The Packing House

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Chapter 34 | Climbing the Mountain

When I come out of the bathroom, fluttering bandages trail behind me. Grandma’s in the living room with the TV on, doing a crossword. Steam curls up from her tea. She gestures toward a cup to the left of the couch. I don’t deserve any such kindness after what I’ve done.

“Can you help me with these?”

Her fingers start to work, placing and carefully wrapping my forearms, but not without turning them over, checking them with her glasses perched on her nose, and glancing up at me with tender eyes. My throat tightens.

“Must have been one heck of a fight,” she prods.

“Do we have to talk about it? I’ll just finish them myself.” I start to leave, surprised by the harshness in my tone.

“No, not if you don’t want to.” She places her hands on the sides of each arm, tugging me back. “I know you’re strong enough to fight it on your own, but you don’t have to. It was your screams that pulled me from the bed last night.”

“Grandma…” I can’t put it into words. They’re all jammed in my throat.

“Well, if you’d rather not talk, let’s at least get some food in you.” She heads to the kitchen, bringing her tea along. I follow, dragging the silence behind me.

This stuck place I’m in is too familiar, like the final box unpacked after a move; sometimes it’s not ready to be unpacked, or we’re not ready to face everything that’s inside, so it sits there until we have to face it, one way or another.

I don’t eat much at dinner, mumble something about not feeling well, and head to bed. Grandma lets me be. Not sure if I’m awake or asleep anymore.

I’m still raw from the farmhouse. Hollowed out. Gutted.

Somehow I get in bed and attempt sleep. After I spend what seems like hours changing positions, I accept it. Comfortable no longer applies. I’m too hot, I’m freezing cold; I quake under the covers and fling them off. All I have on are boxers and these bandages, but I’m still sweaty.

When I do get spots of sleep, my dreams are a montage of encounters. I cry out, but no one comes to help. This time I’m on my own. I should be used to that by now, but I’m not. Uncle Steven keeps using and discarding parts of me, and when he’s done, the part of me that remains is beaten down like waves of an inky black sea, pounding the shore without end. When I wake, I’m relieved it’s over, but my eyes are bleary and sore. I wipe tears away.

The last image lingers when I find myself awake: a large, heavy crow perched on my chest, its claws gripping for purchase on my torso. Not like a massage; like I’m being devoured. His talons tear into my flesh, voracious. Beady eyes follow me as he tilts his head into a question mark before pecking his beak into my mouth; I choke and cough until I discover I’m not being devoured by a crow from the inside out… It was just a dream.

I have the sensation of his weight upon me, pressing me down.

I’m worse off than when I went to sleep. Only the clock tells me it’s time to get up and get ready for school. At this point I’m just going through the motions, so I fling my legs over the side of the bed and sit up. I’m not motivated to get up or get ready.

I can’t sit here, moping. I’ve got to face it. This has gone on long enough. If all I do is walk around in a stoic haze, he’s won. I’ve got to find a way to muster up a fight, but all I want to do is lie down and sleep without the threat of nightmares. Somehow, I’ve got to put this away on some shelf in my mind, and pretend I never opened Pandora’s Box.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

I get dressed, grab my backpack, and try for breakfast. My grandmother is a great cook, much better than my mother, yet I can’t eat. I grab a piece of fruit and force myself to drink some juice. I accept the toast my grandmother insists I take.

“I hope I didn’t push too hard, asking for your help with the project.” She steers around the rest of what’s unsaid. Still, I know she knows something is going on, and she’s not going to let me avoid it forever. For now, I’ll leave it where it’s at.

“Thank you, Grandma. I’ll catch up with you after school.”

Since I’m not ready to talk, I head out to school. The weather is pleasant and nice, and I sense the beach calling. As I walk, I’m reminded of one of Amber’s letters about when she was reading on the beach. I’ve got to get back there soon.

Thank goodness she wasn’t around when all this happened.

I look at the bandages and remember: wait. She saw them. In the Writing Center. So did her friend who was with her. I guess maybe they were what she was asking me about them; I thought she was asking about the way I looked, weighed down by all my assignments. What if she sees me today and asks what they’re for? I’ve got to come up with something. Even if she knows I’m lying. I’ve heard people talking in the hallway about a suicide. Did they mean me? Is that why no one said anything about the bandages?

I’m in my Spanish class, working on a food chapter, when I realize something else. No one knows. No one has noticed how awful I look today or that I didn’t get any sleep. No one says a word about the bandages. I get a few strange looks but nothing else. I could keep going through this routine of school and work, of sleeping and getting up again, and no one would care.

Everyone is busy with their own stuff. They have their own worries to think about, their plans and hopes and dreams. What I’ve got are haunting memories that plague my waking and sleep. And even though I trudge through it all, no one around me could care less.

I know this happened. What’s the word? Molested. While I would like to pretend it didn’t or argue with myself into thinking it must have been my imagination, I know in my gut that it is as true as I am here, and I don’t care what the names of fruits and vegetables are in Spanish.

I follow along, I listen and write things on the worksheets that we complete in groups, but my thoughts are elsewhere. How did I get here? How did I waste this much of my life, running and hiding from this monster, too scared and too afraid to face it like a man?

What does a man even do with this?

I remember hiding in the closet beneath the stairs, but I thought it was because my father had left. Did I block it out? What was I hiding from? I’ve wasted so much of this year, and if I give up, all I will do is let him defeat me again. I can’t let that happen. I was too little to fight him back then. But now I’m big enough, I could take a stand. But what good would that do?

Then there’s the question of talking to someone, seeing if the police can arrest him, and whether I should press charges. Can I still do that? I don’t know. I don’t want my family to know. I know that. I don’t want anyone close to know. Especially Amber. How can I continue to face all the questions that slam around the inside of my head?

I can’t tell if my counselor suspects something. Will he ask the questions that will lead him to the truth, or stir up a confession from me? Ms. Moore never figured it out, though, so maybe he won’t either. I can’t expect much from a counselor who sounds like everything he says came out of a brochure. What else happened between Uncle Steven and me? Have I even remembered everything? Or is there more freak show that needs to work its way to the surface?

I shudder.

The bell rings, and I head to chemistry and, after that, geometry. Today we’re working in pairs. I sigh but try to follow the steps. Mostly, I rely upon the smart girls who make this look so easy. The one with hair down to the middle of her back is Osita Quiñones. She’s from Puerto Rico. Fake it until you make it, right? Osita and I are partners.

A few times, I catch her staring at the bandages around my wrists. She attempts to form the words to ask, but she never says a word. I’ve heard whispers that sound like “suicide” from groups around me. Maybe that’s why no one dares to ask.

Flashes of memories come hurtling to the surface of my mind. One is from around the time that my father left. I was walking barefoot in the house and stepped on a nail without realizing until it had gone clear through, from the sole of my foot to the top. I howled and screamed, tears streaming down the sides of my face. My mother removed it and made me soak my foot in Epsom salts for a week.

Maybe I should get to The Writing Center and actually attend the mandatory tutoring I’ve been skipping the last few days. If I don’t, I’ll probably fail the upcoming geometry test. It’s posted on the homework board at the front of the class. Not to mention, I’d like to get Mr. Castell off my case about it. I’m not sure I’m ready to face Amber. At least doing something will help keep my mind off these other memories.

I’ve opened the floodgates, and now they won’t stop rising to the surface.

I’m struck by the sudden recollection of the taste of Mineral Oil. Every time I drank it, after waking up screaming from the “growing pains,” I nearly gagged. I had to add lemon juice just to get it down. It was awful. The doctor said my colon was swollen. Now that I think of it, I realize it was probably not related to growing pains or from waking up, screaming as I sat upright in the living room chair. I suspect both are related to what Uncle Steven did.

I think Uncle Steven planted the nail. He used to do lots of strange things. He would beat my brother and me with his belt, whether we’d cleaned our room or not. He’d line us up against the wall and pace back and forth like a panther in a cage, slapping the belt across his left palm over and over again. I stood trembling against the wall, my hands instinctively hovering over my backside. I remember glancing at Jonathan, who was covering his ears.

“You two are gone git it,” he said, pointing at his belt. “This here bowling ball and spikes needs to teach you boys a lesson!”

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

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

“…Not a word…”

“…Make a sound and you’re dead…”

It was Uncle Steven. Not my father. And not Amber’s father, either.

Vertigo sends me reeling. I have to catch myself and take a deep breath. Exhaling slowly, I try to remain calm. I know I should be finishing up my geometry worksheet like the other pairs, but I can’t force these thoughts from my mind. There was a reason no one told me the truth about why I had to take the Mineral Oil.

I don’t know the word for it, but I know how it felt, and I know I started having accidents in my underwear from it. The first few times, I was terrified to find dried blood there, too. I was afraid to show anyone. The Mineral Oil was supposed to help.

But if the doctors knew, wouldn’t that mean my mother knew as well? Did she know more and never told me? I’m knocked out by a wave of tingles and anger so sharp it could cut through this mountain rising up in my memories: everything I’ve held back or left unsaid between me and my mother. The mountain crumbles, burying me beneath its great weight. The overwhelming feeling toward my mother nearly doubles me over in my seat. I clench my jaw so tight, I think my teeth might shatter or meld together and never open again.

My mother knew the whole time and did nothing.

Osita looks at me funny, reaching her hand out toward me.

“Joel? Joel, are you okay? Joel?”



[From the journal of Joel Scrivener.]

ASHAMED

Stand in

the dim room

sun goes down

on the child

who tries

to sleep before

his silhouette

slices forward

devours

like locusts

a boy

forbidden fruit

forced across

his lips

stained

with touches

he could

not refuse

until the day

came into

all darkened

places where

the boy

tried to wipe

away what

the man

left behind

or took

with him

leaving a trail

of glittering

empty skins

trembling

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