The Packing House

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Chapter 12 | Runaway Revisited

As I come into town, I pass the end of the tree line and see a gas station up ahead. Better yet, no sign of a vehicle bigger than a pickup truck. I try to appear as inconspicuous as possible, like I belong here. I adjust my baseball cap and head into the gas station. It’s not one of the commercial ones, just a locally-owned unnamed gasoline and convenience shop. The door jingles as I enter and scan for a bathroom. The male clerk is of the extreme-tattoo-and-multiple-piercings variety. He looks up with disinterest.

“Where’s the men’s room?”

“Back by the water fountain,” he says in the automatic staccato of someone who answers this often.

“Thanks.” I head for the back. Part of me is relieved to have a real bathroom. Part is a whirlwind of muddled thoughts that swirl together like a flushing toilet.

Now what?

I passed a pay phone on my way in. You don’t get much more small-town than that. I wonder if it even works. Still, not everyone has a cell phone. I sure don’t. If I’m going to make my move with Amber, I’ve got to just do it. Call her and find out how she really feels.

I wash my hands and face then check myself in the mirror. My water bottle is empty, so I rinse and refill it before putting my backpack back on. When I head out, no one’s using the pay phone, so I wander over and pick up the receiver. Feeding it some coins, I trigger the familiar sound of dial tone that changes after a few seconds to an automatic message, “If you’d like to make a collect call…” I follow the instructions and wait for Amber to answer.

When the call picks up, I hear a man’s voice answer, “Hello?” The automated voice responds, “Will you accept charges for…,” and inserts the recording of my name. After a pause, the male voice says, “Yes.”

My hands are sweating, and I drop the receiver. Scrambling, I pick it back up and place it against my ear. The man is repeating, “I said, hello? Is this that punk Joel kid I found my daughter with in the basement closet? What is it you want with her? She’s my daughter.”

“Sorry” is out of my mouth before I realize I’m speaking. Then I hang up. That could not have gone any worse.

Behind me, the door jangles, and I dart behind the dumpster just in time to see Jonathan enter with a white piece of paper in his hands. Moments later, he’s back outside, heading toward our mother’s car. The paper he held is gone. What the heck is that all about? I can’t see the Pinto from here. She must be parked around the side.

Before I made the call to Amber, I had planned to call my mother, but now I need to rethink. They woke to find me and my backpack gone. I left my school books out and didn’t leave a note, so their conclusion had to be I ran away. I’m an idiot. Way to cover my tracks. I can’t remember if I put the papers back or not. I was in too much of a hurry to leave.

Jonathan probably told Mom about the walk in the woods and the nightmares. Would they have discussed why I might run away? Maybe while I was in the woods today, Jonathan retraced our steps, just to see if I’d gone down the slope from the trailer again.

I head back in and try to act casual. The clerk glances up then stops. A quizzical look crosses his face. Keeping my head down, I glance around until I see a flyer with a picture of me posted by the register.

It’s a Xeroxed paper that reads, POSSIBLE RUNAWAY: Joel Scrivener, 16, brown hair, hazel eyes, 5′11”, last seen at Cumberland Trailer Park, off Highway 91, printed with marker. The picture is my last school photo. At the bottom, Please call, and my mother’s TracFone number. Without thinking, I turn and make a break for the door.

The clerk sees me and calls after me, “Hey, you didn’t pay for that!”

I stop in my tracks, look down, and realize I’m still holding the candy bar. “Oh, sorry.” My face is hot as I reach in my pocket for the twenty and return to the counter to pay. I hand him the money and look down, hoping he doesn’t realize I’m the runaway from the flyer. Nearly stealing the candy bar, while embarrassing, is at least a good cover. I shove the change in my pocket, grab the bar, and head for the door without looking back.

Behind me I hear the clerk again, “Hey, kid. Is this you? Are you the runaway they’re looking for?”

When the jangle of the door sounds behind me, I know he’s following, and I make a break to cross the road, aiming for the first side street I see. I don’t look back until I’m halfway down the block.

Thankfully, he’s not following me any further. I slow to a walk and try to catch my breath, concentrating on my breathing. A few old houses with front porches and weathered furniture line either side of the street.

I need somewhere like a barn or shed to lie low. A bus or train station could get me out of the area that they’re covering with flyers, but it’s too risky, since I’m sure my mother will have a police roadblock up by now. I haven’t even been gone that long.

Shit.

I guess it’s good they care, but I don’t like where this is headed. I ran away to leave my problems behind, not to have them hunt me down and force me to face them. I don’t do well with that, which is probably why I’m having these nightmares again in the first place.

Double shit.

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