“Who is it?” I asked.
“No idea. I found it in a jar my mom has full of them,” he said. “I was looking for one like mine, then just someone I recognized. But then I thought maybe it was cooler to have it be a mystery, you know? So it’s not just about one thing, but anything. That way, it can be about what you want it to be.”
I turned it over in my hand. Like the image on the front, the back was well-worn, the few words there unreadable. “Saint Anything.” I looked up at him. “I love it. Thank you.”
He picked it up, undoing the clasp, and I turned around and lifted up my hair. When he draped it over me and fastened it, the pendant hung low, against my heart. This seemed fitting, as it was where I kept Mac now, as well. From that point on, it was a solid, daily reminder that even though I was by myself a lot, I wasn’t alone. Not anymore.
Even though I continued to do everything my mom asked of me, she had not let up one bit. I remained on the tightest of timetables, my days consisting solely of school and studying. I’d become such a presence at the Kiger Center that they’d offered me a job working the front desk, which was allowed only because it kept me close to home and would look good on my applications. So now, instead of the study sessions Jenn had assured my mom I did not need, I answered phones, fielded questions, and helped oversee practice tests. It wasn’t nearly as much fun as delivering pizzas. But at least I was out of the house.
Right again, Mac texted me a few minutes later. Apartment full of estrogen.
Did you doubt me?
A pause. Then: Nope.
Most nights, it was these exchanges that got me through, along with the short conversations between deliveries and longer ones once he was home and doing his homework before bed. My phone, which I’d always viewed as necessary, was now the only evidence I had of my life before that night in the studio. School and home were so different, but in my pictures, my text messages, and the ringtone I’d programmed just for Mac (bells, like a merry-go-round), I had proof that I had lived another life. Even if it was on pause, for now.
“You’re seriously not missing much,” he reported to me one night. “Irv is still eating everything in sight. Eric’s obsessed with coming up with the perfect band name before the showcase. Same old, same old.”
“What about your mom?”
Mrs. Chatham had been to the ER twice in recent days due to blood pressure issues related to another new medication she was on. Both times she’d been released relatively quickly, but I could tell when he was concerned, that natural wariness turning to all-out worry. “Better,” he said. “I’ll tell her you asked about her.”
We were both quiet a moment. Then, finally, I said it. “And Layla?”
“She’s coming around,” he told me. “Just give her some more time.”
I could do that; time was all I had, even if I didn’t have a say in how it was spent. But in those afternoon hours, as I sat at Kiger or at our kitchen table with homework in front of me, I missed her. Not in the concentrated, aching way I did Mac, but something broader. I’d think of our time together at Seaside, pizza crusts between us, her tapping her pencil and staring out the window while bluegrass played on the jukebox behind us. The complicated fry preparation at lunch. Her voice, singing high and light, or laughing as she ribbed Eric. It was like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, going from black-and-white to color, then back again. You first had to have something—change, light, friendship—to understand the loss of it. And I did.
I was also very aware of the fact that Peyton was not calling. A month or two earlier, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed, and if I had, I’d have been relieved. Now, though, on the days I was home, I put on Big New York or Los Angeles and tried to focus on it, thinking of him and his friend maybe doing the same. Instead of feeling better, though, it made me miss him in a way I couldn’t quite explain. Everything was different now.
The following Saturday, I was at work, trying to help an Arbors ninth grader in a field hockey uniform download our app. I couldn’t figure out if the problem was her phone or our Internet, so I’d ducked under the front desk to reset the connection. When I came back up, Spence was right in front of me.
“Hey,” he said, flashing me that same million-dollar smile I remembered from the Day of Three Pizzas. “Look at you.”
“Look at me,” I repeated, gesturing for the girl to try the download again. “What are you doing here?”
“SAT test tutoring session,” he replied, sliding his hands in his pockets. “Need to juice my scores. Hear the tutors are hot. That true?”
The ninth grader inched down the counter, putting space between them. Smart girl. I said, “How’s Layla?”
A shrug. “She’s okay. Haven’t gotten to see much of her lately. Shit kind of hit the fan at home.”
“Yeah.” He flipped his hand, this one gesture encompassing the entire story. “No biggie. I show up to this enough, I’ll be golden.”
Just then, Jenn came down the hallway, following her two o’clock study group. As they bunched around the doorway, heading out, she plopped into the chair beside mine. “Is it five yet?” she asked.
“It is somewhere,” Spence told her, leaning forward on his elbows. “That’s what I always say.”
Jenn gave him a polite smile. I looked at my computer, pulling up the Kiger schedule. “This is Spence,” I told her. “Your three o’clock.”