"Really," I said, handing the bags over to her.
"It's some recipe Moira gave her," she said. "Isn't that great?"
It was. My own problems aside, I could not help but be impressed with Whitney's recent progress. A year ago everything had started; now, while she was still by no means cured, the changes in her were yet again evident, but they were all good ones.
First, she'd started cooking. Not a lot, and not constantly; it had started slowly, after the dinner she'd made for me. Apparently Moira Bell was big into natural foods and organic cooking, and when Whitney told her about making spaghetti, she'd lent her a couple of cookbooks. My mother's meals tended toward the creamy and hearty: lots of casseroles with cream of mushroom bases, heavy sauces, meats, and starches. Whitney's interest, not surprisingly, leaned in a different direction. She'd started by contributing salads to our dinners now and then, going to the farmer's market and loading up with vegetables, which she'd spend ages slicing and dicing. Her dressings were vinaigrettes, swirled with herbs; reach for the Thousand Island or ranch and she'd shoot you a look suggesting that you don't. Then, the weekend of the fashion show, she made grilled salmon with a lime sauce for my parents, followed by steamed green beans with fresh lemon to replace the gooey casserole with french-fried onion topping we normally had for Thanksgiving. My mother was a great cook, the kind who worked on instinct, with no real measurements, only pinches and dashes. When Whitney cooked, she was all about exactitude, and her natural bossiness—about the dressing, or how yes, we could live without butter on every side dish—was just part of the process. But even at its most annoying, it was still an improvement, and we were all eating better. Whether we liked it or not.
She was also writing. She'd finished her official history by the end of the October, but since then she'd kept at it, often sitting at the dining-room table scribbling on a notepad, or curling up by the fire chewing her pencil. So far she hadn't let me read anything she'd written, although it wasn't like I'd asked, either. Still, the couple of times I'd found her notebook on the stairs, or the kitchen table, I'd been tempted to open it, just to see what was within all those carefully written lines. But I didn't. After all, I could understand about keeping things to yourself.
The most amazing thing, though, was the herbs. After sitting in the window doing absolutely nothing for a couple of months, the rosemary had suddenly sprouted just before Halloween. It was just one tiny, green shoot, but in the next week the others followed suit. Whitney checked on them every single day, testing the dampness of the soil with her fingers, turning them slightly for the optimum amount of light. Where I'd once thought of my middle sister as a closed door, these days when I pictured her I saw another image: her hands, curved around a chopping knife, or a pen, the handle of a watering can, moving across the plants, helping them grow.
Kirsten, meanwhile, had not only survived the showing of her piece to her professors and classmates but emerged victorious, winning the first-place prize in the competition. I'd expected her to call and regale us with one of her typical monologues, full of stream-of-consciousness details, but instead she'd left a message—telling us about the win and that she was very pleased with it—that clocked in at under two minutes, which had to be a record for her. It was so strange we were all convinced something must be wrong, but when I called her back, she said it was just the opposite.
"Things are great," she told me. "Just great."
"Are you sure?" I asked. "Your message was awfully short."
"I thought the machine had cut you off, at first," I said.
She sighed. "Well, that's not altogether surprising, I guess. I've really been doing a lot of work on how I convey myself these days."
"You are?" I asked.
"Well, sure." She sighed again, a happy sigh. "It's amazing what I've learned this semester. I mean, between the filmmaking and Brian's class, I'm learning a lot about the true meaning of communication. It's really opened my eyes."
I waited for her to go on, to explain. Especially about Brian. But she didn't. Instead, she told me she loved me and had to run, and that she'd see me soon. And then we hung up. In under four minutes.
Kirsten may have been mastering the art of true communication, but I was failing miserably. Not just with Owen, but with my mother as well, as I'd somehow, in the midst of everything else that was happening, agreed to do another Kopf's commercial.
It happened the same week I'd heard about Emily's pressing charges. When I got home from school that Friday, my mother was waiting for me at the door.
"Guess what!" she said, before I even stepped over the threshold. "I just got a call from Lindy. The Kopf's people contacted her yesterday morning. They want you for their new spring commercial."
"What?" I said.
"Apparently they were very pleased with how the fall campaign went. Although, I have to say, I think your meeting that man from marketing last weekend didn't hurt. They're shooting in January but they want to see you in December for a fitting. Isn't it great?"
Great, I thought. The truth was, a couple of months ago this would have been a much bigger deal. A couple of weeks ago, maybe I might have even been able to stop it. But now, I just stood there, and barely managed to nod.
"I told Lindy I'd call her as soon as I told you," she said, going into the kitchen and picking up the phone. As she dialed, she added, "From what Lindy said, the ad skewed really well with younger girls, and that's what really won the Kopf's people over. You're a role model, Annabel! Isn't that something?"
I thought of Mallory's room, the screen captures lined up on the wall. And then her face staring into the camera, the feathers from the boa floating up to the edges.
"I'm no role model," I said.
"Sure you are," she replied, so easily. She turned and looked at me, smiling again as she shifted the phone to her other ear. "You have so much to be proud of, honey. You really do. I mean—
Lindy?… Hi! It's Grace, I've been trying to get through… is your receptionist out?… Still?… That's horrible… Yes, I've just talked to Annabel, and she's thrilled…"
Thrilled, I thought. Not quite. And not a role model, either. Not that it mattered. As long as someone else thought I was those things, that was all that counted.
October had folded into November and then December somehow without my even noticing, the days getting shorter and colder, Christmas music suddenly on the radio. I went to school, I studied, I came home. Even when people did try to talk to me at school, I barely replied, so used to my isolation that now I preferred it. At first, on weekend nights, my mom and dad seemed curious as to why I didn't go out or have plans. But after a few times of telling them I was just so tired from the Models and school and trying to catch up on my schoolwork, they stopped asking.