Outside in the living room, it was quiet: most of the guests had left. Layla’s mom had gone to her room even earlier, about the same time Rosie and her Mariposa friends disappeared. Now I could only hear one person playing a banjo, the sound distant and plaintive.
“So, speaking of brothers . . . I read that article you sent,” she said suddenly. “About that kid. I showed it to Mac, too.”
I looked down at my hands, then said, “I was worried, sending it to you.”
I nodded. “I thought you guys might judge.”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Everyone else did.”
“Sydney.” She said this in a way that made it clear I should look at her, so I did. “We’re not like everyone else. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
I smiled. “I’m getting an idea.”
“If it were me,” she said, shifting on the sleeping bag, “I’d want to talk to that kid. Apologize.”
“I do,” I said, surprised she’d nailed it so quickly. “But it feels selfish. Like what good could it possibly do for him? My ‘I’m sorry’ won’t bring back his legs.”
“If it were a movie,” Layla mulled, looking up at the ceiling, “you guys would become best friends, bond over some shared hobby, like, say, competitive eating, and you’d help him learn to walk again. Cue the happy ending.”
I just looked at her. “Competitive eating?”
“I only just started thinking about this movie!” she said, and I laughed. “Cut me some slack.”
We sat there for a second, the banjo outside still playing. I said, “It’s not a movie, though. And there is no happy ending. Just . . . an ending, I guess.”
Layla tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “I hate when that happens,” she said softly. “Don’t you?”
Before I could answer, there was a light rapping noise on the door, and then Mac stuck his head in. “Mom’s calling for you,” he told Layla.
She immediately got to her feet. “Everything okay?”
Instead of answering, he opened the door wide and she slipped through, quickly turning down the hallway. In the living room, I could see Mr. Chatham was standing now, holding his banjo by the neck. His face was flushed, and when he saw me, I could tell for a second he had no idea who I was.
“You want some water?” Mac asked him, and he started, pulling his gaze from me.
“I can get it,” Mr. Chatham told him. He put the banjo down slowly, then took a step back from the couch. Mac glanced at me, then eased the door shut.
It felt like I sat there a long time by myself. But that alarm clock beside me only marked two full minutes before Layla returned. “Just the woozies. Nothing to worry about.”
She nodded, resuming her cross-legged position. “My mom’s on a lot of meds. It takes, like, all of us to keep track of them and how often she takes them. Sometimes when she gets overtired or has too big a night, they make her dizzy and she wakes up confused. Sometimes she calls Rosie. But tonight it was me.”
She’d left the door open behind her; the living room was empty, the coffee table cluttered with beer cans and food wrappers. “How long has she been sick?”
“Since I was in sixth grade.” She laced her fingers together, examining her nails. “It wasn’t so bad at first. She was still walking the same, bossy as ever, hitting every yard sale every Saturday morning. But it’s a progressive disease. This last year has been really hard, and it’s only going to get worse.”
“There’s not a cure?”
“Nope.” She let her hands drop. “Drugs can do a lot, but eventually it will just break her body down to the point where she can’t function. Hopefully not for a while, though.”
I’d only known this family a short time, and it was a testament to the power of Mrs. Chatham’s personality that I couldn’t imagine them without her. Like my mom, she was that center of the wheel, with everyone connected drawing strength from her. She needed a saint of her own.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah,” she replied, with the sad solidness of tone that came with the acceptance of an unpleasant fact. Even if it was just one word, you knew a million thoughts followed that were not said aloud. “Me too.”
The house was quieting now. Layla went down to her room to change into pajamas and brush her teeth, pointing me to the small bathroom where I could do the same. When I came out, there was no one around but Mac, at the coffee table with an open garbage bag, cleaning up.
“You need help?” I asked him.
“You don’t have to,” he replied.
I picked up some crumpled napkins and a couple of half-full plastic cups from a nearby end table anyway, sliding them into the bag. “Quite a party.”
“It’ll reek in the morning if I leave it like this,” he replied, tossing in a handful of bottle caps. “Plus it’ll feel like I slept in the recycling bin.”
“And stinky.” He picked up a heap of blanket, exposing one of the dogs, who snapped at him. Unfazed, he scooped it up and put it on the floor, and it slunk under the couch, glaring at us.
“Sorry about taking over your room,” I said to him.
“Not your fault.” He grabbed a stack of wet napkins, making a face. “Rosie’s always had a bit of an entitlement complex. Funny, she never ends up on the couch.”