Forgotten, by Abby Hall. 2019.
It felt to Ada like years had passed before she opened her eyes to the morning sun glinting through the crack in the orange motel curtains. She reached her arms high above her head before sitting up with a groan.
“Good morning,” Maeve said from the floor in front of her bed. She stood and brushed her hands on her dirty jeans. Her hair had turned into a violet waterfall of curls since the night before. Ada guessed it was from the shower. “I went ahead and fed Priddy. I hope that’s okay.” Ada noticed that Maeve was holding a battered, black-screened cellphone in her hand, and she wondered for a passing moment if Maeve had contacted anyone who might have been worried about her.
Ada peeked around the edge of the bed to see Priddy eating her kibble on top of the plastic bag holding the rest of her rations.
“Thank you,” Ada said hoarsely, realizing she hadn’t had anything to drink since their arrival in town. It took a few minutes for the sound of the television to reach her ears, but she recognized that it was the news discussing another horrible event. Not the train wreck, no; it was footage of three cars that had crashed on slick roads that morning and piled up on one another as if a giant child had placed them there in a fit of creativity.
The women sat in silence for a moment until Maeve made a dive toward the TV. “Ada, did you see that?” Her voice was frantic, and, when Ada looked over, she was on her knees in front of the discolored screen.
“See what?” Ada crawled to the end of the bed to take a closer look, and then she saw it.
“There!” Maeve pointed to one of the cars, a mangled, crunched thing that resembled a piece of popcorn. By the time her finger reached the spot, the vision was gone, but Ada had seen it first. “What was that?” Maeve asked, turning her wild brown eyes on Ada. It made Ada start to be looked at in such a way after such a time alone, and she felt guilty somehow, even though she knew—or hoped—that the white cloud of a creature wasn’t her fault.
“I don’t know what that is, but I know it was at the train crash,” Ada admitted. “It was—well, I think it tried to kill you.”
Maeve blinked and sat back on her feet. “Kill…me?”
No one spoke for a moment. Priddy sat near Maeve’s bed, tight with the desire to include herself in the conversation. One look from Ada reminded her to keep quiet, though, and she sat even stiller.
Ada stretched one of her legs out on the bed. It had started to tingle and buzz from being in one position too long. “I don’t know what it is, Maeve, but I know you collapsed, and it tried to—to pull something out of you.” She shook her head, unable to meet Maeve’s frightened eyes. “It’s hard to explain. But Priddy scared it away, and you woke up.”
Maeve let out a fast gasp and fidgeted with her fingers. “What? What?” She looked around the room in a panic. “Why would it kill me?”
Fright pulled at Ada’s heart. Did he have something to do with this? Her mind flashed back to the night in the field, where he stood above her like an intangible but wholly real figure formed out of shadow. Dread seeped from her heart into her chest cavity. “I don’t know, but if you stay with us, we can try to help you.”
The purple-haired woman sighed shakily and nodded toward Priddy. “Priddy scared it off, huh?” Her words were confident, but the falter in her voice betrayed her. “Then I’m safe with you two, right? Or—” she shrugged, looking at the door— “relatively safe, I guess. Anything could happen.”
Ada had never felt surer of a statement in her life. Yes, anything could happen.
It took a day and a half of riding a quick gray train, a bag of pre-made sandwiches, and a lot of strange looks when taking a dog to the train’s toilet, but the trio made it to Lapeer safe and sound in the midst of a gentle snow shower. After a moment of stretching, they began the hour long walk through various small Michigan towns from Lapeer to Brigue.
Maeve walked, shivering, in her new puffy black coat as Ada flipped a map of Michigan around and around. “Hey,” Maeve said, jogging to catch up to Ada. “Thanks for the coat. I feel so stupid for losing my wallet, but I’ll pay you back as soon as I can, okay?” They’d been walking along two-lane county road for fifteen minutes, hoping to come upon Brigue soon, and the shady trees that speckled the road made Maeve even more thankful for the extra layer.
Ada smiled at the young woman’s earnestness. A verbal IOU was about as binding as a fallen leaf for collateral, but Ada knew there was nothing else Maeve could offer but her word. Ada felt a little bad, too, since she was enjoying the perks of an inner, witch-granted warmth, while Maeve seemed colder and more pallid than ever.
“You can pay me back by keeping Priddy company when she gets too—” Talkative was what Ada almost said, but she quickly changed it to energetic. She shook the map out once and lifted it to her face as they went. Priddy, hearing her name, trotted anxiously.
She’s about to burst, Ada thought, eyeing the dog in the corner of her view. She hasn’t been able to talk for two whole days. She’s going to lose it. “Priddy,” Ada said out loud. Priddy’s ears perked up and she looked into Ada’s brown eyes with her own. Ada pointed ahead to a town sign in the distance. “I’m seventy percent sure that’s the town we’re headed to. Can you run ahead and check?” She added, quickly and in a whisper, “Watch for cars.”
Maeve cast a strange look at Ada’s instructions to the dog, surely wondering how Priddy could possibly understand any of that except for run.
In an instant, Priddy’s tail was wagging a mile a minute, and she took off running in the front paw to back paw way that hound dogs run, ear pressed against her head by wind.
Ada blushed under Maeve’s stricken gaze as the dog headed straight for the town. “How do you do that?” she asked while throwing her hands down at her sides. Ada glanced at the girl for a moment—a thought flashed in her mind that she herself wasn’t much older than Maeve, maybe a year or two—and noted the red burn of blood under her nose and cheeks from the cold.
She looked back to the map before replying. “Obedience class.”
Before long, Priddy came bounding back and circled around the two women before coming to a stop in front of Ada and barking in what Ada could only assume was affirmation that, yes, they were heading toward Brigue. Ada bent down and scratched Priddy’s ears affectionately while the dog panted in happy exhaustion for the quick burst of exercise. Ada adjusted the backpack straps weighing on her shoulders, and the three went on.
They walked slowly along the streets until they reached HISTORIC BRIGUE, POPULATION: 4, 015. Despite the breath of winter looming over the town, baskets of purple and red flowers lined the streets, hung from light posts, and slept in long wooden flower beds along storefronts. It was as if a city ordinance had been put in place that only allowed geraniums to be displayed in public.
“Okay, so what are we looking for here?” Maeve asked, sliding into step with Ada.
Ada pocketed her map and looked at the storefronts on either side of the road as she walked. “An art gallery called Dole’s Collection, or something like that. An old—an old friend of mine will be there.” Her words sounded much more suspicious coming out of her mouth than she had intended. Maeve simply shrugged and followed close behind Ada’s hesitant footsteps. Priddy’s nails clacked along the sidewalk, a constant and comforting sound to Ada, who was slowly but surely falling into the dizziness of long travel. Their destination was near—Ada could feel it, somehow—but it felt like an eternity as she read every single storefront in search of the old witch, Dole.
As they walked, dark gray clouds overtook the pale gray clouds in the sky, and the bundles of flowers along the sidewalk popped more in eerie, clear dimness of a cloudy afternoon. To pass the time, Ada tried to imagine what this mysterious Dole might look like. She envisioned them standing in front of her, hunched over in a purple cloak, with a ragged hood covering their tangly strands of silver hair. Wrinkles would line their worn and weathered face, and their eyebrows would be stuck in a permanent downward slope. Ada shuddered at the thought of looking in the mirror one day and seeing that herself.
“Dole’s Collection, right?” Maeve said suddenly, knocking Ada out of her reverie. She turned her head to where Maeve pointed and saw the words painted on the wide, clean window of a storefront as clear as day. Behind the thick, white letters were displays of sculptures, writhing glass bodies in speckled green, red, yellow with arms reaching desperately up toward the ceiling.
Without a word, Ada led the group inside the front door, where a bell alerted the owner of their arrival. A clatter in the backroom, and out walked a pale pole of a person with straight, shiny silver hair cut in a bob just below their ears and bangs just above their large, square, translucent green glasses. They wore a thick yellow scarf thrown casually around their neck, a boxy denim jacket over loose, wide pants, and short boots with the most ridiculously small heel Ada had ever seen—not that she’d seen many shoe heels since she woke up, with the exception of her own dirty sneakers.
“I thought that was you!” Dole said—for, Ada knew, only this could be Dole—and approached the group with open arms. They clasped Ada’s hand tight, and Ada found a feeling vaguely familiar and vaguely foreboding by looking into their light blue eyes.
“Uh, Maeve, this is Dole. They’re the friend I was talking about,” Ada said, stumbling over her words. “Dole, this is Maeve.”
Dole waved their hand in a dismissive gesture. “Oh, no more ‘they’ for me. These days I’m feeling much more ‘she.’ That kind of thing happens when you live long enough, I suppose—humans are always fluctuating.” She squinches her nose in a smile and shakes Maeve’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you, Maeve. That name is so Irish—are you Irish? I suppose we don’t have so many Irish immigrants these days, though. I’m guessing, what, sixth generation?”
Maeve’s eyes darted from Ada to Dole. “Well, uh, my parents are Irish, yeah. I don’t know what generation, though.”
“And your last name is something like MacDonald, right?” Dole continued, a hand on their chin.
“Engelman, actually.” Maeve chuckled awkwardly under the scrutiny of the older person’s questions in much the same way a young adult may chuckle at a family gathering with distant relatives.
Dole nodded as if they had some profound knowledge of that name. Ada wondered just how old Dole was, and whether she had somehow known Maeve’s first-generation family in America.
“Well, welcome to my gallery, Maeve Engelman. And who is this little bundle of legs?” Dole bent down to Priddy’s level and reached for her head. A spark of electricity sparked between them, and Ada flinched deep inside when she saw it. Dole blinked in surprise, but winked at Priddy and petted her head again, this time without the spark.
“That’s Priddy. She’s my dog,” Ada said. It felt odd to say that Priddy was her dog when Priddy was nearly as much a person as Ada was, but she felt the need to pretend in front of Maeve. After all, the woman was apparently being chased by a cloudy angel of death. She didn’t need any more immediate surprises.
“Well, Adathis,” Dole began, standing up, “it’s very nice to see you. It’s been a while.”
“It’s Ada now,” Ada replied, shifting the bag on her back. She took a moment to look around the gallery, noting the array of colorful, impressionistic paintings hanging on the walls. Many of the works were done in primary colors, streaks of blue and red and yellow that blended together at points into purple and green and orange, but only for brief visual moments. “Maeve, I need to talk to Dole in private for a little while. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” Maeve said, shrugging with a smile. “I can look around for a while.”
Dole locked the door and turned the sign to CLOSED while Ada bent down to Priddy, asking her to stay with Maeve until she got back. Priddy nodded, and Ada scratched lovingly behind her ears, thankful for her four-legged friend.
Dole’s office was in the back of the gallery, next to a staircase to Dole’s upstairs apartment. “So,” Dole began, shutting the door behind them, “something is wrong with you.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Ada scoffed, sliding her backpack gently off of her shoulder. “I’ve lost my memory, or most of it.” Dole pulled out an egglike, cushioned chair for Ada to sit on, and then sat on a similar one across from her. The office was decorated similarly to the gallery with round, modern pieces of furniture, sculpture, and canvas. A plastic plant towered in a bright green in one corner, and it gave a heavy sense of falsity to the entire building. Ada considered that maybe it was somehow considered a sculpture. Ada took a deep breath and explained her situation to a quiet, thoughtful Dole.
When she was finished, she pulled out the fox painting, with its subtle hues and dim darkness. “So, I’ve forgotten how to paint, and this demon thing is coming after me.”
“That certainly sounds like a dilemma,” Dole said with a sigh. She stretched her arms over her head, exposing the blue veins in her old neck. “Let’s start with what I know, which is you. I know you very well, Ada.”
“Then tell me, please.” Ada looked at Dole pleadingly, agitation coursing through her body. Her desire to finally learn wrapped around her like a cocoon, and she was begging to finally explode out, to finally exist.
With another sigh, Dole crossed one leg over the other. “First, you should know about me. Then you won’t be as surprised about yourself. At least, I hope.
“I was not born as Dole the witch. When my mother bore me, I was named Owen Pleasants, and I lived in the British colony of New York, before it was even a state, my dear. It was there, in the deep, dark woods of New York that I began painting. It was there that I met him.
By that time, my mother and siblings had died from various illnesses; typhus, smallpox—I can’t even remember these days. It was simply me and my horrible excuse for a father. Well, when he—not my father, but that mysterious voice in the woods—came to me promising nearly eternal life at a small price, I jumped at the chance.”
“Eternal life?” Ada interrupted. Pins and needles creeped up her legs and into her spine.
“Nearly eternal. Well, not even that, really. I’ll simply age much, much more slowly with his help. I was around eighteen when I made the pact, and I’m obviously not a fresh-faced young person these days. But I also was just a normal person beforehand.” Dole eyed Ada’s face in a way that reminded her of a butcher inspecting meat for selling. “Apparently, those who are already witches have a much better time of it.”
Dole uncrossed her legs and leaned on the thin arm of the egg chair. “But we will get back to that. Anyway, I made a pact. It wasn’t he who emerged from the woods, but a middle-aged Dutch mother with tears streaming down her cheeks and blood dried in her hair. She spoke in a voice different from the one that first spoke to me, but I was desperate. She painted my portrait in oils on a canvas the size of my chest, and then she died there at the edge of those woods.
“Then he spoke to me again and said that I would need to keep up the bargain or end up like her. And I did. And I stayed alive. And then—” Dole leaned forward as she spoke—“I met you, Ada. I had explored the country for decades, been all around, and I was back in New York with my first gallery. It was 1956. You were home for your mother’s funeral, and you stopped by as I was about to close. You told me you liked to paint. You told me about your mother. So, I asked you to come back, and I taught you what I could.”
With a groan, Dole stood, motioning for Ada to follow. Ada’s feet felt icy—a trick of the mind, she knew, since she could no longer feel cold—and she had to force herself to follow. They left the office and traversed the stairs up to Dole’s apartment. It was clean and decorated in reds and whites and straight lines. The same kind of geraniums that lined the streets of Brigue sat in Dole’s windows.
Dole opened a door to a closet, and Ada stood just outside the entrance as Dole turned on a light overhead to rifle through the contents of the closet. She pulled a canvas out from under a tarp, and Ada gasped at the sight.
“I painted this for you on the third year of the anniversary of your mother’s death,” Dole said. “I gave you time to think, and to decide, rather than to jump in like I did so long ago. But at the end of last winter, Ona gave this to me and told me to keep it safe. She was worried you were going to do something rash, which, if your memory loss means what I think it does, you did anyway.”
Ada stared at the portrait staring at her with her own brown eyes. It was her, she knew—or, rather, it was Adathis, but one from a time that had passed. Her thin brown hair was parted in the middle and curled in careful waves that framed her face and stopped just under her chin. Her lips, downturned in tired frown, were painted a dusty red, and her thin cheeks were tinged with a tangerine blush. The painting captured Adathis from the top of her head to her elbows, and Ada stood frozen, examining the cream-colored button-up and salmon pink sweater that her lookalike donned. The background was a simple halo of gray that darkened as it reached the edges of the canvas.
A quick and heavy breath escaped Ada’s lips, and she grabbed the doorframe for support. With her exhale came a forceful wind outside the window, and the sound of something large crashing repeatedly into the wall. Maeve screamed from downstairs, and without a second thought, Ada went stumbling to the sound.