The Packing House

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Chapter 22 | School Fight

After school, Jonathan tackles me, in case I take off again. I might as well be a week-old balloon, trailing limply, trying to keep from touching the ground. The fight has gone out of me. I don’t even want to try anymore.

Part of me thinks I was crazy to run away in the first place. Terrible things could have happened. Still, I’m not ready to forgive Jonathan for squealing, so I lay into him.

“What the fuck, Jon?” I say, shoving him so hard he almost falls on his ass. Guess anger’s my second wind. “Don’t do me any more favors, squealer. I should kick your ass right here, right now.”

The anger builds, coupled with a compelling urgency to have a damn cigarette. I can’t wait to get home and make for the woods. I don’t want to be nice or fair to my jerk brother who couldn’t keep his trap shut and has it coming. I catch a tremor in his eyes.

“Okay, okay, I guess I deserved that. You’re right, you could kick my ass right now. Only, could you wait until we’re home? Please?”

Jonathan stands slowly, adjusting his backpack. He holds his hands out, palms upward, and risks a glance back over his shoulder. A group of girls watches our interaction closely. I realize he must be up someone’s skirt at Sanderville already. It might be a new record. Three suspects watch our every move. Second day of school. Well played. I just shake my head.

“Fair enough. I’ll kick your ass on home turf.”

Jonathan sighs, and then throws a huge grin at his onlookers. “Hasta la mañana, ladies.” I taste vomit. While he waves at his adoring fans, I give Jonathan a serious punch on the shoulder and ponder a follow-through.

Ow, Joel!” Jonathan looks at me in mock pain. Although he rubs his shoulder for good measure, I don’t trust him. My take is he’s working the sympathy vote with the girls, whose giggles betray the same thought. I could write this drivel.

Jonathan takes a few steps away from me, out of arm shot. I raise my fist and then relent. I’m being too soft, but I just don’t have it in me. I start pacing. This wait is killing me. I need a friggin’ cigarette. I look around to see if anyone else is lighting up. No such luck. I’m still pissed. I consider going back on my word to just finish it here with Jonathan. I hate it when I get like this.

“Dude,” Jonathan says. “You have seriously got to calm yourself down.” I must look half-crazed, the way Jonathan gawks, trying to placate, talk me down off the ledge. “I know you’re mad. Just let me try and explain.”

“Spit it out then.”

“Okay. All right,” he says, arm on my shoulder, walking me over to where we talked the day before. “I know I gave you my word I wouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t lie. She saw right through me, Joel. I screwed up. She just caught me off-guard before I could tell her otherwise. Then she was furious. This weekend, you and mom, I’m screwed.”

“Damn it, Jon!” I say. “You so fucked this all up.”

“You’ve gone way downhill with the cussing, bruh.”

“Go ahead and pest me. See what you get.”

“You gotta chill. Say, ‘what the hockey sticks’ or ‘get off my scribble.’ Girls like a guy in control of his mouth.” I don’t respond to the double meaning or what he does with his tongue and fingers. I swear if I hear one more of his lectures, like he’s trying to train me to be a player, I will beat the ever-loving shit out of him.

My glare sends him packing. Good. Get the fuck away. I’m not good company right now. At least I had a few days of freedom, “had” being the operative word.

I’ll be on house arrest. As if my mother could try and keep me in that damn metal box. I’m ready to explode in flames. Instead, I pace and wait.

“Where the hell’s the bus?” I say to no one in particular. Some of the others talk. I could care less. No one’s walked in my shoes. They can think what they like.

Finally, the bus comes, and we pile on. No one balks when I push toward the front of the line. I could bite their heads off, the whole lot of them. I make for the back and sit down with a harrumph. Blocking the open seat with my backpack, I glare out the window. The bus isn’t full, so no one dares sit near me.

When we get home, the trailer’s empty, the car gone. Our mother’s at work. So much for follow-through. I have no doubt it will come later. I make a beeline for the woods. Jonathan just stares at me, shrugs, and goes inside. If I were him, I wouldn’t rock the boat.

I head into the woods; calmness radiates over me in waves. I breathe it in, pull out a cigarette, and light up. I don’t even pause before going onto a second one. I glance over my shoulder—expecting Jonathan to come looking for a fight—but he gives me space.

Maybe running away has changed me. As often as I can, I want to get away, to the woods or anywhere. That’s a good thing. Like taking care of myself these past several days despite the challenges, also good. Other things have not been good, like cursing. Jonathan’s right: it’s gotten out of control. I don’t like that about myself.

And smoking? I guess I could do worse things. For now, it helps me to try to calm the thoughts in my mind that have been bombarding me. More often than not, I just grab at strings far too elusive for me to reach. Then there’s the untangling process. If I could get these thoughts sorted out, what then? Smoking is the least of my worries.

I decide to head back, hole up in my room, and read. Can I prepare for the onslaught I know will come when my mother gets home? I’m not even going to fight it. Tomorrow, when I have to go to my “formal assessment,” I’ll at least fake it and play along. My gut warns me not to trust these adults. The way they would try to order every step I take to help me or, worse, rescue me. I don’t agree with their version of salvation. God himself hasn’t convinced me. Who the hell are they to try and understudy God?

Back in my room, I shove books on the floor and lie down. I don’t even notice until I wake up that I needed a nap. When I sit up, I decide to clean out my backpack and set it back up for school. I pull out clothes, my food stash, and tear into everything I find, suddenly ravenous.

My mother comes into the trailer. I can’t not hear her. We’re on top of each other, so there’s no getting away. I stiffen, brace for impact. I try to focus on reading, but I’m waiting for the guillotine blade to drop. I visualize my head rolling down the narrow hallway and into the living room. Maybe the cat’ll play with it.

At least then I wouldn’t have to pour out my soul to Corolla Lady. I read her as patronizing and full of her own agenda. She’s got to have a reason not to address the dumpster climb. I can’t trust someone like that, and I will not drop trou’ for her, that’s for damn sure. Then it hits me.

When my father left, I sort of lost it and had to be hospitalized for my own safety. This recent occurrence is familiar, like I’m relapsing, the way I freaked out and trashed my room when my father left us. Jonathan had tried to help calm me down until the ambulance came, but I went off on him, too. Just like today. I hope they don’t think I’ve lost my mind. Maybe I should cooperate. My mother calls for me. Off I go. I tuck the cigarettes in my back pocket, just in case.

“Joel, what the hell were you thinking?”

Sledgehammer. Nice approach. Don’t kid-glove me or anything. She can sling it. I’ll give it right back.

“I don’t know, Mother. I guess I was pissed when I saw your gambling stuff, so I bailed. If you’re back with that, I’m not sticking around.”

“Who the hell are you to tell me anything? You’ve got it backwards. I’m the parent. You’re the child.”

“More like the scapegoat. I’m out.” And I’m out the door. I take satisfaction when it slams behind me. The door doesn’t even have time to recover, flinging back open behind the force of my mother.

“Get back here right now, Joel Michael!” my mother pounds away. “I will not have you slamming doors.” There’s an awkward pause.

In the silence, I shout back, “Come and make me!” I keep walking. My mother stands her ground on the step of our trailer. Maybe she thinks I’ll come back if she just waits.

“I mean it, Joel. Come back here this instant, or you’ll regret it.” I don’t even look back. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. I’m not thinking of running away, just going for a smoke. I can’t breathe in that box. Thoughts keep circling back to when Dad bailed. There had to be a reason, right? What a nightmare. I head around the trailer park. As I near the end of the row, I notice Jonathan trailing me. She sent the lackey.

“Piss off,” I say, not even looking at him. “I need space.”

“Listen, Joel,” he says, “enough’s enough. You’ve put us through the ringer. You’ve gotta stop this. It’s not all about you.”

I whirl around. I can’t believe my ears. “What part is about me? I can’t even find myself in all this mess. That’s why I left. I thought you’d understand, but instead you take her side.”

“I’m on my own side, bruh. You think this is easy for me? You only care about your own needs.”

Before I even realize what I’m doing, I swing my fist as hard as I can. He isn’t expecting a fight. My fist shudders as it slams into his jaw, sliding off his cheek. I watch like a slide show as I complete the cross. Jonathan teeters, losing his balance. I turn and keep walking. Jonathan stays where he’s at. Still, he might be stupid enough to attempt a counter attack.

I pull out a cigarette and light up. Watching the end, I catch Jonathan rubbing the side of his face as I inhale. Did aliens take over my brother and mother while I was gone? Maybe they joined the Trailer Park Colony without me. Now all I need to figure out is where they left that entrance ramp to the Mother Ship. I head to the woods. I doubt Jonathan knows what the hell to do.

Just me and the trees, as if we’re having a private conversation; I breathe slowly under a watercolor-painting sky in warm tones. It’s not just smoke I take in—it’s heat, too, like a salamander. The warmth of it floods through me.

I can’t believe what my mother said. She’s not the responsible parent, wrapped up in her relationships, who put us in difficult situations, not from where I stand. Even though she works all the time, the bills aren’t getting paid. It would be one thing if it was just about her salary; there’s enough to pay the bills. Problem is, she’s sneaking out and gambling.

She doesn’t even tell the truth. She says she’s working or running errands but actually goes to play bingo to try and win big. This is adult logic for you. Says she does this for our benefit. She’s sacrificing her time to try and do us a favor. She’s nothing but selfish. She goes because she wants to and because she likes the excitement.

The sun has almost set. I head back, dragging darkness in my wake. When I come in, my mother and Jonathan are watching TV. Walls are back up. I get a plate of Dollar Store hotdogs and freezer-burn fries before giving up and heading to my room. This is my mother’s version of “food.”

That night, the stairwell leads to a pit of snakes writhing all over themselves. I can’t tell where one begins and another ends; it’s just a mass of scaled, slithery bodies in constant motion. The snakes nearest me lift their heads and flick their tongues. Can they smell fear?

“…Not a word….”

I try to back away slowly, but they move in my direction. By the time I reach the stairs, they’re already going up my legs. They wrap their bodies around and climb up the left and the right. I freeze as snake bodies root me to the ground.

“…Make a sound and you’re dead…”

I can’t move, and I can’t look away, either. I don’t want to think about where they’re headed. Jaws snap shut in a chorus of fangs clamping down, biting into flesh. I watch in horrified fascination as they pile on top of each other, and I drown in waves of undulating serpent bodies.

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