Ever since the principal had banned texting, Mia barely talked to her boyfriend during the day. Sometimes she didn’t see him until lunch. That morning, though, he was standing right outside her classroom, a smirk on his face, his dark hair framed by the brown and orange poster for the fall dance stapled to the wall behind him.
He whispered hello and tried to kiss her. She shifted her weight to avoid his lips. The graze of his stubble smeared her foundation.
“Stop it, Danny. I don’t feel good. I have to get to class.”
She pushed him away but he slipped his arm around her waist, bringing her closer. She knocked his hand from her stomach and broke free.
“What’s wrong with you lately?”
“Nothing, I just don’t feel good today.”
“Well, you better start feeling good, ‘cause we’re all going down to that mill by the river tonight. We’re meeting at nine or ten by that ranger-station-thing. By the cliff. Near the quarry. You can get in by the waterfall.”
“What? Why?” She tried to squeeze past him.
“We’re gonna’ look for ghosts and stuff, it’ll be fun, it’s supposed to be haunted.”
“I don’t wanna’ go. I’m tired. I just wanna’ go to sleep early.”
“You’ve gotta’ go. C’mon. We all are.” He planted himself in the center of the doorway and refused to move. The morning bell began to ring.
“Fine, whatever. I’ll go. Just get out of the way.”
“Awesome, I’ll see you later.”
He kissed her one last time before stepping aside.
She hardly ate any lunch. The scent of onions seemed to taint the whole cafeteria. It was only near the end of the day when her stomach finally settled.
She found Danny sitting on his car in the waning sunlight.
“So, you’ll meet us at ten, right?
“I don’t know.”
“C’mon, you have to go. Ethan and Kelsey are going. It’s like a double date, but with ghosts and stuff.”
“Fine, I’ll go. I told you I’d go.”
“Cool, I’ve got these huge flashlights. My dad bought two of them. They’re really powerful.” Danny pulled out his phone and began absent-mindedly staring at the screen. “I hope they’re not too bright, though. But I guess nobody’s ever down there by the river, like, at ten at night or anything.”
An autumn wind blew through the trees, stirring up chimney smoke from nearby houses. Mia felt hungry for the first time in days.
“Just make sure to wear boots or something, since we’ll have to go through the woods and there’s tons of broken glass and stuff like that inside.”
She pictured the old mill. She’d studied it in eighth grade. The Bancroft family had made fabric there starting back in the 1800s. It closed in the 1960s. Now it was just falling apart, abandoned from a forgotten era. She wasn’t sure if Danny even knew it was called the Bancroft Mill.
For dinner she ate mashed potatoes on the couch with her mom. They watched the news and the weatherman said something about the dew point causing fog, how it was bad for pumpkins if they were cut already. Her mom went straight to bed. It was easy to sneak out.
Mia stayed off the highway and drove cautiously, barely able to see the murky neon sign of the drive-thru where she stopped for fries.
It only took fifteen minutes to get to the gravel parking lot by the cliff.
A streetlamp illuminated Danny through the mist as she approached. He was on the hood of his car, drinking a beer. Ethan stood next to him, trying to light a cigarette, his arm around his girlfriend, Kelsey. They shielded their eyes.
Danny yelled through the darkness as she turned off her engine.
“Don’t use your high beams like that, people could see us.”
As she got out and walked up, he offered her the beer.
“You want a sip?”
She pretended not to hear.
“Seriously, don’t use your headlights like that. We don’t wanna’ get caught.”
“Just try to be more careful.”
Ethan finally lit his cigarette and blew some smoke into the haze. Mia stepped back from the cloud; a stick snapped beneath her. Kelsey jumped.
“What was that?”
The boys laughed.
Hundreds of feet below, over the edge of the cliff, the dark river churned on steadily. They stood quietly in each other’s company for a moment until Danny finally spoke up.
“C’mon, let’s go, we’ll take the path by the quarry. It’ll be quicker.” He took another sip of beer, offering it to Mia again. “You want some or not?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“God, you’re never any fun. Why are you so uptight?”
After hesitating a second, she grabbed the can and took a drink.
Danny snatched it back.
“Hey, don’t drink it all.”
As they moved into the forest, Mia let the bitter, lukewarm liquid sit on her tongue for a second, waiting for Danny to move ahead. As soon as she was sure no one else was looking, she quietly spit the beer into the dead leaves behind her.
They reached the river in less than five minutes. The mill stood along the edge of the waterfall as if the foundation had grown from the water. Almost every window was broken, the roof caving in. Staring at the building, Mia wondered why she hadn’t just stayed at home in bed.
Near the edge of the waterfall a rotting wooden platform sat perched on some boulders, a pedestrian bridge once used by mill workers. A rusty door hung from its hinges, blocking their way.
“Danny, check this out.” Ethan kicked the lock with all his strength, ripping the metal door from its frame. It slammed onto the wooden platform, then bounced, reverberating off the steel beams supporting the bridge. Birds scattered from a nearby tree.
Mia searched the woods for impending reproach, but no one came. The sound of the waterfall resumed. The evening carried on.
“Let me go first, since I’ve been in here before. It’s crazy.”
Danny offered his hand to Mia.
She took it, noticing how cold his skin was, but how it also felt somehow comforting. They held each other tightly and shuffled across the bridge, inch-by-inch, the river rushing below.
Upon reaching the end, Danny led them through a short passageway to an open door.
The fog gave way to damp, stagnant air.
It was a big room. Sprawling. Broken tables and shattered glass and discarded factory equipment littered the floor. Graffiti stretched from wall to wall, scrawled chaotically in different layers from all the kids breaking in over the years.
Danny pulled out his phone and started taking pictures.
“I was only here a couple minutes last time. But this is the boring part, where people worked. There are other places where they did tests on people and stuff.”
“Yeah, right.” Ethan shined his light in Danny’s face.
Kelsey rolled her eyes as she moved closer to her boyfriend. “I’m sure,” she said.
“They did, seriously. I hear a guy killed a lady in here once. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff. I’ve never even been in half of it. It’s like a maze.” Danny stepped over a puddle, pulling Mia along. “Let’s try this way.”
As he led them through a door in the back corner they entered a deserted hallway, eventually hitting a dead end by a stairwell. Danny pointed his flashlight towards the second floor.
“Let’s check it out.”
They climbed quickly.
Mia’s heart was pounding by the time they reached the top. It was kind of fun. Like a haunted house. She almost even smiled when Danny swung her around at the top of the landing to kiss her on the cheek.
She couldn’t truly relax, though. That one thing in the back of her mind wouldn’t let her be happy.
She let her hand drop.
“What’s your problem?”
He’d moved on before she could reply.
The upstairs hallway was empty save an overturned bench. Tight, windowless. Danny herded them along to another door, this one paneled and locked.
Ethan skipped ahead, wanting to be first.
“Let’s go inside.”
As he kicked his way in he called back to the group.
“Check this out!”
It was an office. A nice one. A place someone important must’ve spent a lot of time. There was a big oak desk, covered in dust, resting beside a cracked leather chair. A mangled filing cabinet, rusted and with no doors, lay on its side. Above the desk, a framed map of the river, still intact and under glass, acknowledged them with their own reflection.
“This is awesome.” Danny scanned the room with his flashlight. “It’s like people just ran out in a hurry. Like they left everything exactly where it was.”
“Not really.” Ethan searched the filing cabinet. “They took all their papers. They obviously knew they were leaving.”
“Whatever.” Danny made his way over to the old leather chair, running his fingers along the bronze studs, picking up black dust. “Gross.” As he wiped his hands on his jeans in frustration, he kicked the aging legs. All of the sudden, without warning, the heavy seat gave out and crumbled to the floor, crashing with a bang. “Whoa!” As Danny jumped back in surprise he spontaneously ripped the map from the wall, throwing the frame to the ground. Glass shattered. Mia covered her face from the shards.
“Danny, come on–”
“Stop breaking stuff. I think we should just get out of here. It’s getting late.”
“What’s your deal? We’re trying to have fun. Why do you always have to be so serious?”
“I’m tired. It’s been a long day. And I don’t feel good.”
“You never feel good. It’ll only be a little longer. Me and Ethan and Kelsey are having fun.”
As he continued marching around the room, the floorboards bent beneath him.
He’d stopped in the corner, focusing his light on some peeling wallpaper behind the filing cabinet.
“Ethan, get over here.”
A glint of metal sparkled as they examined the wall.
“I think it’s a door knob.”
They put down their flashlights and began tearing long strips of paper from the wall. A tarnished brass lock revealed itself.
“Dude, Danny, what the hell is this?”
“It’s a secret door.”
Danny tried the knob first. It wouldn’t budge.
Ethan added more force. But it still wouldn’t move.
Finally Danny told everyone to stand back.
After getting a head start from the other side of the room, he exploded into a run, kicking his boot out at the last second, striking the door with all his might.
A loud crack shook the walls as the lock broke. The door swung wildly back and forth for a minute before creaking to a stop.
It wasn’t another factory room. It wasn’t an office for a secretary, either.
It wasn’t the type of room that should’ve been in the mill at all.
There was more peeling wallpaper, but this time it was green and yellow and floral in design, running down to a carpeted floor. It smelled sweet and moldy, like no one had been in there for a hundred years. The thick carpet had once been gold or teal, and was now a faded and filthy combination of both.
As Mia’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she made out dozens of small pictures decorating the walls. They were indecipherable at first, but she could soon see clearly. They were delicate watercolors. Paintings of animals. Bunnies. Kittens. Birds.
Goosebumps ran up her arms.
Danny began pacing the room.
“Now this is creepy. What the hell is this place?”
Mia’s heart was beating faster now. She followed the line of watercolors to the corner.
That’s when she saw it.
Right there, in the back of the room, a tiny mobile hung from the ceiling. Little stencils of people holding hands were looking downwards.
Down into a small, empty cradle.
“This is insane.” Danny stomped around the nursery. “What were they doing in this place? Keeping people hostage?”
He stormed across the mildewed carpet towards the cradle. Next to it, as if it had just fallen out, was a miniature toy rattle. An old-fashioned ceramic one, its fragile surface painted with muted pink roses.
Mia took a stilted breath.
In an instant, before she could even exhale, Danny’s boot smashed down, splintering the rattle into a thousand pieces.
His booming laughter spilled out of the nursery.
She couldn’t take it anymore.
Without so much as another breath, Mia found herself throwing the entire weight of her small body at him, pounding closed fists into his chest.
“Fuck you, Danny! Fuck you!” She could barely scream through the shaking. “You can go to hell!”
He was stunned, standing there drained of color, unable to comprehend what was happening. Ethan and Kelsey were frozen too, their mouths open, eyes wide.
She tried to control her tears.
“You’re a fucking asshole, Danny. You’re a son-of-a-bitch.” She pushed him against the wall, ripping the flashlight from his hand. “I’m going home. Seriously, I’m fucking going home you asshole.”
They called after her but she wouldn’t stop.
She ran down the hallway past the overturned bench and back downstairs to the factory. She ran across the rotting bridge into the forest, back to the foot of the cliff.
Finally, she turned to the mill.
Through the mist, she could trace their flickering light as it wandered behind broken windows, from the nursery back into the office, down to the factory. Their light, like her thoughts, searching for a way out, trying to vacate the depths of some unrealized fear.
A gust of wind rustled fallen leaves along the riverbank. Mia placed her hands on her stomach. Then, turning away, with the cliffs high above and the river racing behind, she took a step forward, disappearing into the fog.
A.E. Milford was born and raised in Delaware. A graduate of Berklee College of Music who is now based in Los Angeles, Milford has written for various film projects and has had fiction published in Philadelphia Stories, the Schuylkill Valley Journal, and the Broadkill Review.