She said this like prison was high school and contacting the office could fix anything. Not for the first time, I wondered if my mother really understood where Peyton was.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said. “I know you were looking forward to that.”
“I was.” She sounded so defeated. I hadn’t thought anything could be worse than her being sad. This whole experience: it just kept teaching. After a moment, she rallied, saying, “Tell Jenn happy birthday, and I’ll see you in the morning. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Back in the bathroom, Jenn was looking slightly better, with a little color creeping into her cheeks. She still wasn’t ready to be too far from the toilet, however, so I went to fill Margaret in on what was going on. I was almost to the kitchen when I heard voices and realized the guys had arrived. They were gathered around the island, and Margaret, as she poured them drinks. She’d taken off her shoes and added bright red lipstick since I’d seen her last. When she saw me, she smiled like we were best friends.
“Sydney,” she called out, and the guys all looked at me. I knew them, of course, as we’d all been in school together since kindergarten. Besides Chris McMichaels, who had a sister in Peyton’s grade, there was Charlie Jernigan, who also lived in the Arbors, and Huck Webster, captain of the Perkins Day soccer team. “How’s the birthday girl?”
“Fine,” I answered, walking up to them. Chris was already drinking from his glass, while Charlie and Huck were still sniffing theirs. “She’ll be out in a sec.”
“I poured you a fresh one.” Margaret held out a glass to me. “You’ve got some catching up to do.”
I took the drink without comment, then had a sip. In truth, it smelled too much like the bathroom I’d just left, but I wasn’t going to give her anything to comment on. “Thanks.”
“How’s the new school, Sydney?” Charlie asked me. “You liking it?”
I nodded. “It’s good. Different.”
“I hear you switched to Jackson High,” Margaret said. “Why?”
“I was ready for a change,” I replied.
“That’s more a revolution than a change.” She adjusted her dress. “I hear there are fights there every day. And that’s with the girls. My friend who used to go there? She wouldn’t even go in the bathroom.”
“Not true,” I told her.
“Anyway, Sydney’s tough,” Chris said, smiling at me. “No one’s gonna mess with her.”
“Exactly,” I said. “They’re all scared of me already.”
The guys laughed. Margaret twisted a ring around her finger, then sighed. “I’m bored,” she said. “Let’s play a drinking game. Who’s got a quarter?”
With this, she led them over to the kitchen table, bringing the pitcher with her. I went back to check on Jenn, only to find her asleep on the bathroom floor. So much for the birthday girl.
“Hey,” I said, kneeling down beside her and shaking her arm. “Jenn. Wake up.”
“It’s not time to get up yet,” she mumbled, rolling over and pressing her cheek into the tiles.
There was a sharp knock at the door. Instinctively, I knew it was one of the boys. They even announced themselves differently. “Just a minute,” I called out.
“Uh . . . okay.” Then footsteps retreating. From the kitchen, I could hear Margaret laughing.
“Jenn,” I said, shaking her shoulder again. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly into slits, as if this might actually make me go away. “You have to get up. You don’t want Chris to see you like this, right?”
She groaned, clearly annoyed, but allowed me to get her into a seated position. Then her eyes flew open. “Chris is here? Are you serious?”
“He’s in the kitchen. With Margaret.”
Her head fell forward, hitting her chest. “Oh, God. This is awful. It’s not like I had a chance, but if he sees me all pukey like this—”
“He won’t,” I told her. “Just focus on standing up. I’ll get you out of here.”
She moaned again, but leaned back onto her hands, pushing herself to her feet while I eased the door open and peered down the hallway. The quarters game was still going on in the kitchen, with Margaret at the head of the table, Chris opposite her, and Charlie and Huck on either side. As I watched, Chris bounced a coin into a cup, then pointed at Margaret. She grinned, picking up her glass.
I looked back at Jenn, who was holding on to the sink for support. “Come on. It’s now or never.”
She stepped forward, and I slid my arm over her shoulder, then flipped off the bathroom light before stepping into the dark hallway. It was only about four feet to the living room, through which I planned to access the stairs to get her to her bedroom. After a few steps, though, there was a sharp, desperate squeeze of my hand. I stopped walking.
“Might puke,” she whispered. I waited, holding my own breath. Then she exhaled. “Okay, let’s keep going.”
We continued like this past the sofa and coffee table, then the piano, stopping twice more. Just as we passed the front door, the bell sounded.
“Oh, God,” Jenn moaned, squeezing my hand again. “I might—”
This time, I had a feeling she meant it. Without thinking, totally desperate, I threw the door open and pushed her out onto the front steps, where she grabbed the wrought-iron railing, leaned over it, and heaved into the bushes. On the steps beside her, holding a pizza box and wearing a SEASIDE PIZZA T-shirt, was Mac Chatham.