When I was 10 years old, I liked to play hide and seek tag. I and other kids from my Sunday school class did it every week. Half of them counted while the rest of us hid. When you were found, you had the chance to run away and hide again. If you were tagged, you had to count.
There was one game I remember the most. Or at least, I think I do. It might have been a dream. The counters began and the rest of us ran, our breath ripping like dull razors through our lungs. Our limbs pumping like iron-clad horses down the stairs, around the corner and into the darkness of an empty Sunday School room until we stood still, concealed in the darkness hoping our breath didn’t rip too noisily and our heart didn’t gallop too loudly.
That day I hid in my classroom behind the door. Where a silent, golden Jesus hung on the pure white wall above a verse about cheerful hearts being good medicine. Or maybe it was the one about the only begotten son. There was a table in the center of the room. It was the kind you could fold up, the legs wobbly like a newborn lamb. Wooden, heavy, marked with years of crayons and Elmer’s glue. If you stared at the tabletop long enough while the teacher talked on about Noah or Moses or Jonah — only sometimes did she mention the prostitutes or Jezebel — if you stared at the tabletop long enough, you could see tear stains although I am certain nobody actually cried in that classroom.
In one corner was a flannel graph. We always used the flannel graph. The plain blue felt background was sometimes sky, sometimes water, depending on the day. There was a plastic tub filled with felt landscapes and felt buildings. Felt props and felt people. Every Sunday, my teacher Mrs. Nygren would pull out that tub and smooth a landscape onto the blue background (today it was sky). She’d add clouds, a building and eventually a person.
Noah, Moses, Jonah and Jesus all had their own felt person. The 12 disciples did. John the Baptist did. So did Rahab and Mary Magdalene. And maybe Jesus’ mom. But she was always dragged behind a felt donkey on a felt sled across the felt desert with her swollen belly reflecting the heat of the felt sun in the sky.
Today, the felt board was a shadowy rectangle near the window. The cheap plastic blinds were closed. Threads of light peeked through and if I squinted, the window looked like the black and white striped suits guys in jail always wore in cartoons.
Just then, there was a noise at the door. I sucked in my breath and imagined I was Kronk in Emperor’s New Groove, when he paused mid-hum to squeeze himself against the wall as a guard marched on by. Except I wasn’t humming.
Sitting and waiting to be found was the most exciting and frightening part of all. The darkness surrounded me like a thick fog, threatening to strangle the excitement and anticipation out of my body. Each heartbeat would ring louder and louder than the toll of the church’s bell earlier that morning. The pastor had let me ring it the week before. I had grasped the prickly rope almost as thick as my arms and pulled it toward the ground with all my might.
Dong. The rope went up by itself, my feet lifting off the ground. My 90 pound body brought it back down again.
Dong. Again I flew into the air, imagining I was a superhero soaring across our city park, dodging the maple trees, zipping into the gazebo with its dark green railings and barely missing the metal jungle gym shaped like a UFO.
Dong. The sound in the steeple reverberated down the stairs, into the balcony, through the sanctuary and swept into the back room where I was flying in my Sunday best dress and Mary Jane shoes.
But now I wasn’t flying, I was standing as still as I could as the knob turned and door opened. My body was tight, tighter than plotting my escape route if I was spotted. Around the table, past the flannel graph, and out the door.
A yellow knife of light shot into the room, a shadow glinting in the middle of it. I stared at the the light scraping across the floor, over the table and onto the opposite wall. Slowly, the knife widened and a voice came.
“Anyone in here? I said ready or not here I come. ”
The sound was harsh and poked at my limbs, pulling the hair on my skin to its fullest height. I held the air in my lungs, gently like you hold a kitten in your hands so it doesn’t make a sound. I closed my eyes roughly like you close the door of the root cellar behind you, just in case there is an invisible demon chasing you.
Suddenly my hands were pinned by my sides against the wall and I was smelling the stale breath of the boy I hated most. Patrick. His grubby face, browner and dirtier than mine, was inches away from my nose. His always-dirty fingernails dug their way into my arm. His black hair tossed over his head like chaotic waves during a hurricane. Other kids said he had been in juvie. I didn’t know what that meant but they always said it a certain way that made me never want to ask.
The darkness still surrounded me like a thick fog in a forest that threatened to contain monsters and angry trees that tore at your clothes with sharp branches. I could see the whites of Patrick’s eyes in the darkness floating above his twisted, glowing grin. Like the Cheshire cat. I’d only seen that movie once. My mom said it wasn’t Godly.
It was a moment before I realized my heart wasn’t ringing anymore — it was pounding. And my limbs felt heavy and numb. Like when I got my teeth pulled and my mouth wouldn’t move the way I wanted it to. The only thing I could feel were his fingernails on my arm. Ten of them, stabbing me the way you stab a toothpick into fruit slices at the potluck. Patrick breathed heavily. Probably from running down the stairs from the designated counting zone — the double doors near the fellowship hall. I turned my head to get away from his breath, but it still slapped my cheek. I imagined my cheek turning red and wrinkling up, like when you spend too long in a bath too hot. His breath smelled like maple syrup and oatmeal that had been sitting out on the table too long.
It was another moment before I noticed I was terrified and my chest hurt. It always hurt, my chest. My mom said it was because I was growing. But this hurt more. I realized Patrick’s hand had moved from my arm to my chest. It felt like a poker was burning through my heart and into the wall behind me, nailing me in that spot. I thought I should tell him to stop, I knew I should tell him to stop. But his breath smelled like maple syrup.
His hand went to my red plaid skirt. Over the skirt, between my legs. I’d gotten that skirt for my birthday from my Grandma. I loved that skirt. I wore it to the first day of school. His hands were so dirty. His breath smelled like maple syrup. His fingers felt like fire.
Just then, there was another noise, although I don’t think I heard it. But Patrick did. All at once, he released me.
“I found you,” he said again, his silhouette outlined in front of the jailsuit window.
It was a moment before I realized he was gone. At least I think he was gone — I still smelled maple syrup.
I still smell maple syrup.