* * *
Most mornings before school, it was just me and my mom at breakfast, my dad only joining us if he got a late start to the office. Whitney never got out of bed before eleven if she could help it. So when I came down a couple of weeks later to find her showered, dressed, and sitting at the table with my car keys in front of her, I had a feeling something was up. I was right.
"Your sister's going to drive you to school today," my mother said. "Then she's going to take your car and do a little shopping, see a movie, and pick you up this afternoon. Okay?"
I looked at Whitney, who was watching me, her mouth a thin line. "Sure," I said.
My mother smiled, then looked from my sister to me, then back to my sister again. "Great," she said. "Everything works out."
She did her best to sound casual as she said this, but it was clear from her tone she was anything but. Since Whitney had come home from the hospital, my mother preferred to keep her both busy and within sight, which was why my sister was always dragged on errands and to my mother's appointments. Whitney was constantly arguing for more freedom, but my mom worried that given it, she'd binge or purge, or exercise, or do something else forbidden. Clearly, something had shifted, although what it was or why, I had no idea.
When we walked out to the car, I automatically headed for the driver's side, then stopped when I saw Whitney doing the same thing. For a second, we both just stood there. Then she said, "I'll drive."
"Okay," I told her. "That's fine."
The ride was awkward. I didn't realize until we were on the road how long it had actually been since I'd been alone with Whitney. I had no idea what to say to her. 1 could ask about shopping, but it might bring up body-image issues, so I tried to think of other topics. Seeing a movie? Traffic? I had no idea. So I just sat there, silent.
Whitney wasn't talking, either. I could tell it had been a while since she'd driven. She was being very cautious, pausing a beat longer at stop signs than necessary, letting people in front of us. At a red light, I looked across to see two businessmen in an SUV staring at her. They were both in suits—one in his twenties, one my father's age—and instantly I felt defensive, protective of her, even though I knew she would have hated this if she knew it. Then, though, I realized they weren't looking at her because she was skinny, but because she was so striking. I'd forgotten that once, my sister had been the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen. The world, or at least some of it, still seemed to feel the same way.
We were about a mile from school when I finally decided to try and say something. "So," I said, "are you excited about today?"
She glanced at me, then looked back at the road. "Excited," she repeated. "Why would I be excited?"
"I don't know," I said as we turned into the school entrance. "Maybe because, you know, you have a whole day to yourself."
For a second, she didn't answer, focusing instead on pulling over to the curb. "It's a day," she said finally. "I used to have a whole life."
I wasn't sure what to say to that. "Okay, well, see you later!" seemed glib, if not totally inappropriate. So instead I just pushed open the door and reached into the back for my bag.
"I'll see you at three thirty," she said.
"Right," I said.
She put on her blinker, looking over her shoulder. I shut the door, and she eased into traffic and drove away.
I pretty much forgot about Whitney for the rest of the day, as I had a literature test that afternoon that I was totally nervous about. For good reason, as it turned out. Even though I had studied most of the night before and gone to the review session Mrs. Gingher offered at lunch, there had still been some questions that completely stumped me. There was nothing I could do but just sit there, staring at them and feeling like a total moron, until she announced time and I had to turn it in.
As I headed down the steps to the main building entrance to meet Whitney, I dug out my notes and started to go through them, trying to figure out what I'd missed. There was a big crowd making its way across the turnaround, and I was so engrossed that I didn't even see the parked red Jeep until I was walking right in front of it.
One minute I was scanning the notes I'd taken on Southern literature, trying to find a quote that had completely escaped me; the next, I was glancing up at Will Cash. This time, he'd seen me first. He was staring right at me.
I looked away, fast, quickening my pace as I walked in front of his bumper. I was almost to the curb when he called out to me. "Annabel," he said.
I knew I should just ignore him. But even as I thought this, my head was already turning, as if by instinct. He was sitting there, wearing a plaid shirt, unshaven, a pair of sunglasses perched on his forehead, as if they might slip down at any moment.
"Hey," he said. I was close enough to the car now to feel the A/C just barely wafting out the open window.
"Hi." Just one word, but it came out twisted, mangling itself as it squeezed up my throat.
He didn't seem to notice any of my nervousness as he slid an elbow out the window, then glanced over at the courtyard beyond me. "Haven't seen you around at the parties lately," he said. "You still hanging out?"
A breeze blew across me then, catching the edge of my notes, making them flutter, the sound like little wings. I tightened my fingers on the paper. "No," I managed. "Not really."
I felt a chill go up my neck, and I wondered if I was going to faint. I couldn't look at him, so I kept my eyes down, but in my side vision, I could see his hand, resting on the open window, and I found myself staring at it, the long tapered fingers drumming idly on the Jeep's door.
Shhh, Annabel. It's just me.
"Well," he said, "see you around, I guess."
I nodded, and then, finally, I was turning back around and walking away. I took in a breath, trying to remind myself that I was surrounded by people, safe here. But then I felt it, the ultimate proof otherwise: my stomach gurgling, rising up, the one response I could never control. Oh my God, I thought, quickly stuffing my papers into the top of my bag. I pulled it over my shoulder, not taking the time to zip it, then started walking toward the nearest building, praying that I could hold it together until I was to the bathroom. Or at least out of sight. But I didn't get that far.
"What was that?"
It was Sophie. She was right behind me. I stopped walking, but the bile kept rising. After so many times of her just saying one word, to hear these three was overwhelming. And then she was speaking again.