She was stepping inside, holding the door open for me. Once we were inside, it took a minute for the house to fall into place around me. When it did, I realized we were not in a foyer or entryway, but already in the living room.
It was very neat, but cluttered. Framed pictures crowded the mantle. Standing on the coffee table were little boxes of all varying sizes and materials: smooth wood, delicate mother-of-pearl, shiny chrome. A collection of beer steins lined a bookcase; a frame held nothing but aces from card decks. A large couch was covered with afghan blankets of varying patterns, while a smaller loveseat, stuffed with needlepoint pillows, faced a flat-screen TV on the opposite wall. And then there was the chair.
It was a recliner, well-worn and flanked by two low tables. On one was a large insulated cup with a straw poking out of it, a jumbo-size can of mixed nuts, and a box of tissues. The other held a tall stack of magazines, two remotes, a phone, and a row of pill and vitamin bottles. While the chair itself was empty, it was obvious that whoever sat there owned that room, present or not.
Layla crossed the powder-blue carpet into the kitchen. Finding it empty, she sighed, coming back out and dropping her bag on the couch. “Typical,” she told me. “Have a seat. I’ll go find her.”
As she disappeared down the hallway to my right, I moved to the couch, reaching down to push aside one of the blankets to make room so I could sit. As I did, my hand made contact not with mere fabric, but with something heavy and warm. With teeth.
I shrieked, drawing back my hand. I was still standing there, holding it to my chest, when Layla came back down the hallway.
“What’s wrong?” she asked me.
I shook my head. “There’s something . . . I moved a blanket. And then . . .”
She walked over, yanking the afghan off with one hard jerk, like a magician doing that trick with the tablecloth. Left exposed were three very small, very ugly little dogs, who looked none too pleased to see us.
“Sorry,” she said to me. “Did they get you bad?”
I looked down at my hand. There was no blood, although the tip of my index finger was throbbing. “No.”
“Such miserable, awful little animals,” she said, reaching over and scooping the largest one up into her arms. It was very short-haired, with stubbly gray fur, a bald head, and little beady eyes, one of which it turned on me as she scratched behind its ears. The other two, still on the couch, were slinking under the remaining blanket, presumably to lie in wait for their next victim. “But we do love them, God help us.”
“What kind are they?” I asked as the one she was holding let out a belch that seemed more appropriate for an animal twice its size.
“They don’t really have a name. They’re just desperately overbred freaks of nature.” She gave it a kiss on its bald forehead. “This one’s Ayre. The other two are Destiny and Russell.”
I just looked at her. “Like . . . on Big New York?”
She cocked her head to the side. “Don’t tell me you watch that show.”
“I do,” I admitted. Although “watch” was putting it mildly. Before her, it was the only thing I had in the afternoons. “I watch all of the Big franchise, actually.”
“I knew there was a reason I liked this girl!” I turned to see Mrs. Chatham, in a red tracksuit, using a walker to make her way down the hall toward us. Rosie was behind her, carrying a Nike duffel bag and what I already recognized as her standard dissatisfied expression. “Are you Team Rosalie or Team Ayre?”
Sadly, I did not even have to think about my answer. “Team Ayre.”
She smiled. “You can stay.”
Layla rolled her eyes as her mother made her way over to the chair, easing herself down onto the seat. Rosie, meanwhile, fetched an afghan from the couch (I heard the dogs snap at her, then each other) while Layla picked up the insulated cup, carrying it into the kitchen. A moment later, she returned, twisting the top back on, and set it on the table.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Mrs. Chatham said as Rosie tucked the blanket over her. “Now, you two stop hovering, I’m fine. You don’t want to be late for Arthur, since he fit you in last-minute.”
“We’ll be back after, just as soon as Mac can pick us up, okay?” Layla told her. “And I have my phone on.”
“I am perfectly capable of spending a couple of hours alone. Now scoot, all of you.”
She waved her hand and her daughters scattered, Rosie picking up her duffel bag while Layla moved to the TV, turning it on and cuing up an episode of Big Chicago I hadn’t yet seen. Elena, the society wife, was crying, although her makeup remained perfect. Mrs. Chatham smiled, settling into her chair. The last thing I heard as we left was her cranking up the volume.
“Nice ride,” Rosie observed as we got into my car. Just like her sister had upon getting in earlier, she ran a hand over the leather seat admiringly, then peered up through the sunroof. “Is it the sport package?”
“Nope,” Layla said. “You can tell by the wheels.”
“Sure beats our cars,” Rosie replied, easing back against the seat. “I could get used to this.”
“Don’t,” Layla told her. “Sydney’s doing you a serious favor.”
“And I appreciate it.”
“Then maybe you should say so.”
“It’s really nothing,” I said. “I hate being home after school anyway.”
This got their attention: I could feel them both look at me, even though I had my eyes on the road. “Really?” Rosie said. “Why?”