When I was five, I attended pre-kindergarten in a large, two-story Craftsman Colonial that had been converted into a school. It had a foreboding, vaguely totalitarian name—something like “The Children’s Rectification Academy for Progress”—and I hated it there.
Everything about the school was suspect. The walls were painted a faded, sickly green color and the gray carpet was rolling up in the corners of what was once the living room. In lieu of playground equipment, the backyard was littered with giant wooden cable reels.
Lunchtime was an exercise in cruelty. Every Tuesday the students were served sauerkraut with cut-up hot dogs. On Halloween I was greeted by a wobbly piece of black jello cut into the shape of a bat. I remember once biting into a dense white slice of what I thought was an apple, only to discover it was a turnip. At that point in my life I’d never actually eaten a turnip or probably even seen one, but there I was, my mouth full of turnip chunks and feeling more betrayed than the time I found one of my baby teeth in my mom’s purse and she explained, “Oh, the tooth fairy and I are friends.”
Had I been a bolder child, I would’ve organized a protest.
Worst of all was that the school had a certain ominous pall that instilled an acute sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. The school itself was relegated to the house’s first floor and consisted of several large open rooms, a single unisex bathroom, and a makeshift cafeteria in the kitchen. The second floor was a complete mystery, shrouded in darkness, and the source of my daily terror. A wide staircase stood in what used to be the living room, a million creaky steps leading up into utter blackness. The school’s director was Ms. Pope, a dour woman with an endless supply of charcoal gray pencil skirts who reminded us every week that the second floor was off limits and that we’d be punished should we break that cardinal rule. I assumed “punished” meant something like “you’ll be fed to the dragon that lives upstairs,” so I made sure to obey.
Everyone knew there was something strange about the second floor. I’d seen Ms. Pope disappear upstairs on several occasions. Sometimes I’d hear a floorboard creak or water rushing down through pipes in the walls, and I’d concoct elaborate fantasies in my head to connect the dots. Every day when I’d pass the stairs, I couldn’t help but stop and stare up, imagining what sinister secrets the darkness might hold.
In the Spring of 1990 there’d been a murder at the college campus my mom taught at, and seeing as that’s not something parents really discuss with 5-year-olds, I’d only heard the story secondhand, mostly from other kids a few years older than me. Over time it had twisted and contorted into something absurd, like out of a horror movie. Of the half-dozen tales I’d heard, the rumor that seemed to have the most legs was how a serial killer was on the loose, having narrowly escaped police custody, and he just might be living upstairs.
Personally, I had a more sinister theory. My grandmother let me watch horror movies whenever I’d visit her ranch, and one weekend she recorded Blood Diner on satellite for me. The movie’s chief villain was an evil disembodied brain in a mason jar, so naturally I assumed that the second floor of my prekindergarten must also harbor similar evil.
In December, just before Christmas, I uncovered the truth.
It was after lunch and the 25-odd children who attended The Children’s Rectification Academy for Progress were eager for recess. We were gathered in the foyer, wiggling into puffy snow pants and fumbling to zip up winter coats with mittens sewn to the sleeves. I’d barely managed to slide a single winter boot over my tiny foot when something terrible happened: I got the flu, right then and there. As sudden as a snowball in the face, the flu struck. That’s the thing about the flu a lot of the time. It settles in unannounced and then eight hours later your body decides to quite literally explode. I kicked off my boot and switched into survival mode, making a quick beeline for the bathroom at the far end of the kitchen.
When I reached for the doorknob, it refused to turn. A small voice on the other side muttered, “Someone’s in here,” and my panic turned to straight up dread.
My stomach lurched and it took all my worldly power to keep down that day’s lunch of blue box macaroni with SPAM chunks, a meal that certainly wasn’t helping to calm my sudden onset nausea. I knew time was short and my options were limited. I couldn’t wait for the bathroom’s occupant to leave—I just didn’t have time. I glanced toward the living room, my gaze fixating on that shadowy staircase, its countless steps seeming to multiply in front of me. My stomach lurched again, and my mind veered to the only remaining option: the upstairs bathroom. I knew there must to be one somewhere up there, and I knew I had to either brave the danger of the second floor, or let loose right there on the carpet. I scrambled down the hall through the empty living room, and without thinking I leapt up the stairs, taking them two at a time, little bits of vomit escaping the corner of my mouth as a hurtled skyward.
The second floor was dim and still and silent. Mercifully, there was a bathroom just off the landing, so I flung the door open and rocketed myself at the toilet. It’s difficult to accurately describe the explosion I unleashed, but I imagine it would be similar to filling a balloon with Spaghettios and then popping it with a safety pin.
I finished, flushed, and kneeled on the floor, my ears ringing from the force of my expulsion. I felt immediately better, and for a minute I simply sat in the darkness, catching my breath. My breathing slowed to normal the the ringing in my ears faded, but the relief I felt was cut short when it dawned on me that I’d actually ventured into the forbidden zone.
I inhaled sharply, suddenly aware of my crime and utterly terrified. I was about to get up and scramble back downstairs when I heard a faint sound coming down the hall—a high pitched creaking, interspersed with another, more unfamiliar noise—something akin to air escaping a bicycle tire.
I was certain I was going to die. This was the end.
The odd creaking was coming closer, though I could hardly hear it at this point over the thumping of my own heart. I felt like barfing again, except this time out of fear. Ever so cautiously, I peered around the corner of the bathroom door, into the dim hallway.
I could see something, but the dark coupled with my crippling terror made it difficult to see exactly what. I could make out a curious silhouette, just several feet from me by now and coming closer, but before I could make sense of what it was, I burst into tears.
I sobbed, eyes shut tight, anticipating the worst—my head to get chopped off by an axe murderer or maybe to be engulfed by whatever beast had surely discovered me intruding on its lair. But nothing happened. My crying faded to a whimper, and I cautiously opened a single eye.
A wrinkled hand was outstretched toward me, a single chocolate mint hard candy resting innocently in its palm.
I opened my eyes fully and saw that the hand was attached to an old man in a wheelchair. A slender oxygen tank was affixed to the side of the chair, and a tube ran from the top of the tank up to the old man’s face and under his nose. He was smiling, baring two rows of crooked teeth. I looked down at the candy he held, hesitating for a second, then plucked it out of his hand, unwrapped it, and popped it in my mouth.
“I thought you kids weren’t supposed to be up here,” the old man croaked. His voice was raspy and strained, but kind. “You don’t want to make my daughter cranky.” It took me a moment to realize he meant Ms. Pope. I had never really thought about adults being children themslves and having parents of their own. I shifted the candy in my mouth from one cheek to the other, eyeballing the old man, still not entirely trusting this whole situation. He winked at me and said, “You should run along before Sandra catches you.”
Ms. Pope was at the bottom of the stairs when I returned, her arms folded. She looked at me pensively, but she didn’t seem angry. For a moment I didn’t say anything back to her, then simply uttered, “I’m sick. I need to go home.”
I looked up my old school on Google Street View recently, and it doesn’t look nearly as institutional as I remember. I scanned around back to where I used to play on cable reels, and while they’re still there, they don’t seem so dangerous as they used to. They actually look sort of fun, but that might just be my inner Etsy Girl talking. It made me think how much thinks are distorted when you’re a kid. Everything is bigger, weirder, scarier.
And y’know, sauerkraut isn’t actually that disgusting. I had it on a hot dog this summer and it was pretty good, all things considered. Plus, sauerkraut is loaded with dietary fiber and vitamin K, did you know that? Because I sure didn’t.