That was all the way across town. “Are you sure?”
“It’s the only place that takes our insurance,” she replied. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay,” I assured her. I glanced at my dashboard clock. Three thirty already, and we hadn’t even left yet.
I tried not to think of the time, even as we hit every red light along the way. I’d never been to U General—everyone at the Arbors used Lakeview Methodist, which was brand-new and only a mile away—and the signs were hard to follow, especially in a distant part of town I didn’t know well.
Finally, after winding our way through a construction zone and two more red lights, I was pulling up to the emergency room entrance.
“This is good,” Layla said, gathering up her stuff as I slowed to a stop behind an ambulance, its back doors flung open. No one was inside.
“Do you want me to go in with you?” I asked her.
“No, I’m fine. Thanks. I’ll call you, okay?”
She got out, shutting the door behind her, and slung her bag over her shoulder before walking quickly through a set of automatic doors. I felt guilty for not going with her, balanced by a sense of relief as I pulled away, finally heading in the right direction. On my way around the traffic circle, I passed a city bus stop, the bench packed with people. A little boy with his arm in a sling, his face solemn, watched me as I went by.
By now, I was a full half hour late for my shift at Kiger. I’d already texted Jenn that I’d had an emergency and would be there as soon as I could, but she wasn’t the one I was worried about. All the way to the hospital and back, through traffic and more red lights, I kept waiting for my phone to buzz. Where are you? my mom would ask, and I didn’t even know how to tell her in a simple text. I was just hoping for mercy once we were face-to-face. When I pulled into the Kiger lot, I found Ames instead.
“Sydney, Sydney,” he said as I walked up to where he was standing. He had my computer charger coiled neatly—I recognized my mom’s handiwork at a glance—in his hands. “You were supposed to be here forty-five minutes ago.”
“I had something to do,” I told him, reaching for the charger.
He pulled it back, just out of my reach. “Funny, Julie didn’t say anything about you having plans. Did she know?”
I felt my jaw clench. Inside, Jenn was behind the counter, watching us. “I needed to give a friend a ride to the hospital.”
“Oh.” He still hadn’t handed over my charger. “Everybody okay?”
“Hope so. May I please have that now?”
Finally, slowly, he relinquished it. “You know, you’re putting me in a bad spot again. Your mom’s done a lot for me. I don’t feel right lying to her.”
“I’m not asking you to,” I said.
“But if I do tell her about this,” he continued, as if I hadn’t spoken, “I have a feeling she’ll tighten your restrictions even more. And I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
This time, I said nothing. I was trying to figure out what angle he was working.
“Let’s say this,” he continued. “We keep this between us. But you owe me one.”
“You can tell her,” I said. “I don’t care.”
“Nope.” He held up his hands. “Don’t want to be that guy. It’s our secret. Agreed?”
I didn’t like the sound of that. But before I could say anything, my phone buzzed. It was a message from Mac.
Just a scare. Everything fine, he’d typed.
“I need to go in,” I said to Ames, grabbing the door handle and pulling it open. “They’re waiting for me.”
“Sure thing,” he replied cheerfully, stepping aside. “See you at dinner.”
I walked into the lobby and behind the desk, dropping my bag at my feet. Jenn, in the other chair, was watching Ames, now heading to his car. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing,” I told her. “Just him being his creepy self.”
She picked up a folder. “I’m going to check in on the morons. You sure you’re okay?”
I nodded, and then she was disappearing down the hallway. I picked up my phone to reply to Mac.
Glad to hear it. Was worried.
Don’t be. All okay.
I looked outside, where it was starting to get dark; winter was coming. On my phone screen, these words remained, awaiting a response. Or maybe not. “All okay” was a good stopping point, after all, a place to stay while I could. As long as you stretched out a moment, it couldn’t end; if I didn’t write back, there’d be no further conversation, good or bad. I sat there for an hour. I never wrote anything.
* * *
For a good five minutes, I kept thinking I was hearing crunching. Finally, I was sure.
“Are you eating something?”
Silence. Then, a beat later: “Potato chips.”
I was shocked. In the entire time I’d known him, I’d never seen Mac consume anything unhealthy. This was a guy whose typical lunch consisted of lean turkey rolled up with lowfat cheese, a handful of almonds, and two tangerines. It was hard to picture him eating anything with trans fats, much less from a vending machine. I couldn’t even speak.
“Whatever you’re thinking,” he said finally, “I’ve already thought it. With paralyzing guilt added.”
“Since when do you eat potato chips?”
“Birth, basically.” Another crunch. “Until the March before last. After that, I was off them like a junkie kicking dope.”