In my pocket, my phone buzzed. I knew who it was, and that it would be the first call of many. But I didn’t budge. Instead, it was Mr. Chatham who moved, somehow prompted to spot me, and then Layla turned as well.
As our eyes met, I thought again of that long-ago afternoon in the courthouse. When faced with the scariest of things, all you want is to turn away, hide in your own invisible place. But you can’t. That’s why it’s not only important for us to be seen, but to have someone to look for us, as well.
Layla let go of Mac’s hand, then held her own out to me. As I went to stand between them, closing the circle, I could feel Mac looking at me. But my eyes were only on her. Then I kept them open, wide, as she closed her own.
Layla sat up in the recliner, wiping a hand across her mouth. Her hair was sticking up on one side, creases from the chair’s corded fabric on one cheek. “What is it?”
She took the bag from me carefully, so as not to wake her mom, who was sleeping. It was pretty much all she’d done while recovering from the mild heart attack to which the other recent episodes had been leading. During her few waking moments, she asked after Mr. Chatham, whichever of her children weren’t present and accounted for, and occasionally updates from Big New York and Los Angeles. Then, tiring quickly, she’d again drift off, leaving us to wait for the next time to ask our own questions, or be left to pose them to each other.
I sat down in the other chair. The seat was warm, recently vacated by Rosie, who’d gone to get some fresh air and some coffee. Outside, the sun was just setting. It was hard to believe it had been less than a full day since we’d all gathered here on a different night, in another darkness. You always lost track of time in places like this, or so I’d heard. But it wasn’t just the hospital that had made the recent hours seem to me like the longest in a while.
Layla opened the bag, stifling a yawn with her free hand. Seeing the contents, her eyes widened. She looked up at me. “Did you . . . ? You didn’t.”
I smiled. “Special occasion.”
“Are you serious right now?”
“Shhhhhhh!” hissed a passing nurse in the hallway. They moved so quietly, until they were reprimanding you.
Sorry, Layla mouthed, clapping a hand over her mouth. Then, grinning, she dug into the bag, pulling out a box of fries from Littles and putting it on the tray table beside her. She removed a layer of napkins—nodding approvingly at my effort to prevent cross-contamination—then took out one from Bradbury Burger, followed by more napkins and a final order of Pamlico Grill’s, lining them up neatly. Then she sat back, taking them in. “The Trifecta. It’s amazing.”
“I thought you might like it.”
“I’m honored by it.” She sighed happily, then looked into the bag again. “Did you happen to—”
I dug into my purse for the other bag, this one full of ketchups from all three places. Of course there were tiny taste variations. Didn’t you know? “Here.”
She grinned, taking it as well, then pulled her feet up under her as she began her ministrations. As I watched her, Mrs. Chatham sighed in her sleep, shifting her feet one way, then the other.
I was tired, too, more so than I could remember ever being. With everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, I’d barely slept, other than a couple of hours grabbed that morning between a talk with my parents and returning to the hospital. During that short time, however, I’d still managed to miss the removal of Ames’s belongings from our house. Dozing off, I heard my mom and dad conferring with Sawyer in the War Room while one of his employees took the boxes away. When I awoke, there was only silence. I still went to Peyton’s room, though, to see it empty for myself. The bed was stripped, the windows cracked, the carpet already vacuumed. He was really gone.
In time, I’d have to make some decisions about whether to press charges, as well as see the psychologist my mom insisted I visit, both with her and my dad and alone. It was just the first step in dealing with what had happened that night and the months leading up to it. Because I’d fled to be with Layla and Mac, I’d never know the words that were said once my mom came downstairs, or the exact blows that caused the injuries Ames’s lawyer would later try to get him compensated for. Whatever had occurred, it had not only allowed me to get to Mrs. Chatham’s bedside, but also be there long enough to stay with Mac and Layla until she finally opened her eyes. For once, time was on my side.
I wasn’t aware of any of this then, though. Instead, I focused only on Mac’s hand in mine, Layla leaning into my shoulder on the other side. Even though there were a full eight of us in that small space, it was so quiet, the only sound the beeping of the heart monitor. It was scary, this quiet vigil, like something I’d never before experienced. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. Whatever it would cost me—and I didn’t know the entirety of that sum yet—I already knew it was worth it.
It was somewhere around two a.m. when I started worrying about my mom. I’d been expecting her to turn up at any moment, and as more time passed without that happening—not to mention another text or call—I started to wonder why. I couldn’t imagine what would keep her from coming after me, much less prevent the inevitable confrontation that would follow. By three, though, I was outright concerned. So while everyone was talking at once, relieved that Mrs. Chatham had come to and was able to speak, I whispered to Mac that I was going to make a quick call. When I stepped into the hallway, I saw her.