The Packing House

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Chapter 6 | Stowaway

At least sleep is a break from the shit with my mother.

It’s always about her. Somehow she always makes everything about her, even if it’s something that happened to me. I can hear her on the phone as I come downstairs, reliving the near-fatal tragedy with her friends, our family, anyone who’ll listen. This was after I had an asthma attack while running my mile for gym a few days ago. I nearly passed out, couldn’t see, and puked between the track and the nurse’s office. Mrs. Adams called my mother, of course. Then we saw the doctor, and I got my inhaler.

I attempt to grab breakfast and sneak out while she’s on the phone. When I step into the silence of the dining room, I realize I’m too late. The phone is on its cradle, and my mother’s gaze has me trapped.

“Did you remember your inhaler?” I nod. “Let me see it, Joel. Do you remember how many puffs you need if you have another one of your flares?” Cursing my luck at being caught, I flash it before sliding it back in my pocket.

“I remember.”

“Honestly, Joel. You don’t need to start in with the attitude this early. I’ve been sick with worry since you nearly…” Her words trail off like she can’t bring herself to form the word “died,” which is still an exaggeration, but somehow it makes her the poor single mother with an ailing son whose recent brush with death gives her license to whatever street cred adults have with each other.

“Look. The doctor went over the instructions, several times, and the nurse makes me practice using it when my peak flow lands in the red zone. I got it.”

“Make sure I’m called right away if anything else happens. I made sure the nurse has my number.”

“I’d better get to the bus stop before I’m late.”

Looks like I’m the first one home. I don’t hear anyone, even though I stopped by the library first.

Jonathan has kept the kitten (and this round of sexual escapades) a secret for ten days. It’s his longest record for a stowaway. I’ve gotta give him props. What’s-her-face is probably happy to oblige, though. A thousand graphic possibilities converge in my mental picture frame.

Guess he’s got his own way of dealing. Not that I agree, but I wait for the fallout when my mother catches him, and she will. I just wait for the crap to hit the fan.

Speaking of, I haven’t figured out how he takes care of the poop and pee. He doesn’t have kitty litter. My mother won’t nail me for Jonathan’s pet, but if it goes all over the carpet, we’ll both be grounded.

I’m all for watching my brother’s demise. When our mother started talking another mid-year move to get away from Samuel, aka Terror Man, Jonathan begged her to stay for the sake of his swim team. I doubt that’s the only reason. He and Slut Girl have been at it every chance they get. I refuse to call her by her former name. I’m practically living at the library now. This online thing about me is also out of control. Not only did my study hall nightmare get posted, but the one from my gym class attack is even worse. I’ve spent way too much time checking hits and comments. We can’t afford a computer at home. I know I shouldn’t read them, but I can’t help myself.

The day after I nearly passed out running laps, I found confirmation I had indeed been recorded looking pathetic and throwing up during gym class. The pelvic thrusts made by the guys who carried me in were even worse. It’s like my life writes its own disasters for the amusement of Broad Run High School, and I can’t figure out how to derail it. I’ve flagged the clips as inappropriate every time I’ve checked them, reported them as a legal issue even, but they’re still getting hundreds of hits and comments every day.

I watch the clip again where the guy snort-laughs, “Stop TOUCHING me!” Others behind him make motions with their fists by their cheeks, poking their tongues to simulate a blowjob. Laughter ensues. Each new comment stings or burns as I read down the page. What does Jonathan expect to gain?

I’ve got to put a stop to this, and I know just who to start with.

I head upstairs where I find Jonathan holed up in the closet again. This time it doesn’t involve the girl kind of pussy, just the kitten kind. I click the bedroom door shut. He and FuzzyClaws are down on all fours, eye to eye, playing with an old, ratty sock. One of mine, I think.

I blurt out a knee-jerk response. “Hey, could you ask before you turn my stuff into chew toys?”

“Oh, it’s just you,” Jonathan replies, looking up briefly. The kitten dives onto the sock, tugs at one end, and tries to break my brother’s grasp. “Didn’t think you cared about an old holey sock.” He turns his attention back to the kitten. Perfect.

I take advantage of his distraction, hook my arm around his throat and under one arm, then drag his ass out of the closet and throw him down on a mattress. I pivot around, fists raised.

“This shit ends now.”

“What the hockey sticks? It’s just a sock.”

“I don’t give a fuck about a sock. This is about the shit at school. The videos on YouTube. I know you’re the ringleader.”

He puts his hands up and scoots across his mattress to the floor. Pretty boy has a meet soon and doesn’t want me to rearrange his face. He already had to play off that bruise he got from Terror Man with his coach. I know I should’ve said something earlier, but I’m not good with confrontation. I tried to stop it on my own, but this is out of control.

Jonathan’s eyes go wide, and his breathing quickens. “I had nothing to do with it, bruh. Get your facts straight.” His words aren’t lining up with the rest of him.

“I saw you and your homies in the hall right before the first video went up. Now there’s another. Both posted by PoolStud69. You’re just using this to get laid.”

Jonathan scrambles to his feet and backs away. I move in closer, fists at the ready.

“Believe me, bruh, I don’t need any help getting girls in the sack—”

My fist collides with his jaw. He stumbles back into his mattress. I glance over my shoulder at the door, in case our mother has arrived home from work and heard us.

My hand throbs like I slammed it into a concrete wall instead of Jonathan’s face.

“Get those videos down, or I’ll kick your ass for good. And don’t think I won’t tell Mom about your stowaway.”

He glances at the closet as the threat sinks in.

“I read your thread comments. What were you implying when you said you noticed me checking out the swim team? I was there to support you, not watch anyone getting dressed in the locker room. The shit you’re saying is making it worse.” When he looks up at me, I stare hard, clenching my jaw and flexing my fist.

“All right,” he says with his hands up. “I’ll lay off the comments thread. We cool?”

We drift into an uncomfortable silence.

Jonathan looks at me a few times, like he’s deciding whether to say something else. “You know, I’ve heard those rumors for a while now. Part of me wonders if there’s any truth to them.” He stares straight at me.

“What the hell do you mean by that?”

“It’s not like I haven’t noticed you looking sometimes.”

“Dude. Everyone’s junk is out in a locker room. I might as well be looking in a mirror. You know we’ve got the same stuff. So what?”

“Well, did you give Elias a blowjob?”

“What kind of question is that? Are you fucking kidding me? Who the hell are you to make it any of your business? Who I fuck is between me and them. Just because you make all your private business public doesn’t mean I have to.” I cross back over and stand with fists ready. “Stay the hell out of my business and I’ll stay the hell out of yours, asshole.”

Jonathan swallows and nods.

My thoughts scatter, a gathering storm. I pace back and forth. My brain clouds and then dissipates. I don’t want to hear the thoughts intruding in my head. What about the stuff with Elias? When the kitten starts mewing loudly, I remember the other reason I came to check on Jonathan.

“So, what are you doing about its poop and pee?” I ask him, checking the closet for evidence. Self-preservation wins out over the rest of my thoughts. “Mom’ll have a canary if you let it crap everywhere.”

“I took care of that,” Jonathan replies, hand on his chin, pointing toward the closet. I think he’s steering clear. “I set up a box next to his bed with torn up newspaper and coated it with duct tape. When I change the box, I just wipe it out with the kitchen wipes. They smell like orange, so it kills most of the stink.”

I’m surprised to find myself impressed. I should still be pissed, but I’ve started to calm down. “Guess you thought of everything. How often do you change its box?”

“Well, only when mom’s not home.” He sits up and rests on an arm. “I’ve only had to change it twice so far.” This conversation will be over soon enough, just as quick as one of our fights.

It’s enough of an answer, but I’m still pissed. I need a distraction. I plop down on my mattress and read Amber’s latest letter.

Dear Joel,

Ah, the lighthouse! I haven’t thought about that in forever. I’d love to go again. For the record, I don’t even punch that hard. When can you come out? I hadn’t heard about the lighthouse being damaged. I’ll have to check and let you know.

Thanks for the story and the poem. The story was a bit dark. I don’t think I like the demon ones as much as the others, but the poem was nice. I know what you mean. Don’t we all feel alone? I’ve included a copy of Psalm 91. Remember, you’re never alone. God is always with you.


My reply sounds desperate, too much like a stalker to send. It lands in the circular file. Two points. That’s the only score I’d make. Instead, I find my spot in the current book. I’m about done and due for a library run, despite coming just home from there.

Without warning, our mother opens the bedroom door. Nice knock. Glad I wasn’t naked. I glance up then over at the closet where Jonathan slides the door behind him. So far, so good. Our mother looks tired and distracted. She clutches the cordless. Something is about to go down. I stop reading and sit up, marking my page. She looks from Jonathan to me and back.

“Do you remember what I told you boys about Samuel? How the police held him for questioning? Well, they finished their investigation, and as it turns out, they did not bring assault charges against him. He has to pay for the damages, but since he lives in another unit, they just added them to his rent. Which means—”

“—which means what?” I ask.

“It means he’s being released within the hour. We need to leave, now.”

Panic sets in. Both Jonathan and I register that if we want to keep anything, we’d better get it packed. We both leap up. Jonathan shoots me a look. He doesn’t know what to do. I’m sure he thinks he should spend all his time sneaking the kitten away. He can’t make arrangements with his girlfriend without warning ahead of time.

“Get some bags and pack up your clothes, your things, your toothbrush, and your bedding and bring it down to the car. We’re leaving in thirty minutes.”

There’s no time for arguments or discussion. Our movements are automatic, almost rehearsed. We grab bags off the closet shelf and pack everything we own, which isn’t much. Having moved often, it has become useless to keep much. The only thing of lasting importance to me is a stack of letters I keep from Amber. Her most recent letter arrived a few days ago. I’ve got to try again to write her back. I put the bundle in one of the crates we use as furniture and shove all my clothes in the bag. Jonathan stands, looks to the closet and then to his bed. He rubs his neck with the back of his hand.

“What am I gonna do?” Jonathan asks. “I can’t just leave him.” I gather my bedding and shove it in the crate on top of the letters.

“You could tell our mother, see if she’ll let you keep it,” I say. “Or just leave it behind. Maybe you can get it to your girlfriend if we come back. I bet one of our neighbors would take it in. You could visit it then.”

I throw the last bit in to give him an out. We don’t have time; flight is essential. Samuel’s gonna be pissed. Might as well paint a big bullseye on the bathroom door. It still hasn’t been fixed.

“Guess you’d better figure out what’s more important—getting the hell outta dodge or holding onto a mangy kitten. It’s like your dream car debate all over again—Camaro Z28 or Firebird Trans Am? Either pony car is a sweet ride in my book, but you still can’t decide, can you?”

I hope this sidebar conversation will distract Jonathan long enough to decide the thing for him. If I keep him going, he won’t have time to formulate a viable plan, and we’ll be on the road in ten minutes. I wonder if our mother has any idea where we’re going. I can hear her on the phone downstairs. She’s gotta come up with something. Jonathan’s a statue. He can’t move. I punch him solidly on the shoulder. He winces like I’ll start up again.

“C’mon, pony boy,” I say and pick up my crate. “Let’s bring a load down while you think on it.”

Jonathan knows our time is up. We’d better get the lead out or say goodbye to everything we own. I can see the look in his eye as he yanks his bedding off in a heap. He starts to grind his teeth as we descend the stairs and head out to the car. Signature move: grinding his teeth. I’ve seen it a hundred times at swim practice. Which reminds me: this totally sucks we’re moving without getting to say goodbye to anyone we may have considered friends. It’s always like this, though. I know how I’d finish things with Elias… Damn, I may actually miss the guy.

No time for that now.

We’re in an old Ford Pinto hatchback. It’s no pony car, even though it’s named after one. There’s a hole in the radiator. We have to add water before we go anywhere, or else we’ll overheat and end up stuck until it cools off.

We drop our first load and head back. Our mother has a bunch of bags and stuff by the door. Jonathan goes upstairs for the rest, while I start on her things. I could pack the car with my eyes closed. I have it all down to a science: I’ve moved more times than I care to remember.

I press the boxes against the back seats, and it fills up pretty quick. Soon, I load up the empty seat and the floor behind the driver’s seat. I ride shotgun, while Jonathan climbs in behind me. Probably so he can grind his knees into my back. I slam my elbow as hard as I can into the seat. Maybe he’s holding a grudge. Just like him to choose now to get back at me.

My mother comes out and sends me for one final once-over. For a moment, the world flips, and I imagine my awake as the nightmare and my sleep as my life. Not sure which one’s worse.

I grab my backpack and shove the book I’m reading on top. We always leave a few things behind, and if Samuel comes over, he’ll know. I hope we can come back to get the furniture. That would at least give us a head start. We’d be that much farther ahead.

I have no hope this will be the last time.

[From the journal of Joel Scrivener. Included in a letter to Amber Walker.]


The hiding place beneath stairs is boarded up,

flesh remembering each slash scarred over.

Immersed in a quiet field of thought, I’ve drawn

blood back in, straining for each drop.

Those frantic moments I reeled through the empty

house: a mosaic of dish shards on the kitchen floor,

furniture overturned, the stair railing’s limp arm dangling.

Upstairs, I see the bathroom door speared

by a bedrail. The telephone sirens off the hook.

The police station expects my call—astounding, isn’t it?

The complexities we can live with. Moving again,

displaced by boxes, a packing house—we leave

precious things behind. Rising again, we lay

our bodies down among the broken things, tiny shards

fitted firmly to the tile floor, straining for beauty.

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