The Packing House

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Chapter 2 | Lock-In

It’s late afternoon and not the time for sleep. I manage to snag an hour on my mattress, the one thing between me and the floor of our room, before Jonathan’s loud-ass banging wakes me. This is the only rest I’ll get ahead of tonight’s school lock-in. He crams contraband in his backpack and slams drawers. Still, he could be quieter if he expects me to help him pull off the booty call he’s been lining up for weeks.

Like I’d want to do anything for him, at this point.

Which is—of course—why losing the Terror bet obligates me to do crap for him now. Screw you, universe. Every time I see Jonathan, my mind fills with Terror Man and his belt and every word he slung at us in lecture mode. You two are just a couple of punks, taking things that don’t belong to you. It’s time someone set you straight. Well, that and the crap at school.

Jonathan had his posse in on the bet, too. They were settling up in the hallway after study hall. Why’d I have to go and lose the bet? Now I’m a slave to my younger brother and his list of girls for the night. At his beck and call. I’m an idiot for agreeing to any of this, but it’s too late for “should have knowns.”

I stretch out the aches in my limbs and rub the remnants of sleep from my eyes. With any luck, I’ll find somewhere private to crash at the high school, in case the nightmares come back. I was up all night with them again, filling notebook pages to keep from seeing that thing chase me down again. The shudder takes me by surprise.

“I had no idea you were trying out for a spot at the zombie prom.” Like Jonathan knows all the things that keep me awake at night. He says that but knows I’ve been the recent target of locker-wedgies and toilet-swirlies, thanks to Math Punk and his drones, just because I carry a pocket-sized notebook to jot down ideas while I’m at school. I guess that makes me an easy target. Maybe Jonathan knows something he hasn’t said.

“I’m not, doofus. You’re cocky as ever.” I glance with meaning at his bulging… backpack. Must be tied to his booty-call plans. “You can’t be serious.”

“A Boy Scout is always prepared.”

“You’re no Boy Scout.”

Forcing myself to stand, I rummage through my bag to see what else I’ll need. This time, I’ll run away for good, I promise myself, doing my best to ignore the slew of images as they flash through my mind from my latest nightmare. I grab a hoodie off the floor, cinch it around my waist, and snag the book I’m reading off the milk crate that serves as my nightstand. My eyes slam shut in protest. Jonathan looks over and sighs.

“Dude, I’m serious. I’ve got a lot riding on your duties as wingman. Don’t let me down.” He passes me several forbidden Terror drinks he probably stole from the fridge. After last night’s beating, this is a new level of desperate, even for Jonathan. I hesitate but take them anyway. Our mother has taken things with Terror Man to the next level, letting him stash his drinks at our place, but they’re off-limits for us. I’m talking “police lights rolling red blue from every reflective surface” off-limits. Doesn’t mean we haven’t pinched a few.

A wave of guilt washes across my beyond-tired frame. I know I shouldn’t do it, but there’s no way I’ll survive tonight without some serious help. I crack one open and chug the entire contents, gasping as it burns on the way down. Just in case, I hide the empty can in my backpack. I prefer to avoid any more collateral damage, if I can help it. Jonathan’s considerate gesture is highly suspect. If he weren’t thinking with his dick, I’d be more suspicious.

I shouldn’t get so worked up over a drink that tastes like ass. It’s wannabe beer, not even a legal issue; carbonated cough syrup. Why do I let it get to me? Because it’s one more excuse my mother’s boyfriend uses to thump the life out of Jonathan and me. He could threaten to take away the library from me for good… The hell if I’m giving up the one thing that keeps me sane, though.

That’s why Jonathan started calling him Terror Man, the way he guards those drinks like they’re his claim over our territory. If you ask me, he might as well piss on the refrigerator or in my mother’s bedroom door. Clearly visible is that purple welt Jonathan earned from last night’s Terror Beating.

I shudder. These images keep cycling through my mind on repeat, whether I’m awake or asleep.

It’s the same with my mother. I used to call her mom, but that changed when we spent time in that homeless shelter because she was gambling away the bill money. I can still feel the roaches crawling over me in the dark, hear the crack heads screaming through paper-thin walls. They weren’t supposed to be using while they were at the shelter, but sometimes they got away with it. Most adults don’t think kids pay attention to details, like the exchange of pharmacy bags and money, the glazed-over look in their eyes, or the tools used to cook their meth and the marks they left behind.

I made the mistake of pointing this out to her. “We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t gambled everything away. Now we have to check for roaches before eating anything and pretend we can’t see or hear those other people shooting up in front of their kids.”

My mother fired right back at me, “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m the mother and you’re the son. Learn your place. I won’t be talked to like that by a child. You hear me?” You bet I did. To this day, I’ve stopped calling her mom, and only use “mother,” now that I’ve learned my place.

Not that she’s noticed.

Our mother’s voice wafts up from somewhere below. “Joel? Jonathan. Get a move on, you two. I’m not driving you in, if you miss the bus. It’ll be here any minute.” I grab the pack of Amber’s letters as an afterthought. We thunder down the stairs, backpacks and smuggled items in tow. Fortunately, our mother isn’t one for a strip search or pat-down. Too bad I can’t stop the belch from the Terror before it’s too late. My mother raises an eyebrow.

“Sorry.” Laughing probably doesn’t help much, either.

“Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is. You know how he gets when you touch his stuff. Give me a break, okay?” Like she sticks around to watch Terror Man dole out consequences.

“It was his idea,” I say, tagging Jonathan on the chest before bolting out to the safety of the bus stop. Soon after, Jonathan comes out, hauling ass. He must’ve done some smooth talking.

When we get to the bus stop, my stomach pitches. Elias Stone. I couldn’t care less; it’s his sister I’m queasy about. I still haven’t managed to figure out why she gives me the time of day, unless she’s leveraging for something. Elise could pass for Amber’s doppelgänger if she curled her straight hair and dyed it fiery red. I’m convinced everyone has a body double scattered in different parts of the country. That’s what Amber and I are now. Scattered. Past tense. No longer a thing.

If Elias’s here, Elise’s already back at school, warming up for the pep rally on Bonfire Field. That’s not the official name, just what everyone calls it. Every varsity player and cheerleader will be there rehearsing. In fact, the school lock-in might as well be a season preview. At least I’ll know where to avoid.

My thoughts aren’t enough to distract me from witnessing Jonathan’s fist bump and one-armed hug fest with Elias.

“Elias, my man. What’s shakin’?” They complete an elaborate handshake before full-on chest bumpage. That’s when Jonathan’s bag splits open, spilling an ambitious quantity of condoms at their feet. Elias doubles over just as the bus pulls up.

“Aw, yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.” More high fives.

If they were any friendlier, I might second-guess their orientation. Jonathan’s straight as a line and completely at home with his sexuality. He doesn’t even mind it when other guys, including Elias, check out his junk in the pool locker-room. He and Elias are both on the swim team, but I don’t think Jonathan knows all there is to know about Elias, despite how he’s fronting now.

“D’you bring your gear for the show? The honeys I’ve lined up got game.”


I slug my backpack over my shoulder and climb aboard.

He slides his arm around her waist as she flings her arms around his neck. She’s all over him. Still, I ogle every flash of Spankies, even though I can’t actually see anything, until the thought of Amber seeing me check out Elise makes my stomach contort. I duck behind Elias and Jonathan and slink away, muttering something about catching up later. Or never. Besides, I have plans that have little to do with lock-ins or making good on this debt thing with Jonathan.

The universe has other plans.

“Leaving so soon?” Elise grabs me by the hoodie, using sleeves to steer me back around. I look up at the splash of sunset scattered across the evening sky, unsure how to speak popular.

“Pretty much,” I reply.

“That’s too bad.”

Dare I ask? I’m distracted by the uniform and how much Elise reminds me of…

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘That’s too bad.’“ Her eyes wander over to where my brother is amassing a small crowd. She emits an excited squeal before turning back to me.

Yep. Too bad every girl I know looks right through me at Jonathan. “Have fun with pool boy.”

“I was hoping we could finish our conversation.” Elise sidles up next to me. “From last time.”

I shake off the urge to place my hands on her hips.

“Your lips moved, but I don’t recall words.”

She doesn’t deny it. At Jonathan’s last at-home meet, Elise had pulled me over to her while we waited outside the locker room, but it’d felt wrong, like I was just there for her practice or amusement. We’d been so close to kissing…

And now, even though Elise is standing in front of me, Amber is a hundred miles away. The confusing part is how much they look alike. I do a double take every time I see Elise. I want to do things I shouldn’t, things I never got the chance to explore with Amber.

My brain engages, and my gut screams for me to get out of there, picturing how we stopped short.

“Sorry, my plans for tonight are—see you around.”

Before she can protest, I dive for cover inside the school and press through the crowd. Most of the students greet their friends in clumps and check the schedule of events. I keep glancing over my shoulder to see if I gave them the slip. The images slam through my brain, reminding me they’re still there. Like I could forget.

When I see the flash of pompoms, I don’t hesitate. Pulling on my hoodie, I duck into the auditorium where they’re showing slasher movies. I pick a seat on the far left end, near the exit door. Just as a door opens in the back, I slink down in my seat. Please don’t let them find me; please don’t let them find me. The door closes again. I let out a slow breath. Realizing I’m in the dark and somewhat horizontal, my eyes scrunch shut. I fight to reopen them. I could knock out hard. As I exhale, sleep tugs me down until the realization hits me, and my eyes pop open, darting left and right. I can’t let that happen. Not ever. Especially here.

Then I remember the other Terrors in my bag. I pull one out and down it. The auditorium is not safe. I’d better find somewhere else or get going on my real mission. Sneaking out the side door and up the dim hallway, I can already see a commotion underway.

“Five bucks he croaks before his fingertips touch water.”

“Isn’t this the third or fourth time he’s tried?”

“Not a chance he’ll break the record.”

“He’s gonna do it. Everybody to the pool!”

Jonathan mentioned a “show” when he greeted Elias, but I didn’t know it would draw a crowd. What an attention whore. The mass of bodies shoves toward the Panther pool. Heading in the opposite direction, I’m met by a wave of pompoms and cheerleaders surging back toward the crowd I tried to avoid. When I look away, an arm slides around my bicep and steers me back toward the natatorium.

“You’re going the wrong way. I thought you two were close.”

“What’s this about, Elise? Why are you even slumming with the likes of me?”

She gives me a look and then continues. “You disappeared before I could tell you earlier. Johnny’s gonna try to break the district record. If he gets it, he’ll land Regionals.”

When we stop, I turn to face her.

“First of all, his name’s Jonathan. Not Johnny. Second, he’s been trying to break that record since summer tryouts. I’ve got better things to do than watch another one of his shows.”

“Well, I want to be there when he does.”

“Don’t let me keep you.” A huff escapes before I can stop it.

Elise leans in toward me, catching me completely off guard. Heavy-lidded, her eyes cast down toward my lips. When they close, I freeze, unsure if I should kiss her back. Her presence reminds me so much of Amber—of when we were together in the basement closet not long ago—that I struggle to think of anything except anticipating the taste of her lips and tongue, my hands on her skirt, pulling her close. Some part of me fires off an alarm, a warning, an interruption.

What is wrong with me? She’s obviously using me to get to Jonathan. I bolt.

Cutting through the open gym, I pass clusters of students playing basketball and volleyball. I run. The divider wall has been opened so students can move between stations. A few lucky teachers are directing from the sidelines. What must Elise think, expecting our lips to meet and instead being startled when her eyes open and I’m gone?

Running is my go-to response, especially in a situation like this. Without thinking, I did it, like putting on one pant leg and then the other. One step always follows the other. It was easy. Nothing messy; I just took action.

I stop to catch my breath once I’m out of the building, my eyes adjusting to the night sky and glittering stars as I overlook the field. Everyone’s probably at the pool, basking in the glory of Jonathan’s show. Which is why I’m here, making the most of this opportunity.

Even though I didn’t think it through, didn’t discuss it with myself, I know where I’m going. In fact, I planned this all along, when I packed extra clothes and Amber’s letters and my toothbrush. I never planned to stay at the lock-in or play wingman for Jonathan or run away from Elise all night. My plan was to leave—something no one will see coming until I am long gone. I promised myself and told no one: this time I’m running away.

“Where have you been?” Shit. Jonathan.

“Look, I’m gonna hafta reschedule. I’m busy.”

I hope the look on my face somehow helps to explain enough so I don’t get sucked into twenty questions. Too bad his brain is otherwise occupied. If he could, he’d formulate a question. Instead, he just stares.

“Jonathan, I’ve got problems. Elise won’t keep her hands off me.” There’s no time to talk. I head for the tree line at the edge of the field.

“Woah, bruh. Good for you.”

“No, not good.” I turn to face him.

“Oh?” There’s something weighted in his reply. Like he’s holding back some part of what he’s thinking.

The sound of the band and the crowd surging out of the school for the field coincide with the realization that my plans have failed. Now I’ll never get away before someone spots me. I can’t ditch Jonathan if he sees me leaving. The adult staff is busy lighting the bonfire.

“My first rendezvous should be here any minute. I need you on point. Circulate and prep the next few girls. Check your list, but try not to be Captain Obvious. Capisce?”

I’m exercising great restraint not to deck him in front of his entourage.

“You sure upping that bet was legit?” He’d won the first round fair and square, but still, my kingdom for a loophole or an escape clause.

Elise arrives in a flurry of pompoms and skirts. Not that I was looking.

“What are we discussing? Is this about the current Terror Bet or that video thingy?” She smirks, crossing her arms over her chest.

“What the hell?” I look from Jonathan to Elise and back.

“Uh, I can explain.” Jonathan lifts his hands and starts to back away.

He betrayed me?

If he blabbed about our bets to Elise, what other embarrassing or private family stuff has he told her? Certainly not who gave him the shiner last night. Or would he? My mind floods with images of the study hall video clip aftermath: walking down the hall, all those eyes drilling into me. Everything explodes, tinged in red. I’m shoving Jonathan with both arms before I even realize I’ve downshifted into action.

“No need. Elise has caught me up plenty, asshole.” I take a swing and shudder as my fist clashes against his raised arm. Cue the posse.

“Brother fight!” someone shouts as the crowd encircles us. I miss the next few punches, but a kick sends him reeling, and then I’ve got him pinned to the ground and my fists are pummeling him before I feel myself floating away, and it’s like I’m watching someone else turn his brother’s face to hamburger. Guys from the football team and the swim team pull us apart as teachers engage, barking orders. I feel something hot dripping down my face. I can’t open my left eye. Both hands hurt like hell. If my right eye is working, I’m in far better shape than Jonathan.

When we’re escorted to the principal’s office, they call our mother to come get us. I must have nodded off longer than I realized in the auditorium. It’s close to three in the morning, and our mother is not a fan of losing sleep. I can’t believe he’d betray me like that. If Elise knows, then half the upperclassmen know by now. What a douche. This whole thing was a set up. What business is it of hers? And why did Jonathan feel the need to share it with Elise Stone? Neither of us speaks. I doubt we could stick to words at this point.

My mother’s voice slams into the tiny room before the rest of her catches up. “I’ve a mind to let you two spend the night in jail for the stunt you just pulled. I cannot believe you’d do this to me at three o’clock in the morning.” From the way she’s digging in her purse, I can’t tell if she’s searching for car keys or cigarettes.

“Jonathan’s the one who started this whole thing. He—”

The back of my legs bang into the chair. It lists across the linoleum.

“Joel threw the first punch. He tore into me for no good reason.” He grabs his bag from the chair at the other end of the room.

“Hey. Cool it. Not interested in who did what. I’ve a mind to let Samuel talk some sense into you two when we get home. Until then, zip it.”

A hush falls as the weight of her words and the realization sinks in: Samuel only lectures with a belt in his hands. Jonathan glares. I flex my hands and wince. Our mother signs us out, and we head to the car in heavy silence. There go my plans.

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