Back Against the Wall

By: Janice Kay Johnson

CHAPTER ONE

FLANKED BY HER brother and sister, Beth Marshall stared at the pile of boxes blocking the side door into the detached garage. She hadn’t a clue whether she was looking at some of the oldest stuff jammed in here or the most recent. If there was such a thing as logical layering, say from front to back.

She almost snorted. This is Dad, she reminded herself. There would be no logic in how he stored anything.

Beside her, Matt groaned. “‘Give me a weekend,’ you said. This could take weeks.” He sounded so appalled, she was reminded that neither he nor Emily had so much as glanced inside the garage in, well, years. Beth had tried to prepare them, but obviously hadn’t succeeded.

Matt was not an enthusiastic volunteer. Or a volunteer at all, really. He might still love their father—she wasn’t sure—but Matt harbored a lot of anger, too. He made no effort to see Dad except for holidays, which he and his wife, Ashley, apparently considered obligatory. Or, at least, she did and had her ways of persuading him to show up and behave himself.

“Quit whining,” Beth ordered, refusing to let herself be annoyed by his attitude. So what if he hadn’t wanted to help? He was here. He’d contribute some muscle she felt sure they’d need.

“Do you promise Dad won’t come out?”

She rolled her eyes. “Can you imagine it crossing Dad’s mind that maybe he should help?”

He sighed heavily. “No. Okay. Why didn’t I see a Dumpster?”

“Because I wasn’t sure we’d need one. I’m hoping most of what’s in here is good for a thrift store, at the very least.”

He gave her a look she recognized from their childhoods.

Ten or fifteen feet separated the detached garage from the house where they’d all grown up. It would be way more practical to raise the street-facing garage door and gain a wash of daylight instead of depending on the two sixty-watt bulbs high on the ceiling, but none of them wanted neighbors to see the disaster inside. They’d debated parking their vehicles to block the sight line—but what was to stop a neighbor from strolling up the driveway to investigate what they were doing? Fortunately, a wood fence and gate that ran between the house and garage kept anyone from seeing what they were up to.

The truth was John Marshall had become a pack rat. Her word. Her brother called him a hoarder. Beth’s younger sister, Emily, just looked anxious.

The garage was only the beginning, although it was the most jam-packed space in the house. What Dad used to call his den was piled with things he didn’t know what to do with as well. The other rooms were just…cluttered.

“It’s not like it’s going to rain. I’ll order a Dumpster if we need one. What I was thinking was that we could hold a garage sale, too,” Beth said, trying for an upbeat note.

“We?” Matt leveled a look at her.

Of course, she would be the one borrowing tables, pricing and arranging. She could probably persuade Emily and some friends to help on the actual sale days.

“Let’s just get on with it,” she suggested.

They all went back to staring at the piles that nearly blocked the doorway.

“I guess we have to carry the boxes outside,” Emily said.

Like there was a choice. But Beth steered clear of sarcasm.

“Sure. I already labeled the empty ones I brought.” A blind person could see them—Keep, Thrift, Garage Sale?? Toss—but she hadn’t given up on the aren’t-we-going-to-have-fun vibe. Although, truthfully, even she felt daunted by the sheer quantity of stuff in the garage.

This being her idea, she stepped forward and grabbed a rubber tote, carrying it the few feet into the backyard, where they could make piles that wouldn’t get in the way. Her brother and sister followed suit. Beth had already peeled the lid off her tote. “Huh,” she said.

In the act of opening a cardboard box, Matt glanced over. “What?”

Beth wrinkled her nose. “I think these are student papers Dad graded. But wouldn’t he have handed them back?”

Silly question. Maybe, admiring the literary excellence, he’d asked the students to return them to him. So he could store them in his garage.

She almost wondered aloud whether they should consult Dad about something like this, until she saw the date on one of the papers on top. 1987. She dug through, finding graded tests, multiple copies of articles he must have photocopied for student use and either never handed out or requested back so he could use them again. It didn’t surprise her at all that he hadn’t remembered he had them. He could easily have photocopied the same article a year later with no memory of having done so before.

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