Once inside Bendo, I had no idea what to do with myself. It was a big space, with painted black walls and a bar running down one side. Up front was the stage, where a drum set, microphones, and amps were set up. I’d expected it to be crowded, so I could lose myself quickly, but there was only a handful of people there, most of them gathered around a row of pizza boxes that lined one end of the bar. I felt like it was so obvious I didn’t belong there that I should leave before I embarrassed myself.
“Hey. You came.”
I turned around, and there was Eric, the guitar guy. He was in jeans and a plaid shirt that looked like it came from a thrift shop, this time with a tuner in the front pocket. It looked like he’d gotten a haircut.
“I was intrigued,” I said.
He smiled, as if this pleased him. “We’re trying some new stuff tonight we’ve been working on. It’s a bit meta, so I’m hoping the crowd can keep up.”
I nodded, not sure what to say to this. Turned out I shouldn’t have worried, as he kept talking.
“We’ve been through a lot of evolution as a band lately, which I think is necessary. Music isn’t stagnant, right? So you can’t be, either. Last year, we were really focused on a more rockabilly-slash-bluegrass-slash-metal sound. I mean, nobody was doing what we were doing. But then, of course, everyone started copying our sound and approach, so I had to think out of the box again. I’m telling you, it’s a lot of work, fronting a good band. Anyone can lead a crappy, unoriginal one. Most people do just that. But I—”
Suddenly, I felt a hand grip my arm and begin to pull me away from him. I stumbled over my own feet, startled, before I realized it was Layla. She was wearing a blue dress and flip-flops, her eyes lined in a dramatic cat’s eye.
“I’m doing this for your own good,” she announced as I looked back apologetically at Eric. “You do not want to get sucked into band discussions with him. You’ll never escape.”
With this, she deposited me at a bar stool, then climbed onto the one beside it. A moment later, Eric joined us, looking disgruntled.
“I was talking,” he said to her.
“You’re always talking,” she replied. “And she’s my friend. I invited her.”
I felt myself blink. Now we were friends? Eric glared at her, then helped himself to a piece of pizza, leaning back against the bar.
“You been here before?” Layla asked me. I shook my head. “It’s a pretty good place, other than the fact that everything is always sticky. You want a slice?”
Before I could answer, she’d grabbed two paper plates from a nearby stack and put a slice on each. As she slid mine toward me, she said, “Pizza is key to this band’s popularity. The thinking is if you feed them, they will come.”
“They come for the music,” Eric said.
“Keep telling yourself that.” She smiled at me, then took a big bite, glancing up to the stage, where her brother was now behind the drum kit, adjusting something. “So how was the first week at Jackson? Be honest.”
I swallowed the bite I’d been chewing. It was delicious, even better than I remembered. “Not so great.”
“You just move here?”
“No. I transferred from Perkins Day.”
At this, she and Eric glanced at each other. “Wow,” he said. “That’s big money.”
“And a really good school,” she added, shooting him a look. “Why’d you switch?”
From the stage, there was a cymbal crash, followed by some feedback. I said, “I just needed a change.”
Layla studied my face for a second. “I hear that. Change is good.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m hoping so, anyway.”
She looked past me then, suddenly distracted. Following her gaze, I saw a girl a few years older than us coming in, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her hair in a high ponytail, pushing a wheelchair. Seated in it was a woman in a velour tracksuit. She was the oldest person in the club by at least twenty years.
Like always when I saw a wheelchair, I thought of David Ibarra. It was just one of the triggers capable of bringing his face—which I knew well from all the newspaper photos and online stories I’d sought out in the days and then months after everything happened—and then everything else rushing back. See also: the sound of squealing brakes; anyone riding a bike on the street; and, to be honest, the sound of my own breath. He was always only a beat from my consciousness. Despite my mom’s party line, my knowledge of him and the need to recall it regularly was like my penance for what Peyton had done, the sentence I’d been given.
The fact that he’d been just days past his fifteenth birthday when the accident happened. A soccer player, a forward. The fact that the impact crushed his spine, leaving him able to use his arms and upper body, but wheelchair dependent. I could list the fund-raisers that had been held to purchase him a high-tech chair—community yard sales, a benefit concert—as well as the civic organizations that pitched in to make his parents’ home fully accessible with ramps, wider doors, and new hardware. I sought this out because I felt like I should, as if it might lessen the guilt. But it never did.
“They’re here,” Layla said now to Eric, jerking me back to the present. “Come on.”
They both got up, crossing over to meet the lady in the wheelchair just as the girl pushing her reached the center of the club. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stayed put, watching as Eric pulled a table into place and Layla took over the wheelchair, pushing the woman carefully up against it. A moment later, her brother appeared, carrying a can of Pepsi and a glass of ice. He fixed the drink, then put it on the table as the older girl sat down.