My mom bit her lip, then looked at me for a long moment. Finally, she sighed, reaching out to put both her hands on my shoulders. “Sydney. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for your brother to have contact with the outside world. Even if you only talk about the weather. Or what you ate for lunch. Just talk. Keep him talking until his time on the phone is up. It’s critical. Do you understand me?”
I nodded, not sure I could speak without sobbing. When she turned around to unload the groceries, I had to take several deep breaths before I was calm enough to help her.
The second time I’d talked to Peyton was when I came home from having coffee with Jenn and found Ames on the phone with him.
“Your gorgeous sister just walked in,” he said into the receiver, then waved me over with his free hand. “Yep. Oh, don’t worry. I’m keeping the boys away from her. They’d better think twice before they come around our girl.”
I felt my face get hot, the way it always did when he said stuff like this. Oblivious, he grinned at me, pulling out the chair right beside him.
“Yeah, she’s right here, I’ll put her on. Uh-huh. Be there in a few days with vending machine money in hand. Right. Here she is.”
He handed the phone out to me, and I took it. The mouthpiece was hot from his breath. I tried to hold it away from my own lips as I said, “Hey, Peyton.”
“Hey,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay.” I looked at Ames, who was watching me. “Did you, um, get to talk to Mom yet?”
“Yeah. She answered when I called.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “Well—”
A loud tone sounded on the line, followed by a recording announcing that the call would terminate in thirty seconds. “I’d better go,” my brother said. “Tell Mom I love her, okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
I didn’t reply, and then the line went dead. Still, I sat there a second, letting the dial tone fill my ear, before I hit the END button. “Time’s up.”
“Always comes too quickly,” Ames said. He smiled at me. “He sounds good, right?”
I nodded, although to me he hadn’t really sounded like anything. Not even Peyton.
But that was the phone; Family Day would be face-to-face. Now, in the kitchen, I sat down, picking up my fork while Mom slid into a seat across from me. I’d been starving since I smelled the bacon cooking, but now the last thing I wanted to do was eat.
“Is Dad going to this thing?”
“If he’s in town,” she said, taking a tiny nibble of her toast, then chasing it with coffee. “Otherwise, it’ll just be you, me, and Ames.”
I put my fork back down. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m worried I might freak out or something.”
She looked at me. “Freak out?”
I shrugged. “It’s just kind of scary.”
“It is,” she agreed. She took another sip. When she spoke again, her voice had a hard edge to it. “It’s very scary. Especially for your brother, who is locked away, alone, with no support system other than us, his family.”
“Mom,” I said.
“If he can deal with that for seventeen months,” she continued, “I think you can handle being slightly uncomfortable for a couple of hours. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” I said softly. She was still glaring at me, so I repeated it, more loudly this time. “Yes.”
That was the last we spoke of it. By the time I left ten minutes later, she was back to normal, checking that I had lunch money and waving to me from the front window as I pulled out of the driveway. As far as she was concerned, the matter was handled.
I, however, was still shaken. At school, I cut the engine and just sat in my car, watching everyone else head to homeroom until the bell rang and I had no choice but to join them.
Jenn called as I was walking to lunch, as had become our routine. She and Meredith would put me on speakerphone, so it was kind of like I was there as they caught me up on what was going on at Perkins. There was something soothing about their voices that balanced out the constant cacophony of Jackson. Today, though, it was Jenn who heard something.
“Are you okay?” she asked me after Meredith caught me up on the meet she’d had that weekend.
“You just don’t sound like yourself,” she said. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah,” I said. I had a flash of that flyer on the table. “It’s just really noisy here. Like always.”
As if to punctuate this point, there was a burst of laughter just behind me. “Good Lord,” Meredith said. “How do you even concentrate?”
“I’m just walking to lunch,” I told her. “It’s not that mentally challenging.”
They were both quiet for a moment. Now I was turning on everyone.
“Sorry,” I said. “Look, let me call you guys back in a bit, okay? I’ll just get somewhere quiet.”
“Okay,” Jenn replied. “Talk to you later.”
Meredith didn’t say anything. She was incredibly physically tough, but always the first to get flustered at raised voices or confrontation. “Bye, Mer,” I said, trying.
“Bye,” she replied, but now it was she who was clearly not okay. Before I could speak again, though, they were gone.
I sighed as I stepped out into the courtyard. As I walked to the food trucks, I glanced over at the grassy spot where Layla ate, but the benches there were empty. I got a grilled cheese and a drink, then sat down on the wall, dropping my bag at my feet. Then I did something I hadn’t allowed myself to do in weeks: I pulled out my phone, opened the browser, and typed in two words.