The Packing House

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Chapter 26 | One-Way Ticket

When I get to the trailer, I head straight to my room to pack. Most of my clothes are still in the bag I packed at the townhouse; I guess I haven’t unpacked. Since I don’t own much, it’s an easy process. I condense what I have into a few bags. To make sure I don’t take old library or school books with me, I start with my backpack.

I wish I had an iPod. I’d be grateful for an MP3. I don’t own a CD player or any CDs. I don’t own any books. All the ones I have are checked out of a library. What would I have if it weren’t for library books? I don’t know what I’ll do with nothing to read or music to listen to. I wonder if I could guilt my mother.

When I go to ask, she’s on the telephone. I sit and wait. It takes me a few minutes to figure out who she’s talking to: my grandmother, my father’s mother, or my Uncle Brandon and Aunt Althea. They are my father’s brother and his wife. She could be talking to either.

When she talks to other adults, she sounds different. The way students flip a switch in class. When they’re in the hall or if they think the teacher can’t hear, they cuss, discuss anything sex-related, and sound as different as my mother does on the phone. Of course, she could just be being nice, since my father’s family is willing to take me. I hope to stay for the summer. I don’t want to be here, slow-cooking in a metal box.

They talk about the way I reacted when my father left. He joined the military. He got placed on a solitary assignment. My mother told him, if he left, they would get a divorce. Eventually, they did. I didn’t handle it well. We lived in a house with a split-level staircase. I hid in the storage cabinet under the stairs. A few times, my mother found me there after I’d pulled my blankets and pillow down during the night.

Then I started playing with matches.

Once, I took a box into the downstairs bathroom, lit them, and watched them burn down; I blew them out before they singed my fingers and tossed them in the waste can. I remember locking the door absentmindedly behind me, not realizing the matches would catch the trash can on fire. By the time smoke poured out beneath the bathroom door—flooding the house in a white haze—it was too late.

The house was on fire.

Part of me had wanted to do it, I don’t know why. I couldn’t stop. My hands wouldn’t listen to the alarms going off in my brain. I needed a way out. I wanted to burn everything down to the ground, and when I walked through, all that remained—gray drab ash flapping and fluttering like wings—I’d find a way to begin again.

I changed my mind, but then I couldn’t get the bathroom door back open after I’d locked it shut by accident, and I freaked. Until then, fire had been soothing, a way to calm down. I ran to the neighbor’s house to get help. Luckily it was just a smoke fire. The neighbor managed to pry the door open before the fire department arrived. The plastic can had melted in on itself, and the fire had smoked up the wall. I got in a heap of trouble.

My mother came unglued, or so I’ve heard. It got spotty after that. I remember stomach pains so terrible I couldn’t get any relief, no matter what I did. Finally, I lay on the carpet, and the counter-pressure helped ease the pain a little. A few weeks later, I fell asleep sitting upright in a chair.

When I woke, I screamed so loud, everyone came to see what was wrong. I didn’t understand why everyone ran into the room. I never heard the scream. It didn’t register.

My mother drove me to the hospital, and after a battery of tests, I was admitted for observation. I was put on a liquid diet and had to drink this terrible stuff—mineral oil. It was supposed to help with the pains that doubled me over, that I felt down to my bones. The doctors told me I had growing pains. My gut told me this wasn’t the whole truth. I couldn’t figure out what they weren’t telling me. Why would they lie? But what the truth was or is, I never found out.

Finally, my mother gets off the phone.

“I won’t have any books to read on the bus. I don’t even have music. Any suggestions?”

“Joel, it’s too late to go out and get anything. I can see if there’s anything at the bus station. Maybe there will be a cute girl. You two could have a conversation.”

“Okay, Mother. Whatever.”

“You never know.”

“Well, I’m packed,” I say, ignoring her prodding. “Good night.”

In bed, I find myself retreating to thoughts of Amber. I wonder if she got my letter. Will she think I’m still a runaway when I get there? I hope our newfound proximity will help matters. If I try, will she let me kiss her more than just a peck? What if that ruins the friendship we’ve maintained? Would I rather have one attempted kiss or keep the relationship safe?

An image tiptoes through my mind. When we were little, Amber had freckles splayed across her nose and cheeks like a map I’d love to trace with my fingers or lips. Does she still have them? Or did they fade over time? She asked me to write a story. I should work on that while I’m on the bus. For now, my mind fixates on the deliciousness of freckles.

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