Please note: This is book 2 of a 2 book duology. Book 1 is available and titled, The Packing House. Book 1 should be read first. Thank you.
Unpacking the Past
Book 2 of The Packing House Duology
by G. Donald Cribbs
“I don’t use drugs, my dreams are frightening enough.”
—by M. C. Escher
1 | Living Nightmare
How easily the blade slides back between my ribs with a quick twist, his weight bearing down on me again, my stomach clenching, a cascade of knots. It’s not a literal blade. There’s no blood, except what’s churning inside me right now. Steven Jacobs has resurfaced, bringing with him another boy I can only presume is his current target practice.
And it’s my fault.
Dark clouds resume their posts above me, beside me, pressing me down to the floor of the grocery store which is bathed in fluorescent light, until I realize I’m gasping, unable to breathe. My feet might as well be in wet cement. Why didn’t I stop him sooner? I let a decade slip past without facing it. I hid it all in the boxes back at the farmhouse and in my grandmother’s garage, and now ten years have been spent with no receipt to return these unwanted items. Every day, every month, and each year he’s gotten stronger until today where he still holds this power—this guilt—over me, and each one of his victims. I have no idea how many.
And I let him.
Now he’s doing it again to another boy who could have had a normal life if I had done my part back then and put Steven Jacobs behind bars where he belongs. I waited too long to be of any help to that boy in the baseball cap. The statute of limitations has expired. My abuser gets away with it, like none of it has ever happened, except in my nightmares, which are apparently alive and well, thank you very much. I didn’t have a choice back then, but I have one now. I’ve got to find out what he’s doing to the boy I saw in the passenger seat of Steven Jacob’s truck and stop him once and for all, with or without the court’s help. I’ve made so many mistakes, but this is one I can’t let continue or it will spiral out of control and consume me for sure.
Somehow I stand up.
I leave the grocery store empty-handed, the list of things we need for tonight’s dinner long-forgotten. I must have dropped it on one of the aisles I ran down trying to reach him in time. But I was too late.
Amber is over at my grandmother’s house. Those two have grown extremely close since Amber and I became a couple. I’m not sure I can trust what they’re busy plotting. They sent me to the store to buy a few things for dinner, but I suspect it’s just a ruse to get me out of earshot while my grandmother and Amber have a talk, probably about me. We’re trying to pretend everything’s fine and normal and we can manage on our own to be boyfriend and girlfriend. What a joke. I should know better. My grandmother suggested I invite Amber over so we can talk and catch up. I’m more like myself once we’ve spent time together. Grandma must have noticed. She has known Amber for a while, much longer than I had realized before moving back here mid-year, but things are different now.
A food store is the last place I need to be. The blood is draining from my extremities and I’m suddenly light-headed. I’ve lost my appetite. Or more accurately, I’m about to lose my…
Bile splashes against the back of my throat.
I swallow. My feet carry me along of their own volition. Now I’ve rescinded control, retreating from the dark places my mind replays for me in flashes. Snippets of memory come flooding back and I’m walking somewhere, and I don’t know where I am, and I’m overwhelmed by the feeling of being lost—when I should know where this is—only it doesn’t make sense anymore. The bile burns down my throat in a jagged trail and I can feel my face contorting into a grimace from the way it’s singeing my insides.
I can hear his voice as clear as if he’s standing behind me, growling his words into my ear. A shudder steels along my spine, and I can almost feel the heat from his breath against my neck. The oily, metallic scent of WD-40 seeps over me. Like I’m back in his Ford F150 and I’m the one in the passenger seat. His blackened fingers grip the steering wheel. Everything goes blurry as tears prick the corners of my eyes with their tiny stings. I can’t tell if it’s the smell or something else.
For a moment, I’m gripped by the memory, until it suddenly dissipates.
My hands are shaking as I drag them across my eyes. Then I realize it’s not just my hands. I crumple against the concrete wall of the store, where I left my bike leaning against the delivery side of the supermarket. My breaths come in uneven gasps followed by a wheeze at the end. That’s perfect. I don’t have my inhaler with me.
How does he do it? How does he still retain this control over me? All these years and all the progress I thought I had made. Gone. Getting my life back on track, passing my sophomore year, starting over with Amber, and making a name for myself with my writing. My writing. Taking what happened and turning it into something I can control. I remember, but what good is any of it for me now?
Everything seeps out and away from me like an untied balloon. My throat tightens and my thoughts vanish. Where did it all go?
Now he’s back and it’s like he’s never left. Someone comes around the corner of the building, lighting a cigarette. I try to turn away, busying myself with my bike chain locked around a concrete post designed to keep trucks from getting too close to the building. Maybe he won’t notice the weepy mess I am. I catch the scent of smoke and take it in. I make a quick wipe of my face on my sleeve and turn back around, the need superseding any last ditch effort at retaining any of my dignity.
“Got a spare? I could use a drag right now.”
“Sure you’re old enough for one of these?”
“I’ll be seventeen in a few weeks.”
“Ah, hell, here ya go, boss.” The man is middle aged, moustached, wearing a store polo, navy slacks, and a nametag that reads Phillip, How may I help you? He passes me his lighter and taps a cigarette free from the pack. I pull it out and light up, grateful for the kind gesture.
The burn feels good going down. I tug and tug like I’m a smokestack on a runaway freight train. How appropriate. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask me to explain why I was bawling in broad daylight. Someone with a dark sense of humor has hit an invisible reset button and I feel the death of all those years gone in an instant. Up in smoke, which is the direction I’m looking right now. I’ve got to get out of here.
“Thanks. I owe you one,” I say, as if I’ll ever repay this small favor. How easy it is for us to take from those around us, without another thought, as if such moments weren’t weighted with purpose or heavy with meaning. I let the awkward silence fill the space between us and then I turn, walking my bike into the parking lot where I climb on and cycle out, following the same path Steven Jacobs just drove not an hour before me with an unknown passenger that might as well be me.
An invisible line pulls me along like a fish on a hook.
I know where this is heading but I can’t stop myself from pedaling toward it. I lean into the wind as I pick up speed and make a sudden turn to the left. The line goes taut. I can feel the tug pulling at my insides. I wince, the blade digging in deeper. I can’t even tell if it’s the point of the fishhook digging into my flesh, or Steven’s pocketknife twisting somewhere in my gut.
My mind is racing faster than my feet can pedal. We were out at the lake. Tiny wisps of clouds scudded across the bluest sky. It always seemed more intense reflected in the surface of the water. A mirror looking into another mirror. An opening and a closing. Jonathan was there and he was there, flipping a pocketknife open and closed, absentmindedly. We still called him “Uncle” Steven back then. I was there, too, I suppose. Maybe I was already out in the boat, slipping silently away from shore, my eyes unsettled on the tremors in my fishing line.
I tried to ignore the sound of the blade.
I felt the pull again, forcing my eyes away from the spot in the water where my line went in, to look at his hands on the blade of his pocketknife. Fah-whip. Click. Fah-whip. Click. His finger depressed the release and it snapped back into the groove, the blade folding easily down. He pinched the notch at the top of the blade and flipped it back open again, this time turning it over and over in his hands. His nimble fingers flitted across the surface of the metal, a perfect symbiosis of flesh and metal moving together in synchronicity.
He glanced over at me, the corners of his mouth curling upward.
“Best catch me somethin’ bigger’n a throwback, boy, or I’ll find another use for this blade with you and me… later.” He gave me a meaningful nod. One that spoke without words, underscoring his future intentions.
I shuddered, turning away, pretending to stare at the line in front of me or willing myself to be stronger so I could better withstand his taunts and threats. Except these were more like promises rather than idle taunts because these would be backed up by follow-through. He would have his way with me later, driven by that insatiable urge of his. I could feel myself slipping away, leaving the shell of my body holding the fishing pole, right hand mechanically rotating the reel. I wondered in that moment if this is what it feels like when you die.
Does your soul float up and off somewhere into the great expanse of sky? Is it fixed on where it’s going like it has pre-programmed instructions on where it’s headed next, not looking back, or does it glance back down, afraid to leave where it’s at in the comfort of a body it’s known for all the days it’s existed?
I just remember the feeling of floating away until it didn’t matter what came later.
Even now, I can’t answer those questions. I couldn’t answer them back then, and I still can’t answer them now. Instead, I’m left with an emptiness I can’t seem to fill despite all my striving to achieve the impossible; a helpless, endless floating, and the knowledge of what came later reeling on repeat in my mind, pounding the insides of my skull.
And a destination I can no longer avoid.