The nightmare was always the same.
As always, the world outside was pitch black, except for the two beams of light that cut through the endless dark as she drove the road before her. The wipers on the windshield moved furiously as the rain outside poured with no mercy. She wasn’t afraid of the rain, but she truly needed to get away from what she had left behind. Her final destination wasn’t important, since she was pretty sure she didn’t have one. She only needed to get away.
The road was slippery because of the water that turned into a treacherous, invisible sleet of ice the moment it landed on the road. Despite the car’s heating, her body couldn’t stop shaking. The knuckles of her hands were pale white as she tried to control both the car and her own emotional storm.
Scared. Sad. Disappointed. Heartbroken. All these feelings were wreaking havoc inside her, blurring her vision with tears of despair. A sensation of deep loss that hurt even more, because she had experienced it at some point before, leered at her from the seat next to her. But just as she was trying to remember when, thunder boomed outside breaking the darkness with a silver streak, causing the windows to shake and the memory to scatter away. Her breaths were coming out in loud sobs as she glided the car down the narrow road. She didn’t remember why, but deep down her instincts made her press harder on the gas pedal.
She was too distracted, trying to calm herself, that she didn’t notice the pronounced curve coming fast at her. But there was nothing she could do as she felt the car skid dangerously to the protection barrier next to her. Her foot stomped hard on the brake pedal but instead of stopping, it caused the car to swerve, until she felt the impact against the protection barrier.
All of a sudden, the world around her became a blur of dark and rain, as the car failed to stop and began its dizzying descent down the hill. Her head hit the window hard. She was so sure this was the end, she stopped screaming. Instead, she closed her eyes and prayed for the madness to stop.
With a sudden jerk, Annie Parker woke up. Her bedroom was quiet, except for her loud attempts to get air into her lungs. Her legs and arms began to throb from the aftershocks of the nightmare. Taking more deep breaths, she tried to calm her agitated heart.
Dragging both hands through her tousled hair, she turned her head to the bedside clock and saw it was already four fifty a.m. Her alarm would go off in five minutes. Annie groaned but got out of bed and hunted down her clothes to change for her regular morning run.
A few minutes later, Annie stood in front of the mirror as she finished layering up against the winter weather outside. She tied her rich chocolate brown hair into a ponytail, like she always did when she ran. She liked the kick of feeling the wind on her face, especially during the winter months.
With eyes a shade of green that reminded her of the emeralds her friend Marley usually worked with when creating her jewelry, she surveyed her own reflection. The woman mimicking her gestures as she traced her own fingers along her face, looked normal. The only problem was that Annie wasn’t normal. She was different. Not a freak, although she sometimes felt like one, but just different in a very crucial detail. Contrary to her friends, or the people she knew, Annie couldn’t remember anything about her life, at least the one she knew she had before arriving here to Creek Valley. She couldn’t even remember what her real name was.
Annie had amnesia caused by her head getting banged up pretty bad during a car accident, but also due to severe emotional trauma, as the doctor had explained to her during her time at the hospital. The night they brought her to the hospital she would wake up to discover she didn’t have a clue why she was there, and that everything about her had been pushed away into some dark corner surrounded by a thick wall which she couldn’t tear down.
She had begun to exist as Annie Parker three years ago after the accident. An accident whose last horrible moments she went though every time they decided to darken her dreams. The nightmare had been the only thing that her screwed up brain had been able to recover from that place where the rest of her life was now locked away. There was still a gap between the last moments of the nightmare and the next time she opened her eyes. Annie’s new set of memories would begin with the blurred moments from after she had somehow crawled out from the car and up the hill, before she was found and taken to the hospital.
Annie closed her eyes and felt her body shudder, as she could still feel the pain and confusion the woman she used to be experienced before the car went tumbling down the hill. It troubled her more than she cared to admit that the nightmare had come again. Maybe it was because today was her birthday, or at least that’s how she liked to call the day she came to Creek Valley.
In a sense, it was her birthday, or rebirth day. There’s was no doubt in her mind that if she hadn’t gotten herself out of that car in time, she would not be standing here today. Like a phoenix, she had risen from the ashes and been reborn. Although she was still afraid of spreading her wings and flying high.
To her though, it didn’t matter if she didn’t have a clue when her real birthday was, either. Let alone if she should be celebrating her twenty-seventh year of life or if maybe Doctor Colburn had been wrong in his assessment when he first met her. According to the town’s doctor, he had calculated her age to be around twenty-four, three years ago. It didn’t bother her that much really, this date was supposed to be more than just adding years. It was about celebrating her time here and she was going to try and do just that.
Annie concentrated again on her reflection in front of the mirror hanging from the bathroom door and stared straight into her own eyes. Even though she couldn’t remember, she was pretty sure her outer self hadn’t changed, too drastically. But still, it wasn’t enough to stop that weird sensation that the person she had become after leaving the hospital was some sort of intruder in this body. Like the real her was caged somewhere and at times she could sense her eager to break away from her confinement.
It was like that book she had read, Irish Tales by William Butler Yeats. One of the many stories talked about the changelings, children or sometimes grown ups who were snatched up from their homes and replaced by an identical looking copy. Only that the real person would be forever lost in the world of the “good people” and the one that remained would eventually waste away and die. That’s how she felt, especially after going through the dreaded nightmare. As if the person she used to be got snatched away by whatever emotional trauma she had experienced prior to the crash. The real reason behind her mental block that didn’t want her past recollections to come back.
Unfortunately, that lost woman and the memories that accompanied her would always remain that way. Annie recalled the decision she had taken three years ago. A decision she took the day after having had her first dream. Whatever had made her leave in such a state of distress wasn’t worth digging up, even if that meant letting go of the first twenty-four years of her life.
The sacrifice was probably, too much, but never again did she want to feel as lost as she always did when driving that car. She was happy now and she intended to remain so for a very long time. If she had to live with the guilt of feeling like an intruder, then it was a small price to pay.
After finding a cap to cover her head and ears and putting on her fleece jacket and gloves, she went down the stairs and stepped outside.
Annie had been running ever since the accident. At first, she had stuck to the physical therapy the doctor had ordered. Eventually, she had started going out for walks to strengthen her muscles, but as she felt stronger, she began to discover the relief that came when she ran. Annie enjoyed having that hour to herself and her thoughts. After going through one of her dreams, she usually pushed herself even more so that by the end of her run, there would be nothing on her mind but the consciousness of the delicious spurts of pain waking up along her body.
Few people were up this early in the morning, especially during January, when the temperature at this time of day could sometimes be in the high forties or lower. The solitude of her morning ritual would give her the opportunity to unwind before tackling the day ahead. Her senses began to fill in with the welcoming smell of snow in the air and the nakedness of the American elms, quaking aspens and paper birch trees, as they shivered next to her. Almost as if they longed for the warmer days to give them back their beautiful covering. Annie knew once spring and summer kicked in, it would all be a festival of color, and the town would disappear under an umbrella of light and dark greens.
The sounds of a town stirring up and preparing for another day, the sight of the familiar buildings, their colors and textures, and the taste of her own breath as it began to quicken in time with her pace, were soothing. At that moment, all her morning wariness disappeared and instead she was possessed by a deep rooted feeling of belonging. Not only to the town around her but to the people who lived within its limits.
Having no memory of the past was an advantage. Because she now had accumulated enough memories that only brought a smile to her lips every time she thought about them. Few people had the opportunity of starting over, and had the luck of doing so around people that genuinely cared about them. Annie did consider herself fortunate and for that she was determined to enjoy this day like it was the real thing. Even if today was a lie, January had been the month that brought her here, she owed it to herself to make the most of it.
Annie usually liked to run though Main Street and then through the more quiet streets where all the big houses were lined up. Creek Valley was a small Connecticut town near the big apple. Its inhabitants were mostly big families, whose fathers and mothers either worked in other neighboring towns or all the way in New York. There were also retired couples, and those who had a summer house near the beach, and who came to Creek Valley starting June.
When she was in the mood and she could spare more time before getting ready for work, Annie liked to head to the Little Creek Woods Park, on the southern part of town, and run along the many different trails, sometimes going as far as Mayfield Lake right in the middle of the park. Other times, especially during the summer, she would go directly to the lake and take a blanket, food and a good book and lose herself for hours.
Today though, seeing as she needed to be at the diner by six, Annie decided to stick to Main Street. She passed Maggie’s Diner which was located right in front of the town’s train station. Which was a prime location since not only was it right in the middle of Main Street, but locals always liked to step into Maggie’s while waiting for their train and it was the first place tourists saw when they stepped off of it.
Then as she got farther away she passed the hardware store, a couple of antiques shops, an arts and crafts store, the pharmacy and the town’s fancy wine store, Vins du Ciel, until she made it to the small public library.
On the other direction, there was a hotel, several more stores, a couple of art galleries, a real estate office and her best friend’s charming boutique, Dreams and Trends. Annie’s apartment was located right above it. Enough places to keep their small town of Creek Valley bustling with activity even during the winter when the beach was not a plausible option, until summer came and families invaded their streets.
It was an attractive spot for tourists looking for a cozy getaway during the winter or for a relaxed, calm spot to spend spring or summer. There were others, the outdoorsy type, that would come every year to do either camping, hiking or biking around town and the permitted areas deep in the woods. It was enough to let this small town continue to exist.
It made Annie feel safe, guarded, but at the same time curious of what she would find if she ever ventured outside it. She loved hearing the stories of when Marley used to live in New York, of Central Park, the New York City Public Library, the museums, Soho, the whole energy of a city she only knew from other people’s tales even though she was merely an hour and a half away from it. It was difficult for Annie to not wonder if her real home had been in the city, or maybe in some of the neighboring towns around Creek Valley.
If her own will couldn’t stop the inevitable and she recovered her past, would she have the courage to go back wherever her home was? To just leave her life in Creek Valley and try to pick up her old life where she had left it?
Just as she did with the nightmare, she put these questions at the back of her mind. Today was not the day to dwell on her past decisions or on things that might or might never happen.
An hour later, she was back at her apartment and coming out from the shower. With a towel wrapped around her body, she was almost done drying herself, when she noticed the light flashing on her answering machine. She pressed the play button and heard Maggie’s voice wishing her a happy birthday and asking her to arrive on time for work at the diner. That call only meant one thing: her friends were planning something. Annie didn’t mind much but never enjoyed being the center of attention, at least during her life here anyway.
With a resigned sigh, she put on a pair of jeans, her long sleeved thermal underwear, a brown cashmere turtleneck sweater over it and her usual worn-out white Converse sneakers. Marley would probably have a fashion fit, like she always did. But Annie couldn’t possible see herself handling trays of hot food in a pair of stilettos, or high heeled boots, like the ones her friend loved wearing and even sold at her store. Like her life here, Annie preferred to surround herself by the simple, quiet and non attention calling details.
Grabbing her jacket and apartment keys, Annie locked her door and went down the stairs. The entrance to her place was located to the side of Marley’s store’s main entrance.
Doing a quick detour before going to the diner, Annie stopped by the hardware store to have a quick word with Peter Bennings, the owner and official handy man for the whole town.
“Hey, Mr. Bennings. Good morning.”
“Hey, Annie! How’s it going? How’s the new place working for you?”
Annie had recently moved to her new home. She had been living with Maggie since her arrival at the Valley. As her responsibilities had grown in the diner, she was able to save enough money to rent the space above Marley’s store, one of her two best friends in town. It wasn’t much but it had been Annie’s first move towards trying to rebuild her life and make it her own.
Because of her unusual situation, Annie had no official paperwork, no social security, nothing. She had had them at some point, she imagined, but after the accident she had had to rely on her other friends in town to help her lead a normal life without prompting any questions from the rest of the town. Especially since she wasn’t going to go on digging through her past.
Since Maggie had been the one to give her a job, Annie had had no problem trying to come up with references, and the money she earned at the diner was given to her directly. But when she’d shared her desire to move to her own place, Maggie had set up a new savings account under her name and Annie had and still used it to save the rest of the money she didn’t use to pay rent and the rest of her bills. Although sometimes she indulged in some book online shopping, which caused her income to stretch thin before payday was due.
As to her apartment, since Marley was the owner of the building, she was her landlord. Annie had no problem there. Dr. Colburn, took care of all her medical issues even though she hadn’t stepped inside the town’s clinic since the last days of her recovery sessions with the physiotherapist. Doctor Colburn had been the one to tend to her injuries after the accident when Maggie found her lying on the side of the road.
Her other best friend in town, Jack Baker, the town’s sherif’s deputy, who also knew about her past or lack of thereof, and made sure she didn’t encounter any legal obstacles. Not that Annie had tried to break away from her comfort zone. She didn’t own a car so she had no need for a driver’s license and since everyone in town knew her and assumed she was some sort of relative of Maggie’s, they trusted her. Her library card had been issued using Maggie’s home address and since Mr. Andrews, the manager, was a regular at the diner and member of the town’s council along with her boss, there had been no questions asked.
Which was why Annie worked hard everyday at giving back some of that trust even if at first, she had been terrified when people came up to her and started a conversation. Things were different now.
“It’s just fine, perfect.” Annie said, smiling back at Mr. Bennings. “Actually, I wanted to know when were you going to come by and put up those shelves.”
Annie was proud of her place. When she moved out from Maggie’s, she had felt like all the young kids that went to the diner each summer and talked about going away for college. Despite their natural excitement at going away, she also detected a hint of anxiousness in their excitement at the idea of being on their own and far away from their families. Maybe she wasn’t going away to study but she had certainly felt the same.
The apartment’s layout was simple, like her wardrobe and much of her life in Creek Valley. It had a small kitchen right next to the entrance, bordered by a simple white oak countertop where she barely sat down to eat, since she had most of her meals at the diner. There was a small ancient looking fridge, a four burner stove, a white sink that she was sure was as ancient as the fridge, and several cabinets, all from the same wood as her countertop. There was a big window over the kitchen sink where she liked to gaze down to Main Street and watch the people walk by.
The living room constituted the central part of her apartment. Much of the length of the space was occupied by the navy blue futon Annie bought at a flea market last year. The room was complimented by a low height coffee table and a couple of indoor plants scattered around. To the left side opposite the kitchen, was the entrance to her bedroom. As the rest of the apartment, it wasn’t, too, elaborate. It had a queen-size bed, a dresser and an already built-in closet with enough space for the few pieces of clothing she owned. It also had a bathroom to one side complete with a shower. Again, it wasn’t much, but Annie had chosen each piece of furniture that now dressed up her place. And it made her feel proud her herself.
It’s not that Maggie had been complaining of her living at her house, but Annie had to start taking care of herself and not rely on her boss as much. And Maggie had understood that; but she had been a little bit sad the first month after Annie had moved out. Just like every parent was, when their kids finally left their house.
Even though she was already settled in at her apartment, there was one thing that she had left for the very end. The wall on the left side of the main entrance door was currently bare. Instead of buying any of those prebuilt book cases, she wanted to take advantage of the vastness of the wall and put some wooden shelves, so that she could display her books on them. The only problem was that she had zero knowledge in that area – somehow she doubted that carpentry was one of the things that she couldn’t remember how to do- so she had decided to leave it to the expert and that was Mr. Bennings.
During her long recovery, when she had to stay in bed, she found that reading was a thing that calmed her. It had become one of her passions and the three boxes full of books, plus most of the library books she had already read, were a testament to that. One of the advantages of her own place was that she would be able to give the books she owned the proper space they deserved. Maggie’s house was small and sometimes Annie wondered, if her books would have ended up pushing her out of the basement room that had been her own until last Christmas.
“Well, right now, I’m a little bit swamped, but I’ll make sure to stop by the diner later.”
Peter Bennings had big, rough, meaty hands. He was really tall and a bit chubby in the face and stomach. He had thin, sandy blonde hair that looked ready to fall off his head if the wind blowed, too, hard. He was married to the lovely Carla, who worked in the hardware store alongside their only son Pete Jr. The Bennings used to live in New Jersey, but after Peter Sr. lost his job, they decided they needed a change. They made the choice of coming with their little baby Peter to Creek Valley and start a new life. Maybe Annie wasn’t the only one to make Creek Valley a place to start over.
“Sure, there’s no hurry.”
“You don’t want anything fancy, right?”
“Nope. As long as they don’t clash with the general vibe of the living room. I was thinking it would be best if we used the space on one of the walls in that room.”
“It might work.” Mr. Bennings scratched his chin. “Don’t worry, Annie. I promise you’ll be number one on my list as soon as I’m done at the deputy’s house. Jack has some trouble with the stairs on his front porch, so he’s been pestering me all week to go to his place.”
“I’m in no hurry. Jack’s stairs are an accident waiting to happen. Besides, we all know when it comes to home improvement, he kind of sucks.”
Mr. Bennings’ amused roar echoed all through Main Street. He had had several experiences undoing Jack’s ill attempts at fixing stuff.
Because Peter Sr. was looking at her funny, she said goodbye and retraced her steps back to get to her work. Not that she hated being congratulated on her birthday, but being caught in one of Mr. Bennings’ embraces felt like your lungs were being deprived of air. She knew she could postpone it until Christmas.
“Oh! Happy birthday!” The handy man yelled at Annie a little too late. She was already, too, far for him to catch up to her.