The Packing House

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Chapter 14 | Correspondence Course

In the morning, when the sun begins to peel back the darkness, I jolt awake. It could be the smell or the brocade texture of the ancient couch, but something familiar hits me as I sit up. I know this couch. Or one like it. And that’s important.

Realizing I’d better find a better place to hide, I hurry back to the janitor’s closet. I hang the keys inside but leave the deadbolt unlocked. The noise I hear next catches me off guard. A low thud threatens behind me, and I jolt, recalling the way Amber’s dad wrenched us from between coats, hauling me up and out with a slam and a growl. I’ve heard that growl before. Uneasiness roils in my gut. There’s something about Amber’s dad that I can’t figure out. Understanding flickers right at the edge of all I can remember. I’ve got to shake it loose somehow. The wind shifts outside, raking through trees and pressing the building so hard, it creaks like an old house.

I’d better move before people show up. If someone asks, I’ll just say I’m new and got lost—too many turns in a big building. Someone will take pity on me.

Sneaking around the school makes me bold. Why hasn’t anyone ever thought of this before? I’ve gone to a lock-in but never thought to stay at school after hours on purpose.

Seems counter-intuitive. Everyone I know wants to get out of school when the bell rings. I guess that’s because they have a home or friend’s house to go to. Not like me.

I hear footsteps and singing long before I expected to, and almost don’t make it down the hall and into the bathroom before Lunch Lady whistles her way into the kitchen and turns on lights. I don’t know how she misses seeing me. I was standing right out in the open. I sneak a peek from the bathroom and catch her from back as she crosses into the kitchen.

I’ve got to sneak out and head up the back stairwell. From there, I’ll try to work my way toward the high school. At the bottom of the stairs are stacks of chairs and some other storage items, so I duck behind them and settle in.

There’s one problem: I’m probably not registered yet as a student. So I can’t go to school until at least tomorrow, after my mother transfers our records. I’d better come up with a Plan B.

I need something to do that will take up the time until school starts. I absolutely don’t want to have a run-in with my mother or Jonathan until I’ve figured out what I’m going to do. If I had access to a phone, I could call her. I decide I’d better write Amber and then find the post office. I pull out the bundle of letters and reread her latest to me.



Dear Joel,

You seem even more distant than usual. Is everything okay? I know it’s been tough with your mom, but it will get better soon, trust me.

I just got back from a week at camp. Our youth group always does a trip this time of year. Maybe you could come with us. Wouldn’t that be fun?

I liked the story you sent me. I wish I could write like that. You should write more. I’d love to read anything you wrote. Send me something, all right? I’m so bored here!

I shouldn’t say bored. I’m always busy with school, chores, and stuff my youth group does. We have so much fun—it’s not just a church thing, don’t worry.

Well, I want to get this in the mail. Don’t wait so long to write me back. Seriously. I miss you. I’ve been thinking. It’s been so long since we’ve hung out. Promise me you’ll fix that.

Amber



It has been a long time. My grandmother and aunt and uncle live nearby her, where I grew up. Sometimes, I get such an urge to go to the beach that I entertain thoughts of hitchhiking my way there. Maybe I should consider that.

The “promise me you’ll fix that” from the letter reminds me of a conversation I’ve long since forgotten. Amber had found out a friend lied about her. That same friend then lied to her face, and Amber called to tell me about it. She’d needed to vent. Her tears were fresh, staining each word as she spoke. She told me what happened and then pointed the conversation toward me.

“Too many people have screwed me over, and I couldn’t stand it if you were one of them. Promise me you’ll never fail me the way she did.”

“I promise, Amber.” I hadn’t thought much of that promise until her letter reminded me of my commitment. I just hoped it wouldn’t come around to bite me in the ass.

I finish my letter to Amber and fill out the envelope. Wait a minute. I realize I’ve totally forgotten about the new letter I grabbed off the table back at the trailer. It was mixed in with the mail and the bills. Why did she write me again before I wrote her back? Panic claws at my insides. I dig through my backpack three times, even dump and repack it piece by piece, but still no luck. Shit. Did I imagine it? No, it was there. I remember putting it in the front pocket of my backpack to read later and never did. Damn it. This could change everything. I’ve got to find it, but I can’t waste any more time.

I decide to sneak up and see if any other staff or teachers are here yet. I’d better get back into the neighborhood so I don’t look strange, walking down the street. I’m just mailing a letter before school starts, right? That, and I’ve gotta eat something.

My food is pretty much wiped out. I’ve got to plan this better, if I’m going to stay at the school. I’m such an idiot. Last night I was so hungry, I didn’t think straight. I should have grabbed food for later.

At the top of the stairs, I check the halls for signs of life. The lights are on in the main office. If I’m quick, I should be able to get out the side door, down the hill, and head up a side street. I scan outside to see if anyone else is coming. So far, it’s clear. I bolt for the front door and don’t look back. My heart thumps in my ears as I run and jog in alternating bursts, unsure how to appear “normal.”

I lope down the front lawn, watch for cars, and keep it up until I’m safely on the sidewalk. A car pulls in the drop-off area of the high school just as I reach the sidewalk nearest the middle school. Hope they weren’t too close.

That road the car came in on seems too direct, but I don’t think they paid attention. I don’t want eyes picking up on the fact I don’t belong. I slow my pace, adjust my backpack, and walk as if I’ve just left my friend’s house and want to get this letter mailed before school. Unfortunately, I channel awkward like a champ. The way I did in the closet with Amber.

If she knew the way I think sometimes.

I’ve thought about her way more than I admit. Sometimes I imagine things I shouldn’t. This doesn’t line up with who Amber is—so involved with church and God and youth group. What would she say if she knew?

I think she’s scared. Afraid love is reserved for fairytales and books, not real life. Maybe God and youth group are a shield. She made me swear we’d never go there when we were younger, never cross that line between friends and benefits that could only end badly. We spit/shook on it.

Then we hit puberty and ended up there, anyway. I got pulled into a version of spin-the-bottle that landed us in the closet for seven minutes of heaven on the first round. I can almost taste the kiss that never happened. We’d never done anything like that before.

I’d known her since we were young, but not like this. She acted so strange. That was the year her breasts became cleavage, and my hands itched to know how they felt. Until then, I’d tried to fight it. When she pulled me into the closet, I couldn’t stop myself. Between the coats, our lips barely skimmed each other, a tangled dance in private darkness. The heat smoldered in that space, before our air hitched at the sound of her father’s staccato footsteps on the basement stairs.

I didn’t care. I returned to complete the kiss we never finished.

The thudding drum of my heart pounded mercilessly in my ears, blocking out every other sound. I thought it would rip through my ribcage. But I could feel her trembling there in the dark. And I knew. I fumbled for the knob in a confused swirl of panic that he’d find us like that. Then came the abrupt halt as I beat back my desire to finally kiss Amber Walker on the lips, and the painful reminder, a bulge pinched uncomfortably between my legs.

After that, my memory gets murky. There was a flicker followed by the door flying open, and Amber’s dad must have seized me by the collar, because the next thing I knew I was scrambling for purchase on the stairs, and then I was out the door—slam—and blinking in the yard, trying to see in the harsh slices of sunlight.

Sure, he tossed my ass out of his house, but it didn’t change what happened in that closet. That was something I could keep. A tangible exchange and something… more.

Amber didn’t talk to me for a solid month. She was scared. But of what, I kept wondering? Her mother had labeled her the equivalent of a whore. I was a bad influence. Her father turned his back on me. Sure, we were making out in her basement closet, but I can’t believe he actually physically threw me out of their house. Makes me wonder if there wasn’t something else going on there with her dad.

Still, she keeps writing me. She’s the only one who hasn’t bailed yet, and she’s shared things with me she hasn’t even told her dad.

Like why her mother runs her so hard, which I’ll never understand. The woman demands too much. Last I heard, she was pressing Amber to take college courses already, though she’s just started high school. I wonder if Amber will ever live up to her expectations.

I reach the end of the street, wait for the car to pass, and trudge across the road. I haven’t really told Amber about the nightmares, but even she has picked up on something in my letters. I didn’t tell her when I replied, either. Should I? If I could, I’d kick myself for not being real to the one person who matters. I could write a new letter and tell her everything—but I can’t even figure out how to sort it out, let alone how to put it in writing.

Would she understand? At this point, I could lose her, too. My insides are a jumble. I haven’t eaten, and nausea sucker-punches me. I start to burp, the kind that comes up from stomach acid burbling over. I taste rancid chocolate pudding.

Why can’t I be normal and have a cell phone? I’d call her right now.

My head starts to spin. I think I’m falling apart. Where did all of this come from? I managed all day in the hot sun, through the woods and along the river with no food. Now I’m a mess. Was that just yesterday? It has to have been a week I’ve been gone.

I stop under a tree and try to breathe. There’s more air here. My heart pounds against my ribs. It’s not all that far back to the entrance of the woods. I need some time to think and maybe rewrite this letter before figuring out what to do about food or school.

There’s a breeze as I near the edge of the woods. I look over at the last house at the end of town. The yard is well-tended. Whoever lives there must take their time; everything is in its place. I spot a leaf tumbling end over end in a small pocket of wind.

That’s me, a cold leaf blowing against the door.

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