The Packing House

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Chapter 40 | Family Reunion

When I get home, I hear voices in the back of the house. Grandma told me Uncle Brandon and Aunt Althea were coming for dinner, but they’re early. I expect to see them as I walk back toward the sounds, since their SUV’s parked out front.

Turning the corner, I’m not expecting the person who is actually speaking.

“I’ve been stateside for a while now. Didn’t think the time was right to come back just yet—” And then I see him. He turns and looks right at me, midsentence. Dad.

Sounds so much like his brother, Uncle Brandon; he’s taller, though, and in uniform. I knew the voice was different, but I’d told myself it had to be Uncle Brandon. Then it hits me.

“Who said you could come? No one wants you here. I told Mr. Faber not to let you come.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Joel.”

I know there are reasons he left that I haven’t gotten my head around yet, but it’s like the initial hurt needs to lash out before I can process the rest.

As an afterthought, he adds, “I shouldn’t have come.”

“You’re much better at leaving.”

My grandmother jumps in. “Joel.”

“He’s right. Let him be,” Uncle Brandon replies.

“You’ve every right to be pissed. I never explained why I left. Distance made it easy for me to get lost in silence. What good has that done? The truth is I never found the words to explain it myself. How was I supposed to tell any of you?” He’s on the verge of tears. Some soldier he turned out to be.

“You could have tried.”

After a pause: “Yes.” He stops short of saying any more.

“None of this would have happened if you’d stayed.” None of them have any idea what I mean by that.

Memories of every argument I ever imagined between us volley around my head. I scrunch my eyes. “Look, we don’t have to do this. It’s fine. I need to lie down. Headache.”

When I wake, it’s time for dinner, and my father hasn’t left. Neither has the headache. Our conversation remains safe until my father looks over and asks, “So, are you staying here for the summer?”

“Well, I’d like to, but I guess I have to ask Mom first. Uncle Brandon, do you think I could stay?” I notice my dad flinch.

“I don’t see the harm. Let’s ask your mother and see what she says.” He takes me to the office to make the call. My dad doesn’t seem to know how to fit in here. I’m glad to leave him in the other room.

“Carrie, hi, it’s Brandon.” He pauses. “We were talking over dinner about summer plans. What do you think about Joel staying here until the end of summer?” He pauses again. “Fine. Well, he’s here. You can ask him yourself,” he says, handing me the phone.


Either she’s oblivious or she doesn’t miss a beat. “How are you doing out there?”

“I got caught up with my classes, I’m going to tutoring, and I turned in my English portfolio today. My teacher thought it was so good, he wants me to enter it in a contest.”

“Sounds promising.”

“I think I’m going to do it.”

“All right. You want to stay there for the summer? Be my guest. My only condition is you’ve got to pass this year and get good grades. If you do that, you can stay. Otherwise, I put you back on the bus, and you’re out here with me. No beach for you. Hear me?”

“I hear you.”

“All right then. You can put your uncle back on the phone.” I pass the phone back without even saying goodbye. I don’t even realize until I’m already out of the room. I head back to the table to clear, but dinner is already cleaned up. I join the others in the living room. When Uncle Brandon comes out, I turn to see how the rest of the call went.

“She said you could stay as long as your grades were good. Think you can make it?”

“I know I can. By the way, I’ve been entered into a poetry contest run by Princeton University.”

I hear gasps and amazement.

“My teacher liked what I wrote, and he went there. He told me he called one of his professors and asked if I could submit late. After he faxed over some of my portfolio, they gave me permission to enter. I have a few days to decide. I didn’t even know I could write.”

“Are you serious?” my dad asks. “Didn’t you know that’s what our family is known for? Scrivener means writer.”

I’m just beginning to ponder the meaning of my family’s namesake, when two police cars pull up in front of Grandma’s house. The sirens turn on just as they arrive with a “boo-whoop boo-whoop,” red and blue lights flashing through the front window curtains, the glass in the front door, the picture frames and light fixtures, the television. I hear radio discussions over walkie-talkies but can’t make out what’s being said. I’m frozen in red-blue-red-blue lights. The doorbell rings. My dad answers.

“Good evening, officers. May we help you?”

“We need to speak with Joel Scrivener. Is he here?”

“He’s right here. Please, come in.”

And then I know why they’re here. They need me to give a statement about Steven Jacobs. This is how my family is going to learn what happened all those years ago.

So much for making a plan with Mr. Faber before breaking the news.

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