“Sydney,” he said. “How are you?”
“Good,” I replied. “Come on in.”
As I stepped aside to let him pass, Ames’s red Lexus pulled into the driveway. He got out right away and waved at me, which meant unless I wanted to shut the door in his face I had no choice but to stand there as he came up the walk. He opened his arms, then said, “Hey. Long time, no see.”
I hated the hugging. It was relatively new, having been instituted after the weekend he’d stayed with me. There was really no way to turn down a hug without looking like a bitch, and these were particularly squeezy and long. I let myself be drawn in and tried not to tense up totally as he slid his hands around me.
“Rough week, huh?” he said. “You doing okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, managing to untangle myself. “Mom’s inside.”
“Great.” He smiled at me, then headed down the hallway, where I heard him greet Sawyer and my parents with his usual loud familiarity. I stayed in the foyer, feeling like I needed a shower. When the doorbell sounded again, I opened it. A thin woman with her hair in a braid, wearing a flowing dress and leather clogs, was standing there. She looked very surprised to see me, as if she hadn’t just pushed a button to summon someone.
“Hi,” she stammered. “I’m, um, here to . . .”
“Michelle, right?” I asked. She nodded, blushing slightly. “I’m Sydney, Peyton’s sister. Come on in.”
She did, bringing the sweet smell of some kind of essential oil with her. “This is a lovely home,” she told me as I led her down the hallway. “I’ve . . . I haven’t been to this neighborhood before.”
“We like it,” I told her, because what do you even say to that? Thankfully, two more steps and we were in the kitchen. “Mom, Michelle’s here.”
“Hello!” my mother said. She was in her full-on gracious hostess mode, something I hadn’t seen in a while. Before Peyton’s problems, my parents had entertained a lot, both for my dad’s work and within their own social circle. In the last year, though, the dinners and cocktails had gone from sporadic to nonexistent. No one was in the mood for a party these days. “Thank you so much for coming. It’s an honor to have you.”
“You have a lovely home,” Michelle said again. There was a layer of pet hair—cat? dog? some other species?—on the back of her dress.
“This is Sawyer Ambrose, our family attorney,” my mom continued. “And my husband, Peyton, and our friend Ames Bentley. You met Sydney?”
Michelle nodded. “Yes. She’s . . . Yes, I did.”
I was no expert, but it seemed that to be a professional advocate, you sort of had to be able to talk to people. Michelle, in contrast, seemed nervous whenever she was addressed during the wine and cheese my mother put out before dinner. Undeterred, my mother kept talking to her, catching my dad and Ames up on the various conversations they’d had in the last week about dealing with the warden, finding out information that wasn’t being readily dispensed, and ways we could help Peyton from outside the prison.
“So,” Sawyer said to me in the midst of all this, “I hear you’re at Jackson High now. How are you liking it?”
“It’s good,” I said.
“My daughter Isley goes there,” he told me, helping himself to a small cracker and a very big slice of Gouda. “The teachers are good. The boys, though, trouble. Although I guess that’s the case wherever you are, am I right?”
“Um, yeah,” I said. My mother had gotten her social skills back, but mine were nowhere to be found. Apparently. “I guess.”
“She was dating this musician over the summer,” he continued. “Real blowhard. Walked around with a tuner in his pocket, yakking on about irony and nuance.”
That sounded awfully familiar. “What was his name?”
“Eric.” He sighed. “She came to her senses before it went too far, at least. If it was up to me, she wouldn’t date until college. But it isn’t up to me, of course.”
“Sawyer,” my mom interjected, putting a hand on his arm, “Michelle was just telling us about some really good opportunities for families to be involved at Lincoln.”
“I’m in,” said Ames right away. “Tell me more.”
“I don’t know,” Sawyer said, taking a sip of his wine. “You have to be careful. It might be better for Peyton for there to be a clear line between his life there and this one.”
“Well, of course Peyton’s well-being is our top priority,” my dad added, and Ames nodded.
Michelle cleared her throat. “It’s been my experience that at Lincoln they are more progressive than some of the other institutions.” A pause. A long one. Then, right when I could tell my mom was about to jump in, she continued. “Their warden is new and came from out of state—New York, I believe. He’s got a reputation for being compassionate toward families.”
“Well, I hope that is the case,” my mom said. “But first I have to get him to return my phone calls.”
“You called the warden?” Sawyer asked, surprised.
“Well . . .” My mom looked at my dad, then at Michelle. “Yes. I did. After this latest infraction, we couldn’t get any information. And I felt that it was important—”
“Julie. This is prison, not PTA.”
“I know that,” she said, an edge of irritation creeping into her voice. She must have heard it, too, as she paused, gathering herself, before saying, “I just wanted to know what was going on.”