“How did you meet Layla, again?” my mom finally asked me.
I swallowed the bite in my mouth. “Here. I came in for a slice after school. And we just started talking.”
She looked back at Mac, who was pulling a pie out of the oven. “You said her mother was ill.”
“She has MS. I think they trade off taking care of her.”
“How awful.” She wiped her mouth. “And where do they live?”
“About two blocks from here.”
I could sense I was close to getting what I wanted, which was also near enough to worry about it slipping away. So I kept quiet and waited for her to speak again. Instead, the next sound that came was her phone.
She pulled it out of her bag. Upon seeing the screen, her eyes widened, and she quickly scrambled to hit the TALK button. “Hello?”
Distantly, I could hear the sound of an automated voice.
“Yes.” Her voice was clear and loud enough that Layla and Mac both looked over at us. “I’ll accept the charges.”
It was Peyton. I could tell by her face, the way her eyes filled with tears when, after a beat, he began to speak. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I didn’t have to. I’d always had a sense when it came to my brother. And anyway, his voice had more presence than most people did face-to-face.
“Oh, honey,” she said, putting her other hand to her face. “Hello. Hello! How are you? I’ve been so worried!”
As he replied, she got to her feet and headed for the door, the phone clamped to her ear. Once outside, she began pacing on the sidewalk, her face all attention, listening hard.
“Looks like an important call.”
I glanced up to see Layla standing beside me. “My brother,” I said. “It’s the first time he’s had phone access in a while.”
She was still watching my mom, moving back and forth in front of the window. “She sure looks happy.”
“Yeah. She does.”
Neither of us spoke for a second. Then, wordlessly, she put a root beer YumYum beside my plate. Compensation? A gesture of sympathy? It could have been both these things, or neither of them. It really didn’t matter. I was grateful for it.
* * *
When I got to Layla’s later that afternoon, I was surprised to see several cars parked in the driveway and along the curb. Clearly, I was not the only one who had been invited over.
No matter, though. I was just glad to be there, even if it did take my brother to make it happen. After hanging up with him, my mom was so over the moon, I probably could have gotten anything I asked for. This, though, was all I wanted.
I parked behind a minivan that I recognized as belonging to Ford, the bass player in Eric and Mac’s band, the name of which was still in flux. Before Hey Dude, they’d been known as Hog Dog Water, both names Eric felt did not “do their art justice.” This had been the subject of another extended discussion at lunch on Friday, during which Layla said he should pick a name and stick with it, for recognition if nothing else. He, however, maintained that a band’s identity was not something to be decided lightly: whatever they became next was important. Unlike, say, Hot Dog Water.
From there, the conversation had gone about how they all did, segueing from a somewhat civilized discussion to Eric performing a loud monologue that no one else could interrupt. I often left lunch feeling exhausted, and that day I’d almost fallen asleep in my ecology class afterward.
The band might have been nameless, but this didn’t prevent them from practicing, if the noise I heard as I walked up to the house was any indication. The music was coming from around the side of the house, so I followed it, coming upon an outbuilding that sat between a truck up on blocks and a large sedan with a sunken-in roof. Smaller than a garage, but bigger than a shed, it had two wooden doors that were open, revealing Mac at his drum set, Eric behind a microphone, and Ford, who was fiddling with an amplifier. In front of them was Layla, in a lawn chair. She was wearing sunglasses.
“Verdict?” she was saying as I came up behind her. “Too loud. Not good.”
Eric just looked at her. “Don’t feel the need to candy-coat, Chatham.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
“We’re supposed to be loud, though,” Ford said, unplugging something, then plugging it back in. “That’s part of the whole ethos, right? That this music was, in its original form, so highly controlled and conducted, even computerized. Making it raw and rough turns it on its head.”
Mac, drumsticks in hand, raised his eyebrows. “Dude,” he said. “You’ve been hanging out with Eric way too much.”
“On the contrary, I think someone is finally talking sense around here,” Eric said. “Now we just need to get our drummer on board with the message and we’ll be all set.”
“Forget your message,” Layla told him. “Concentrate on playing well.”
“Nobody asked you,” he said. “Don’t you have special ketchup to formulate or something?”
“Nope.” She sat back, crossing one leg over the other. “Right now, I have all the time in the world.”
“Lucky us,” Eric grumbled, turning back to the other guys. “Okay, let’s try ‘Prom Queen’ again, from the top.”
Mac counted to four, and then they began playing again, sounding a bit disjointed at first before gelling, somewhat, by the end of the first verse. Despite Layla’s ongoing commentary, I saw her tapping her foot as I came up beside her.
“Front-row seat, huh?”