“Ames cooked.” At this, he smiled mildly. “And now we’re just watching a movie.”
“Well, that sounds like fun. It’s beautiful here. I haven’t seen a beach so white since . . . well, ever. I might even get a suntan.”
“Now, tomorrow, you know Ames will be leaving early to visit your brother. So you can go out for breakfast, or make your usual. I left money with him if you guys want to do dinner out or order in. Sound good?”
“We’ll be back by dinnertime Sunday,” she continued. “And tell Ames we’ll stop and pick up something, so he should plan to stay. It’s the least we can do for him helping us out on such short notice. And if Marla’s better, tell him to invite her, too.”
Beside me, Layla removed her lollipop and gave me a look. Then, clearly and audibly, she coughed. Twice.
On the couch, Ames shifted, putting down the popcorn bowl. The TV was on, dialogue still going, so I wasn’t even sure my mom had heard until she said, “Sydney? Is . . . is someone else there?”
I looked at Layla, who gave me an almost imperceptible nod. Then I said, “Yeah. My friend I told you about, Layla? She came over with a pizza.”
“Hi, Mrs. Stanford!” Layla called out. “It’s nice to meet you!”
There was a slight pause as my mom, normally unflappable when it came to manners and civility, regrouped. “Hello there. I’ve heard a lot about you. I didn’t realize—”
“Sydney’s kind of saving my life right now,” Layla told her. “We’re remodeling, and they just started repainting my room today and got new carpet put in. Combined, the fumes are awful.”
On the couch, Ames looked at her. “Don’t worry, Julie,” he called out. “I’ll make sure she heads home soon so Sydney’s not up late.”
“Oh, yeah,” Layla added, returning his stare. “It’s been airing out for an hour by now, so it should be fine to sleep in.”
Now I began to catch on.
“You’re staying in that room tonight?” my mom asked.
A pause. Then my mom said, “Layla, it’s not my place to butt in, but it’s really not safe to be exposed to carpet and latex fumes, especially when they’re so fresh. Off-gassing is serious. Of course, ideally, you’d be using products that would not have chemicals, but I understand that’s not always possible.”
Layla widened her eyes, as if my mom could actually see her reaction. “So you’re saying I shouldn’t sleep there?”
“Well, ideally, no. Is there another room that uses a separate ventilation system?”
“Not that isn’t already taken. But seriously, I’m sure it’s fine. They’re supposed to finish up the painting tomorrow, so . . .” She was still looking at Ames as she said this. The sight line between them was so strong, it was almost visible, if not vibrating.
A pause. Then my mom said, “Sydney? Could you take me off speaker, please?”
I did, then put the phone to my ear. “Okay. It’s just me now.”
There was a muffled noise: her hand was covering the phone, or she had it tucked against her. But I could still hear my dad saying something, and then her replying. After a moment, she came back on. “Honey? How well do you know this girl?”
I got to my feet and walked into the kitchen. “I told you. She’s the only friend I’ve made at Jackson. She’s been really nice to me.”
“Hold on.” More muffled conversation. Then she said, “If that’s the case, I think, under the circumstances, she should stay over tonight. And honestly, if they’re still doing work there, tomorrow as well. I’d just feel better, if she’s your good friend, knowing what I do know about toxins.”
“Really?” I asked. “Mom, that would be so awesome of you.”
“Awesome?” She sounded surprised. And pleased. “Well, I think it’s just common courtesy. Do you think I should call her parents and make sure it’s okay?”
I walked back to the living room. Ames was still giving Layla the side-eye, but she’d resumed watching TV, the lollipop back in her mouth. “Hey. Do you want to stay for the weekend?”
She blinked at me, as if I hadn’t already asked her this. “Are you sure it’s okay?”
“Yeah. My mom just wants to know if she should talk to yours first.”
“Oh, no,” she said, clearly and loudly. “The new meds she’s on make her really tired, so she’s probably already in bed. I’ll text my sister so she can tell her in the morning.”
“Her mom has MS,” I told my mom.
“Oh, what a horrible thing.” She gave this a respectful silence. “All right, then. Make sure she has everything she needs, okay? The air mattress is in the guest room, and there are extra blankets in the linen closet, as well as a spare toothbrush.”
“Okay.” I turned my back, lowering my voice. “Thanks, Mom. Really.”
“Oh . . . well, you’re welcome.” She sounded like she was smiling. “Now let me talk to Ames again, would you?”
I walked over, holding out his phone. He put down the popcorn bowl and wiped a greasy hand on his jeans before getting to his feet and taking it from me. Then he walked out of the room, waiting to talk until he was out of earshot.
From the floor, Layla said, “This movie’s really good, isn’t it?”