The Packing House

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Chapter 16 | Hiding in Plain Sight



Part II—Sanderville Area High School

Home of the Ravens



16 | Hiding In Plain Sight

I keep up the frantic pace until I burst out from the trees and can pause to catch my breath. As I stand, hands on knees, sucking in great gasps of air, an image flashes in my mind. For a moment, I’m displaced. I can’t tell if the image is from that fishing trip years ago or is more recent, like from yesterday.

I’m standing in roughly the same spot where the trucker offered me a ride into town. For a second, I see a glint of steely eyes piercing through me. Not the kind of eyes you want staring at you, ever. The kind that make you heave from your toes.

What’s one got to do with the other? My mind races, thoughts scattering like a thousand birds shooting up from the security of trees. I’m still not clear of those gunshots. It’s late. I’d better head back.

Since I ducked into the woods just outside of town, it’s not long before I’m closing in on the gas station again, where I stopped before. I don’t want to stay on the street, so I decide to risk it. I pull my baseball cap down and head to the bathroom inside. I glance at the clerk on my way back, the door jangling behind me. This one’s female, not the guy who recognized me from the flyer last time.

I wash my face, fix my hair with my fingers, and shove my hat back on. I pull the brim down and brace myself. Even though I know they’ve likely changed trash, I still check the can and floor for the lost letter. Nope.

I don’t notice the flyer this time. Maybe it’s been thrown away. I’ve eaten all of my spare food, so I need to restock: a Gatorade, chips, a candy bar, and a few hot dogs from the roller grill. I go to check out, and the clerk motions me over.

“I’m on this register, hon.”

As I put my stuff down on the counter, I freeze. The poster is right in front of my face. I look right at myself. It might as well be a mirror. I cover by saying, “Oh, I forgot something. Be right back!”

I dart around the corner as my heart threatens to charge out of my chest through my throat. Get it together. If I panic, I’m sure to be caught. Stay calm. I’ll be out the door in a few seconds.

I take a deep breath and freeze, my hand gripping a bag of trail mix a bit too tightly when I hear the clear sound of the door alarm jangling. Someone’s just entered. It couldn’t be them. The sign is already posted.

I risk a glance but don’t see anyone. Instead, I hear the clerk talking. Damn, I’m stuck. I need to get going but I can’t while someone’s on the other side of the chips display. The chances of it being one of the two family members I’m avoiding are slim. I need to relax.

This is just my head playing tricks. I step out and duck behind the motor oil and road maps. The clerk has moved over to the front register. I catch a whiff of hotdogs, and my mouth waters. I’m briefly tempted to move out and buy them when I hear, “My mom said you can call day or night. Thanks for your help.” Shit. I know that voice. Jonathan.

I had started up the next aisle but pivot back behind the maps, not sure where he’s at. If I make for the door, my mother might be waiting outside. If I stay, Jonathan might find me and turn me in. I’ve got to think of something fast.

“We’ll check back tomorrow. Thanks.”

I go to the only place I can think of: the bathroom. Once I’m behind the locked door, I let out the breath I didn’t notice I was holding. The handle jiggles violently. Someone taps on the door with double knuckles. Signature Jonathan move.

“Can you hurry up, please?”

It’s him. I don’t answer. He’d recognize me for sure, even if I tried to disguise it. All I can do is wait him out. If I don’t, he’ll find me for sure.

“C’mon, dude. Seriously.” I can hear him hopping around. What if he just stands there forever? How long until the clerk comes in after me?

I’m saved from the least likely of places. The unmistakable blare of a Ford Pinto car horn. When I look in the mirror, I see an ashen face staring back.

“That was too close,” I whisper back.

After several minutes, I risk returning to my purchase, which is still sitting on the counter at the far register, inches from my poster. I grab a bag of random candy before swapping it out for beef jerky.

“That’s everything,” I announce a bit too loudly.

“All right,” the clerk says and rings up my purchase. She looks at me funny. Oh great, here we go. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Oh, right,” I say. “Doctor’s appointment. My mom’s taking me.” I hand over the cash and wait for change. I slide the bag towards me. She counts it out and I bolt, throwing a “thank you” over my shoulder. I slam my weight into the door and then I’m back in sunlight.

I downshift into my least conspicuous speed and watch for my mother’s car or my brother, who may pop out from who knows where at any given moment. From side streets I can keep a better look-out as I head back to school. I make tracks, aiming to get off the main road.

Since everywhere else is out, I’d better find somewhere at school to hide. The letter to Amber will have to wait. Maybe I can mail it after school.

I cross the street and head up a block. I still don’t know what to do about Jonathan. He might know things from the fishing trip that would help me, but involving him has blown up in my face before.

I hope I can figure out where to hide. The biggest problem is—besides not having a hall pass—I don’t know anything about the high school, and that’s where I need to be. It’s one thing to sneak in the building, and it’s another to navigate the side of the school I’ve never been in before without getting caught. If I do get nabbed before I’m registered, how will I explain why I’m here?

I can picture the headline now: “Runaway Found in Wrong School, Story at Six and Eleven.” Of course, I could be completely wrong. This may not even be the right school. It could be in the same district. I guess I’ll have to risk it and see.

I go in the double doors and find myself in almost the mirror image of the middle school. To the right is the main office beside a hallway that connects the schools. To the left are the classrooms. It’s the same layout I discovered in the middle school.

Since we moved twice last year, this will be my fourth high school already. I’ve stood in one spot too long: two girls carrying planners walk past me and giggle, tittering at one another. I guess the planners act as hall passes here.

I make a mental note and steer away from the office before someone sees me. I head through the closest stairs and find myself in an identical hallway upstairs. The only difference is there are no main office and entrance to the auditorium. Down the front hall I see the library. Home. Right outside the door is a lost-and-found box. Near the top, I spy a planner and decide I’ll borrow it until I get my own.

It’s been several days since I’ve been to a library. The last time I went was the day of the thunderstorm and the fight between my mother and Samuel. That’s also the day I almost walked in on my brother and his girlfriend.

Any time I enter a library, I’m comforted by all the shelves and rows of books. I usually make friends with the librarians and become often recognized, but I don’t want that here. Not yet.

I navigate my way to fiction and find a nook at the end of a set of bookshelves where I sit on the carpet and lean back. I pull out my book. Somewhere in the background, I think the bell between classes rings a few times.

I don’t pay much attention.

Then it occurs to me that no one has even noticed me here. When I came in, I flashed the planner as my pass, and the librarian assumed I had a signature from a teacher to be here. Since I’m not a student here yet, no one realizes I’m not supposed to be here, either. This is great. I can spend the whole day and not even get in trouble. I keep reading.

A new wave of students enters. Some of them work alone or at computer stations in pairs. I look up at a few students gathering around clusters of tables in the reference section. I can’t believe I haven’t been caught yet.

I sit in my nook and eat the book. I think I read about half of it before I realize it must be near lunch time. I flip through the planner and find a class schedule for Samantha Coolidge. She has a schedule B lunch, which is coming up.

How will I figure out where the cafeteria is? Most likely it’s downstairs. When the bell rings, I’ll watch what direction everyone goes in for lunch. I have a few dollars left, so I can buy. At our previous school, I was on the meal plan and had a lunch card. Hope I can get one once we’re registered. I’ve got to be more careful or I’ll run out of money.

The sucky thing about hiding is you have to come out eventually. I don’t know how long I can keep going. The bell rings, and I head into the swarm of students. There’s a definite difference in the air when it’s lunch time. Everyone pushes when they’re hungry, vying for a closer spot in line.

It amazes me how similar students are, even at different schools. They aren’t the same people—their names are different—but one looks like that girl who dates a different guy each week; the huge guy looks like someone who must be on the football team, or half the team himself; there’s a girl who talks so loud you can hear every word she’s saying all the way down the hallway; and the hippie with dreadlocks in a cloud of patchouli oil.

There are others: sporty jocks, the popular crew with a posse of friends, those who haven’t figured out who or what they are yet, and, bringing up the evolutionary rear, social outcasts. I fit best into the last category.

Since I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t move as fast. I find myself getting shoved on my way to the stairs and again as I head down, then I take a hip check into a string of lockers as we head en masse toward the cafeteria. I fit right in.

I follow behind the group in front of me and watch as they queue up at the end of one of several lines going in and out of the kitchen. I stay where I am and hope I can get something decent. After I grab some food, I go through and pay at the cashier. Now the harder part: where to sit?

Then, I see him.

Jonathan. He looks like a stray in a sea of pedigree students. I take the first opening away from his side of the lunch room and eat with my face in my tray as much as possible. I get a few funny looks, but I don’t want my brother to notice me here. The sooner I finish, the sooner I can duck out and head back up to the haven of the library. That is, unless his class goes there, too.

I eat, but I could be gnawing sawdust. I can’t distinguish a flavor. What if Jonathan has to come back up and he notices his runaway brother sitting at a random table at the same lunch as him? I wonder if the lunches are divided by grade. I could be eating at freshman lunch and not even know it.

I concentrate on chewing, horking it down as quickly as I can without puking all over the strangers around me. I ignore the “slow down, dude, no one’ll take it from you,” as I gulp the milk and pitch the rest, then clear my tray and head for the bathroom. I’ve got to slip back up to the library.

I hope the stalls have doors here. I head into the bathroom and am relieved: all three stalls have doors. Some schools ban them due to drug traffic. Two are available, so I take the one farthest from the door. They must be light in street-dealing here. I hang my backpack on the hook and take care of business. Lunch is only a half hour, so I figure it has to end soon. Maybe I’ll wait out the rest of the time in the stall.

I guess I got my answer about this being the right school, since Jonathan’s here.

If all goes well, I can go to the main office tomorrow and ask for a schedule. Tell them I lost mine. Hopefully they’ll issue me a locker and a planner of my very own. All I have to do is make it through the rest of today without getting caught. Then, I can put Samantha’s planner back. She might need it. You never know what kind of planner thieves lurk around here. I can vouch for her. Someone stole it right out of the lost and found.

The bell rings. I wait a few more minutes until it’s quiet again. I pull the planner out and find today’s date. I scribble the initials of my English teacher from Broad Run High School. JCH. It looks authentic enough to work as my hall pass.

Could the librarian recognize me? I figure I might have to show a signature. I’ll say we have a research project and our class is meeting in the library. Maybe the librarian won’t even care.

I head back up and keep the borrowed planner handy. Someone different is at the counter. It doesn’t even matter. I beat a path to my nook and reclaim my spot.

Keeping a close eye on those coming in, I don’t see Jonathan among them. I wish school was more like this. Come in a few periods late, read in the library, go to the wrong lunch, read some more. I even finish my book within the last thirty minutes.

The buses pull up outside. The bell rings for last period. It won’t be long until Jonathan leaves, and then I can go. There’s one thing I didn’t finish today.

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