Letter Number Six: The Old Schoolhouse
My Dear Grandson,
I hope this letter finds you well. Just for kicks this morning, I tried to call your mother. I had to call collect ‘cause the nurses don’t let me keep none of my own money. Some of the other patients sneak around with change and such. Some even keep some of the soft money stuffed in pockets and other places, but I decided to do what I’m told.
Anyway, I heard your mother’s sweet voice. I listened hard. The operator asked her if she would accept my call, but she said no. Someday you’ll understand. I did listen hard, though, to try and hear you coo or babble or something. But I didn’t hear nothing but your mama’s sweet voice, telling me no.
So, I’ll settle for yet another letter. I got to thinking about you just being a baby, but how, before long, you’ll be going to school and learning your letters and numbers, and then, awhile after that, you’ll be able to read this for yourself. That got me thinking about when I went to school. Sure wish I’d done better, especially with my writing. Then I remembered the old schoolhouse my folks went to, and something that happened to me and Bud Pelter at that schoolhouse one day many, many years ago. So here’s the telling…
By the time I come along, in fact all my siblings, too, we had to go to school there in town, in Painted Gate. But before that, all the kids in our part of the county went to an old country school. I don’t recall the name of it, if it had a name at all. My mom and dad went there, and so did most my aunts and uncles. I even had a cousin go there, but only ‘cause he was so much older than me. His name was Gardner Campbell, on my mom’s side. He was older than my mother, his own aunt, and died ‘fore she did, too. I always thought that the oddest thing, against all of nature in my book.
Anyway, that old school, the one all the old folks had gone to, was abandoned after they moved all the kids into town to the school where I went. No one claimed the building, and the county never tore it down. Needless to say, it started falling apart and was a favorite place for kids to go out and visit. Stories about it being haunted sprung up sometime in there.
By the time I came along, the old schoolhouse was pretty decrepit, and they said a ghost lingered around there, and sometimes you could see him at the twilight of a day. They said, once it got dark, the place was so scary even that ghost went somewhere else, but he would, in fact, show up at times at twilight. Now, that part about him being scared at night don’t make much sense, at least as far as my understanding of ghosts, but it kind of heightened the story a bit, I guess. Least ways, that’s the way I heard it.
There was another side of it, too, and that was that the schoolhouse was a place for bums to stay in on their way through the county. There was a short line back then that cut through that same gap, and I guess some hobos would drop off around there, use it a time or two just to stay in for a night to get out of the weather. I never really put too much stock in ghosts, though I mighta run smack dab into one one time, can’t rightly tell. I’ll tell you about it, and you can decide one day if I did or not.
See, one day, Bud Pelter and I were sitting around bored. We had done all of our chores and were kind of rustling around for something to fill our time. We had both been out to the schoolhouse before, but always during broad daylight. It was an interesting place. Basically, just one big room with a fireplace and chimney at the far end. There were a few desks left over from way back when, but that was about it. All the windows had been broken or shot out, and there were some critters had been in there, you could tell that. The old stove my parents told me had been there, it was gone, as was the big old desk they said the teacher had.
We went out there this one day, and I suggested to Bud, “Hey, why don’t we play bank robbery? I’ll be in there signing up some big deal and you come looking around like you’re casing the place, and then you leave and come back in and stick up the place. I’ll try and fight you off to save my customers. What say?”
Bud was all for it. He generally liked being the bad guy, and he was pretty good at it, too. So, I went in and buttoned my shirt clear up to the top and wrapped an old torn piece of curtain around my neck, pretending I was wearing a tie. And I got some old boards and set ‘em out on one of the desks like they was important contracts. I turned another desk around backwards and sat on it. Made me look all-important, in my own office, so to speak. Bud, he looked around the place and acted like he was some high and mighty customer. I heard him tell someone imaginary that he was not one to stand in line waiting for nobody, and that he was ready to deal, but that he gotta go out to his car and get some important papers first.
I looked around then, like I was the king of the world, and I started thinking that maybe banking wouldn’t be too bad a way to make a wage when I got older, especially if it was just about sitting around yacking and trading papers back and forth. Beats other things a man might hafta do.
So I sat there and wondered when Bud was gonna do his thing and break in and let the adventure begin. And I waited and I waited. I pictured all kinds of high class folks standing there in the lobby waiting to see me after I finished with this one customer I was dealing with. Finally, I started to think Bud found something else to do when I saw this kind of shadow go across one of the windows. Just for a quick second, so I thought, “Oh, there he is, still casing the place.” So I went on about my pretend business with my pretend customer.
Little one, as I write this, my hair still stands up on my neck and arms, and I can feel the same exact cold chills down my sides and tingle behind my eyes that I felt that very day this took place! I was sitting there, and just then, this man walked in on me. A real man! He was dressed real shabby, kinda like a hobo, and he had his hat in his hands, holding it up across his stomach with both hands… like he was pleading for something almost. And he just stood there and looked around, and then he looked at me. His eyes looked all sad and kinda watery, like maybe he’d been crying.
My eyes musta been as big as silver dollars, I didn’t know what to do. My first thought was it’s the schoolhouse ghost! I looked at him, but I couldn’t see through him, though, and I always figured you could see right through a real ghost. I tried to say something, don’t remember what, and nothing would come out. I was dry as dry. Couldn’t speak a lick.
There wasn’t but one door out, and he was closer to it than I was, so I realized I might have to make for a window. Just as soon as I had that thought, and was gathering up my wits to make for the closest one, that man said, “You’re not a ghost,” shook his head, turned back the way he came in, and left!
I heard myself say, “No sir,” real weak and squeaky like. Musta been getting a little nerve back seeing’s he was leaving. So then I’m wondering who this man was and where was Bud? I completely forgot all about my customers. It made me realize, sometime later, that you just don’t know how you’re gonna act in a real situation. I always pictured myself the hero, able to fight off a bank robber, if I was a banker, that is, or maybe even if I was just a customer myself. But you never really know till it happens. When that man walked in that day, took me by surprise, I didn’t have the strength of a kitten.
Well, I sat there and made myself count to 50. I was afraid he’d come right back in and strangle me just for meanness. I kept my eye on my escape window, too. I finally allowed myself to say, “Bud!” kinda half-loud, but I didn’t hear an answer. So I got up and peered out my escape window to see that man walking down the road towards town. I’d never seen him before, and he seemed even less like a ghost out there in the sunlight. Then what he said came back to me, that I wasn’t a ghost, and I just couldn’t figure it out. Then I heard Bud over on the other side of the wall under a window, just bust out laughing.
Well. He’d been out there the whole time, listening in, but he wouldn’t tell me particularly where he had been or nothing. I didn’t find out till later, when we was hidden up in the woods, which I’ll explain directly, that he had set it up. Seemed like he had been outside starting to case the place when he saw this man coming down the road, and had a grand idea to have some fun with me. The man was evidently a hobo, and Bud went up to him and asked the man could he help him. The man had said yes, so Bud told him he thought there was a ghost in the schoolhouse and he was too scared to go in and see, would the man go in? Oh, Bud had thought that would be great fun. The man had said he would. So he took off his hat – cause he was going indoors, evidently—and that’s when he came in, saw me, and made the statement about me not being a ghost.
So Bud laughed a little more. I was still kinda shaken up, but getting my bearings back, when we both looked up and…. Oh, this is tingly again... that man, the same one, was standing there inside the schoolhouse looking out the window at the both of us. He was crying, too! Just looking out at us and crying!
Man, we took a look at him, then looked quick at each other, and we both just tore outta there toward the woods. I bet no one coulda caught us! I was leading, then Bud was leading, then I got up in front. Didn’t neither one of us feel a bit tired running. We went all the way up into the woods and over a ridge and down in this little holler where Stamp Creek sometimes ran when it got to raining too bad.
We stopped just for a moment; we were both just trembling inside and out. We figured, kinda simultaneously, that we weren’t real comfortable just yet with the lack of distance ‘tween us and that man, so we started up to running again till we got up over the next ridge and down the other side where it leveled out. I felt like I coulda run to the next county. But we finally stopped and fell down and caught our breath.
“We done seen the schoolhouse ghost, BoDean!” Bud says.
All I could say was “Mmmmmhmmmm.” I still didn’t think that man was rightly a ghost ‘cause, like I said, I couldn’t see through him. But I was sure spooked thinking how and why he got himself back in the building while we was standing there talking about him.
We both were lying there looking up into the trees. That old sun was still up about a third the way. Wasn’t near twilight, so we couldn’t understand it. I remember we got real quiet, not knowing what to do, and after a while Bud said, “I ain’t never going back there, BoDean. Never.”
I agreed wholeheartedly with him! And at the time, I meant it. I really did. I wasn’t meaning to lie to my friend. I didn’t know then that I would go back. That place held a lot of mystery, so when I was looking for a place to bury a secret years later, well, naturally I thought of that old schoolhouse.
I’ll hafta tell you more about that later. There’s a nurse here don’t like me, and it looks like she’s coming on her shift. I ain’t gonna let her read this, so I’ll tuck it up under my mattress real quick. I love you, little one.
About the Author
John Bach is a schoolteacher and aspiring author, born in the South and now settled in the Midwest. He lives with his wife and five children near Omaha, Nebraska, and writes whenever the opportunity presents itself. He will soon be looking for a publisher for Gentle Sun, the novel from which this story comes.