The Packing House

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Chapter 9 | Laughter Isn't Always the Best Medicine

I startle awake sometime late, sensing someone standing over me, their eyes cutting through me. Bile rises in my throat. I focus on slowing my breaths until I no longer see those flickering eyes staring back at me. When I look around, no one is there.

I must have drifted off thinking about Amber’s hair pulled back except her one long bang in the center. “‘Things are rough all over,’” she says, tucking her hair behind her ear.

My heart beats grasshoppers all over my chest.

The bedroom light is still on. My mother and brother are asleep. As I search to find a clock, the trailer is completely dark. It’s the middle of the night. I hear the jangle of a dog chain as I get a drink of water. Since I’m still in clothes, I strip down and head back to bed.

Eventually, sleep comes.

This time I’m already in the room at the bottom of the stone stairs. I’m alone. The ceilings vault upward toward a center point like a tent. This is no circus. In front of me are two cells about the same size. They remind me of a jail. I want to leave before something shows up.

Turning behind me, I head toward the crack in the wall partway down. Actually, it’s a narrow passage. Since nothing is bearing down on me, I look more closely. I must have missed it before. Passages jut off to the left and right. If I run straight, it does dead-end, but there are several offshoots before I run out of passage.

Behind me, lights flicker. There’s a distinct intake of breath, and I feel those horrible eyes studying me. I turn. A deep, booming voice chuckles, almost playful—a resonating rumble near the two cells—a laugh stretching back down the passage where I stand. A chill pings like a tuning fork up the center of my back and around my neck. My skin prickles down my arms and legs.

The air around me is sucked out like a vacuum. My throat slams shut, jagged from the absence of air. I try to swallow. How does it know? The booming gets louder, pounding against my head, all the way to the edges of each hair and the tips of my fingers. I’ve got to run, but which way? I head back toward the fiend who knows too much and falter.

“You’ll have to face me eventually. Run if you want. It’s better that way.” I try not to hear the rest. Instead, I pour all my energy into moving forward.

Partway up, I turn left and make a break for it.

I run away from the light, so the path darkens with every step. Behind me, a large form blocks the remaining light, filling the space from floor to ceiling. I stop to catch my breath and lean on the wall to my right. The surface is cold. I run and hope for an opening, up and out.

It knows it has me. I run out of passage and slump against the wall, palms flat against the clammy surface. The air is chill, or is that me? Hot chugging breath bears down, filling in the enclosed space. Its laughter slows like a heartbeat, thudding in my skull. There’s no way out; I might as well let it do what it wants. It grips me hard in its claws, one on either side.

I feel a sharp prick in the middle of my back.

Searing pain tears my insides. It radiates out in every direction.

When I wake, I gasp while my hands grasp frantically for the middle of my back, fingers slipping around an old, bulky pair of headphones. Flipping over, I lay prone on my stomach, panting, until my senses adjust, and I know I’m back in the trailer—it was just another one of my stupid nightmares.

Breathe. Breathing is good. That’s about all I can handle. I close my eyes and pray it’s morning soon.

When morning hits, light slants through the blinds, cutting past my eyelids and bringing me to an upright, awake position. Whatever dreams I had are whisked away by harsh light. I’ve got to get curtains up or turn my blinds the other way.

I feel run over by a Mack Truck that backed over me again for good measure. My head throbs, and my back is still sore from the headphones. Every vein hammers the insides of my skull and begs me to turn over and go back to sleep. But sleep isn’t a comfort. Not after last night.

Swinging my legs over the side, I sit up on the edge of the mattress, rub the heaviness of exhaustion from my face, and push my blankets back behind me on the bed. Today is a day for coffee. I’ve gotta do something to pull myself out of bed. Thankfully, my mother set up the coffee pot the night before.

We might be poor—we may not have cell phones or the latest tech—but we always have coffee. I pour a cup and then concoct some mixture of chocolate syrup, creamer, coffee, and a few turns of caramel, like I’ve seen done at coffee shops. I succeed in masking much of the coffee flavor and enjoy my morning joe while the others sleep. Sitting at the kitchen table, it’s nice to have the place to myself. With hands wrapped in warmth, I take my time drawing in sips.

My mother has stacks of bills out in various piles. I flip through a few and notice something. Most of them have thirty days, or sixty days past due stamped on them in red.

It looks like Samuel isn’t the only reason we moved.

Then I see something I missed, tucked under one of the piles. One of the casinos she frequents sent her an itemized sheet listing her recent transaction history—she’s gambling again. Mostly losing. Those weekends we thought she was with Samuel, she must have been at the reservation, and she was using bill money. Now she’s way behind. Talk about nightmares. But these don’t go away when morning arrives.

As I stand from the table and back away from all those papers, I catch a glimpse of an envelope sporting Amber’s curlicue handwriting. Did she write me again? I grab it and head for my room.

I’m not going to stick around and find out what happens next. I’ve had it. I don’t care if she’s a single parent. I’ve got too much going on myself to worry about the electricity being turned off and running out of food. I don’t want to be a part of begging at local churches for food money or end up back in some roach-infested homeless shelter, when I know she had the money but gambled it away.

I’m a kid and I get this. You go to work, you get paid, and you pay your bills. Adults are supposed to be responsible. Why the hell am I the one who has to manage things? Screw her. I’m not taking any more of this shit. Enough’s enough.

While everyone’s still asleep, I grab my backpack, clear it out, add a few books, Amber’s letters, my deodorant and toothbrush. Dressing in jeans, I tuck in another pair, grab underwear and socks, some T-shirts and a hoodie. I have toothpaste I keep for after lunch at school. I tie a windbreaker around my waist.

Heading to the kitchen, I gather snacks to last a few days. I grab a small jar of peanut butter, a few sleeves of crackers, the last Terrors Samuel had at the townhouse, and a few apples. I’d better get going before someone wakes up and I’m trapped. The last thing I nab is a twenty from my mother’s purse.

I’m gonna do it.

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