“Remember what we were talking about, Julie,” Ames said. “First things first.”
She gave him a grateful look. “I know. But I should at least bow out gracefully. I’ll be right back.”
With that, she was gone, padding up the stairs to the War Room. Which left me with Ames.
“So,” he said, leaning forward. “Now that it’s just us, tell me the truth. How are you really?”
He always smelled like cigarettes, even if he hadn’t just smoked one. I eased back a bit. “Okay. It’s a change, but I wanted to do it.”
“Bet it’s been hard to follow in Peyton’s less-than-ideal footsteps. My little bro felt the same way.”
I nodded, picking up a cookie and taking a bite. I wished my mom would hurry up and come back downstairs.
“You know,” he continued, “if you ever need to talk, I’m here. About Peyton. About anything. Okay?”
No thanks, I thought. But out loud I said, “Okay.”
By the next day at lunch, I was already dreading the final bell. I had no idea how often Ames came over in the afternoons, but I was certain I did not want to see him, much less talk to him, especially if my mom wasn’t around. Thinking this, though, I immediately felt a pang of guilt. He hadn’t done anything except creep me out. And that wasn’t a punishable offense.
I knew I could say something to my mom. But she had so much on her mind, and Ames was Peyton’s best friend. He’d been supportive during this last crisis, and every one since he’d been in the picture. Even when my dad was sick of hearing about Lincoln and the warden and Peyton’s appeal, Ames listened. I didn’t want her to lose him, too. Especially since I had nothing specific to point to, just a feeling. Everybody has those.
There had been a time when I told my mom everything. Even after Jenn came into the picture, and then Meredith, I’d always considered her my best friend. We just saw things the same way. Until we didn’t.
It started with Peyton’s initial busts, how surprised I’d been to hear her defend him, even when he did the indefensible. No matter the offense, she could find some reason it was not entirely my brother’s fault. And then there was David Ibarra.
In those first days after the accident, as my parents dealt with bail and lawyers, all I could think of was this kid, just a little younger than me, lying in a hospital bed. I knew from the reports I both came across and sought out that he was paralyzed and not expected to walk again, but there were not that many more details, at least initially. I had so many questions. I couldn’t help but ask them.
“Shouldn’t we apologize?” I said one day. “Like, in the paper, or make a statement?”
She gave me a heavy, sad look. “It’s an awful thing that happened, Sydney. But the law is complicated. It’s best if we just try to focus on moving forward.”
The first time I heard this, it made me think. By the fourth or fifth, I saw it for the party line it was. I looked at David Ibarra and saw shame and regret; my mother saw only Peyton. From that point on, I was convinced that no matter what we looked at, our views would never be the same.
My fourth day at Jackson, I was sitting at lunch with a turkey sub, flipping through my math textbook, when I felt somebody slide onto the wall a bit down from me. I heard some clicking noises, followed by the plucking of guitar strings. When I glanced over, I saw a guy in black glasses, jeans, and a vintage-looking button-down shirt, a guitar in his lap, strumming away.
He wasn’t playing a song as far as I could tell. It was more bits and pieces: a chord here, a short melody there. Every once in a while, he’d hum for a second, or sing a phrase, sometimes pausing to jot in a notebook beside him. I went back to my textbook. A few minutes later, though, I heard a voice.
“Oh, Eric. Really?”
I looked up, and there was Layla. She had on shorts, an oversize floral-print T-shirt, and strappy sandals, her blonde hair loose over her shoulders. As I watched, she put her hands on her hips, cocking her head to one side.
“What?” the guy said. “I’m practicing.”
“Oh please, you are not,” she replied. “You’re running your tired game on this poor girl, and it’s not going to work because I already warned her about you.”
He stopped playing. “Warned her? What am I, a predator now?”
“Just slide over.”
He did, looking displeased, and she plopped down between us, turning to face me. “I’ve been looking for you. I should have known Eric would find you first, though. He’s got a nose for new blood.”
“Okay, you really need to stop now,” Eric said.
Layla flipped her hand at him, as if he were a gnat circling. To me she said, “I’m not saying I believe you are a girl who would fall for this act; I wouldn’t insult you that way. But I was. So I’ve made it my mission to spare others my experience.”
“We,” the guy said, doing one big strum for emphasis, “have been broken up for over a year. I think you can stop now.”
She turned to look at him, again tilting her head to the side. Then she reached out and brushed his hair back from his forehead. “You need a haircut. Shaggy Hipster doesn’t suit you.”
“Don’t touch me,” he grumbled, but it was good-natured, I could tell. He went back to playing, leaning over the guitar, and she smiled, then turned back to me.
“Eric’s in a band with my brother,” she told me. “They’re pretty awful, actually.”
“Her brother,” Eric corrected her, “plays drums in my band. And we’re in transition.”