The Returned began with a bad dream. Or, to be more accurate, a sad dream. Each year the anniversary of my mother’s death catches me unawares. I’ve adopted the strategy of marking her birthday on my calendar while refusing to circle the day of her death. And each year her birthday, somehow, still passes forgotten. And each year I wake on July 1 and remember, with hard clarity, the small, frail way her hands looked on that last day.
A year and a half ago the anniversary date came and I awoke, having dreamed of her. The dream was a simple one: I was a boy again; I came home from school and she was there, waiting for me. I dreamed that I sat at the kitchen table and she simply talked to me. Nothing more. I cannot remember anything she said, but I remember the cadence, the hum, the warmth of her voice.
That dream stayed with me for months. Some nights, as I fell asleep, I hoped to recreate it. Not long after that I cornered a friend over lunch and told him about my emotional unease. The conversation went the way it does with old friends: meandering, mocking at times but, ultimately, restorative. Sometime after I was feeling better and lunch was running low, my friend asked: “Can you imagine if she actually did come back, just for one night? And what if it wasn’t just her? What if it happened to other people too?”
Hours later we were still talking. We knew we had something we needed to cling to.
I was born, raised, and still live in a small, North Carolina town that has no attractions or industry to speak of—unless one counts dirt roads as attractions and ’78 Ford pickups as industry. The town has one caution light at its center and a single stoplight near the highway. But, even here, tragedies happen. Life is both cruel and beautiful. Perhaps even more so because there are no distractions. There is no anonymity. No ability to hide from one’s life or identity. You are your family and their history, for good or bad. You are not a person, but a collection of familial stories and identities. You belong to those who lived and died sharing your name.
A good friend described The Returned as “time out of sync.” I think that fits. My hope is that the reader can enter this world and perhaps find the unsaid words and unreconciled emotions of their own lives played out within these pages. Perhaps even find their own debts forgiven. Burdens, finally, left behind.