“What? You were drinking?”
He sounded so surprised, outright shocked, that I wondered if he’d actually forgotten where he was calling from. “It was a sip,” I told him. “And—”
“Sydney, don’t get caught up in that stuff. You’re way too smart.”
“It was a sip,” I said again. “And she basically took everything away from me. It’s not fair.”
In the silence that followed, I realized that this was the closest I’d come to telling Peyton how I felt about what he’d done and how it affected all of us. Immediately, I felt I should backtrack, cover my steps. Like it was too much, too soon, but at the same time long overdue. I opened my mouth, but then he was talking.
“You’re right,” he said. A pause. “It’s not fair. It sucks. I’m so sorry.”
I was not prepared for what I would feel, hearing these three words. All this time I’d wanted something just like this from Peyton. But now that I had it, it kind of broke my heart.
“It’s all right,” I told him. And that was how we left it. All right, or the closest we could get. Still, I’d replay this conversation in my head again and again, trying to get used to how it made me feel. Like my Saint Anything, it was a comfort I hadn’t known I needed until it was finally in my grasp.
As the days passed and my mom’s mood steadily improved, I let myself get a little hopeful. The showcase was so close, and her being again distracted by Peyton could only work in my favor. I was biding my time before I mentioned it again: I went to school, to Kiger, and to my room, hoping my good behavior was noticed. The times I did have with Mac, plus the promise of more to come, were the only thing that got me through. From the minute I saw him before the first bell to the last kiss as I got into my car to leave for Kiger, the day was just better.
A couple times he called me up when the band gathered in the outbuilding behind his house so I could listen in while Brilliant or Catastrophic—the official name, for now anyway—practiced. I’d put my phone on speaker next to me as I sat at Kiger or in my room at my desk. Listening, I’d imagine the scene: Eric posturing at the microphone, Ford in his typical daze, Mac keeping the beat behind them. There were the sudden stops and starts, occasional blasts of feedback, and routine disagreements. Each time Layla sang, though, I got chills. I could only imagine what it would be like to hear her at Bendo in person. If I got to go.
When he wasn’t at practice, Mac was working. If he had deliveries near my neighborhood, he’d swing by Kiger just long enough for me to catch a glimpse and say hello. More often, though, we were texting. That Tuesday, I was shutting down my computer at Kiger when he wrote this:
Just had a weird delivery.
This was different, as he normally started with the order, daring me to guess who’d placed it.
What was it?
Large pepperoni. Garlic knots.
Even I knew this was the most generic of tickets; it could be anyone. Or everyone. I was about to text back that I needed more details when the phone pinged again.
I think it was that kid.
I raised my eyebrows, confused. What kid?
A pause. Jenn came out of the conference room, shutting the hallway light off behind her. “You ready to get out of here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “One second.”
I stared at this word, the letters at first not coming together. Like when you’ve looked at something so much, it starts to feel like a different language. Jenn was by the door now, pulling her backpack over one shoulder. I came from behind the counter, following her out, then stood there as she typed in the security code and locked the door behind us.
“See you tomorrow?” she asked me. I nodded, and she started across the lot toward her car. As I walked to mine, I pulled up Mac’s name from the top of my Favorites and hit CALL.
“How did you know it was him?” I asked as soon as he picked up.
“I didn’t, not at first,” he replied. Clearly, he was not surprised I’d skipped a hello. “I’ve actually delivered there before. It’s a ranch, over off—”
“Pike Avenue.” Of course I knew.
“Yeah.” He was driving: I could hear his turn signal clicking. “For some reason, today, I put it together. He’s a nice kid.”
Of course he was. And now, even though I’d seen him at SuperThrift with my own eyes not too long ago, he was more real to me than ever before. That’s what a random connection can do, that moment when separate things suddenly come together. Like fate tapping you on the shoulder so you’ll pay attention.
“I should go,” I said. “The last thing I need right now is to be late.”
A pause. Then: “You okay, Sydney?”
Was I? I couldn’t say for sure. After so long just paddling along, trying to keep my head above water, I felt like the tide was turning, sweeping me along with it. The showcase was in three days. David Ibarra was now not only a face, or a Ume.com page, but a place, one I could get to if I chose. For so long, I’d been waiting for something to happen, a change to come. Now that I could sense it getting ever closer, however, it was all I could do not to step back.
* * *
It was time.
My mother looked up from her desk in the War Room. “Yes?”
“Can we talk for a second?”
Instead of responding, she shut the open folder in front of her. It was Wednesday evening, a time I’d chosen after deciding it was not too far ahead of Friday, while at the same time not the last minute. I’d also waited until after the nightly call from Peyton, when I knew I had the best chance of catching her in a good mood. Clinching the deal, both my dad and Ames were out. It was now or never.