She was right outside the door, in a metal chair against the wall. So close that if I’d been looking, I might have glimpsed her from inside. Like me, she’d arrived at U General, asked after Mrs. Chatham, and gotten the room number. Although she was shaken by what had happened with Ames—and finally understood my protests about being alone with him—she’d still been upset with me for leaving the house. All she wanted was to get me out of there.
“But you didn’t,” I said the next morning, when we finally sat down with my dad to talk about this. “You didn’t even come in.”
My mom rubbed her eyes; she looked as tired as I felt. “I was going to. I had every intention of dragging you out of there by your hair, if it came to that.”
“So what happened?” I asked.
She looked up at me, her expression so similar to the one I’d seen on her face in the hallway the night before. Tired, sad. “I saw you,” she said simply.
Me, surrounded by people I cared about. Me, being a good person, a good friend, all the things she prided herself on having taught me. After so many months of looking at me only in the context of my brother, finally, in that bright institutional light, my mother had glimpsed me simply as Sydney, with no precedent or comparison.
Peyton had always been there, coloring the view. Big, vibrant colors first, then the grays and darkness of the last couple of years. But in that moment, surrounded by people she didn’t know in a strange room and place, I was the opposite of invisible, the sole thing she recognized. And with that came an understanding of what I’d been trying to tell her for so long: I was different from my brother. And maybe that meant that she, now, could be different, too.
I didn’t know this when I went out and found her in the hallway. I just stopped short, so surprised at the sight of her, I couldn’t speak.
“Is she okay?” she asked finally, nodding at the open door to 919.
“She will be,” I replied.
As she reached up, running a hand over her face, I waited: for directions, admonishment, something. The end of a chase meant someone was caught. Now it was just about details.
And later, they would come. Our conversation at the table the following morning would be the first of many about the last few months. We didn’t just talk about that one night, but everything, all the way back to before Peyton had ever gotten into trouble. The walks in the woods. Those long, lonely afternoons. My choice of switching to Jackson. Mac and Layla. David Ibarra. Ames. After holding it in for so long, I sometimes felt like I didn’t even have enough breath to say everything I needed to. But somehow, it came.
When the talking got hard—and it did—I’d think back to that one moment in the hospital hallway. I was used to my mother always having a plan. This time was different.
As I watched, she leaned forward, elbows on knees, and rested her head in her hands. A nurse was coming down the hall toward us, her shoes squeaking softly. She barely glanced at us. She was accustomed to anguish.
You get used to people being a certain way; you depend on it. And when they surprise you, for better or worse, it can shake you to your core. My mother had always been tough, so fierce and protective. I would never have thought seeing her fall apart would be anything but devastating. Little did I know that it was just what would give me the chance, finally, to be the strong one.
I knelt down by her chair, sliding my arms around her. At first, she stiffened slightly, surprised. Then, slowly, I felt her weight soften against me, human and living and warm. Our embrace was awkward—her hair in my face, one of my ankles slightly twisted—the way the most vulnerable and precious of things can be. But we were there, together, and in the next room I could hear that monitor beeping. Keeping track of another heart’s beat and giving enduring, solid proof of our own.
I looked at Mac behind the wheel of the truck. “As I’ll ever be.”
He smiled, then reached over, squeezing my hand. Then we pulled out from the curb in front of Seaside and were on our way.
It had been two months since the night of the showcase, a new year begun. Already, I knew it would be better than the last one.
Mrs. Chatham was home and recuperating, her children and husband rallying around her more than ever. Brilliant or Catastrophic did not win the showcase—apparently, the judges were more fans of screaming than Irv—but had attracted the interest of a local studio owner, who was recording a real demo in exchange for Eric doing grunt work for him. With an actual music-related job, his ego was bigger than ever, something I hadn’t even thought possible.
Layla, however, clearly saw things differently, or so I’d realized one afternoon at the hospital two days after the showcase. I’d had my usual provisions—fries, magazines, YumYums—and come into the room expecting to find her in the customary spot, the recliner next to her mom’s bed. She was there, but not alone. Eric was lying back, stretched out, with her curled up tight against him, her arms around his neck. I’d stepped back, surprised, and didn’t mention it when we met a few minutes later in the hallway. A couple of weeks later, when they officially announced they were a couple, I made it a point to act surprised.
As for me and Mac, we were solid, helped by the fact that my mom had eased her grip on my schedule. I didn’t have total free reign—this was Julie Stanford, after all—but we’d worked out a compromise. I had my lunches free, but still worked three days a week at Kiger with Jenn. It kept us in contact, and often Meredith joined us for lunch as well (it went unsaid that Margaret, while still in the picture, was not invited). Layla and I had at least one afternoon a week to hit SuperThrift and to seek out great fries when I wasn’t teaching her to drive, a process that was both terrifying and hilarious, often at the same time. Whatever time remained, I was with Mac, either at his house, Seaside, or in the truck, running deliveries. My pizza whispering continued to be spot-on, if I did say so myself. Mr. Chatham said I had a knack for the business. I’d honestly never been more flattered.