Peyton received three months in jail and a fine. That was the first time we were all in court together. His lawyer, Sawyer Ambrose, whose ads were on bus stops all over town (NEED A LAWYER? CALL ON SAWYER!), maintained that it was crucial for the jury to see us sitting behind my brother like the loyal, tight family we were.
Also present was my brother’s new best friend, a guy he’d met in the Narcotics Anonymous group he was required to attend. Ames was a year older than Peyton, tall with shaggy hair and a loping walk, and had gotten busted for dealing pot a year earlier. He’d served six months and stayed out of trouble ever since, setting the kind of example everyone agreed my brother needed. They drank a lot of coffee drinks together, played video games, and studied, Peyton with his books from the alternative school where he’d landed, Ames for the classes he was taking in hospitality management at Lakeview Tech. They planned that Peyton would do the same once he got his diploma, and together they’d go work at one resort or another. My mom loved this idea, and already had all the paperwork necessary to make it happen: it sat in its own labeled envelope on her desk. There was just the little matter of the jail thing to get out of the way first.
My brother ended up serving seven weeks at the county lockup. I was not permitted to see him, but my mother visited every time it was allowed. Meanwhile, Ames remained; it seemed like he was always parked at our kitchen table with a coffee drink, ducking out occasionally to the garage to smoke cigarettes, using a sand-bucket ashtray my mom (who abhorred the habit) put out there just for him. Sometimes he showed up with his girlfriend, Marla, a manicurist with blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a shyness so prevalent she rarely spoke. If you addressed her, she got super nervous, like a small dog too tightly wound and always shaking.
I knew Ames was a comfort to my mom. But something about him made me uneasy. Like how I’d catch him watching me over the rim of his coffee cup, following my movements with his dark eyes. Or how he always found a way to touch me—squeezing my shoulder, brushing against my arm—when he said hello. It wasn’t like he’d ever done anything to me, so I felt like it had to be my problem. Plus, he had a girlfriend. All he wanted, he told me again and again, was to take care of me the way Peyton would.
“It was the one thing he asked me the day he went in,” he told me soon after my brother was gone. We were in the kitchen, and my mom had stepped out to take a phone call, leaving us alone. “He said, ‘Look out for Sydney, man. I’m counting on you.’”
I wasn’t sure what to say to this. First of all, it didn’t sound like Peyton, who’d barely given me the time of day in the months before he’d gone away. Plus, even before that, he’d never been the protective type. But Ames knew my brother well, and the truth was that I no longer did. So I had to take his word for it.
“Well,” I said, feeling like I should offer something, “um, thanks.”
“No problem.” He gave me another one of those long looks. “It’s the least I can do.”
When Peyton was released, he was still quiet, but more engaged, helping out more around the house and being present in a way he hadn’t been in the previous months. Sometimes, after he got home from school, he’d even watch TV with me. He could only stand Big New York or Miami for short periods, though, before getting disgusted with every single character.
“That’s Ayre,” I’d try to explain as the gaunt, heavily nipped-and-tucked one-time Playmate had yet another meltdown. “She and Rosalie, the actress? They’re, like, always at each other.”
Peyton said nothing, only rolling his eyes. He had little patience for anything, I was noticing.
“You pick something,” I’d say, pushing the remote at him. “Seriously, I don’t care what we watch.”
But it never worked. It was like he could alight next to me for just so long before having to move on to checking e-mail, strumming his guitar, or getting something to eat. His fidgeting kept increasing, and it made me nervous. I saw my mom notice it as well. Like some kind of internal energy had lost its outlet and was just building up, day after day, until he found a new one.
He got his diploma in June, in a small ceremony with only eight classmates, most of whom had also been kicked out of their previous schools. We all attended, Ames and Marla included, and went out to dinner afterward at Luna Blu, one of our favorite restaurants. There, over their famous fried pickle appetizer, we toasted my brother with our soft drinks before my parents presented him with his graduation gift: two round-trip tickets to Jacksonville, Florida, so he and Ames could check out a well-known hospitality course there. My mom had even made them an appointment with the school’s director, as well as set up a private tour. Of course.
“This is great,” my brother said, looking down at the tickets. “Seriously. Thanks, Mom and Dad.”
My mother smiled, tears pricking her eyes, as my dad reached over, clapping Peyton on the shoulder. We were sitting outside on the patio, tiny fairy lights strung up overhead, and we’d just had a great meal together. The moment seemed so far away from the year we’d had, like everything in the fall and before it was just a bad dream. The next day, my mom sat down with me to talk about my hopes for college. Finally, I was the project. It was my turn.
That fall, I started tenth grade at Perkins Day. My own transition to Upper School the year before had been as unremarkable as my brother’s had been eventful. Jenn and I made friends with a new girl, Meredith, who’d moved to Lakeview to train at the U’s gymnastics facility. She was small and all muscle, with the best posture I’d ever seen, not to mention the perkiest ponytail. She’d been training for competition since she was six. I’d never met anyone so driven and disciplined, and she basically spent every hour she wasn’t at school in the gym. Together, we three formed an easy friendship, as we all felt a little older than our classmates: Jenn because of her upbringing, Meredith because of her sport, and me because of everything that had happened in the last year. My brother’s legend, for better or worse, still preceded me. But my choice of friends—and the fact that we avoided all parties and illegal extracurriculars even as our classmates experimented—made it clear we were very different.