Amber Williams: Mill Girls

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Mill Girls 

by Amber Williams

A light glowed in a window of the old millhouse. Hunter lay on his bed covering his eyes from the beams that almost looked aimed at him. Odd they’d have electric power hooked up, he thought sensibly. He was not prone to superstitions other than wondering about his father. All he knew was that his dad had something to do with that old millhouse at the top of the hill at the end of the old railroad tracks.

He navigated his way through the house in the dark. His mom stirred on her couch next to an empty bottle of sweet wine decorating their coffee table. At least she made his favorite dinner, lamb stew. And she called him her favorite son even though he was her only son and only child.

Hunter grabbed his backpack full of safety supplies and headed up the abandoned tracks into the forest of wind pruned trees. It was dark in the mist and moist enough to feel clammy. Dead tree branches broke off, some scraping Hunter’s arms. How could I have forgotten my flashlight? He cursed himself having remembered everything else, a compacted aluminum blanket, work gloves, and a crowbar in case he had to break in. His school’s emergency preparedness course was coming in handy.

As he got closer to the top of the hill, the old millhouse light provided enough visibility to see where he was putting his feet at least. He stood before the stone steps leading up to the front door. A pair of yellow eyes gleamed in the bushes. Something big pounced out and scampered past him with raised hackles. It stopped and looked back. Covered in thick black fur, it was nearly invisible except for those small, close-set light eyes. Hunter grabbed a stick and threw it at him, grazing its side and bouncing off.

The beast ran after it. Hunter put his ear against the front door and could make out muffled sounds like cogs, pistons, and valves churning away.

Someone must be in there. He remembered rumors of hauntings and claims that it was a recluse hideaway for the criminally insane but knew in his rational mind that the old factory had fallen back into the hands of the city. No one would buy the place, allegedly due to toxic waste.

Anyone in there would be trespassing, like when he walked in on his mom and her new boyfriend, an unwanted outsider. He felt that way at school too and had asked his mom repeatedly if they could move to another town, any other town. He hated it here where folks looked down on him. He didn’t even know why.

Hunter took out his crowbar and wedged it between the door and the jam. The door opened unexpectedly with a force that made him have to steady himself.

A paper whooshed out and he caught it under his shoe. “LEAVE!” it said.

“Hello?” Hunter made his presence known.

“Hello-o-o,” his own voice echoed back at him. Only an echo. That’s okay.

Hunter rationalized that the door sounds were nothing more than the noise produced by the covering of one’s ear hard like when you wear earplugs and can hear your own heartbeat or hear the sounds of the sea in a hollow shell.

He went three steps down onto the factory floor. Rows of toppled over machines in disrepair littered the room. Cylinders, drive wheels, condensers, pressure and temperature gauges were strewn about in parts.

Battered wheels started up, grinding round and round, sounding like women weeping and children chattering. Chugging along without wheels the one machine left standing sent a boiler’s steam a whistling, pushing pistons back and forth, whoosh-whoosh, spinning and twisting cotton and wool into yarn and thread, filling tall spools and bobbins.

Hunter jumped when the floorboards vibrated. Dust and soot rose and settled over the tiles. There were dishes and glassware in the open cupboards and broken ones on the counters and floors. The owners must have left in a hurry.

Hunter noticed his hands tingling as if he’d just pilfered a cactus garden. He looked for thorns to take out but got sidetracked by the weakness in his ankles like he’d pedaled his bike all day.

A man’s low voice sputtered, “Ga-unt—” and faded into the machine’s chug-a-lug

“Who’s there?” Hunter looked around holding his crowbar up as a warning.

No one was there but the dust and debris of abandoned industry and its discarded trash. He kicked a huge vent duct, sending it rolling and scraping over long rusty half-inch pipes. The interior walls and ceilings were stripped of copper wires leaving gaping holes where their empty sheaths hung down. Thick spiderwebs covered the corners and doorways. Doors and cupboards hung on single hinges and many were simply missing.

Shadows flickered under a faint light, a candle or kerosene lamp in the first room upstairs. Hunter approached the old dilapidated stairway. The noises abruptly stopped.

“Gun-ter,” the voice called more clearly this time.

“Tell me wha—” The machine started up again with a hair-raising resurgence, masking Hunter’s voice. He threw his crowbar at it to stop all the creepy noises. It ricocheted off an old brick chimney, scorched and chipped, and fell to the floor with a clang.

“Tell me wha—” A delayed echo came back but in the twang of a stranger. Hunter knew he’d never be able to tell anyone he heard an echo that sounded like another person’s voice, he’d be labeled crazy like the last owner of this place.

“I’m Hun-ter with an ae-cha. I live down the tracks.” Hunter answered as quickly as an innocent man under a murder investigation.

“I am the la-sit wa-ne.” Windows slammed shut. “LEAVE!”

A rejection replayed in Hunter’s mind of his mill father being too rich to care about them. His mother was pretty but never married, and her mill baby stigma was never removed. The old factory used mill girls and children for the bulk of their labor since its humble beginnings as a spinning-wheel factory and later when the machines replaced pedal-operated wheels. Hunter hated his father for leaving them.

He perused the old picture frames on the brick wall of peeling paint as he went up the steps. Many of the glass frames were cracked and there were bare spaces of lighter wall color where frames were missing. He stopped at a picture of a gruff old man who looked familiar but the caption under the photo read, “Gunter, Floor Master, 1889.”

“No,” he whispered, glimpsing his reflection in the glass. He gulped down a horrid feeling. The picture looked like him only with a mustache and thick glasses. He had the same long nose and thick bottom lip, an unmistakable resemblance.

Years ago a cousin had called him a half-breed. “Half of what?” his mother had joked dismissively like none of that mattered.

“Were we slaves?” Hunter had asked her. The cousin looked so far down his nose at him he had to hold his head at an uncomfortable angle, likely injuring himself just for that small pleasure.

“I call it slavery,” his mother had said. “Twelve hours a day, six days a week for one dollar after lodging? What would you call it?”

“I’m confused. Didn’t you say the girls liked it?”

“That’s how bad the times were then, yes.” His mom had ended up screaming at him for some stupid thing, then she cried all night. After that Hunter started clamming up when anyone asked him questions about his family.

Hunter hated his heightened fears in the dark and his reluctance to stand up for himself. He stood determinedly in place focusing hard on the fact that he’d grown a little taller, a little stronger and a little older since he’d heard the old stories. Still, his head told him to RUN.

His palms were as wet as a little girl’s as he continued up toward the unseen voice. At the last step, he called out, “Who-who’s there?”

A bony hand jutted out of the first door on the left and dug into the scrapes on his arm. Hunter’s heart leapt against his ribs so hard it hurt. He reached at its bony calcified elbow and it gave him a shove so hard he jumped back on the disintegrating wood of the top step. It gave way a crack at a time. Once split it was only a matter of seconds till the weight of his body fell through.

Hunter gave a powerful scream and held on with one hand securely over the edge of the next step down, enough to grapple his other hand over it too. He kicked up his legs and got both feet around the decorative railing and started to inch his feet to the tip so he could pull them around. He got one leg around to the inside and used the railway for leverage to bring his other foot up.

The railway fell away. Metal bounced off cement.

A thin pale girl peeped out. Thick brown braids hung out of a baggy white bonnet cutely tied under her chin. She ran to him with open arms and tripped as if she were blind. Reaching for the railing that was no longer there, she fell. Hunter reached for her little hand, almost touching the tips of her fingers but his hand seemed to go right through hers. She flew headfirst onto the floor below with an audible snap.

I’m at the beach, I’m at the beach, he told himself, trying not to vomit. The dizzies got to him. Visualizing his safe place, he held on tight and slowly looked down in horror. The girl was gone.

It’s not real, he told himself, shaking his head out hard.

A bitter cold chill blew in and the steps iced over like the ground in winter. Hastily he dug his fingernails into the worn old carpet. The carpet was drenched and stretched out with his weight. It ripped from one end, slow at first. Hunter held on as the rip continued till he dropped one story down with a thud.

“Damn it!” He tried to get up on his feet. Wincing down on his backside in defeat, he looked up to see a huge cotton bale coming down on him. It was heavy and full of wires, crushing his legs.

The room was pin-drop quiet. An ominous creaking came from the front door. Hunter struggled to push and kick the heavy thing off him with his one foot that wasn’t in pain. Coughing and choking, he raised his head to see a bristly whiskered snout nose its way in, followed by the kind of piercing eyes that bore fear into the hearts of grown men. A low growl emanated from behind bared teeth. It looks hungry.

Hunter pushed himself to his knees and up into an agony of pain like he’d never experienced before. He presumed it to be a badly sprained ankle and sucked it up, tore through the spider webs blocking the kitchen door frame and limped in. Hiding behind the wall, catching his breath, he grabbed a bolt off the floor and rolled it into the big room hoping the creature would give chase.

No luck this time. The creature continued its slow approach unfazed. It stalked around the corner, sniffed and examined Hunter’s pant leg. Hot flashes zoomed up his spine. Hunter hoped against hope that the fetch trick might work better with a smelly old shoe. That was his only weapon besides the crowbar. The crowbar. 

The day’s soda pop came up in a burp and the hairy beast jumped up on Hunter and put his nose to Hunter’s nose, peering directly into his eyes. Hunter froze. Long, mournful calls outside made it obvious there was more than one. The wolf put all fours on the ground and returned a deep howl. Great, the whole pack will know I’m here.

He took off his smelly shoe, grimacing as his ankle turned. Teasing the wolf with it, waving it in front of its nose he threw it as far as he could, hoping at least for a split-second distraction. When the wolf turned its head, Hunter hobbled out a side door and slammed it shut as quickly as possible. He stopped, leaned back on it and breathed, scorning himself for risking more than a sneak of wine back at home where it was safe.

He limped around to the front tracks with one shoe off. There was no sign of the creatures, but another hissing pulsed in his ears. Smoke rose up from the tracks. It was an old steam engine making its way uphill. The engine’s noise grew deafening as it continued upon direct approach.

A man dressed in a two-toned suit looking half soiled ran down the tracks heading right for the train. Hunter ran after him. “Stop. Wait. I want to talk to you. Please!”

The stranger veered to depart the tracks just as the train was upon him and his pant leg caught on a railroad tie. Hunter staggered off the tracks as fast as he could. He grabbed the nearest tree and hid to brace himself from the impact.

When he heard nothing he looked out, but the man was gone. Only his pants were left on the tracks alongside one lone shoe. Hunter looked up and down the tracks and saw no engine coming or going. Maybe a special display of the old line was being made, he tried to assure himself until he saw the railroad tracks all but disappeared under sections of dirt.

Freaked out and in pain, he grabbed the two biggest tree limbs he could find, pulled off the side stems and used them as crutches to make his way back down the tracks.

His underarms took on scrapes as the whistling winds whipped at his back chasing him down like that old engine. He sped up as fast as he could, tripping, falling and summoning the might to get back on that painful shoeless leg again and again. He had to look down to see if it was still there at one point, but it had just gone numb.

His phone played his favorite ringtone. It was his mom. “What on Earth have you done?” she scolded.

After seeing his condition she insisted on taking him to the hospital. The doctor said, “It’s a good thing you brought him in here, ma’am. His fibula was fractured in two places.”

“Oh my gosh.” Hunter’s mom gave him a big sloppy kiss and a bear hug and gazed into his eyes. “Now you tell the doctor everything you saw up there,” she demanded after hearing his bizarre rantings on the way over.

They sat on the waiting room chairs under the bright fluorescent lights. Hunter reached for the “LEAVE” paper he’d tucked in his pocket and pulled out only a big leaf that crumpled in his hand. It was all so strange.

“Mom, did you ever work in the old millhouse?  I know I’m not supposed to talk about it, but—”

“What? Who told you you couldn’t talk about it?”

“You did. I mean you get so upset whenever I mention anything about Dad or the family.”

The doctor butted in and encouraged Hunter to share anything he wanted, and Hunter was eager for explanations.

“Son that’s a very polluted place with old dyes and oils leaching out half-life chemicals we don’t even know about. There could be mercury and lead in there, for sure asbestos. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were high on pollution. Just to be on the safe side though,” the doc stopped and addressed Hunter’s mom. “Do you have any history of mental illness in the family?”

Hunter’s mom looked hypnotized. “It’s important, Mrs. Millhouse.”

“Well I wasn’t ready to tell Hunter yet but since it’s all coming out anyway.” She took a deep breath. “Your father and I were unable to save up for a wedding much less anything else after the automation took over. He ran in front of a train when you were just a baby. Strange thing is they never found the body, just his pants, and a shoe with a foot still in it. They think the wolves took him.”

“Oh, my gosh mom. Did you know a man named Gunter?” He knew more questions might send his mom into a tantrum, but he had to break the old myths open.

His mother looked up wide-eyed. “I guess you’re old enough to handle it. Gunter was said to be your grandfather and your grandmother was a millhouse chaperone. The chaperones were the ladies hired to watch over the safety of the mill girls. All the working girls were to remain unmarried and childless. Any couplings resulted in banishment. Two chaperones disappeared mysteriously one particularly cold winter. Your grandfather never acknowledged a pregnancy and mill girls received no dowries. Your father was quickly adopted out with a stipend to avoid a scandal. We were raised as brother and sister.” Mrs. Millhouse paused. “Are you shocked?”

“No mom, no. I feel better knowing the truth. Crazy is in the family and on the supposed good side too.” Not just me.

Speeding home in the car, Hunter’s mom said, “I’m glad you finally asked me about your father. I just didn’t know how to bring it up. You always got so distant whenever I tried.”

“Did grandma wear a bonnet?”

“Women kept many secrets under their bonnets.”

Wolf dogs crossed the road. The last one looked over with its close-set yellow eyes, pointed its snout towards the three-quarter moon and howled. Hunter felt the tugging of kinship, something that would always remind him of the night he found out about his father. He looked back and the light was out at the old millhouse.

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