I looked at her: she was watching me, not the TV, and smiling wide.
“It’s great. I think it might be my favorite.”
To this she said nothing, just turned back to the screen. I sat down beside her, accepted another YumYum, and settled in.
For the next hour, on the screen, a couple fell hard for each other, were tested mightily, then were torn apart before rediscovering each other, and their love, at the last possible second. In the real world, Ames got off the phone, went to smoke, and made noises about how late it was getting until the final credits rolled. When Layla and I finally did go upstairs to go to sleep, I offered her the bed, but she declined, saying she was happy with the air mattress. I figured she was just being polite, a good guest. We set her up on the floor right next to me.
After the lights were off, we talked for a little while, and at some point I drifted off. When I next woke up, it was two a.m. When I rolled over to check on Layla, she wasn’t there. Confused, I sat up on my elbow and rubbed my eyes, then spotted her. She’d moved her bed so it rested against the closed—but unlocked—door, and was curled up there. Keeping watch, keeping safe. I slept better than I had in months.
MY MOM and I had not discussed Family Day at Lincoln since she’d brought it up the first time. I’d thought this was a good sign. Four days before it, I realized how wrong I was.
“So,” she said from the stove, where she was stirring a pot of soup she’d made for dinner. “We should probably touch base about this weekend.”
This was a typical conversation—she liked plans and schedules, and always made sure both were set days ahead—so I didn’t realize what she was referring to. “I’m going over to Jenn’s for her birthday on Friday. And Layla invited me over for dinner on Saturday, if that’s okay.”
She took a taste of the soup, her back still to me. Then she said, “Friday’s fine. But we’ve got Family Day on Saturday. We might be back late, so it’s probably not a good idea to have other plans.”
I was silent for a minute, taking my time to figure out how to react. Finally I took a breath and said, “So Peyton said I could go with you guys?”
A pause. Then, “Your father’s got a conference. So it’ll just be us. And he did submit a form for you, so I’m taking that as a yes.”
Unlike my mom, my father did not visit Peyton that often. He’d made the first couple of trips with her, always returning looking haggard before disappearing into his office. For someone who made his living fixing things, seeing his only son in a situation for which this was not possible couldn’t be easy. He did talk to Peyton and made sure he had everything he needed in terms of commissary money and other allowed incidentals. But I had a feeling that, for him, it was easier to think my brother was just away, and not know too much about the place where he actually was. Out of sight, pretending it was out of mind.
Clearly, I was not going to have this option, even if my brother and I both preferred it. When my mom was set on something, she rarely backed down. Like it or not, I was going on Saturday.
“Wow,” Jenn said after I told her about this when we met to study at Frazier the next day after school. “I’ve never been to a prison.”
“Most people haven’t,” I replied glumly, taking a sip of the complicated coffee drink Dave! had yet again talked me into. It was frozen and thick as mud, barely able to make it up the straw, but delicious. “Just us lucky folks.”
Meredith, who was having a rare free afternoon, looked at me from across the table. “It’s gotta be weird, right? Are you freaked out? Like, about the other people that will be there?”
This actually had not even occurred to me. Other convicted criminals I could handle; it was my own brother that made me uneasy. “I just really don’t want to go. I wish I didn’t have to.”
They both looked at me, their faces sympathetic. Then Jenn reached over, squeezing my hand. “We’ll have fun Friday night, though, okay? Margaret’s coming, too, so you can finally meet her.”
A couple of weeks earlier, Jenn had mentioned that she’d made friends with a new girl at school who’d just moved from Massachusetts. Since then, we’d hardly had a conversation where her name had not come up. Apparently, Margaret was incredibly funny, so cool, and even smarter than Jenn, something I wasn’t even sure was possible. Even Meredith, who was impressed by very little except anyone who could vault better than she, had told me Margaret both spoke Mandarin and had once dated a guy who was a cousin of an actor on one of our favorite shows.
“Great,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“You will love her,” Jenn said. “She’s so funny.”
“Oh, my God,” Meredith chimed in. “The other day, during PE, when we were doing vinyasa? She fell sideways out of her tree pose and hit the floor. It was hilarious.”
They both laughed at this, and I’m sure I would have, too, if I’d been there. But even after just a few weeks at Jackson, I couldn’t imagine doing yoga for PE. The life I’d had at Perkins seemed so vastly different now. It didn’t help that we weren’t hanging out as much. With Jenn’s tutoring job at the Kiger Center and Meredith’s always-busy practice schedule, we were lucky to see one another at all. I hadn’t thought our friendship was so based on school until we didn’t have it in common anymore. The truth was, I’d changed.
Most of this—okay, probably all—was due to Layla. Since the weekend she’d stayed with me, we’d been in pretty much constant contact. It was like one day we weren’t friends, and the next she was the closest I had. It seemed impossible that someone I’d not known at all six months earlier was now often the only person who understood me.