The Packing House

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Chapter 30 | Reunion

“Amber. Uh, I can explain,” I say, fumbling and backing away with a mouthful of sandwich. I can’t help myself; I’m hopelessly distracted by her dark, slim skirt and front-button top. Green is hot on a girl with red hair.

She pauses, taking an almost imperceptible breath. I would have missed it had I not mirrored the same breath, the same sighed exhale. I know what I’m thinking—the earth just tilted, and I lean into it, facing her—and I’m pretty sure I know what she’s thinking. But when I step closer and my hands reach out to pull her closer, I catch myself.

Something in her demeanor shifts, and I watch in alarm as she buries the thought that just flashed across the curves of her face. I’ve seen that look before, and I have zero desire to go back there. Too bad that doesn’t stop her from crossing her arms while I chew and swallow the half-masticated bite. It’s painful all the way down. Where did everything go? It started off so well and then… While I feel the lump sliding down my throat, I try to think of something to say. By the look on her face, I can tell this is the wrong time to bring up the stuff I remembered about her father from the basement. “So, I tried to write a story for you on the bus trip out here. Maybe I can go over what I finished with you later?”

I’ve officially shelved the letter until further notice.

Amber purses her lips. If she wasn’t irritated, that would look damn sexy.

“Joel. I got your letter. I read it. Why…?” For a moment, she’s overcome, eyes shimmering. Then she shifts back and harpoons me with those eyes, searching. “What’s happened to you?”

“I don’t know. A lot’s changed.”

This would be so much better if we were on the beach right now, instead of in the cafeteria.

“Are you going to be okay?”

“I think so. I’m staying with my grandmother.”

“But what happened? Why’d you run away?”

“Well, I did run away, until I got caught. Then I had to see some shrink.”

“Do you really think running away was the best choice?”

“Maybe. I couldn’t stay there any longer. You know how awful the shelter was the last time.”

“You’ve transferred here? Why? What is this about a shrink?”

“I got shipped back here to stay with my grandmother and finish out the year, since I’m failing most of my classes. That was decided after the psych eval.” Everything I say sounds awkward. My mind whirls, a plane with one wing and no engines. This is total crash and burn. Her eyes flick across me, up and down and, oh, God, how I want her to keep looking.

I don’t know if I can keep my hands away from tugging her close, and I’m not sure I want to, either. Standing here, I can smell the bloom of her perfume, the air ripe with jasmine that draws me in. I inhale, afraid she’ll be gone again too soon.

I can’t tell why she hasn’t responded yet. “Amber? What’s going on? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She startles, her eyes suddenly wide and piercing. What if I remind her of her stalker? Sadness creeps across her face, and my senses go numb.

“I… underestimated you. You’ve completely changed, and not entirely for the better. There’s something unsaid. You were supposed to be—” She pauses, collecting herself before continuing. “I thought I knew you better, but I guess not. You’re like most other boys who’ve crossed my path. Broken. Look, I’ve gotta go. I’ll see you around.” She turns and walks back to her table. Her steps clip hard against the ground. I can’t tell if her voice cracked at the end. My body refuses to move.

Her words buzz around my head, and I go down in flames. Did I hear her right? That was not the verve I wanted. Now I’m here, and she doesn’t want anything to do with me. Did I read that right? I think I may have scared her somehow. How can I fix this? She’s hurt, and didn’t let me explain.

My mind goes blank. I’m a writer, and I can’t formulate a single coherent thought, a phrase that would explain things better with Amber. Silence is probably better.

I finish the sandwich, but my appetite’s gone. I shove the rest in my backpack. Reviewing what she said doesn’t make it any better. Maybe I should lie down in front of a bus.

After the fallout with Amber, I slog through the rest of the day. My last class is study hall, but instead of attending, I have to report to guidance for one of those required counseling sessions. I forgot to tell Mr. Castell, so I go to his class and ask for a pass. After school, I have mandatory tutoring at the Writing Center.

“Actually, I have your pass right here. They sent it to me this morning. Guess I missed it during class. My bad.” Adults should not use our phrases. Mr. Castell lands at the top of my dork list.

“I don’t know how long I’ll have these appointments instead of study hall.”

“I’ll check with the counselor and find out. Thank you, Joel. If your appointment runs the whole period, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I head down to the office and ask for guidance. One of the secretaries takes me over past the front counter and down a hall. She points to a glassed-in door with windows instead of a wall. “See the sign for gui-dance? It’s right there. You have a good rest of the da-ay.” I think she’s had one too many Diet Co-okes.

I go in, present my appointment slip, then take a seat. The appointment is with Mr. Faber. Just like Ms. Moore, he’s a school psychologist. I wonder if they have a secret network, sharing stories of their students, like who’s the craziest kid they know. I can picture their emails and phone calls to each other. They might even attend conferences about us. I imagine Ms. Moore calling Mr. Faber about me…

“Hi, Mark. It’s Madeline. I’ve got a doozy for you. Joel Scrivener. He’s completely delusional. I think he might be the next big serial killer. Think you can handle him?”

I’m sure they had a laugh about my file, all the way to the espresso machine.

I think she overnighted my information, so Mr. Faber could see what kind of psychopath he got. When he appears, he scans the file for my name.

“Joel. Welcome. Do come on back. Ms. Moore told me a lot about you. I’m glad to meet you in person.”

He offers me a limp handshake and ushers me back to his office. I sure hope this is only for a week and not the rest of the school year.

Mr. Faber’s office is not as cushy as Ms. Moore’s. There’s a table and chairs by the windows, two arm chairs, and a few very sparse decorations. The walls have motivational posters with people climbing mountains or running marathons.

“Joel, I’ve looked over your file and the results of your recent evaluation administered by Ms. Moore at your previous school. Part of the reason you were sent here was because I attended the same graduate school as Ms. Moore. When your mother mentioned to her you had family in Oceanside, she contacted me to see what my caseload was like and whether I could add you or not.”

I start to freak out, hearing how this is all connected. Are all the adults planning to ruin my life? I’m stuck with Mr. Faber. How’s he gonna help?

I only half-listen to him blather on about how everyone is concerned for my well-being, how they want to help me face my problems with my parents’ divorce, and how those problems have manifested lately with my running away, and fighting with my brother. All behaviors that cry out for help, and Mr. Faber wants to help me by responding to my request. Same shit, different day. I almost miss what he says next.

“Joel, we have contacted your father and asked him to come in for a meeting next week. Your grandmother has his contact information, and I understand you’re staying with her right now?”

I knew I was coming out to Oceanside to stay with my father’s family, but I had no idea I might see him again, especially after the way he left. I’m not sure I want to see him, either.

“I don’t want anything to do with him. Why would you call him? You didn’t even ask me. Why does every adult think they know what I need better than me? I’m not coming to that meeting. Call him back and cancel.”

As I stand, I grab my backpack and turn to head for the door. Mr. Faber puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Joel, I can certainly—” he begins.

“Get off me! Stop touching me!” I explode, turning back to face him. I grab his creepy limp hand and fling it down off my shoulder then bolt for the door. Tears well up, and I have to stifle them, pressing them back down with the surge of anger that’s flooding my insides.

Why would I want to talk to my father after all these years? I don’t even know where to begin. Even if I could put my thoughts into words, I wouldn’t have anything nice to say.

What an asshole.

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