“Is he here?” she asked. Her face was red, eyes swollen.
“Spence?” I asked, although I knew. She nodded. “No.”
She bit her lip, then pulled out her phone, handing it to me. There was a text exchange on the screen, first her asking if they could at least meet and talk. Then his reply.
Have tutoring. Sorry.
“He dumped me,” she said. I looked up at her: now she was outright crying. “Over the goddamn phone.”
“Oh, Layla,” I said. Outside, Mac was still behind the wheel. As much as I wanted to see him—I always wanted to see him—I understood why he was keeping his distance. This was about her, not us. “I’m so sorry. That sucks.”
“He’s an asshole.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, sniffling. “I knew something was going on. He was suddenly so busy, not replying to my messages . . . so I called today and asked him, flat-out. He didn’t even try to deny it.” She cleared her throat, sticking her phone back in her pocket. I glanced out at Mac again: he was still looking in at us. “I don’t know why this keeps happening to me. I’m a good person. I mean, I try to be, and—”
“You are,” I said, standing up and walking around the counter.
“All I want is someone decent.” She sniffled again, her eyes filling with tears. “You know? Kind. Good. Like in all those love stories I’m such an expert on. It can’t just be fiction. It can’t. Those guys are out there, I know it. I just can’t find them.”
With this, her voice broke. I put my arms around her, pulling her in close as she buried her head in my shoulder. I knew whatever I said right then she wouldn’t hear; with that kind of pain, a deafness comes. But if she had been able to listen, I would have told her she was right. Those guys were out there. In fact, one was watching us right now, somewhere nearby. Keeping his distance, knowing she needed me to herself right then, but still, just outside the door.
* * *
“I don’t even see why you need me,” Layla said glumly as we sat on the hood of my car after school a couple of days later. “I thought I was just helping with the demo.”
There was now less than two weeks until the showcase, and clearly, Mac was not the only one getting nervous. Eric, high-strung even under the best of circumstances, had switched into maniacal preparation mode, demanding constant practice and focus. The fact that Mac had to work, Ford was more interested in getting high, and Layla’s heart was broken did not deter him.
“That was the plan,” Eric told her, pacing in the short space between my car and the one beside it. “But their feedback was that they especially liked that song. We can’t leave it out now.”
“I didn’t sign on for anything public, though. I can barely even deal with my own face in the mirror right now.”
I looked at Mac, who was leaning back on the bumper beside me. Although Layla had been freshly dumped when we first met at Seaside, this was my first time seeing this total loss of confidence. For such a bold girl, it was like she’d wilted. Only time, Mac said, would bring her back to us, although fries did help some.
Now Eric walked over, putting his hands on her shoulders. I expected Layla to at least flinch if not swat him away totally, but instead, she just looked to the side as he said, “You are going to be great. In fact, this might be just what you need.”
“To sing a song about a busted relationship in front of a huge crowd of people?” she said. She sighed. “I don’t think so.”
“To sing a song about strength and fierceness in the face of heartbreak in front of a huge crowd of people,” he corrected her. “Just trust me, okay?”
She didn’t look convinced. But she still didn’t push him away, either. And when he leaned forward, kissing the top of her head, she closed her eyes.
I looked at Mac, then leaned close to his ear. “What was that?”
“Temporary insanity,” he replied into mine. “I told you, she’s not herself.”
“What are you two whispering about over there?” Layla demanded.
“Nothing,” Mac told her.
“Me going to the showcase,” I said at the same time. Whoops. She gave me a look, not amused. “I’m going to ask my mom about it tonight. Wish me luck?”
“Good luck.” She pulled her knees up to her chest, turning her face into the sun. “Somebody’s due some.”
When I left Kiger later that afternoon and headed home for dinner, I was ready, with my proposal memorized and precrafted responses to all expected objections. Even if she said no—and I so hoped she wouldn’t—she would have to be impressed with my prep work.
When I came in the house, my mom was in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove. “What are you making?” I asked, putting my bag on a chair.
“Pepper tempeh stir-fry,” she replied, adding something to the pan that sizzled. There was a cookbook open on her left. “I figured it was time to try some new recipes, shake things up.”
“Really,” I said. “Any particular reason?”
“No.” A handful of green things hit the pan; a beat later, I smelled onions. “Just in the mood to make some changes.”
This was either the best moment or the worst. Since I was feeling optimistic, I said, “Actually, I kind of wanted to talk to you about something related to that.”
She poked at the pan, steam rising. “Related to . . .”
“Changes. Or discussions about them.”