“What’s that like?” Irv asked, and everyone laughed. Layla, however, kept her eyes on me long enough that I picked up the bag and took out my sandwich. The fries that came with it I handed over to her without comment.
“Great Grillers?” she asked. I nodded, and she wrinkled her nose. “They’re too skinny for my taste, usually. I don’t like a spindly fry. But since you’re offering . . .”
She started her typical extensive preparations. I took a halfhearted bite of my sandwich, then put it down, overwhelmed suddenly with the urge to call my mom. Since my earlier efforts, when she’d shut me down with the party line, we didn’t talk about David Ibarra ever. But sitting there, I suddenly felt so alone and craved someone, anyone, who might understand.
“Hey,” I heard a voice say. I looked up to see Mac, his trash in hand, standing over me. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Sydney?” Layla said. “What’s wrong?”
I shook my head, quickly getting to my feet. The attention, added to the scrutiny I’d imagined all day, was suddenly too much. “I . . . I need to go,” I said. “I’ll see you guys later.”
No one said anything as I walked away. Nobody tried to follow me. I went to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall. Finally, I was alone, just like I’d wanted. It felt so awful. Like it was just what I deserved.
* * *
By that evening, things were back to normal at home. The paper was in the recycling, the news was moving on, and we would as well. But while my mom puttered around the kitchen making dinner and the usual conversation, I still felt strange. Not only about the article, but the way I’d walked away from Layla and everyone else. She knew Peyton’s history; I could have told her about the story. And yet, I hadn’t. I still wasn’t sure why.
It was just after dinner, while I was helping to load the dishwasher, that my phone beeped. Layla.
My mom wants you to come for dinner tomorrow. Y/N/MB?
I looked over to the counter, where my own mother was making coffee for the next morning, as she did every night right after dinner. I waited for the beans (fair trade and organic, of course) to be done grinding before I said, “Mom?”
“Yes?” she asked, walking over to the sink.
“I’m going to have dinner at Layla’s tomorrow, okay?”
The first bad sign was when she put down the carafe, only half-filled with water. The second was the look on her face. “I need you here. Sawyer and that advocate, Michelle, are coming over, remember?”
I hadn’t, but now it all came back. After failing to find out what Peyton had done to lose visiting privileges, my mom had found a nonprofit that helped families of prisoners navigate the legal system. During the last week, she’d had two meetings with a woman there named Michelle, reporting back that she was “a lifesaver, so knowledgeable,” and “just the person we need in our corner.”
“You guys will just be talking about Peyton, though,” I said. “Do I really need to be here?”
Her face tensed, that crease folding in between her eyebrows. “It’s important that we present a united, supportive front whenever possible. You are part of that.”
She turned back to the sink. I bit my lip, looking at my shoes as my dad came in and went to the freezer, pulling it open. He stood there for a minute before saying, “Are we out of rocky road? Is that even possible?”
“Sydney doesn’t want to come to dinner tomorrow,” my mom replied, as if this had anything to do with his question. “Apparently, she’d rather eat over at her new friend’s house.”
“What happening tomorrow?” my dad asked, pushing aside a carton of vanilla and looking behind it.
My mom yanked up the top to the water chamber on the coffeemaker hard enough that it banged against the cabinet behind it. “Sawyer? The advocate? Dinner? Does anyone listen to anything I say?”
My dad, who had found his rocky road, turned, the carton in his hands. He looked so surprised, I felt bad for him. “Julie? What’s wrong?”
“I’m just tired of being the only one who seems to care about Peyton.” She shoved the carafe into its place. “I don’t ask you both to visit with me, I don’t ask you to keep track of all the dates and issues that must be kept up with. But I think I should be able to ask you to have dinner in your own house, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Mom,” I said, “I’ll be here.”
“Of course she will.” My dad put down the ice cream and walked over, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Honey. It’s okay. We’ll do whatever you need.”
“It’s not for me,” she said, her voice cracking. “That’s the whole point.”
No can do, I texted Layla later from my room. Family stuff. Wish I could.
Nothing for a few minutes. Finally, a beep.
You sure you’re okay?
I hesitated, my finger over the keyboard. No, I wrote back. I’m not.
Another pause, shorter this time. Then: Sleep over Saturday. Y?
There was not a No or Maybe provided this time. Sometimes, fewer choices can be a good thing. Will try, I replied. And then, after a moment: Thank you.
XO, she wrote back. And then, as if I had already chosen after all: See you then.
* * *
Sawyer Ambrose was a big, beefy guy with curly white hair whose cheeks were always red. He was like Santa, but in a business suit instead of a red, fur-trimmed one. When I opened the door the following evening right at six thirty, he was standing there with a bottle of wine, a cheesecake, and a smile.