I grew up in a small Midwestern town where the whole community was tight-knit. Our families didn’t just consist of our parents, but everyone else, too. The neighborhood kids were siblings by a different name. People rarely strayed and even more seldom did strangers move in, but they were welcomed as if they had always belonged there.
The last outsider to ever settle in the town was a woman named Maria Sigrid. She was a beautiful young woman, looking no older than late twenties. Despite having no children of her own, she had a loving maternal aura that naturally drew us kids towards her. I think part of it was her eyes. They were chestnut, but the life and the kindness they glimmered with gave them the mesmerizing countenance of being golden.
She bought the little two-story building that stood empty for as long as anyone could remember. I’d seen that place only once shortly before Maria’s arrival. It still serves to be the oldest memory I can recollect. It was decrepit, almost falling to pieces at its very foundation. Its yellowing paint was chipped and weathered by years of neglect, but a lot of that was hidden by the ivy and other types of flora that had begun to overwhelm the decaying corpse of a home.
The next time I saw that building, it had undergone a complete transmutation. Someone had clearly taken the time to invest in a much needed makeover of the place. Most of the plants that were trying to swallow the building were removed, save for a few ribbons of ivy that decorated the left-hand side. The outside was painted a fresh red-brown color that shown to be an extreme improvement from the previous yellow-white exterior and bright pink shutters were installed on the windows. It was, for once, hospitable.
Maria had taken ownership of the place and converted the first floor into a bakery and restaurant which she called Welcome Home. The lively atmosphere and Maria’s tender disposition towards visitors and customers made the moniker appropriate. It felt like a second home to everyone who stopped by and she soon became as much a mother to us kids as our own mothers. As you would expect, it didn’t take long for Welcome Home to become our after-school hangout.
Since the place was small and was never completely packed with customers, Maria could alternate between attending to us and serving her clientele. She would always give us a snack from the bakery section, usually an apple pie or a chocolate cake, and we would tell her all about the exciting gossip going around the playground and what we learned that day as she listened and smiled with interest.
When the restaurant would close for the day, Maria gave us her undivided attention. She would play tons of different games with us, tell us stories that had us captivated with their vividness, and she had a special box set aside for us full of crafting supplies that we could use. Sometimes when we were too contented with whatever we were engaged in, she would observe us quietly from off to the side as she worked on her knitting, or she might wander off to make us more treats.
Halloween at Welcome Home was the best. The place would be decorated with paper ghosts, cats, witches, and pumpkins that we and Maria crafted together and outside, there would be a big Jack-o-lantern that we had all helped her to carve. It was an annual affair after trick-or-treating that we would gather in the upstairs living quarters and congregate on the floor, munching on Maria’s renowned candy apples and swapping unwanted candy as she set the atmosphere with dimmed lights and candles. She would at last sit in the plush chair we all huddled around and began telling us scary stories long into the night. She never once told the same story twice, though a lot of them involved witches and children unfortunate enough to cross paths with them. They were her favorites, she explained.
By the time I was entering junior high, I was still frequenting Welcome Home as often as I always had. Everything was ordinary and there were no unusual happenings to foreshadow what was about to transpire on July 18th, 1983.
It was oddly chilly that day and overcast with heavy, grey clouds, resembling a late-September evening more so than a blistering July morning. Mrs. Packer, our neighbor who worked at the local library, could be heard screaming frantically from outside, “They’re gone! They’re gone!”
Everything was so chaotic those first few hours. No one knew what was going on. It wasn’t until the afternoon did the sheriff come knocking on everyone’s doors to explain the situation and try to get some information.
Almost half of the town’s children were gone. Their beds were empty, but there was no indication that someone had forced their way into their rooms and taken them. Their bikes were still where they’d left them, so they couldn’t have gone too far, yet a thorough search of the area turned up nothing.
The children weren’t the only ones missing.
Maria was gone, too.
It was obvious Maria had taken the children. At first, many refused to acknowledge that. Her sweet and respectable conduct made it hard to believe that she could have kidnapped those children. Because of this, some speculated that someone else had come by in the night and kidnapped both her and the kids, but much like with the children, there was no evidence at Welcome Home that backed up that theory.
I rode my bike past Welcome Home that day the reports on the missing children came in, when the sky was turning a rusted orange. I was a skeptic, too, and I felt like somehow, looking at Maria’s house would give me the answers to the questions I didn’t realize I was asking.
I had to stop when I finally got there. The place looked exactly as it had before Maria took it up as her refuge. The bright pink shutters were gone. The paint job had reverted back to its chipped, decaying shade of yellowed enamel. Vegetation had once again ensnared the broken-down home like an insect caught in a Venus flytrap, completely covering the spot where the eloquently-painted sign for the restaurant and bakery used to be. It looked so bizarre and wrong to see the life Maria had put into the place sucked right out of it, like I was staring at the victim of a murder metaphorically committed.
The community grew colder in the aftermath. Not to each other, but to outsiders. New blood was rarely, if ever, welcomed. The incident had violated us of our sense of trust and security with the outside world and as a result, the ambiance of the whole town felt more closed-off and depressive. I moved away as soon as I could to separate myself from the gloom. I went to an out-of-state school and eventually found a job as a photographer.
A few years ago, my job required me to head off to this small town I never heard of that rested in the heart of Missouri to snap some photos of their historical museum. I was just heading back to my hotel after a full day of semi-nostalgic sightseeing and photography when I saw it. It was a different building, but it had the same auburn-colored paint and those pink shutters. I thought for a second I’d gone crazy, especially when I saw the sign sitting above the entryway.
I had to see for myself if this was real. I went into the building, but not before snapping a few quick pictures of the exterior and the sign.
The place was devoid of customers, but there was a woman sweeping up the floor, her russet locks spilling down her back as she hummed a tune I could almost recognize. She didn’t need to turn around and show me her face. She didn’t need to say anything. Just by the strong impression she left me with, I knew in an instant it was her.
“Maria,” I said.
Her broom paused in mid-sweep and she turned to me with that motherly smile I had been so familiar with in my youth. Nothing about her had changed despite the thirty year lull, making her now appear younger than me. Even her eyes still held that golden luminance to them that I remembered so keenly.
“Billy,” she said in recognition and I could hear her smile wafting into her tone. “I didn’t think I would ever see you again. Please, take a seat.” She motioned to the countertop lined with stools and I sat at the nearest one, watching as she disappeared into the kitchen.
Maria came back soon after with a steaming pot pie and placed it in front of me along with a fork. Somehow, I felt faintly hesitant to eat it, but one glance at her expectant smile gave me the incentive to start eating.
“You’ve gotten so big,” she mused after a while. “I can still remember when you were barely up to my hip.” She sighed softly, but heavy with what sounded like wistfulness.
I could have sat there and ate until I was licking the pie tin clean, but I wasn’t there just for food. I had to speak with Maria. I had to ask her about that night and the children. The pie was so good, though, that I admit I had to stop myself from eating anymore so I could talk.
“Maria…” I couldn’t find the nerve to ask her. As important as the issue was, no one normally comes up to someone they haven’t seen in decades and asks them right off the bat if they kidnapped a handful of children.
She seemed to get what I was hinting at. Maria smiled and bowed her head as if she were contemplating how to respond. Finally, she said to me, “Once upon a time, there was a woman.”
I don’t generally tolerate people beating around the bush, but I remained quiet and listened to her with the same captivation I would have as a child.
“This woman was very sweet,” she continued. “She was kind to everyone, especially children. This woman worked in the food industry and took great pride in it. As I’m sure you could guess, because of her pride, she would go to great lengths to make sure everything she made had the best ingredients and was prepared with the utmost care. She traveled a lot to ensure she could find a wide array of ingredients, staying in some places longer than others, but always moving on eventually.”
A chuckle rose from her, after which she continued. “What no one knew about this woman was that she was a witch and the reason why the witch moved so often is because she would spirit away the town’s children. She would enchant them and take them somewhere else to put them to better use. She would never take all the children, though. She wasn’t that cruel.”
By then, my stomach felt like it had descended past my knees. Maybe I shouldn’t have raised the question, but I did. I had to. “…What would she do with the children?”
Her smile grew to a depth I’d never seen on her before, both saccharine and calculating. “The children she had taken from the town before would become prime ingredients once she set up shop in the next location and she would paint it with their blood.”
My stomach churned so violently that I thought I would vomit all over the countertop. I ran out to my car and I heaved numerous times, but nothing ever came. Once I was done, I looked up and saw Maria standing in the doorway of Welcome Home, watching me with concern as if she hadn’t expected this revelation to elicit such a reaction out of me.
I couldn’t bare to stay any longer after that. I probably broke at least eight traffic laws on the way back to the hotel. I had trouble sleeping that night and when I did manage to catch an hour or so of rest, I had graphic nightmares of a witch slaughtering children and serving them to people who were unaware that they were cannibalizing someone else’s children.
I went back there the next day. I was only able to recognize it because the structure of the building was the same as the one in the photos. It, much like the old Welcome Home in my hometown, now stood as a shell of what it once was; a rotting edifice with a chipped, blue visage and eye-like windows broken where the soul Maria had given the place was stolen.
I left the town immediately after that. On my way out, I passed a few houses where distraught parents were sobbing to police officers; something about being unable to find their children.
I still have those photos. I keep them tucked away in a box buried in my closet like a dirty secret. For the sake of my own children, I hope I never see her again…
But yesterday, my wife told me that a sweet young lady moved into the old Barrows place. Very pretty eyes, she told me. Almost golden.