by J.D. Wilson


Norma Reed’s custom tailoring shop employed three full-time workers. The majority of work came from alterations, but it also did very well creating hand-sewn women’s dresses and men’s shirts and pants. Norma had been the proprietor of the small company since it opened in 1936. However, the recession of 1953 changed all that.

Iris Handley worked for Miss Norma for eight years. After Paul passed away, Iris had been left to raise their daughter alone. It was not easy. She was fortunate to get the job at Reed’s. As well, she took in ironing on the side whenever she had the opportunity, which helped supplement her pay at the dress shop. Most of her earnings went toward paying the bills. Still, as hard as it was, Iris was able to even save some money from time to time. She would stash it away in a JFG coffee can on the top of the kitchen cupboard. But last year, in the fall of 1953, hard times fell upon Beeman, Vermont. Had it not been for the small house being paid for, she and Sara would have been out on the street. The work at Norma’s shop slowed down. It seemed no one was having alterations done, and the tailor-made clothes were not selling.

Sara Handley was fifteen years old. She helped her mother with the ironing that she brought home, and she did her best to pick up any part-time work in town when she could. She was indeed a blessing to her mother. Sara helped out and never complained.

After Iris was laid off, she continued to take in work when she could. For the most part, it came from just a few folks who knew the widow was having a rough time, and so they tried to provide her some small means of additional income. Times were hard for Iris and her daughter. But then, it was hard for everyone. The stress of financial hardship weighed on the citizens of the small town. After a while, people began to get agitated over the least of matters. Everyone was on edge. People were just scared. It was then that Iris Handley crossed a line. It was a choice she made in the heat of anger—one made by the heart and not the head. It was a choice that, once made, could never be taken back. On September 9, 1953, in the early morning hours when everyone else was asleep, Iris Handley did a horrible thing. 






Sara began the school year at Beeman High with much anticipation. She had hoped that the experience would be easier than the tumultuous years of junior high school. And, in the beginning, it was. For about the first two weeks. Then it started again. The popular kids, those whose parents ran the stores in town—those kids from the east side, well off—they were the ones who had tortured Sara for the past three years. Jenny Randall. Her father was the mayor of the small town. Jack Nance was the son of Robert Nance. He owned the car dealership on Second Street. Susan Mason’s father was a lawyer, and Alice White was the daughter of the man who ran the largest furniture manufacturing company in Vermont. Alice’s current boyfriend, Dean Frost, was the senior quarterback for the Beeman Vikings. There were a few others, but these five were the ringleaders of the group that tortured poor Sara without mercy. There was nothing she could do to stop it.

Iris eventually found out what was happening. Sara would have never told her about it. It was one of Iris’ ironing jobs—a parent of one of Sara’s classmates. She mentioned something about the pathetic behavior of the ones tormenting the girl. It just came up in casual conversation. Iris shrugged it off as if she knew. But in reality, Sara’s mother had no idea of the bullying and name-calling, or the mental and physical abuse that her daughter was going through.

Iris found out about all of it. That night, just before Sara went to bed, Iris talked with the girl. Sara broke down. She had kept all the pain bottled up inside for so long. She told her mother everything.

Iris discovered that the ones who were harassing her daughter were the supposed “good kids.” The girls in her history class, Jenny Randall and Alice White, in particular, had held Sara down and cut a large lock of her hair while the teacher was out of the room. Sara never said a word about it. Why hadn’t she said anything... why didn’t she talk about it...?

Sara pulled her hair above her ear on the right side of her head. There it was. Plain as day. Just above her ear and near the back of her head was a gap about an inch wide cut down to the scalp. Sara had been hiding it by pulling her hair back over the place. But there it was.

Over the next few weeks, Iris never mentioned the subject to Sara. Oh, she was more observant, watching the girl, paying more attention to her appearance and her actions and emotions. Iris watched her daughter closely after her shocking discovery. And she became angry. She began preparing to do something about the situation.

It seemed that most of the townsfolk had known about the bullying of the girl—most except for Iris. She was one of the few who were not aware of the situation. And no one—in the school or outside of it—had done anything about it. Well, she would. She would flat put a stop to it. Yes... it could be done... carefully... very carefully. Planned out and performed precisely, exactly, with no mistakes. Yes.  It must be done that way. No loose ends could be allowed. Iris changed. Her hatred began to consume her. She suppressed the emotion that was ready to boil over. It would need to be perfect—above reproach.

Days turned into weeks. Sara’s grades began to suffer and she lost interest in things that she had previously enjoyed. She didn’t talk much. Several times she feigned sickness as an excuse to stay home. Iris knew—those at school—those kids—they were doing this. They were the cause of the trouble. It had gone too far. Enough was enough. She had even parked outside the school a few times in the last two weeks and watched. It was time. Something had to be done.

By the oddest stroke of fate—by sheer happenstance—it all fell into place on an uneventful Thursday afternoon. Iris Handley was home. Sara had arrived at the house, her face flushed, her breathing quick and shallow. She tried to hide it. She was upset but she made her best attempt at not revealing her distress to her mother. Sara mumbled something when asked about her day at school and proceeded straight into her bedroom. Iris knew. It had not been a good day.

And so, on that day, it happened. Four of the fine, upstanding Beeman High undergraduates who had been carrying out the cruelty toward her daughter—dared to pull into Iris Handley’s gravel driveway. Alice White and Vikings’ quarterback Dean Frost were in the front seat of his ’53 Ford. In the back were Susan Mason and Jack Nance. The four of them had followed the bus that Sara rode home. Then, when she stepped off of the school bus, and it pulled away, they followed her from the stop, up the quarter-mile road to the house. The entire time they taunted her. Alice jumped from the front seat of the Ford and ran up to Sara at one point, throwing her to the ground and spitting on her. Sara just laid on the ground for several seconds, afraid to get up.

Finally, she ran into her bedroom and closed the door. She grasped a pillow, pulled it tightly over the top of her head, and cried herself to sleep in no time. Iris was standing in the front room of the house near the window. Sara rushed inside so quickly that she hadn’t noticed that her mother was at home that afternoon. The truck was gone, and so Sara assumed her mother was in town. However, the old truck was parked around the back of the house. Iris had been loading trash into it from the garage shed.

That day, when Sara came home sobbing, Iris Handley reached a breaking point. It was at the moment that she had that very thought—Dean Frost wheeled the Ford into her driveway. The four kids in the car were laughing hysterically. They sat in the car yelling obscenities toward the house. The four knew that Sara’s mother worked around town, picking up whatever menial labor she could procure. They knew that she was rarely ever there when Sara got home. The quiet, mousy girl, inside the rundown house, was all alone. So they thought. 

They were all laughing so hard that they didn’t see Iris Bentley come around the side of the house. She came up from the rear driver’s side of the Ford. Just before she was alongside the rear door, Dean Frost saw her in the side mirror. She held the Remington double-barrel in her hands. Her teeth were clenched, her face tightly drawn into an expression of disgust and hatred. The shotgun was her late husband’s squirrel rifle. It wasn’t even loaded.

Dean saw her in the mirror and immediately slid toward the opposite side of the bench seat, attempting to put as much distance as possible between himself and the crazy-eyed lady. He slid toward the center of the front seat, pressing against Alice.

Iris pointed the barrel of the 12-gauge through the open window of the car door. “Get out... NOW!” she demanded, her eyes wild and glassy.

The four teens said nothing. They fumbled with the door handles and nervously got out of the car. They knew it was Sara’s mother. None of them had ever met or spoken to her, but they had seen her at a couple of school functions. Susan Mason’s mother had even hired Mrs. Handley to do some ironing for her on a few occasions. They knew who she was.

Iris pointed the gun toward the side of the house. “Go,” she said. The four of them slowly turned and walked toward the side of the small house. In the back, a narrow path led through the woods behind the house. A half-mile away, a small clearing opened up in the dense pine forest. A stone chimney pointed up toward the blue sky, the last reminder of a rustic cabin that was nearly one hundred years gone. Beyond what was left of the rock fireplace, near the edge of the clearing, the hillside began to slope upward. What initially looked to be an outcrop of stone near the base of the slope could be seen through the underbrush. An ancient stone cellar—nearly enveloped in vines and moss—was constructed into the base of the steep hillside. Only a portion of the rock walls and the wooden door could be seen. Iris motioned the kids toward the structure with the barrel of the shotgun. They cautiously approached the old cellar.

She pointed the gun at Dean. “Open it,” she said, motioning him toward the massive wooden door. Hewn from solid two-inch-thick hemlock planks, a heavy iron hasp was fastened on the outside of the door, but there was no lock on it.

Dean looked at the door and the wild-eyed woman’s intent hit him like a ton of bricks. “Nooo... now, wait a minute... you—you—“

“OPEN IT!” Iris yelled and pulled the hammer back on the shotgun.

“Okay, okay!” Dean struggled to free the rusted iron hasp from the door. He grabbed the handle and pulled the large door open. The damp coolness of the stone structure that had not seen daylight in so many decades was suddenly filled with the sunlight that streamed inside. The waft of coolness could be felt as it rushed out from the open door.

Susan was crying now. “No, you can’t make us go in—in there... no, Mrs. Handley... don’t.” Her eyes were wet and frantic. Her expression was one of sheer and utter terror.

Iris showed no emotion. Her eyes were squinted and her face flushed red with anger. “Get in... back against the wall!”

The four slowly stepped into the dirt-floored root cellar. Iris demanded the car keys from Dean. Then, she held the gun with one hand, stepped outside, and pushed hard against the wooden door with the other, closing it and quickly fastening the iron hasp onto the closed entrance. She retrieved a large brass lock from her pocket and secured the door. Crying could be heard from inside. Iris turned and walked back to the house.

Back inside the house, she cracked the door open to check on her daughter. Sara was still asleep.

Pulling the door to, she went outside and got in the car. By depressing the clutch, she was able to let the car roll backward down the driveway until she backed out onto the county road. She started the car and drove it out toward the paved highway west of the house. A mile away, she reached the intersection with Route 30. There, in a wide place on the opposite side of the road, Iris parked the Ford and got out. She walked across the highway and headed back to the house on the gravel-surfaced county road.

She went to the shed behind the house. Inside the wooden building were various farm implements and tools. The items had not been disturbed since the passing of her husband. When he was alive, they had always kept a few Hereford cows and a few hogs. Since his death, the farm tools had remained undisturbed.

Inside, the building was dark. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the low light. On a shelf on the far wall, were several bottles of animal medicines. Iris walked to the large dusty bottles and began examining each one. Vitamins, de-wormer, antibiotics... and... there it was—tranquilizers. Crenshaw’s Sta-Stil. A large brown glass bottle. The pills were as big around as her thumb. The bottle was half full. She remembered her husband mixing the medication into the feed for the Herefords. As best she could remember, he would put three pills into the animal’s feed, and about an hour later, they would be lying on the ground in a state of semi-consciousness. The medication was several years old. She shook the bottle. The pills were still solid and dry. Crenshaw’s Sta-Stil.

Iris mixed up the concoction in a large glass pitcher. She wasn’t sure how much to use. She crushed ten of the large pills with a pair of pliers and mixed the powder into the lemonade. Then, she filled two Mason jars with the mixture and screwed lids onto them.

She carried a brown paper bag with the jars inside in one hand, and the shotgun in the other. The filled jars clinked as she carefully traversed the footpath to the moss-covered stone building at the edge of the woods. She opened the door and set the paper bag inside. The four teens covered their eyes as the late afternoon sun streamed in. Iris grasped the gun and slid the bag toward the kids with her foot.

“Drink up,” she said, “that'll be all you get till in the morning sometime... so you better drink it.”

The four seemed to be in a state of shock. They offered no argument. Without hesitation, they drank the contents of the jars and placed them back into the bag. She picked it up and backed out of the doorway, closing it. The padlock clicked on the outside of the wooden door. They sat in the dark, on the dirt floor of the damp shed. No one spoke.






Later in the evening, Iris prepared her sewing box. Norma Reed had asked her to come in the next day. It would only be a few hours, but the money would still help. She set the box on the table by the front door.

Sara was readying for bed. Iris clicked off the radio in the kitchen and pulled the curtain aside on the window above the sink. It was dark outside. A sliver of the bright moon provided barely enough light to see the fields behind the house. The trees that bordered both sides of the backyard were black silhouettes. She stared out the window. Some things needed to be done this night.

By 11:30, Sara was fast asleep. Iris retrieved her wooden sewing box. Cautiously closing the front door behind her as she went outside, she tiptoed across the porch, down the steps, and proceeded toward the back of the house.

The dew was cool and wet on the grass. She left the backyard and began the dark walk to the root cellar, carrying a kerosene lamp that was not lit for fear of attracting unwanted attention. The waxing crescent moon provided just enough light. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness as she walked through the fields behind the house. She approached the wooden door to the root cellar and placed the box and the lantern on the ground. A spark, the burning smell of sulfur, and she lit the lamp with a wooden match. Then, she took the key from her pocket and clicked the padlock open.

Iris listened at the door for several seconds before removing the lock. There was no sound at all from inside. She slowly slipped the padlock from the rusted hasp and pulled the door open. The flickering lamp cast a glow inside the darkness of the structure. There was no sound and no movement from inside. She picked up the lantern and studied the inside of the stone building for several seconds before going inside. The four teens were huddled together on the dirt floor. They were not moving. At first, she feared they were already dead. She placed the lamp and the box on the floor and pulled the door closed so that the light could not be seen from the outside. There was much work to do.






The next morning Iris arrived at Norma Reed’s shop early. The small, silver bell tinkled as she opened the door. “Look Daddy, the teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’” The line from the Jimmy Stewart classic immediately came to her mind as she stepped through the opened door. But, angels—especially those who had graduated to first-class, wings-earned status—they were far, far away from Iris Handley now. There were no angels in this place. 

Norma greeted her from the adjacent room and asked about Sara. She was just fine. The silence between the women was not awkward. They were comfortable with each other and with the lack of conversation that lends itself to work. By noon she was nearly done. Norma offered to get lunch for them, but Iris graciously declined, stating that the work was near complete and that she would just as soon finish it up and get home before Sara got off the bus.

She completed the work by twenty minutes of one and was headed back home, eight dollars to the good for her efforts.






While Iris was at Norma’s shop, Dean Frost’s car was found. The teens had been reported missing late last night when none of the four returned home. As well, they didn’t show up at school. By mid-morning, the car was found with the keys in the ignition and the state police were on the scene.

That afternoon, on the Philco in the kitchen, she heard the report of the missing teens. The authorities were asking for any information on the whereabouts of the four. There were no leads in the investigation as yet.

Hank Williams launched into “Kaw-Liga,” as WKBM dropped a needle on the crooner’s latest hit. She stood at the kitchen window and wiped her hands on her apron, even though they were already clean and dry. The curtains blew as the late summer breeze came through the half-open window. Iris looked across the yard to the open field behind the house. And beyond the field. Just at the edge of the woods, out beyond the pasture land that had not been used for so many years. They were out there. And they would stay there. She had done it. There was no going back now, no amount of regret would ever change what was done.

Iris Handley had always been a most sensible woman. After Paul died, she was thrust into the role of making a way for herself and Sara. It had not been easy. She was barely able to put food on the table. Anything extravagant—anything that was not essential—was out of the question. She was just getting by. But she was determined to make it. Iris was fortunate that the mortgage on the small house was paid off. Paul had taken care of that, at least.

The sensible woman. Iris Handley. The poor widow who paid her way and lived without extravagance—the one with the mousy daughter who lived at the end of the gravel lane off of Route 30. The old widow who had always done the right thing. 

Things had changed. Maybe it was the lifetime of always feeling inferior. Maybe the eternal looks from those in town—that look of pity and the downturned faces and loss for words from those that she encountered on the streets and in the stores and the post office. And then those who offered kind words—but that Iris always felt were nothing more than just that. Words. That was all... just empty words.

Things had changed. Iris had stepped into a realm from which she would never be allowed to come back. Last night had been the most terrible of all nights. The images of the horrors she had performed flooded her mind. Sharp, clear images that confirmed the fact—the fact that—yes, she had indeed snapped. She thought about what had happened, about what she’d done, and yet, right now, as she stood by the open window relishing the warm breeze, her thoughts were as clear and as rational as they had ever been. And yet, she had done... the thing. She had carried out, what most people would not even dare think of. She did it. She stood in front of the kitchen window, eyes closed, and smiled. Sara would be home soon. Sara would be home and would tell her of the shocking news. Four of Beeman High’s most adored—four kids with such privilege and potential—were gone. Disappeared. And no one knew what had happened. Iris stood by the window and smiled.

Her sense of right and wrong—and the dividing line between the two—had all changed in the early morning of September 16, 1954. Iris was not the same now. No one else knew of the change in the old woman. It was not physically apparent. Even Sara did not know what had happened on that night. But it had happened, nonetheless.

She had waited until just before midnight. Sara was chased home that afternoon by the four bullies. The girl did not eat supper that evening, she didn’t come out of her room. Iris waited, and then, late that night, she walked to the old root cellar at the edge of the field. Dean Frost, Alice White, Jack Nance, and Sue Mason—they had been confined inside the old stone structure since the ill-fated afternoon. Now, after midnight, and after consuming the animal tranquilizer concoction that Iris had prepared, the four of them were unconscious.

The late summer night air was cool. Inside the rock-walled building, it was damp and chilly. The four kids were out cold. The mixture they had consumed earlier was almost too strong. If Iris had mixed even another two or three pills into the lemonade, it could have killed them. As it was, they were just right for Iris to perform the task at hand. She opened the sewing box inside the cellar and moved the kerosene lamp closer. Retrieving a large sewing needle and a spool of thread, she went to work.

The four teens never knew what was happening. One at a time, she carefully sewed together the lips of each of the four. She left the smallest opening in the center of the mouth—a small hole where a straw might be inserted. Iris sewed the upper and lower lip of each of the four together, drawing the thread tight as she worked, so there was no slack, no looseness in the perfectly-spaced blanket stitch. She completed the job on all four in less than an hour. Then she moved on to the eyelids. She began with Alice White. Stitching the lids together required a precise and steady hand. Iris Handley’s years of experience as a seamstress paid off. She was very adept at performing the precise hand-stitching. In another hour, she had completed the sutures of eight pairs of eyelids. Then, for the next two hours, she carefully stitched together the thumbs and fingers of each of the teens. By 4 a.m. she was done. All four of them—eyes and lips sewed shut, fingers all sewn together to form a small, scoop-like gopher paw. Dexterity was no longer an option. There was not one opposing thumb among the group of them now. They were not going anywhere. There was no need to constrain them.

Iris picked up her sewing box, stood up, and walked to the door. Before opening it, she took one last look. Raising the kerosene lantern high to cast the yellow, flickering light across the inside of the root cellar, she gazed upon the predicament that had befallen the four young tormentors. They were all propped up in the far corner. The flame from the lamp cast a warm glow across the distorted, grotesque faces. The black thread contrasted against the creamy pale skin of each of them. Bluish-purple lips and permanently closed eyes rested beneath the illumination that cast a swinging, back-and-forth shadow across the rock walls inside the cellar. Thin lines of dried blood ran down from lips and eyelids. It was horrible—the stuff of the worst nightmares. Iris Handley whispered a tune under her breath. A lighthearted, happy tune. Kaw-Liga- uh-A...  just stands there as lonely as can be... And wishes he was still an old pine tree.

She smiled and admired her handiwork. She had always been told that she was quite good, and she knew that she was. It was no wonder that Miss Norma had kept her on for all these years. She did indeed have talent. Yes... yes, indeed. She was quite good with a needle and thread.

Iris carefully closed and locked the door to the cellar. She walked back home in the darkness.






The four students were never found. The police searched and investigated and searched some more. But the case was never solved. Rewards were offered and money was spent but to no avail. The state police even questioned Iris and her daughter, after all, the car was found not far from where the Handleys lived. Iris only shook her head, feigning concern, and expressed her bewilderment about what could have happened to those poor children. The mousy girl only sat on the couch, not saying much of anything.

Sara’s life changed after the incident. Those who had always taken part in the ongoing intimidation toward her slacked off after the disappearances. Once the ringleaders were gone, the others were not so compelled to take part in the constant badgering. After Christmas break, not much was said about what had happened. However, the after-effects of the event plagued the four families for many years. Alice White’s parents divorced the next summer. One month later, Mrs. White was found on a sunny Saturday morning hanging from a rafter of the small house she had rented.

Iris Handley continued to work for Miss Norma for some time. Things picked up over time. She even managed to save up enough in her JFG can that she and Sara would enjoy a trip or a short vacation every so often.

Occasionally, patrons would come into Miss Norma’s shop and would turn their conversation to the four kids who went missing so many years before. Iris would nod in agreement with them. What a shame, she would say. But she knew. They would lament the tragedy that had come upon those poor children. But she knew... Iris knew. And she was the only one that did.


Submitted: August 05, 2022

© Copyright 2023 J.D. Wilson. All rights reserved.

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Nice I have a couple of short stories that you might enjoy they're called the mountain woman and the ears

Fri, August 5th, 2022 11:47pm

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