“Sorority girls,” I reported from the next stop, at a big yellow house right across the street from the U. “Should have known it from all the salads.”
“Look at you. You’re like the order whisperer.”
“There is a science to it,” I agreed, sliding the tip in the cup. As I sat back, I realized he was looking at me. “What?”
“Nothing,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.
It was only a couple of hours every other afternoon or so, but no matter: this time had quickly become the best part of my week. Layla might have felt she needed to apologize for falling so hard, so quickly. She didn’t realize I was doing the same thing.
Just then, my phone beeped. It was the latest text from Jenn, one of several we’d exchanged while trying to work out a time to get together. With her after-school job tutoring and activities and my new routine with Mac, we’d gone from seeing each other at least once a week to hardly at all.
Frazier at 5? she wrote now. Off at 4:30. Mer can come late.
I looked at my watch. It was four p.m., which left me with another two hours with Mac before I was due home. I thought of Layla, all her apologies, and felt my own guilt for putting my friends second to a boy, especially one who wasn’t really mine. But then I did it anyway.
No can do. Tomorrow?
Gone till Monday, she replied. Next week for sure.
Which meant two more full afternoons without any other obligations. Jenn was a good friend, even when she didn’t realize it.
Definitely, I wrote. XXOO.
The last delivery of the day was in the Arbors, right inside the front entrance. It was for two extra-large pepperoni and sausage pies with extra cheese, and I’d had it pegged as guys for sure, probably ones drinking beer. Instead, the door was answered by a small, very tan woman in tennis whites who called me “hon” and tipped me ten bucks. I was thinking I’d lost my touch until I was heading down the driveway and noticed a sign on the truck we’d parked behind. BASSETT CARPENTRY, it said. DECKS OUR SPECIALTY. When I glanced into the backyard, I saw a group of guys digging into the pizzas. They were drinking beer.
“You’re like Layla with her face thing,” Mac told me when I relayed this to him. “Just be sure you use your powers for good, not evil.”
“I’ll try,” I replied as we pulled out of the driveway. We’d only gone a short way when I saw something. “Hey. Stop for a second.”
He did, and I turned to my window, peering closer. There, just across the street and beyond the sidewalk, was a small opening in the brush.
“What is it?” Mac asked.
“See that clearing? Between the skinny tree and the stump?”
He leaned across me. “Yeah.”
“That used to be the best path into the woods from this neighborhood. You could get on it right here, where the houses begin, and follow it all the way back to where I live. It went for miles. We always wondered who put it there.”
“Probably some kids, just like you.”
“There was this one part,” I continued as a car slowed, then passed us, “where there was a giant sinkhole. Huge. Somebody had managed to pull this fallen tree across it, and everyone always dared each other to walk across.”
“No way,” I said, shuddering. “But Peyton did. He was the only one I ever saw do it.”
Just saying this, I could see it all so clearly in my head. The bareness of the trees in late fall. Broad blue sky. And me and those older kids we’d come across in the woods that day watching as my brother put one foot in front of the other, slow and steady, all the way across.
“We can go, if you want,” Mac said now. I turned, distracted, to face him. “We’ve got time. You can show me.”
I looked back at the path, barely visible. Who knew how it looked now, what was back there. Part of me wanted to see, especially if I wasn’t going to be alone. But another part, heavier, wasn’t ready. Yet.
“Maybe another time,” I said.
At six p.m., like always, we returned to Seaside so I could head home, while Mac kept delivering until close. Usually, for the rest of the evening I’d wonder what he was doing. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might do the same about me. But that night, when I was sitting on my bed doing some reading for English, my phone beeped.
3 deluxe, 2 pepperoni mushroom. 6 orders garlic knots. Go.
I smiled. Has to be a team. All men.
A pause. I tried to go back to my book. Finally, a response: a picture of the sign in front of 7-10 Bowling Center. Impressive, it said below it.
I do my best, I replied.
Will stump you eventually, he wrote back.
I laughed out loud, alone in my room. Bring it.
That was how the texting started. No longer was Layla the only one who kept her phone within easy reach at all times. At night while I was eating dinner and doing homework, Mac crossing town, then back again, we kept in touch. It was the next best thing to being there. Or maybe the best thing, period.
* * *
“This is a collect call from an inmate at Lincoln Correctional Facility. Do you accept the charges?”
I could hear the garage door opening as my mom idled in the driveway. In just five minutes, she’d be inside. But Peyton was calling now.
“Yes,” I said.
There was a click, and then I heard my brother’s voice. “Hello?”
“Hey. It’s Sydney.”
“Oh. Hey.” He cleared his throat. “How are you?”
“Good,” I replied. “Mom’s just getting home. She’ll be here in a second.”