The Packing House

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Chapter 33 | A World Apart

I jolt up and look around, frantic, like he’ll be on me any second. Then I sit up from the discarded-carcass position I’d assumed under the tree—half underground—wondering where this all came from, why did this have to happen to me? I hadn’t simply run in my memory. I ran for real just now. I’ve been running for so long. Now what am I supposed to do?

No one’s going to believe me. No one knows. This happened so long ago, what good would it do to bring it up now? Everyone’s mad at me for flunking out this year. They’ll just think I’m trying to get out of my responsibility. I must have made it up. I hallucinated.

I pinch my thigh. Ow. Nope, real.

I get up and jog, running in place. I make a few small circles, still running. I turn to the right, to the left. I don’t even know where the hell I am. It must be late.

What is wrong with me? I’m dirty; I disgust myself. Now I’m a stain I can’t scrub out. I stop, but sweat pours right through my shirt and sticks to my back. My senses go haywire. I must have short-circuited back there. Now, I malfunction.

I thought this was all about my father leaving. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. What I’ve uncovered below the surface… I’m not sure I believe it myself. I’ve got to get back and see what time it is. I need to make it look like I’ve done enough of the work to head back to the house.

Grandma said it might take a few days to sort it all, so I can finish another day, when I’m not living my nightmares. I’ll keep this quiet and try to figure it out. I won’t tell anyone. I can’t understand it myself.

Is this real? Did it really happen all those years ago? The whole family trusted Uncle Steven to watch us while Grandma had Grandpa at therapy and my mother had to work. She could have lived on base housing and used Dad’s money, like he offered.

I head back to the farmhouse. I think I’m going in the right direction. These horse trails look familiar behind the farm, past the horse paddock. It looks late, so I jog.

Movement of any kind is better. Maybe I’m not completely numb. The breeze is good and helps to dry my shirt. Boy, do I need a shower. I still have to bike all the way back. Then again, I’ve got a lot to think through.

Past the trails, I come to the horse pasture then the cornfield. I wasn’t too far from recognizable things. This riding trail is how I used to reach the neighbor’s farm, the one with the outhouse and the barn where the boy died.

I wonder if Uncle Steven was responsible. Did it happen before or after me? I slow down. What if the boy died because I didn’t stop Uncle Steven? What if it was my fault? I’m doubled over before I realize my stomach is heaving. Dizzy, I cut through the split-rail fence and head right down the middle of cornstalk rows.

As I start toward the house, I’m agitated. What else could I find? I shudder from imagined scenarios. The house is empty, and I look around the living room for a clock. Nothing. In the kitchen, I see the stove has an old-fashioned clock, but the hands aren’t moving; the sun hasn’t set yet, so I’m pretty sure it’s not 11:37 a.m. or p.m.

It’s a good thing Mrs. Porter is visiting family, but it feels strange, creeping around her house.

I sigh and head toward the hallway. My stomach flops and flips like someone who can’t get comfortable in their bed. I guess this is my bed now, but I refuse to lie down again. Maybe one of the bedrooms has a clock that works. I need to get this over and done with. My skin twitches from the proximity, being near the place he forced me to give him head.

Maybe that’s not what it’s really called… I know it wasn’t sex. What he did was hurtful, abusive. I didn’t want that, and I tried to fight it.

I run to the bathroom and dry heave, trying to catch my breath when the waves pass. I turn the water on and rinse my face then cup my hand and suck in water to rinse my mouth. I remember the terrible taste. That was ten years ago. Why must I remember? How does he still have this hold over me? I want to pummel the shit out of something, only I don’t have his face handy. I consider the barn. Maybe a hay bale or a burlap sack would suffice. A place to get this rage out of me—like a volcano erupting; purge myself of what he did.

Down to my toes, all the way to the top of my head, I scream loud and guttural, fuming with gurgling anger as my head pounds and my ears ring.

I scream until I’m spent.

I want to kill him. I hate him so much, I want to kill the bastard. I don’t care. He should feel the way I do; he should be made to suffer. Then I’d be just like him. How did I let this happen? What did I do to make him think I wanted that? I sure as hell didn’t ask for it. I wasn’t even aware until—gah! I’ve got to get out of here.

I force myself to take deep, slow breaths in through my nose and blow out slow breaths through my mouth until I start to calm myself down. My hands scramble to find a wall to hold myself upright.

Bike to Grandma’s house. Get the hell out of this dark cellar of horrors and shadows. I don’t believe I can ever think well of the times I spent here. Not after this, not now.

There are two more rooms down the hall, one on both sides, and then the pull-down for the attic stairs. I find a clock in the bedroom on the left, where Mrs. Porter must sleep. It’s digital so I think it’s right. It’s been almost two hours. I should at least check out what’s in the attic to help cover my time.

To the right is the room where Jonathan and I slept. It’s an office now, but I remember the bunk beds. Uncle Steven stayed in the guest room, back when the floor went out from under me…

The room is dark when I wake up, and his silhouette blankets the doorway. I freeze in the bed, hoping he will go away and not make me do anything else. I don’t know what time it is. Jonathan is asleep below me. He still has side railings on his lower bunk. I make my eyes close almost all the way but look through my eyelashes at his dark form, outlined by the light in the hallway. What is he doing? Please, just go away!

He doesn’t.

I scrunch my eyes and hold my breath. I’m sleeping. I’m asleep. Don’t wake me. Don’t touch me. He’s near me, leaning in, since there’s no side railing on the upper bunk. He pulls my covers back and then pulls down my pajamas. The next thing I know, his mouth, his tongue and saliva are on me. He’s doing it to me! I concentrate on breathing, in and out, slow like I’m asleep. I can feel my toes cringing against the sheets, curling to get away. If I’m asleep, he can’t make me do any more, right? Breathe. Just breathe until it’s over.

Lie still, in my own coffin.

I don’t know how long it takes. When he leaves, he doesn’t even pull up my pajama pants or put the covers back. I hear him make terrible breathing noises. I turn my face into the pillow and muffle his sounds. The hall lights turn off. I hear him go back to his bed. He’s in the next room, and I’m trapped. His spit is still on me. Dirty. I’m dirty. Just like him. Why did he do that? I don’t understand.

I pull up my pants and burrow under the blanket, an angry crab, as far from light as I can get. I shove my body against the wall and tremble. My body convulses. I can’t stop shaking. I bite my pillow to keep from screaming and swallow back the cry threatening to wreck me.

Where was my mother? Why wasn’t she there? Why didn’t she protect me from what Uncle Steven did? Is any of this real?

How many more times did it happen?

But she was there. With him. Right after my father left. Maybe that’s why…

I don’t have the luxury to lose my mind again. I slap myself hard. Twice. I can’t come unglued like I did the first time. I have to get done and out of here, pretend this is all a bad dream, get to Grandma’s, take a long shower, and go to bed. Maybe then I’ll be able to wake up and it’ll have gone away.

I pull the stair ladder down and flip the switch for the attic light. I climb up. When I reach the top, I peer in and see a few boxes sitting on a flat board that rests on the rafters. To the right and left are nothing but beams and rafters and insulation. Behind me are more boxes and, against a support beam, the fishing poles Uncle Steven showed us how to use at the lake. I thought there would be an orange Adventurer tackle box. I guess not. But the poles are there.

So that was real, too.

I have trouble telling what things are real and what are not. If I haven’t lost my mind by now, I’m not sure how to keep myself from slipping off the edge, tumbling into the fathomless depths below. I can’t do this anymore. I head back down.

I turn off all the lights, collapse the attic stairs, and close the shed.

Odd sounds and images play like a movie on the inside of my eyelids.

I’ve got to get back before Grandma notices I’ve been gone too long.

I jump on the bike and wobble-wheel my way down the bumpy driveway. I thunk in a few potholes and startle, like I’m on autopilot, as I make my way toward the level road. I’m clammy and shell-shocked; the blood might as well be drained out of me.

I pinch the cartilage between my nostrils with my fingernail and then slap my cheeks again for good measure. Still, I drift off in my mind, the way I used to when Uncle Steven came in to do more. I couldn’t stop him; he was too strong and tall to fight off.

And the way he got off on the struggle. Ugh! So I found a different way to go absent from what he did. He took what he wanted then left me in a crumpled heap. I would climb in a boat in my mind and push as far away from shore as I could paddle. I watched him from the middle of the lake. I saw my body thrash or struggle and then go limp beneath him, watched as he pinned my arms down and slammed himself inside, over and over, until he cried out with a kind of broken, awful joy.

It hurt worse than any spanking, even the kind where one of my mother’s loser boyfriends would break a wooden spoon or a switch on my bare ass. I felt it in the hollow of my pelvis.

A tearing, stabbing, bleeding, pointed pain.

I let it happen. I did nothing to stop it. How can I live with myself, knowing that? No one will do anything for me once they find out. Who even knows where he is by now? No doubt using another child somewhere. Is that my fault, too?

If I tell someone, won’t I just go to jail? How sick is that? All those years are gone now. I should have reported it to someone who could have stopped him from hurting anyone else after me, but I didn’t. Instead, I kept it to myself. Maybe I deserve jail.

I pedal and focus on getting to my grandmother’s, so I can shower and sleep for a week. I’m relieved when I see the sidewalk and the city streets. I pass the sign to Oceanside and keep going. Just a few more blocks.

When I get in, my grandmother meets me at the door. A look of alarm flashes across her face when she sees me. She stares hard. Behind her, in the hallway, I see the hole, deep gouges from fists where smooth drywall once was. Where my fists fought hard against… him.

It takes a moment for my mind to make sense of what I’m seeing. That was real?

I hear myself gasp. “Grandma, I—” My throat seizes. Words fall away. She reaches out to hug me or keep me from falling down.

“Joel? Are you okay? You look deader’n Lazarus coming out of the tomb.”

“I thought I dreamed that. I’m so sorry…”

She grips me tighter, pulling me in. I feel hot tears soaking into the shoulder of her blouse. “Shh, shh. It’s okay, Joel. It’s just a wall. It can be fixed.”

“But I—” When I look up, I see words in a frame hung over the center of the hole. They read:

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.

For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

—Psalm 37:8, 9

“Why don’t you go get yourself cleaned up? You look terrible.”

I don’t even know where to begin. That’s when I notice the bandages wrapped snugly around both my wrists again. They’ve been there all along, since the nightmare last night. It feels like it’s been a week since then. How did I miss that? Grandma must’ve been there, too. She knows. And she took care of me afterward. Was I sleepwalking? “I’m really tired from the sorting and the bike ride. I need a shower. Then we can talk, okay?”

“You don’t have to hurry or even finish, Joel. Take your time, if that’s what you want.” I smile weakly. Then I grab clothes from my room and head to the bathroom. I turn on the water, strip down, and unwrap the bandages. I can see my eyes go wide in the mirror as I hold up bruised and bloodied arms in front of me. My wrists are covered in torn, jagged skin, already scabbing over. I turn and step under the flow until I’m numb from the heat. I crank it all the way up.

After a while, it’s almost cool, and I laugh at nothing in particular. Before I know it, I laugh and laugh. I can’t stop myself, and I don’t care. I shake my head wildly back and forth, the water spattering on the wall and shower door, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel normal again.

[From the journal of Joel Scrivener.]


An empty room

of an old farm house,

down the hall began

to turn in on itself.

A clogged drain,

desperate to break free,

a chugging spiral downward.

A dance, really; darkened, elongated


His naked haste

to call the boy here—

there were words, certainly,

but lost in screaming silence

of the reeling moment,

rag-doll-thrown on the ground.

Taking it in, the boy sputters and

coughs, like on a cigarette toked too early.

He wants to vomit;

instead, he gags and spits

phlegm, fluid, mucus on the floor.

The boy staggers, lurches, darts

from the room, the isolated farm house,

the surrounding fields. Bright sun stabs

into his eyes, what he has seen, tasted,


The screen door slaps

the doorframe, shuddering.

Humid haze presses the clouds down;

he feels a shortness of breath, then, nothing,

numbness, a swallowing of the pill—a serpent’s bitter fruit.

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