I remember staring out the window of my Aunt Linda's red Jeep into the vast Texas starry sky. I was eight years old and we were headed to "the country" far from the city lights of Houston. During the week we lived in a crowded neighbourhood but Fridays were special. Fridays were the days that we loaded up and headed to easy country living in the middle of nowhere outside of Centerville, TX. My Aunt and Uncle had been building on their country home on the weekends; their work week was in Houston. My Uncle had grown up in the Concord and Marquez area and it was always home.
My little heart was excited; it was a special weekend because my two much older cousins were coming to "the country" too. Of course they were young adults and drove themselves but it was exciting because they were going to be there. They were bringing their friends and their girlfriends so it was going to be a great weekend bar-b-ques and working in the garden, feeding animals, and of course getting time to spend with family and friends.
The trip was long and boring. The strip of I-45 past Huntsville was always so dark every once in a while there would be a dimly lit gas station but for the most part the road was open and the night was thick. We stopped in Centerville at the only burger shop within miles, Texas Burger, to get my onion ring fix before heading out towards Marquez. I hated this limb of the trip. Yes, it was bringing me closer to home but we would have to pass right past the old building. We turned left at the little green marker that read Old Bowling. Now I kept my little greasy fingers and face pressed up against the glass of my window while my eyes tried to scan the steep hill ahead of us. We would lose our radio station at any moment until we reached the top of the hill. It was routine. I was looking for packs of deer. My Aunt would drive slowly so we could search the cut fields for signs of movement along treelines and fence lines but also because there would be large schools of deer walking across the tiny road.
Every curve brought us closer to the section of road I hated. When the concrete dissipated and I felt the all too familiar thud of the tires crunching the red dirt road I would always hold my breath. I stared at that building from the time my tiny eyes could make out its shape in the moonlight. My little imagination would run wild as I stared out at the headstones of the cemetery that is located right beside the shelter. I didn't just see the marble and granite; I would see foggy shadows in the moonlight dancing along the rows of the deceased. That didn't bother me; to see the shadows dancing in the moonlight it was the building that scared me. No matter how many times I had been their during the day it scared me to my core. I could feel my hands grow colder every time we passed by but the second I couldn't strain my neck or eyes to see it anymore I would be just fine. All I knew of the place was that it was old. I was young but I knew it was a special dark place. I was always asking my Aunt if I could walk up there to see it but at the time I had to have someone responsible with me because I was just a kid and most everyone I knew had gotten tired of me begging them to take me there.
It was built in the 1800's and is open for visitor's day or night. After torturing my cousin for a day he and his friends and girlfriend decided they would take me but in true cousinly fashion it had to be after dark. I knew it was just a ploy to get my attentions not to go, feeding on my fear but as much as I hated the place I loved it. It felt familiar. We all crammed inside my cousin's black car his rock and roll tape echoing into the night as we headed to the old church/school. I was excited and scared as he pulled into the small outlet drive and parked in front of the building. They gathered flashlights and we all piled out of the car. Sonya, my cousins' girlfriend, made me hold on to her hand as we opened the heavy door.
The very familiar creaking of the door sent an instant shock wave of tingles over my body every time I heard it. My little lungs would hold my breath taking in the heavy scent of dust and old wood and lingering traces of paper it was a sweet sickening smell. The floorboards would creak from time to time and I felt as if someone who wasn't supposed to be watching me was. With my little yellow flashlight in hand I was okay. I was shaky but who wouldn't be? My eyes followed the bright beam of light as I carefully scanned the small room. There were rows of pews that were constructed so that the back of one pew could easily be dropped and form a desk for the school children. There was cursive lettering written in faded white chalk along the top of the baseboards that led to the second story. I had always wondered how long that alphabet had adorned the walls.
My cousin and his friends were trotting upstairs, laughing and acting as young men do. Their voices were booming in the silent place. An old piano sat lonely across the room from where I stood and no matter how much my little legs wanted to carry me over there to instinctively bang on the faded keys I could never bring myself to do so. Something always stopped me. It was fear. She would know. She wouldn't want me touching it. She used to stare at me from every corner her scowled face burning my skin. She was the school teacher/preacher's wife. Back then the preacher and his wife would run the school and on Sundays it was the church for the surrounding area. Mack, my cousin, was urging me to come up the stairs. His taunts eventually got the best of me so Sonya and I followed through the small doorway up a flight of wickedly twisted stairs. There were no windows on this floor. Small cracks of thin light would dance along the red dust covered floor from the moon outside. This floor was completely empty. Nothing just the echo of Mack's laughter and his friends heavy feet.
Suddenly my flashlight, my beam of courage disappeared. I clicked the button forward and backward frantically but nothing happened. I felt her, the old school teacher staring at me. She was in the darkness. She wasn't happy that I had invaded her private space. I was too young to be up here and I knew better. I felt a wave of goose bumps blanket my skin as I listened to my cousin and his friend making fun of me in the dark. Sonya had let go of my hand, she was trying to get my flashlight to work and I felt an icy grip grab me just above my elbow and pull me to the side, urging me to move out of the way. I thought it was Sonya; it wasn't until she started frantically calling out of me that I noticed it wasn't. The fingers dug deep into the tender skin under my arm, they burned and chilled at the same time. The grasp was strong and demanding. I felt her anger; it was transferring from her to me somehow. Her energy was mine or mine was hers. I wasn't sure where she ended and I began.
I tried to run to Sonya's voice but I couldn't move. It was as if my legs were made of heavy leather and I knew something wasn't right. Then I saw the shadow, her formidable shadow. She was holding on to me and pulling me towards the stairs. I tried to speak but my mouth had grown so dry to fast that nothing came out. Not even a whisper. I tried to pull away from her my heart was beating so loudly I could have sworn that everyone in the room heard it vibrating through the air. Then suddenly the right side of my face began to burn and throb. The slap echoed through my body and set my face on fire. Sonya quickly grabbed me and pulled me down the stairs and out of the front door. I still felt the woman's presence all around me. Sonya had screamed for my cousin to hurry up and get me home she knew something wasn't right but it wasn't until we got home that everyone started asking me if I was okay.
I didn't say a word, what could be said? Yes. No. I still felt the anger and frustration that she had been feeling. She was mad at me for being there and I was being disciplined as she saw fit. My Aunt pulled me into the kitchen and asked me what happened. I tried to fit the pieces together but I was so mad that I could barely speak. She then asked me in the most serious tone that I have ever heard from her to this date, "Who slapped you?"
"I made her mad," I replied as I wiped the skin on my cheek.
"Who," she asked her eyes fixated on Sonya.
"Uncle Bobby's Aunt," I replied. "The school teacher."
She was shocked. They had never told me that my Uncle's Aunt was the one who ran the school when it was opened.
As a teenager I went there several more times before becoming so obsessed with it that I knew I had to back from it. There was nothing for me to learn there except that I wasn't welcomed. I had friends who would try to talk me into going up there at night again but I remembered the stained red handprint that adorned my pale skin as a child and the fear and anger with frustration and sorrow, I would never put myself or anyone else in her fury. I was the intruder and she was protecting her home from me. I still get the eerie feeling when I drive past when I go home to visit and my right cheek still to this day burns as a reminder when I pass by.
I still remember the anger that washed over me and the disgust that coated my dry mouth as I tried to speak. I have had other things happen before but nothing quite like that.