man, a nobody!”
He let out a long sigh and reached behind him, not turning away as his hand felt blindly around in the shadows. Soon it emerged holding a long object that caught and reflected the firelight. My body seized with the most crippling dread I’d ever experienced. As Broomhill rose slowly to his feet, he sliced slowly and tauntingly through the air with his knife in a figure eight pattern. He took a couple halting steps toward me, struggling visibly to contain himself.
“I’ve waited years for this. I’d all but given up hope that I’d ever find you—” his steps grew more hurried “—that I’d ever get to show you what it’s been like to live alone for 27 years, surrounded by ghosts.” He paused, seeming to retreat in his mind in a way I knew very well. Wincing, as if the memories playing in there were causing him physical pain, he quickly snapped back toward me, lucid.
“Three decades alone. Lost in myself. My wife jumped into the Piscataqua River a year after the girls… on my birthday…” His gaze sharpened on me, eyes catching the scant moonlight pressing through the canopy above. Even with the obscuring shadows of night I could see it was a hard look, and it made me feel guilty. “They found her body washed up toward Dover. Might as well have had your mark on her just like my babies.” Sniff. “You took everyone I had.”
“Mr. Broomhill, I didn’t—”
In a flash he closed the gap between us and jabbed the tip of the knife toward me. I clenched my eyes shut, not wanting to know where he’d stab me. It wasn’t until several moments passed that I was grounded by the soft crackle of the fire. I wasn’t dead. There was no pain. Slowly, I opened my left eye and my gaze sharpened on the tip of Hadley’s knife. It was so close that my lashes brushed against it as I blinked in disbelief. The blade didn’t so much as bob as Hadley moved into a crouch, now level with me and staring me down over its glinting edge.
“No more lies,” he said. “You don’t get to talk your way out or appeal to my better angels – you took them from me twenty-seven years ago. This is your penance, Mr. Duggery. I hope I can help you reflect properly on what you’ve done.” The knife came down and away, but Broomhill’s eyes told me that my situation was far from improved. His face was siphoned of all emotion, and for what felt like minutes he just stared me down like a lost old man gazing out to sea. Then all at once that odd current seemed to ripple through him, and he was on his feet and stepping over me, toward the edge of the forest.
I went to roll around but was met with an explosion of needles in my shoulder. Reflexively, I rolled back and tried to angle my head so I could watch Broomhill in my peripherals. There was pain everywhere now, including my neck as I frantically tried to put eyes on Twisted Oak’s latest psychopath.
A hand clapped onto my forehead, and I was jerked suddenly backward. I don’t know if I cried out or hyperventilated or was on the verge of passing out in shock, but I struggled to catch my breath as twin images swirled above me. As their orbits slowly drew them together my disorientation evaporated and I was left in the lap of Hadley Broomhill, an oily hand pressed to my forehead and a cold blade biting into the rippled cartilage of my throat.
I made to swallow, then feeling the way he pressed the knife harder against my throat, I fought to banish the impulse. Above me, Broomhill smiled down in a way that reminded me of Bampy back when I’d been young enough to sit on his lap. The feeling ate through my anxiety, and for a moment I was at peace.
“Where are they?” His voice was as gentle and welcoming as the smile. With a terse twitch of his head, however, the smile was gone and Broomhill’s eyes were suddenly slinging hatred my way once more. Now speaking in a deep voice that forecasted eventual tears, he asked, “Where are… the rest of them?”
Broomhill leaned in. The edge of his knife was suddenly hot on my throat. The warmth ran down my neck and shoulders.
I was going to die. Hadley Broomhill had the object of all his dark desires these 27 years, and regardless of what he planned to do with me, it ended only one way. I wasn’t going to convince him I was innocent when someone else had already sold him on the idea that I murdered his daughters (and wife by extension). It was a pity I couldn’t take that person’s name with me to the other side, make them a celebrity and haunt them forever through Forgetmenot.
The world dulled around me. The snarling face of Hadley Broomhill was lost in the fuzz along with the waxy firelight reflecting off the leaves above. Time slowed, and as I readied myself for the transition that awaited me, I finally woke up to what Owen had been doing all along. My eyelids beat rapidly, and my hands scuttled up Broomhill’s body, trying to seize his attention as he pressed the blade deeper into my throat.
I heard myself ask, “What did Owen tell you?”
At the uttering of Owen’s name, Broomhill seemed to find his lost control. I watched him cock his head, appraising the work he’d done on my throat. When a sliver of concern crossed his face it came with cooling relief, that is until I realized what he was really worried about, that he’d blacked out and lost control and nearly killed me before he could get on with whatever torture he had planned.
Broomhill’s smile returned, looking out of place beneath lucid eyes. A bloody hand fished about in one pocket after another until it produced a phone. Tapping it to bring up the lock screen, Hadley’s smile stretched wider as he turned the phone around and showed me the familiar picture of Gram and Bampy from when I was a boy. This was my phone. My blood, from Hadley Broomhill’s fingers, was smeared across the smiling face of my grandfather.
“You’ve got messages from your mother and grandmother.” He considered the glowing face of the phone for a moment before shrugging cartoonishly and tossing it into the fire. Embers curled into the air with the smoke, winking out one at a time as beneath them my phone’s screen cracked and the housing melted and the picture of Gram and Bampy flickered and vanished forever.
“Whelp,” Broomhill said with a sigh, “I guess that’s that.”
“Owen is lying to you—”
Broomhill was shaking his head as he lifted the knife back into my field of view for a few seconds. He clicked his tongue a few times and brought the edge of the knife down on my upper lip, pressing the blade to my nose.
I felt the panic flood out of me, and Broomhill acknowledged it with a slow, knowing nod. “Your friend Owen told me exactly where to find—”
He shivered. I felt wet warmth on my lips.
“—where to find most of them.” He shuddered, eyes narrowing as our gazes met. For a moment he looked poised to pull back his hand and punch me, or worse, but instead his rage seemed to devolve into the baseline sadness I’m certain he lived with. “You sick bastard.” His lower lip trembled as his free hand went once more to digging in his pockets, through this time with a more withdrawn, intentional slowness. When he found what he was looking for and held them out to me in the palm of his hand, I understood why.
Three bones, each of them the lower knuckles of a separate index finger. They were nothing more than shadows against the firelight as he held them up one at a time, turning them in his fingers. The knife came away from my face, and I wondered for a moment how much of my nose was left before a flash of light suddenly assaulted my eyes. I went to roll away, finding pain the moment I shifted my body.
“Look, you sick fuck.” Hadley’s hissing voice prompted me to squint against the light, which I found to be coming from his phone and was now directed at the hand holding the bones. Though smudged with my blood, they were still clean enough for me to make out the jagged engravings they shared. Each one was the same, not so much carved into the tiny finger bones but sawed.
My head emptied of thought as though my mind suddenly overloaded and reset itself. Broomhill was talking. His voice slowly found clarity.
“Recognize these?” He punctuated the question by closing his fingers around the bones and slamming his fist down into my gut.
I lurched forward. My entire world was pain.
“I got them just before the Steadpool kid died. What an odd coincidence that the moment he went live on Forgetmenot he reached out and told me where I could find my girls, that he’d followed you there and watched you do it… that you killed him by caving in that snow fort to keep him from telling. So a couple days ago I came to this place for the first time, dug in the leaves behind the tree just like he told me, and I found three smalls sets of bones, each missing a finger.” He blinked tears that fell on my forehead, and when his eyes opened again they were once more burning with rage. “Where’s the rest of them?” I saw the knife for a moment as he took it again, then it vanished. His next words came with palpable difficulty: “Where. Are. Their. Heads?”
I said nothing. There was nothing to say. Whatever Owen had been planning when he took those girls, he’d obviously intended to pin it on me the entire time. Only I’d stopped him before he could really get started, and for a time that had been enough. But now, thanks to the wonders of Prizm’s app, Owen had somehow managed to wrap up his final loose end.
I let go, feeling the odd impulse to smile as I reminded myself that this, or something like it, was one of the outcomes I’d been prepared to face. I’d lost the roll of the dice, and I’d gambled everything on it. Instead of fame and fortune, I was getting the other kind of out on my life, so rather than fight it, I relaxed and let all of Hadley Broomhill’s silent rage flow into me.
I took it all, and in it I found a shred of solace before the walls of reality fell around me, for at least Hadley Broomhill would be getting what he wanted all these years. It would have to be enough. Enough to make up for my wasted life. Enough to compensate me in realizing nobody would ever read my books.
Enough to build every remaining ounce of willpower around this moment so I could carry its memory with me when I left…
- - -
Brianna Steadpool woke in the early hours of Tuesday morning as she always did, first enjoying the warmth of her bed before snatching up the stuffed rabbit she’d slept with all her life and hugging it tightly. She rubbed the tip of her nose against what was left of its cotton tail, drew a long, deep breath, and gathered as many happy thoughts as she could in order to start the day on the right tone.
Naturally, Edward Duggery found his way into her mind, and she smiled up at the ceiling. Their date had been everything she needed in the aftermath of Mom and Dad’s death, the perfect way of welcoming her back to the world after all her years spent taking care of her folks. Now she couldn’t wait to see him again, and lacking a reason to feel guilty for leaving the house, she hoped it would be soon.
It was with this enthusiasm that she remained in bed for an additional five minutes. Her therapist always encouraged her to do things that broke with her rigid routine. He’d be floored when she related just how far she’d gone to that end over the last few days. For once in her life she was optimistic that she’d found a man just as fragile and in need of emotional exploration as she, and it was with those thoughts that she allowed herself to fantasize about other things that might come from a budding relationship.
Like a schoolgirl with a crush, she went about the rest of her morning in a state of hazy detachment. The oxytocin dripped and her chores were such a breeze that she was done before Dad’s cuckoo clock announced noon.
Her stomach rumbled. She’d forgotten all about breakfast, but brunch was an option. Hell, anything was an option now that she was on her own, responsible for only herself. So she made sunny side up eggs in Mom’s cast-iron skillet, debated between sausage or corned beef as she considered her reflection in the window over the sink, and shrugged. She’d diet tomorrow.
She cooked and ate it all.
When she finished eating Brianna washed her dishes, finding that she wasn’t completely impervious to the absence of her parents. At the sight of her single dish in the drying rack she blinked tears down her cheeks.
“At least you’re at peace now,” she whispered to herself, pressing a hand to her chest just under the collarbone in an odd comforting gesture that had stuck with her since youth. When she was done speaking there was no one to answer her in her dark, empty house, but for the first time since the accident, she thought with a building smile that things might soon change in that department.
The dings and dongs of an alert tone she didn’t recognize drew her out of herself and a fantasy of Edward Duggery sitting at her table sipping coffee while she shoveled eggs onto his plate. Blinking against the odd realness of the fantasy, she turned, annoyed at the phone’s interruptions, and stormed into the sitting room to where it lay charging beneath Dad’s old reading lamp.
Maybe I’ll finally get rid of this insufferable virginity, she thought to herself as she conjured up additional situations where she and Edward were seen strolling down the Marginal Way in Ogunquit and becoming regulars at the library because it was their spot. The smile on her face only grew as she glimpsed through these fantasies the normal life that she’d always wanted but never had.
It was with a beaming grin that she plucked her phone from its charging pad and silenced its digital bleating. The same bold, digitally embossed notification appeared several times on the screen as if it was unheard of for someone to miss it the first time. In an instant her mind was wiped of its fantasies of love and a normal life.
The phone fell to the floor, it’s screen flashing “YOU’VE RECEIVED A BOND REQUEST FROM EDWARD DUGGERY!” Brianna Steadpool wasted no time losing consciousness and collapsing beside it.
--Earl Yorke (January to July 2020)