“She wants to send me to Kiffney-Brown,” I said. “That’s, like, the genius school. She’s delusional. Even with all this studying she’s signed me up for, I’d never have a chance.”
“It would probably still be better than that charter, though,” he replied. “Irv has a bunch of friends there. Says it’s like college.”
There was that dread again. Not about the academics, although that wasn’t exactly calming. Worse, though, was the thought of being away from him, from Layla, from this world in which I’d somehow managed to find a place. That was assuming, however, they still wanted me.
“Has she said anything?” I asked him again. I’d texted Layla multiple times, even gone so far as to leave a voice mail, but had heard nothing in return. To be fair, she’d been clear about her rule concerning dating Mac. But I was hoping for forgiveness, and if not that, a chance to explain.
“She’s been caught up with Spence,” he replied. “Total drama. You know how they are.”
It was kind of him to sidestep the question, but it just made me feel worse. To me, the Chathams were like that merry-go-round out in the middle of nowhere in the woods. I hadn’t been aware they’d existed; it was pure luck to have stumbled upon them. Now that I had, I couldn’t forget and go back to the way I’d been before. Just knowing they were out there changed everything. Especially me.
Monday morning, my mom sent me off to school with my own folder, containing the information about the Kiger lunchtime study group (Attendance taken daily, she’d highlighted in bright yellow), as well as a packet with the details of the after-school program. When I got to my locker before the first bell, Mac was waiting for me. The only upside of all this—and it was a big one—was that we had no reason to hide anymore.
“Hey,” he said. “Long time, no see.”
I smiled, or tried to, and then he was wrapping his arms around me, pulling me close. Despite all of the typical loud noise of Jackson around us, it was like everything went quiet as I pressed my face into his shirt, feeling his pendant against my forehead. He smelled like soap and coffee, and I just wanted to stay there, breathing nothing but him, for as long as possible. But the bell was already ringing, so he walked me to homeroom, kissed me, and disappeared into the crowd.
I looked for him everywhere, though, and for Layla. Jackson, which had seemed so vast and infinite when I first arrived, had become manageable, even familiar, once I had friends there. With no contact at lunch, my chances of seeing any of them were left up to fate. Between second and third, over the heads of several people, I caught a glimpse of Eric. I rerouted every chance I had to pass by Layla’s locker; she was never there. At lunch, rushing to the Kiger group, I craned my neck at a window, trying to see the benches where I knew they gathered, but had no luck. My mother’s plan was working. I was alone again. It was so much harder this time.
“It’s going to be okay,” Mac told me that first afternoon as we grabbed a fleeting few minutes at his truck before I had to leave for the Kiger Center. Already my mom had texted me twice, reminding me to be there at three thirty sharp to meet her for an overview of the program. “It’s just the first day. We’ll work it out, I promise.”
I wanted to believe this, and him. But I knew my mom. Once she had a project in her grasp, her grip only tightened. I didn’t say this, though, as he leaned down, putting his lips on mine. When we finally pulled apart, I opened my eyes to see Layla across the parking lot. She had on her army jacket, her hair loose over her shoulders, and when she saw us, she stopped walking. We looked at each other for a moment, Mac there unaware between us. Then she turned around and went back the way she’d come.
* * *
“Okay,” Jenn said later that afternoon, when my mom had finally left the Kiger Center after exhausting everyone with all her questions and concerns. It was four forty-five, so I had no time to actually get anything started, but she insisted I stay the full time, anyway. “What is going on?”
We were in the front lobby. Her PSAT cram class, made up mostly of Arbors kids, was taking a practice test down the hall.
“The short version is that she caught me with friends over when she was out of town, and I was drinking.”
Her eyes widened. I could always count on Jenn for a reaction. “Seriously?”
I nodded. “The longer version involves me trying to help out my friends, Ames being typically creepy, and my mom happening to walk in at the exact moment that I took my only sip of alcohol.”
“Long version sounds more complicated.”
“That’s why it’s longer.” I sat back in the uncomfortable chair I’d chosen; it was clearly meant for people to only alight on for short periods, not actually settle in. “My parents were supposed to be at Lincoln for something of Peyton’s. But he told her he didn’t want her there. She came home, walked in on me, and has basically had me on lockdown ever since.”
“Except for daily tutoring and SAT prep class here,” she replied. She looked around, then lowered her voice before adding, “Nobody does that, by the way. Even the people who need it. And you don’t.”
“She has me at the daily Kiger lunch study hall at school, too.”
“What?” Bigger eyes. God, I loved Jenn. “What’s she trying to do, make you skip next year or something?”
“She’s got her eye on Kiffney-Brown. Or that new charter.”
“Oh, man. You don’t want either of those. The kids at Kiffney are competitive to the point of bloodthirsty. And Marks Charter is so hard to get into, I know people who went on Xanax just to apply there.” This was her area of expertise. “Anyway, everyone knows continuity of education is something admissions officers look at. Does she really want you to have to explain three schools in two years?”