The Packing House

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Chapter 23 | Rorschach Inkblots

When I wake up, I’m cocooned in my blankets but alive. Make a sound and you’re dead echoes inside my skull. It takes a few minutes of wriggling to loosen the bedclothes before I can break free of the shroud. I look for fang marks from the serpents and find none. Now that I’m back in the trailer, the nightmares have officially returned.

I get dressed and head to the kitchen. We have a few minutes, so I gulp down food before heading to the bus. The morning remains silent. I catch Jonathan looking a few times, but I can’t tell if it’s at me. I’ve got nothing to say to the suck-up. I’m used to being alone. Prefer it. I grab my backpack and leave. He arrives just before the bus pulls up.

I watch the route and make mental notes.

I get off the bus and head straight to the main office. I end up waiting so long, I think they’ve forgotten about me. When homeroom begins, I go up and ask. The secretary checks with someone in the next office. I learned next to nothing about Ms. Moore when my mother came in for the meeting yesterday. She was careful with her words. To her, I must be just the student who had the parent conference. I wait. More adults hold meetings about me. This is going to take all day.

Someone comes down the hall to shake my hand. I try to smile, but I’m not listening when she tells me her name. We head back behind the counter and down the hall to the guidance waiting area. She offers me a drink or a snack and indicates a seat. Ms. Moore will be right with me, she assures me.

I accept the bottled water and the pretzels. The walls have pictures of kittens and puppies. The snack and drink are more like a bribe than a caring gesture. This is all wrong. I should just head to homeroom. I’d need a pass. Maybe I could forge one, but my chemistry teacher might notice.

Ms. Moore walks briskly out from the back hallway where the offices are, a smile spread across her face. She’s pretty hot for a lady who drives a Corolla. She must love her job. It’s a gum commercial where everyone has smiles and extremely whitened teeth. I wonder if they glow in the dark. The only thing missing is the music.

“Why, good morning, Joel. I’m so glad to see you today. Won’t you come back and have a little chat with me? You can bring your snacks along.” Her voice oozes soothing tones.

What choice do I have? I follow her down the hall into the last room on the left. It’s large with several places to sit. I stay in the doorway, unsure of where to go. To my left is a bookshelf, her desk, and seats. Against the far wall is a couch and chairs with a coffee table. To my immediate right is a round table with chairs on both sides. Behind the table is a small kitchen area with a sink, refrigerator, and countertop. I could stay here for a week if it weren’t for the absence of a nearby bathroom. I think there’s one down the hall. Every surface has short stacks of books, small plants with flowers, and jars filled with candles and funny-smelling woodchips. Like the puppies and kittens in the waiting area, the office artwork seems to be trying too hard. Ms. Moore fixes herself a cup of tea and offers me my choice of where we begin. One of many unmarked tests, I’m sure. I’m no dummy. I choose the couch.

“Let’s have a seat, then. Make yourself comfortable, Joel. I’ll be right with you.” It almost sounds natural when she inserts my name at just the right spot in the sentence. I wonder if this is the intended goal—my comfort. It sounds too good to be true, and I’ve heard if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I have a seat. I sit on the end closest to the window, staring out longingly at the sports fields, and set my backpack down next to me with my arm around it.

“Would you like something warm to drink, Joel? I almost forgot my manners.” Ms. Moore starts to laugh at how silly it would be to forget her manners.

“No, thanks.” I shimmy down in my seat, slouching in a way that would prompt my mother to scold me. I wait for a reaction. She sits in the chair next to me, placing her tea on a coaster on the end table to her right.

“There now, nice and cozy, aren’t we? Ready to begin?” I nod and try to smile. She makes no comment about my posture. I straighten up. Ms. Moore sips her tea, and then pulls out a pad of paper from a briefcase I didn’t notice next to her chair. As she pulls out a pen, she smiles.

“Okay, then. Let’s get to it, Joel. Before we begin with some questions, I want to explain the format so you understand how this works. I have several tests and evaluations for us to work through together. I’m going to need your cooperation to get accurate results. If the questions get to be too much or you need a break, a stretch, or if you need to use the restroom down the hall, just let me know. I expect this to take the majority of today. Don’t worry, we can have lunch here, just you and me. How does that sound?” Amazing how she delivers it like she’s not reading it off a card.

“Okay, I guess.”

“Marvelous. Then, shall we begin? I’m going to ask you a question. You take your time, and when you’re ready, tell me your answer.”

I stare at the books on the coffee table in front of me. Some of the titles pop out at me. I wonder if they’re selected with a secondary purpose.

“Do you know why you were having trouble at the other school before you moved to our district?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“Joel, I need to ask you to answer with words. Body language tells me some things about you, but I might misunderstand what you meant for me to understand. Try again?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Fine.” She scribbles down some notes, her pen scratching across the note pad in quick motions. I can’t tell if she’s using shorthand or cursive.

“What do you think precipitated or caused the problem to happen?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fine.” More notes. Scribble. Scribble. I notice she smiles as she writes. This sets me on edge.

“How are things between you and your mother?”

“Normal, I guess.”

“Great.” More writing. More smiling. What is she so happy about?

“What about between you and your brother?” she asks, flipping through a file for her notes. “Jonathan, is it?”

“We’re brothers. We act like brothers.”

“Perfect.” More writing, then she turns the page and keeps going. What is she writing about? I didn’t think I gave her much of an answer. I can’t help myself. I ask a question.

“Do you think I’m crazy or something?”

She stops writing and looks at me before responding. “Do you think I would call you crazy, Joel? I don’t think that’s the case at all. Try to relax.”

Right, and I should have taken a nap yesterday while I stood before the adult firing squad. That makes perfect sense.

“Why don’t we try something else? Let’s go over to the table and look at some pictures.” Ms. Moore stands up and brings her tea and notes along. She heads to the table near the door, offering me a seat on either side. I sit where I can still face the door. I wonder if I passed this unmarked test. Nothing slips by me. Ms. Moore pulls a stack of large white cards over in front of her seat. They are face down, and she straightens the pile.

“Joel, these are Rorschach Ink blots. There are ten. I will show them to you one at a time, and then ask you to tell me what you see. I’m going to ask to record your answers on this tape recorder, so I can hold up the inkblots for you. Is that all right with you?”

“I guess so.”

She starts the recorder and holds up the first card. “What do you see here?”

“Two ducks back to back.”

“That’s fine. And this one?” She holds up the next one.

“A frog.”

“Good. And this one?” She holds up another card.

“I don’t know.”

“That’s all right. And this one?” She holds up the next picture. It looks like a dead body. No way am I telling her that.

“Road kill. A bat. Two birds facing each other. A snowflake. A butterfly. The center of an apple.” I answer each one in turn. Ms. Moore stops the recorder, and then writes a half page of notes. I’m worn out. Not sure if I did that right.

“Can I have a break?”

“Of course you can, Joel. Help yourself to a snack, use the restroom if you need, or you can even lie down over there.” She indicates the couch. It looks inviting, but I grab my backpack and head out of her office and down the hall to the bathroom. It’s a private, one-person room. I go in and lock the door. I don’t have to go. I just wanted to get out of there. When I flick on the lights, a flash of a candle floating through the darkness and the smell of cigars plays across my memories. A shiver goes up my back. My stomach jolts. I’m hungry and nauseous at the same time.

I stand in front of the mirror and have to grip the sides when I see how pale I’ve gone. Who was in the dark holding a candle? And where was I in my memory? I’ve got nothing. Instead, I run some water and wash my face. Doubt it will help, but it’s something to do. I’ve got to try and hold out until lunch time. At least I don’t have to go to the cafeteria. Then, I’ll ask if we can continue tomorrow. Maybe she’ll let me sleep for good behavior. I’d rather read than take these tests or answer her questions.

When I head back down the hall, I’m hit with the smell of the office. Like vanilla or cookies. The way Hansel and Gretel might describe the witch’s house. I try to shake the nerves away and take a deep breath before going back in. Ms. Moore is on the telephone at her desk. Who’s she talking to? Is it about me?

“Oh, welcome back, Joel,” she says when I knock and enter. “I was just checking my messages.” Am I supposed to buy that?

I go and sit down in the chair in front of her desk. We sure are making the rounds today around her office. I’ve been on calmer roller coasters than this. Ms. Moore hangs up her phone and turns her attention to me.

“For the rest of this morning, I’m going to give you two written tests. Afterwards, we’ll break for lunch. Does that sound fine?”

“Okay.” I’m relieved there aren’t more one-on-one questions, but I have no idea what to expect from the tests, either. Anything has got to be better than inkblots.

Ms. Moore invites me back over to the table, but this time I have a standardized test in a booklet format with bubbles to fill in. She lays three sharpened pencils down and smiles.

“These tests are not timed. You may take as long as you like. If you need a break, just let me know. I’ve got some algorithms to note from earlier. I’ll be over there if you need me.”

I can’t figure out what this test is called, since the title’s just a bunch of Roman numerals and numbers. I take my test, ignoring the sense of dread rising up, and hope my answers don’t mean I’m crazy.

Everything is so calm and well-ordered around me. It’s too perfect. There are alarms in my gut. My nerves are shot. I watch the clock more than I answer questions. They’re all about my feelings and what I’m most likely to do in a situation.

If I come across an injured animal along the road, would I

a) try to help it b) ignore it c) go get help or d) put it out of its misery.

I don’t make it to the end of the test before our lunch arrives.

After lunch, I ask if I can finish on the couch. Ms. Moore gives me a clipboard, and I lean on the arm against a pillow and pull my legs up so I can rest the clipboard and write. Things get hazy after that. I startle when the bell rings, and I catch myself dozing between questions. Ms. Moore works quietly at her computer. She hardly glances over at me.

The couch calls to me, just like the one in the teacher’s lounge, only this one is much more comfortable and modern. Somehow I finish the test, lean against the back of the couch, and I’m out moments later. When my hands brush across the surface of the couch, I’m suddenly back in the basement at Amber’s, just before we were alone in the closet together. Amber’s father comes out from the downstairs bathroom holding a candle on a small stand, tendrils of smoke curling up in wisps from the snuffed-out wick. He doesn’t see me on the couch but goes up the stairs with purpose. Afternoon announcements pull me from my nap. Was that another unspoken test? It’s the end of the day.

“I see you’ve had a little nap. I’ll take your test, and then I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Joel. Have a fantastic afternoon!”

I better leave before my lunch comes thundering back up and all over the nice area rug. I head to the door.

“Bye.”

As I head out to the bus stop, I wonder what else she could possibly need to test me on. Will tomorrow delve into rare and extreme psychological analyses? I visualize a torture table, laid out with various surgical steel instruments, perhaps a blood-letting or leeches. I wouldn’t put it past Ms. Moore to think outside the box a little.

I shudder and walk faster.

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