The Packing House

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Chapter 5 | Bathed in Fire

When my parents were still a couple, they took a trip to a lighthouse up the coast with one of the other young families that had moved into our neighborhood. I met Amber for the first time on that trip, despite our living near each other by the shore. We were young, maybe four or five. Her parents introduced themselves, and that weekend we all went to the beach together.

Amber and I held hands as we crossed a long bridge. At the other end, I raised our hands so they were stacked, one on top of the other, like two dancers at their first waltz. My father snapped pictures with his camera. Now that is just a frozen moment of memory, lost to time and circumstances.

The lighthouse rose up hundreds of feet nearby the two of us, white on the bottom and red on the top; our parents were lost in adult chatter just ahead. It’s one of the clearest and earliest memories I have. I was happy. The sun sparked off Amber’s brown hair in fiery red edges. I noticed the smell and spray of the ocean and how she’d brought a book with her to read.

“I might get bored,” she said, a challenge.

“Wanna go chase seagulls?”


Amber shoved her book in the back of her sash that was tied around the waist of the dress her mother had insisted she wear, something with purple flowers. We ran across the scrub grass and rocks while seagulls shrilled. They swooped down among the shells and washed-up muck, scrounging food. Of course, our parents called out, “Come here, Joel,” and, “Stop that, Amber, you’ll ruin your lovely dress.” On our way back to the bridge, Amber nailed my shoulder out of nowhere. I didn’t see it coming. From that day on, I was blown away…

My mother, brother, and I moved after my father left. Letters were how Amber and I stayed in touch. Sometimes I included a story or a poem. After our blowout from the basement incident a few years ago, I had to write many stories and poems for weeks before she even responded again. I don’t know what I would have done if she had stopped all together.

Despite my best efforts, I give up on sleep after one a.m. Reading fails me. Writing what I want to say to Amber fails. I need to call, but we don’t have long distance, and I’m positive her parents won’t accept the charges.

I couldn’t take it if she turned on me. Amber’s the last person I have to depend on. She’s my anchor, my strength.

I close my eyes, praying rest comes.

Instead, it’s choppy and restless, crashing waves of sheets and blankets in the shoreline of my bed. I can’t get comfortable. At some indeterminate point, I drift into ink-black waters where I’m pulled down into torpid darkness.

I descend again, down achingly familiar stone stairs. Why can’t I stop? Fire flickers near the bottom. Around a corner, the low rumbling timber of a strange voice sniggers.

My hands and feet go numb. I don’t want to find out what’s down there. My gut contorts. Go back up the stairs. Run the other way.

Still, I continue down. I might as well be perched on my shoulders, watching. My stomach muscles clench and flip. I wipe clammy hands on pant legs.

Light dances across my face, bathing me in flames. I turn where two darkened rooms remind me of a crypt. When a quick burst of light flashes across my back, something luminous and fiery notices, and then pursues me. I run away toward the left into darkness.

The guttural rumbles pick up. The heat and flames lick at every stone, throwing light and shadow jaggedly in front of me, and I flee with all my might away from the massive presence bearing down. I can’t get away. I feel myself losing ground.

I press on toward a slim passage between two stone walls, only a few more steps in front of me. This thing chugs and fumes, hot sulfuric breath beating at my neck, a freight train on top of me. I stumble forward and push off from the walls wedged on either side of me.

I can’t get away. I can’t get away. The passage narrows. I have nowhere left to go.

I jolt awake in my bed like I’m bursting out from under churning waters. The sting of air hurts as it hitches and burns down my throat. My chest rises and falls. I’m okay… for now.

“Dude, d’you have another nightmare?” Jonathan sounds out of it. Must’ve woken him up.

“Sorry, man. Go back to sleep.”

Errggghhh. He rolls over and starts symphonic snoring. Fantastic.

My whole body is drenched in sweat; it rolls down my back in beads before bursting in a pool and soaking the sheets. I wipe my face. Our room is humid and sticky. Every nerve ending prickles as I pant.

I am grateful for air and that nothing is devouring me in flames and heat and sulfur and darkness.

“Jon, you asleep?” No answer.

I haven’t figured out where these nightmares come from. They’re going to kick my butt if I can’t stay above the surface. I squint at Jonathan. How much does he know? He’s not letting on. I can’t ignore these dreams. They come from somewhere. Maybe they’re trying to tell me something, but what exactly?

I must be losing my mind. This would never happen to a normal person. Everyone can’t have nightmares with demons lurking, so why me? My heart jackhammers in my chest. A flash bursts behind my eyes.

…He shoves me from behind. His weight presses me to the floor…

Why does my demon have to come after me like I’m the only meal he’s had in ages? I don’t even know what time it is. I can’t see anything without my glasses; the clock’s a bunch of red-number blurs.


Nope, nothing.

”...You had this coming. Make a sound and you’re dead…”

I could be up all night. I sit and wait for something to tell me what comes next. Nothing comes.

“…Not a word...”

Shit. Shit. Shit.

“…Make a sound and you’re dead…”

My breathing slows, and I slump back in damp bedclothes. I spread out my palms and lie prone against the mattress, expecting the surface to crumble away and drag me back down like the video for that Linkin Park song. Instead, it feels solid, mattress-like, real. I lie there for some indiscriminate length of time and stare at the ceiling. The words to the song pound in my head like an ear-worm. The urge to run presses against my temples. I breathe and breathe until my eyelids grow heavy, and sleep draws me back down into dreamless darkness.

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