My mother looked at me, and I shrank back, trying to stay out of this. “Macy is fine,” my mother said.
“No, she’s not. God, you always say that, but she’s not.” Caroline looked at me, as if she wanted me to jump in, but I just sat there. “Have you even been paying the least bit of attention to what’s going on with her? She’s been miserable since Dad died, pushing herself so hard to please you. And then, this summer, she finally finds some friends and something she likes to do. But then one tiny slipup, and you take it all away from her.”
“That has nothing to do with what we’re talking about,” my mother said.
“It has everything to do with it,” Caroline shot back. “She was finally getting over what happened. Couldn’t you see the change in her? I could, and I was barely here. She was different.”
“Exactly,” my mother said. “She was—”
“Happy,” Caroline finished for her. “She was starting to live her life again, and it scared you. Just like me redoing the beach house scares you. You think you’re so strong because you never talk about Dad. Anyone can hide. Facing up to things, working through them, that’s what makes you strong.”
“I’ve given everything I have to support this family,” my mother replied, biting off the words. “And for you, it’s still not enough.”
“I’m not asking for everything you have.” Caroline put her hands to her face, breathing in, then lowered them. “I’m asking you to allow me, and Macy, and especially yourself to remember Dad—”
My mother exhaled loudly, shaking her head.
“—and I’m asking you for one week of your time to begin doing it.” Caroline looked at me, then back at my mother. “That’s all.”
The pause that followed this was long enough that I started to think maybe, just maybe, my mother was going to agree. She was just standing there, arms crossed over her chest, looking out the front window of the model home at the houses across the street.
“I have to be here,” she said finally. “I can’t just leave.”
“It’s one week,” Caroline said. “It’s not forever.”
“I can’t leave,” my mother repeated. “I’m sorry.” And she walked back into her office, stiffly, and shut the door behind her. I listened for the familiar noises—the squeak of her chair rollers, the phone being picked up so she could deal with Rathka, the keyboard clacking—but heard nothing. It was like she’d just disappeared.
My sister, gulping back tears, turned and pushed the front door open. “Caroline,” I said, but she was already outside, walking down the front steps.
I thought about going after her. I wanted to be able to say something that would make everything okay, but I had no idea what that might be. It’s not forever, she’d said, but to my mother, it might as well have been. She had made her choice, and this was it, where she felt safe, in a world she could, for the most part, control.
My sister was in her car now, wiping her eyes: I watched her as she cranked the engine, then drove away from the curb. As she moved away, I could see the sign across the street in full view now, and I read the rest of it. NEW PHASES COMING SOON! it said. And then, as if it was easy, or a good thing, always: COME CHANGE WITH US.
My mother was still in her office, silent, when the clock hit five and I stood up to leave. I thought about knocking at her door, even asking if she was okay, but instead I just gathered up my things and slipped out the front door, shutting it behind me hard enough so that she’d hear it and know I was gone.
As I came up our front walk, I saw the box on the front porch: small, square, parked in the direct center of our welcome mat. Waterville, Maine, I thought, even before I got close enough to check the return address. I picked it up and took it inside with me.
The house was quiet, cool, as I went into the kitchen, put the box on the counter, then found the scissors and cut it open.
Inside, there were two pictures: the first was of a belt loop sporting a huge, cluttered key ring that looked like it weighed about a hundred pounds. Then in the second picture, there was the same belt loop, but now attached to it was a square plastic box that looked sort of like a tape measure. Along one side, though, was a series of tabs, each a different color. Frustrated with your old, clunky key chain? asked the bright print below. Get rid of it! Get organized. Get the EZ-Key!
Apparently, with the EZ-Key, you could color code each of your keys, then attach them to a retracting cord, so that you only had to pull them out, unlock whatever needed unlocking, and zip! they shot right back into place. It was a good idea, really, I thought as I turned the box in my hand, rereading its breathless copy, but then they all were, at least on the surface.
About an hour later, as I was sliding some chicken breasts into the oven, my mother called.
“Macy,” she said, “I need you to get me a phone number.”
“Okay,” I said, starting toward her office. “Let me just get your phone book.”
“No, I think you know it. It’s for that woman, Delia. The woman you worked for.”
“Delia?” I said.
I just stood there for a second, waiting for her to offer an explanation. When she didn’t, I said, “Why . . .?”
“Because,” she said, “Rathka has just quit, and every other catering company is already booked for next Saturday or on vacation. This is a last resort.”
“Rathka quit?” I asked, incredulous.
“Macy,” she said. “The number, please.”
I knew there was no way Delia would do it: she hadn’t booked any jobs since Avery had been born, and it was way short notice. But with the way my mother’s day had been going, I figured it was better not to point this out. “It’s 555-7823,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll be home soon.” And then there was a click, and she was gone.
My sister stayed away for a full week, completely and totally incommunicado. She stopped answering her cell phone and ignored all emails, and when we finally got through on her home phone, it was always Wally who answered, his voice stiff and forced enough that it was immediately clear not only that he had been coached to say she was out but that she was standing right there behind him as he did so.
“She’ll get over it,” my mother kept saying, each time I relayed my thwarted efforts to reach her. “She will.”