The Packing House

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Chapter 20 | First Day of School, Take Two

I survived the dress rehearsal, now on to the main event. Since I hid in the library the first day, I’ll have to take today as real as it comes. When it’s close enough to 7 a.m., I figure I can make my exit without trouble. At the top of the stairwell, I look out. Partway down, my exit is blocked by two teachers talking at the door of a classroom. I spoke too soon.

I hover at the upper landing, checking every minute or so. When they step into the classroom, I skulk into the hallway and aim for the side hall with the janitor’s closet. I’ve got to ditch these keys.

I don’t see anyone, and the closet looks dark from under the door. Carefully and quietly, I turn the handle and duck into the safety of darkness. The scrape of a chair across the floor startles me.

“What the hell are you doing here?” The voice reminds me of the demon from my nightmares. A barrage of images careens around the inside of my head.

I shudder. The smell of sulfur mixes with the chemicals stored here.

“Do you hear me, boy? What are you doing in here, interrupting my morning nap?” This time, the voice is much closer to my ear. I drop the keys with a start, turn to grab the doorknob, and get the hell out of here. The janitor grabs me by my shirt collar.

“Let go of me!” I yell, twisting hard against his grip, grabbing the handle, and yanking as hard as I can. He lets go, and I hear the keys scraping across the floor, as the door closes behind me. A moment later, the door bursts open.

“Come back here!”

I hear the jangle of keys heading right for me. Who cares if anyone sees me? I’ve got to get away. I run for the front door, and slam into the push bar. Warm air from the outside washes over me.

“Damn punk kids,” I hear as the door closes behind me.

I hightail it toward the high school entrance. I focus on looking indifferent, guessing the janitor gave up. No one else notices. If I had Jonathan’s curls and clear blue eyes, they’d notice. But I evaporate from existence and arrive at the high school. The doors are open, so I head to the office.

I wait for the secretary to look up to introduce myself.

“My name is Joel Scrivener. I just transferred from Broad Run High School. My mother registered my brother and me yesterday, but I’ve lost my schedule. May I have another, please?”

“Give me just a minute. You can have a seat over there.”

I’m directed to a row along the back wall. I take a seat at the end. A few minutes later, the secretary calls me back up.

“I printed a new schedule for you, and I can have someone show you where homeroom is. Do you need anything else?”

“Uh, I never got a meal card or a locker. Will I get textbooks from the teachers?”

“That’s right. Your teachers will issue books. As for the lunch card and locker, give me a sec. You can have a seat again.”

I wait like a good little student, not like a student who smokes out back or sneaks into the middle school via the roof.

A few minutes later, I’m being escorted by a girl named Amelia Hargrove, who talks nonstop and asks me at least a thousand questions, none of which I’m sure I can or want to answer. I just smile and hope this will all be over soon. Amelia’s hard to understand, both for her speed and the fact she snaps her gum in between every few words. I focus on the edges of my mouth that are desperate to curl up and bust out laughing right in her face.

“So, you’renewhere, huh?” (Snap) “Myfamily’s (Snap. Snap) beeninSanderville (Snap) allmylife. Where didyousayyouwerefromagain?” (Snap) “I justloveithere (Snap)…”

This goes on all the way to homeroom. Unfortunately, this is near the far end of the downstairs hall in the science wing. I try to smile and let Amelia prattle. I don’t think she even notices when I don’t respond. The secretary said she’s on the student council, Ambassador for New Students. Almost there, I tell myself. Once I’m in my homeroom, I thank Amelia and wave. She stays and chats with my chemistry teacher.

I say hello and tell Ms. Sitwell I’ll be back after I find my locker. She tells me she will have my textbook when I return. My locker turns out to be upstairs near the library. I remember the planner and drop it in the lost and found bin. I don’t have my binder. It’s on my bed at the trailer. So I pull out the notebook I use to write letters to Amber and head back down to homeroom. Ms. Sitwell delivers my chemistry book as promised, and I sign her log sheet.

“Where can I get a planner?”

“That’s also me,” she singsongs, digging around in her storage cabinet. “Aha, here ya go. Joel, is it?”

I nod and return to my seat to check my schedule. This school is on a block, so I only have four periods. Ms. Sitwell explains it’s something new the school is trying this year. After homeroom, it’s American history, English, chemistry with Ms. Sitwell, and lunch in the middle. My last class is math. I’m in a mix of algebra and geometry, since I flunked last year; I even took it over in summer school. It doesn’t help that we switch schools all the time. I’m terrible at algebra. The letters make my head swim, and I can’t figure out what’s going on. Moving complicates the whole thing. Hope I’ll survive the geometry part here so I can maybe pass.

All my grades started to plummet at Broad Run in the last few months. The crap with my mother’s boyfriends and their need to assert themselves, coupled with the nightmares and the buildup to the trailer move, left me overwhelmed. When it comes time for homework, my mind’s been blown apart with crap coming at me from all sides. I can’t slow my thoughts down enough to handle each problem in the proper way. Likewise, I can’t jumpstart my brain to keep up with the concepts. I know what I should do, but I can’t follow through.

Having run away, I don’t have to worry anymore about my mother losing it in a major way over my grades. Normally, with me, she can count on them: up until now, my grades have been nothing less than honor roll material. But lately… let’s just say my mother would come unhinged if she saw my grades, were she not distracted by so many other things.

Time to start fresh and show my mother I’ve turned a corner.

Everyone files into homeroom at the last second, and we begin the routine. There’s a television channel for announcements; students deliver the report onscreen. I pay rapt attention to the monitor. This is my chance to make the most of this do-over. When we stand, I’m immediately up, hand over my heart and reciting the pledge with patriotism I didn’t know I had. Carpe Diem, I recall from Dead Poets Society: Seize the day.

That is, until I’m called to the office through the classroom PA system. My patriotism fizzles. I shrivel and lose a few inches in the process.

I head down to the main office, derailed. I can’t tell if I’m itching for another cigarette or if my stomach is trying to do backflips as I attempt to keep my legs from coagulating into a jellied puddle beneath me. Something has got to be seriously wrong.

I have no idea why I’m being called to the office, but the PA voice triggers a flash of the nice secretary. Only this time, her voice hardens, vicious along the edges and almost seething in its undertone, so only I pick up on it. Dread follows me like a shadow flung against the lockers. My palms begin to sweat. I’m caught in the office headlights, a deer waiting for impact.

When I step inside the door, the floor drops out from under me. My mouth opens, but only a wheeze comes out. I hold onto the handle so hard, I wonder how it’s not crumpled within my grip. I force myself not to faint. My mouth opens and closes, accordion-like. I come to my senses and suck in air too quickly.

“Mom, I—”

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