Brianna Steadpool was, to my knowledge, the only surviving member of the Steadpool family and the eldest of their two kids. I’d interacted with her only a handful of times while palling around with Owen. I saw her in the haze of a memory from when I was young, bent over a sink in the bathroom at Owen’s house. I remember telling my friend that his sister had a nice ass, not that I had much expertise in those days (or now, really), and that was about it. We’d never even so much as exchanged more than two words. Yet as I wrapped my shift that day at The Chowder Pot with a throbbing lower back, I was surprised to see a message from her on my phone and was immediately reminded of the odd situation I’d found myself in with Owen and Forgetmenot.
I read the message in my car as I shook the last of my weed into a calabash pipe. It seemed Owen’s decision to send me a Bond Request hadn’t been the only action he’d taken. When paired with the oddness of her delivery, as if we were lifelong friends who spoke every day, I began to wonder if smoking weed was such a great idea if I planned to engage with her.
Brianna: Hi Edward. It's Brianna Steadpool. You were friends with my little brother Owen back in Twisted Oak. Anyway, I hope you’re well. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but my parents were involved in a car crash a few days ago and…
She went on for a few sentences relating what had happened. Most of it had been extensively reported by the local news stations.
Brianna (continued): …Owen’s off blackout. Prizm messaged me as… well, there’s no other way to say it… they messaged me as Mom and Dad came online, I guess.
Brianna (seconds later): Owen sent out two Bond Requests. Prizm actually called me to make sure I received their messages.
Brianna : Did you accept his request?
It made sense that she’d be elevated to account executor now that the Steadpool elders (and presumably the rest of her blood relatives) had passed. She wasn’t even two years older than me. Now she was the matriarch of a one-person family.
I don’t even know how she got my number.
Her next message broke with the assumptive tone of the first three and arrived after a few minutes of me smoking from my pipe and ruminating on everything. It was a cute callback to the days when telephonic spoofing still took place and people were understandably suspicious over everything digital. In the years since Prizm launched Forgetmenot they’d also launched new security standards and algorithms that were miles ahead of everyone else. Now all phone calls and texts were passed through half a dozen layers of seamless fraud detection and encryption systems, effectively eliminating all spoofed calls and messages.
Brianna: This is Edward Duggery, right?
I composed a polite text, bookended with unoffending salutations and deep condolences before proofreading, fixing a few items, and sending it off. Her response came immediately, as if she’d been waiting by her phone for me to text.
Brianna: I’m so glad it’s you. I’m sorry for the suddenness of all this.
Me: It’s fine. Again, I’m so sorry to hear about your parents. They were always so good to me.
Brianna: They had a rough go of it, but they’re in a better place now.
That last part had never been clearly confirmed by anyone living or dead, but I let it go as I did other general assumptions about the dead that people treated as implied truths. Instead, I directed the conversation to its next logical fork, and I found myself marveling at how rapidly and freely her responses came. Like me, she texted in complete sentences with the same structure and punctuation we'd learned in grade school. It showed her age.
Me: That’s so wild about Owen reaching out with Bond Requests. I feel like we should be on the news.
Brianna: WCSH already called. Prizm let it slip *conveniently* that not one but *two* outbound Bond Requests hit in Maine.
Me: Who was the other?
Brianna (for the first time working with a delay): I don’t know if I can say…
So it wasn’t her then, not that it would have been anyway. Account executors automatically had bonded status with the souls they kept. So who else would Owen Steadpool, who died at age 14, have to contact? To my knowledge I was his only friend.
I didn’t respond, instead waiting while I puffed on the last of my pot. The text entry icon appeared on her end. It rose and vanished several times before going away entirely. While I’ve never been the most empathetic person, with her I felt an almost instant connection. Call it kinship, kindred spirits, whatever. This was a person who probably shared all the pain I carried and more.
Me: It’s okay. I shouldn’t have asked something so personal. Have you spoken with him yet?
Again the chat entry indicator rose with its animated text bubbles before a block of blue text rose into the feed.
Brianna: I haven’t.
My first thought: haven’t or can’t? It wasn’t out of the ordinary for loved ones to carry grudges across the spiritual plane. We were all made to believe that the dead were so enlightened simply because they had the nerve to flee their mortal vessels, but it was not too outlandish for an account executor to find loved ones’ names greyed out while others saw them pulsing blue and ready to chat. It wasn’t fair, yet it was just another universally accepted cost of doing business for Prizm, who had wings at their Mindscape campuses for every observable conceivable disorder that might arise from use of their app.
Of course Brianna may have just been too frightened to reach out to Owen. As my mind began to sculpt the personality of this woman, I easily arrived at the conclusion that she wanted to avoid him.
Brianna: I know this is probably out of nowhere, but would you like to grab coffee sometime? I don’t have anyone left I know. It might be nice to catch up with someone else from Twist N’ Choke.
The text entry icon popped up again as her text arrived. Her follow up was hastily banged out and rife with typos, obviously an afterthought. In it she wrote simply: I’m not as much of a mess as my texts imply. I read it a couple times, riding out the apprehension it inspired as I struggled with how to answer. It wasn’t just Brianna. I was like this with all women. Therapists in and out of Mindscape had tried (feebly) to crack the shell of my isolation from the opposite sex, and none had made it any easier for me. How could they when I always omitted the fact that I was a murderer and had been carrying that truth with me my whole life. Withdrawing from the dating world and living with my grandmother was utopic compared with the very real possibility that I could have ended up a vagrant on the street.
Me: Sure! I’ve got some stuff to do for work the next few days, but I’m free on Monday.
On Monday I’d cancel. Probably.
Brianna: Sure. The sooner the better.
Brianna: Have you spoken with Owen yet?
Me (without hesitation): I don’t know that I want to.
It was true that the souls of those who’d died young ended up assuming a more adult consciousness and tone, but texting dead kids was the kind of stuff you’d expect at the beginning of a horror movie, not real life. Yet here we were living in a time when capitalism managed to even get its hooks into the afterlife. I couldn’t think of anything worse than texting with someone who, for all intents and purposes, would be 14 for all of eternity.
Brianna: Will you let me know if you do?
Me: Sure thing.
Now I wanted more than ever to know who the other person was. Who else had Owen tried to contact? As I threw my car into drive and cranked the windows down to vent the smoke, I tossed my phone into the passenger seat and told myself I was better off not accepting Owen’s Bond Request. My best course of action would be to leave what sanity I had left in-tact and not run the risk of making things worse.
And I was all about that plan… until the idea registered that a stop at the liquor store might be a good idea. Four shots of liquid courage later, I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, eying Forgetmenot’s app icon on my phone. Naturally it was a Ouija planchette.
Outside the waves broke on Ogunquit beach as the salt river stole slowly and silently by my window. From two rooms away the bings and bongs of Gram’s phone told me she was still awake at the late hour of 7:30PM and texting with Bampy.
How long had I been staring at the app icon? I’d noticed almost immediately how the icon had changed while debating whether to launch it at the liquor store. Owen’s Bond Request had initiated a system of notifications unlike anything I’d ever seen, and which escalated in severity the longer I avoided it. Now the icon itself pulsed with the same otherworldly blue that wreathed Owen’s name in the Compendium.
I thumbed the app open, watching unsurprised as even the splash screen (which displayed legal notifications over an animated image of parting clouds) pulsed blue. Without any interaction from me the app floated a window over the navigation menu where multiple messages sat unread from Bampy. The window contained a single “Accept” button beneath the words “Owen Steadpool Has Send You a Bond Request!” The tiny “x” in the upper right that would dismiss the message without accepting seemed to occupy a squatter’s space in the app, as if it were unfathomable that anyone would reject an incoming Bond Request.
And I was no different. I pressed the accept button.
- - -
It’s speculated that Prizm itself doesn’t even know how they did it. The company’s success as a startup was widely attributed to the rigid vision of its anonymous founders. That they continued to maintain secrecy with their identities worked to support two theories. The first, that they were eccentric masterminds who sat in a room all day just thinking up new things. The second, and more feasible theory if you ask me, was that they’d bumbled their way into establishing communications with the afterlife while trying to open a portal to a parallel dimension.
In a way they had, but those of us who lacked financial or political power would never know the truth. Prizm owned most of the major news networks now. Christ, it basically owned the government.
Prizm’s ever-growing ability to dictate what was and was not truth was nothing new. Entire volumes of religious doctrine had been shelved and scrubbed from the platforms of nearly every Christian denomination. On the other side of the coin, Stephen Hawking continues to insist (mind you, from beyond the grave) that the existence of an afterlife is not physically possible. On the televised occasions when he was pointedly informed he was dead, his response was always the same before his soul terminated the Bond with his interviewer:
No, I’m not.
- - -
It wasn’t until I’d taken three more shots that I fumbled my way drunkenly into Owen’s Forgetmenot profile. Animated confetti exploded across the screen in celebration as I was nearly driven off the bed in surprise.
Each of the dead has a basic profile in the Forgetmenot app that automatically populates with the obituary of the deceased. Family members can add memories, pictures, etc in order to make the profile their own over time. This had stolen the thunder of the old practice of placing items at, on, or against gravestones.
A picture of Owen, probably sourced out in a web search that took seconds, appeared beside his name above his obit. It was of him at Ogunquit Beach, shirtless with that reedy-yet-somehow-toned physique of a healthy boy. My hand lifted and traced the wrinkles that had formed over the years on my face. I’d been somewhere on the beach with him that day, probably off on my own since I was actively avoiding him at that point. Just looking at that uneasy smile of his made me shiver. Even in this picture I could clearly see that things were amiss behind the scenes of Owen Steadpool.
My phone vibrated and a message alert flared yellow beside Bampy’s name. I was so lost in thought, and admittedly drunk, that I nearly saw the phone leap from my hands as I reacted. Normally I’d chasten myself for being so needlessly on edge, but this was the perfect time to be on edge. As I gathered myself I read the message, my exhale turned to a deep growl.
Bampy: I’m just saying that people don’t talk like that in real life. Have Gram read it and see what she thinks.
On cue, Gram’s voice bled through my door, following that barely audible knock of hers. “Your grandfather wants me to give you feedback!”
Not, I want to read your book, and great job, by the way! No, my grandparents had teamed up across the spiritual plane, as they so frequently did, to tear my creative work apart.
“I’m busy,” I fired back, trying not to sound agitated as I thumbed Bampy’s message away. The baseline paranoia that always ran through me left me wondering in that moment if Gram thought I was masturbating. The thought didn’t stay for long as Gram (and apparently most of Maine) had other things to discuss with me.
“Did you hear that two Bond Requests came from the other side? They were both for people in Maine!” She said this with the same jealous fervor as a scratch ticket junkie discussing the latest lottery winner. If only she knew.
“I did,” I returned, still trying to conceal the annoyance I felt. If she caught scent of it this conversation would veer off on a much different trajectory.
“The tabloids are publishing all the obits from the last few days. Won’t take long to figure it out.” Moments passed, and I assumed she’d moved on without her usual bland goodnight (‘night), then she added, “Kind of stupid to keep it a secret. They should come forward and enjoy the spotlight.”
My paranoia flared, but in this case I was able to convince myself that Gram’s sentiments were circumstantial. She didn’t know I was one of the two. If that were the case there’d be camera crews here.
I agreed with her, at the same time lamenting the lost dignity of death. I promised to give her a copy of my book the next day, and we said our goodnights as that ominous ding-dong sound chimed on my phone. My breath held as my gaze settled upon Owen’s name and the message notification pulsing beside it.
Forgetting all about Gram (who may or may not have remained listening behind my door), I tried to swallow against the sudden desert that my throat had become. I reached for the bottle on my nightstand without lifting my eyes from the soft glow of Forgetmenot, and after a short pull I retched against the tang and burn of bottom shelf bourbon. My head swam as I tucked the bottle between my legs and worked to bring separate swirling images of my phone into clarity.
Owen: Ed, I’ve missed you so much! I can’t even begin to imagine the struggle you’ve faced all these years.
I gaped at the soft glow of my handheld, re-reading the message several times. There’s no way it could have been real. It was easy enough to grab personal information from the web. Even easier if you knew how to navigate the dark web.
No. This was Owen. It had to be. Prizm had gone to great lengths in the beginning to convince both religious and governmental entities that their platform was real. Reports circulated in abundance, and though each and every one proved beyond reasonable doubt that Forgetmenot did, in fact, exist as a channel to the dead, they did not include any details as to how that was accomplished.
It wasn’t until I felt a string of drool running down my chin that I realized I’d been staring at the message for minutes. Suddenly the need to answer him was paramount, if not to continue carving away at the lie.
Me: Hi, Owen! My god, it’s great to talk to you! I think about you every day!
It was all I could produce, yet it still managed to be so much more than I needed. When it came to unnecessary exclamations in text, I had no rivals. In fact, I belonged to an entire subset of the modern populace who struggled at length to decode emotion in text messages.
Owen: How’s life? You must have a wife and kid by now.
How tragically presumptuous.
I wanted to see it all as a lie, as some great fabrication that Prizm had gone to all for me. Here was the soul of a boy I’d murdered at age 14, and he was assuming I’d be settled down with a wife and kids, not locked up in a padded room somewhere.
Me: Actually I’m living with my grandmother. Never married.
Owen: It’s your life to lead, my friend. Do you ever get back to Twisted Oak?
My initial reaction was the same knee-jerk response I always had at the mentioning of my home town. I hated Twisted Oak. Always had, always will. I was lucky to have gotten out of it, even though I was only a dozen miles away now, separated by just two other towns. Twisted Oak still felt a million miles away, and that's just the way I liked it. I even avoided it while driving. I wouldn’t so much as pass through.
Me: Not really. Mom is still there. Dad passed five years ago.
Me (as an afterthought): He never went live in the Compendium. Mom took it personally, now she's batshit as ever.
Owen: I don’t blame you about Twisted Oak. It’s like something out of a Stephen King book. Nothing good comes from that place.
He left his words hanging there like a slab of digital granite engraved with Maine’s most weighty of truths: Nothing good comes from that place. I was left wondering if he was waiting for me to say something as the clotted clouds of rotgut bourbon continued to form over my mind. The formalities were over now. We were moving to the meat of the conversation, the main course, and somewhere through the haze I found myself genuinely excited.
Me: It’s a pretty big deal on this side for you to have reached out to me. I was looking up statistics earlier. You have a better chance of being hit by a car while bouncing on a pogo stick just before the flaming wreckage of the International Space Station atomizes itself on the curbside.
Christ it freaked me out when those in the Great Beyond (as it were) used modern texting acronyms. Worse was when they made pop culture references to things that didn’t exist before their passing. Did the dead have internet?
Owen: I see by your texting style that all those stories you made up for class have made a proper author out of you.
The flattery didn’t last long. I couldn’t help going in my mind to that ever-dimming fantasy where I’d see my name in print alongside other Maine authors like Stephen King and Kirk Matthews. But then I considered how big a leap Owen had to take to pigeonhole me as an author based on a couple texts. The dead had no clairvoyant powers. At least none they’d shared with those of us still tied to this miserable existence. Owen was either being presumptive again or there were things taking place on the other side that Prizm wasn’t aware of.
What if he could somehow reach into my mind? What if some part of him had been left on me, imprinted in life for just this scenario. Did he know how badly I wanted to address his death? The murdered never speak to their killers.
Me: I’m trying, but it’s too hard to sell a book.
The truth, which he may or may not have been aware of in that moment, was that I was terrified of rejection.
Owen: I have every bit of faith in you. You’ve always had a good head on your shoulders.
I was banging out the message before I knew what I was writing. When I was done I didn’t so much a glance over it before thumbing the send button so hard that my phone accidentally went to toggle between apps.
Me: I’m a mess, Owen. Have been since the day you died. Why did you reach out? I mean, it’s great to hear from you, but I’m not sure why you’d want to talk to me after what I did to you.
Owen: Because you think you killed me. You did not.
My jaw didn’t simply fall open, it was as if its hinges had been melted away by acid. A renewed string of drool began to run down my chin, but instead of wiping it away I reached for the bottle, nearly toppling it as I took it by the neck and tipped it to my lips. Owen’s next message came as I was dry heaving against a roiling stomach.
Owen: I died in an ambulance on the way to Portland. I could have come back but I didn’t. My lesson was over and I was better off removed from the world we shared. I’m sorry you’ve had to live all this time with the guilt.
I’ve heard of people having these existential moments where the truth they know in their souls is shaken so suddenly and violently. These events are usually accompanied by either immense pain or immense relief. In my case I found only astonishment. How many people, even at that moment, lived under crushing guilt for something that could easily be clarified using Forgetmenot? How many people carried the weight of a life lost due to their actions (or inactions) when in reality their victims had had a choice to stay or go?
Owen: I know this is a lot to process. I’m sorry for dumping it all on you like this. It’s all for good reason, I assure you. I need your help, Ed. Other people need your help.
Me: I don’t understand any of this.
Owen: Then let me help you 😉
Owen: Why did you try to kill me that day in your yard? What were you scared of?
Me: The Broomhill girls. One missing each month I was gone that summer.
Owen: You thought what about them?
Suddenly he reminded me a little too much of Dr. Maureen Shakes. Owen wanted me to say it, he would not say it for me.
Me: You murdered them. Just like you murdered your dog. I didn’t want you to kill again.
Owen: Big difference between disappearance and death. You can *talk* to the dead.
I caught his reference despite my building stupor. With a few flicks of my thumb I was in the Compendium searching for Broomhills. After a brief search, I was curious to find that there were none listed in Twisted Oak, Maine. Toggling back over to the chat log, I found a message from Owen already waiting.
Owen: I didn’t kill them, Ed. I never killed anything, even the dog.
It was universally understood, but never completely validated, that the dead did not lie. That they had no reason to. I took a few more glugs from the bottle before leaning over to lay it back on the nightstand. The dings and dongs of subsequent texts arriving snagged my attention away, and the bottle toppled to the floor, offering up its remains to Gram’s hardwood.
Owen: Has Brianna been in touch?
Owen: Don’t trust her. I’m surprised it's taken this long for her to kill our parents.
Houston, Edward Duggery’s brain has left the planet. I’d never passed out before, even from long nights fueled by booze and drugs and mayhem. I’m told people realize it sometimes as their brains just shut off, and they reach out to brace against something, knowing full well that they’re losing all control.
For me it was like a light switch. Owen’s last text put me out, and the world would not return to claim me again until late next morning. I woke sprawled out on the floor, unsure how I managed to get off the bed but quickly realizing I’d fallen. The rising sun warmed my body through the windows as I felt around, eventually finding my phone as I squinted against the rising sun. It wasn't until my search moved up to the bed that I found it on the comforter and read the messages Owen had sent while I was out.
Owen: I need you to go back to Twisted Oak, Ed.
Owen (seconds later): I’m sorry.