The Packing House

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Chapter 21 | Firing Squad

The secretary motions me back to the principal’s office through what could be a guillotine-shaped swinging door that divides the front from the back. My mother has me in the tractor beam of her eyes like tiny lasers that can shred me into oblivion. That would be better than standing before her right now. She rises, rigid, her eyes leveled right at me.

I’m doomed.

“You didn’t have to come see me at school,” I begin, somehow regaining the ability to speak, despite the firing squad standing before us.

“Oh, yes I did,” she fires back.

Thinking it foolish to push my luck, I opt not to respond, which would further incriminate me. Instead, I snap to, a plumb line in her tensile grip. Time to man-up and take whatever punishment’s coming to me. All things break under pressure. I just hope I won’t spend eternity buried, er, grounded in the coffin of my room. I can picture myself wrapped in grave clothes—arms in rigor across my chest, a stoic look across frozen facial features. I need to come up with a plan.

“We’ve called this emergency meeting with the principal and the guidance counselor after the stunt you pulled. We’re going to talk about that later, right when we go home.” My mother fires this at me like shots from a semi-automatic weapon. I have no bullet-proof vest, so I take every shot—the words falling away, empty bullet casings clattering to the ground.

Somehow time is sluggish, and I witness everything in slow motion, which only intensifies the impact. Forget doomed: my mother means to wipe me out of existence. I’m attending my own funeral. How did this happen? The only person who knew where I was is Jonathan. It all begins to make sense. He told.

A tiny part of me is glad I was caught, because it means my mother, in her way, actually cares. Either that or she doesn’t like to be crossed. I can’t make out which one.

The other part of me, the one flooding my mind with multiple visions of how I will exact vengeance upon my brother, is preoccupied as I stand there. Jonathan is going to get his ass kicked. I keep clenching and unclenching my fists.

Mr. Hoffman indicates two chairs, and as I look around, I see two other staff members. What is this all about? Mr. Hoffman puts his hand out to welcome me, but I sit and pretend not to notice. He shakes hands with my mother and then introduces the other two adults.

“Mrs. Scrivener, this is Mr. Fleming, the assistant principal, and Ms. Moore from guidance.” My eyes go wide when I see Corolla Lady standing before me in business casual. The last time I saw her, I was in an incriminating position on top of the dumpster, retrieving my backpack from the shed roof.

“Pleased to meet you,” my mother says curtly.

Everyone takes their seats, and we begin. Now I’ll find out what this is all about. I fumble with my planner as I dart a glance at the adults encircling. This is a meeting about me. My finger traces the logo on the front. A raven. They’re staring in that way adults do when they think they care about your future. I curl my toes, gripping the floor through my shoes, surrounded by this murder of crows.

“Joel, you’ve been called here to discuss your recent…,” Ms. Moore begins, pausing to select just the right word, “behaviors, such as your grades, as well as your decision to run away from home.” Is she going to say something about what I was doing out back, on top of the dumpster?

My stomach wrenches. Suddenly, all eyes are on me, carefully studying how I react. Mr. Hoffman begins paging through what I can only presume is my academic file.

“We are not here to judge you, Joel. We want to help you take a look at the reasons you’re failing your core classes. We believe you are in serious distress. This meeting is intended as an intervention.”

“Well, I didn’t ask for one.”

I don’t know these people, and I do not want to talk about my personal life. I can’t even talk to my mother. Why would I want to speak with total strangers?

“Joel, you can do better. Let’s try that again,” Ms. Moore says.

I cross my arms and clench my jaw, grinding my teeth as I think of a response that won’t get my carcass plucked clean.

“We move a lot, and it’s hard on my grades.” I don’t want to talk about the other stuff, so I wait for the guidance counselor to continue. Apparently, she’s running the show. Mr. Fleming scribbles some notes. My mother interrupts.

“Ms. Moore,” my mother begins, “I called this meeting because I had no idea Joel was spiraling out of control. I thought everything was fine at school and at home. I don’t know what to do with him anymore.”

Ms. Moore smiles and reaches out to pat her hand. They sit right next to each other. No way this ends well.

“Mrs. Scrivener, we can help both you and Joel once we’ve had time for a formal assessment. We need to take a look at the whole picture as it pertains to your son. Then we’ll come up with a plan together that will put Joel back on the right track.”

Right. So, I’m the only one scudding like a kite before it suicides itself in a tree. Leave it to my mother to spin things her way. Mr. Hoffman pauses from what he is reading, looks up at me, then at my mother and Ms. Moore.

“Joel,” the princiPAL says, “you do understand the seriousness of your situation, do you not?”

“Yes, sir,” I say, giving the standard party answer.

“If you don’t have a serious turnaround here at Sanderville High School, you’ll be required to repeat the grade.” My buddy (old PAL), Mr. Hoffman, breaks the news as gently as one detonates a bomb with the press of a button. Explosions go off in my head as I picture the horror that would be sharing classes with Jonathan and his entourage of popularity. I could never survive such a massacre.

My well-being cowers under my chair.

“For today, Joel,” Mr. Hoffman continues, “you will attend all of your classes so you can meet your teachers, get your textbooks, and learn your schedule. However, tomorrow, you will be pulled from class to begin a formal assessment with Ms. Moore.”

“Okay…”

My mother turns to me. “Joel, don’t mumble. It’s not polite. Sit up in your seat. Don’t slouch. Answer Mr. Hoffman.”

I visualize the semi-automatic again. No one else seems to notice my mother pointing a gun at me. She’s got all her quips on speed-dial today. I straighten myself in my chair, look directly at Mr. Hoffman, and nod my understanding.

“Yes, sir. I understand, sir.” I check with my mother to make sure I meet her approval. This is my attempt to diffuse the bomb that’s about to implode in the princiPAL’s tiny office. I smile, scrambling for any way out. I might as well face the firing squad. It can’t be much worse than adults determining how to fix all my problems.

I have a hard time breathing. Did all the air just get sucked out of the room? I could swear Mr. Hoffman’s hand moves ever so slightly. I remain in my seat, hoping I don’t startle him into action.

If this were a real firing squad, at least they’d let me have a cigarette.

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