She and Ames exchanged a knowing look. “It was,” she agreed, walking over and smoothing a hand over my hair. “Not to mention a long night. Ames, take a rain check?”
“Of course,” he said.
Sensing a chance to escape, I got to my feet. “I think I’ll just go upstairs and get ready for bed.”
My mom glanced at her watch. It was only nine thirty. As I started out of the room, she said, “Tomorrow is all yours, okay? Whatever you want to do.”
I had a feeling that going to Layla’s was not what she had in mind as she said this. But all I wanted was to get out of this house, be somewhere the ghost of my brother, not even dead, didn’t haunt every corner.
Up in my room, I got into my pajamas, then brushed my teeth. I kept checking to see if Ames had left yet, wondering what else he could possibly have to say to my mother, but as a half hour passed, and then another, his car remained. Finally, I crept halfway down the stairs to listen.
“She’s doing fine,” he was saying. “It’s a big adjustment. Imagine what it’s like to be in high school and dealing with this.”
“I just wish she’d stayed at Perkins. I feel like I’m losing touch with her, just because there’s so much I don’t know about her daily life.”
“That sounds like a common feeling for you.” I rolled my eyes.
“It is.” A pause. “All I ever wanted was for them to be happy.”
“Happy is a lot to ask for all the time.”
“I don’t want all the time,” she replied. “Not anymore. I’d just take a little and be grateful for it.”
She sounded so sad, so tired. At times like this it was hard to even remember the way my mom had once been, bubbling with energy and projects. Like the center of the wheel that was our family, she’d always held all our separate spokes together and kept them rolling. Now, though, more often than not, we were wobbling, lucky to be moving at all.
Before I turned out my light, I picked up my phone, glancing at the last text Layla had sent. I wished there was a way to catch her up all at once, so that she’d know what I was feeling right that moment and maybe understand. I flipped over to the article from the paper, still bookmarked, and copied the link, then pasted it into a fresh message. Then, before I could overthink it, I hit SEND. No explanation, no comment. Just the story as it was. I stayed awake for a while, wondering what she’d write back. When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad that there was no reply from her at all.
I WAS right. Despite her promises the night before, my mom was not exactly thrilled to discover that the one thing I wanted to do on Saturday was spend the night with Layla.
“Oh, honey,” she’d said that morning when I brought it up. It was only nine a.m., but I’d already made her sound weary. “I don’t think so. It’s already been a long week, and I don’t even know this girl.”
“She spent the night here already, though,” I pointed out, hoping to appeal to her sense of manners and social contracts. “Twice, actually.”
“That was different,” she replied, pouring herself more coffee. “You were here, and Ames was with you.”
Which was so much safer, I thought. But of course she thought it was. I wondered if he actually looked different to her physically, his very features starkly different, since we saw him in such opposite ways. “I stayed home last night, like you asked me to. You said today was mine to do what I chose.”
“I meant something like going to the movies, or out to lunch. Not disappearing for a full night to a strange place.”
“Mom. It’s across town, not Neverland.”
She made a face at me, then looked at my dad, who was bent over his customary huge plate of bacon and eggs, reading the sports page. “Peyton? Could you weigh in here?”
“Sure.” He sat back, wiping his hands on a napkin. “On what?”
“Sydney wants to spend the night at her friend Layla’s house tonight.”
My dad looked at me, then back at her, clearly trying to guess what the issue was. I marveled, as always, at his ability to be literally inside a conversation and yet miss it altogether. Slowly, he said, “And the problem is . . .”
“That we don’t know her? Or her family?”
“Can we meet them?” he asked.
My mom looked at me, as if this prospect would dampen my drive to do this. “Sure,” I said. “Her parents own a pizza place over by my school. I’m sure they’re open for lunch. Her dad’s usually there.”
It was a tribute to how desperate I was that I was willing to bring my mom to Seaside. But this was not just me getting what I wanted. What I’d overheard her say to Ames the night before was still on my mind. There was nothing she could really do when it came to knowing more about Peyton’s world. But maybe I could give her a wider glimpse into mine.
Three hours later, I was in the passenger seat of her hybrid SUV, directing her into a parking space. My dad had a racquetball game, so it was just us, and I was strangely nervous, as if this was some sort of test I needed to pass. She cut the engine, then flipped down her visor, checking her lipstick. “Hungry?” she asked me.
“Totally,” I replied. “The pizza is great here.”
Inside, I saw Mac first, in a SEASIDE T-shirt and jeans, behind the counter spreading sauce onto an uncooked pie. For the first time, the thin silver chain he wore was fully visible, and I saw that it had a charm on it, something circular that looked like a coin, although it was hard to tell from a distance. “Hey,” he said. “Layla said you might be in.”