I kept my eyes closed. “No.”
“Sydney.” The grip tightened. “Look at me.”
“No.” My voice came out tight, like a scream. It was only when I heard it that I realized my right hand was free.
“Just—” he began, but then my palm was connecting with his face, the sound of skin to skin loud, a smack, and he stumbled backward, bumping into the wall behind him. I reached down for the doorknob, now pressed into my spine, my fingers grappling and sliding, trying to get a grip on it. I’d just twisted it open and turned around, almost free, when he grabbed me around the waist. This time I did scream, and pulled as hard as I could away from him, throwing every bit of my weight in the opposite direction. I wasn’t budging, totally stuck, and then suddenly, in a snap of a moment, I was stumbling forward, loose, down the steps to the garage.
I put out my hand, touching the front fender of my mom’s car to steady myself. Then I turned, expecting him to come at me again. Instead, I saw my dad.
He had one arm hooked around Ames’s neck, tight, the fist clenched, and was pulling him backward down the hallway, away from me. It was all so crazy and quick, and the only thing I could concentrate on was the sound of Ames’s feet jerking across the floor. My father had a look on his face I’d never seen before. I almost didn’t recognize him.
“What were you going to do?” he was saying, the words punctuated with deep, jagged breaths. “What were you going to do?”
“Hey,” Ames squeaked, reaching up to try to free himself. “I can’t—”
“Are you okay?” my dad asked me, ignoring him.
I nodded, mute. Then a light came on behind them, and I heard my mother’s voice. “Peyton? What’s going on down there?”
I looked back at my dad, at Ames’s face, now bright red. There was no way to explain this quickly, and I had little, if any, time left. So as my father pushed Ames into a chair in the kitchen, and my mother’s shadow grew visible, then larger, as she came down the stairs, I slipped into my car.
My wrists ached, and I could still feel his fingers, pressing hard on my chin. But shaken as I was, I knew there were people who needed me, and whatever else happened here would have to wait. As I reached up, hitting the button for the garage door on my visor, it seemed fitting that the same familiar creaking and grinding—just like my father leaving the night of Peyton’s arrest and my mom arriving home those lonely afternoons—would signal the start to whatever this was, as well. It had become the sound at which our lives in this house briefly revealed themselves to the world before going hidden again. When I backed down the driveway, I didn’t even look to see if anyone had come out to try to stop me—I didn’t want to know. I left the door open behind me.
* * *
At every stoplight on the way across town to the hospital, even as my head swam with everything that had happened, I checked my phone. I knew Mac: he’d tell me not to worry as soon as there was no reason to. No messages.
U General was all lit up and busy. I parked in a nearby lot, then hurried over to the emergency room, which was crowded and loud, like Jackson but with more adults and crying babies. After I waited for a long fifteen minutes, a nurse informed me that Mrs. Chatham had been admitted and wrote a room number on a scrap of paper: 919. In the elevator going up, I kept looking down at it, like it might carry some hint of what I’d find once I got there. Magical thinking, in the most real of times. When the doors slid open, I stuffed it in my pocket.
With each thing I did—pushing the button for nine, watching the floor numbers climb, taking those first steps down the scuffed, worn linoleum of the hallway—I imagined another action happening as well. My mom awakened by the sound of the scuffle downstairs, or our voices. Seeing my father and Ames in the kitchen before spinning to look for me. Going to my room, finding the note. Scrambling into her clothes, then getting in the car to follow me. Two lives moving separately, but about to intersect soon, not unlike Peyton and David Ibarra on another night. In any moment, there were so many chances for paths to cross and people to clash, come together, or do any number of things in between. It was amazing we could live at all, knowing all that could occur purely by chance. But what was the alternative?
It—not living—was close here at the hospital. I could see it in the rooms I passed, with beeping machines, curtains pulled or open, sighs and moans. At the end of a hallway, I saw a sign: FAMILY WAITING. The room, which was filled with couches and recliners, a TV playing on mute in one corner, was empty. But there was a guitar case leaning against one wall, a duffel bag beside it. And on the lone table, a purse I recognized on a pulled-out chair and a bubble gum YumYum, already licked, on a napkin. They had been here, recently. And left in a hurry.
919, I thought, going back out into the hallway. The rooms blurred as I passed them, focused only on the numbers, always the numbers. 927. I pictured my mom at the wheel, driving in the dark. 925. The hospital finally appearing in the distance. 923. That same bright, busy lobby. 921. So little time. And then I was there.
The door was open. I stopped outside, breathing hard. Just over the threshold, his huge, broad back to me, was Irv. Rosie, in a Mariposa jacket and her ponytail, seemed tiny next to him, holding his hand. Grasping her other one was Eric, hat off, his face looking young and scared. Then Layla, hair loose over her shoulders and staring straight ahead, and Mac beside her. Together, they circled the bed where Mrs. Chatham lay, oxygen mask on, eyes closed. Mr. Chatham sat in the only chair, his head in his hands.