Chapter 17 | After-School Special
When I returned from lunch, I noticed an empty office with a desk and phone. Now, as the last class of the day arrives at the library to work on a research project, I take advantage of the chaos to slink in and duck behind the desk. After a few glances to make sure I’m in the clear, I pull the phone down and hold it in my lap.
My fingers shake while I dial an outside line and the number. After a few rings, she picks up.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“It’s me. Are you still in school?”
“Joel, it’s you! No, I’m out. Why did you call? You never call. What’s wrong?” Her tone dips from curious to alarm.
“Nothing, I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice.” Lame.
“Why are you really calling, Joel? Did you miss me? Speak.” She’s on to me.
“Okay, look. Don’t get mad or freak out. Promise?”
“That’s not funny. Quit stalling. You know how I feel about that.”
I take a breath and then get it all out. “I ran away. And I’ve got to come see you.”
“You—what?” I can’t help but smile when I hear a twinge of hope in her reply.
“I left yesterday. Listen, if I came out there, would you help me?”
Pause. “Joel… what are you not saying? You’re not making any sense.”
Maybe this was a bad idea. I consider hanging up. Damn it. I wish I knew what she wrote in the lost letter, and what she is thinking now.
“What’s gotten into you? Are you in trouble? Did you do something illegal?”
I can’t answer any of these questions because, honestly, I’m terrified. This was wrong. I should have thought it through first.
Amber interrupts my thoughts, saying “Quick, call me back on my cell.” She hangs up after giving me her digits. What is that all about? Does her father monitor every move she makes? I know exactly what his opinion of me is, given our last phone conversation from the gas station pay phone. Scrambling for a pen from my backpack, I write the number on the front envelope of Amber’s letters.
Then I panic.
I’m not sure it’s the right time to do this, but I want to call her back. I’ve put too much hope into where this could head next—or not—which is why I’m panicking. My heart thuds hard against my ribcage; I’m light-headed and may pass out.
I must’ve pondered a bit too long, since the phone vibrates in my lap, sending my heart into my throat. I scramble to tilt the phone to read the display and not drop it. Shit. It’s her cell phone number. She’s calling me back.
Fumbling the phone, I grab the receiver after it jangles against the cradle, inadvertently hanging up on Amber without meaning to. Fuck. I mouth the word to myself. Now she’s going to think I hung up on her.
Picking up the receiver, I bang it against the cradle several times as if that will help reconnect the dropped call. Then I hang up the receiver, place the phone back up, and head out into the library among the other students. What the hell am I doing? While visualizing kicking myself for botching the whole conversation, I dart back in. What I say in these next few minutes of conversation is all I have within my control. Any more screw ups and I’ll lose her for sure.
Before I lose my nerve again—which is clearly on life-support at this point—I dial Amber’s number and try to breathe. She picks up.
“Joel, was that you just now? Why did you hang up on me?”
“That wasn’t me, it was someone else. I mean, I dropped the phone. Sorry.”
I hear her chuckling in the receiver. I swallow and start talking. Fast.
“I need to see you.”
“I need to see you, too—”
“—before you object… Wait. What?”
“I need to see you, too, Joel. I’m pretty sure I’m being followed by someone, and I need your help.”
“What makes you say that?”
“A feeling in my gut. Besides, I don’t trust anyone else. The last several nights I haven’t slept much. I keep waking up with the strangest feeling someone is watching me. When I get up to check, all I find is my Dad up, smoking one of his nasty cigars, zoned out in front of the computer screen down the hall. No stalker anywhere. But…”
“You’ll laugh. It’s stupid.”
“Trust your gut, Amber. It’s what keeps you safe. But what?”
“I can’t put my finger on it, but I could swear I’ve seen flickering eyes somewhere. Not when I look straight ahead but off to the side, you know?”
Holy Shit. I don’t answer. Instead, I sit in stunned silence. How does she know about the flickering eyes?
“Joel, I know you didn’t hang up on me again. I can hear you breathing. Say something.”
I don’t say what I’m thinking. Instead, I ask, “Why did you ask me to call you back on your cell? Is it your Dad? Wait. Don’t answer that.”
“I’ve gotta go. Bye.” Dial tone thrums in my ear.
I return to my nook. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I hope she’s not mad at me for insinuating anything with her Dad and the stalker. It’s not like I think he’s the one with the flickering eyes. After all, he’s her father. That doesn’t make any sense.
I wait a few more minutes to give my brother time to catch the bus, and once I see buses begin to leave, I head down. I want to get Amber’s letter mailed before I come back for the night. Is there any point? Beyond my mother’s gambling, I never explained the reasons why. She’d understand better if she knew. The next time we talk, I’ll plan better. Just like the next time I stay in the school overnight, I’ll load up on food. I have to stay a few steps ahead.
A train could be hurtling down on me, just around the corner, although I suppose it’s more like it’s about to derail off its tracks. I’ve almost lost it a few times. Once at the gas station. Twice in the woods. Taking a deep breath and letting it out barely helps. Still, I’ve done well for a first-time runaway, but I wonder how long I can pull it off without getting caught.
Instead of leaving through the door I came in, I go down the first floor hall, past the office, and on toward the middle school. Two sets of doors lead into a small atrium. Two more sets of doors mirror the high school.
Between the buildings, I’m locked in from both sides. My only choice is to leave out the front or the back. All the doors have push bars, but only on the sides leaving the school. If I had tried to get into the high school this way, I would have been locked in the vestibule.
As I head out the front door, I glance over to where students are still waiting to be picked up. The buses have gone, so my brother must be gone as well. I shoot across the front lawn toward the side street I came up earlier. Startled, I hear my name.
No one knows me—who could be calling my name? I turn around and see Jonathan heading right for me. As I try to make sense of this, my head fills with suitable expletives.
“Joel, it is you. Why are you here? I thought you’d be halfway to grandma’s house by now.”
“I haven’t made it that far,” I reply. “I haven’t figured out a plan. So… how was your first day?” I’d better steer this off me: deflect and divert or get a face full of train.
“About the same here as the last one. Plenty of new girls, though.” He glances toward the crowd.
“Yeah, I can see that.” Several pairs of eyes follow us. We’re far enough away, they can’t hear anything.
“We spent the entire weekend searching for you. Mom went crazy and put up flyers. You owe me,” he says, tagging my chest. I can feel the weight of that debt.
“It must have been hell.”
“She can’t make up her mind whether she’s more pissed or hurt that you left. Why’d you do it?” His eyes dart up, harpooning me momentarily. I can see how he gets the girls. I try to play it off.
“I figured she’d be like that. I saw the bills. She’s gambling again.”
“I knew you were up. I was too tired to see. But I heard thrashing. Our rooms are sardined together.”
“No joke.” No arguments.
“Last night was so quiet. Was it another nightmare the other day? What’s that all about?” He’s looking at me again. I have to look away.
“I wish I knew. Things lately… losing sleep on top of it all sucks.”
“So you bailed?”
“I didn’t want to stick around and go down in flames, no offense. I figured you wouldn’t go with me, so I left. I can’t stand her like this.”
“You do what you have to, bruh. Just wish I wasn’t alone. It’s better with some of the heat on you. We carry it better together.”
“Look, I didn’t mean to leave you to deal with it alone, but you’ll do fine. Soon you’ll be busy with a new girl. Anyway, don’t you have to catch the bus?” This has gone on long enough.
“Yeah. What’s the plan?”
“I’ve got it under control. I might even go to school tomorrow.”
“You know I told mom you’ve been having nightmares. She asked if I knew why. She pressed me about what’s been going on.”
“That’s just great. Well, at least I have a heads-up to prepare for the fallout.”
I probably shouldn’t ask this, but I have to know.
“Remember the time we went fishing at the lake? We had the bamboo poles we got for Christmas? There was a blue pickup. Two shades of blue. Who took us? Dad, right?”
“I don’t know. That was forever ago, but I don’t think Dad ever took us.”
If it wasn’t Dad, then the only other person those penetrating eyes could have belonged to was “Uncle” Steven. He wasn’t really our uncle, but our mom made us call him that anyway. He worked on our grandparents’ farm after grandpa’s stroke. Then, he up and left when that boy from the neighbor’s farm went missing. Later, the boy turned up: at least, his body was found in the barn. I shudder at the memory. The neighbor said he choked or something. My grandmother’s seen “Uncle” Steven since then, but I forget where or when.
The bus arrives, and Jonathan turns to join the others. A few of them look familiar, like the girl with lavender hair. I step back from the bus.
“You coming or going?”
“I’ve got a letter to mail. See you around.”
“What should I tell Mom?”
“Tell her you’ve heard from me. I’m okay, but you don’t know anything else, all right?”
“All right.” I can’t tell if he’ll go along with it.
I turn back and head toward the side street. My mind swirls. When we stayed at the farm with Grandma, it was a hard winter with a ton of snow.
I remember the neighbor’s farm, too. The boy who died was their only child. His parents never had another child after that. Finding his body destroyed them. We were all shaken. How could I have forgotten about this, or the fishing trip, for so long?
An emptiness in my stomach rises, and I swallow back the lump. That boy didn’t have a choice when he died. Neither did the worms. A sharp pain jabs me in the side like the prick of a hook.