Hattie woke with a splitting headache.
The air felt heavy in her little room, heavy behind her eyes, and without even looking out the window she knew a storm was coming. She pressed her fingertips hard to her temples and sat up, a wave of nausea making her grimace. Migraine again. She needed to get the girls up so they weren't late for their shift at the factory. Headache or no, Mr. Cooper was a stickler for punctuality and they needed the work.
'No rest for the wicked,' she thought, and stood slowly, a little shaky, spots swimming before her eyes.
That Tuesday, Hattie Mae Mincey should have just stayed in bed.
Their rooms were just off the square in Gainesville. Hattie preferred the freedom of farm living but after Bascomb died in a hunting accident, dear Bascomb, she didn't know how she was going to manage their 50 acres with naught but two teenage girls and a pile of debt deeper than the Father's love. Smack in the middle of what people were already calling a "Great Depression" they'd scrabbled by all right, but she couldn't run the place alone.
She saw the notice in the local paper saying the Cooper Pants Factory was looking to hire "200 nimble fingered, hard working ladies of character" and she knew this was her Savior at work. She sold the farm and moved the girls into a boarding house in town, and when the foreman saw their earnest faces and heard their story, all three ladies were hired on the spot.
Pansy and Gertrude shared the room next to hers. They'd been so brave, so strong, leaving school, working hard six days a week to give their mama their pay every Saturday.
She'd tried to pretty the space with some plaid curtains, but the grey walls resisted sprucing up. Just a few more paychecks and they could start looking for a place of their own here in town, something with a porch and a little yard for a garden - vegetables AND flowers!
The girls rose, hurrying into simple cotton shifts and wrapping their dark hair up in braids. Gertie grabbed her little silver crucifix, a vine of ivy engraved along the front, a birthday gift from her late father, and tucked it under her shift. The ladies grabbed leftover biscuits and their lunch pails from the kitchen and hurried out the door to walk the few blocks to the factory.
Glancing at the mantle of low hanging clouds outside, Hattie shook her head. The humidity was so thick and still you could cut it with a butter knife. Hopefully they'd make it to work before the rain started.
When they arrived at the factory the family split up. Gert had a head for numbers and assisted the office staff on the third floor with their accounting. Pansy was quick with a treadle and worked on the second floor in the sewing room. Hattie worked on the ground floor in packing and shipping, readying orders for delivery.
Barely settled at her station, the rain began to fall, fat drops splashing against grimy panes of glass. Outside the sky had continued to darken and Hattie noticed with concern that the clouds were taking on the sickly green hue of an old bruise, a sure sign of tornados in the area. She'd seen a few of those in her day. Gainesville was at the foot of the Appalachians and the mix of warm and cool air made it a frequent site for the deadly twisters.
She was considering going to find the girls when the building went completely dark. The storm had knocked down the fledgeling power lines, leaving them without electricity. She could hear the squeals of women from above, but soon candles and lanterns were lit and the 200 women and girls employed by the pants factory settled in to ride out the storm.
The wind picked up, lashing rain against the panes. Hattie jumped when something smashed into the side of the building near her table and she rubbed her aching head. The sky had grown as dark as the inside of a pocket and the clouds were roiling, so low now Hattie felt she could jump up and touch them.
And that was when she heard the sound, like a great freight train barrelling across the square. Above her, the windows began to pop from the pressure, sending a cascade of glass into the room. She could hear screams from the floors above.
Hattie scuttled beneath a steel work table in the corner and backed against the wall. The loading door was sucked open into the day turned night and she could see the tornado, actually see the great twisting funnel of destruction as it crushed the downtown square in a shower of red brick and twisted trees. It was headed right for her.
Wrapping her arms tight around the table leg, Hattie began to pray. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
The ceiling tiles began to shake, it seemed the very ground was quaking, and debris drifted to the floor around her as the tornado neared.
The pine boards and old bricks of the factory didn't stand a chance against nature's fury. The tornado veered into the side of the building, ripping the roof into shredded confetti and collapsing the walls inward like a child knocking down a block tower. The tornado, unrepentant, rolled on.
Beneath the table, Hattie screamed and covered her head as the building began to fall, but her corner was secure. As the tornado roared into the distance, she rose, shaking, covered in dust, and listened, ears ringing ears, to a silent factory.
And then the screaming began. Women and girls, trapped in the rubble, beneath collapsed walls and dessicated roof beams cried out to one another, to God, some just cried in fear and pain.
It was then that Hattie noticed the smoke, billowing in from above. When the tornado hit, all those oil lanterns and candles became flaming projectiles, thrown into the piles of cotton fabric, spools of thread and the shattered wood like kindling that lay scattered throughout the building.
"Fire," Hattie croaked, then louder "FIRE!"
Hattie ran for the stairs. She had to find her girls! When she threw open the door she saw the concrete block stairwell was intact but the first two flights of wooden stairs had fallen down. Above her, in what remained, a crush of women were gathering on the second and third floor landings, crying out for someone to save them.
Hattie searched the faces of the women above for her daughters but saw neither Gert nor Pansy in the bunch. As the fire reached the stairwell, some of the women jumped the 20 or 30 feet to the floor, and Hattie helped them limp to the back door, asking each time "Did you see Gert up there? Was Pansy with you?" Each time they shook their heads she hurried back to the stairwell.
Screams of agony echoed from the floors above as the hungry fire licked its way along the dry old boards catching trapped women in its hungry maw, devouring them whole and leaving not a trace.
Tears streaked Hattie's face in the rising heat but she ran back to the stairwell again and again. Around her the building began to groan, the crackle of the fire the final death knell for the old structure. The third floor collapsed first, crashing down to the second floor and driving it straight to the ground.
Hattie was reaching up to catch a little girl, no more than 12, her mother trapped on the landing above, when the wood of the staircase gave out from the weight of the women. The stairs groaned, then cracked, wobbling beneath the horrified women and then collapsing in a shower of bodies and beams and terror.
As though poured down the shaft by some vengeful spirit, fire coursed down on them from above, turning the concrete blocks of the stairwell into a crematorium. The last thing Hattie saw was that river of fire cascading toward her as she stumbled back from the stairwell.
The entire building burned so hot that there was simply nothing left of more than 70 women and girls who perished there in the Cooper Pants Factory, in horror and agony, that morning.
Families came running, desperate to find their wives and mothers and daughters, but mostly they just found a charred square of earth, the air full of ash, a mass grave on the edge of the square.
Hattie's body was actually recovered, it lay in the burned grass by Market Street for a day as the town took stock, dug out. When the coroner came to take her body the next morning, he found it missing, assumed a relative had claimed it.
Years passed, 50 years, and the Cooper property at the southwest corner of the Square was bought by the City, paved over, became a little-used parking lot. An historic marker was placed on the spot, in memoriam of the women and girls who died there in a fiery inferno.
And then, 81 years after the tragedy, the city decided it was time to move on. They sold the lot to a developer who promised a mixed use property with a gourmet grocery downstairs and upscale apartments above. Although there were a few small protests from the Historical Society, no one was really around any longer to argue.
On the day the leasing office opened, David Knight sat at his desk, pleased at the classy Dutch Modern furniture his interior designer selected. This was his first real job at his dad's real estate development company and he was looking forward to filling up the gorgeous new property.
The door opened just after 8:30, the little bell tinkling, and a woman walked in, her long, dark hair in a braid. Her solemn face was framed by the collar of her flowered cotton dress. "Somebody's going for a retro look" he thought, but it worked for her.
"I hear you are renting rooms here," she said, her inflection rising on the end as though it was a question. "I'd like to let one. I've been waiting ever so long for the opportunity."
Knight was thrilled to have his first prospect. "Yes, of course! So what are you looking for in an apartment?" he queried. "Some of our units offer whirlpool tubs and gourmet kitchens. Others have cedar-lined, walk-in closets, rain shower faucets...we have some with a great view of the square and a few with a lovely view of the courtyard garden."
Her eyes lit up. "A garden? My girls always loved..." She trailed off. "Well, a garden view would be perfect," she finished.
"Would you like to see it?" Knight rose and plucked his keys from a hook on the wall.
The woman nodded slowly. "Certainly," she whispered.
As they walked down freshly carpeted halls, Knight chattered amiably, sharing news of the LEED points in the building, the sturdy steel framework and the security system.
Nearing an emergency escape, he opened the door to the stairwell and paused. "All our apartments are directly tied to the fire department monitoring system. In case of an emergency, they'll be here in under three minutes!"
At the mention of fire, her head had jerked up and her eyes met his with a haunted ferocity. Had he said something wrong?
"Fire is a deadly demon," she said, jaw tight. She glanced up into the sodium-yellow glow of the emergency lights in the stairwell for a moment before quickly casting her eyes down again.
"Well, uh, let's head out to the garden," Knight replied, overly cheerful. Holding the door for the strange, quiet lady, he wondered what sort of baggage this odd bird was carrying.
They stepped out into a charming courtyard, freshly landscaped and fragrant. Stone paths, framed in moss, curled invitingly through the space. Wrought iron benches dotted the green landscape and a marble fountain, a statue of a little girl pouring water from a pail, burbled in one corner.
"All our residents will have use of the garden, but only first floor apartments have direct access through their patios," Knight began.
"This is a beautiful place. Such a sweet botanical collection! The daffodils are so cheery, and just look at that gorgeous forsythia bush!"
"The landscaper used plants native to Georgia ma'am. In the summer, this one will blossom into lantana..."
"And this is a flowering magnolia, isn't it? Oh and gardenias! These will make the whole place smell like Heaven this summer!"
"You know your plants!" Knight exclaimed, and gestured for her to follow him.
They stopped before an overturned patch of earth.
"This side of the courtyard gets the most light so we left the corner uncultivated in case of our residents wanted to plant a vegetable garden! Do you like tomatoes?"
The woman began to speak, but a glint of silver in the fresh, black dirt caught her eye. She knelt to pick the object up and brushed the soil from it with trembling fingers. A cross, a little silver crucifix ringed with an ivy vine lay in her palm. She clutched it tight in her hand and, raising her fist to her mouth, began to sob, eyes raised to the patch of blue sky above.
Knight was shocked. "Ma'am? Ma'am, are you all right?" he asked. "What did you find there? The gardner said he unearthed quite a few little treasures when he came in here with a backhoe - some rings, old hair barrettes, bobby pins. Said it might have been an old midden heap from the early days."
The woman looked at him, tears streaming down her face. "Midden? Trash? A trash dump? This was the Cooper Pants Factory. Don't you know your history, boy?" she cried. "And thisis my daughter's pendant!"
This was not going at all as he planned. Knight considered the sobbing woman in the dirt at his feet apprehensively.
"Ma'am, can I get you a tissue?" he asked, buying time, and turned to dig in his pocket. When he turned back, the woman was gone, just gone. Only a scorched patch of turf remained where she'd knelt.
"What in the actual hell..." Knight whispered to the stillness of the courtyard.
Behind him, a girl giggled. A chill slid down his spine, pricking his thighs with gooseflesh. Slowly turning his head, he thought he saw the smoky outline of three women in black dresses standing by the fountain but then the clouds shifted and they were gone.
Knight rubbed his eyes and looked hard again but found himself completely alone. He'd always been more of a "flight" than "fight" sort of man. Turning heel on the stone path, he rushed back to the safety of his office as fast as his leather loafers could carry him.
In the sun near the vegetable garden, Gertie helped her mother to her feet.
"Where have you been, mama? We've been waiting here for you for ages." She took the crucifix from her mother's palm and slipped it into her pocket.
"Yes, mama," Pansy pouted. "We were beginning to think you'd nevercome!"
Hattie cupped the face of first one daughter, then the other in shaking hands, before gathering them to her fiercely in a hug.
"My beautiful girls. I have been looking for you, my darlings, everywhere for you, but there just wasn't a trace...I swore I'd never rest until we were together again."
Pansy giggled. "We've been right here all along, mama. Us, and a bunch of other girls from Cooper's too. We just wanted to go home for so long, but now that you're here..."
"Home is where the heart is," Gert finished with a smile.
Hattie grinned through her tears. She had finally found them, found her good, sweet girls.
"I'm here now my darlings, and I promise to never leave again. Never. Now, who wants to explore these apartments? They sound quite lovely to me!"
Back in his office, David Knight googled the Cooper Pants Factory and gasped when the page loaded.
Staring back at him from a grainy photo taken in 1936 was Hattie Mae Mincey, the woman he had just taken on a tour of the garden. The caption below explained that Hattie, her daughters, and approximately 70 other women and girls had died in a tragic fire after the tornado of '36. A fire that had raged on this very spot. And they had just built apartments onto their mass grave, churned their ashes up and set a foundation where their remains had lain, undisturbed, for decades. How could his father have done this without telling him?
He had a feeling Hattie wouldn't be the only restless spirit he saw around here.
Dear God. What had they done?
I recently found out about some improvements they are planning to make to the historic downtown square where I live.
Sounded promising at first, but, as I read deeper, I was distressed to recognize the location of one of the mixed use properties. They are planning to build on the site of what is basically a mass grave in my hometown. The article below explains what happened at the site in 1936. I think it's terrifically disrespectful, not to mention, if you've ever seen a horror movie, a pretty bad idea. I'm astonished there hasn't been more of an outcry!