"Do you want me to help?" I asked her as she pulled a spoon out of the drawer by the stove and stuck it into the pasta sauce, stirring it tentatively. "I don't mind."
For a minute, she didn't say anything, and I wondered if I'd offended her. But then, not turning around, she said, "Sure. I mean, if you want to."
So that night, for the first time I could remember, I fixed dinner with my sister. We didn't talk much, other than her asking me the occasional question (what temperature to put the oven on for garlic bread, or how much spaghetti to make) and me answering (350, all of it). I set the table while she tackled the salad in her typically slow and methodical way, cutting up the vegetables so carefully and grouping them by color on the cutting board. Once everything was done, Whitney and I sat down together in the dining room, just the two of us. As I slid into my seat, I glanced over at her flowerpots in the windowsill.
"They look good there," I said as she sat down.
"I guess," she replied, picking up her napkin. Her plate was mostly salad, with only a tiny bit of pasta, but I didn't say anything, if only because I knew my mom would have. "Now they just have to actually grow."
I twirled some spaghetti around my fork, then took a bite. "This is good," I told her. "Perfect."
"It's pasta," she said with a shrug. "It's easy."
"Not always," I told her. "If you don't cook it enough, it's crunchy in the middle. And if you cook it too much, it's mushy. It's a fine line."
"Really," she said.
I nodded. For a moment, we were both quiet, just eating. I looked over at the pots again, the golf course beyond, so green it was almost unreal.
"Thank you," Whitney said.
I wasn't sure if this was for the cooking compliment, or the salad, or just sticking around. I didn't care, either. I was just happy to take it, for whatever it was.
"You're welcome," I said, and she nodded, as outside, a car drove past, then slowed, the driver glancing in at us before moving on.
I had not even taken my finger off Owen's doorbell, but somehow Mallory was already on the other side. Then the knob rattled and the door swung open.
At first, I almost didn't recognize her, as she was wearing an incredible amount of makeup: base, eyeliner and shadow, way too much rouge, and fake eyelashes, one of which was unpasted and sticking to her eyebrow. She also had on a tight, strapless black dress and very high-heeled sandals, on which she was teetering as she gripped the doorknob.
Grouped around her, all staring at me, were four other girls, also dressed and made up: a short, dark-haired girl with glasses, wearing a black dress and wedge heels; two identical redheads with green eyes and freckles, each in jeans and high-cut crop-tops; and a chubby blonde in what looked like a prom dress. In the small space of the doorframe, the smell of hair-spray was overpowering.
"Annabel!" Mallory shrieked, jumping up and down. Her hair, done up high above her head in some sort of faux-Mohawk, did not move. "Hi!"
"Hi," I said. "What are you—"
Before I could finish, she reached out, grabbing my hand and yanking me over the threshold. "You guys," she said as the other girls stepped back, still staring, "oh my God, this is Annabel Greene, can you even believe it?"
The blonde in the prom dress, studying me with her very pink lips pursed, said, "You were in that commercial."
"Duh!" Mallory told her. She reached up, finally adjusting her eyelash. "She's the Kopfs girl. And a Lakeview Model."
"What are you doing here?" one of the redheads asked.
"Well," I said, "I was in the neighborhood, and—"
"She's friends with my brother. And with me." Mallory squeezed my hand again, her palm hot against mine. To me she said, "You're just in time for our photo shoot. You can help us with our poses!"
"Actually, I can't stay," I said. "I just stopped in for a second."
This was what I'd told Whitney, too, after dinner. That I had something to bring by a friend's, and I'd be back within the hour. She'd just nodded, although she was looking at me sort of strangely, like she was wondering if I might come home smelling of bacon.
"Do you like my outfit?" Mallory asked now, striking a pose, one hand behind her neck, eyes turned up to the ceiling. She held it for a moment, then resumed her normal standing position. "We're doing all these different looks. I'm Evening Elegant."
"We're Daytime Casual," one of the redheads told me, planting a hand on her hip. Her sister, who had more freckles, nodded, her face solemn.
I looked at the dark-haired girl with the glasses. "Classy Workplace," she mumbled, tugging at her black dress.
"And I," the blonde announced, twirling so her dress swished, "am Fantasy Engagement."
"You are not," Mallory said. "You're Nighttime Formal."
"Fantasy Engagement," the blonde insisted, taking another spin. To me she added, "This dress cost—"
"Four hundred dollars, we know, we know," Mallory said, annoyed. "She thinks she's a big deal just because her sister was a debutante."
"When are we taking pictures?" one of the redheads asked. "I'm tired of being Daytime Casual; I want to wear a dress."
"In a second!" Mallory snapped, irritated. "First Annabel has to see my room. Then she can advise us on our looks."
She started to pull me toward the stairs, the other girls clomping along behind us. "Is Owen here?" I asked.
"Somewhere," she said as we started up the steps. The dark-haired girl was beside me now, studying me with a serious expression, while the other three whispered behind me. "You should see the pictures we took last time at Michelle's, they were so good! I had this one where I was European Flair? It was fabulous."
"European Flair?" I asked.
She nodded. "I wore a beret and a plaid skirt, and posed with a loaf of French bread. It was awesome."
"I want to be European Flair," the girl in black said. "This dress is boring. And how come you always get to be Evening Elegant?"
"Just wait a second!" Mallory hissed as we came up on a closed door. She stepped in front of it, clasping her hands to her chest. "Okay," she said. Her eyelash had come loose again. "Prepare yourself for the ultimate model experience."
This did not sound very promising. I glanced behind me; the other girls were all staring at me, still. I turned back to Mallory. "All right," I said slowly.