Before all that, though, he was just my brother. Three years older, blue King Combat sheets on his bed in contrast to my pink Fairy Foo ones. I basically worshipped him. How could I not? He was the king of Truth or Dare (he always went with the latter, naturally), the fastest runner in the neighborhood, and the only person I’d ever seen who could stand, balanced, on the handlebars of a rolling bicycle.
But his greatest talent, to me, was disappearing.
We played a lot of hide-and-seek as kids, and Peyton took it seriously. Ducking behind the first chair spotted in a room, or choosing the obvious broom closet? Those were for amateurs. My brother would fold himself beneath the cabinet under the bathroom sink, flatten completely under a bedspread, climb up the shower stall to spread across the ceiling, somehow holding himself there. Whenever I asked him for his secrets, he’d just smile. “You just have to find the invisible place,” he told me. Only he could see it, though.
We practiced wrestling moves in front of cartoons on weekend mornings, fought over whom the dog loved more (just guess), and spent the hours after school we weren’t in activities (soccer for him, gymnastics for me) exploring the undeveloped green space behind our neighborhood. This is how my brother still appears to me whenever I think of him: walking ahead of me on a crisp day, a stick in his hand, through the dappled fall colors of the woods. Even when I was nervous we’d get lost, Peyton never was. That fearlessness again. A flat landscape never appealed to him. He always needed something to push up against. When things got bad with Peyton, I always wished we were back there, still walking. Like we hadn’t reached where we were going yet, and there was still a chance it might be somewhere else.
I was in sixth grade when things began to change. Until then, we had both been on the lower campus of Perkins Day, the private school we’d attended since kindergarten. That year, though, he moved to Upper School. Within a couple of weeks, he’d started hanging out with a bunch of juniors and seniors. They treated him like a mascot, daring him to do stupid stuff like lifting Popsicles from the cafeteria line or climbing into a car trunk to sneak off campus for lunch. This was when Peyton’s legend began in earnest. He was bigger than life, bigger than our lives.
Meanwhile, when I didn’t have gymnastics, I was now riding the bus home solo, then eating my snack alone at the kitchen island. I had my own friends, of course, but most of them were highly scheduled, never around on weekday afternoons due to various activities. This was typical of our neighborhood, the Arbors, where the average household could support any extracurricular activity from Mandarin lessons to Irish dancing and everything in between. Financially, my family was about average for the area. My father, who started his career in the military before going to law school, had made his money in corporate conflict resolution. He was the guy called when a company had a problem—threat of a lawsuit, serious issues between employees, questionable practices about to be brought to light—and needed it worked out. It was no wonder I grew up believing there was no problem my father couldn’t solve. For much of my life, I’d never seen any proof otherwise.
If Dad was the general, my mom was the chief operating officer. Unlike some parents, who approached parenting as a tag-team sport, in our family the duties were very clearly divided. My father handled the bills, house, and yard upkeep, and my mom dealt with everything else. Julie Stanford was That Mother, the one who read every parenting book and stocked her minivan with enough snacks and sports equipment for every kid in the neighborhood. Like my dad, if my mom did something, she did it right. Which was why it was all the more surprising when, eventually, things went wrong anyway.
The trouble with Peyton started in the winter of his tenth grade year. One afternoon I was watching TV in the living room with a bowl of popcorn when the doorbell rang. When I looked outside, I saw a police car in the driveway.
“Mom?” I called upstairs. She was in her office, which was basically command central for our entire house. My dad called it the War Room. “Someone’s here.”
I don’t know why I didn’t tell her it was the police. It just seemed saying it might make it real, and I wasn’t sure what was out there yet.
“Sydney, you are perfectly capable of answering the door,” she replied, but sure enough, a beat later I heard her coming down the stairs.
I kept my eyes on the TV, where the characters from my favorite reality show, Big New York, were in the midst of yet another dinner party catfight. The Big franchise had been part of my afternoon ritual since Peyton had started high school, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Rich women being petty and pretty, I’d heard it described, and that summed it up. There were about six different shows—Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago among them—enough so that I could easily watch two every day to fill the time between when I got home and dinner. I was so involved in the show, it was like they were my friends, and I often found myself talking back to the TV as if they could hear me, or thinking about their issues and problems even when I wasn’t watching. It was a weird kind of loneliness, feeling that some of my closest friends didn’t actually know I existed. But without them, the house felt so empty, even with my mom there, which made me feel empty in a way I’d grown to dread the moment I stepped off the bus after school. My own life felt flat and sad too much of the time; it was reassuring, somehow, to lose myself in someone else’s.
So I was watching Rosalie, the former actress, accuse Ayre, the model, of being a bully, when everything in our family’s life shifted. One minute the door was shut and things were fine. The next, it was open and there was Peyton, a police officer beside him.