“Ames is leaving in the morning,” my mom told me when I opened it. “We just wanted to let you know.”
Another bang. My dad raised his eyebrows. I said, “Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” he told me. “It was a mutual decision.”
The continuing racket of the next hour said otherwise. Every drawer opened was closed with emphasis, the closet door rattling its frame after each use. It was concerning enough that, in the sudden quiet during one of Ames’s smoke breaks, I went over, poking the door open and peering in. I glanced over my shoulder, then went to the bed, where a row of boxes sat waiting. One was filled with books, paperback novels and a couple of titles about recovery and addiction. Another held some linens and towels, a few balled-up socks. The last was odds and ends: coffee cups, lighters, charging cords. In one corner was tucked a stack of pictures.
The one on top was of him and Peyton, standing on a sandy beach, probably during their Jacksonville trip. They had their arms around each other’s shoulders and were smiling. I flipped to the next: my brother again, this time at our kitchen table, a coffee drink at his elbow. He had one eyebrow raised, half-annoyed, waiting for the shutter to click. A shot of Ames and Marla standing in front of a Christmas tree. The last, at the bottom, was from Peyton’s graduation dinner at Luna Blu. I remembered my mom handing the waitress her phone so we could all be in it. My brother was in the middle in a crisp white shirt, my parents on either side of him. I was next to my mom, with Ames beside me, Marla on his other side. We were all smiling, the twinkling lights above us blurring as the flash popped.
Distantly, I heard my phone beep. I dropped the picture back into the box with the others, then went back to my room, where I walked over to my bed to see if the text I’d gotten was the one I’d been waiting for, about the showcase outcome. It wasn’t.
On way to hospital. This time, Mac had written for both of them. My mom. It’s bad.
* * *
There’s a lot you can do with a phone. Send a message or a picture. Get the weather, news, or horoscope. See and talk to someone in real time, play games, pay for parking. One thing technology still hadn’t mastered, though, was the actual act of being there. I’d been all right with settling for distance with the showcase. But not this.
It didn’t even occur to me to ask permission to go to the hospital. It was well past midnight and I’d had enough negative responses to more reasonable requests. Instead, in those panicked minutes after getting that three-sentence text, I put my phone aside, sat down at my desk, and wrote a note.
I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew my mom would probably only get to the second sentence before coming after me, disregarding the rest. It seemed important, though, that for this last argument, I get to have my say. If I was to be sentenced, I wanted the details of my crime, too, to be clear.
I’ve gone to U General. Layla and Mac’s mother is there, and I want to be there for them. I never wanted to disobey you, that night in the studio or now. I’m not Peyton. I’m doing this because I’m a good friend, not a bad daughter. I know you might not understand, but I hope you will try.
I left it on the keyboard of my open computer. Then I got my purse and jacket and left, shutting my door behind me. After all these months of watching the clock and biding my time, I knew I only had so long before being found out. I wasn’t the only one who could always hear the garage door opening.
Downstairs, the house was dark, except for one light on in the kitchen. I glanced in: it was empty. But then, when I put my hand on the door to the garage, someone was right behind me.
I felt a presence first, the heaviness of a body. Then heat. Finally, breath, right on the back of my neck. I froze, and a hand appeared right in front of my face, fingers spread across the door.
“And where are you going?”
Instinctively, I gripped the knob, turning it, and pulled hard. The door didn’t budge. I closed my eyes, willing myself to turn around, even though I knew it would mean us being face-to-face, if not nose to nose.
“Leave me alone,” I said to Ames, struggling to keep my voice both low and firm.
“Sydney, it’s midnight.” His voice was high, mocking. Clearly audible. Shit. “I don’t think your parents would like this.”
I turned around. All I could smell was cigarette smoke. We were uncomfortably close. I couldn’t step back, as I was against the door. He chose not to.
“Leave me alone,” I repeated. Instead, he moved in. When I lifted my hands, palms out, to push him back, he grabbed my wrists.
I surprised myself with the sound I made, a gasp, almost a shout. All this time, with him first just around, then living under our roof, I’d considered myself trapped. But I hadn’t been. I saw it clearly, now that I really was.
“Ames,” I said, but now my voice was wavering, “back off.”
Hearing this, he smiled, then tightened his grip on my wrists, pushing them back, back, against my ears. That was when I got scared.
But as he leaned in, closing his eyes, I knew I had to act. I’d been passive for so long. Watching TV all those long, lonely afternoons. At the nearby table, not telling my parents the things that scared me. All around, in this house, there were evidence and symbols of the girl I’d been but no longer wanted to be. Peyton wasn’t the only one locked up inside something.
I tried to turn my head as he put his lips on mine, squeezing my eyes shut, but he grabbed my face, jerking me back to face him. I could feel his fingers digging into my chin. “I want you to look at me,” he said.