Return To Mills Island
By Maggie Nerz Iribarne
Art by Nick Flook
Published in Issue 115, July 2023
Our island, Mills Island, sits in a spot where currents collide, ships crash and sink.
We’re surrounded by old bones, death. We’re used to it. We remember our grandfather, the lighthouse keeper, telling us stories of bodies washing up on the beach in multitudes, victims of shipwreck. The storms have only worsened over time, we’ve seen to that. With a gathering of eyebrows, the clenching of fists, and the whispering of words collected in our book, we keep people away from here, away from our boy.
It was a dream that provoked her passage to the past, her return to her childhood home on the island. Deep in sleep, her mind produced images of a terrible storm, the Mills sisters’ darkened house, Henry standing in shadow. Cassie’s heart exploded in joy as she held her small, unchanged brother. The house shuddered around them. The floor split beneath their feet. The walls cracked and groaned and disintegrated. They were falling, falling. Finally they hit ground. The wind became unbearable. An enormous wave rose up and caught them and the bones of the house, pulling it all out to sea. Cassie and Henry bobbed at the surface for a time, then sunk, bound together, slowly descending to the ocean floor. She was not afraid.
Cassie fought through the pounding wind and rain, finally arriving at the house. She easily recognized its shape, although covered in vines and other decrepitude, set back from the overgrown trees, settled in tall whipping grasses. She turned the rusty key and the weathered door swung back, hitting a wall. She paused in the doorway, the stuffy, familiar smell stopping her in her tracks. Entering fully, she ran a hand along the hall table, inspected the dust appearing on her pointer finger, glanced up the darkened stairway.
She stopped in the kitchen, lit a cigarette beside a cracked window, simmering in disbelief that she was actually here in this house, on this island. Heading to the second floor, she approached the stained glass window on the landing, a lovely floral design her mother made. She peered out its colored panes to view a large field, and beyond that, the Mills House perched high up on an opposing cliff.
At the top of the stairs, Henry’s open bedroom door taunted her. Come in! Come, Cassie. The lighting was dim, the bed, neatly made. His lamp with its baseball base stood straight on the nightstand. She turned to leave, pulled the door closed, feeling it strain, spring back as she slammed, forced it into the frame.
“What the— ” Cassie muttered, then bolted down the stairs.
With little else to do and no electricity or water, she built a fire in the living room, slapped together a peanut butter and jelly from the few provisions she bought at the grocery in Point Judith before getting on the ferry. She cracked and chugged a warm beer, lay down on the always-prickly couch. Screw oral hygiene. Dreamless dark sleep hit like a wallop.
Since we are aware of all things, we know the boy isn’t right. Something keeps him in his room. Of course, he will come out to dine with us. He will sit in his chair and listen to our stories, but every other hour he spends alone. He stands by his window, watching the slanting rain, crashing waves. He cranes his neck to view the empty beach adorned with its sharp rocks, terrifying jewels.
Over the last ten years, the rising water and constant storms drove tourists and many of the residents away. Cassie found the town mostly empty, its main drag lined with shuttered shops and restaurants. She headed to the remaining open bar, Club Soda, every night for dinner, picked up her old drinking habit. The owner and bartender, Rick, happy to oblige.
“What’s your story?” he asked.
“Oh, your basic shitshow.”
“Heh! Yup. I hear ya. Shitshow. That’s life.”
Buzzed, she waved a hand for him to lean in, come closer.
“Have you ever heard about a kid disappearing? A ten-year-old boy?” she whisper-slurred, straining above “American Pie” playing on the juke box.
“Nope,” Rick said, shooting soda into an ice-filled glass.
“What about the Mills place — those sisters? That big house at the end of the Clay Trail?”
“Another round?” Rick asked her,
Cassie placed her spinning head on the sticky bar.
“Can’t you see I’ve had enough?” she said.
“All I see is you sitting there with your empty glass.”
“You’re a real asshole, you know that? God, why’d I keep comin’ in here?”
“Don’t know. Seems like you need it,” he said, pouring another finger of bourbon into her glass.
“Whaddoyou know about me?” she said, falling off the barstool, kicking open the door.
We want you to know he came to us willingly. That is very important. Even now, we conjure and push on him the bad memories, the ugly pictures of his family. But recently a small crack opened we cannot fill. The wind still obeys our command of anger, destruction, protection, but there is something different, a familiar earthy stench, soil. The sister. Cassie. A wayward soul. Unkempt. Downright slovenly and worthless, happy to drink herself into a stupor every night, just like our father.
She awoke on the couch, staggered to the bathroom to make herself sick. On her way back, she picked up cans and newspapers, opened the curtains. Rain. Always rain. She lifted the window, breathed in the salty air. Maybe fresh air is the only true cure for a hangover, she wondered, her tongue thick and dry. She went to fill a glass. She had to stop boozing. She had to stay away from the bar. Today, she decided, today will be different. “What the hell am I doing here, anyway?” she said aloud, the walls staring at her in silence.
Midday, still sober. She stayed quiet, sipped water and soup, slept off the booze of the days and nights before. She held Henry’s photo, allowed an onslaught of cleansing tears. She teased the memory of that Halloween ten years before when, resentfully, she’d agreed to take him trick-or-treating. She was 16, viewed her much-younger brother as an albatross, a human symbol of loss, pain, all the problems of her family. They argued, he ran from her, Spiderman shifting into the tree line. She let him go, turned away.
At nightfall, Cassie steeled herself against the siren call of Rick, Club Soda. With every fiber in her being she wanted to head over there and get plastered. She promised herself that in the morning she’d get on the ferry, leave this place and its memories. Give up on Henry forever. Tomorrow. She constantly watched the wind, the sea crashing to the shore. The house around her creaked, braced itself. She admired the place for hanging on, continuing to stand. “We can take a beating, that’s for sure,” Cassie said.
Up on the Mills Hill, a light flickered, pulsing in short, persistent bursts. Cassie stared in fearful fascination, her heart pounding in her chest. Luminous fingers reached for her, pulled on her shoulders, enticing her to come.
She took one deep breath and stormed outside, pulled her bike from the shed. Pushing against wind and rain, she rode through the deserted town, the bar’s eyes followed her, the taste of alcohol burned in her throat. Tree branches reached and slapped and scratched as she bounced onto the Clay Trail. A gnarled root caused the bike to careen and crash, knocking her to the ground. She picked up, pushed forward, finally making it to the shuttered Mills House.
She paced the perimeter, peered in, pulled on windows, leaned her shoulder hard into doors. She stood back, tilted her head up.
“I know! I know you’re there! I know!” she screamed.
Lightning struck, brightened the attic window for just a split second. A human outline appeared in her waterlogged vision. In a blink, it disappeared.
“Cassie!!” She recognized her brother’s voice howling with the wind. “Cassie!!!!!”
She gathered her energy and punched through glass, entering the unlit house, running upstairs. She stopped, taken aback by her brother, frozen at ten years old. He held his arms out. She rushed him, wrapped her body around his.
“You. It’s you,” she said.
So, we must let him go. Now he is with all the others in the sea, where they all end up, with that sister and all the rest of his worthless family. We tried to show him another way. We had our time. We won’t forget the good parts, the story times and art projects and singing. Perhaps we will stop the rains, smooth out the sea, allow the sun to shine, draw some new life to our island. Perhaps we will find ourselves another child, perhaps a girl the next time. How nice.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, lives in Syracuse, NY, writes about witches, cleaning ladies, struggling teachers, neighborhood ghosts, and other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work on her website.
Nick Flook aka Flooko is “the O.G astronaut painter” and takes his fans on adventures through original acrylic paintings and animations. This Toronto-based artist specializes in surrealism, space-themed work and impressionistic city and landscapes. See more of his work on his site and follow him on Instagram for more work.