“That must have been so hard for you, and your family,” she said. “I can’t even imagine.”
“It is,” I finally managed. “Hard, I mean. Mostly for my mom. I hate what it’s done to her.”
“She’s suffering.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yeah.” I looked down at my hands. “But . . . so is that boy. David Ibarra. I mean, he really is.”
“Of course.” Again, no judgment, just a prod to keep going. So I did.
“I think . . .” I began, but then suddenly it was too big to say or even exist outside of my own head. It was one thing to let these thoughts haunt the dark spaces of my mind, but another entirely to put them into the light, making them real. She was looking at me so intently, though, and this place was so new, with no semblance of the world before except for the fact that I was in it. “I think my parents see Peyton as the victim, in some ways. And I hate that. It makes me sick. It’s just so . . . It’s wrong.”
“You feel guilty.”
“Yes,” I said, the vehemence of this one word surprising me. Like simply concurring made my soul rush out, gone. “I do. So much. Every single day.”
“Oh, honey.” She reached out, putting her hand over mine. In the next room, the popcorn was popping, producing the buttery smell I associated with movies and after school, all those lonely afternoons. “Why do you feel like you have to shoulder your brother’s responsibility?”
“Because someone has to,” I said. I looked into her eyes, green flecked with brown, just like Layla’s. “That’s why.”
Instead of replying, she squeezed my hand. I knew I could pull away and it would still be all right. But when Layla came in a few minutes later with the popcorn, that was how she found us. I’d let so much go, finally. It made sense, I suppose, that right then I would maybe just want to hold on.
“HOW MUCH farther?”
“You always ask that.”
“And I always mean it.” A pause. Then, “Seriously, how much?”
Up ahead, Mac turned around, shining the flashlight back at Layla. “If you’re angling for a ride, you should just ask.”
She smiled. “I wouldn’t want to impose . . .”
In response, Irv, who was walking alongside Mac, dropped back so we could catch up with him. “Hop on,” he said, crouching down, and Layla climbed onto his immense shoulders, piggyback-style. Then we continued on into the darkness.
I’d felt so shaken after my talk with Mrs. Chatham that I was grateful, actually, for the chaos that followed. After we had polished off the popcorn and watched one episode of Big Los Angeles (one catfight, two breakdowns, too many gorgeous outfits to count), Mac, Eric, and Ford had come inside to raid the fridge. Then Rosie showed up with a couple of her Mariposa friends, who were in town doing a week of performances at the Lakeview Center. The house already felt packed, even before Mr. Chatham came home and his friends arrived, instruments in hand. After the constant quiet of my own house since Peyton had been gone, I expected the contrast to be overwhelming. Instead, I found that I liked the constant hum and noise, the fullness of many people and much energy in a small space. I could hang back and just watch, yet still feel involved. It was nice.
Dinner was a huge amount of pizza, salads, and garlic knots from Seaside, which we ate in the outbuilding while Layla’s parents and their friends filled the living room and kitchen. It was just starting to get dark when I heard the first strains of music coming from the house through the open back door. It sounded like the jukebox at Seaside, but more real. Alive.
I’d assumed we’d head inside for the music, but everyone else had other plans. After checking in with Mrs. Chatham to see if she needed anything, Mac returned with a duffel bag, which he took into the garage. A moment later, with the bag visibly fuller, he returned and hoisted it over his shoulder. Layla pulled a flashlight from a nearby cabinet, while Irv, who had arrived post-popcorn and pre-dinner, grabbed the backpack he’d brought with him. Eric packed up his guitar, and then they all headed outside in silent consensus. I followed, the only one who had no idea where we were going.
As it turned out, it was into the woods. They all started toward it, as if entering a huge swath of dark forest at night made total sense. I guess to them, it did.
“Hey,” Layla said, looking over at me. “It’s okay. Come on.”
When Peyton and I went into the trees behind our house, it took a few minutes to leave our yard and the neighborhood behind. Here, though, it was different. We’d no sooner stepped in than we were swallowed up, lights from the Chathams’ house dimming, then disappearing altogether. I was grateful for Mac’s white shirt, which seemed to almost glow as he led us deeper and deeper into the trees. We’d been walking almost twenty minutes when Layla first complained. Once she was on Irv’s back, we easily doubled that time.
“I always forget how freaking long this takes,” Eric complained, his guitar case bumping against his leg.
“Do you want Irv to carry you, too?” Layla asked him.
I was somewhat out of breath, both from Mac’s fast pace and the distance. Irv, however, hardly seemed winded, even with an additional hundred-plus pounds on his back. We kept walking.
And then, right when I was sure someone—maybe even me—was about to voice more displeasure, I saw a clearing ahead. The trees thinned, then disappeared altogether, leaving us facing a large metal structure, plopped down in the middle of all that forest like God himself had dropped it there.