The Packing House

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Chapter 3 | Strained

The dishes are a mosaic of broken shards on the tile floor, bits of food still clinging to some of the pieces. I halt in the kitchen doorway. My mother’s boyfriend may have noticed a few of his Terrors missing.

I’m the one Terror Man will pin it on, thanks to Jonathan spilling the fact that he should check my bag. But Jonathan stashed them there, not me. I got played by my own brother. I can feel the weight of what’s coming. It’s familiar. My mind buzzes through these thoughts like a fly, angry and unable to land.

Moving through the room in slow motion, I might as well be underwater. My stomach drops out from under me; it feels like I kick it across the kitchen floor, along with the debris. The stench of day-old food mingling together cloys at my nostrils. The house is too quiet. I follow the trail into the living room, where I can breathe again. Maybe he didn’t notice.

The railing is ripped off the stairs and hangs like a limp arm out of its socket. My hand instinctively slides up to my shoulder. I must be the first one home. Should I go upstairs?

Not that I have a choice. I’ve got to sort this out. Did this happen because of me?

“Not again,” I say and sigh. No, it’s not the Terrors. It’s not me. Before I reach my mother’s bedroom, I already know what I’ll find. She’s not here, and we’ll have to move again.

I enter her bedroom. This time there’s a huge hole in the bathroom door. A bed rail protrudes from the hole, pointing oddly at the ceiling. It looks so strange—the way a needle lances a blister—that I start to laugh.

Water gushes everywhere, soaking into my sneakers.

The toilet and sink must’ve overflowed. Stepping back onto the carpet, I hear the slap of water beneath my feet. This’ll probably rain down through the living room ceiling. Will I have to change schools this time? Guess it depends on how far away we have to move. I hate moving. It’s like running away on someone else’s terms.

I should have run away when I had the chance.

All these places we bounce between are like the shimmer trail a snail leaves on the ground. A few summers ago, I used to trace their squiggly lines across sidewalks. Now I’m the snail, dragging myself shell and all through another day I never asked for. I don’t get to choose which part remains, me or the iridescent line like a shadow behind me.

Coming to my senses, I realize I’ve imagined the water. But I’m sure I heard the slap under each footstep. Was I… dreaming? Nightmares are bad enough, but seeing things that aren’t there while I’m awake is even worse. This can’t be happening. Just like last time.

I know the drill. I’ve done this before. Punching in the numbers, I dial the police and tell them who I am. A crackly voice answers.

“Please hold.”

After a minute, they get back on the line to tell me my mother is there, at the police station. She’s been assaulted.

Which one was it this time? In the past year, she’s seen a couple different guys, like the black dude who rides a motorcycle from a few doors down. We might have to leave the state. Oh, boy. There goes high school. I’ll be a nobody. That guy with no name. Hiya, No Name.

My mother comes on the line long enough to tell me to stay put, she’ll be home soon, blah, blah, blah.

I hear myself saying, “But Mom, there’s a bedrail sticking out your bathroom door—”

“I’ll explain it when I get home.”

I come to when I hear dial tone in my ear.

Then I realize I haven’t seen Jonathan yet. Nor have I heard mewing from the stowaway fuzz ball he snuck in off the street, right after we got nailed for the lock-in. It’s like he can’t be in enough trouble already? I head to our bedroom. The closet door is shut. There are muffled sounds. Well, he’s here, but I have no way of knowing whether he saw what happened or if the kitten is okay.

“Hey, uh, Jon,” I say as calm as I can muster. “Everything all right when you got back? With the kitten, I mean?” My stomach lurches while I wait for an answer.

Pause. Then, “Yeah. Sure. Why?” He says each word stilted, probably trying to figure out what I’m getting at. I hear suppressed giggles. Jonathan’s not alone in there. Guess he got lucky after all. He must’ve just come in and gone straight up to our room with one of his lock-in booty calls. Missed the kitchen. But how would he have missed the railing? It was still dangling when I came upstairs.

“No reason,” I begin. “Well, there’s a reason. Something you’d better see. Mom’s on her way home. From the police station.”

The door flies open. Two bare legs disappear into the closet. Jonathan’s head pops out from behind the door to join the rest of his body. All he’s wearing are boxers, and they’re on inside out. More snickers. An arm pulls at him and starts sliding the door closed.

For a moment, I’m reminded of Amber and me at her place. Damn it. Why does it work for him and not for me?

“What did you just say?” Jonathan holds the door, distracted.

“I said, ‘the police station,’” I repeat.

“What’s the matter? Why is Mom coming home from the police station?”

“I’m not sure, but the house is pretty smashed up. Didn’t you notice the railing was off the lower stairs?”

“Come here,” a female voice interjects.

“No, I was in a hurry.” Laughter erupts in reply. “To check on Meshach. I kinda like Abednego, too.” He turns back to his girlfriend, and the door slides shut with a bang. I guess they came in the other way, through the front hall and up the stairs. But the railing… He’s got balls to bring her here.

“Well, if you planned on getting it food, the kitchen’s a mess. Don’t go through the living room, and be careful where you step. I’ll talk… when you’re done.”

Guess he isn’t that worried about the kitten, just what it can get him. Now that Jonathan’s preoccupied, I head downstairs, relieved my spot on the couch remains unscathed by Terror Man’s path of destruction through the house. My throat tightens; a lump forms and tastes like metal.

My own thoughts keep crowding in. I wonder if I’ll ever be worthy of Amber’s attentions. I don’t mean it in the way Jonathan plays them. There’s way more to a girl than that. Swallowing hard, I retreat to the safety of pages. Everyone’s after Montag. He has to go to this hermit guy for help to mask his own scent. I lose track of time.

“. . .‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’. . .”

Words sting like salt as tears streak down my face. My nose runs. Eyes bleary and red, I take off my glasses and wipe at them. Don’t let anyone see me like this. No one cries over a book. Maybe it’s not just that.

Montag got away from the robot hound to memorize Ecclesiastes? No way. No. Way.

“. . .The sun rises and sets, … the oceans are never full, … there is nothing new under the sun. . .”

I get that, but I need answers, not this shit.

Not sure if I like this or not. I wish it could help me decipher things with Amber, like the secret decoder rings in cereal boxes do. Maybe if I revisit it later, the meaning will be clearer.

Should I care what comes next in English? I’ll be long gone by then. Then it hits me: why the hell should I stay put or wait for my mother to come home? Jonathan’ll be fine. After all, his celebrity status is more important than blood.

He made that clear with the Terrors.

Getting up to leave, I watch Jonathan and Elise come barreling down the stairs. Elise. Why am I not surprised? Guess they ran out of condoms. Turning away, I wipe my face. Their feet thud at the landing, and their staggered gasps peel through the silence. I turn around to find them witnessing, apparently for the first time, the mangled railing still dangling.

“Whoa, when the freak did this happen?” Jonathan leans over to touch it like it might disappear. At least they’re both dressed.

“It was like that when I came in, and you were already here.”

“I don’t know how we missed that—”

Elise pulls him in for a lip lock. “I think I can refresh your memory.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jonathan says with his mouth full. “I wuhmembuh.”

“Gross. Get a room.”

“We already did,” Jonathan proclaims.

“Wait, he’s in that YouTube thing, right?”

“That’s right,” Jonathan says, wagging his finger at me. “Did you know your study hall slumber party is an online sensation? Everyone’s talking about it.”

I want to say something, but I can’t do it. This isn’t like the lock-in. How would they like it if I filmed them and put their closet rendezvous online? I can picture their blanched faces, but I won’t follow through. Not with her here.

I take a ragged breath and let it out. So, now it’s online. My mother’s trips to the police station are bad enough. Anyone can look up police records online. I can’t get away from a video.

“Look. I fell asleep. I couldn’t help it.” My eyes begin to well up.

“What will everyone at school think?” Elise is talking to Jonathan as if I’m not here. After the lock-in, I doubt if anyone could separate us, given our epic brawl in front of the whole school.

This can’t go any further. It’s too personal. I’ve got to get out.

I can’t leave it like this, either.

“I can always count on you to stick up for me.”

Grabbing my bag, I aim for the door and head to the library. I use my sweatshirt sleeve to wipe my face. Walking into a strong wind, I work my way out of the development and onto the road, away from the direction my mother will come in. I cross the field and speed up.

“. . .No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. . .”

Nothing makes sense anymore. Nothing but running. I keep my head down, collar up, and shove hands into pockets. My backpack bounces rhythmically against my shoulder blades.

I keep going and lean forward into a biting, unforgiving tailwind.

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