The Packing House

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Chapter 24 | Nightmare Week

That night and every night that week, I have nightmares. One ends where another begins, an endless series of bookends upended. The same stone staircase lures me into shadowy crypt corners. I cannot stop myself from going down. Terror is the song playing in my head when I wake or sleep and gurgles up in my throat like bile.

When I turn the corner, the stones become thick like mud. As I take tentative steps, searching for firmness, I sink into a sludgy, watery mess. I scramble to get back to the stairs but can’t keep myself from submerging under the surface.

The stairs themselves become quicksand. Every movement makes it worse. Holding still, I watch myself sink, stuck either way. Hourglass sand runs hastily at the end; pulls me down until I’m submerged in darkness.

I try to hold my breath but wake with a gasping shudder that whispers I might not have made it a moment longer.

It started in fourth grade. I won the I Have a Dream Writing Contest in school. My poem was selected by the administration and the PTA. I read it in front of the entire student body at the Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly. It began with a quote by Dr. King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that,” from his Strength to Love sermon.

From then on, writing became an extension of me. I carried a palm-sized notebook and a pencil. Words came to me the way planets orbit the sun. I drew in phrases, clusters of words, snippets of ideas, then laid them down on the page in neat lines of poetry or crafted them into paragraphs that later grew large enough to become a story.

I can’t explain it. I just know when the time comes. I hide in my room, eat an obscene amount of junk food, and come out when the time has passed. My mother never complains, since it doesn’t cost her more than paper and pencils, sometimes a notebook.

Writing is what drew me into reading. I read everything I can get my hands on. Once the well is full again, I write for hours.

Reading books and writing poems or stories are never enough. Sure, they distract from the daily crap but it’s like I’m trying to climb out of quicksand—eventually I go under. Sometimes I want to.

Lately I’ve started rereading all of Amber’s letters. They’re the only thing that helps me calm down so I can go back to sleep. My favorite is about her Easter Sunrise Service on the beach. She described the way God paints sunrises and sunsets just for us to see how punch-you-in-the-gut breathtaking they are when we glimpse one at the shore, the edge of the world. I can picture her watching the sky, startled, as the immense sun rises from the water like a fiery bather, and later reading her Bible as the salty breeze rustles the pages. I wish I could find peace like that.

The other part of me is scared God would show up.

I turn the corner and am grabbed from behind by dark, muscular arms that envelop and force me down toward the center of the room where I am tied with rough ropes to a wooden post and then set on fire.

He shoves me from behind. His weight presses me to the floor

Searing flames leap at my feet. My heart beats in rapid thumps.

“…You had this coming. Make a sound and you’re dead…”

I panic. In the heat of the flames, I can’t breathe.

“…Make a sound and you’re dead…”

I cough in spasms, my body wracked by blackened convulsions. It reminds me of an asthma attack. Eventually, I vomit. My mind races, in a thousand hysterical directions. I want to crawl out of my charred skin. Blisters rise with pain so excruciating they throb. Flames go up my legs and torso. The last thing I notice before I pass out—through flickering tongues of fire—are multiple pairs of eyes staring, encircling, yet far away and hidden in shadow.

“…Not a word…”

When I wake, the last tendrils of sleep cling to me like smoke curling and twining up the trailer walls. I can still smell the demon’s fetid breath; it’s cloying at my nostrils, making my lips curl from the press of nausea threatening below. I have the strongest urge to find matches and toss them at the kerosene tank until the whole place goes up in flames. Shudders from my nightmare wrack my entire body with convulsions.

This time, I’m still on the couch in Amber’s basement, even though I’m also somehow in the closet, inches from kissing her on the lips. Amber’s father stomps his way down the stairs, ratchets the door open so fast it might have bent the hinges, grabs me forcibly by the arm, and flings me like a ragdoll toward the stairs. Then, he shoves me from behind. His weight presses me suddenly to the floor.

I can hear and feel his seething words in my ear, “You had this coming. Make a sound, and you’re dead.” The next moment, he’s hoisting me up, growling, “She’s my daughter. You hear me? She’s mine.”

He drags me up the stairs and out the front door, out into the front yard, with its smell of cut grass and the harsh slices of light. The look on his face: a mixture of hatred and, oddly, of fear.

Over the past ten years since my parents divorced, we’ve gone back to visit my father’s family for annual get-togethers and life events. We went back when my grandfather passed away. Another time, we were invited to my Uncle Brandon’s wedding. He went to college down south and met Aunt Althea there. They shocked everyone when they announced their engagement. After their wedding, I thought it was cool we were finally diversified.

The best time we had on a visit was my grandmother’s jubilee birthday, when she turned seventy-five and moved into the house she is in now. I might have been twelve. Her party celebration went on for days. One night, I got restless and snuck out to meet up with Amber. I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did.

We decided to head to the beach for a late-night walk and were lying on the sand with our heads touching when we saw our first shooting star. There was a meteor shower. Several shot rapidly across the dark sky-blanket and were gone while others shone bright, chugging their way in an arc we followed with our eyes. A few had tails like fiery comet wisps, eyes in the night sky.

I disrupted the silence with words. “Do you ever wonder where they all land?”

“Isn’t something like seventy percent of the earth covered by ocean?”

“So you think they all land in the water?”

“Makes sense.”

“Do fish live inside them? It baffles me to imagine them at the bottom of the ocean.”

“That’s so cool.” She glanced up, her hands idling through hair tendrils. “If I were a fish, I’d want to live in a rock from space.”

My thoughts wandered, imagining my hands running through Amber’s hair, touching her fingertips…

“I think most meteors burn up when they enter the atmosphere. By the time they touch ground, it’s all dust. But if I were a fish, I’d want to be transparent.”

“Then I could see all your insides. Eww!”

When we turned to look at each other, we kissed before either of us thought too much about it. That one spark changed everything. It violated our contract not to cross the line but made me hunger for more at the same time. If I think about it long enough, I can still feel her lips against mine. After a nightmare, I concentrate on a thought like that as I climb my way back up from dark places.

As I descend stairs, I’m overwhelmed by countless spiders that cover me before I can get away. I’m draped in webs before I realize, near the bottom, their tiny stabs pierce all over my body, sharp tears into my flesh.

I scream out, but they’re everywhere. I can’t even see anymore. Their thousands of legs crawl over skin I wish was someone else’s, then wrap me in sticky tendrils of webbing. I fall down the last few stairs, but they are busy and encase me in webs.

Oddly, they leave, in unspoken agreement, of one accord.

I can’t move, not even a little, but I can hear them skitter away into the dark. Darkness surrounds. I gulp air in shallow gasps. The webs are so tight, they cut off circulation. Then I hear it. Something large and seething comes at me with legs moving in every direction, scraping across the stone floor.

I can hear it breathe right over me, and then I feel a terrible stabbing pain going in. My insides turn to liquid. Something pulls everything out of me until I’m an empty shell. As I drift away, I hear the smaller spiders return. Their incessant chatter pulses in my ears as they pour over every hollow inch of me.

My grandmother has a way of talking me into things. We were on an extended visit the summer after the meteor shower with Amber, and I let her talk me into Vacation Bible School at her church for a week. The only good thing about agreeing to VBS was that Amber was also attending my grandmother’s church. Well, there were two good things. We did a lot of craft projects, and I almost forgot where I was.

One of the projects was a God’s Eye. It’s supposed to mean something like, “God is always watching over you,” but things like that get under my skin. If I imagine someone standing in my room at night while I sleep, it terrifies me. We picked four colors of yarn and threaded them around Popsicle sticks. The teacher Mrs. Trimmer explained the meaning.

The Huichol are a people from Western Mexico, she said, and they make a God’s Eye as a symbol to see what is unseen, to understand what has not been understood, and to know what is unknown. The four corners and the four colors illustrate the four basic elements: air, earth, fire and water.

The teacher shared how the God’s Eye should be used.

“When a child is born, he first experiences God through his mother and his father. The way they treat the child is how the child sees God.”

Any minute now, her head’s gonna start to glow, I thought. I think God is just going to leave the way my father did, and if He does stay, He’ll ruin my life the way my mother does. I doubt that’s what the teacher meant, but I kept quiet, weaving my yarn.

I glanced over at Amber, who had finished hers and was making a second. We were supposed to hang them over our beds to remember that God loves us just like our parents. That didn’t encourage me to want to become a Christian.

I shook my head at these thoughts. Amber leaned over to whisper, “Joel, she doesn’t mean it the way you’re taking it. Give her a chance.”

“Guess I’ll have to wait and see,” I replied.

The teacher brought over a chair and had us take our God’s Eyes with us as we formed a circle. I thought I was going to avoid Kumbaya. My throat tightened. I sat next to Amber. If we’d started to tear off the heads of chickens and drink their blood, that was where I was going to draw the line.

“I’d like to discuss something,” Mrs. Trimmer began. “What do we do when our parents don’t treat us the way God wants? Doesn’t that send the wrong message? How many of you have parents who treat you less than perfectly?”

Everyone raised their hands, including Mrs. Trimmer.

“None of us have the perfect parents. That’s the point of the God’s Eye. Even if our parents aren’t perfect, God is with us. He doesn’t leave us, and He doesn’t make mistakes.”

“See what I mean?” Amber asked after the class let out. She put her arm around me and gave me a side hug. “Imagine what we’d think of God if that’s all we had to go on.”

I could imagine some pretty terrible things.

By the fourth night, I’m shivering when I get under the covers. It’s not cold in my room. I try to stay awake as long as I can. I catch the glow from the full moon just beyond my window. Not a good sign…

This time, when I reach the bottom of the stairwell, I step into a darkness that surrounds and presses all the remaining light out of sight. It might be black ink or tar, this substance that pushes me like an oversized winter coat, forcing me supine against hard stones. I can’t find the end.

The darkness is cold. My teeth chatter. I’m cold; I’m cold; I’m cold. I could be in the ground. I can’t see anything at all. I lose sight of the stairs and am consumed by shadow and nothing else. I become absent, like I don’t exist anymore. I am crushed beneath its girth, pulverized under this massive and pervasive force.

The first funeral I ever went to was my grandpa’s. It was a time of firsts. The first time I touched a dead body and felt how cold and stiff and lifeless it was. The first time I tasted wine when no one was looking, and the one and only time I let anyone see me cry.

Jonathan sat in a corner and refused to go near. I couldn’t help myself. I was pulled toward it, like Grandpa’s coffin had its own gravity.

I stood in the quiet space between silence and grief, not sure I was doing it right. I could hear bits of whispered conversations, but they seemed far away. I couldn’t move. Staring at my grandfather, I saw him lying there, the way he used to look when he slept through Sunday afternoons in his recliner. Peaceful. Only… something was missing. I couldn’t figure out what.

I might have become a statue.

What pulled me out of the stillness was the person next to me. I don’t know how long she stood there or what made her find and stand next to me. I noticed when her hand slipped silently up into mine, like it was meant to be there.

“Do you think he’ll still exist after they put him in the ground?” I ask, not expecting an answer.

“If you keep all of the memories you share, he’ll still exist,” Amber answered, but maybe not just responding to me in particular.

Then the tears started, and I didn’t care. I let them come. I remember thinking: I don’t want him to go down in the ground.

The last night, I’m so worn out by the absence of sleep, I can’t even fight to keep my eyes open. When I get home from school, I can barely get to the bed, and I’m out before I crawl all the way under my blankets. After closing my eyes, I have the sensation of falling, a downward pull…

I hesitate down the dark stone steps. Firelight flickers, bounces off the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Then, I hear something that doesn’t belong. Water. It seems odd here, in darkness as quiet as a tomb, among the stony shadows. When I turn the corner, I know why right away.

A wall of water crashes down, wrenches me from where I stand into its terrible, unrelenting depths. I can’t even catch a breath of air; I’m stunned by the suddenness as it sweeps me away down a passage. I can’t tell where I am—only that I’m being pulled along—and I’m drowning.

My body slams against the walls on both sides, down the passageway, hurtling along under tremendous pressure. My chest burns, craving oxygen I cannot provide. I know I won’t make it. Then I become entangled in some kind of net. The force of the water continues to rattle me. I’m crushed by the sheer weight of it but am unable to untangle myself, either. I fight to break free, wanting air, and knowing when I open my mouth, I’ll drown.

All these nightmares and the memories they’ve brought to the surface have shaken loose other memories, previously hidden or purposely forgotten until now. Before my father left us for good, he planned our first big fishing trip to the lake, just the three of us, just the men. We had our fishing poles, we’d gathered worms, and we were planning to go that Saturday morning at dawn.

My father left in the middle of the week before. When we realized we couldn’t go fishing, we were crushed all over again. First our father had left, then he’d failed to make good on a promise. We moped for days.

My mother spoke with my grandmother. Grandma suggested we find someone else in our father’s place. They had just hired Uncle Steven a month or two before, and he overheard their conversation coming in from the barn.

“I’ve got all the cows milked, Mrs. Scrivener. You want me to pour some milk in the chicken feed? Or wait ’til the next time, then?”

“That’ll be fine, Steven. You can bring in the eggs and milk awhile.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

When he turned to leave, Jonathan and I clomped in with our poles.

“We’re never gonna use these. I don’t want mine anymore,” I said, handing mine to my mother.

“Now, Joel—” she began.

“Mine neither!” Jonathan said, stomping away and throwing his pole down; it clattered to the ground.

Uncle Steven turned and picked up Jonathan’s pole. “I don’t know much about boys, Mrs. Scrivener, but I know an awful lot about fishing. I could take ’em if’n you want.”

The next morning, we got up early and headed to the lake in his two-tone blue pickup, just the three of us and the worms. Uncle Steven saved that day and many more besides. Without him, I guess I would have gone on hating the bastard.

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