Authors: Darcie Chan
The Mill River
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
As she gazed out the bay window in her bedroom, Mary McAllister knew this night would be her last.
Outside, the February darkness was suffused with light from the town of Mill River. Thick snowflakes streamed past the bedroom window. Only the Mill River itself, for which the small Vermont town was named, escaped the snow covering. Its unfrozen center flowed, black and snake-like, along the edge of the sleeping town.
With her left hand, Mary stroked a large Siamese cat curled next to her on the adjustable bed. With her right, she tucked a few strands of fine white hair behind her ear. Mary’s eyes, one clear and blue, the other gray and cloudy, were fixed on the storm outside.
She wondered what they would think of her when they discovered what she had done.
The bedroom was dark, but the few lights from the town shone upward, enough to support a faint reflection of her elderly face on the window glass. Mary looked at the reflection through her one good eye. Pale and thin, it was the face of death superimposed on the darkness.
She drifted in and out of sleep, awakened every few minutes by the excruciating pain in her abdomen. Finally, her hand shaking, she reached for the bottle of pills and the cup of water at her bedside. This night was beautiful, and the silence calmed her.
Mary poured the pills into her hand and then swallowed them all, a few at a time, with the water. She would leave this world in a flurry of snowflakes, in peaceful solitude. She would do so before her pain was so great, before her mental faculties were so diminished, that she couldn’t leave on her own terms.
She thought of Michael. The priest had left, as he had promised, but she wondered if he was still awake in the parish house. He would find her tomorrow. She knew it would be difficult for him, but he was prepared for the inevitable. They were both prepared.
Still, she feared what death might bring.
Would she see her husband again? In her dim bedroom, Mary’s gaze focused on the outline of a figurine that stood on her bureau. It was a horse, carved elegantly from black marble. She thought of Patrick, of the first time she had seen him when he had come to her father’s farm, of the horror that followed.
Mary shuddered and forced her mind to focus on memories of her father instead. She remembered him standing in the round ring, his hat pushed back off his forehead, teaching young horses to be gentle. His belly-laugh still rang in her ears.
Even now, having been a widow for more than sixty years, she still feared Patrick, but she longed to see her father again. Perhaps soon, she would.
Mary touched Sham’s furry head beside her, and the cat mewed and curled his paws in his sleep. Michael had promised to find a good home for him. She had no doubt that he would, and this comforted her. Tears ran down her cheeks as she whispered a loving goodbye to her faithful feline companion. Silently, she wished him the happiest of lives, however many he had left, and waited for the final, heavy sleepiness to surround her.
Throughout the town of Mill River, a handful of others were also awake. Officers Kyle Hansen and Leroy Underwood had been on patrol for more than an hour. The police department’s old Jeep Cherokee churned through the new snow as they made their way along the country roads surrounding the town. They had been looking for stranded motorists, but the roads were deserted. Most folks had been sensible enough to stay at home during the storm. Even with the snowfall, the evening, like most evenings in Mill River, had been uneventful.
Leroy was bored. He fidgeted in the passenger seat, squinting out the window. His hair was sandy brown and straight—and a little too long for a man in a uniform, in Kyle’s opinion. His default expression was one of open-mouthed confusion, and his shoulders were rounded forward more than most people’s.
, Kyle thought,
anyone unfortunate enough to see Leroy peering out the Jeep’s window might easily mistake him for an orangutan
Leroy turned from the window and held up an almost empty box of chocolate doughnuts.
“You care if I eat the last one?”
“Nah,” Kyle replied. “They’re stale, you know.”
This fact was lost on Leroy. “You think we should drive through town again?” he asked, with his mouth full.
Kyle glanced at Leroy and shrugged.
Leroy crammed the last of the doughnut into his mouth and struggled to open the thermos. As they started down the hill back into town, Leroy tried to pour the remaining coffee into the thermos cup, but most of it sloshed into his lap.
“Aw, shit. Take it easy with the potholes, would you?” he complained.
Kyle rolled his eyes. What Leroy lacked in intelligence and compassion, he made up for in appetite.
Their route took them past the entrance to the driveway that curved up to the McAllister mansion. Through the snow, Kyle could just make out the faint glow of the white marble home at the top of the hill.
“You ever seen her?” Leroy asked, following Kyle’s gaze.
“The Widow McAllister,” Leroy half-whispered, as if he were speaking of a monster.
“No,” Kyle said.
“I have,” Leroy said. “Once. Back when I was in high school, outside the bakery. She was all wrinkled and hunched over, with a patch over one eye, like a pirate.”
Kyle stared straight ahead, trying to focus on driving through the storm.
“I heard that some folks in town’s convinced she’s a witch or something,” Leroy said. “Creeps me out, thinking of her up there watching everybody.” Leroy flashed a taunting grin at Kyle. “Maybe someone should make her walk the plank.”
Kyle clenched his jaw and fought the urge to respond. Leroy was trying to irritate him, he knew, and he wasn’t going to give him any satisfaction.
It was easier for Kyle to tolerate Leroy’s crudeness when he thought of how difficult it must have been for the junior officer growing up. According to the police chief, who knew almost everyone in town, Leroy was the product of an absentee father and an alcoholic mother. He had an older sister who lived in Rutland. That sister, apparently, was unique in the Underwood family, having finished college and taken a job as an accountant with the city government.
Then there was Leroy. A near-high school dropout, he had somehow received his diploma and bungled his way through training at the police academy. He had an ego the size of Texas, and Kyle had yet to see him show real kindness toward anyone. Why Leroy had been hired, Kyle didn’t know. Maybe the town had been desperate for another officer, but by Kyle’s standards, Leroy was hardly good officer material.
The old Jeep churned through the snow as they drove back into Mill River. Small, older houses and assorted trailer homes lined the street on this end of town. Most of the residences were dark. One mobile home, though, was brightly lit. In contrast to most of the other trailers, this one was shiny and new. The front yard was filled with ceramic ornaments protruding from the snow--a pair of deer, several rabbits, some gnomes, and a large birdbath.
“I guess Crazy Daisy’s still awake,” Leroy said. “Probably up fixing a new potion.”
At that moment, the front door of the trailer opened and a dumpling of a woman skipped out into the yard. Kyle slowed the Jeep. Daisy was spinning around, face upturned and tongue stuck out.
Leroy hooted with laughter. “Lookit that fat cow!” he shouted, oblivious to Kyle’s frown of disapproval. “She keeps that up, and she’ll trip over one of them rabbits an’ bite off her tongue!”
“Shut up, Leroy,” Kyle said, even though that very thought had crossed his mind. He rolled down the driver’s side window.
“Ms. Delaine, you know it’s late, almost one in the morning, and you shouldn’t be outside in this storm,” he called to her.
Flushed and breathless, Daisy stopped her twirling and looked at them. A dark port-wine birthmark curled up from her jaw to her cheek, and her gray curls fell over her eyes. She teetered dizzily and brushed her hair from her face. “You should try the snow, Officer! I’ve been working on a spell for it all evening, and it’s delicious!” she shouted. “It’ll be perfect in my potions too, but I’m in an awful hurry. I’m cooking up a new one tonight!” Smiling, she scooped up a handful of snow, flung it into the air, waved at Officers Hansen and Underwood, and went inside.
Kyle sat in silence, shaking his head, but Leroy roared even louder. When he noticed Kyle’s disapproving looks, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to compose himself.
“Aw, c’mon Kyle. You know she’s nuts. What’s the harm in enjoying the entertainment?”
“She can’t help it, Leroy, and you don’t have the good sense to keep your mouth shut when you should,” Kyle snapped. He was watching the door of the trailer, making sure Daisy stayed inside.
“Ooo, touch-y,” Leroy replied. “Hell,” he said, chuckling again, “that show alone was worth her surviving that fire. When I heard her trailer’d burned, I thought we’d finally be rid of the old bat.”
Kyle said nothing to this, because it would have been useless. He had eight years on Leroy, but given Leroy’s level of maturity, it seemed more like eighty. During his time on the force in Boston, he’d seen more than a few young officers like Leroy. They were all arrogant and stupid and attracted to the position because they liked the power the uniform and the gun gave them. Most of those guys ended up dead or behind bars themselves, victims of their own bad intentions.
In Mill River, there were four police officers—himself, Leroy, Ron Wykowski, and Joe Fitzgerald, the chief. The problem was that in a town where nothing ever happened, three decent cops were more than enough. Leroy, lacking opportunities to jeopardize his career, had great job security.
They continued down Main Street, through the quaint business district, past the white town hall building, and followed the bend in the road past St. John’s Catholic Church. One window was lit in the parish house.
“Preachie’s up,” Leroy chirped. This was nothing unusual, though, as Father O’Brien’s light was often on late into the night.
Two houses down, another bright window.
“Teachie’s up, too,” Leroy said in a different tone. “Maybe we should stop by and read her a bedtime story.” He raised his eyebrows and slowly ran his tongue across his upper lip.
“Teachie” was Claudia Simon, the pretty new fourth grade teacher at Mill River Elementary.
“You can read? That’s news to me,” Kyle said.
Leroy scowled but kept to himself until Kyle pulled up to the police station. As they got out, Leroy stared back down Main Street.
“Damn,” he said. “Snow like this makes even those shitty trailers look good.”
Again, Kyle said nothing. All he wanted was a hot shower and a warm bed. It had been a long night.
reading bedtime stories of a sort. Each of her students had written a short composition entitled, “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up.” Of the twenty-three fourth graders, eleven wanted to be President of the United States, a fact that she attributed to the class having watched the Presidential inauguration a few weeks ago. Six wanted to be movie stars or singers. Four wanted to be doctors or nurses. One a policeman. One a fireman. And one a counselor.
Rowen Hansen was the little girl who wanted to be a counselor. Her father was Officer Kyle Hansen, a police officer in town. Claudia had learned from the principal that he was a widower. His little girl had written that she wanted to be a counselor, as her mother had been, because she liked to “listen to people and help fix their problems.” That simple. From a fourth grader.
, Claudia thought,
Rowen was an exceptional kid
. She could profess to want to be almost anything, and it wouldn’t come as any surprise.
Claudia stood up and stretched. It was after one. But this was Saturday night--no, now Sunday morning--and if she lost herself grading papers, she could sleep late. Dressed in a jogging suit and socks, she padded down the hall to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She examined her reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Only a few months ago, her reflection wouldn’t have fit in the mirror.
Single, obese, and approaching thirty, Claudia had resolved, a year and a half ago, to get herself into shape. She had made that resolution many times before. She had been overweight all her life, or as much of it as she could remember. She had never had a boyfriend, a prom date, or even so much as a man with any romantic interest in her. After that long, most people would have resigned themselves to a lifetime of solitary cheesecake. Instead, Claudia threw out the cheesecake, chips, ice cream, and pizza. She purchased a treadmill and Reeboks. Then, over the year and a half following her thirtieth birthday, Claudia literally ran her ass off.