We sat there for a moment, the only sound the empty buzzing of the line. Finally he said, “So, how’s school? I hear you’re at Jackson now.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. “Different. But I’ve made some friends.”
“That’s about all I can say about this place.” He laughed softly. “Although I’d pick high school over it any day of the week. And I hated high school.”
“You did?” I was genuinely surprised. For all that had happened, I’d never doubted that Peyton had enjoyed himself, at least when he wasn’t in trouble.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “It was probably why I was such an idiot. Misery makes people do stupid things.”
It was so weird, talking like this. Like he was someone else I didn’t know at all. “Why was it so bad?”
He was quiet a moment. “I don’t know. The regular reasons. Bad grades, pressure from Mom and Dad. You know.”
But I didn’t, not really. I’d just assumed being the firstborn meant all the privilege; it hadn’t occurred to me that another level came with it, one of responsibility, everything happening to you first.
Thinking this, I said, “I saw that path the other day, the one we used to take into the woods here. Remember?”
He was quiet for a second. “Yeah. With the sinkhole.”
“Yeah,” I repeated. “You walked across it that time, on a dare.” As I said this, I realized how much I really did want him to remember.
After a pause, he said, “Not my brightest moment.”
Again, I was surprised. How much else did we see differently? “But you did it,” I said.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Like I said, I did a lot of stupid things.”
Neither of us spoke for what felt like a long time. It was so awkward that I finally said, “So I’m looking forward to our visit. We all are.”
“Your visit?” he asked.
“The graduation. From your class,” I told him. “Mom’s been talking about it for ages.”
“You’re coming?” He sounded surprised.
“Oh.” A pause. “You don’t need to.”
“It’s okay. Mom said you’d filled out a form for me,” I told him.
“I did. But that was just for . . .” He trailed off. “It’s really not a big deal. I doubt anyone else’s family is coming.”
“Mom’s planning this whole thing, though.”
“Yeah.” I could hear my mom putting her keys in the door. “I’m, um . . . It’ll be good to see you. Finally.”
Silence, but a different sort. The kind that means not only that no one’s talking, but that something very specific is not being said. My mom came in carrying two bags of groceries, her purse over her shoulder. “Sydney. You’re home already.”
“Is that Mom?” Peyton asked.
“Can I talk to her?”
“Sure.” I walked over to where she was beginning to unload her bags. “Mom. It’s Peyton.”
“Oh!” She turned, smiling, and took the phone from me. “Hey, honey. What a nice surprise. How are you?”
I went back over to the kitchen table, where I picked up the plate, now empty, I’d used for the slice I’d brought home with me from Seaside. I’d only stopped in, as Layla was with Spence and Mac was at band practice. My after-school piece of pizza had become enough of a habit, however, that I found I couldn’t miss it, even when I was missing them.
“Well, I told you. I heard about it from Michelle.” My mom reached up to put a can of soup in the cabinet in front of her. “The family liaison I’ve been meeting with, who’s helping me communicate better with the administration at Lincoln.”
I was putting my plate in the dishwasher. Something in her voice, suddenly defensive, made me shut it slowly, quietly.
“Yes, I did, Peyton. Several times, in fact.” She took out another can, but this one she just held. “No, I do remember that discussion. But you said you would be ready, eventually, which is why you did the form. And I thought this would be a great opportunity—”
Distantly, I could hear my brother talking. A lot.
“I’m fully aware of that,” she said after a moment, so abruptly it was obvious she was having to interrupt. Then, “Because I don’t agree that it means we should abandon you, or not acknowledge your accomplishments. And—”
I picked up my backpack, pretty sure it was time to make my exit.
“Well, that’s not what Michelle thinks. And it’s not what I believe, either.” She put the can down on the counter with a thunk. “Well, I hope that you do. I think that if you really take the time to look at it—”
Another interruption from Peyton, louder this time.
“I think maybe we should table this for now. You’re clearly upset, and—” I watched as she reached up, putting a hand to her face. “Okay. Yes. Fine. Talk to you later.”
The phone beeped off, and I heard her exhale. Not sure what to do, I turned to the window, slipping my backpack over my shoulders, then looked out at the street. A beat passed. Another. Then she left the room, her footsteps padding upstairs.
For all I knew, this was how many of their exchanges ended, as I usually made myself scarce when they talked. But it had been a while since I’d heard my mom upset, and I wondered if I should go to her. I didn’t have the right words or even know what those might be. So instead, I put away the rest of the groceries. That way, when she came back down, at least one thing would be just how she wanted it.