- Pages: 448 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Speak
- ISBN: 9780147516039
An Excerpt From
“WOULD THE defendant please rise.”
This wasn’t an actual question, even though it sounded like one. I’d noticed that the first time we’d all been assembled here, in this way. Instead, it was a command, an order. The “please” was just for show.
My brother stood up. Beside me, my mom tensed, sucking in a breath. Like the way they tell you to inhale before an X-ray so they can see more, get it all. My father stared straight forward, as always, his face impossible to read.
The judge was talking again, but I couldn’t seem to listen. Instead, I looked over to the tall windows, the trees blowing back and forth outside. It was early August; school started in three weeks. It felt like I had spent the entire summer in this very room, maybe in this same seat, but I knew that wasn’t the case. Time just seemed to stop here. But maybe, for people like Peyton, that was exactly the point.
It was only when my mother gasped, bending forward to grab the bench in front of us, that I realized the sentence had been announced. I looked up at my brother. He’d been known for his fearlessness all the way back to when we were kids playing in the woods behind our house. But the day those older boys had challenged him to walk across that wide, gaping sinkhole on a skinny branch and he did it, his ears had been bright red. He was scared. Then and now.
There was a bang of the gavel, and we were dismissed. The attorneys turned to my brother, one leaning in close to speak while the other put a hand on his back. People were getting up, filing out, and I could feel their eyes on us as I swallowed hard and focused on my hands in my lap. Beside me, my mother was sobbing.
“Sydney?” Ames said. “You okay?”
I couldn’t answer, so I just nodded.
“Let’s go,” my father said, getting to his feet. He took my mom’s arm, then gestured for me to walk ahead of them, up to where the lawyers and Peyton were.
“I have to go to the ladies’ room,” I said.
My mom, her eyes red, just looked at me. As if this, after all that had happened, was the thing that she simply could not bear.
“It’s okay,” Ames said. “I’ll take her.”
My father nodded, clapping him on the shoulder as we passed. Out in the courthouse lobby, I could see people pushing the doors open, out into the light outside, and I wished more than anything that I was among them.
Ames put his arm around me as we walked. “I’ll wait for you here,” he said when we reached the ladies’ room. “Okay?”
Inside, the light was bright, unforgiving, as I walked to the sinks and looked at myself in the mirror there. My face was pale, my eyes dark, flat, and empty.
A stall door behind me opened and a girl came out. She was about my height, but smaller, slighter. As she stepped up beside me, I saw she had blonde hair, plaited in a messy braid that hung over one shoulder, a few wisps framing her face, and she wore a summer dress, cowboy boots, and a denim jacket. I felt her look at me as I washed my hands once, then twice, before grabbing a towel and turning to the door.
I pushed it open, and there was Ames, directly across the hallway, leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest. When he saw me, he stood up taller, taking a step forward. I hesitated, stopping, and the girl, also leaving, bumped into my back.
“Oh! Sorry!” she said.
“No,” I told her, turning around. “It was . . . my fault.”
She looked at me for a second, then past my shoulder, at Ames. I watched her green eyes take him in, this stranger, for a long moment before turning her attention back to me. I had never seen her before. But with a single look at her face, I knew exactly what she was thinking.
I was used to being invisible. People rarely saw me, and if they did, they never looked close. I wasn’t shiny and charming like my brother, stunning and graceful like my mother, or smart and dynamic like my friends. That’s the thing, though. You always think you want to be noticed. Until you are.
The girl was still watching me, waiting for an answer to the question she hadn’t even said aloud. And maybe I would have answered it. But then I felt a hand on my elbow. Ames.
“Sydney? You ready?”
I didn’t reply to this, either. Somehow we were heading toward the lobby, where my parents were now standing with the lawyers. As we walked, I kept glancing behind me, trying to see that girl, but could not in the shifting crowd of people pressing into the courtroom. Once we were clear of them, though, I looked back one last time and was surprised to find her right where I’d left her. Her eyes were still on me, like she’d never lost sight of me at all.
THE FIRST thing you saw when you walked into our house was a portrait of my brother. It hung directly across from the huge glass door, right above a wood credenza and the Chinese vase where my father stored his umbrellas. You’d be forgiven if you never noticed either of these things, though. Once you saw Peyton, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Though we shared the same looks (dark hair, olive skin, brown, almost black, eyes) he somehow carried them totally differently. I was average, kind of cute. But Peyton—the second in our house, with my father Peyton the first—was gorgeous. I’d heard him compared to everything from movie idols of long before my time to fictional characters tromping across Scottish moors. I was pretty sure my brother was unaware as a child of the attention he received in supermarkets or post office lines. I wondered how it had felt when he’d suddenly understood the effect his looks had on people, women especially. Like discovering a superpower, both thrilling and daunting, all at once.
Before all that, though, he was just my brother. Three years older, blue King Combat sheets on his bed in contrast to my pink Fairy Foo ones. I basically worshipped him. How could I not? He was the king of Truth or Dare (he always went with the latter, naturally), the fastest runner in the neighborhood, and the only person I’d ever seen who could stand, balanced, on the handlebars of a rolling bicycle.
But his greatest talent, to me, was disappearing.
We played a lot of hide-and-seek as kids, and Peyton took it seriously. Ducking behind the first chair spotted in a room, or choosing the obvious broom closet? Those were for amateurs. My brother would fold himself beneath the cabinet under the bathroom sink, flatten completely under a bedspread, climb up the shower stall to spread across the ceiling, somehow holding himself there. Whenever I asked him for his secrets, he’d just smile. “You just have to find the invisible place,” he told me. Only he could see it, though.
We practiced wrestling moves in front of cartoons on weekend mornings, fought over whom the dog loved more (just guess), and spent the hours after school we weren’t in activities (soccer for him, gymnastics for me) exploring the undeveloped green space behind our neighborhood. This is how my brother still appears to me whenever I think of him: walking ahead of me on a crisp day, a stick in his hand, through the dappled fall colors of the woods. Even when I was nervous we’d get lost, Peyton never was. That fearlessness again. A flat landscape never appealed to him. He always needed something to push up against. When things got bad with Peyton, I always wished we were back there, still walking. Like we hadn’t reached where we were going yet, and there was still a chance it might be somewhere else.
I was in sixth grade when things began to change. Until then, we had both been on the lower campus of Perkins Day, the private school we’d attended since kindergarten. That year, though, he moved to Upper School. Within a couple of weeks, he’d started hanging out with a bunch of juniors and seniors. They treated him like a mascot, daring him to do stupid stuff like lifting Popsicles from the cafeteria line or climbing into a car trunk to sneak off campus for lunch. This was when Peyton’s legend began in earnest. He was bigger than life, bigger than our lives.
Meanwhile, when I didn’t have gymnastics, I was now riding the bus home solo, then eating my snack alone at the kitchen island. I had my own friends, of course, but most of them were highly scheduled, never around on weekday afternoons due to various activities. This was typical of our neighborhood, the Arbors, where the average household could support any extracurricular activity from Mandarin lessons to Irish dancing and everything in between. Financially, my family was about average for the area. My father, who started his career in the military before going to law school, had made his money in corporate conflict resolution. He was the guy called when a company had a problem—threat of a lawsuit, serious issues between employees, questionable practices about to be brought to light—and needed it worked out. It was no wonder I grew up believing there was no problem my father couldn’t solve. For much of my life, I’d never seen any proof otherwise.
If Dad was the general, my mom was the chief operating officer. Unlike some parents, who approached parenting as a tag-team sport, in our family the duties were very clearly divided. My father handled the bills, house, and yard upkeep, and my mom dealt with everything else. Julie Stanford was That Mother, the one who read every parenting book and stocked her minivan with enough snacks and sports equipment for every kid in the neighborhood. Like my dad, if my mom did something, she did it right. Which was why it was all the more surprising when, eventually, things went wrong anyway.
The trouble with Peyton started in the winter of his tenth grade year. One afternoon I was watching TV in the living room with a bowl of popcorn when the doorbell rang. When I looked outside, I saw a police car in the driveway.
“Mom?” I called upstairs. She was in her office, which was basically command central for our entire house. My dad called it the War Room. “Someone’s here.”
I don’t know why I didn’t tell her it was the police. It just seemed saying it might make it real, and I wasn’t sure what was out there yet.
“Sydney, you are perfectly capable of answering the door,” she replied, but sure enough, a beat later I heard her coming down the stairs.
I kept my eyes on the TV, where the characters from my favorite reality show, Big New York, were in the midst of yet another dinner party catfight. The Big franchise had been part of my afternoon ritual since Peyton had started high school, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Rich women being petty and pretty, I’d heard it described, and that summed it up. There were about six different shows—Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago among them—enough so that I could easily watch two every day to fill the time between when I got home and dinner. I was so involved in the show, it was like they were my friends, and I often found myself talking back to the TV as if they could hear me, or thinking about their issues and problems even when I wasn’t watching. It was a weird kind of loneliness, feeling that some of my closest friends didn’t actually know I existed. But without them, the house felt so empty, even with my mom there, which made me feel empty in a way I’d grown to dread the moment I stepped off the bus after school. My own life felt flat and sad too much of the time; it was reassuring, somehow, to lose myself in someone else’s.
So I was watching Rosalie, the former actress, accuse Ayre, the model, of being a bully, when everything in our family’s life shifted. One minute the door was shut and things were fine. The next, it was open and there was Peyton, a police officer beside him.
“Ma’am,” the cop said as my mother stepped back, putting a hand to her chest. “Is this your son?”
This was what I would remember later. This one question, the answer a no-brainer, and yet still one my parents, and Mom especially, would grapple with from that point on. Starting that day, when Peyton got caught smoking pot in the Perkins Day parking lot with his friends, my brother began a transformation into someone we didn’t always recognize. There would be other visits from the authorities, trips to the police station, and, eventually, court dates and rehab stays. But it was this first one that stayed in my mind, crisp in detail. The bowl of popcorn, warm in my lap. Rosalie’s sharp voice. And my mom, stepping back to let my brother inside. As the cop led him down the hallway to the kitchen, my brother looked at me. His ears were bright red.
Because he hadn’t had any pot on his person, Perkins Day decided to handle the infraction itself, with a suspension and volunteer hours doing tutoring at the Lower School. The story—especially the part about how Peyton was the only one who ran, forcing the cops to chase him down—made the rounds, with how far he’d gotten (a block, five, a mile) growing with each telling. My mom cried. My dad, furious, grounded him for a full month. Things didn’t go back to the way they had been, though. Peyton came home and went to his room, staying there until dinner. He served his time, swore he’d learned his lesson. Three months later, he got busted for breaking and entering.
There’s a weird thing that happens when something goes from a one-time thing to a habit. Like the problem is no longer just a temporary houseguest but has actually moved in.
After that, we fell into a routine. My brother accepted his punishment and my parents slowly relaxed, accepting as fact their various theories about why this would never happen again. Then Peyton would get busted—for drugs, shoplifting, reckless driving—and we’d all go back down the rabbit hole of charges, lawyers, court, and sentences.
After his first shoplifting arrest, when the cops found pot during his pat-down, Peyton went to rehab. He returned with a thirty-day chip on his key chain and interest in playing guitar thanks to his roommate at Evergreen Care Center. My parents paid for lessons and made plans to outfit part of the basement as a small studio so he could record his original compositions. The work was halfway done when the school found a small amount of pills in his locker.
He got suspended for three weeks, during which time he was supposed to be staying home, getting tutored and preparing for his court date. Two days before he was due to go back to school, I was awakened out of a deep sleep by the rumbling of the garage door opening. I looked out the window to see my dad’s car backing onto our street. My clock said three fifteen a.m.
I got up and went out into the hallway, which was dark and quiet, then padded down the stairs. A light was on in the kitchen. There I found my mother, in her pajamas and a U sweatshirt, making a pot of coffee. When she saw me, she just shook her head.
“Go back to sleep,” she told me. “I’ll fill you in tomorrow.”
By the next morning, my brother had been bailed out, charged yet again with breaking and entering, this time with added counts of trespassing and resisting arrest. The previous evening, after my parents had gone to bed, he’d snuck out of his room, walked up our road, then climbed the fence around the Villa, the biggest house in the Arbors. He found an unlocked window and wriggled through, then poked around for only a few minutes before the cops arrived, alerted by the silent alarm. When they came in, he bolted out the back door. They tackled him on the pool deck, leaving huge, bloody scrapes across his face. Amazingly, my mother seemed more upset about this than anything else.
“It just seems like we might have a case,” she said to my dad later that morning. She was dressed now, all business: they had a meeting with Peyton’s lawyer at nine a.m. sharp. “I mean, did you see those wounds? What about police brutality?”
“Julie, he was running from them,” my dad replied in a tired voice.
“Yes, I understand that. But I also understand that he is still a minor, and force was not necessary. There was a fence. It’s not like he was going anywhere.”
But he was, I thought, although I knew better than to say this aloud. The more Peyton got into trouble, the more my mom seemed desperate to blame anyone and everyone else. The school was out to get him. The cops were too rough. But my brother was no innocent: all you had to do was look at the facts. Although sometimes, I felt like I was the only one who could see them.
By the next day at school, word had spread, and I was getting side-eyed all over the hallways. It was decided that Peyton would withdraw from Perkins Day and finish high school elsewhere, although opinions differed on whether it was the school or my parents who made this choice.
I was lucky to have my friends, who rallied around me, letting people know that I was not my brother, despite our shared looks and last name. Jenn, whom I’d known since our days at Trinity Church Preschool, was especially protective. Her dad had had his own tangles with the law, back in college.
“He was always honest about it, that it was just experimentation,” she told me as we sat in the cafeteria at lunch. “He paid his debt to society, and now look, he’s a CEO, totally successful. Peyton will be, too. This, too, shall pass.”
Jenn always sounded like this, older than she was, mostly because her parents had had her in their forties and treated her like a little adult. She even looked like a grown-up, with her sensible haircut, glasses, and comfortable footwear. At times it was strange, like she’d skipped childhood altogether, even when she was in it. But now, I was reassured. I wanted to believe her. To believe anything.
Peyton received three months in jail and a fine. That was the first time we were all in court together. His lawyer, Sawyer Ambrose, whose ads were on bus stops all over town (NEED A LAWYER? CALL ON SAWYER!), maintained that it was crucial for the jury to see us sitting behind my brother like the loyal, tight family we were.
Also present was my brother’s new best friend, a guy he’d met in the Narcotics Anonymous group he was required to attend. Ames was a year older than Peyton, tall with shaggy hair and a loping walk, and had gotten busted for dealing pot a year earlier. He’d served six months and stayed out of trouble ever since, setting the kind of example everyone agreed my brother needed. They drank a lot of coffee drinks together, played video games, and studied, Peyton with his books from the alternative school where he’d landed, Ames for the classes he was taking in hospitality management at Lakeview Tech. They planned that Peyton would do the same once he got his diploma, and together they’d go work at one resort or another. My mom loved this idea, and already had all the paperwork necessary to make it happen: it sat in its own labeled envelope on her desk. There was just the little matter of the jail thing to get out of the way first.
My brother ended up serving seven weeks at the county lockup. I was not permitted to see him, but my mother visited every time it was allowed. Meanwhile, Ames remained; it seemed like he was always parked at our kitchen table with a coffee drink, ducking out occasionally to the garage to smoke cigarettes, using a sand-bucket ashtray my mom (who abhorred the habit) put out there just for him. Sometimes he showed up with his girlfriend, Marla, a manicurist with blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a shyness so prevalent she rarely spoke. If you addressed her, she got super nervous, like a small dog too tightly wound and always shaking.
I knew Ames was a comfort to my mom. But something about him made me uneasy. Like how I’d catch him watching me over the rim of his coffee cup, following my movements with his dark eyes. Or how he always found a way to touch me—squeezing my shoulder, brushing against my arm—when he said hello. It wasn’t like he’d ever done anything to me, so I felt like it had to be my problem. Plus, he had a girlfriend. All he wanted, he told me again and again, was to take care of me the way Peyton would.
“It was the one thing he asked me the day he went in,” he told me soon after my brother was gone. We were in the kitchen, and my mom had stepped out to take a phone call, leaving us alone. “He said, ‘Look out for Sydney, man. I’m counting on you.’”
I wasn’t sure what to say to this. First of all, it didn’t sound like Peyton, who’d barely given me the time of day in the months before he’d gone away. Plus, even before that, he’d never been the protective type. But Ames knew my brother well, and the truth was that I no longer did. So I had to take his word for it.
“Well,” I said, feeling like I should offer something, “um, thanks.”
“No problem.” He gave me another one of those long looks. “It’s the least I can do.”
When Peyton was released, he was still quiet, but more engaged, helping out more around the house and being present in a way he hadn’t been in the previous months. Sometimes, after he got home from school, he’d even watch TV with me. He could only stand Big New York or Miami for short periods, though, before getting disgusted with every single character.
“That’s Ayre,” I’d try to explain as the gaunt, heavily nipped-and-tucked one-time Playmate had yet another meltdown. “She and Rosalie, the actress? They’re, like, always at each other.”
Peyton said nothing, only rolling his eyes. He had little patience for anything, I was noticing.
“You pick something,” I’d say, pushing the remote at him. “Seriously, I don’t care what we watch.”
But it never worked. It was like he could alight next to me for just so long before having to move on to checking e-mail, strumming his guitar, or getting something to eat. His fidgeting kept increasing, and it made me nervous. I saw my mom notice it as well. Like some kind of internal energy had lost its outlet and was just building up, day after day, until he found a new one.
He got his diploma in June, in a small ceremony with only eight classmates, most of whom had also been kicked out of their previous schools. We all attended, Ames and Marla included, and went out to dinner afterward at Luna Blu, one of our favorite restaurants. There, over their famous fried pickle appetizer, we toasted my brother with our soft drinks before my parents presented him with his graduation gift: two round-trip tickets to Jacksonville, Florida, so he and Ames could check out a well-known hospitality course there. My mom had even made them an appointment with the school’s director, as well as set up a private tour. Of course.
“This is great,” my brother said, looking down at the tickets. “Seriously. Thanks, Mom and Dad.”
My mother smiled, tears pricking her eyes, as my dad reached over, clapping Peyton on the shoulder. We were sitting outside on the patio, tiny fairy lights strung up overhead, and we’d just had a great meal together. The moment seemed so far away from the year we’d had, like everything in the fall and before it was just a bad dream. The next day, my mom sat down with me to talk about my hopes for college. Finally, I was the project. It was my turn.
That fall, I started tenth grade at Perkins Day. My own transition to Upper School the year before had been as unremarkable as my brother’s had been eventful. Jenn and I made friends with a new girl, Meredith, who’d moved to Lakeview to train at the U’s gymnastics facility. She was small and all muscle, with the best posture I’d ever seen, not to mention the perkiest ponytail. She’d been training for competition since she was six. I’d never met anyone so driven and disciplined, and she basically spent every hour she wasn’t at school in the gym. Together, we three formed an easy friendship, as we all felt a little older than our classmates: Jenn because of her upbringing, Meredith because of her sport, and me because of everything that had happened in the last year. My brother’s legend, for better or worse, still preceded me. But my choice of friends—and the fact that we avoided all parties and illegal extracurriculars even as our classmates experimented—made it clear we were very different.
With Peyton working as a valet at a local hotel and taking his hospitality classes with Ames at Lakeview Tech, my dad doing more traveling, and my mom returning to her volunteer projects, I often had the house entirely to myself after school. I started to feel that sadness again, creeping up each afternoon as the sun went down. I tried to fill it with Big New York or Miami, watching back-to-back-to-back episodes until my eyes were bleary. Even so, I always felt a rush of relief when I heard the garage door opening, signaling someone’s return and the shift to dinner and nighttime, when I wouldn’t be by myself anymore.
Then, the day after Valentine’s Day, my brother left his job at the regular time, a little after ten p.m. Instead of coming home, however, he went to visit an old friend from Perkins Day. There, he drank several beers, took a few shots, and ignored the repeated calls from my mother until his voice mail was full. At two a.m., he left his friend’s apartment, got into his car, and headed home. At the same time, a fifteen-year-old boy named David Ibarra got onto his bike to ride the short distance back to his house from his cousin’s, where he’d fallen asleep on the couch while playing video games. He was taking a right from Dombey Street onto Pike Avenue when my brother hit him head-on.
I was awakened that day by the sound of my mother screaming. It was a primal, awful sound, one I had never heard before. For the first time I understood what it really meant to feel your blood run cold. I ran out of my room and down the stairs, then stopped just outside the kitchen, suddenly realizing I wasn’t sure I was ready for what was happening in there. But then my mom was wailing, and I made myself go in.
She was on her knees, her head bowed, my father crouching in front of her, his hands gripping her shoulders. The sound she was making was so awful, worse than an animal in pain. My first thought was that my brother was dead.
“Julie,” my dad was saying. “Breathe, honey. Breathe.”
My mom shook her head. Her face was white. Seeing my strong, capable mother this way was one of the scariest things I’d ever endured. I just wanted it to stop. So I made myself speak.
My father turned, seeing me. “Sydney, go upstairs. I’ll be there in a minute.”
I went. I didn’t know what else to do. Then I sat on my bed and waited. Right then, it felt like time did stop, in that five minutes or fifteen, or however long it was.
Finally, my father appeared in the doorway. The first thing I noticed was how wrinkled his shirt was, twisted in places, like someone had been grabbing at it. Later, I’d remember this more than anything else. That plaid print, all disjointed.
“There’s been an accident,” he said. His voice sounded raw. “Your brother hurt someone.”
Later, I’d think back to these words and realize how telling they really were. Your brother hurt someone. It was like a metaphor, with a literal meaning and so many others. David Ibarra was the victim here. But he was not the only one hurt.
Peyton was at the police station, where they’d taken him after a Breathalyzer test had confirmed his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. But the DUI was the least of his problems. As he was still on probation, there would be no leniency this time and no bail, at least at first. My father called Sawyer Ambrose, then changed his shirt and left to meet him at the station. My mom went to her room and shut the door. I went to school, because I didn’t know what else to do.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Jenn asked me at my locker right after homeroom. “You seem weird.”
“I’m fine,” I told her, shoving a book in my bag. “Just tired.”
I didn’t know why I wasn’t telling her. It was like this was too big; I didn’t want to give it any air to breathe. Plus, people would know soon enough.
I started getting texts that evening, around dinnertime. First Jenn, then Meredith, then a few other friends. I turned my phone off, picturing the word spreading, like drops of food coloring slowly taking over a glass of water. My mother was still in her room, my dad gone, so I made myself some macaroni and cheese, which I ate at the kitchen counter, standing up. Then I went to my room, where I lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, until I heard the familiar sound of the garage door opening. This time, though, it didn’t make me feel better.
A few minutes later, I heard a knock on my door, and then my dad came in. He looked so tired, with bags under his eyes, like he’d aged ten years since I’d seen him last.
“I’m worried about Mom,” I blurted out before he could say anything. I hadn’t even been planning to say this; it was like someone else spoke in my voice.
“I know. She’ll be okay. Did you eat?”
He looked at me for a minute, then crossed the room, sitting down on the edge of my bed. My dad was not the touchy-feely type, never had been. He was a shoulder-clapper, a master of the quick, three-back-pat hug. It was my mom who was always pulling me into her lap, brushing a hand over my hair, squeezing me tight. But now, on this weirdest and scariest of days, my father wrapped his arms around me. I hugged him back, holding on for dear life, and we stayed like that for what felt like a long time.
There was so much ahead of us, both awfully familiar and, even worse, brand-new. My brother would never be the same. I’d never have another day when I didn’t think of David Ibarra at least once. My mom would fight on, but she had lost something. I’d never again be able to look at her and not see it missing. So many nevers. But in that moment, I just held my dad and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to make time stop again. It didn’t.
I looked over at my mom, who was sitting at the kitchen table, a bagel she wouldn’t eat in front of her. It was sweet of her to make an effort.
“Not really,” I said, zipping my backpack shut. This wasn’t true: I’d already checked twice that I had my parking permit and class schedule, and yet I still kept having to make sure. But I didn’t want her to worry. About me, anyway.
“It’s a big change, a new school,” she said.
In the silence that followed, this sentence hovered between us, like an empty hook waiting for something to be hung on it. Ever since I’d decided in early June to leave Perkins Day and enroll at Jackson High School, my mom had been giving me opportunities to explain why. I thought I had. I’d been at Perkins Day my whole life. I needed something different, especially after the last year. And then, the reason I didn’t talk about: the money.
Peyton’s latest defense had not been cheap, and the bills from it, along with all the others from Sawyer Ambrose, were piling up. Though it wasn’t discussed outright, I knew things were tighter than they’d ever been. We’d let our housekeeper go and sold one of our cars, as well as a beach house we rarely used in Colby, our favorite coastal town. Nobody had said anything about my school expenses, but with college coming up in two years, I figured it was the least I could do. Plus, I was ready to be anonymous.
My mom and I had gone to Jackson to enroll me two days after my brother was sentenced. She was still like a walking ghost, drinking cup after cup of coffee each day and barely eating. My dad had resumed traveling, taking one out-of-town consulting gig after another, so that left just us at the house—at least when she wasn’t making the three-hour round-trip to Lincoln Correctional Facility twice a week and every other weekend. Still, she had rallied for our appointment with the school counselor, putting on makeup and arranging my transcripts in a folder labeled with my name. When we pulled into a visitor’s spot, she cut the engine, then peered up at the main building.
“It’s big,” she observed. Then she looked at me, as if I might change my mind, but I was already opening my door.
Inside, it smelled like cleaning fluid and gym mats, a weird thing, as the PE building was on the other side of the center courtyard. At Perkins Day’s Upper School—which had just done a huge remodel, funded by an alumnus who founded the social networking site Ume.com—everything was new or close to it. Jackson, in contrast, felt more like a patchwork quilt, the campus made up of old buildings with added newish wings, plus the occasional trailer here and there. The day we visited, no one was there but a few teachers and other staff, which made the halls seem even wider, the grounds that much bigger. In the guidance office, which reeked of cinnamon air freshener, there was no one at the main desk, so we took seats on a saggy couch.
My mom crossed her legs, then looked over at a metal bookshelf on her right, which held a box of mismatched clothing items marked LOST AND FOUND, a stack of pamphlets about eating disorders, and a box of tissues, which was empty. I could tell by her face that if she hadn’t already been depressed, this scenario would have done the trick.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “This is what I want.”
“Oh, Sydney,” she replied, and then, just like that, she was crying. This was part of the new Julie as well. She’d always been an easy crier, but over things like weddings and sappy movies. Normal stuff. These sudden sobby waterworks were another thing entirely, and I never knew what to do when they happened. This time, I couldn’t even offer her a tissue.
Now, back in the kitchen, I checked my backpack again, then wondered if I should change. At Perkins Day we wore uniforms, so I wasn’t used to dressing for school. After trying multiple options, I’d gone with jeans and my favorite shirt, a white button-down with a pattern of tiny purple toadstools, as well as the silver hoop earrings I’d gotten for my sixteenth birthday. But I would have worn camouflage if I thought it would help me disappear into the crowd.
“You look great,” my mom said, as if reading my mind. “But you’d better go. Don’t want to be late the first day.”
I nodded, slid my backpack over one shoulder, then walked over to where she was sitting. The bagel had one bite out of it now. Progress.
“I love you,” I said, bending over and kissing her cheek.
She reached down, taking my hand and squeezing it, a little bit too tight. “I love you, too. Have a good day.”
I nodded, then went out into the garage and got into my car. As I backed down the driveway, I looked in the kitchen window to see her still sitting there. I thought she might be watching me as well, but she wasn’t. Instead, she was looking at the opposite wall, her mug now in her hands. She didn’t drink or put it down, just kept it there, right at her heart, and something about this made me so sad, I couldn’t wait to be gone.
* * *
School let out at three fifteen. Ten minutes after the bell, I was the only car left in the lower lot. For once, it felt good to be alone.
The school was just so big. The hallways that had seemed so wide three weeks earlier were, when I stepped inside that first day, totally packed with people: you couldn’t take a step without bumping someone, or at least their arm or elbow. I’d expected that, though. It was the noise that was the real surprise. There was the shrillness of the bells: long, earsplitting tones. The jackhammers of the construction crew replacing one of the many broken sidewalks. And, always, people yelling: in the hallways, across the courtyard, outside the classroom door, at a volume that startled you even with the door solidly shut. It defied logic that in a place so cramped, you’d worry you might not be heard. But everyone did. Apparently.
I’d had only one true interaction all day, with a very perky girl named Deb who was, in her words, a “self-appointed Jackson ambassador!” She’d appeared at my homeroom with a gift bag holding a school calendar, a Jackson football pencil, and some home-baked cookies, as well as her personal business card if I had any questions or concerns. When she left, everyone stared at me as if I were even more of a freak. Great.
Now that I was alone, though, I wondered what to do with myself. I couldn’t go home yet, as there were still a good two hours until dinner, the same stretch of time I’d dreaded even before my brother was sent away. Suddenly, I felt so helpless. If I hated the crowds but also my own company, where did that leave me? It was the saddest I’d felt in a long time. I started my car, like if I drove off I could leave the sadness there.
A block from school, I was at a light when I looked across the street and saw a little strip mall. There was a nail salon, a liquor store, a weight-loss company, and, in the corner, a pizza place.
After school meant pizza to me as much as or even more so than my popcorn-and-Big routine. Just one block from Perkins, there was also a small shopping center, and the Italian place there, Antonella’s, served as the de facto clubhouse for the entire school. They had gourmet brick-fired pizzas, a coffee bar, gelato, and the sweetest fountain Cokes I’d ever tasted. Meredith always went straight to the U for practice, but Jenn and I hit Antonella’s at least once a week, splitting a ham, pineapple, and broccoli pizza and ostensibly doing our homework. Mostly, though, we gossiped and spied on the more popular kids, who always sat at the long, family-style tables by the window, flirting and blowing straw wrappers at one another.
Everything today had been new. With pizza, I could finally have something familiar. Before I could overthink it, I put on my blinker, switched lanes, and turned into the parking lot.
I knew the minute I stepped in that this place was very different. Seaside Pizza was small and narrow, lit not with modern light fixtures like Antonella’s but with yellow fluorescents, some of which didn’t work. The seating consisted of worn leather booths and a few tables, and the walls were covered in a dark paneling and lined with black-and-white photographs of beaches and boardwalks. There was a tall glass counter, behind which sat a row of different kinds of pizzas and a wide, beat-up oven with the word HOT painted in faded letters across its front. A TV playing a sports talk show hung from the ceiling above the drink machine, next to which was a tall, tilting pile of plastic menus. Overhead, music was playing. I could have sworn I heard what sounded like a banjo.
Once inside, I let the door shut behind me but kept my hand on the glass as I realized that this, too, was probably a mistake. Clearly, this was not a popular place with Jackson students, or anyone, for that matter: I was the only one there.
I turned around to leave, only to find that there was now a guy on the other side of the door. He was tall with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, and a backpack. He waited for me to take a step away from the door, then another, before slowly pushing it open between us and coming in.
I felt like I couldn’t dart out without seeming like a freak, so I turned back to the counter, taking down a menu from the pile. I figured I’d pretend to study it for a second, then slip away while he was ordering. When I glanced up a beat later, though, I saw he was behind the counter, tying on an apron. Crap. He worked there. And now he was looking at me.
“Can I help you?” he asked. His T-shirt, I saw now, said ANGER MANAGEMENT: THE SHOW. WCOM RADIO.
“Um,” I said, looking back down at the menu. It was sticky in my hands, and I made out none of the words even as I read it. Panicked, I glanced at the row of pizza slices under the glass counter. “Slice of pepperoni. And a drink.”
“You got it,” he replied, grabbing a metal pizza pan from behind him. He moved the slices around with some tongs for a second before drawing out one that was huge and plunking it on the pan, which he slid into the oven. Back at the register, he shook a lock of hair out of his eyes and hit a few buttons. “Three forty-two.”
I fumbled for my wallet, sliding him a five. As he made change, I noticed there was a cup next to the register filled with YumYum lollipops. TAKE ONE! said a sign in pink marker behind it. I’d loved them as a kid, hadn’t had one in years. I started picking through them, past the plentiful green apple, watermelon, and cherry ones, looking for my favorite.
“Dollar fifty-eight’s your change,” the guy said, holding it out in his hand. As I took it, as well as the empty cup he’d set on the counter, he said, “If you’re looking for cotton candy or bubble gum, I’ll save you the time. There aren’t any.”
I raised my eyebrows. “They’re popular?”
“To put it mildly.”
Just then, the door banged open behind me and someone rushed past, their footsteps slapping the floor. I turned just in time to see a blonde girl disappearing into a back room marked PRIVATE before the door shut behind her.
The guy narrowed his eyes at the door, then looked back at me. “Your slice will be up in a minute. We’ll bring it out.”
I nodded, then walked over to fill my cup and grab some napkins. I sat down at a table, then studied my phone just for something to do. A few minutes later, I heard the oven opening and closing, and he came out a set of swinging doors with my pizza, now on a paper plate, and slid it in front of me.
“Sure thing,” he replied, and then I listened to him walk to the PRIVATE door and knock on it.
“Go away,” a girl’s voice said. A minute later, though, I heard it open.
Alone again, I took a bite of my pizza, even though I wasn’t really hungry. Then I took another. At about that point, I had to resist stuffing the entire thing into my mouth. I mean, pepperoni pizza is pepperoni pizza. It’s, like, the most generic of slices. But this one was so good. The crust was both spongy and crispy—somehow—and the sauce had this certain bit of tanginess, not sweet but almost savory. And the cheese: there weren’t even words. Oh, my God.
I was so involved in devouring my slice that at first I didn’t even notice someone else had come from behind the counter. Then I heard a voice.
I looked up to see a man about my dad’s age, maybe a bit younger. He had dark hair, streaked with a bit of white, and was wearing an apron.
“It’s great,” I said. My mouth was half full. I swallowed, then added, “Probably the best I’ve ever had.”
He smiled at this, clearly pleased, then reached over the register, picking up the cup of YumYums. “Did you get a lollipop? It’s the perfect chaser. But don’t waste your time looking for cotton candy or bubble gum. We ain’t got ’em.”
“I did hear they were popular.”
At this, he made a face, shaking his head, just as I heard the back door open. A moment later, the younger guy walked back past me, the blonde girl behind him. She was holding a lollipop. A pink one.
“You leave the counter unattended now?” the man asked, picking up the tongs and moving some slices around. “Nobody told me we’re working on the honor system.”
“Don’t yell at him,” the girl said. She was wearing a sundress and flip-flops, a bunch of silver bangles on one arm. “He was checking on me.”
The older man opened the oven, looked inside, then banged it shut again. “You need checking?”
“Today I did.” She pulled out a chair at a table opposite the register, sitting down. “Daniel just dumped me.”
He stopped moving, turning to look at her. “What? Are you serious?”
The girl nodded slowly. She’d put the lollipop back in her mouth. After a moment, she reached over to the nearby napkin dispenser, took one out, and dabbed her eyes.
“Never liked that kid,” the man said, turning back to the oven.
“Yes, you did,” the younger guy said, his voice low.
“I didn’t. He was too pretty. All that hair. You can’t trust a guy with hair like that.”
“Dad, it’s okay,” the girl said, still dabbing. She pulled the lollipop from her mouth. “It’s his senior year, he didn’t want to be tied down, blah blah blah.”
“Blah my ass,” her father said. Then he glanced at me. “Sorry.”
Caught watching, I felt my face flush and went back to my pizza, or what was left of it.
“What sucks, though,” the girl continued, pulling out another napkin, “is that those are the same reasons that Jake gave for dumping me when the summer started. ‘It’s summer! I don’t want to be tied down!’ I mean, honestly. I can’t deal with this seasonal abandonment. It’s just too harsh.”
“That hair,” the man muttered. “I always hated that hair.”
The front door opened then, and a couple of guys came in, both of them carrying skateboards. During the ensuing transaction, I finished my slice and tried not to look at the blonde girl, who had pulled one leg up under her and now sat with her chin propped in her hand, eating her lollipop and staring out the window.
The skaters found a table, and soon enough the younger guy came out and delivered their food to them. On his way back behind the counter, he flicked the girl’s shoulder, then said something I couldn’t make out. She looked up at him, nodding, and he moved on.
I glanced at my watch. If I left now, I’d still have at least an hour before dinner. Just thinking this, I felt like I was suddenly wearing something heavy. It wasn’t like Seaside Pizza was so ideal, either. But it wasn’t those same four walls, resonating with their emptiness. I got up and refilled my drink.
“You should take a lollipop,” the girl told me, her eyes still on the window, as I started back to my table. “They’re complimentary.”
Clearly, resistance was futile: this was expected. So I went back to the cup and started to poke around. I was actually waiting for the girl to warn me about the shortage of pink flavors, but she didn’t. But after I’d been at it for a moment, she did speak up.
“What flavor you looking for?”
I glanced over at her. Behind the counter, her father was spreading sauce across a circle of dough, while the guy my age counted bills at the register. “Root beer,” I told her.
She just looked at me. “Seriously?”
Clearly, she was shocked. Which surprised me enough that I couldn’t even formulate a response. But then she was talking again.
“Nobody,” she said, “likes root beer YumYums. They are always the ones left when everything else, even the really lousy flavors, like mystery and blue raspberry, are gone.”
“What’s wrong with blue raspberry?” the man asked.
“It’s blue,” she told him flatly, then turned her attention back to me. “Are you being totally honest right now? They really are your top pick?”
Everyone was looking at me now. I swallowed. “Well . . . yeah.”
In response, she pushed her chair out, getting to her feet. Then, before I even knew what was happening, she was walking toward me. I thought maybe I was about to get into a confrontation about candy preferences, which would have been a first, but then she passed by. I turned to see her head to the same back door, then open it and go inside.
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.”
“Remember what we were talking about, Julie,” Ames said. “First things first.”
She gave him a grateful look. “I know. But I should at least bow out gracefully. I’ll be right back.”
With that, she was gone, padding up the stairs to the War Room. Which left me with Ames.
“So,” he said, leaning forward. “Now that it’s just us, tell me the truth. How are you really?”
He always smelled like cigarettes, even if he hadn’t just smoked one. I eased back a bit. “Okay. It’s a change, but I wanted to do it.”
“Bet it’s been hard to follow in Peyton’s less-than-ideal footsteps. My little bro felt the same way.”
I nodded, picking up a cookie and taking a bite. I wished my mom would hurry up and come back downstairs.
“You know,” he continued, “if you ever need to talk, I’m here. About Peyton. About anything. Okay?”
No thanks, I thought. But out loud I said, “Okay.”
By the next day at lunch, I was already dreading the final bell. I had no idea how often Ames came over in the afternoons, but I was certain I did not want to see him, much less talk to him, especially if my mom wasn’t around. Thinking this, though, I immediately felt a pang of guilt. He hadn’t done anything except creep me out. And that wasn’t a punishable offense.
I knew I could say something to my mom. But she had so much on her mind, and Ames was Peyton’s best friend. He’d been supportive during this last crisis, and every one since he’d been in the picture. Even when my dad was sick of hearing about Lincoln and the warden and Peyton’s appeal, Ames listened. I didn’t want her to lose him, too. Especially since I had nothing specific to point to, just a feeling. Everybody has those.
There had been a time when I told my mom everything. Even after Jenn came into the picture, and then Meredith, I’d always considered her my best friend. We just saw things the same way. Until we didn’t.
It started with Peyton’s initial busts, how surprised I’d been to hear her defend him, even when he did the indefensible. No matter the offense, she could find some reason it was not entirely my brother’s fault. And then there was David Ibarra.
In those first days after the accident, as my parents dealt with bail and lawyers, all I could think of was this kid, just a little younger than me, lying in a hospital bed. I knew from the reports I both came across and sought out that he was paralyzed and not expected to walk again, but there were not that many more details, at least initially. I had so many questions. I couldn’t help but ask them.
“Shouldn’t we apologize?” I said one day. “Like, in the paper, or make a statement?”
She gave me a heavy, sad look. “It’s an awful thing that happened, Sydney. But the law is complicated. It’s best if we just try to focus on moving forward.”
The first time I heard this, it made me think. By the fourth or fifth, I saw it for the party line it was. I looked at David Ibarra and saw shame and regret; my mother saw only Peyton. From that point on, I was convinced that no matter what we looked at, our views would never be the same.
My fourth day at Jackson, I was sitting at lunch with a turkey sub, flipping through my math textbook, when I felt somebody slide onto the wall a bit down from me. I heard some clicking noises, followed by the plucking of guitar strings. When I glanced over, I saw a guy in black glasses, jeans, and a vintage-looking button-down shirt, a guitar in his lap, strumming away.
He wasn’t playing a song as far as I could tell. It was more bits and pieces: a chord here, a short melody there. Every once in a while, he’d hum for a second, or sing a phrase, sometimes pausing to jot in a notebook beside him. I went back to my textbook. A few minutes later, though, I heard a voice.
“Oh, Eric. Really?”
I looked up, and there was Layla. She had on shorts, an oversize floral-print T-shirt, and strappy sandals, her blonde hair loose over her shoulders. As I watched, she put her hands on her hips, cocking her head to one side.
“What?” the guy said. “I’m practicing.”
“Oh please, you are not,” she replied. “You’re running your tired game on this poor girl, and it’s not going to work because I already warned her about you.”
He stopped playing. “Warned her? What am I, a predator now?”
“Just slide over.”
He did, looking displeased, and she plopped down between us, turning to face me. “I’ve been looking for you. I should have known Eric would find you first, though. He’s got a nose for new blood.”
“Okay, you really need to stop now,” Eric said.
Layla flipped her hand at him, as if he were a gnat circling. To me she said, “I’m not saying I believe you are a girl who would fall for this act; I wouldn’t insult you that way. But I was. So I’ve made it my mission to spare others my experience.”
“We,” the guy said, doing one big strum for emphasis, “have been broken up for over a year. I think you can stop now.”
She turned to look at him, again tilting her head to the side. Then she reached out and brushed his hair back from his forehead. “You need a haircut. Shaggy Hipster doesn’t suit you.”
“Don’t touch me,” he grumbled, but it was good-natured, I could tell. He went back to playing, leaning over the guitar, and she smiled, then turned back to me.
“Eric’s in a band with my brother,” she told me. “They’re pretty awful, actually.”