The Packing House

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Chapter 43 | Phoenix Rising

I am still angry. Every day, I am irascible. I burn so long from my anger, the coal bed has turned to white ash while I blink and tear in the smoke. My clothes are singed, wisps curling up throughout the day. I try to extinguish the fury—this fire—but it burns on blindly before me. Every morning, it’s there again, from the moment I rise, phoenix-like and terrible, until I fall into bed at night, smoldering. Molten. Oil and wick. I’m struck by the fact I don’t know how to contain it; like it will, at any moment, implode inside me from its sheer potency and force.

Steven Jacobs took from me my childhood, my manhood, and nearly my life. I never offered those things to him. He simply reached out and took them.

“. . .But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. . .”

Yet, I’m still here, alive and breathing, born again. Every day, I keep coming down to the beach. And, every day, I place my anger like a hot brand into the ocean; hear the hiss as it sinks beneath the waves, swallowed by its depths. It’s big enough—the ocean, that is. It can take all of my anger. I am not big enough to contain it.

The ocean is like a mirror, reflecting back what I miss or need to sort through. I spend time thinking here. I used to run from my life, from even the simple, ordinary little things. Learning people’s names. Listening to their interests. Realizing it’s not all about me. There’s more past the end of my nose.

“. . .Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. . .”

I’ve remembered how to dream. I don’t have to let nightmares overtake me or drag me down to the depths anymore. Now, I control them—I can risk dreaming again—allow my heart to take chances and harbor hope like something lost, now found at sea.

So, I keep coming.

Expectant. Waiting. I want to hear from someone, something. God, maybe. Once, I thought the ocean would stand up from its stone valley and talk to me. I think things like that sometimes. They seem important, like shells under beach sand that only I can find. I should write them down. They have meaning, significance, even when I don’t understand it all yet.

So, I write.

Writing, too, helps me to calm down. When I get so angry I can’t breathe or see straight, everything is tinted, edged in red. Then I know I have to write. Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I know I can get my head around it, reshape it, hammer words onto a page until they change, transform into something beautiful.

“. . .’I was getting to where I could see the truth. Someday I’ll be brave enough to speak it.’. . .”

Like now, at sunset.

I realize I’m not alone. I wonder how long she has been watching me. I turn and see Amber standing behind me, sandals dangling from the hook of her finger. Her arms are crossed and her lips are pursed, like she’s trying to figure something out. She scrunches her eyes, holding her hand up to block the sun.

“You came,” I say.

“Well, I didn’t leave, if that’s what you meant,” she replies.

I turn back and lean my head on my knees, wrapping my arms around my legs for warmth. It got cold suddenly, sitting on the sandy beach. Amber sits down next to me, I’m not sure why. We stare in silence for a while, watching the sun start to dip in the sky, like a paintbrush streaking pink and orange over the blueness. Amber turns to me.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Joel?”

“Tell you what?”

“About what happened to you all those years ago? I was there at the poetry slam. You took the breath right out of me. And I’m not the only one.”

I want to yell at her for coming to the slam and leaving like that, but I’m the one who left her in the dark. Instead, I take a deep breath and sigh. I might have growled also, I’m not sure.

“It’s still pretty new for me. I only just remembered it myself,” I say.

“I didn’t know it was something private—you chose a pretty public way to share it.”

“The last time, I didn’t get a choice. The whole school found out. My brother posted it online. It got out of control pretty quick.”

“And now? After the slam?”

“Better. I feel more in control this time.”

“I’ve missed your writing. You’ve got such a talent. I could never write like that. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“Do you mean that?” I ask. “I’ve never read anything you’ve written. Why haven’t you shared anything with me?”

“You’ve read my letters.”

“Yeah, but they don’t count. It’s not the same thing.”

“Fair enough. Tell you what. Come with me this summer on our youth trip, and I’ll bring my best writing.”

“It’s not all churchy, is it?”

“The trip or the writing?”


“No, we rent a beach house and go out on a boat. One year, we saw a whale. You should give it a try. As for the writing, you’ll have to be the judge.”

“I don’t know. That’s asking an awful lot just to read your crummy writing.”

“It is not!” She punches me hard in the shoulder.

“Prove it,” I say, taunting her. “You’ve never had trouble speaking your mind before. What’s stopping you?”

“Fine. Maybe I will. You come out here to be alone, but you’re not the only one who’s ever been broken.” Then, almost to herself, she adds, “I realize that now. You know, I could have shown it to you if you were still coming to the Writing Center. Why’d you stop?”

“I don’t know. It was crazy a few weeks ago. I wasn’t exactly good company for anyone. It’s a hell of a deep well. Sometimes, I’m still not okay.”

“That’s understandable.”

Amber pulls her jacket on. For a moment, she looks like she’s on fire, the orange sun shimmering behind her as it descends toward the horizon. I stretch.

We watch the waves for a few minutes.

“It’s funny how things never seem to turn out the way you expect.”

“Tell me about it,” she says, wrapping her arms around herself. “The things… I thought I knew…” She looks at me, and I can see something shift.

“Joel, I have to tell you something.”

“Okay, I’m listening.”

“You heard my parents separated, right?” I nod. “They’re probably getting a divorce.”

“Wow. I never thought that would happen.”

“Me, neither.”

I wait and watch as she gathers herself, collecting her thoughts, maybe deciding if she’s going to let go of the last of her secrets.

“My father was arrested, Joel. He’s done something, and it only just came out. I almost didn’t come tonight, but I had to find you. It was your poem that brought me here.” She’s holding my hands and looking at me with such fear, it nearly breaks me in two. Now it all makes sense.

“Not you, too,” I say, pulling her into an embrace before tears take hold and neither of us can speak.

Amber takes a step back, sliding her arms along the sides of my upper arms. “No, Joel. Not the same. He rigged a way to watch me through the air vent in the office. The vent shares a wall with my bedroom. Mom found him holding a candle up to the vent, gawking at me, and he was so startled, he couldn’t lie his way out of it.”

“That’s horrible. Your own father. How are you feeling?”

“It’s surreal. Like it happened to someone else. I don’t know how to make any sense out of it.”

“The good news is you don’t have to. Remember the trip to the lighthouse, when your mother made you wear that dress?”

“Yeah, that makes me feel so old.”

“You’re not that old yet. Although I never realized how similar your feet are to my grandmother’s. Yikes!”

“Joel!” She shoves me away from her, trying to be mad, but she’s laughing, too.

“Well, at least we’re laughing. I haven’t had much to laugh about, myself.” There won’t be a more perfect time than now I realize, so I stand up and pivot around until I’m facing her. I reach down to take her hands, and she’s already reaching up to take mine. “Wait here a sec, okay?” I give her hands a squeeze and try to let go, but her eyes are pulling me in like the tide tugging at the shore. Still, I break away and grab my backpack.

From inside I pull out flameless pillar candles and light them, twisting them down into the sand in a circular space. Amber stands at the edge, waiting for me to complete the circle. I turn on the MP3 my aunt and uncle got me for passing my sophomore year and offer Amber an ear bud while I put the other one in my ear. I slide my hand around her waist and take her other hand in mine, and we dance at the edge of the world, the sky, and the sand. My heart hammers in my chest like a fierce bird on fire, freed from its cage, ready to rise.

I haven’t felt freer than this moment in my entire life.

If we wanted to, I think we could dance off into the clouds. Instead, we turn circles inside our candles that give just enough light before the stars emerge in the darkening sky above.

Amber stops, the flicker of a question crossing her face. She tilts her head.

“How do you do it?”

“What do you mean?”

“The candles. The music. Us dancing. How do you separate all that you’ve gone through from right now?”

“Well, you’ve owed me this dance since you walloped my shoulder all the way back at the lighthouse.”

“No, I’m serious, Joel. It’s got to be tough. How are you doing?” Her eyes are searching, penetrating.

I don’t know how to put it into words. Until you’re broken, you cannot be healed. Until you’re empty, you cannot be filled. Until you catch yourself holding your breath, you don’t realize you’re no longer breathing.

I can’t answer her right away. My throat is too tight for some reason. I have such a desire to kiss Amber right now, but I’m scared to act on it. Would she let me? Then I remember she asked me a question.

“Okay, I guess. Although the police came and told me I might not be able to press charges.”

“What? Why?”

“There’s this ‘statute of limitations’ thing that protects the accused. Apparently, I took too long remembering. It was more than ten years ago.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“They’re still checking into it. It’s up to a judge what I can do at this point. They haven’t even found him. The hardest part for me is it’s like it never even happened. Like it’s not real or I made it up.”

“You can’t make up something like that, Joel. You know it’s real. No matter what a judge or a court says. Maybe you should fight it.”

“I don’t know if I’m up for a fight. I get so angry. And I hate myself for feeling that way. That’s why I come here. I need to get rid of it before it consumes me. Also, writing helps. If only I had a friend who could console me in my hour of need.”

“You’re such a dork,” she says, grabbing sand and throwing it in my direction.

I laugh, not because I think it’s funny, but in surprise. I’m sharing things that are deeply felt, personal things, and she throws sand? I grab wet clumpy fistfuls and throw them right at her, from point-blank range. I scramble after her and chase her down the hill toward the water, grabbing sand ammo along the way.

Amber has already armed herself and tosses spurts of sand like tiny clouds that shower down all over me in grainy rain. I don’t care. I ignore the sand and push myself to close the distance between us. I empty my hands of ammunition all on Amber and move in for the tackle.

We’re splashing in the water, clothes getting soaked, but the heat between us is warm and intoxicating. Our eyes lock. I’m swimming in golden flecks, her brown eyes. My hands find the small of her back, tracing the indentation along her spine, nudging her closer. She smiles, sidling nearer. I hold her hips and pull her to me, fingers hooked in her belt loops.

We allow our bodies to press together like dancers then follow our instincts, lips touching with electric crackling energy—we’ve put this off far too long. We are crashing waves like the ones pooling at our feet. I lose all sense of time, nothing else matters but this moment. She kisses me back as much as I kiss her. I find myself gasping to catch my breath. She lets out a faint sigh.

I no longer notice the sun, large and fiery, sinking into the horizon.

The water has risen to our hips. We come to our senses and realize the sun has gone from yellow to orange to a deep crimson red and the sky has deepened to the blue of twilight.

We laugh, two drunk swimmers who have found a sunken treasure, traveling far to reach land and air again. This finally seems right to me, I know it in my gut; the stomach-flutter quivers of two stones crashing together, the beginning spark of love. We climb out of the water and head up the beach, stumbling but happy to have found new hope together.

That night, when I push away from shore in the boat of sleep, I travel to the middle of the lake. I have been here before. This lake. This boat. It is as familiar to me as blank lines on a page waiting to be filled. But something has changed.

When I look to the shore, expecting to see him, no one is there. My younger self is no longer there, either.

I return to the shore and see signs of a scuffle in the dirt. I know we’ve been here, but somehow I got away. As I start to walk away from the pond, I am surrounded by darkness, then a flicker, a flame far off. I head in that direction. Something draws me toward this light.

Then I sense the ground has changed.

I walk on stone. Before me, a corridor juts out; torches are ensconced at regular intervals. I follow the passage until it reaches a corner. When I turn, I realize where I am.

The stairwell.

I start down. As I begin to go down the stairs, it occurs to me I don’t have to keep going. I can turn around and head back up. Only I don’t. I want to know for sure. I reach the bottom and turn the corner into the crypt. The two rooms are dark, empty.

I am alone here.

I finally do what I should have done long ago. I head back up the stairs and keep walking. I don’t look back.


On a day just like any other, I head to the grocery store to grab a short list of things for Grandma. Amber is joining us for dinner. I head down the soup aisle, checking over my list written on a Post-it. My radar goes off. I hear a scuffle in the next aisle over. Some parent must be wigging out on their son.

“C’mere, once-et. I said c’mere!” A voice I would know anywhere. I don’t even think. I start to run down the aisle. The sounds of their conversation recede toward the back of the store.

But, when I get to the end of the aisle, I can’t find him or the younger voice I heard with him. I turn this way and that, but I’m dizzy, disoriented. I falter in my steps.

They’ve got to still be somewhere in the store. I take off for the front and start scanning the lines, checking each register for Steven Jacobs and companion. Nothing.

I still don’t have a cell phone. I turn to the nearest cashier.

“Call the police. A child has been kidnapped. I’m not kidding. Call them, now!”

I make for the door and hope I’m not too late. I frantically scan the parking lot.

And then I see it. His pickup truck is unmistakable: A 1986 Ford F150 with a stupid blue cab and a scratched-up navy blue bed, his bright orange Adventurer tackle box careening around the back of the truck as he turns left out of the parking lot onto the road. And the one thing I’m staring at as I absorb each detail like it’s part of a police report: the boy-sized baseball cap bouncing with the lilt of the truck in the passenger seat.


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