“Seventeen forty-two is your total,” he told her. “Small bills appreciated.”
Margaret just looked at him, her expression icy. He stared back, clearly unfazed. Finally, she turned to me. “Money’s on the counter in an envelope. Don’t overtip.”
With this, she turned and began to climb the stairs again. Chris stayed where he was, his expression hesitant. “Hey,” he said to me, his voice low. “I—”
“Come on,” Margaret barked from the landing. There was a beat, and then he, too, turned and disappeared upstairs.
My face was hot as I walked down the hallway to the kitchen, embarrassed and pissed off all at once. “She’s nice,” Mac said. “Friend of yours?”
“No,” I said flatly.
In the kitchen, we found Huck and Charlie still at the table, now taking plain shots and throwing cocktail peanuts into each other’s mouths. They were drunk enough to not really notice us, but I saw Mac take them in as I found the envelope Jenn’s mom had left, the words For your birthday dinner! in a flowery script on the front. If only she knew. I took out twenty-five, sliding it over to him. He handed the five back.
“Take it,” I said, pushing it at him.
He moved it back toward me. “Sydney, come on.”
My move. “Mac. It’s the least I can do.”
His. “I’m not taking your charity.”
Me. “It’s not my money.”
Him. “I don’t care.”
I reached to push the bill again, and he did, too, our hands meeting right over Abe Lincoln’s face. Neither of us moved. I could feel the warmth of his fingertips, barely tangible, against mine. We stayed there for one second. Two. Then, from somewhere, a buzzing sound.
Mac kept his hand on the five, reaching into a back pocket. He pulled out his phone and glanced at the screen, then showed it to me.
LAYLA, said the caller ID at the top. The message read only:
Where are my fries??????????
I smiled. “That’s a lot of question marks.”
“I told you. She’s serious.” He lifted his fingers away from mine, barely, and pushed the bill one last time in my direction. Then he glanced at Huck and Charlie, who were giggling like girls over something at the table. “You gonna be okay here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve known them forever, they’re fine.”
He nodded, then put his phone back in his pocket and started for the door. I followed him, pulling it open as he took out the pizzas from the warmer and handed them to me. As he went outside, I said, “Thanks again. For everything.”
“No problem. Like I told you, it’s part of the job.”
“Sure it is.”
I stood there holding the boxes as he walked down the steps and to the truck, pulling open the driver’s side door. Upstairs, Margaret was doing God knew what with Chris McMichaels, and I had two more drunk people to deal with once I returned to the kitchen. But Jenn was safe, so was I, and at least there was pizza. I waved at Mac as he backed down the driveway, and he blinked his brights at me before he drove away.
Back in the kitchen, the guys jumped on the pies, diving right in, but I went over to the counter. That five was still sitting there. Unlike some people, I wasn’t one to take things that weren’t mine, so I found one in my wallet and put it in the envelope before claiming the original bill as my own.
As I folded it carefully, I walked back to the front door, peering out at the empty street. Mac’s always somewhere nearby, Layla had told me, but I hadn’t realized how true it really was. That night, curled up on the other side of Jenn’s bed, her soft breathing filling the room, I slept with one hand in my pocket, the bill between my fingers. Each time I woke up, I made sure it was still there.
LOCAL TEEN FACES TRAGEDY, RISES ABOVE, the headline read. Just below it, there was a picture of David Ibarra in his wheelchair. He was smiling.
Suddenly it made sense. Why, when I’d come into the kitchen moments earlier, I’d found my dad standing over the newspaper, which was open on the table. His back was to me, but I could see he had one hand to his mouth. His shoulders were shaking.
He put his other hand down on the table, sucking in a breath before turning around. “Hey,” he said. “Ready for breakfast?”
I nodded as he shut the paper, then walked over to the stove, where a pan of scrambled eggs sat on the burner. My dad was a breakfast person: he started every day with a minimum of eggs, bacon or sausage, and toast. He was also an early riser, often gone by the time I came down for school, leaving just leftovers and the smell of pork products behind. Finding him still in the kitchen at seven a.m. was odd enough. Discovering him crying bordered on terrifying.
I’d eyed the paper as he prepared a huge plate for me, wondering what he’d been looking at. It wasn’t until his phone rang that I got a chance to find out.
David Ibarra is having a good day. He’s not in pain, he just hit a high score on his favorite video game, and he’s about to dig into a deluxe pizza. For some, these things might be no big deal. But for David, who was hit by a drunk driver seven months ago and paralyzed, every day is a gift.
I felt my stomach twist. I could hear my dad talking out in the hallway. Quickly, I kept reading.
It was February fifteenth, and David was once again playing Warworld. “Competitive” doesn’t do justice to how he and his cousin Ricardo were when it came to the popular video game. They could play for hours, and often did, staying up late That night, David says, was “especially epic, even for us. We played for so long, I could barely keep my eyes open. Eventually I did fall asleep. I woke up with the controller on my chest.”