The Packing House

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Chapter 28 | Back Home Again



Part III—Ticonderoga High School

Home of the Oceanside Sharks


28 | Back Home Again

I don’t know how I made it through eight hours on a bus with a loud woman who didn’t stop talking the entire trip to Oceanside, especially without a way to block her screeching, nasal voice. My ears are still ringing.

I spend most of the ride thinking about all the stupid things I’ve done. I need to buck up without a dad as my wingman. I’m tired of running. Whether I like it or not, this bus has brought me back where home used to be, where everything began, including the nightmares. This is the place where my dad left us; in the space he left behind, I intend to take a stand and stop running, despite his example.

It’s time I get serious and quit trying every fool-headed idea I think up. I’m mad for dangling dangerously close to the edge of failing out of tenth grade, for running away, for smoking, even for excessive cursing. I peeked at my transfer paperwork during the endless bus ride and saw my current grades, partway through the third marking period. It’s clear. If I don’t do something to change, I’ll be stuck like this forever.

The realization is sobering.

If I want a chance with Amber, I’d better become someone she wants to spend time with. It’s bad enough I’m poor and grew up a loser. She’s a knockout and smart and has a cell phone and maybe a car. I’ve got nothing. If I want to get her attention, it’s got to be for more than just running away and flushing my grades down the toilet. It may be too late to turn things around, though. What was I thinking with that letter and phone call?

Before I realize it, we pull into the bus station. As I come off the bus, my Uncle Brandon is waiting there, ready to help carry luggage. I don’t have much, just everything I own.

Uncle Brandon has aged since I saw him last. He’s my father’s younger brother. It’s weird being sent to stay with my father’s family because I haven’t seen or heard from my dad since he left. Uncle Brandon may be older now, but he’s always been nice to my brother and me.

I pull my bags out of the storage bay, and he grabs most of them, leaving me a crate and my backpack. I follow him to his truck where I place the crate at my feet and the backpack in my lap. I feel like I owe him for helping me. I don’t like to owe anyone anything. I’m not some indentured servant. Being indebted to family is the worst.

“The ride out okay?” he asks, interrupting my thoughts.

“It was all right. Just a lady talking the whole time.”

“Well, enjoy the peace and quiet at your grandma’s house. We decided that was the best place. She’s the closest to the high school, and you can help her around the house.”

I nod then spend the rest of the ride staring out the window, watching for places I might remember. Some things look familiar, like the Circus Drive-In and the tourists. Amber told me in a letter one of my favorite burger joints burned down and they’re not rebuilding it. I loved their loaded chili fries. It’s going to take some time to get used to the changes. But I do recognize that we aren’t very far from somewhere I’d like to go.

“Uncle Brandon, can we drive along the beach? It’s been forever since I’ve seen the ocean.” He gives me the look, the one only those who live here understand. Sometimes it calls to you and you have to go—take in the smell of the salty air, watch the tide tumble toward the shore, soak into the sand beneath your toes, hear the waves and shorebirds echo back and forth in a private conversation. It’s like a reset button for the soul.

We turn left down a side street and, after a few turns, bear left slowly along the boardwalk. There’s a breeze, and we roll the windows down despite the spring chill. I hear the metallic creak of bicycle wheels spinning, see dogs with lolling tongues dragging their people behind them, and notice couples strolling at a pace to match their conversation. Farther down, children laugh or scream as they slide, climb, and swing at playgrounds built next to the boardwalk. Other kids mill around stores or eat at tables out in front of restaurants and coffee shops.

I take slow deep breaths and watch waves crash as we head north. I see a few people climb on the breakers, looking for shells. What the hell am I thinking? This is a punishment, but I’m having trouble remembering why. I’ve gotten so used to waking in a cold sweat; I can’t believe this is deserved. I’m afraid, if I pinch myself, I might wake up and be back in my mother’s trailer where the nightmares torment me. Maybe no one will notice and I can stay through spring and even for the summer.

My stomach growls so loud, I look out the window so my uncle doesn’t see how red my face goes. I catch a glimpse in the side mirror.

“Bus food doesn’t stick, does it?” Uncle Brandon asks.

I try to laugh. “I guess not.”

“We’ve still got time. How about you and me grab a bite?”

“Okay.”

“I assume this won’t wreck your dinner if we grab something to hold you over. I think your grandmother is making her world-famous lasagna to welcome you.”

That last words lodge in my throat. I have to swallow before I choke. Don’t they realize I’m here because I’ve screwed up?

We park in front of a street-side shop. Uncle Brandon buys a couple of hot dogs, an order of cheese fries, and two Cokes.

“You want chili on the dogs?” he asks me.

“Sure,” I say.

“Make that two chili dogs,” he tells the cashier. We eat like two men sneaking an in-between meal, wolfing down our food in only a few minutes, sitting at a table along the sidewalk. The food is hot and fresh and reminds me of years ago, when safe was still a word I used.

“Thanks,” I say, my cheek stuffed full of hot dog. “This hit the spot.”

“No problem, my man.” I guess he and my father are related after all. They can’t help but be corny. My throat is tight again. I hate that I’m thinking about him right now. It must be the familiar sights stirring up long-forgotten memories.

“Uncle Brandon, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, anything.”

“How’d you turn out so normal?”

He looks at me for several moments before responding. “How do you mean?”

“Well, you are part of this family, right? It can get pretty crazy…”

Uncle Brandon laughs. “C’mon, let’s not keep your grandmother waiting.” We head back to his truck and drift into the comfort of silence.

The last time I was here for longer than a visit, my father left my brother and me standing in the doorway in our pajamas, sobbing, pleading for him to stay, not to go, not to leave us. Daddy, you can’t just go! I’d thought, if I screamed loud and long enough, he’d listen, come to his senses.

What was it that made him leave?

I’d clenched my jaw as his car door slammed, and then he drove away without looking back even once. Now, tears prick my eyes, but I let anger force them back down. I’ve never said that word since: Daddy.

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