While the Twisted Oak Public Library was taxpayer subsidized, its café was just another piece of real estate rented out to anyone who’d pay to fill it. Not a single person in town was surprised when the Tromblee family, who owned most of the businesses in Twisted Oak (along with half the waterfront on Tabitha Lake), snatched it up and inserted themselves in the town’s newest, most frequented building. Thus, before the library even opened to the pubic, Tromblee’s By The Sea started slinging coffee and muffins.
The space where they café resided was a small alcove just off the main foyer. Brianna and I were greeted as we passed between a pair of marble columns stuck with town and library bulletins. A lone librarian stood behind a half-moon shaped welcome desk at the center of the cavernous foyer, squinting against the sunlight from the library’s all glass outer façade. The girl smiled pleasantly, not a cell phone in hand as she stood up, seeming genuinely happy to have us there. As we drew closer my gaze shifted from the puke green hair this otherwise seemingly well-composed girl was rocking to her nametag.
It read: Mandy Sullivan, Director.
“How are you folks today?” the woman asked.
“Good,” I answered. As we stopped at the lip of the desk I noted the gray creeping up through the roots of her otherwise toasted almond hair. She was our age. My attention moved over her shoulder to the café, which curled around a winding concrete staircase. The walls flanking the entrance were adorned with blown up newspaper headlines chronicling Twisted Oak’s one and only famous author, Kirk Matthews. Each read something to the tune of Author Goes Missing and Matthews Manuscripts Still Arriving At Publisher’s Door After Two Years.
“Anything I can help you find?” the director asked, looking at me glancing over her shoulder.
“I think we’ve found it,” I said through a smile. I wasn’t sure why, but my hand found Brianna’s and Mandy Sullivan, Director, saw us off with a jovial smile.
Despite its decade occupying Twisted Oak’s paltry strip of seashore, the library still smelled new. I imagined it was a testament to the cleaning crew’s quality. In the handful of times I’d visited the place it had been immaculate. To my knowledge it’s still the only place in Twisted Oak without some darker story known only by those with timeworn faces.
We ordered black coffees through a small service window as I tried to extract an old joke from my heavy mind. The one about serial killers enjoying their coffee unaltered. We chose a table by an arching picture window overlooking the library courtyard. The squarish space was verdant with dark, leafy plants and bright, pastel colored flowers, all growing around a bust of Timothy Rysher, who like Kirk Matthews, had vanished without a trace once upon a time with no explanation.
“So how’s life been the last 27 years?” I asked, breaking my stare with Rysher’s unmoving eyes. I hated the question as soon as I uttered it.
Brianna removed the lid from her coffee and steam began to curl up in the space between us. She took a measured sip, obviously taking her time to think the question over as her former insecurity refreshed itself on her face.
“Living with my parents was an ellipses on my life,” she started, setting down her cup. “After Owen died I was all they had… and they weren’t well.” She paused, parts of her face twitching like a cat about to pursue an itch down its back. I gave her all the space she needed as she worked silently through it, then, all at once, her features slackened and she shrugged, letting out a long sigh that dispersed the steam between us. “They never should have been driving. I should have taken their licenses long ago.”
I wanted to push her to elaborate, but what I really wanted was for her to say that again while looking me in the eye. When she instead seemed to zone out, staring through the table, so lost in herself, I spoke up.
“What exactly happened? I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.” I nearly knocked over my untouched coffee as I reached reflexively for her hand again. She noted the position of my hand, almost seeming to use it to reground herself in reality, though she didn’t so much as twitch hers toward it.
“Dad fell asleep behind the wheel. They were visiting the fairground memorial for the DPW workers who died in the fireworks explosion all those years ago. Dad worked for the DPW and would have been there that night if it weren’t for Mom dragging him to Rangeley. He lost most of his friends.” Her gaze fuzzed out toward the floor again, and as an afterthought she said, “They never went to Rysher Days after that, not that they ever took us even when Owen was alive.”
I thought back to Rysher Days as a kid. Like so many obscure towns across the country, when fair season came about Twisted Oak filled its fairgrounds out along the blueberry plains with artisans and vendors and rides. The celebration used to coincide with the harvest, but was now just another dime-a-dozen carnival. Stephen King was known to make an appearance there each year.
“I’m so sorry, Brianna,” I said after a minute or so. Part of me wondered if she was going to emerge from herself at all, and with that came the odd memory that you should never wake someone who is sleepwalking. No idea why my mind would go there. “I was never close to my parents… never been close to anyone really…” I took her hand, drawing her out of herself once more. As our eyes met, hers clouded with conflict and mine no doubt burning with the fires of ambition, I again wondered what it was that made us so comfortable around each other. “I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you. I’m so sorry, Brianna.”
Her eyes broke away and fell to the cup before her. Her free hand curled around it but didn’t raise it, as though it were merely a talisman grounding her in this reality.
“It’s not the way I would have liked to see them go—”
Oh, please elaborate.
“—but they had a long life. They were in their 30s when they had us – me and Owen – and they lived into their 70s. It’s tragic, but not along the same lines as Owen.” Her face darkened, and she lifted the cup to her mouth for a pensive sip before lowering it and continuing. “That’s a bad example, and I’m sorry I brought it up.” When I didn’t say anything, she opted to follow the thought aloud. “It’s just that… your first experience with death sets the stage for how you’ll view it the rest of your life. When your first experience is the death of a child... your own brother…”
I wouldn’t share with her the life of atonement I’d imposed on myself over Owen. Not then, but probably on a third or fourth coffee date. Instead I just sat there thinking about Owen and the emotions his sister’s words stirred in me. I’d carried Owen with me for 27 years, but somewhere beyond the wave of self-pity that always broke on me with thoughts of him, I realized that this woman had carried similar ghosts.
“I’m sorry, that was so wrong of me,” Brianna said, sounding short of breath. “I forgot that you were with him when he… I’ll just shut up. I’m sorry.” The cup came up to her lips with so much force that it splashed coffee down her cheeks. She fumbled with a wooden napkin holder on the table, not bothering to set the cup down as she overthought it all. Finally I took the initiative and reached through her casual chaos, plucked out a napkin, and handed it across to her.
“Not at all,” I insisted as she took the napkin and went to work on her face. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I didn’t mean to… it’s been hard, even more since Owen went live.”
Why the shit did I say that?
Most of the color drained from her face. A single eyebrow lifted over an incredulous eye. “Are you… speaking with him?”
“No,” I lied, the response coming a little too quickly. “But the fact that he wants to talk is assuring.” Suddenly I was growing self-conscious and indecisive, though whatever emotion I’d inspired in her seemed to evaporate like the steam from our cooling coffees.
“Why don’t you want to speak with him?”
I’d come prepared for this one. “I don’t need to – forgive my bluntness – carry around any more dead people. My grandfather was the single greatest man I’ll ever know, yet on the other side he’s just as critical and demeaning as any other jerk in this meat grinder of a world. I don’t need any more dead contacts in my phone.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she sighed, gazing wistfully at the bust of Timothy Rysher. “I’ve never had a bond request accepted.” Her gaze fell, face drooping along its trajectory.
“How many have you tried?” I asked.
“A dozen or so. Owen’s silence is the most… hurtful…”
“There’s so much about that side we don’t understand.” I could hear Dr. Maureen Shakes’ voice speaking the words blandly in my head. “If you ask me, Forgetmenot has created more problems than it’s worth.” I’m not sure why I wanted to help her, though the feelings she stirred in me went a long way to make me feel better about it. “I go to Mindscape at least once a week. Others have it a lot worse.” My first thought was of the Sudden Rejection wing, and I considered recommending she seek therapy. As I watched the corners of her lips droop into a frown she worked noticeably to banish away, I ignored the impulse.
“I have a long history with therapy.” She said this as though it were the admission of her life’s darkest secret. “It goes back to… well…” our eyes met briefly, “…Owen.” Brianna blinked against dewy eyes, seeming to stave off the tears that wanted to come, but just barely. She took a couple seconds, sipped arbitrarily from her coffee, and sighed. “What good does it serve anyway to be able to text the dead? Everyone I follow on social media is either complaining about Forgetmenot or about Prizm’s therapy services – not that I’m talking about you. I think we were better off before it. If I hadn’t thought to file for identity protection through Forgetmenot we’d be swarmed with news people. They give zero fucks these days… not that they ever did, I guess.”
“I had all kinds of trouble ditching them,” I said. “Now my mother is a couple bottles of wine away from disowning me because I’m standing in between her and the limelight. We’re all so consumed with every odd thing the dead do in that app. It kind of takes away from any meaning in life… especially when you bring the whole corporate thing in. Did you hear that they’re remaking the Harry Potter movies and Alan Rickman is giving notes to the actor playing Snape? All through the damn app.”
That smile of hers returned, one I’m certain was seldom brought out. “The books will always be better,” she chuckled. “And I couldn’t agree more. I’m so glad we connected, Edward. It’s nice to speak with someone who… you know… gets it.”
It was nice. Things felt natural with Brianna. More than natural actually, if there was such a thing. For all her internal turmoil, I couldn’t bring myself to see the woman before me as any more or less broken than I. Nothing about her said serial killer and occasional dog surgeon.
“We’re the second-to-last demographic, just before the Millennials, who will ever remember a world without Forgetmenot. Without cell phones. Without internet.” I felt my condolences for the world flow into my words, marinating them.
“Remember rotary phones?”
“Found one in Gram’s basement just last week. Relics of the golden age when work didn’t follow you home on a handheld device. We’re so self-destructive with technology.”
This excited her so much that she took me by both hands, barely seeming aware of the contact. “Exactly! We’ve innovated to our own peril! This world has never been more tied to its screens. It’s terrible.”
We laughed and reminisced about the old days when CDs were hot and compact disc players required an almost otherworldly finesse in order to keep your favorite tunes from skipping. We covered the gamut of old tech topics from 1-800-COLLECT to pay phones and pagers and Tiger handheld games. We had more coffee and prattled away for two hours without a single gap in the conversation. Then the inevitable topic that had brought us together arose.
“I know I shouldn’t be upset that he won’t talk to me,” Brianna said, working to catch her breath between our fits of laughter. The midday sun now glinted off Timothy Rysher’s bust in the courtyard. “I just wish I understood why. I get it, there are mysteries we won’t understand until we cross over, but why wouldn’t family members want to speak with those they’ve left behind? What reason could he possibly have not to contact me after sending out two Bond Requests?”
It was possible that she was legitimately baffled by this. I was able to draw the obvious conclusion from Owen regarding just how he felt about her, but she seemed oblivious to… well, everything… including her status as an accused serial killer.
“Who was the other request sent to?” After asking this question several times of Owen I didn’t hold out hope that Brianna knew. I’d already checked Owen’s public records on Prizm’s website. The Bond Request to me went out without any of Prizm’s encryption standards applied – standards the dead had been known to use when communicating privately. The other request had gone out using Prizm’s in-house developed multifactor encryption, which came along with a premium upcharge.
Only Owen and the recipient of the Bond Request knew.
Brianna shook her head almost mournfully before considering the last glug of cold coffee in her cup. She tossed it back, then, “He used that protection package they offer. Nobody has gone public yet. It’s weird.”
“Do you have any suspicions?”
A single eyebrow rose. Her face grew suspicious for a moment, though the expression evaporated quickly. “Owen was only fourteen when he died. You were his only friend as far as I know. His request didn’t go to me, so that rules out anyone I can think of.”
“Maybe it was one of our teachers,” I said with a chuckle, trying to play things off funny. “Though I should hope most of them are dead now.”
Our laughter filled the café alcove and echoed into the cavernous lobby. It boomed into the terraced upper levels where patrons were looking up from public use computers to see what was going on. We worked quickly to quiet ourselves, giggling like kids caught up after bedtime.
“Edward,” she said softly as our giggles diminished. “I can’t thank you enough for meeting with me. It’s been so great.”
We both seemed to sense our time there was waning, and it was just as well. I’d made it through at least one conversation with the woman who’d unknowingly become a character in my book. It would be enough if I didn’t get another opportunity. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that closeness we shared and feeling guilty because I was using Brianna Steadpool, and for all I could tell she was nothing like Owen described. I couldn’t see this fragile, broken, and indecisive woman casually presiding over surgery on a collie.
“Likewise,” I returned, brandishing a smile that came as naturally as the blink of the eye. I felt like the kid I’d been that last free summer of my life, just months before life would break me forever. “I’m sorry for all the press and fanfare surrounding Owen. I can’t control my Gram or mother, and I know they’ll make things worse before the end.”
The end. What exactly did that entail?
“It’s okay, and not at all your fault,” she said, squeezing my hands. My gaze fell to the tabletop where I acknowledged the contact and its failure to inspire discomfort in me. It was in this moment that I realized the substance behind our connection was born of an unspoken, dark intimacy. We saw in each other the same lost decades, the same solitude… the same catalyst in Owen.
The only difference was what we wanted now. For me it was my book, that would be the end of this empty life. For her it was probably blood, to see the insides of a living thing for the first time in all those years. Yet I couldn’t see this woman as a killer. There was something else I wasn’t decoding properly.
I drew a long, deep breath and exhaled, sending my empty cup skittering across the metal tabletop. My eyes met hers, and she said with the most palpable regret, “We’re relics, I guess. The leftovers from some long forgotten meal. We don’t deserve any of this.”
No, I thought. We don’t.