I shot up in bed, choking on my breath as I struggled to process reality. Slowly the darkness began to lift as my eyes adjusted. Running a trembling hand through my hair, I found it saturated in sweat.
My gaze shot to the doorway where the narrow band of light at its base remained unbroken. Just a dream, I told myself. To confirm this I felt around the foot of the bed and was relieved to find no traces of dampness in the place where Owen had been sitting.
I settled against the wall-mounted headboard and gazed out the windows spanning the far end of the room. Daylight was already building in its eternal pursuit of the night. The headlamps of early commuters headed for Boston streaked across the three southbound lanes of I-95 a quarter mile out.
Others are still lost. Others are still lost. I mouthed the words silently as I fumbled in the dark for my phone on the nightstand, eventually knocking it to the floor and fetching it up with a grunt. The rules when it came to what the dead could do were almost entirely iron-clad, and to my knowledge they were not capable of visiting us in dreams. Then again, we were only glimpsing the mysteries of the universe through modern technology.
I thumbed Forgetmenot open to find no messages waiting. Back in my text feed with Owen, the conversation remained stalled with my final question to him: what do your parents say? I was typing out a message before I knew what I wanted to say.
Me: You didn’t visit me in a dream last night, did you? I know its probably just my mind being weird.
Today Owen seemed more than ready to resume our conversation as a text entry notification went up immediatly like the flag on a mailbox. In a way it comforted me. His answer, however, shocked me to the point where I nearly dropped my phone. Christ, I was half-cocked to run into the bathroom and flush it down the toilet.
Owen: We are all but a dream in the mind of a celestial.
For a moment I simply stared at my phone, reading the words over a few times in Owen's voice. And why not? He'd uttered them, exactly as written, in my dream. I tapped out a response and sent it without proofreading: you said taht to me in the dream.
Owen: Not me. Not anyone on this side.
My instincts cried out to push him further, but I didn’t want to drive him away. Plus, you weren’t going to get far with Forgetmenot if you lacked the ability to move away from cryptic answers (that really weren’t answers at all) to existential questions. That was assuming you got an answer at all.
Okay then, I thought. Let’s amp this up then.
Me: Your sister and I are getting coffee in Twisted Oak today.
Now came the anxiety. Why, suddenly, didn't he care if I met his sister? I didn't want to push him, mostly because I didn't want to drive him away, so I banged out the only thing I could think of that might still lead me down a path toward answers.
Me: Anything you’d like me to say to her?
Owen: Her soul is fragmented, poisoned too many times across multiple lives. I don’t know that anything I have to say will resonate with her.
Owen: But once you’re done with your coffee, message me. There’s a place you need to visit while in Twisted Oak.
Owen: The Farmer’s Pasture.
The Farmer’s Pasture was the local name for a patchwork of grazing land used in colonial days for cows. It had once been a checkerboard of flat, grassy fields, and thick, tangled woods. In the years since they stopped raising livestock in Twisted Oak, the fields had all been overtaken by the forest’s sudden, inexplicable sprawl. More than a hundred years later, there were only a few sparse clearings in a now dark and foreboding wood.
Me: What’s there?
I expected an appetizer of an answer in place of a full meal, if I got any answer at all. It seemed, however, that with this subject Owen had no need to pull his digital punches.
Owen: Human remains.
Me: …Broomhill remains?
Owen (ignoring my question): It’s very important that we keep things to ourselves at this point. Going forward you must follow a very specific timeline, which I will dictate.
Me: How long will I be doing this? I have work…
I also did not like the sound of it. Not at all.
Owen: One way or another, everything will be over tomorrow.
Me: You said in my dream that others are still lost. Is this about helping people move on or stopping Brianna? Who was the other person you sent that Bond Request to?
I knew even as I sent the message that there would be no answer, that the conversation was over. One way or another it would all apparently be over tomorrow.
- - -
Unlike the tourist towns that flanked it, Twisted Oak was not a popular vacation destination. I’ll put aside it’s violent history, which feels like something out of a Stephen King novel if you dig deeply enough. That had little to do with Twisted Oak’s lack of appeal to outsiders. It would never be a tourist town because it occupied less than a mile of coastline, all of it rock. It was almost as though the neighboring towns of Biddeford and Kennebunk had squeezed Twisted Oak out of its would-be beach industry as it’s borders tapered narrowly toward the Atlantic.
For centuries the sliver or oceanfront claimed by Twisted Oak sat unused as the tides washed its rocks, but in an odd and very progressive move by the town’s most prominent family, The Tromblees, the land was donated to the town and used as the site for a state of the art public library, of all things. I’ve never considered Twisted Oak a particularly progressive place, so this move was a huge shock not just to me but to its residents.
Nowadays the library is the most actively visited place in town. It even has its own café, where I was destined to have coffee with an apparent serial killer.
My mind was so full, with new thoughts and ideas entering the shuffle with an almost drug-induced absence of order. It was so bad that I nearly missed the Twisted Oak exit at Biddeford. I could have taken Kennebunk, but I was running early and needed to spread time out a bit. The Biddeford exit gave me the opportunity to swing south at the coast and drive along the ocean toward the library. I can’t say I took in much of the view… or really any of it. I was idling outside the glass façade of Twisted Oak Public Library before I even realized I’d crossed into town.
Aside from a message to Gram letting her know I was fine and would be home tomorrow, I hadn’t touched my phone since the hotel. Now I found as I unclipped it from its dock that I had a dozen or so message notifications from Gram and my mother. Turning to examine my left wrist, I confirmed my watch was out of battery and understood why I’d missed the messages. With a reluctance I failed to understand in myself, I switched my phone off silent and began to read through the messages.
Gram: Where R U? Fox News wants interviews.
Fuck Fox News.
Gram: UR really disappointing me, Eddy. Stop being so selfish and come home.
Gram: UR mother is here. Where R U?
Mom didn’t come out of the woodwork unless she stood to gain something. She was tenacious as all fuck when she wanted to be. It was usually inspired by some selfish motivation.
Gram: Eddy U come home now or find another place 2 live!
And that right there, all of these texts arriving within minutes of each other, was the exact reason why Forgetmenot could never exist without the psychiatric counterbalance of Mindscape. This mania, the conflating of personal issues or desires with those of the rest of the family… we didn’t need it. The world was fine enough before.
But that wasn’t going to stop me. Gram could make her threats. One way or another my life was changing forever; my life at Gram’s house ending. Maybe not this month or next month, but as soon as I had the manuscript retooled with all Owen was feeding me, I’d be moving into my own house. Probably my own mansion.
I switched over to Mom’s texts, which were decidedly less tactful – and that was saying a lot.
Mom: WCSH wants an interview with me.
Mom: I need you to fill me in on everything. Just screencap your texts with the Steadpool boy and sent them to me.
Christ, she wrote screencap.
Mom: Edward, you can’t leave me hanging like this. It makes me look bad.
Mom: That’s it, I’m driving down to Ogunqiut.
Hopefully her disappointment upon arrival was enough to crush her self-serving spirits since this was the end of her messages. I could picture the two of them, Mom and Gram, fingers flying deftly across the soft glow of their phone screens as they sat in the same room, ignoring each other.
I answered none of their texts, instead letting myself out of the car and walking to the edge of the parking lot. There, a chain link fence stood warden over a white cliffside, the roaring churn of the Atlantic thundering up from forty feet down. The salt coming off the ocean blended with the sweet fragrance of ocean flowers from the sea thrift bushes that occupied both sides of the fence. I closed my eyes and tried to gather up the last of my faith in God as the sea breeze rolled over me and the rising sun warmed my face.
My phone vibrated in my pocket, but I ignored it, remaining there with my eyes closed until my mind finally cleared. Opening my eyes, I actually felt refreshed as I took in the cold ocean waters, rising and falling beneath a cloudless baby blue sky.
God, I thought, immediately feeling foolish. I don’t think I’ve ever asked for anything… I know we haven’t had the best of relationships…
I drew a long breath, wondering why suddenly my mind was fogging up again, but more than that, puzzling over my apparent stage fright in addressing my would-be maker. With a long exhale I composed my thoughts as much as possible and fired off my mental message to God: If you just make this work for me, I promise I’ll be different. I’ll go to church. I’ll donate most of what I make to charity. I’ll—
“Edward…? Edward Duggery?” A female voice, soft and meek drew me out of my flirtations with faith. I turned to find a woman standing behind me, face doused in palpable apprehension. It seemed to wrinkle every part of her face as if she were in physical pain.
Form-fitting jeans clung desperately to meaty legs that seemed wound in muscle despite her overall appearance; what the nicer folks would refer to as curvy and the assholes, PAWG, an urban acronym for Phat Ass White Girl. She tugged compulsively at the bottom of her t-shirt, which was faded from decades of washing and just barely covered the gap between her navel and the waistline of her jeans. The shirt read: Rysher High Class of 1999… so long Twist N’ Choke!
I remembered the senior shirts very well from that year. The seniors had campaigned all fall and winter to get it approved by the mostly conservative educators and administrative staff. It was the Twist N’ Choke thing. Everyone in town had said it at some point, some playfully, most loathingly. It wasn’t something we needed the surrounding towns calling us though, and that was where the bulk of the opposition came from in 1999 when Twisted Oak seniors felt the need to knock down anything they could on their way out of town.
The last thing I noticed about Brianna Steadpool as I stood there, silently appraising her, was her hair. Once midnight black beneath a new moon and hanging down to that memorable ass of hers, it was now a whitish gray, thinly threaded with onyx.
“I’m sorry,” she said, snapping me out of my head as she flashed an embarrassed frown and pivoted toward the library, “I thought you were someone I was meeting here.”
“No!” I worked to gather myself for the millionth time that day, all the while feeling like an asshole for not responding when she first spoke my name. “Sorry, yes, it’s me. You’re Brianna?”
Her face brightened, that baseline apprehension eroded in short order as if by the ocean breeze. The ghost of a smile came and went, barely perceptible. “My goodness, I thought you looked like a bigger version of that boy who played with my brother.” She stepped toward me, seeming as though she were coming in for a hug. Not a second later she halted herself, face crinkling as she seemed to curse herself inside for her indecisiveness.
It was clear this was a woman who second-guessed everything she did. I wondered if all like her were so fragile.
I took the initiative and closed the remaining steps between us. The feeling that warmed my body like a bonfire behind my ribs was inexplicably familial. Like I shared a deeper bond with this woman… somehow. Without hesitation I drew her into the hug she’d wanted and was shocked at how much the contact worked to empty my mind.
Her arms circled me, tightening at the small of my back, and I felt content to stay in the arms of Twisted Oak’s resident serial killer. Not its first.
“You haven’t changed at all,” I lied as we parted once more, now holding each other’s forearms. Her grip was ominously firm, leading me to wonder if that dark part of her mind that drove her to perform surgeries on collies might be sizing me up as her next project.
Or the poor woman just hadn't been hugged in a while. Ever...?
“Oh, I’m sure I have,” she said, glancing sheepishly at the ground. Her gaze lifted after a few seconds, eyes glistening with an eager excitement that I struggled to decode. “But you’re very kind.” A weak smile willed its way to her face for a moment before vanishing. She glanced back at the glass face of Twisted Oak Public Library, then back down to the space between us where we still gripped each other awkwardly. The smile returned to her face, and I could tell it was genuine, despite the ambiguity of her intentions with me.
“Ready for coffee?” she asked.