“Yes,” I said, taking a few steps toward the front window.
“Are they downstairs?” Layla called out from behind me. When I turned to look at her, Spence was nuzzling her neck. I nodded. “Did they start already?”
There was a buzz, then a click. “Sydney?”
“Yeah, one second,” I told my brother. To Layla I said, “Yes and I don’t know. I’ll be there in a sec, okay?”
She nodded, pulling away from Spence, and disappeared down the hallway. He followed, removing the bottle from his pocket again. Great.
“Sorry about that,” I told Peyton. “I have some friends over. How’s everything?”
“Okay,” he said. “Considering that I’ve actually picked a team on that stupid show you like so much.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re Team Ayre.”
“Nope,” he replied. “MD is, though. I’m solidly Rosalie.”
“What?” I said. “That’s crazy. She’s insane.”
“Oh, and Ayre isn’t? Did you not see that dinner party where she pushed Delilah in the pool?”
“She was provoked,” I said defensively.
“Yeah, whatever.” He snorted. “Well, I don’t want to hold you up if you have people over. Is Mom around?”
I blinked, surprised. “No. She’s already headed there.”
“She and Dad left this afternoon. For the ceremony?”
“It’s not until tomorrow,” he said.
“Yeah, but I guess she had a lot of stuff to do for it or something?” He said nothing. “They’re staying at a hotel, meeting some of the other families, I think.”
There’s a difference between quiet on a phone line and angry silence. One is light, the other heavy. Right then, I pictured the connection between us sagging, almost to a breaking point.
“I can’t believe this,” he said finally. Behind him, the noise I knew from our few conversations was typical: raised voices, banging, intercoms. Prison was even louder than Jackson. “I told her I didn’t want her to do all that. I didn’t want them here at all, actually. I’m in prison, not school. I don’t get why she can’t understand that.”
Wow, I thought. I’d been waiting so long for someone else to feel this way. I’d just never expected it to be Peyton. As I wondered how to reply, I heard a thump from beneath me in the studio. “I guess . . .” I began, then found myself hesitating. The line buzzed. “She’s just hanging on to anything she can make feel normal.”
“But this isn’t normal,” he replied. “I screwed up, I hurt someone, and I’m doing time for it. When she tries to make it anything else, it just . . . it makes me nuts. This needs to be different, you know? To be hard. Everyone else understands that. But she just doesn’t get it.”
Even with our recent talks, this was the most my brother had said to me in months, if not years. It was so unexpected, not to mention emotional, that I realized I was holding my breath. For so long, I’d seen him and my parents as one unit, sharing the same party line. But Peyton was his own person and carried his own weight. How could I not have understood that?
“I’m sorry,” I said. Two words, but they felt heavy, too.
“Yeah.” A pause. His voice sounded tight. I thought of him walking across that sinkhole: I saw bravery, him something else. “I’m, um . . . I’ll try her on her cell.”
“Okay. Take care, Peyton.”
Another click, and he was gone. I hung up the phone, feeling a pang as I remembered my mom organizing her Big Club baked goods the previous morning, not to mention all the other work she’d done. She could tell us and everyone else it was for Peyton, and maybe she really believed that. I wasn’t so sure. I hadn’t thought I could feel more ashamed about the entire situation. Wrong again.
“WAIT,” ERIC said. “I didn’t like that intro. Let’s try it again.”
Ford groaned, while Mac sat back behind the drum kit, rolling his eyes.
“Dude,” Irv said from beside me, “it’s a demo for a showcase, not your first album.”
“That doesn’t mean it has to suck,” Eric said.
“It’s not going to exist if you don’t ease up, though,” Irv replied. “We’ve been here for . . . how long, Sydney?”
“Hour and a half,” I told him.
“Hour and a half,” he repeated, emphasizing the words, “and you’ve got nothing down. It’s time to get serious.”
“I am being serious,” Eric said.
“Then get less serious,” Mac told him. “Let’s just get this done.”
Eric, his expression darkening, turned his back to the glass between us, adjusting something on his guitar. I looked at my watch: Ames would be showing up at ten, at which point they and all their equipment needed to be long gone. At the beginning of the evening, this had seemed entirely doable. Now I was beginning to have my doubts.
Eric’s perfectionism was one problem. Another was Spence, who, after arriving and immediately knocking over two amps (that was the thump I’d heard), had been told by Layla to sit on the couch, out of the way. There he proceeded to drink most of his bottle of vodka, providing a stream of not-helpful commentary (“Are you sure you’re in tune?” “More cowbell!”) as he did so. I had no idea why Layla had brought him.