But that was the thing: Layla got it. Not just my uneasiness with Ames, but also how I felt about Peyton. Rosie might not have been in jail, but her problems had spilled over to affect all of the Chathams in one way or another. I knew Jenn and Meredith loved me and were always willing to listen. But there was an element of anger and shame involved they just could never understand. Now that I’d found someone who could, I realized how much I had needed it.
* * *
“Ugh. These are so subpar. You can tell I’m in a bad state. Normally I wouldn’t even consider them.”
I looked at Layla, who, despite this statement, was still preparing the fries she’d gotten from the ice rink snack bar with her typical meticulousness. A double layer of paper napkins covered part of the bleacher between us, the fries arranged in a single row across them. Two ketchups had been mixed in a plastic cup. She hadn’t bothered with her custom blend, which she treated like gold.
“The thing is,” she continued, picking up a fry from the center and dipping it, “nobody frustrates me like Rosie. If annoying people were her sport, she would have made the Olympics. No question.”
I smiled, then took a fry of my own when she offered it, pulling my sweater around me with my other hand. It had been years since I’d been to the Lakewood Rink, where my mom used to bring Peyton and me sometimes as kids. He went on to play hockey there a couple of seasons in middle school, but I myself had never graduated from the caved-in ankle stage. It was the last place I’d expected I’d end up when I’d gone to Seaside after the final bell, but I was learning that when it came to the Chathams, anything was possible.
That day, we’d put down our backpacks and were just about to order our customary slices when Layla’s phone rang. She contemplated the screen for a moment before she answered.
“Hey.” A pause. “At the shop, where else?”
Mac, who was studying behind the counter, a pencil tucked behind his ear, glanced up at her. By now, I was almost able to look right at him when I had his attention. Almost.
“Well, you should have thought about that when you said you’d be there.” Layla listened for a moment, sighed, looking at the ceiling. “No, Dad’s not here. He drove the Camry to Tioga’s to talk to him about what’s wrong with the truck.”
“Other way around,” Mac said quietly.
“The Camry’s the one in the shop,” he told her. “Truck runs; the starter’s just being wonky.”
“Whatever,” Layla said. This, too, I had gotten used to. The Chathams had two vehicles, both of which were always breaking down. “The point is, we don’t have a car right now.”
Rosie clearly had something to say to this, because Layla didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, in a way that made it clear she was having to interrupt, she said, “Rosie! You can talk all you want; I can’t help you. Yeah, well, right back at you.”
“Hey,” Mac called out. “What’s up?”
“She claims she needs a ride to the rink. It is apparently a skating emergency.” Layla made a face, then held the phone away from her ear as Rosie responded loudly. To me she said, “When Rosie wants something, it’s always an emergency.”
“We can get her when Dad’s back,” Mac told her. “Half hour or so.”
Layla relayed this, then reported, “No, that’s unacceptable. And yes, that is a direct quote, in case you were wondering.”
Mac shrugged, going back to his book. Rosie was still talking. “I can give her a ride,” I offered. “I mean, if you want.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she replied. Then, into the phone, she told Rosie, “Nothing. Sydney’s just being entirely too nice to you.”
“I really don’t mind,” I said. “I don’t have to be home until six.”
Layla looked at me, her expression caustic. “You do not have to do anything for my sister.”
“I know. But I’m offering.”
I felt it was the least I could do. Though I’d tried to buy Layla breakfast both mornings she slept over and pay for the movie we saw, she had refused. “I got to stay at your house instead of with my crazy family,” she said. “I should be thanking you.” If I couldn’t repay her, this was the next closest thing.
Ten minutes later, we were turning onto a small residential street only a few blocks from Seaside. The houses were small, many of the yards cluttered with cars, swing sets, and lawn furniture. At the very end was a brick ranch with a detached garage. The grass was missing in huge patches, and at least four partial cars in various states of deterioration were parked in the side yard. A decorative flag by the door said HAPPY HOLIDAYS, even though it was September. And then there was the woods.
The trees behind their house were some of the tallest I’d ever seen. In the Arbors, the foliage varied: oaks, scrubby brush, some big cedars. Here, there were only tall, wide pines, close together. For the first time, I understood what it meant for a forest to be thick. As if the houses were laid out like bread crumbs along the road, leading you into the darkness beyond.
“Welcome to paradise,” Layla said wryly as we parked by the curb. When we got out, I immediately looked up at the vast spread of greenery above us. “The woods are crazy, right? When I was a kid, I used to have nightmares about it. I still sleep with the shades pulled.”
She climbed the short stairway that led to the front door and I followed. Up close, I saw the HAPPY HOLIDAYS flag was so old and weathered, it was translucent, the sun shining right through. She twisted the doorknob, pushing it open. “It’s me,” she called into the darkness beyond. “And Sydney. Rosie, you’d better be ready to go.”