The stretch of Route 1 that struck through Ogunquit Village was a sea of gleaming metal. I turned off onto the tree-shrouded side street that served as a back entrance to Gram’s neighborhood. My mind churned with ideas and ambition, while my anxiety had me feeling like I was in the embrace of an Anaconda. I was so distracted that as I came around a blind corner and turned onto my road I nearly slammed into a van parked partially in the bushes. Bright, explosive lettering on the back doors identified it as belonging to WCSH 6 out of Portland.
I pushed the brake pedal to the floor and winced as everything in my back seat clattered to the floor. My gaze shifted beyond the van to the others parked along the curb, obscuring the rolling hills of the Perkins Cemetery and the meandering slither of the salt river below. This morning the hillside had been covered in a fog that ran like syrup over the road and down to the water. Now the sun had burned it all away, as if these vans and excited journalists had been hidden beneath it the whole time.
More than one head snapped in my direction, the collective gaze of New England News falling upon me as the sound of my screeching tires was carried off toward the ocean on the breeze. Farther down the road where the official neighborhood entrance cut away from the beach access road, blue and red flashing lights briefly ensnared my attention. Dozens of officials in uniform milled about, including firemen, turning away gawkers who’d lined up at the edge of the community.
“Fuck me,” I sighed as all at once I was rushed by the media. Wide eyed professionals in skirts and blazers tugged their camera men along by microphone cables as they no doubt recognized my car. I fumbled over every object imaginable as I went to throw the car into reverse. As I backed out, kicking up gravel from the side of the road, I didn’t take my eyes off of the news people, some of whom were now tripping over the others. As I cut the wheel and sped away, the final sight I was treated to was a hulking, overweight camera man as he tripped over his own feet and sacrificed an expensive-looking camera to the pavement.
As if on cue two text messages rolled in and set my watch haptics buzzing. They weren’t Forgetmenot messages, but instead the less frequently used and often trifling SMS format. Just normal texts, though the word normal didn’t occur to me once as I read them over, car drifting across the double-yellow.
Gram: Y didn’t U tell me UR famous!
Brianna: I see you’re on the news. Did you end up accepting Owen’s bond request?
I tossed the phone into the back with the rest of the dislodged crap and sped out of Ogunquit, eventually losing a pair of vans that had managed to tail me as I crossed into New Hampshire. Still not certain I’d left the vans in the dust, I cruised around the city for an hour. There was no going back to Gram’s until this was all over. I’d have to stay somewhere for the night, I just hoped there was enough on my credit card to cover it. If not, well, it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d slept in my car.
Fortunately three months of minimum payments without use had cleared enough on the card for a room at a Motel 6 on the Maine/New Hampshire border. It overlooked a massive rotary branching off toward every compass point, fed by I-95, US 1, and US 16. The six lanes of I-95 bore through only a sliver of the Granite State before reaching into Maine. They sat atop a grassy ridge, the wind carving patterns in the flanking tall grass as headlamps flashed toward Maine.
Plopping down on the bed, I kicked my shoes toward the doorway and shucked off my jeans, wondering how that day hadn’t somehow been an entire week. I just sat there staring off into space for what could have been hours in my socks and underwear. The only item that tied me to reality as I was lost in thought was my phone. I tried to ignore it, to will its presence away and prove to myself that I was in control, but no matter what I did its weight in my hand was impossible to ignore. I fought it for as long as I could, holding out until the last buttered dollop of sun melted over the mountains in the distance and night settled.
I reread Brianna’s message as my stomach groaned so loud it startled me. I wondered when I’d last eaten but was lost as I reread Brianna’s text about my newfound celebrity.
Me: I decided it’s just too much to handle and met with my therapist at Mindscape today. I told her I wasn’t going to accept the request and left. I assume she went to the press.
I could flip on the TV or scurry over to the net on my phone to confirm, but it didn’t matter. Brianna’s answer came with the same waiting-by-the-phone urgency she’d displayed the other day.
Brianna: Probably for the best. I don’t even know if I’d want to speak with him.
And now I know why, I thought. I thumbed my way over to Gram’s message and deleted it without a second thought. Toggling back over to my chat with Brianna, I was unsurprised to see that she was already entering more text. Then the text entry icon vanished without a message and reappeared again. It did this a couple times before vanishing for good without anything from her.
I tossed the phone on the bed and stepped over to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Outside, the concrete webwork of highway was clogged with commuters. I told myself to let it go, that engaging with Brianna was dangerous, but every time I found my resolve and committed to leaving the whole ordeal behind, I watched as the taillights of southbound vehicles were replaced with bookshelves stretching off into infinity, stacked with books bearing my name.
“This is my only chance at writing a guaranteed bestseller.” I spoke as if addressing the highway outside, only realizing as my breath fogged the glass just how close to the window I’d stepped. Turning slowly, as if I still had ground to make in convincing myself that this was my only way forward, I shuffled back to the bed and banged out the message I knew would get her talking.
Me: Everything okay? How are you doing?
Brianna (slower than usual): It’s hard getting used to a quiet house. Lots of emotions.
I wondered how long that house would remain quiet. I stared at my phone for a moment, trying to repress the images that wanted to come in my mind, none of them good.
Me: I don’t know what I’d do without my Gram.
I’d hoped this would change the subject, and she granted my wish. I loved Gram with everything I had, but that didn’t change the fact that most of the time she was insufferable. Her entire life was braided into the ethereal string on which she dragged my dead grandfather around. Still, she was the only constant in my life. Not even my mother had put in the time Gram had, that is until Forgetmenot entered our lives.
Brianna: She was on the news.
Me: Let me guess: phone in hand, no makeup, one-piece nighty.
Brianna: LOL! You nailed it!
Brianna: Seems she’s just as surprised as you. She looked right into the camera and said “Your grandfather says to come home right away, Eddy!”
I pulled in a long breath and sighed, watching the headlights outside my window streak across I-95 into Maine. Exhaling, I re-read the message and responded with the standard LOL. My frustration with Gram didn’t last long, however, as it suddenly struck me that I was enjoying talking to Brianna. I was casually conversing with a woman I was told (by a fucking ghost) is a serial killer, and none of the usual anxiety that liked to bloom in me without warning or apparent reason was there. Naturally my mind took this and ran with it, and soon I was convinced that I wasn’t taking her seriously enough as a killer because she was a woman.
Nothing like discovering latent misogyny in yourself at age 38, but I cut myself some slack. Serial killers were the closest things to actual monsters in this world, and the statistics didn’t lie about the ratio of males to females when it came to enthusiasm for the blood arts. Men overwhelmingly eclipsed women in documented cases.
“Cut yourself some slack,” I said out loud as a notification rolled in with Bampy’s on it. I couldn’t control myself thumbing open Forgetmenot and reading his message.
Bampy: Your grandmother is worried sick.
Me: I’m 38. Don’t you have better things to do?
Bampy: No. Go home.
I swiped the app closed and was still in the midst of a hard eye roll when Brianna’s next message arrived.
Brianna: Still free for coffee on Monday?
It wasn’t until I’d entered the characters and sent off my response that I realized how effortless it was to say yes to her. The universe had swept me into something far greater than I fully understood, yet of the courses of action set before me there were only two possible outcomes: I either use the fame building around me to drag myself out of a lifelong rut, or I die at the hands of a girl who may or may not still have a decent ass to ogle.
Oddly enough, both had their appeal.
Me: How about tomorrow?
- - -
I dreamt that night that I woke to find Owen sitting at the foot of my hotel bed, sifting through the loose pages of my manuscript. He was dressed in the same plastic/nylon winter gear all the kids wore in those days, wet and dripping with snowmelt. He was most definitely still ten-years-old, the bunched up brim of his wool hat hanging like an awning over the ridge of his eyebrows, rendering his eyes dark sockets that could have been empty for all I knew.
I waited, shivering under the covers, for Owen to either dissolve back into the unseen ether or turn and speak to me. Outside the hum of tires hitting rumble strips and the groaning of compression brakes worked to fool me into thinking I might be awake… that the dream I knew I was having was not a dream at all.
The slow shuffle of footsteps
(Were they Brianna’s?)
registered out in the hallway. I wasn’t eager to take my eyes off of Owen, but I shot a quick enough glance at the door to see the light trickling in at the bottom snuffed out permanently by the shadow of a person.
“The ending is too abrupt,” Owen’s small voice came in a watery rasp, drawing my gaze back from the door. My only response was a tremble I worked quickly to repress. “You should give it to your grandmother… see what she thinks.”
I closed my eyes, silently willing him away, only to find I could still see Owen just as clearly. He pivoted toward me, looking me over, sizing me up. I could feel his eyeless gaze running over me, corroding my soul.
“I like what you did here though.” His gloved finger broke through the wet sheet of paper as he tapped at it. He released the rest of the manuscript, papers fluttering and eddying to the floor at his feet.
“I’m dreaming.” I didn’t want to see which page he had.
“We are all but a dream in the mind of a celestial…” he said, for a moment turning to gaze wistfully at the world outside. It didn’t last long, his gaze hidden somewhere in those dark pockets settling back over me. It felt hungry.
“What… what do you want from—”
His answer was to shake the paper frantically out before me as wet droplets still holding winter’s icy chill spattered my face. He didn’t say anything, instead only shaking the page with greater insistence as my attention wandered to his tiny booted feet, puddles of water saturating the carpet around them.
The worst dreams often devolved from self-guided to bafflingly automated. I was apparently all out of free will now, and as I gazed into the hollows of Owen’s tiny face, I took the page from the him. It was the dedication page. For my friend Owen, lost too soon. I read it four times before drawing a deep breath and lowering the page.
As my gaze lifted I jumped backward, head smacking hard against the headboard. Owen had moved onto all fours, closing the few feet that separated us on the bed as I read the dedication page. He came forward with the erratic presence of a feral animal, every motion tight and jerky. He was straddling me before I knew what was happening, and all at once the world reeked of mildew. It was so pervasive and thick that I could taste it; the spoiled soul of a boy who’d died soaked in water.
“Lost too soon,” Owen hissed, the reek of mildew chased off by the decay on his breath. He was so close to me that I could see the youthful peach fuzz that covered his gray cheeks, remnants of a body that was still becoming as its engine was suddenly cut. I felt awash in his deadness, dipped in rot and left to spoil with him.
Owen’s lips furled in a smile that seemed to grow and grow, stretching his face out of proportion. “Others are still lost,” he said, his words mostly syllables as that ghastly grin spread. Movement brought my gaze to his hand as it lifted my phone into view, screen facing me. Notifications began to trickle in, first dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. All of them came with the dings and chimes copyrighted by Prizm, and they did not stop. I sat there, mesmerized, hypnotized, feeling lulled out of my body as the messages kept coming, and in the instant before I snapped awake every one of the notifications were scrubbed from the glowing face of my phone and replaced by a single message.
Owen: We have work to do.