"Kirsten," my mother said now, "be nice."
"Mom, I've tried that. But if you saw her, you'd understand. It's strange."
My mother took a sip of her wine. "Moving to a new place is difficult, you know. Maybe she doesn't know how to make friends—"
"She obviously doesn't," Kirsten told her.
"—which means that it might be your job to meet her halfway," my mother finished.
"She's twelve," Kirsten said, as if this was on par with being diseased, or on fire.
"So is your sister," my father pointed out.
Kirsten picked up her fork and pointed it at him. "Exactly," she said.
Beside me, Whitney snorted. But my mom, of course, was already turning her attention on me. "Well, Annabel," she said, "maybe you could make an effort, if you do see her. To say hello or something."
I didn't tell my mother I'd already met this new girl, mostly because she would have been horrified she'd been so rude to me. Not that this would have changed her expectations for my behavior. My mother was famously polite, and expected the same of us, regardless of the circumstances. Our whole lives were supposed to be the high road. "Okay," I said. "Maybe I will."
"Good girl," she said. And that, I hoped, was that.
The next afternoon, though, when Clarke and I got to the pool, Kirsten was already there, lying out with Molly on one side and the new girl on the other. I tried to ignore this as we got settled in our spot, but eventually I glanced over to see Kirsten watching me. When she got up a moment later, shooting me a look, then headed toward the snack bar, the new girl immediately following her, I knew what I had to do.
"I'll back in a second," I told Clarke, who was reading a Stephen King novel and blowing her nose.
"Okay," she said.
I got up, then started around by the high dive, crossing my arms over my chest as I passed Chris Pennington. He was lying on a beach chair, a towel over his eyes, while a couple of his buddies wrestled on the pool deck. Now, instead of sneaking glances at him—which, other than swimming and getting beaten at cards, was my main activity at the pool that summer—I'd get bitched out again, all because my mother was insistent we be raised as the best of Good Samaritans. Great.
I could have told Kirsten about my previous run-in with this girl, but I knew better. Unlike me, she did not shy away from confrontation—if anything, she sped toward it, before overtaking it completely. She was the family powder keg, and I had lost track of the number of times I'd stood off to the side, cringing and blushing, while she made her various displeasures clear to salespeople, other drivers, or various ex-boyfriends. I loved her, but the truth was, she made me nervous.
Whitney, in contrast, was a silent fumer. She'd never tell you when she was mad. You just knew, by the expression on her face, the steely narrowing of her eyes, the heavy, enunciated sighs that could be so belittling that words, any words, seemed preferable to them. When she and Kirsten fought— which, with two years between them, was fairly often—it always seemed at first like a one-sided argument, since all you could hear was Kirsten endlessly listing accusations and slights. Pay more attention, though, and you'd notice Whitney's stony, heavy silences, as well as the rebuttals she offered, few as they were, that always cut to the point much more harshly than Kirsten's swirling, whirly commentaries.
One open, one closed. It was no wonder that the first image that came to mind when I thought of either of my sisters was a door. With Kirsten, it was the front one to our house, through which she was always coming in or out, usually in mid-sentence, a gaggle of friends trailing behind her. Whitney's was the one to her bedroom, which she preferred to keep shut between her and the rest of us, always.
As for me, I fell somewhere between my sisters and their strong personalities, the very personification of the vast gray area that separated them. I was not bold and outspoken, or silent and calculating. I had no idea how anyone would describe me, or what would come to mind at the sound of my name. I was just Annabel.
My mother, conflict-adverse herself, hated it when my sisters fought. "Why can't you just be nice?" she'd plead with them. They might have rolled their eyes, but a message sank in with me: that being nice was the ideal, the one place where people didn't get loud or so quiet they could scare you. If you could just be nice, then you wouldn't have to worry about arguments at all. But being nice wasn't as easy as it seemed, especially when the rest of the world could be so mean.
By the time I got to the snack bar, Kirsten had disappeared (of course), but the girl was still there, waiting for the guy behind the counter to ring up her candy bar. Oh well, I thought, as I walked up to her. Here goes nothing.
"Hi," I said. She just looked at me, her expression unreadable. "Urn, I'm Annabel. You just moved here, right?"
She didn't say anything for what seemed like a really long while, during which time Kirsten walked out of the ladies' room behind her. She stopped when she saw us talking.
"I," I continued, now even more uncomfortable, "I, um, think we're in the same grade."
The girl reached up, pushing her sunglasses farther up her nose. "So?" she said, in that same sharp, snide voice as the first time she'd addressed me.
"I just thought," I said, "that since, you know, we're the same age, you might want to hang out. Or something."
Another pause. Then the girl said, as if clarifying, "You want me to hang out. With you."
She made it sound so ridiculous I immediately began backtracking. "I mean, you don't have to," I told her. "It was just—"
"No," she cut me off flatly. Then she tilted her head back and laughed. "No way."
The thing is, if it had just been me there, that would have been it. I would have turned around, face flushed, and gone back to Clarke, game over. But it wasn't just me.
"Hold on," Kirsten said, her voice loud. "What did you just say?"
The girl turned around. When she saw my sister, her eyes widened. "What?" she said, and I couldn't help but notice how different this, the first word she'd ever said to me, sounded as she said it now.
"I said," Kirsten repeated, her own voice sharp, "what did you just say to her?"
Uh-oh, I thought.
"Nothing," the girl replied. "I just—"
"That's my sister," Kirsten said, pointing at me, "and you were just a total bitch to her."
By this point, I was already both cringing and blushing. Kirsten, however, put her hand on her hip, which meant she was just getting started.