Halloween’s never been my thing. With all the genuine evil in the world, do we really need to be celebrating the dark side? I’ll pass on the make-believe macabre, the bed-sheet ghosts, and ouija board spirits. Who needs that when you have real hauntings? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. One that I wish I didn’t have to consider. But it’s not my choice.
It’s been five years now. Three since I moved to Arizona.
We lived in Ohio at the time, Carolyn and I. Chillicothe. We’d been married for a couple of years and life was good. You know, the honeymoon that never ends. We were a good match. I’m a practical guy. Sensible. Reasonable. Just this side of boring. Maybe not even this side. Carolyn was anything but. Everyone loved Carolyn. She was a real free spirit. I loved that about her.
It was fall. For me, that meant football. I would have been happy staying home watching games all weekend, but Carolyn was restless and wanted to get out. She needed a change of scenery, away from the unrelenting flat land of Ohio. The mountains, she said. The leaves would be at their peak and the weather promised to be nearly perfect, with just a slight chance of rain. I never could resist her enthusiasm. We got up early on Saturday morning, threw a change of clothes in a duffel bag and headed across the border to West Virginia.
We drove for hours, stopping now and then at scenic overlooks, taking pictures of everything. We got to one of the state parks around noon and had lunch in the lodge, then walked it off with a hike to the falls. There was another park about three hours away and we thought that would be a good place to spend the night, so we jumped in the car and headed west, chasing the sunset, as it were.
We never made it to the park.
River Mills. Such a nice sounding town. Carolyn had been reading the tourist flyers while I drove and she thought she remembered reading something about the town. A restaurant, maybe. She flipped through her stack of flyers, looking for the one that mentioned River Mills, but she never found it. Or course she wanted to stop anyway. I wanted to go on. I was beat. A lumpy state park mattress was calling my name. But it was Carolyn. Her persuasion was hard to resist.
We got off the four-lane and as we drove the seven miles on the winding highway toward River Mills, the sun hid behind thickening clouds and after a few minutes, a light rain began to fall. A mist rose from the warm asphalt.
A worn, wooden sign welcomed us to River Mills. We passed a gas station, closed since forever. Not a convenience store, an honest-to-goodness gas station with a two-bay garage and a glassed-in office where the owner would sell tires and ring up the sale on a cash register and the old men of River Mills would gather and gossip worse than the women ever did. The windows were broken. The gas pumps were gone.
Then another dilapidated building. More busted windows. Faded white paint on red brick spelled out River Mills Hardware. I began to calculate how long it would take us to backtrack and get to the park.
Just a little farther, Carolyn suggested. I didn’t argue.
Up ahead I saw a traffic light. I took that as a good sign. That traffic light is gone now. At least it was the last time I was in River Mills. That was four years ago.
The streets were empty. Not completely empty, but there was a uneasy quiet about the place. Most of the storefronts were vacant. Some of the buildings had been gutted, stripped of walls, floors and even the roof, so that all that was left was the facade and the back wall. We drove past a second-hand shop that might have still been in business, but it was hard to tell for sure. Another store had mannequins clothed in old wedding dresses. There was no sign out front, no name on the glass, nothing to indicate what that was all about.
We drove on. Carolyn was sure there was a place to eat. Another two blocks and we came to what looked like an old courthouse. Closed, of course. It was nearing six o’clock, after all, and there was no sign of life anywhere.
And then this.
Yeah, Halloween was a couple of weeks away, but this seemed a little over the top for a small town. A little too scary. We both forced a laugh.
They really get into the spirit here, Carolyn said.
Looking back, I think that spirit had always been there. And I know it still is.
The town completely creeped me out. I think Carolyn was feeling the same thing, and just as I was about to suggest that we go on to the park, she saw what she had been looking for. The River Mills Cafe. The lights were on. There were people inside. So Carolyn was right again. Except this time she wasn’t.
We parked out front and went inside. Helen greeted us and showed us to a table. I didn’t know Helen’s name at the time, but I found out later. Helen King. She wore an old-fashioned, yellow shift dress. She smiled as she seated us and then winked at me. She asked us what we’d like to drink. Coffee for me. Carolyn asked if they had hot tea.
Sure thing, honey.
She touched Carolyn’s shoulder. Her hand lingered. Then she left and Carolyn gave me a look that acknowledged the weirdness.
She winked at me.
She winked at you? What does that mean?
I was going to ask you.
I’ve got to find a bathroom.
She left. Helen brought my coffee.
Where’s Carolyn? she asked.
How do you know her name?
You said, tea for you, Carolyn?
But I hadn’t. At least I didn’t think I had. Maybe I did.
She left and returned with a small porcelain tea pot, a matching cup, and a box of assorted teas. I remember these things distinctly. Ordering hot tea at small diners can be surprising. So I noted the tea pot, the cup, and the box of teas. I remember thinking that Carolyn would be pleased.
Carolyn returned and smiled at the arrangement set at her place. Maybe this would be ok.
I excused myself for my turn to the bathroom.
I thought nothing of those words at the time. Now I think of them every day.
After I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror, knowing I was little tired, but thinking I might be able run my fingers through my hair, maybe freshen up a bit for Carolyn’s sake. My reflection was hazy, as if the mist from outside had somehow settled on the glass of the mirror. I pulled a paper towel from the roll on the wall and wiped the glass, but the haze was still there. I tossed the paper in the trash and headed back to the dining room. The haze came with me. I could barely make out Helen standing behind the counter. I stopped and rubbed my eyes and blinked hard. Helen gave me a strange smile. I half expected her to wink again. The haze was slowly clearing from my eyes, but there was soft edge around Helen. A soft, fading edge.
I made my way back to our table. Carolyn wasn’t there.
I looked around. Maybe she went back to the bathroom. Or maybe she saw a gift shop and wanted to check it out. I sat at our table and took a drink of coffee.
The tea was gone. The tea pot, the cup, and the little box of teas. All gone.
Are you ready to order? It was Helen.
Where did Carolyn go?
Carolyn. My wife.
What are you talking about? She was here with me. You brought her hot tea.
With the tea pot and tea cup.
Helen took a step back. We don’t have hot tea here.
I looked around, knowing that I’d see her. She had to be there. Then I noticed the others were gone, too.
Where’d everybody go?
The other customers. My wife. Where is everybody?
It’s been a little slow today. You’re our only customer this evening.
She must be in the bathroom.
I got up, almost running to the bathroom. I banged on the door and it swung open.
No answer. I checked the stalls. Nothing. I went back to the dining room.
Where is she? Where is she?
Through the door to the kitchen. An old lady stood over a pot on the stove, stirring. There was no one else. Back to the dining room.
Where is she? My heart was racing.
I went out to the car. There was no sign of her.
Back to the dining room. Helen stood, her arms crossed.
Sir, you came in alone. I would have noticed if someone else was with you.
Why are you doing this? Is there a gift shop close by?
I didn’t wait for an answer. Up and down the streets I ran, looking for some place she might have gone. When I got back to the cafe, a deputy sheriff was waiting for me.
What seems to be the problem, son?
He didn’t believe my story.
I gave him my I.D. and showed him our duffel bag in the car. The flyers. Told him about our trip. How she insisted on stopping in River Mills. He looked me up in the system and confirmed that I was married. But my wife was missing. Last seen by anyone but me a hundred miles away. And just like that, I was a suspect in my wife’s disappearance.
The deputies looked all over River Mills but they were more interested in retracing where we had gone after we had left the park. I spent the night in a run-down motel just outside of town. The next day was more of the same. More searching, more questions, but no answers.
Another night and another day. Then another. Then another.
The deputies grilled me pretty good, but friends back home vouched for our relationship. I know the sheriff’s office thinks I killed Carolyn, but lacking a body, evidence, or a motive, they had no choice but to rule it a missing persons case. For them, a dead end.
I stayed two more nights.
She was gone.
I went back to Ohio, but called the sheriff’s office every day for two weeks. Not a trace, not a clue. I knew I would never see her again. I knew I would never know what happened.
It was a long, cold winter, the kind that keeps you inside and makes you think about things. I couldn’t just give up on her. After the first of the year, I went back to River Mills. I had to find something, anything, that would give me answers. Up and down the snow-covered roads. The town hadn’t changed a bit. The cafe was still open. I saw Helen through the window serving customers wearing that same yellow shift dress. I parked across the street and watched for a couple of hours. I stayed in River Mills all night, cruising the streets, in and out of town. As dawn broke, I found myself sitting on a bench overlooking the river that runs along the highway. Cold, tired, and utterly alone.
Back in Chillicothe, I tried to go back to living a normal life. Well, not normal. There was no such thing as normal anymore. But Carolyn’s words wouldn’t leave me alone.
I could hear her voice.
It was more than just something to say. There was tension in the way she had said it. The more I played her words back in my mind, the more I thought about it, the more I knew that it was fear in her voice.
Did she know? Was it a premonition?
It was fall when I returned. The Halloween decorations were out again. Another scary clown stood staked in the courthouse lawn. And the stoplight was gone.
I spent all day and all night there. This time I talked to Helen. She stood with her arms crossed. Her answers to my questions were cold and unsympathetic. She wanted me gone. I searched the cafe as I had the year before and again found nothing. The old woman in the kitchen sat on a stool, her hands clasped in her lap, and just stared.
I spent the night in a motel in the next town over and the following day I made the rounds through River Mills again. And again, I found nothing. Heading out of town, I passed the same dilapidated buildings. The old hardware store. The gas station. The ramshackle shed that looked like it would fall with a strong gust of wind. I’d passed it probably dozens of times in the last year. But something was different. Graffiti on the side of the shack. Writing. I had gone by too fast to read it so I turned around and drove by again.
I miss you, Darlin’.
My heart stopped.
It’s what she called me, sometimes. Darlin’. With the g dropped. Country style. Darlin’.
And the butterflies under the message. Her favorite doodle. Butterflies.
I pulled onto the gravel in front of the shed, almost hitting it with my car.
I stuck my head in the door. It was dark and all I could see was trash and rotting timbers.
I ran behind the shack, calling her name as I went.
I found a piece of pipe and went back to the front. I kicked the door open and with pipe in hand, made my way through the shack. A black snake hung from rafters. But that was the only sign of life.
I called the sheriff’s office and told the deputy that Carolyn was alive and that they needed to search the area out by the highway.
Just kids, he said. They paint their little love notes all over town.
But the butterflies.
I stayed three more days. I came back a month later and the message was gone. Not painted over, just gone.
But I coudn’t. I just had to let it go. For the sake of my sanity.
No more River Mills. No more mountains. No more fall colors. No more hauntings.
But it hasn’t helped. I still hear her. In the still of the desert air, on the cool nights, with a million stars overhead, I still hear her.
Hurry back. I miss you Darlin’.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resembelence to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
copyright 2017, joseph e bird