Featured in Colorado Review
The MillsFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Summer 2020
Photo by Joe Crowley
The mills are on fire in Sanford, Maine. I’m three thousand miles away in Southern California, and I watch the clips on Facebook and local news websites. They’re saying arson, troubled boys who played with fire in the long-abandoned brick buildings. Flames devour disintegrated cardboard and century-old, oil-soaked innards where once there were textile machines, where once my grandmother’s family worked. The fire rises and rages into the June air. More firefighters come in from twenty other nearby communities in Maine and battle. I’ve lived in California since 2001, where I’m now married, where I’m a mother to two girls, where my only connection to my hometown is my family. But these mills—these mills and the sight of them ring in my own history.
I’d never given the mills much thought before age eleven; they were tall, dark, empty red-brick buildings on River Street that we passed on our way to and from the center of town. They were situated on the river, near a waterfall behind the bowling alley where I once took after-school lessons. Two nearby ponds full of mill runoff were unfit for swimming, of use only when the ice froze thick enough for skating.
In the spring of my sixth-grade year, the mills became something different. Twelve-year-old Gycelle Cote, a former classmate of mine, was killed by a troubled eighteen-year-old boy in our town. He strangled her and left her in the shallows of the Mousam River, the river that used to feed and power those old mills—buildings that would soon after be connected to her death by powerful rumors. She was found partially covered with brush, her wrists—according to newspapers—bearing marks suggesting they may have been bound.
Even before Gycelle died, my father’s family told me I’d inherited “Mémère’s nerves,” as my grandmother had her own anxieties. I was ever cautious, keyed up, fearful. But still, I played in the woods alone, gathering teaberry leaves to smell, uprooting long vines to construct forts of sticks. Perhaps my brain chemistry was just waiting for a spark. Before Gycelle died, nothing in my world was truly dangerous, nothing was alarming. And then everything was.
One of my good friends is a social worker in a high-security prison in Massachusetts. All day, she listens to men who have committed crimes against humans and animals. Murder, rape, torture, setting things ablaze. Most, she says, have suffered abuses as children that we cannot imagine. Occasionally, she encounters an inmate with what she calls “dead eyes.” There is nothing more chilling, she says, than meeting someone with dead eyes. She can’t describe what it looks like, exactly, only that there is nothing behind them, no depth, no hint of soul or conscience. These guys are the only ones who scare her, whom she cannot sit with. She wants to get out of their sight, away from their flat gaze.
When I first tried to write about Gycelle’s murder, I asked my mother to send me newspaper clippings; I had read the newspapers—tentatively—when I was twelve, but I couldn’t remember fact from rumor. As an adult, I read articles about the trial, the prosecution saying he killed her “for the heck of it,” and I interpret this as his wanting to see how it felt to kill someone.
When I look at his picture in the clippings, all about him seems noxious, almost liquid—his longish hair, face, and nose; the way his clothes hang on him. I cannot get a true feel for his eyes, though—the haze of the newspaper gray and his downward glance when the photographer captured his image at the arraignment, handcuffed and walking, make it hard—but that doesn’t matter. I am sure his eyes are dead.
It’s 1987. This place, Sweetser Children’s Home, used to be an orphanage. Now it’s a place for emotionally troubled children. There’s a day school, where I’m headed, and a residential program, where many kids live because their home situations are not safe. Situated behind rolling hills and stables, it looks like a summer camp.
I am fourteen. I have not been to school in nearly six months. A psychiatrist told my parents to keep me home because the stress of school is too much for me. I barely eat and I am afraid of public places. I have panic attacks. I cannot go to church or the grocery store.
I’m riding a short bus, five seats on each side. The girl sitting across from me, Jenny, wears a white helmet. She drools, the lids of her pretty, pale eyes are droopy, her smile lazy. Next to her is Paul, who wears thick-lensed glasses. His scratchy little voice and his magnified, innocent eyes squeeze my heart. He tells the same knock-knock joke on loop. He pretends to sneeze, repeatedly, so I will bless him. These two children are dropped off at a school in Kennebunk. Then I am on to Sweetser, in Saco—a long ride from my mill town.
Some nights I fall asleep thinking of Gycelle. I stare at the yellow gingham wallpaper of my room until the squares move and spin toward me, and I think of how she died. I knew her only from playing at recess a few times; from eating pizza once, next to each other, in our Catholic school cafeteria. Though we hardly knew each other, I remember her laugh, distinctly, and her voice. I imagine what it is like to be tricked into having your hands tied together as if it’s some sort of game—something argued in the state’s closing statement. To be led to a river. To be strangled. To be too far away from the street or the houses for anyone to hear your cries for help. Of course, an attack so unexpected likely gave her no final breath, no time to cry out at all.
After her murder, my old classmates make their way to ninth grade, to the regular public high school, to pep rallies and football games and dates. Female classmates bloom into womanly beings while I starve my body to stay flat, thin, rigid. I hide my body in oversized clothes.
I go to weekly individual therapy but do not talk. I clamp things in tight, afraid to sound crazy. I am given Xanax—white, football-shaped pills—and it does nothing.
I am the only girl in my class of five. All the boys have outbursts of rage—kicking and swearing—and teachers who restrain them physically, dragging them to the carpet, bringing them to a nearby room where the rest of us can still hear them scream at the volume of full-grown men before dissolving into tears. We hear reassurances from the teacher holding them, pieces of indistinct but even, deep, calming words. The first time I witness this I go home crying to my mother, who explains that this is a different kind of school, and that these kids need the kind of help they are getting. I argue that I don’t belong there, but I know I don’t belong in “normal” school, either. I am the only one here without outbursts of any kind; my bursts are inward.
In the fall after Gycelle died, the town is gripped with fear and a rumor: there will be another killing on Halloween.
I read the newspapers. During the murder investigation, satanic books were found in the possession of her murderer, who has admitted to liking what Satan preaches, who has admitted to harassing another girl, a fifteen-year-old, writing to her, “Your days are numbered.” Four days later, he killed Gycelle with what investigators believe was a cord or belt.
That fall, rumors swirl: That a satanic cult lives in the abandoned mills. That on Halloween, the cult will find and kill blue-eyed virgins. That they have a list of people to kill. That somewhere in one of the mills there is a picture of Gycelle, hanging upside down.
Every time my mother drives me by the mills, so dark, windows broken, I picture a room toward the back, old brick and metal, and wet, ambient sounds. A drawing back of a curtain. A room of horrors, of red candles and upside down pictures of blue-eyed virgins, of boys doing unspeakable things to girls.
Halloween comes and goes without incident, though we were all too scared to trick-or-treat.
The boys I go to school with know the world. I know only what’s in my zip code—if that. They have sex and smoke cigarettes and talk about the blow jobs they got in the shower at rehab. They steal alcohol, pilfer cash from their foster mothers’ purses, and hitchhike without fear. They skip school and aren’t afraid of trouble—any kind of trouble—getting in it, causing it, handling it. They tell me I’m a nice girl.
One day, a boy from the residential program joins our class. His name is Wade. He is tall and slim, with light green eyes, high cheekbones, white teeth, and a strong, sexy chin. Dark hair rests on his shoulders. He smells of coconut, of something else sweet. He calls me honey. We are instant friends. At last, I have an ally. I laugh, for the first time in years, because his wild, unhinged laugh makes it impossible not to. My body comes alive at the thought of him.
When Wade joins our class, I ask my mother to buy me clothes—though I will not go to the mall—and she is happy to do so. She buys me an oversized, lavender, off-the-shoulder tunic sweatshirt; a string of white plastic pearls; black leggings; and ballet flats. I ask if I can get my hair cut, and she brings me to her hairdresser, a sprayed-up blonde woman who chews gum and has twinkling blue eyes, who I can tell must have been told that I am “having problems.”
My oldest daughter is ten, with eyes so big and blue they make you forget what you were saying. She reads as we walk to school; I lead her across the street so she can finish a chapter of The Baby-Sitters Club without bumping into things or getting hurt. She lets me hold her hand sometimes, and I memorize the pressure, the softness, the moistness that evaporates when I release it. When we get to school I kiss her forehead, her wheaten hair on my lips, tell her I love her, tell her to have fun with her friends. I make note of what she’s wearing—I always make note of what she’s wearing, and I do it automatically, without saying this: in case. In case, for whatever reason, I need to describe the last time I saw her.
Gycelle’s body was discovered after her blue clothing was reflected in the river. When I was twelve years old, I owned a pair of powder-blue corduroys, and I decided to never wear them again. I did not wear anything blue for over a year.
Today, we live in one of the safest neighborhoods around, yet my children will not play in the front yard and my husband says this is my doing—but it was not intentional.
I have never told my children about Gycelle or bad men coming to get them, but they know. Instead we talk about stranger danger. I rehearse what to do if someone grabs them (fight) or tries to trick them into getting into their car (run hard, make noise, kick, scream, kick, scream).
But we have good neighbors, my husband says. People watch out for them. You don’t have to police them.
“If you’re lost,” I tell my children, “find a mother with kids. If you can’t find a mother, find another woman.”
Our classroom is like kindergarten because good behavior is rewarded; you earn points if you reach your goals. I get points for showing up for class, for eating lunch, for not leaving the weekly group when I have a panic attack.
I learn that if I let myself have a panic attack, it will get very bad, so bad I feel like I will pass out or actually die—but in fact, it will go away completely. It’s always hard to remember this when it’s happening.
Wade and I are the same type of student—we don’t cause problems, we don’t require physical restraint. We are the only ones in the entire place like this.
Points can be used to buy donated trinkets from the school store, things like travel-size hair spray, coin purses, memo pads, band posters. Or points can be used for freedom—unsupervised walks around campus. This is what Wade and I do, several times a week.
Sweetser is surrounded by fields and wooded paths; it has a stable with donated, retired Standardbred racehorses of muddy colors, grazing in the long grass. Wade and I walk through the woods and across an old trestle bridge. We dangle our feet over the edge, toward the brook below. We look up at the swaying pine tops. He smokes Marlboro Reds, and I will always associate the stinging, sulfuric scent of a match and that first exhale with him. He says he smokes to stay thin. He says he loves my new haircut—it is short, and I hope I look chic, like a fifteen-year-old Sheena Easton, though I know I’m not as pretty—and he runs his hand up the back of my neck, grasps the hair gently, lets it go, my body holding the memory hard.
He tells me how he ended up at Sweetser: he tried to kill himself, says he even fucked that up.
“What about you, missy?” he asks, and I explain as best I can, my throat tightening.
These walks we go on, I wonder why we are trusted. We could do anything out here. We could be lovers—I fantasize about us having sex near the bridge, pine boughs moving gently above us, my cheek to his chest afterward, him kissing my palms—because he is the kind of guy who would inhale a body as a lover, but he would also kiss arms and palms and eyelids, I know it.
My oldest daughter has a robin’s-egg blue beach cruiser and her hair brushes her shoulders. Her pink backpack shifts slightly as she pedals in front of me. I tell her goodbye at the school gate. She is excited because I’m letting her ride her bike home, alone, after choir practice. I know this is fine; I am doing an excellent job not worrying.
I wait at my window, at my desk, at 2:20, at 2:40, at 2:53, until she coasts into the driveway, waving to me. She says it was easy but she was scared the whole time. She smells like my childhood cat used to smell when he had been out in the buzzing summer heat, and she’s damp and out of breath. I tell her there is nothing to be afraid of.
She says, “I went really fast, Mom—nobody could catch me!”
Wade is getting better, and so am I. Soon he will graduate from Sweetser, although his diploma will have his town’s public high school name on it. We will part ways, never see each other again. In the past year, he has expressed his love for me beyond friendship, and though I know I have fallen in love with him, something stops me from saying so.
I ignore his advances for weeks, and then, around the time I think I am comfortable with them, he announces he is gay. Even the most homophobic boys at school accept him, because he is Wade. I say nothing. The pieces fall into place. It makes sense. Throughout the rest of my life, I will understand that falling in love has nothing to do with sex or sexuality, but instead a story that waits for the right time, the right life, to take full form.
Fifteen years later, well before Facebook, I get curious and Google his name. I find his obituary, which says only that he died in San Francisco, providing no clues as to how.
Time is nothing.
I write to his mother, send it to an address I find online. I tell her how much I loved her son. I tell her that he made that horrible time in my life bearable, that because of him, I did not feel alone.
What I don’t tell her is that I’m writing a novel that is mostly fiction but carefully veiled truth—too ashamed of my “emotional problems” and too protective to name his pain. And in the novel, he and I are never so damaged—on the page, I make us the teens I wished we had been— sneaking around, making out in cars, ending up together. Four days later she calls me, this woman I never met, but sometimes heard about from Wade on our walks, and she thanks me.
“Your letter,” she says, crying, “was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.”
My husband is handy. He can put up lights, rewire things, and fix broken toys. He understands plumbing and flooring and carpentry. My oldest daughter helps him around the house. He takes her to Lowe’s, lets her choose her own lightweight hammer, shows her how to use a drill, a screwdriver, a saw. I try mightily not to tell her to be careful. I try not to think of hunting for a severed thumb in sawdust. When he takes her somewhere without me, I remind him not to let her go to the restroom alone. Walk her there, I tell him, and keep an eye on the door. Someone could intercept her. He breathes deep. “It’s fine,” he says. “She’s fine.”
Years before the fire, some of the mill buildings—across from the ones that burned—were beautified. I drive through the mill area when I am home in the spring. The town has a plan to make it a pretty walking area near the falls, with shops, salons, restaurants, and apartments. A small piece of it is complete near the pond and falls, with a slick black bench, a handsome footpath, plaques throughout town depicting original structures and history. Can something be haunted, I wonder, by what—in the end—was only your imagination?
Wade’s mother tells me about the night he died. She was at home in Maine; there was a heavy ice storm that coated the trees and knocked power out, but somehow, the phone lines were working and her phone rang, and she received this news: Wade had jumped from a thirteen-story building in San Francisco.
I feel like I might be bleeding internally.
“He had told me he was depressed,” she says, sighing. “For years, I never understood what depression was like when he would tell me. But in the days after he died, I understood. I understood what it was like to have a pain so great that living no longer feels possible.”
She thanks me repeatedly. I tell her how sorry I am. How very heartbroken I am.
“I don’t know what you were going through back then, when you went to Sweetser,” she says gently, “but I am so glad that you seem okay today. And I hope—I hope whatever it is you were going through, that it’s all behind you.”
“It’s behind me,” I say. “I’m okay.”
I cry for days. I remember his smell, his voice, and his laugh. That one time he kissed me on the forehead when we hadn’t seen each other in a while.
The fire has been extinguished, but there are hot spots. The integrity of the building has been compromised, the heat too intense for the mortar. There is talk of having it torn down, that there is hazardous waste to be dealt with, that the epa will have to be involved in the cleanup.
I watch the news until there is no news about it and the boys who started the fire—minors with no names—are somehow dealt with. Nobody and nothing was hurt—not one innocent child, not one firefighter or police officer, not this group of boys who may still grow up to be lovers who kiss palms, to be gentle men who fix all that is broken.
My husband and oldest daughter are building a bed for her doll; the wooden pieces are laid out on the lawn. As our daughter tries to drill into a piece of wood, she eases off the trigger. “I’m scared,” she says.
“It’s okay,” he tells her. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re using a tool that can be dangerous, but you’re being careful. Don’t be scared, be careful.”
She squeezes again, tentatively, and he nods. She squeezes harder, bears down on the drill. The bit spins, then she draws it out, leaving behind a neat hole and the scent of heated wood.
Jennifer Genest grew up riding horses and playing in the woods of Sanford, a mill town in southern Maine. She now lives near Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in New Delta Review, Post Road Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Her novel, The Mending Wall, is currently seeking publication.