“Hi!” She looked genuinely happy to see me. “Well, it’s hardly the real Logan Oxford. But at least we don’t have to go far. Here, let me get you a chair.”
“Oh,” I said. “You don’t . . .”
But she was already going into the shed, squeezing past Ford and his bass to retrieve a battered pink lawn chair patterned with palm trees. As she plunked it down in front of me, a couple of dead spiders fell off it. She ignored this, wiping it clean with her hands before presenting it to me. “Best seat in the house. Or this house.”
I sat. The band was still playing, although Eric had stopped singing and turned around, his back now to us. I said, “So this is where they practice?”
“Sometimes,” she replied, plopping back into her own seat. “There’s also Ford’s basement, but there’s always laundry going down there and Eric claims the smell of fabric softener gives him a headache.”
“Rock star problems.”
“Eric problems.” She sighed. “They’re like first world, but even more privileged.”
I looked at the man in question, who had now stopped playing altogether and was tuning his guitar, a frustrated look on his face. As Mac and Ford moved alone into the chorus, I realized they actually sounded better without him. Maybe this was why I said, “You’re tough on him.”
“Eric?” I nodded. “Yeah, I guess. But it’s from a good place, I swear. Before he met Mac and started coming around, he was such a freaking jerk. Just a total know-it-all blowhard. But the thing was . . . it wasn’t really his fault.”
She shook her head. “His parents, they tried to have kids for, like, ever. All these fertility problems, miscarriages. They’d basically been told there was no way it was ever going to happen for them. So when his mom got pregnant without even trying, it was like . . . a miracle. And when Eric arrived, they treated him accordingly.”
“Like a miracle?”
“Like God’s gift. Which was what they thought he was.” She shifted in her seat. “The problem was when it became how he saw himself, and there was no one there to tell him otherwise. Then he met Mac.”
“And Mac did?”
“In his way,” she replied. “That’s the thing about my brother. He’s subtle, you know? And a good guy, a guy you want to like you.”
I cleared my throat, concerned I might be blushing.
“So he just told Eric that he didn’t have to try so hard. Win every discussion, talk louder than everyone else. That kind of thing. And Eric, to his credit, listened. Now he’s not so bad, although he has his lapses. And when he does, I feel it’s my duty to speak up. We all do.”
“For the common good,” I said.
“Well, it takes a village,” she replied. “Or a city, really, in his case. A big one. Many citizens.”
I laughed as there was a blast of feedback, followed by Eric shouting something. Layla winced. “Okay, I need a break. Let’s go get something to eat.”
She got up, and I followed her across the muddy backyard to the house, where a mossy line of paving stones led up to the back door. It creaked when she pulled it open, a sound that appeared to summon the dogs, which swarmed our ankles, barking wildly, as we went inside.
“Sydney’s here,” she called out as the door swung shut behind us. It took a second to adjust from the brightness outside. But then, yet again, it was all in place: the couch, the huge TV, the two cluttered tables flanking the recliner, in which Mrs. Chatham was seated, wearing a sweatshirt that said MIAMI and scrub pants. As I watched, the dogs, having lost interest in us, jumped up and burrowed under the blanket spread across her lap.
“Welcome,” she said to me. “I hear you’re spending the night.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Thanks for having me.”
“Don’t thank us yet,” Layla said. “You may change your mind once the music starts.”
“The music?” I repeated. I looked out the window. “They’re already playing, though.”
“Not that music. My dad’s. As it turns out, he also invited a bunch of people over tonight. Not that anyone told me.”
“I bet Sydney will love it,” her mother said.
“It’s bluegrass,” Layla told me. “Nothing but bluegrass. All night long. If you don’t like mandolin, you’re in trouble.”
“You have a door on your room; feel free to use it,” Mrs. Chatham said, in a tone that, while cheerful, made it clear it was the end of the discussion. “Now, go make some popcorn, would you, honey? I want to talk to Sydney a second.”
Layla glanced at me, then turned, walking into the kitchen. For a minute, I felt like I might be in trouble, although I couldn’t imagine what for. When I looked at Mrs. Chatham, though, she was smiling at me. I sat down in a nearby chair just as Layla turned on the microwave.
“So,” she said as one of the dogs shifted position on her lap. “I saw the article in the paper.”
Over the last few months, I’d realized that there was really no ideal way for anyone to talk to me about Peyton. If they avoided the subject, but it was clearly on their minds, things felt awkward. Addressing it head-on, however, was often worse, like a train coming toward me I was helpless to stop. Really, nothing felt right, yet this gentle inquiry was the closest I’d gotten. An acknowledgment and sympathy, while still respecting the facts. It took me by such surprise, I couldn’t speak at first. So I was glad when she continued.