“Until . . .”
“Yesterday.” Crunch. “I guess things are kind of getting to me.”
Again, I wasn’t sure what to say. Mac was naturally guarded; it wasn’t like he walked around bursting with sunshiny optimism on his best day. Selfishly, though—now I was the one adding guilt—I worried it might have something to do with me. “What kind of things?”
“My mom,” he replied. A sigh, then I heard what I was pretty sure was the sound of an empty chip bag being balled up. Oh, dear. “The showcase. And, you know, us.”
Outside my room, someone walked down the hallway, slowing their steps as they approached. Instinctively, I looked at the door at the precise spot where a lock would be, if I’d had one. I lowered my voice. “Us?”
“Yeah,” he replied, his voice casual. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll take what I can get when it comes to seeing you. But this situation . . . it’s not exactly ideal.”
I felt myself smile. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault. It’s Spence’s.” He shifted, the phone muffled for a second. “I mean, it would have been bad for your mom to walk in and find us there, I’m sure. But not bad like this.”
“Layla said you were still mad.”
We were quiet a moment. I couldn’t tell if whoever was in the hallway had moved on or was standing there, silent, on the other side of the door. A week into his stay, I’d known Ames to do both.
I’d thought it was bad before, his being around. But the weird long looks, the way his eyes followed me around the room—none of it compared to suddenly having him in the house. Though he’d arrived with only a suitcase, a duffel bag, a few boxes, and a computer, he’d already managed to fill much of our shared living space. What began as a pack of cigarettes by the garage door became a damp U basketball towel I had to step over on our shared bathroom floor. That, then, morphed into the sound of talk radio flowing constantly from Peyton’s speakers right on the other side of my wall. Voices, all day and into the night. I dreamed of roundtables and panels, when I wasn’t having nightmares.
Then there were the constant drop-ins: Did I have a spare tube of toothpaste? Where were the lightbulbs kept? Did I feel like it was too warm up here, too? And that was just in the first thirty-six hours. It seemed like he was always passing by my door, peering in at me, stopping to chat while leaning against the door frame. When I started shutting it regularly, he knocked: a soft three raps, one slow, two fast. If I opened it, he always came inside.
“Serious cram time, huh?” he’d said to me the previous evening as I was finishing up an essay for English on Wuthering Heights. I was at my desk, and he on my bed, flipping through a magazine I’d left open there. Normally by this point, I’d have put on my pajamas, but I’d taken to doing that at the last minute. “I should have been more like you in high school. Could have avoided a lot of trouble.”
As was my way, I responded to this with a single nod, pretending to be laser-focused on my closing paragraph.
“Peyton used to say the same thing,” he continued, turning another page. “How you were so different from him, and he was glad of it.”
It had always made me uncomfortable when he talked to me like this about my brother. For my mother, though, this had always been the main reason to keep him around, especially with Peyton’s ongoing silence toward her.
She’d tried to reach out, every way she could, since the debacle of the ceremony. Calling was impossible, so she wrote daily, and enlisted the connections she’d established—the liaison, the family outreach officer—to pass her pleadings along. The only response she ever got was from Ames, whom my brother still contacted.
“He just needs some space,” I’d heard him tell her in yet another of their coffee-fueled discussions at the kitchen table. “He’ll reach out when he’s ready.”
“I just feel like if I could explain myself he’d understand,” my mom replied. “If only he would call you when I’m nearby, I might be able to talk him around.”
“I want that, too,” Ames told her. “And it very well may happen. But for now, you’ve got to respect his wishes. You know?”
At this, my mom had only looked glum. It struck me as odd, since Ames was at the house constantly—he claimed to be “on the job market,” not that I saw him doing anything about it—that one of these many calls from Peyton he reported hadn’t occurred with my mom nearby. Apparently, though, I was the only one to wonder about this.
Now, with Mac on the other end of the line, I got up and walked to the door, opening it. The hallway was empty, but the door to my brother’s room was ajar, light and the sound of talking spilling out from it. Looking the other way, I could just see my mom in the War Room on her computer.
“I’m hoping,” I said, shutting the door again, “that all this good behavior might make my mom ease up a bit. I really want to go to the showcase.”
“If I were you, I’d lower my expectations,” he replied. “Maybe aim for, you know, getting to choose where you eat lunch once in a while.”
“That will come, too,” I said, more confident than I felt. “But this is a special occasion, a one-time thing. It’s an early show, and I’m doing everything I can to stockpile points.”
“I just don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen,” he said. “I mean, I want you there. You know that. But it’s not everything.”