The Farmer’s Pasture wasn’t technically public land, though there was an access road just off the shaded valley where Twisted Oak Village had sprouted. It was marked with signs warning those entering the woods and walking the ring trail that circled them to do so at their own risk.
The access road was a gravel relic of the old days, much like me, and much like Brianna, I supposed. Twin tire ruts held the vague semblance of a road losing its battle against nature’s reclamation efforts. The soft patter of grass against my bumper, unmitigated in the absence of a caretaker, produced a lulling sound that reminded me of falling snow on a quiet day.
The road wended through pine and maple and oak (naturally) as it followed the contours of the land, gradually rising as it hugged the base of Widower’s Hill, one of two elevations that cradled the village between them. The other, of course, was Widow’s Hill. Why Twisted Oak didn’t attract more tourists became less of a mystery the longer you spent there.
Eventually the trees thinned as I drove over the lower hump of Widower. Beneath me I could see the road meander down through another thick tangle of boreal forest to where it opened on what had once been the farm dooryard. Here the land was relatively open, though still being encroached upon by the trees. Patches of green where waist-high grass was swept in crescent patterns by the wind were much smaller than I remembered from when I’d last been there as a child. These bald spots in the otherwise teeming clots of vegetation were used as parking areas for hikers. There were no cars there.
I coasted down the remainder of the dirt road, eventually rolling into what had once been the dooryard proper. At the far end of the plot was a crater in the earth where a farmhouse had once stood. This was the original Tromblee homestead, where the town’s most influential business leaders and secret keepers made their name. Now it lay abandoned, the house seemingly plucked from the earth by the hand of a giant. How the Tromblee family let this space decay instead of turning it into some museum, some grand monument to themselves, was beyond me.
It was hot when I stepped out of the car. I peeled my hooded sweatshirt from my body and tossed it on the driver’s seat. Fishing my phone out of my pocket I sent Owen a message letting him know I was there. He answered immediately.
Owen: Take the ring trail until you hit the switchback at Rose Spring. There will be a trail there, barely noticeable probably. It’s little more than a game trail.
Me: Okay. I’ll message you when I’m there.
And with that I rounded the crater at the edge of the dooryard and started down the ring trail. Leaves fluttered in the breeze, breaking shafts of sunlight pushing through the thick canopy above. The trail was in much better condition than the access road, leading me to wonder if it had seen renewed interest from the more active townies in the years I’d been gone. As I pressed deeper into the forest I couldn’t help marveling at what had been, only 150 years ago, wide open grassland.
No texts of any kind disturbed the meditation I fell into as nature sang around me. My mind’s eye turned to my childhood as it so frequently did the last few days, and I spent the next half hour thinking of candy cigarettes, Dippin’ Dots, and satellite wafers, eventually realizing I hadn’t eaten anything in more than a day now. Lobster rolls with Bampy at The Oarweed in Perkins Cove, hot dogs at Flo’s with Gram, and even the odd memory of steaks with Mom at the Hilltop in Massachussetts all flashed through my mind as I endeavored to convince myself I wasn’t hungry.
The switchback Owen had referenced was easy enough to spot as the forest thinned to a peppering of narrow birch trees reaching up from the grass. Threaded through the swaying, emerald blades were the curled shafts of new fern growth, soon to unfurl and dominate the forest floor. Given the relative openness of the forest here, the switchback would have been unmistakable to anyone looking for it. It rose sharply toward the crest of a hill blocking out the horizon before doubling back again.
I emerged from my mind as I reached the elbow of the trail and stopped to search for the game trail Owen wanted me to take. Before me the terrain dipped toward a wall of trees marking the edge of Rysher Woods where the blueberry plains began. Looming in the distance, miles away, was the Ozian form of Twisted Oak Public library, the midday sun winking off its glass turrets and ramparts. Behind it, the navy blue waters of the Atlantic shimmered.
It wasn’t until I turned my gaze downward and began inspecting the ground that I caught the glint of mica shot through the loose soil. There a narrow dirt path broke off indiscernibly from the ring trail toward unknown parts of the forest. I fished my phone from my pocket and texted Owen.
Me: I found the trail. I assume you want me to follow it.
Owen: Yes. You’ll start to hear Rose Spring in the rocks. Eventually the whole right side of the trail will give to a granite cliff-face, and the water will get louder. Follow the sounds off the trail until you come to a clearing with a massive Japanese maple. You can’t miss it. It’s thicker than a car.
Me: And when I get there?
Owen: Text me.
- - -
The trail was exactly as Owen described. The terrain changed just as he said it would. The only detour I took was to find the bubbling source of Rose Spring in the clustered rocks for a drink.
By the way Owen described the Japanese maple I’d soon come across, I expected something truly magnificent. As I followed the sounds of the spring into the clearing I was meant to find, the maple slowly taking form through the wavering leaves, I realized that I’d soon be in the presence of something ancient.
The tree towered over me as I exited the thorny tangle of the game trail, strangling the sunlight. The shadows cast about the leaf-littered ground felt somehow darker than normal, ominous. Roots like the fat fingers of giants bore into the ground with a palpable presence of ownership over its domain. This place belonged to the tree. The flesh of the world was its to explore, and deep were its designs. Its trunk had the girth of not just a car, but a truck, opening into a network of branches so thick and intertwined that all the animals of the forest could make it their home. Thin red leaves fluttered in the wind carrying off the coastal plane. They looked waxed, leathery.
How had a relic of the ancient world gone so inexplicably unnoticed in Twisted Oak all this time? This was something to be celebrated, a god if anything else, yet I’d never heard so much as a mentioning of its existence in town.
It was easily the size of a redwood.
I thought about how this giant could be used to entice tourists in ways Twisted Oak had only ever dreamed, but my train of thought was smashed to pieces by the ding of an incoming text. It was from Gram.
Gram: We R at TOPL, where R U?
Translated: We’re at Twisted Oak Public Library…
It wasn’t until my screen began to flicker at its margins that I realized I was working to crush the phone in my hand. How did she know I was at the library? What’s more, how the shit did she get there so quickly?
There were two explanations. The first, and less likely, was that I was spotted at the library and someone called the press. The second scenario, almost a certainty, was that Brianna had blabbed.
No. She couldn’t have. She had no reason to draw attention to herself… right?
Me: How did you find out I was here?
I nearly added a trio of angry face emojis but instead waited there, watching her text entry icon pop up in a flash. Then it vanished, and I was left for a few blissful seconds to think that she might back off. This didn’t last long as a new notification popped up, flashing her name like a hazard as I was directed to a new group chat with my mother and Bampy in Forgetmenot.
I never should have answered her.
Gram: It’s the story of the CENTURY! They R calling it a modern mystery! The man and his ghost friend on some secret mission.
Me (the words “what the fuck” bouncing around my skull): Secret mission? Are you high?
Mom: Aren’t you watching the net? They’ve got you going through the electronic tolls in York and Biddeford. The library has camera footage.
That wasn’t legal.
Me: You fucking filed a missing persons report!
Bampy: You left them no choice, Eddy. I’m so disappointed in you.
Gram: UR grandfather is terribly disappointed.
I’d never had greater difficulty arranging my thoughts. I’m sure a portion of their concern was inspired by some dim flicker of altruism, actual concern for my well-being, but they weren’t fooling anyone with their true motivations. None, perhaps, but Bampy.
They wanted the fame. They wanted the fanfare. They wanted whatever opportunities this media spectacle might open up for them to improve their positions in life.
For the briefest of moments I thought stupidly of tossing my phone into the brush at the edge of the maple’s domain. My gaze moved about the clearing, up the thick shaft of trunk and along the fluttering leaves to where it found a chemtrail slowly expanding across a blue sky behind a passenger jet. I felt something crack in my hand.
My eyes fell to the webwork of cracks now expanding from the edges of the screen. Another message arrived, this one from Mom, and as I read it my feet began to carry me toward the tree.
Mom: Where are you?
Gram: Enough hiding, Eddy. U never used 2 B this selfish.
Mom: I’m beyond disappointed. After all I’ve done for you all these—
I tore my gaze away and channeled every bit of self-control I had into keeping my hand from crushing the handheld further. Mom’s claim that she had anything other than a passing interest in parenting at odd times when it served her motives was bad enough that I didn’t read the rest of what she wrote, but it was Gram’s insistence that I’d changed that really set my kettle boiling. I was not the one who had changed, they had changed, most especially Bampy who’d been the catalyst for the other two. This naked, unabashed erosion of all values was Forgetmenot’s true and only gift to the world.
Me: You just want to use me. I have dreams that you’re stepping on. This isn’t the life I want.
Me: You can all fuck yourselves.
The message soared into the Forgetmenot feed with all the unspoken weight it conveyed. I’d just told my family that I was never coming back to them, and I had no intent to. I was going to finish what I came here for, tell the press about my book, and set to honing the story that would put my name on bookshelves across the world.
I thumbed my way into each of their profiles, blocking them one by one, and finishing with Bampy just as his final message bloomed in the chat feed.
Bampy: We are all but a dream in the mind of a celestial.
I paused, letting the words shake me as the scant sunlight coming through the canopy above diminished, the sun apparently passing behind cloud. Those words... I’d heard them before, recently even, but I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint where. Probably the hotel.
I began sifting through the various chat feeds I’d been in the last 24 hours when a message notification drew me back to my chat with Owen. Bampy’s words were lost in the chaos of my mind along with their origin.
Owen: You there yet?
I began banging away my response, already feeling the anxiety my family had inspired in me dissipating. This was it. I knew it with every fiber of my being. This was where the meat of my book would present itself.
Me: You bet, old friend.
Feeling excitement swell into the spaces where my anxiety had been, I wove my enthusiasm into a second message as I smiled down at my cracked phone screen.
Me: This tree is ridiculous! People in town must know about it… how has it gone hidden this long?
I waited for his answer, which usually came in a flash in moments like this… moments when you could almost feel your own destiny flexing against the world around you. In my mind I went to a point in the near future where I was seated at a narrow table, books with my name on them stacked as high as my chin while a line of people curled around a row of new release hardcovers, out of sight and quite possibly reaching off into eternity.
Owen still wasn’t answering. Tapping at the details button I confirmed that my texts had gone unanswered for three plus minutes. This was, forgiving the pun, an eternity for the dead to wait between messages. It didn’t fit at all with the urgency he’d pressed me with in getting here. What was wrong? I had five bars of petabit-level bandwidth. It wasn’t a connection issue.
I waited another couple of minutes, then typed out a quick message asking Owen (in an unoffending way, I hoped) if everything was okay. As I went to send it, my thumb millimeters from the button, the crack of a gunshot shattered the stillness of the forest. My gaze was seized by a sudden, chaotic exodus from the red canopy above, where hundreds of black birds took to the air, cackling in offense to the sudden noise. For the briefest of moments I wondered how I’d failed to notice the crows hiding in the maple, but my attention was quickly stolen away as I collapsed on the leaf-littered ground, clutching at my right knee which was suddenly on fire. The thought that I’d been shot didn’t enter my mind until my hands began to collect the hot, wet slop of my own blood as they pawed at the space where my kneecap had been.
The trees came alive at the edge of the clearing. Branches were heaved aside as a man emerged. His rifle, the one that had blasted away my knee, was laid over his forearm, the stock leveraged in the crook of his arm. His clothes were all camo, including the ski mask pulled over his head with holes for his nose and eyes. Those eyes stayed on me as he drew closer, walking with a casual air that left me wondering foolishly if he’d made a mistake in shooting me.
With his free hand the man produced an object that he worked at with his thumb. It was a phone. His pace slowed a bit as he seemed to reallocate brainpower to the task on his phone screen. Seconds later he nodded at the handheld and shoved it into his pocket with the same specter of anticipation crossing his face that I’d expect in a child finishing that last bite of dinner before desert.
The camo man shifted his rifle out of his armpit and took it one-handed. His other hand went up to his ski mask, shucking it from his head as he stopped a foot away from me, glaring downward. I spent no time struggling to place this man. I knew exactly who he was, or more appropriately who he’d been before the decades of cruel isolation had turned him into the haggard, stubble-pegged, wispy-haired creature that stood over me.
It was Hadley Broomhill.
It all ends tomorrow, Owen’s voice spoke in my mind.
Next week Forgetmenot will conclude with Pt. 10. I'd say I hate leaving things with cliffhangers, but I don't. I love it. I love it sooooooo much.