"Hi," I said as I headed up the walk toward her. "What are you doing?"
She didn't answer me at first, instead just ripping open the potting-soil bag and plunging the shovel in. But then, as I stepped around her, toward the door, she said, "I have to plant herbs."
I stopped walking. "Herbs?"
"Yeah." She scooped some thick soil out of the bag, dropping it into one of the tiny pots with a thunk, some spilling over the sides. "For my stupid therapy group."
"Who knows?" She filled another pot, just as messily, then reached up, wiping her face. "This is what Mom and Dad are paying Moira Bell one fifty an hour for, to tell me to grow some freaking rosemary." She picked up a stack of seed packets from beside her foot, flipping through them. "And basil. And oregano. And thyme. Money well spent, right?"
"It does seem kind of weird," I said.
"Because it is," she replied, scooping out more dirt for the third pot. "It's also stupid and a waste of time and not going to work. It's almost winter. You can't grow stuff in winter."
"Did you tell her that?"
"I tried to. But she doesn't care. She doesn't care about anything except making sure she makes you look like an ass." She dumped dirt into the last pot, making it wobble, but it didn't fall over. "'You can grow them inside,' she said, all chirpy. 'Just find a sunny window.' Yeah, right. I'll kill these things in days. And even if I don't, what the hell am I supposed to do with a bunch of herbs?"
I watched as she picked up the basil packet, ripping it open, and dumped out some seeds into her hand. "Well," I said, "you can use them to cook, or something."
She'd been about to plant the seeds, but now she looked up at me, her expression flat, unreadable. "Cook," she repeated. "Right."
I felt my face flush. Again, I'd managed to say something wrong, even when I hadn't really thought I'd said anything at all. Thankfully, the phone began to ring inside, and I headed to get it, grateful for a reason to shut a door between us.
By the time I reached the kitchen, the machine had already picked up. There was a beep, and then Kirsten came on.
"Hello?" she said, her voice loud, as always. "Anybody there? It's me, pick up if you are… God, where is everyone? And I had good news, too…"
I picked up the receiver. "What good news?"
"Annabel! Hi!" Her voice jumped a couple of octaves, a marked contrast to Whitney's flat monotone. I sat down, getting comfortable—if Kirsten's messages were long, actually being on the phone with her could kill an entire afternoon. "I'm so glad you're home, how are you?"
"Okay," I said, sliding my chair a bit to the right. Looking across the dining room, I could see Whitney shaking seeds into a flowerpots, her brow wrinkled as she concentrated. "How are you?"
"Fabulous." Of course she was. "You know that filmmaking class I was telling you about? The one I'm taking this semester?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Well," she continued, "we had to do a five-minute short for our midterm grade, right? They only pick two to be shown for this, like, showcase night that everyone goes to. And mine got picked!"
"That's great," I said. "Congratulations."
"Thank you." She laughed. "I have to tell you, I know it's just this school thing but I am so psyched. This class, and the communications one I'm taking… I mean, they've just really changed the way I look at things. Like Brian says, I'm learning to tell, but also to show. And I—"
"Wait," I said. "Who's Brian?"
"The TA in my communications course. He helps the professor run the class, and handles the smaller discussion group I'm in on Fridays. He's amazing, just so smart. God! Anyway, I'm really proud of this piece I did, but now I have to get up and introduce it next weekend in front of everyone. I am so nervous I can't even tell you."
"Nervous?" Of all the adjectives I would have used to describe my sister, this would never have been one of them. "You?"
"Well, yeah," she said. "Annabel, I have to get up and talk about my film in front of total strangers."
"You used to get up and walk in front of strangers," I pointed out. "In bathing suits, even."
"Oh, that's different," she said.
"Because that's just…" She trailed off, sighing. "This is personal. Real. You know?"
"Yeah," I said, although I wasn't sure I did, really. "I guess."
"Anyway, it's a week from today. So you'll have to think good thoughts for me. Okay?"
"Sure," I said. "So… what's it about?"
"Oh. Well, it's kind of hard to explain…" she said before, of course, commencing to do just that. "Basically, though, it's about me. And Whitney."
I looked outside again at Whitney, who was ripping open another seed packet, wondering how she'd react to this. "Really," I said.
"I mean, it's a fictional thing, of course," she said. "But it's based on that time when we were kids, out on our bikes, and she broke her arm. Remember? I had to ride her home on my handlebars?"
I thought for a second. "Yeah," I said. "Wasn't that…"
"Your birthday," she said. "Your ninth birthday. Dad missed the party to take her to the hospital. She got back with her cast just in time for cake."
"Right." It was coming back to me. "I do remember that, actually."
"Well, it's basically about that. But different. It's hard to explain. I can e-mail it to you, if you want. I mean, I'm still tinkering with it, but you could get the general idea."
"I'd love to see it," I said.
"You'll have to tell me if it's terrible, though."
"I'm sure it isn't."
"I guess I'll find out on Saturday." She sighed. "Anyway, look, I better go. I just wanted to tell you guys about it. Everything okay there?"
I looked out at Whitney again. She'd put another layer of soil into the pots and had now picked up a hose to water them, her eyes narrowed as the drops sputtered out. "Yeah," I said. "Everything's fine."
As I hung up the phone, I heard the front door open. A moment later, when I crossed through the foyer, Whitney was lining her flowerpots up in the dining-room window. I stood in the archway, watching her arrange them on the sill in a neat row, brushing off their rims with her fingers. When she was done, she stood up, planting her hands on her hips. "Oh, well," she said. "Here goes nothing."