It was a small town on the northern California coast where the teenagers still cruised Main Street, stopping at both the stoplights on their trek from the A&W north to the bowling alley, then around and back again; a small town nestled against the ocean where the Coast Ranges prevented most radio and television signals from bringing in the latest fashions; a small town where progress rarely interfered and the A&W was still the only link to a world of fast food.
A full moon hung low in the evening sky, fragmented by naked branches and power lines. I stood in the shadows before the high school, staring at the faded spot on the wall where the capital B had fallen off, leaving only aker High School still intact. The school was much the same as it had been when I left, still a collection of single-story hallways intersecting to form inaccessible open courtyards.
I stood on a brown patch of grass, my knapsack at my feet. Faded green canvas, I’d bought it at an Army surplus store and carried it around the world with me, stuffing it with tiny objects I’d found in small villages and back-alley shops where tourists never went.
A breeze from the ocean blew up through town and sent a chill crawling through me. I pulled my jacket tighter around my gaunt frame, fumbling to tug the zipper upward with shaking fingers.
My clothes hung limply from my body, mismatched and out of style. The shirt, brown cotton gauze stained with sweat, I’d found in India. The jeans, now faded and frayed at the cuffs of the bell bottoms, were a pair of counterfeit Levi’s I’d found in Hong Kong. The green jacket I’d received from an Army deserter in Cambodia after spending a five-day drunk with him, helping him through a bad case of the DT’s and a good case of scotch. My shoes--a pair of low-top black tennis shoes--were new. I deserved that; I’d walked through the soles of so many others.
I was suddenly pinned against the school wall by a spotlight, silhouetted like a marionette with no strings.
“Hey there.” The voice behind the spotlight called again and I blinked my tired eyes against the light, squinting to see who was talking to me.
“What are you doing there?”
“I used to go to school here,” I said. My voice was ragged, hesitant, because I could not see the other person.
The light snapped off and I blinked again, adjusting to the sudden darkness.
“Class of ’80.” The voice came from inside a police car. “You?”
“Class of ’74,” I said. It seemed like so many years had passed, like so many things had worn away at what I was, what I had dreamed of being, that I no longer had a sense of time.
“What brought you back?” he asked. He was broad-shouldered and serious, the type who had played football and been class president, gotten good grades and been liked by everyone.
I shook my head. There was nothing I could tell him.
He motioned me over to the patrol car and offered to buy me a cup of coffee. I gathered up my knapsack and climbed into the car beside him.
“Mike Morelli,” he said as he stuck out a thick hand with strong fingers.
I grasped his hand firmly, shook it, and released it quickly. His touch burned in my memory, my palms sweaty and shaking. “Patrick Bates,” I said.
Morelli slowly swung the patrol car out of the faculty parking lot and pointed it down the road toward the main part of town. Silence between us and the faint crackling and popping of the radio as he drove tickled at the razor-sharp edges of my nerves, rubbing the exposed ends like ground glass.
“Seventy-four,” he said thoughtfully, his forehead wrinkled as if he strained to remember. “Wasn’t that the year--”
“It was,” I said, interrupting his question. I had wondered how long it would take him to remember.
Morelli grunted, silent again. He drove through town, down narrow streets between rows of houses washed pale by my memory of them, south to the A&W, pulling the patrol car to a halt in one of the stalls. He reached out his open window and pressed the button on the face of the speaker, ordering two coffees and a Papa Burger. He looked over at me, the details of my face lost in the shadows inside the car. “You want anything else?”
“No. Coffee’s fine.”
“That’s it, sweetheart,” he said to the teenaged voice in the speaker. Then he turned to me again. “They’ve all left, you know.”
I nodded. It wasn’t hard to guess that my few remaining classmates would leave town just as I had left.
“Nobody else has ever come back,” Morelli said. “Nobody I ever heard of.”
I nodded again, wishing my coffee would hurry. We sat silent for a moment, watching as a Mustang careered into the parking lot, teenaged boys hanging from the open windows, yelling and waving. As soon as they saw the patrol car, they slowed and the driver very carefully pulled the rusting car into a stall at the far end of the row.
“Now them boys,” Morelli said, pointing his finger at the Mustang, “they don’t understand what this town does.”
“They will,” I said. “Give them time.”
Before he could respond, our coffee and his hamburger arrived. He passed a steaming cup to me, then unwrapped his hamburger and took a bite. Catsup and mustard spewed out the other side of the bun. He wiped at his uniform with a napkin, the stain already evident and too late to wipe away.
“You surprise me,” Morelli finally said.
“You’re not what I expected.” He took another bite of the hamburger, more carefully this time. “You look late sixties,” he said. “Like you forgot to leave an era behind.”
“Here?” I questioned. “This town’s always been an era behind.”
Morelli didn’t know whether to laugh or take me seriously. He considered a moment, then agreed with me. “This town moves slow. It always has.”
A blonde waitress wiggled past, carrying a tray full of root beer mugs to the Mustang at the end of the aisle. Morelli’s eyes followed her to the Mustang, then back into the restaurant.
“You must have a lot of bitter memories,” Morelli said. “The whole class of ’74 must have bitter memories.”
I nodded. “It pushed them away. Kept them from coming back.”
“It was a hell of an accident,” he continued, oblivious to my comment. “Damn near the whole senior class.” He shook his head as if to shake away the memories; then he said, “I lived three blocks away from the hotel. The explosion woke me up. My father and I watched the fire from down the street. I must have had nightmares for a month after that.”
I knew what he meant. The nightmares would never end for me, had never stopped, and I didn’t expect to free myself of them.
“Where were you when it happened?” Morelli asked.
“Outside,” I said. “In the parking lot sneaking a drink from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. My girlfriend was inside.”
“Jesus.” Morelli finished his hamburger and crumpled up his napkin. “You were lucky.”
“Maybe.” I pulled aside my long, greasy black hair and showed him the purple splotches on the side of my face and the back of my neck. They extended far down my back and across my chest, a tattoo of burning tuxedo etched into my skin. “I went in after her. There was nothing I could do.”
We sat together watching the boys in the Mustang as they piled out of the car and took their places on the hood. They laughed and swore at each other, pushed one another off the car, spilling root beer on the pavement. They were rough-and-tumble, as I had once been.
“Can I drop you someplace?” Morelli asked as he started the car. “I have to make my rounds again.”
I looked over at him in the darkness of the patrol car, seeing the hard lines already forming in his young face. “I want to go back to the school.” I said.
“I could take you to a motel if you want.”
“The school will be fine.”
He shrugged and pulled from the parking lot. “They don’t know how lucky they are,” Morelli said as he motioned toward the boys. “In a few years they’ll realize they can’t escape from this town. Nobody does,” he said. “They come back sooner or later.”
I listened to him ramble, watching the town crawl slowly past the car window. In ten years, nothing much had changed. D’Grasso’s Hardware Store had a new coat of white paint. Henderson’s Floral Shop had become Johnson’s Floral Gallery. The Hi-Ho Inn had expanded into the next building. And the remains of the old hotel had been swept away, replaced by a small park in the center of town. But the Standard station where I’d had my first part-time job still had full service and the weekly newspaper still posted the front page of the most recent edition in their front window. And the houses were still the same bland blend of clapboard and vinyl siding.
“I came back,” he said. “I had dreams. Big dreams. But I came back.” He looked over at me. “Your class had dreams, too. But you’re the first one to return.”
“Most of us never had a chance to leave,” I said.
“Hell of a tragedy, wasn’t it? I mean, so many kids on their graduation night. They never really had a chance, did they?”
Morelli pulled the patrol car to a halt in the faculty parking lot and I climbed out with my knapsack firmly in hand.
“You sure you don’t need a ride someplace else?” he said. “I’d be happy to take you.”
“No thanks,” I told him. “I appreciate the offer, but I’ll wait here a while.”
I watched as the patrol car pulled away and I wondered if Morelli understood. Ten years is a long time for some of us.
I sat on the front porch of the school and waited, watched the moon and felt the breeze from the ocean sweep up from town to chill me. As chairman of the ten-year reunion committee, it was my responsibility to send out the invitations.
I began unpacking the knapsack; they would be arriving soon.
All of them.
“Of Memories Dying” copyright © 1985 Michael Bracken. First published in Midnight, an anthology edited by Charles L. Grant and published in paperback by Tor Books.
A little history:
“Of Memories Dying” was was written early in my career and was the first of my short stories to be published in an anthology. It appeared on the preliminary ballot for a Nebula Award.
It was later expanded and released under the title “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn” as part of Even Roses Bleed, an audiobook collection of seven of my stories released by Books In Motion in 1995.
After a slight revision, In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn was released in 2000 as a small-sized paperback by Barley Books in England. Reviews sere solid: “A truly terrifying tale in the Stephen King tradition. Michael Bracken is a horror writer to watch out for.” (Writers Block) and “Nicely understated and atmospheric....” (Science Fiction Chronicle). Barley Books promptly went out of business.
In 2002, Wildside Press released Canvas Bleeding, a hardback collection of my horror short stories that includes the original version of “Of Memories Dying.”
“Dreams Unborn,” a prequel to “Of Memories Dying”/In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn was published in Small Crimes, a hardback anthology of crime fiction I edited that Wildside Press published in 2004. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewed the anthology and said, “... the concluding novella, ‘Dreams Unborn,’ which though much grimmer may remind you of American Graffiti, is the best piece of fiction I’ve read by editor Bracken.” “Dreams Unborn” was named one of the year’s best mysteries by the editors of The Best American Mystery Stories 2005.
Maybe someday the two halves of the story--“Dreams Unborn” and “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unborn”--will be published together.