“Right, hold please.” I hit the button, then looked up at Caroline, who was standing in front of me, hands clasped together, her face expectant. “Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
She took a breath to answer, but then my mother opened her office door, sticking her head out. “Is line one for me?” she asked, then saw my sister. “Caroline, hello. When did you get here?”
My sister looked at her, then back at me. Clearly, she was working up to something. She took in another breath, smiled, then said, “It’s done.”
There was a second or two of silence as my mother and I processed this. On the phone in front of me, the red light was blinking.
“It’s done,” my mother repeated slowly.
Caroline was still looking at us, expectant.
“The beach house,” I said finally. “Right?”
“Yes!” Caroline clapped her hands, three times fast, like this was a game show and I’d won the showcase showdown. “It’s done! And it’s fabulous. Fabulous! You have to come and see it. Right now.”
“Now?” My mother glanced at the clock, then back at my blinking phone. “But it’s—”
“Friday. Quitting time. The weekend.” Caroline, clearly, had thought this through. “I’ve gassed up my car and bought sandwiches so we won’t even have to stop for dinner. If we leave in the next half hour, we might even get there for the last of the sunset.”
My mother put her hand on my desk. I watched her fingers curl around the edge. “Caroline,” she said slowly, “I’m sure it’s just wonderful. But I can’t get away this weekend. There’s just too much work to do.”
It took Caroline a second to react to this. “It’s just one night,” she said after a minute. “You can come back first thing tomorrow.”
“I have a meeting in the morning with my superintendents. We’re on a very tight schedule. I can’t get away.”
Caroline lowered her hands to her sides. “But you’ve been saying that all summer.”
“That’s because it’s been true all summer. It’s just a bad time.” My mother looked at the phone again, that blinking light, still so insistent. “Who is that holding?”
“Rathka,” I said quietly.
“I should take it. It’s probably important.” She started back to her office, then turned and looked at my sister, who was just standing there, like she was in shock. I felt a pang of pity, thinking of her buying sandwiches, stocking a cooler, how excited she must have been to show us the house. “Honey,” my mother said, pausing in the doorway, “I know how much you’ve put into this, and I so appreciate everything you’ve done.”
I wasn’t sure that she did, though. That either of us did. For the past few weeks, my sister had been in constant transit between the beach house and her own, stopping during each trip to give us an update. My mother and I, concerned with our own problems, had given what attention we could, but neither of us was ever as involved as she would have liked us to be.
Now, she stood in the doorway, biting her lip. I’d never thought I had that much in common with my sister, but now, watching her, I felt some sense of solidarity. Caroline, in the last few weeks, had engineered an amazing transformation, one she wanted more than anything to share with us, but especially my mother.
“Mom,” Caroline said now, “you’re going to love it. Just take twelve hours off and come and see. Please.”
My mother sighed. “I’m sure I will. And I’ll get there, okay? Just not today.”
“Fine,” Caroline said, in a voice that made it clear it really wasn’t. She walked over and sat down in one of the chairs by the window, crossing one leg over the other. My mother was edging into her office, as if that red light was pulling her closer, when my sister said, “I guess it was kind of spur of the moment, thinking we could do this today. I mean, since we’re going next Sunday anyway.”
“Next Sunday,” my mother repeated. She seemed confused. “What’s happening then?”
Caroline was looking at her, and I had a bad feeling. Really bad. “We’re going to the beach house for the week,” I said quickly, looking from her to my mother, then back at Caroline. “On the eighth. Right?”
I was waiting for Caroline to agree. Instead, my mother said, “Next Sunday? The day after the party? That’s impossible. The phase will have just opened. When did you decide this?”
“I didn’t,” Caroline said, finally speaking. Her voice was level, even. “We did. Weeks ago.”
My mother looked at me. “But that’s impossible,” she said, running a hand through her hair. “I wouldn’t have agreed to that, it’s too soon. The sales will have just started, and we have a meeting that Monday on breaking ground for the next phase. . . . I have to be here.”
“I can’t believe this,” my sister said, shaking her head. “I can’t believe you.”
“Caroline, you have to understand,” my mother told her. “This is important.”
“No!” my sister screamed, the word suddenly just filling the room. “This is work, and for you, it’s never done. You promised me we’d take this vacation, and I’ve killed myself getting ready on time so we could have this week together as a family. You said you’d be done, but you’re never done. All this summer it’s been about these stupid townhouses, and two days after they open, you’re breaking ground for something else? God! You’ll do anything to avoid it.”
“Avoid what?” my mother said.
“The past,” Caroline said. “Our past. I’m tired of acting like nothing ever happened, of pretending he was never here, of not seeing his pictures in the house, or his things. Just because you’re not able to let yourself grieve.”
“Don’t,” my mother said, her voice low, “talk to me about grief. You have no idea.”
“I do, though.” Caroline’s voice caught, and she swallowed. “I’m not trying to hide that I’m sad. I’m not trying to forget. You hide here behind all these plans for houses and townhouses because they’re new and perfect and don’t remind you of anything. ”
“Stop it,” my mother said.
“And look at Macy,” Caroline continued, ignoring this. “Do you even know what you’re doing to her?”