Maggie Nerz Iribarne
The simple cross on the Methodist church looms and disappears as night engulfs the Fields. The Poor Road is forever lined with shacks and old cars. Our road, Fields Road, leads to town, has two-story houses with garages, green patches of front lawn. On the other side of the cemetery lies the trailer park which my mother calls the Honky Tonk, because it’s boisterous with fire pits, strung lights, neighbors drinking cold beers out of cans. Sometimes the police need to pull up there, bust up a fight, yank a drunk husband off of a trembling wife.
For me, it is always autumn here, always dusk.
The night my half-brother Henry disappeared plays on repeat.
There is the house in the center of everything, tall and grey, poking up into the dimming sky. The silhouettes of women appear in its windows. They are sliding around, upstairs and down. They dance together, hold each others’ hands, twirl in circles beneath a crystal chandelier. Some say they’re sweet old ladies who mean no harm. Some say they’re leaders who have given much to the town. Some say they are neither of those things.
I am dreaming of that night. We are trick- or- treating, out amongst throngs of children dragging plastic jack-o-lanterns.
“Let’s go home,” I tell Henry, my 16 year old face looking down into his small freckled one, a little moon. It contorts into defiance as he runs away.
In the dream, I don’t leave him, I don’t turn away. I follow him down the long broken sidewalks, stalking his small shadow, but he dissolves into thin air.
They are known simply as the Mills Sisters. They own everything. Their great grandfather founded the town and built the first house on this side, this place that became the Fields. The Mills construction company built most of the old houses here. Everyone’s mom or dad worked in some way for the Millses. Their father died suddenly by falling off one of their most celebrated buildings, then the five daughters took over.
They are all unmarried, all nameless. They plant flowers each year in spring, fill large tubs with pink and purple and white. The flowers appear almost overnight, lining the town streets. They hold an old timey fourth of July ice cream social, when all the children ride decorated bikes and follow a classic car driven by a local old man, red white and blue streamers flowing from their handlebars. At Halloween they put out pumpkins with all the treats a child would want. They hang doughnuts from tree branches. It’s like Hansel and Gretel finding the candy house in the woods. Of course the Mills sisters are rich. Of course they donate to plenty of things. The Mills Family name is engraved on every park bench, playground, and community garden in town. “What will those ladies do next?” many often ask.
Henry’s father, Frank, hates the Mills Sisters. He once worked for their paving company, tried to organize for better pay, was quickly dismissed. “That’s what happens to people who go against the Mills Sisters,” Frank says constantly. All he ever does is sit in front of the TV and gripe.
Halloween night, Frank sits watching sports.
“Help out a little around here for once, will ya? Take him out,” he says weakly, staring ahead at the screen. My mother is not here. She is working the 7P to 7A shift at the hospital.
“Yeah, help out, Sis!” Henry says in his squeaky copycat
It is Frank who tells the police I am a liar and have always been. It is Frank who tells them he wanted to take Henry but I insisted. It is Frank who tells them I am a bad sister, that I never liked Henry, that I’d love to do away with him. Some parts of what he says are true.
It is the inflation-high 1970s, times were simpler, as they say. Kids wear pillow cases, their faces charred with burned cork. They wear their fathers’ old plaid shirts. Henry, the little prince, wears a homemade costume my mother sewed late at night after her day shifts. I hear the sound of her sewing machine whirring along, the stops and starts of it, the creaks in the floor boards, her chair pushing out for her to stand to piece, to measure. Once, she made me a witch costume. I wore it for second, third, and fourth grades and I would’ve kept wearing it, too. In fourth grade, my father went to bed and died in his sleep. I gained weight; my witch costume no longer fit.
The ball beats against the spray paint can as I shake, point, aim. Devil’s Eve is an amateur night in which I would never partake. I prefer hot summer nights. I like to sneak out of bed, slide through my window, grab my bag in the shed and head out to spray the words in my dreams.
The night I am picked up by the cops, I’d been writing snippets of “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath on the wall by the bridge-an abandoned place.
You died before I had time
I was ten when they buried you…
“Clarissa, aren’t things hard enough?” my mother says when she comes to get me.
I’m not sure what she means. Dad dying? Or Frank? Or what?
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I say, and I mean it.
In costume everyone is the same, babies and big kids, batmans and clowns, good guys and bad. Everyone wants the same thing: candy. The legions of children blend together into one tacky blob, marching along.
Henry is different though. He doesn’t want to trick or treat.
“I want to be spidey,” he says, sulkily chucking his pumpkin candy holder and crouching down on the ground, darting from tree to tree, pretending to shoot webs to different places, fake swinging from a bush to a logpile.
I remove my cigarettes and matches from my back jeans pocket, light up.
“Mom’s gonna be pissed!” he yells.
I take a long drag, savoring the warm burn in my lungs, the self harm that feels like power, freedom.
The Mills house is always lit to the hilt on Halloween Night. The night Henry disappears is no exception.
Mom takes me to lunch at McDonalds after our morning shift at the hospital. She is nursing and I am fulfilling my promise to her that I will be better, make better use of my time -study harder, lose weight, stop smoking, volunteer. We sit in front of burgers (no fries, no shakes) and diet cokes and do not talk about what I said to Henry that morning.
“What have they got you doing?” Mom asks, using her pretending to be super interested voice.
“Not much. Filling water glasses. Delivering flowers.”
I finally get to the pickle bit and savor the one burst of flavor in the dry sandwich.
“Clarissa, Henry loves you. He’s just a little boy.”
“I know,” I say, looking down in shame, holding back.
“I’ll try harder,” I say. My mother’s hand reaches across, covers mine.
After we part ways I stop at the gift shop and slip a few lipsticks in my bag. It’s amazing how no one ever sees.
I begin to feel guilty for leaving him, so I turn back. First I say his name, then I call it, then I scream it. I run, despite my size and black lungs, repeatedly calling Henry’s name. Trick or treaters trudge onward. Children and adults ignore me as I barrel down each street. “Henry! Henry!” My throat is raw. I run around and around the Mills house, so bright I don’t consider it a possibility. There is no way my brother is in that house. I run through the shadowed graveyard, passing my father’s burial place without stopping. A flash of the skeletons laid out beneath my pounding feet explodes in my mind. Finally, I decide I must go home. That’s it. Typical Henry. He wants to scare me. He has simply returned home.
The storm door slams behind me. I gulp to catch my breath.
I yell for them, Henry and Frank. The TV plays the news loudly, too loudly.
I enter the family room, finding six or so beer cans lined up on the coffee table.
In Henry’s room, his bed is tucked and smooth. Weirdo. What kid makes his bed like that?
My stepfather sleeps in his room.
I shake him by the shoulders. “Wake up!”
“What the? “ he jolts out of his slump, his face twists in its standard annoyance.
“What do you want?”
“I can’t find Henry.”
He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t jump up.
“Way to go. Lose your brother.” He laughs and feels around for a beer can on the nightstand. He succeeds, tilts it into his chubby face, drinks.
“Just find him. Before your mother gets home,” he says.
The trick or treaters are dwindling, lights have gone out for the night. Stray pieces of streamers and candy wrappers whip in the wind around my feet. I look up at the full moon, the first time I notice it that night. My anxiety mounts just as my eyes land again on the Mills house. It is no longer lit with Halloween festivity. It is dark, dark as I have ever seen it.
I march with a new purpose to the house, climb the steps to the front and bang on the door. The house holds its breath, assumes a wall of silence. I run back down the steps, push into the strengthening force of wind. The wind pushes and pulls, like it’s pummeling me, the moon expands. Does it know where Henry is? Is it laughing at me running around like this?
I thought you hated your brother. Why are you so upset then? The moon jeers.
I lean into the dining room windows, cup hands around my peering eyes. Only darkness, an outline of furniture.
I turn to see a strange old man stands there, wearing a plaid barn coat and a cap.
“Trespassin’, young lady?” he asks.
“No. I’m looking for my brother,” I say.
Henry ain’t here, no way,” the man says, offers a cigarette. I grab it, stick it in my lips, and accept his light. “No, no way your brother’s here at the Mills place.”
I turn and head home where the police have already arrived, are questioning everyone. It doesn’t matter.
I’m the one to blame.
“But what about the Mills house?” I ask during the second round of questions. “It was. It was-“
“The big house in the center?”
“Yes!” I gasp, but the images are already fading from my brain. I grip the table, trying to hold on.
“Vacant.” That word, resounding in my ears, an echo.
Vacant. It reverberates down to my toes. Vacant.
My memories cloud over, like a storm moving into a night sky, a cloud covering the moon.
“That house has been vacant forever,” Frank says calmly, his eyes soft, his voice natural, his hands spread on thighs.
“But-“ I yell but I don’t know what comes after.
I don’t bring up the old man in the plaid jacket, because I can’t remember him. I don’t remember him for twenty years.
The Mills House remains dark.
It never goes up for sale, no one ever moves in. All conversations about the house, about that night swirl, water down a drain.
There’s no body, no evidence against me or anyone else. The case goes cold.
Mom divorces Frank, barely speaks to me. I gain more weight, smoke many more cigarettes, barely graduate high school. I keep the house neat as a pin. Dust Henry’s room. In between, I keep that door closed, locked.
When I walk past the Mills house on the way to the cemetery, I feel it bite, nip at my shoulders. I keep my feet off the grass, look straight. I don’t want even the slightest glance at the windows.
I like to sit beside my father’s grave. He never knew Henry.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 52, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at