Prizm’s Portland Mindscape campus occupied two blocks at the fringe of the city’s Old Port, overlooking the busy harbor and the hazy forms of several flat islands in the bay. My appointments with Maureen were as rigid as Prizm’s policies would allow. That’s not to say appointments weren’t occasionally rescheduled due to an emergency. Every Forgetmenot subscriber was issued two emergency tokens per year, for use whenever they wanted to cash them in. They came digitally as part of the app and could be spent within Forgetmenot in exchange for an immediate appointment with the subscriber’s therapist.
I cashed in one of my tokens as I passed the Biddeford/Twisted Oak exit on I-95. It almost felt as though the town itself was watching me as I zoomed past.
Your token has been redeemed. Doctor Maureen Shakes will meet you at the Portland Mindscape campus in thirty minutes. The words flashed along a marquee, scrolling slowly across the top of the app screen. My gaze fell briefly to Owen’s chat profile, which fortunately devoid of notifications.
I’d never been in more of a hurry to see my dismissive bitch of a therapist.
- - -
The usual short skirt and blazer combo was forgone in place of the more casual I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt because I was called in on a Sunday image. Based on the poorly restrained frown on her face, it seemed the good doctor was a bit resentful at having been called in to the quieter halls of the Portland Mindscape for some bonus counseling.
“So,” she started, sounding put out as she considered the legal pad as if it were some parasite latched onto her thigh. “What happened yesterday?”
That was her passive aggressive way of asking, What’s changed since I saw you a couple days ago?
I felt the wrinkles that had come out of nowhere when I hit age 33 crease my forehead. My fingers curled, gathering folds of denim at my thighs. I wasn’t having this shit. Not today. Not ever again.
“You know you’re a really shitty therapist?”
Her face drained of color, and at first all discernible emotion went with it. But it didn’t take long for the anger and resentment to materialize like burning fires in her eyes. I imagine only the most disciplined of therapists reacted to their patients in such a way… if this was fucking opposite world. As her mouth cracked open to respond I denied her the opportunity.
“I understand that you’re overworked and underpaid, and I’m sure you’d be great in private practice, but you don’t help me. You try to persuade me to leave counseling every session. I’d like to believe that you care whether or not I slice my wrists when I leave this place, but even that has me wondering. I called you in here today because those two Bond Requests that went out in Maine are…”
I trailed off, losing my train of thought as her welling rage was all at once supplanted by unbridled excitement. This was something I should have expected.
“Were you one of the two?! Where’s your phone?!” Her head shot about erratically as her eyes ran over every part of me. It took her a few seconds before she slapped herself whimsically on the forehead. Her gaze found mine. “Duh,” she spoke through an irrepressible grin, “out in the lockbox.” She hesitated, no doubt thinking over the terms of her employment before adding, “You can go get it. We don’t have to tell anyone.”
I sat there, flummoxed. I don’t know how much sway HIPPA held over Prizm in those days, but I knew in that moment that I’d wasted one of my emergency tokens with this. My doctor was, like so many, a Forgetmenot fangirl before all other things. So much for that healthy post Gen-X distrust for technology.
“I think I should go.” I started to get up, but she came right with me. Her legal pad flopped to the floor, unnoticed.
“No! Wait. I’m sorry. I was grumpy for being called in but… good God, Edward, we’re going to have to talk this out. This doesn’t happen often.”
She was so close to me that I could smell the leftover stink of a night out drinking as it wafted off her. Before I knew it hands seized me by the forearms. I wondered in that moment if she’d ever touched me before; I struggled to remember the last time anyone had touched me.
Now it was my turn to show her anger and resentment. I didn’t even see it coming. All of the sudden my years of isolation and buried strife emerged in a baleful torrent of hatred toward this woman. “You mean talk this out in front of the news cameras, right? What a big ticket this could be for you, the hack treating the Forgetmenot celebrity… or do you see yourself as a celebrity in that scenario?”
It was a struggle to remove myself from her grip, which seemed to tighten with every word I spoke. But I managed to get myself turned around and headed toward the door. The sound of the coffee table tipping over behind me was followed by a voice so desperate that I’d have expected to hear it from a roadside panhandler rather than a licensed Mindscape therapist.
“No, Ed! It’s not like that! Please! You need help! Private doctors won’t understand, you need me!”
What a terrible, terrible mistake. As her hands shot into my field of vision, fumbling against mine as I reached for the doorknob, I seriously wondered if I’d make it the rest of the day before she blabbed everything to the media. Prizm doctors took oaths just like their private practice counterparts, but these oaths were mostly of fealty to Prizm, not to the privacy of their patients. They were as easily discarded as the phones and tablets from which they were read and recited.
“You’re pathetic… stop!” I all but screamed as the knob began to turn and her garish, neon pink fingernails bit into the flesh of my hands. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I should have expected it. There was no therapy from here on out. I was tainted by Owen’s Bond Request, and every single person who caught wind of it would react similarly. Anything to secure their own slice of the attention in a world that frothed over any- and everything Forgetmenot.
She had me more or less in a bear hug, fingers still raking at my skin. As I shifted my weight and heaved her backward, pink lines were left carved into my forearms. The thud of the coffee table once more being disturbed drew me around in time to see her fall heavily back into her office chair. Her eyes burned with desperate energy as she struggled to get back to her feet, but I was out the door before she had the chance to catch me. Luckily I’d left my phone in my pocket and not the lockbox in the corridor.
“Edward!” Maureen’s manic voice echoed down the empty corridor. “Edward come back!”
She was hurrying after me as I hit the escalator, taking it two steps at a time before moving into a sprint through the terraced lobby and out the glass doors. Yet she still came after me. It wasn’t until I reached my car and locked the doors that I felt a modicum of safety. Her muffled voice spoke frantically behind the glass of my driver’s side door. I held her in my peripherals, unwilling to make eye contact as she gesticulated in a frenzy.
I fired up the engine and pulled out into traffic.
As I watched her continue to chase me down the street in my rearview mirror I understood that I’d need to keep things under wraps, at least until I was ready to milk it for what it was worth. This was my ticket to a career as an author, but the entire thing would become a media circus if I wasn’t careful and didn't manage it.
For now I’d just have to follow Owen’s lead, see where he took me, and then write a preordained bestseller chronicling it all.
Of course, that would have been a great approach were it not for my Mindscape doctor. I’m not sure what legal ramifications she faced, if any, but my name was all over the news and web by mid-afternoon along with that of Doctor Maureen Shakes, now scheduled for seven interviews over the next three days.
- - -
Owen: I’m sorry. I don’t know how much time is appropriate for you to absorb all this, but we may be working against a clock.
I boldly read the message as I did 90 down I-95 South, knowing full well that a distracted driving conviction carried a minimum sentence of 30 days in county jail. Looming ahead was the Kennebunk rest area, packed with southbound tourists and a neatly arranged row of semis and trailers at the periphery of the sprawling parking lot. I narrowly missed clipping the car in front of me as I veered off the highway and cruised between a pair of autonomous freighter trucks.
Me: What do you want me to do? Kill your sister?
Owen: I’d never ask you to do that. But there are others you might save.
Me: Can’t you just lay it out for me clearly? Why so vague?
Owen: There’s a lot you wouldn’t understand. I’m sorry.
Me: Did you kill your dog that day? Did you kill the Broomhill girls?
He’d more or less answered these questions already, multiple times, yet I needed to hear it again. I needed to know that this ever-darkening tunnel had some light at the end of it.
Me: Then why did you show me your dead dog? Why did you start to obsess about anatomy and stuff afterward?
For once the text entry icon didn’t immediately appear. But it came quickly enough ahead of a book-length block of text.
Owen: This would be easier face-to-face, but you and I aren’t destined to meet again. There’s a reason why you and I never saw much of Bri. She was always off at her boarding school up in Fryeburg, right? Wrong, that was only what we told people outside the family. Mom and Dad didn’t believe in the proven merits of conventional child psychology, like so many others at that time, but that’s neither here nor there now. When they started to find snuff videos and clips of brutal animal abuse on her phone and tab they knew they needed to do something. There was a small business out of Lovell that specialized in the ever-popular holistic approach to child healthcare so unnecessarily pressed upon the world in the aftermath of the anti-vax movement. It’s all trivial as I look back, at least from a larger perspective, but Mom and Dad were in that camp. Hey, if you hadn’t caved in the fort that day I’d probably have died of measles or smallpox eventually, right?
I stared, mouth gaping at the screen for at least ten seconds before I realized that the last part was a joke. A dark one. I began to instinctively type LOL when Owen dropped another slab of text on me.
Owen: Bri was treated with antiquated technology and practices and sent back to us during breaks and holidays. I didn’t know about any of it until the I found her behind the house with a carving knife, hunched over the dog. My perspective is different now, but in that moment all I saw was a creature stained in blood up to her elbows. Parts of those feelings have stuck with me, Ed. The purest fear I’ll ever know came not from the lives I spent clinging to the ramparts of Atlantis as it sank of the coast of Northwestern Africa, not from being crucified for stealing by the Roman Empire, but from watching my sister – one of my soul mates – jerk violently, like an animal, as she struggled to spread a collie’s rib cage with two blood-tacked hands.
He let this hang there for a couple minutes, giving me time to process the framework of lies from which the defining trauma of my life had been erected. I’d been so convinced it was Owen that I’d overlooked other possibilities. With this came an odd, cooling peace.
Me: Owen, I’m so sorry. For everything. I’d say having a psychopath as a sister is hitting the same odds as a member of the living receiving a Bond Request.
Owen: Make no mistake, everything is connected. Even what we’re about to do… what you’re about to do. It’s in answer to Fate’s call. My parents were all that kept Bri under control. The summer the Broomhill girls disappeared came only months after Bri’s treatment center was shut down in that mass crackdown on clinical malpractice and negligence.
Me: COVID, then the measles outbreak in the Midwest.
Owen: Man is slow to accept his mistakes and even slower to correct them. Strangely, I think the place really helped her, but it wasn’t meant to last. I waited for her to finish with the dog. I watched horrible things as the morning hours passed glacially. It warped me, made me really think about mortality for the first time in my life. I began to wonder what lay beneath the layers of meat from which we’re sculpted… but I never felt the urge to kill.
Me: How has she gone this long without killing again? Doesn’t her type usually slip up eventually?
Owen: My parents’ gravest error was teaching her the limited discipline she now harnesses. I believe I was a catalyst there. When I died she was all they had left. They made her into a… project.
Me: It’s been almost 30 years!
Owen: And for almost 30 years they protected her while enabling her… to a degree. We can see only limited things from this side, really only the things that matter to us personally, and those aren't always the earthly affairs we left behind.
Me: But you watched them…
Owen: I did. I watched them struggle with her mania, bandage her arms when she took a knife or her own fingernails to herself, tie her up in the basement where her screams only barely reached the attic where they’d moved their bedroom. Such was their journey, and in their own way they knew what was coming the moment they returned to earth together.
This was three times now he’d referenced reincarnation. I should have been excited. To my knowledge there wasn’t much on record concerning the dead revealing existential secrets like this. But all I could do was read as his words bubbled into the chat feed.
Owen: Brianna is dangerous. She must be stopped, but in order to do that we’ll need evidence.
My mind brushed passed evidence and rushed to one of my memories of Brianna that didn’t involve ogling her then ripening body. I recalled her picking over the carcass of a rotisserie chicken as I passed into the Steadpool kitchen as a kid for a can of soda. There was a certain clinical glee on her face – her smiling eyes met mine only once over the husk as her hand probed its greasy depths.
My fingers began to flow across the screen.
Me: You’re right. All the signs were there. We were just too young to notice.
Owen: Mom and Dad’s deaths were no accident, I assure you. Now she’s operating independently for the first time in her life.
Me: Your parents are over there, right? What do they say?
I waited for the text entry icon to pop up but it didn’t, and despite the apparent urgency in Owen’s messages, the conversation ended there. Despite Owen’s openness about things that I struggled to find precedent for (REINCARNATION!), it seemed that he was just like the rest of the dead in the ways that counted. There were certain questions the dead never answered, and the silence that came afterward was among the more crushing aspects of Prizm’s app.
My book flashed into my mind as I put the sedan back into drive and resumed course toward Ogunquit. Suddenly I was operating with a clear conscience, but its chief side effect was a loaded mind.