I looked at the man behind the counter, but he just shrugged, sprinkling cheese over the sauce on his pizza in progress. Noises were coming from the back room now—drawers opening and closing, cabinets slamming—but I couldn’t see anything. Then it got quiet, and she emerged, a plastic bag in her hand. She walked right up to me, until we were only inches apart, and held it out.
“Here,” she said. “For you.”
I took it. Inside were at least fifty root beer YumYum lollipops, maybe even more. I just stared at them for a minute, speechless, before I looked up at her.
“I might hate them, but they’re still candy,” she explained. “I couldn’t just throw them away.”
I looked down at the bag again: it was actually heavy in my hands. “Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome.” She smiled, then stuck out her hand. “I’m Layla.”
We shook. Then there was a pause. When I looked up at her again, she raised her eyebrows.
“Oh,” I said quickly, pulling one out and unwrapping it. I stuck it in my mouth, and just like that, I was ten again, walking back from the Quik-Zip with Peyton after spending my allowance on candy. He always got chocolate: with peanuts, with almonds, with caramel. But I liked sugar straight, and time to savor it. In every bag of YumYums there were at least two root beers: I always ate one right away, then kept the other for after the rest were gone. I thought of my brother up at Lincoln and wondered if they ever got chocolate there. It occurred to me I should tell my mom to bring him some.
Just then, a phone rang behind the counter. The younger guy answered it.
“Seaside Pizza, this is Mac.” He grabbed a pad, then pulled a pencil out from behind his ear. “Uh-huh. Yep. That’s a buck extra. Sure. What’s the address?”
As he wrote, the older man looked over his shoulder, read the order, then grabbed a ball of dough and began flipping it in his hands. “Delivery’s close enough for you to get dropped at the house,” he said to Layla. “Call your mom and see if she needs anything.”
“Okay,” she said over her shoulder. Then she looked back at me. “You go to Jackson?”
I nodded. “Just started today.”
She made a face. “Ugh. How was it?”
“Not so great,” I replied, then nodded at the bag. “But this helps.”
“It always does,” she said. Then she waved, turned on her heel, and began walking toward that back door again. I returned to my table with all my YumYums and gathered up my trash and backpack.
“Tell her to meet me outside,” the younger guy was telling the older one as I headed for the door. “Starter’s been stubborn lately. Might have to mess with it.”
“Don’t forget the sign this time!”
We ended up leaving together, just as we’d come in. As I crossed the lot to my car, he jogged up to an older model truck. I watched as he reached into the bed, pulling out a magnetic sign and slapping it on the driver’s side door. SEASIDE PIZZA, it said, BEST AROUND. A phone number was printed below.
It was late enough now that I could leave and get home right around dinnertime. But I stayed until Layla emerged, carrying one of those square pizza warmers. A couple of cars were between us at the first stoplight, but I remained behind them turn for turn for a few blocks until eventually the traffic split us. Only then did I open another lollipop, which I savored all the way home.
OVER THE next two days, things didn’t really improve at school. But they didn’t get worse, either. I figured out the fastest way to my classes, discovered it was actually easier to find a spot in the upper parking lot, and had two conversations with classmates (although one was mandatory, as we were thrown into a group project together; still, it was something).
I didn’t go back to Seaside Pizza again, as I was too worried I’d look like a freak, a stalker, or both. Instead, the next day, I met Jenn at Frazier Bakery to catch up and do homework. The following day, I went home after school, thinking it might not be so bad. Then I saw Ames’s car in the driveway.
“Sydney? Is that you?”
I put my bag on the stairs, then took a breath before walking into the kitchen. Sure enough, there he was with my mom at the table, drinking coffee. A plate of cookies sat between them. When my mom saw me, she pushed them in my direction.
“Hello, stranger,” said Ames as I walked to the fridge, taking out a bottled water. “Long time, no see.”
Although he was smiling as he said this, it still kind of gave me the creeps. But my mom was already pulling out a chair, assuming I would join them, so I did.
“How was school?” she asked. Turning to him, she added, “She just started at Jackson this week.”
“Really?” He grinned. “My old stomping grounds. Does it still smell like Lysol everywhere?”
“You went to Jackson?” my mom asked. “I didn’t know that!”
“Sophomore and junior year.” Ames sat back, stretching his legs. “Then I was asked to leave. Politely.”
“Sounds like someone else I know,” my mom said, taking a sip from her mug.
“You liking it?” Ames asked me.
I nodded. “Yeah. It’s fine.”
This had been my default answer whenever I was asked any variation of this question. Only once had I told the truth, and that was to Layla, a total stranger. I still wasn’t sure why.
Just then, I heard a buzzing noise: my mom’s phone, over on the counter. She got up, glanced at it, then sighed. “I totally forgot I’d committed to this Children’s Hospital event last spring. Now they keep nagging me about meetings and budgets.”