It was going on eight in the evening. The church meeting had let out late, but I didn’t mind because I got to play with my friends and talk about the upcoming Halloween party that the teacher was going to have for us. While we waited for Uncle Lee to hitch the mule to the wagon to take us home, Mama realized she’d left her brown paper bag containing such items as peppermint balls, Vaseline, her handkerchief and some medicine on one of the pews.
“Go see if you see my bag, Merlene,” she said.
Since I knew exactly where she sat, I had no trouble locating the wrinkled paper bag propped in the corner of the pew. Although the church had been cleared out and was about to be locked up, the lights were still on.
Then, I looked up. The rear of the church near the exit had suddenly become obscured. The light behind the pulpit was still on, however, and it allowed me to see the large figure coming toward me.
“Hey Merlene,” Mr. Ranch said with a grin on his face. I wondered how he knew that I was in there. Did he hear Mama telling me to go inside? “I gotta lock up,” he said walking back toward the pulpit from where I was coming.
I thought about running, but I knew it would’ve looked strange and I didn’t want to bring attention to myself, or to him. So I tried to walk normally as I headed toward the exit. Although it was inevitable that we would have to pass by one another, Mama and a whole bunch of other people were right outside the church. So I couldn’t imagine him trying anything.
I imagined wrong. Just before we were about to pass, Toby Ranch took a quick glance over his shoulder before slipping his hand beneath my dress and between my thighs. It was too quick and unexpected for me to have time to react and was over even quicker. He went on about his business after that, heading for the light switch behind the pulpit.
I was eight. What could I do?
After exiting the suffocating, stale-scented church with Mama’s paper bag, I made sure to wear a very wide grin on my face, just to show my audience that everything was fine and dandy, and that nothing was the matter with me because I was a very happy little girl with ready-to-serve smiles and invisible tears.
I recall walking past Toy and some of the kids, making sure that they could see my exaggerated grin in the setting sun. Then I walked up to Mama and handed her the bag, my face still stretched in a grin. I can remember her looking at me, her brows furrowed, her eyes staying on me longer than usual, almost as if she could read something within the fakeness of my face. I wondered if she could see that the dam was disintegrating and the water was this close to bursting through.
Oh, how I wished I could’ve told her what had happened. How I wished I could’ve let go and allowed the tears to spill. But I knew that if I had cried, Mama would’ve asked me what the matter was. And if I had told her the truth, she would’ve said that I was lying. And if she thought that I was lying... well, you know the rest.
Still, I wonder... did she know?
Did anyone know?
Didn’t everyone know?