Gram was fiddling with an arrangement of hibiscus and lilac at the window. The narrow two foot vase she’d placed the flowers in was one of extra special antique variety. I’d been destined to break it in a spectacular mess of green stained glass since childhood but never gotten around to it.
I wasn’t sure at first if she’d heard the door, but seeing as she was still hunched forward with her back to me, it was clear she hadn’t. The fraying hem of a nighty she’d rotated in and out of her wardrobe since I was small lifted over slim calves embossed with varicose veins. Outside the picture window the Ogunquit River flowed inland, unhurried, flanked by dunes threaded with hardy ocean grass. The grass was frozen in windswept form atop hillocks running the periphery of the dunes. Beyond, the Atlantic sat beneath a gray slab of sky.
Gram’s phone dinged as I was about to speak. It was her usual ringtone for Bampy’s messages, a xylophonic jingle loud enough to pierce the silence of a 2am slumber from two rooms away. It reminded me of the old NBC jingle.
I watched her stop partway between positioning a pinkish hibiscus bloom between leaf-garnished bunches of lilac. It didn’t matter what she was doing, she always stopped immediately for Bampy. She reached for the phone so quickly, however, that her elbow brushed against the lip of the vase, sending it to the floor. It shattered at her feet in a splash of water peppered with green antique glass. Not that Gram seemed to notice as she took her phone in-hand, her slippered feet grinding shards into the hardwood.
She rotated toward me, smiling as her thumbs navigated the onscreen keyboard with teenage prowess. The rigid, silver curls of her perm shifted back and forth on her head as her smile broadened. The iconic tone of a Forgetmenot message being sent (a single, low dong that always reminded me of the chime from a grandfather clock) filled the room. Her gaze lifted.
“Eddy,” she said, regarding me with the same indifference she showed the vase, a priceless heirloom suddenly and inexplicably downgraded to junk in a world that, for all its faults, had finally come to understand that nothing came with you when you died. “I got a text from your mother today.”
My mother was, unfortunately, still alive.
“She said there was an accident in Twisted Oak out by the blueberry plains – you know, near the fairgrounds—”
“I know Gram,” I interrupted, already annoyed with the world in general.
“The Steadpool parents,” she started before a series of chirps had her back on her phone, typing away. All conversation halted as it so frequently did nowadays.
But the name stuck with me just the same. As did the way she identified them, not simply as the Steadpools, but the Steadpool parents. Also known as Owen’s parents. From a far off corner in my mind I could hear Owen’s muffled voice crying out as hundreds of pounds of snow pressed the air from his lungs.
“Head-on collision,” she said suddenly, the phone lowering to her hip where she tapped against its ruggedized case. “Almost feel bad for them, but anyone who drinks enough at that age to fall asleep at the wheel…” She was going to say they deserved it, but thoughts like that weren’t vocalized so much anymore. “They’re in a better place now anyway.”
This had never been confirmed; the dead didn’t speak of their situation. It was one of many odd rules the dead operated under. There was no explanation when it came to any of these rules. When pressed, the dead went silent. If pressed too much, they never spoke again. This wasn’t exactly great for Prizm’s business model when it came to Forgetmenot. The only way they could battle it was to catalogue every existential question that might drive those on the other side, aka their bread-and-butter, and list them as “Do Not Ask’s” at the top of the app’s Support menu.
There were also rules that apparently governed whom the dead could speak to. The oddest and seemingly most iron-clad rule in the book was that the murdered will never reach out to their killers. Not ever. This always made me think of Owen.
“Your mom reminded me you were friends with their boy. The one who died. She says maybe now theie blackout will end.”
I was ready to come back at her with a how the shit did you forget a boy died at my house kind of response, but her mentioning of Owen’s blackout immediately snagged my attention. Blackouts were legal impositions that parents, guardians, and those with the ever-coveted (and now rigidly impossible to obtain) power of attorney were granted the rights to black out contact with their loved ones. This happened less and less frequently in a time where parents could now cope easier with the loss of a child by reaching out across the ethereal plane, but Prizm touted itself as a humanistic organization before anything else, so they kept the option in place.
Gram was already back on her phone when I emerged from my thoughts. While she tapped away at another in what probably amounted to hundreds of messages per day to my grandfather, she said as an afterthought: “Have you checked the database to see if he’s live?”
Hearing Gram use and understand words like database felt unnatural, yet here we were in a world where the elderly finally had incentive to adopt technology. I sighed and offered a shrug, pivoting toward my bedroom as the clouds whitewashed the world with that bright-ish springtime drear.
Yes. I’m 38 and live with my grandmother.
“I’ll probably check later.” And maybe I would, but there was just one problem: the murdered didn’t speak to their killers, and unknown to everyone in the world aside from Owen Steadpool, I was his murderer.
- - -
Forgetmenot maintained a comprehensive database of unclaimed souls and blackout entries. They referred to it in a very utilitarian way as the Compendium. Just how names appeared there was a trade secret that Prizm guarded above all others, but it was free to peruse by anyone with an active subscription. There you could scroll past names like William Shakespeare and Samuel Clemens, who’d been available and waiting to talk to us since Forgetmenot’s launch but remained locked out as legal ownership over them was duked out by rival corporations in court. Other souls were more fortunate, like Whitney Houston and Elvis Presley, who collaborated frequently with modern musicians. They just happened to have been purchased by entities who made them public domain. Others were owned by Prizm and used as an incentive to subscribe.
Tonight Only! Stanley Kubrick Live Texts to The Shining!
H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe invite you to a group event to discuss their new collaboration with Dean Koontz!
Disputed entries almost always have their names ringed in gold or silver – gold representing a corporate dispute and silver a family affair. Blackouts were displayed in translucent, serif font, and whenever they were released the names would pulse ethereal blue. Those that appeared in green were available to claim (something for which an entire monitoring and bartering industry had sprung up outside of Prizm’s legal control), though a meaningful attachment must first be proven. In most cases it just amounts to a blood test.
There's also the rare case when a soul on the other side specifically requests a link with a living counterpart. The dead, you see, aren’t simply left hanging in the lurch and waiting for family to reach out with no other options. Though their overarching motivations are cryptic at best, the dead are perfectly capable of reaching out on their own if they so desire. Such requests supposedly came as a greeting and solicitation to establish direct communication.
You had better odds at hitting the lottery and snapping a picture of Bigfoot on the same day than receiving a Bond Request from someone on the other side.
- - -
I dropped the messenger bag on my bed as the sounds of Bampy’s ringtone continued to poke through the otherwise silent house. I had yet to hear a broom sweeping up the spilled glass.
From my bag came a light flutter of loose pages as my manuscript spilled onto the comforter. As I paused to consider it, a needling disappointment settled like the vague memory of a feeling. I had been in hopes that Dr. Shakes would take it, perhaps read it over and offer me some kind of validation. It's not like I was getting it from anyone at home or at work.
I’m not a depressive, but I’m also not the place people come to be cheered up or hear a good joke. Still, the last few months had been dark for me, one bad turn after another. I wanted to see enthusiasm from Maureen. I wanted to see enthusiasm from anyone, really. I just needed one tiny thing to go right.
But my doctor had instead reminded me to collect the loose manuscript from her table as I tried to leave it behind. She didn’t even watch me collect it. The woman was already transcribing her notes from the legal pad into her desk slate.
As I looked over the manuscript in that moment, the world around me seeming to pale and the shrieking noises from Gram’s phone growing muted, I couldn’t help thinking how coincidental it was that I’d finished it now. Owen Steadpool featured prominently in the story, though renamed. How wild was it that his parents would die in a car crash just as I was preparing to edit his book for submission to literary agents?
Images of Owen’s dog Bones carved open and left in the grass played across my mind’s eye. I could see Owen’s face, how drained he looked in every possible way. It wasn’t until I’d launched my Forgetmenot app, perched half undressed at the foot of my bed, that I realized I’d already found his name in the Compendium.
My gaze clarified on the name and I let loose a long sigh. It was still grayed out and translucent.
As my attention moved back to the manuscript, I collected the spilled papers and removed the rest from the bag, bringing everything into order on my lap. I breathed another long sigh. It was better that Owen stay unreachable. I didn’t need the temptation to try and use him for my book, regardless of the fact that the murdered never reach out to their killers.
I spent the next couple hours going over my story with my favorite red pen. Only a couple times did my thoughts stray to Owen, and each time I found myself successfully lured back to my creative work. When I was done and the pale face of a waxing moon, nearly full, poked up over the Atlantic outside my window, I stepped into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, considered the five unread messages I had from Bampy, then dropped my phone onto its charging pad without opening it.
- - -
Work was a seasonal restaurant in one of Ogunquit’s most beloved tourist spots, Perkin’s Cove. While still an operating port for the fisher- and lobstermen of the area, the boats moored and bobbing in the placid harbor were the frequent subject of photographers and painters alike. The channel that connected the cove to the Atlantic was spanned at its throat by an iconic white drawbridge while myriad specialty shops catering mostly to nautical-themed souvenirs sprawled around a one lane road.
Summer wasn’t here yet, but springtime always saw me returning early with the rest of the lifers at The Chowder Pot to get the restaurant cleaned and unpacked for the season. This was actually my favorite part of the job, when the Cove was almost entirely dead and clueless Boomers didn’t walk up to me every five minutes asking for directions.
I started at The Chowder Pot when I was 14, and for a decade Mom and Gram referred to it as my summer job. I knew even after my junior year of high school that I’d be a lifer at the restaurant. Once I’ve found a situation that meets my comfort standards I rarely give it up. Of course, I didn’t go around bragging that I worked at a glorified summer job seven months of the year while smoking pot and taking shots by the dumpsters. My pride was tickled a little when, at age 28, my grandmother pointed out that I’d spent half my life there.
So it goes.
It was two days after hearing the news about Owen’s parents that the notification arrived on my phone. I was sitting at the edge of a black rock as the foaming ocean climbed and retreated down a pebbled beach before me. A roach burned in my lips with a single trail of smoke lifting and curling in the unseasonably still seaside air. The jingle that came with the notification was one I’d never heard before, the two-tone ding-dong of an old fashioned doorbell, though deeper… more ominous.
I blinked the smoke from my eyes and drew a long, final tug off the joint before considering what remained and dropping it into the surf. My legs swaying before me, and the voices of my coworkers already clamoring with back-at-work chatter behind me, I considered the notification for the space of a microsecond before the world itself dulled around me.
Owen Steadpool Would Like to Bond!
The phone started to slip from my fingers, but I caught it before it could fall and shatter on the rocks. Elevated voices uttered my name far off and away, but they were dulled by the firewall my mind had erected.
Though the dead have the option to make bond requests, it occurred so rarely that many considered it a myth.
“Edward!” My boss’s voice registered through the haze as playful, but only a part of me heard it. “Edward Duggery! Dug! We’re gettin’ back at it!”
I was on my feet before I realized it, teetering at the edge of my rock as the water churned beneath me. My gaze fell to my phone, which I held out as if ready to drop it into the sea. It seemed my first instinct was to throw the phone away, but this thought didn't linger long. A static buzz of what I first thought was anxiety spread through me, and I quickly acknowledged it for what it was: excitement.
This was my break. This was my out. This was where the world would make things right and my luck would finally turn.
Bond Requests were so rare that when they did happen it created a media frenzy worse than a scandal with the British Royals. Since Forgetmenot’s inception half a decade earlier there had only been five or six. Not only was this something I could use to draw attention to my writing, it was also something I could use in my actual book. With every year that marched me deeper into my thirties, I'd watched my dreams lose their luster, I'd watched them pale out until I no longer recognized them.
In that moment I watched the color return to my life. I felt the fires of purpose lighting in me.
The only thing I neglected to consider in that moment – the queen mother of things, really – was the fact that the murdered never reached out to their killers. Unlike reverse Bond Requests, it had never happened. Never.
My boss’s voice was joined by others, all of them summoning me away from the ocean. Finally reality poked through the clouds hanging over my mind, and I turned to find the whole crew gazing at me from the patio dining section. Without thinking I shoved the phone into my pocket.
“Weed break is over, kid,” Steve the kitchen manager said. “You ready to run some more plywood to the storage unit? Don't make me come over there and show you what I did to the last guy who ignored me.” His ever-present smile told me he was kidding around, but his tone suggest he was only half-kidding.
For the time being I was able to forget about Owen, about Forgetmenot, but my relationship with that app was about to change forever. Without another thought to the dead, I climbed the rocks back to the parking lot and went back to work.