When we got home, it was already dark, but the house was lit up, and I could see Whitney in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove. As we coasted down the driveway, Kirsten squeezed my hand again, and I wondered if she was nervous. But she didn't say anything.
Inside, the house was warm, and I realized I was starving. Kirsten took in a deep breath, closing her eyes. "God," she said as my dad led the way in, "something smells amazing."
"That's Whitney's stir-fry," my mother told her.
"Whitney cooks?" she asked.
I looked ahead to see Whitney standing in front of the island. She had a dishtowel in her hands. "Whitney cooks," she said. "It should be ready in about five minutes."
"You are in for a treat!" my mom said to Kirsten, her voice a little bit too loud. "Whitney is a natural in the kitchen."
"Wow," Kirsten said. Another silence fell. Then she said to Whitney, "You look great, by the way."
"Thanks," Whitney replied. "So do you."
So far, so good. Beside me, my mother smiled.
"I'll put your bag upstairs," my dad told Kirsten, who nodded.
"And I'll get the salad together," my mom said, "and then we can all sit down and catch up. In the meantime, you girls can go upstairs and freshen up. How's that sound?"
"Good," Kirsten said, looking at Whitney again. My father turned, heading for the stairs with the suitcase. "Sounds great."
Upstairs, I sat in my room, listening to the noises around me. Kirsten's room had been pretty much untouched since she'd left, so it was weird to hear activity—drawers being opened and closed, the bumping of furniture being moved around—from that side of the wall. On the other, there were the Whitney noises I was used to: the creak of her bed, the low hum of a radio. When my mom called up to us that everything was ready, we all came out into the hallway together.
Kirsten had changed her shirt and let her hair down. She glanced back at me, then at Whitney, who was behind me, pulling a sweater over her head. "Ready?" she asked, as if we were going farther than just the table. I nodded, and she started down the stairs.
When we came into the dining room, the food was already out: the stir-fry heaped on a big platter, a bowl of brown rice, my mother's salad, with the dressing, of course, to Whitney's specifications. Everything smelled great, and my father was standing at the head of the table as we all took our places around him.
Once we sat, my mom poured Kirsten a glass of wine, and my dad, a true meat-and-potatoes person, asked Whitney to please explain, if she could, exactly what we were eating.
"Tempeh and vegetable stir-fry," she said, "in peanut hoisin sauce."
"Tempeh? What's that?"
"It's good, Daddy," Kirsten told him. "That's all you need to know."
"You don't have to eat it if you don't want to," Whitney said. "Although it is pretty much the best thing I've ever made."
"Just give him some," my mom said. "He'll like it."
My dad looked dubious, though, as Whitney picked up a spoon, putting some onto his plate. As she added the sides, I looked around the table at my family, so different now from a year ago. We would probably never be the way we had been again, but at least we were all together.
As I thought this, I caught a glimpse of lights. Sure enough, in the window behind the row of herbs, a car was passing. As it slowed, the driver looking in at us, I thought again how you could never really know what you were seeing with just a glance, in motion, passing by. Good or bad, right or wrong. There was always so much more.
The rule in our house was that if you didn't cook, you cleaned up, so after dinner Kirsten, my dad, and I ended up in the kitchen together on dish duty.
"That," Kirsten said, handing me a soapy pan to rinse, "was delicious. The sauce was to die for."
"Wasn't it?" my mother, who was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee—but still yawning—replied. "And your father had thirds. I hope Whitney noticed. That's the best compliment you can give a cook."
"I never cook," Kirsten said. "Unless ordering in counts."
"It does," my dad told her. He was supposed to be helping, although so far all he'd done was take out the garbage and take a long time to replace the bag. "Calling for delivery is my favorite recipe."
My mom made a face at him as Whitney, who had disappeared upstairs after dinner, walked in wearing her jacket, her keys in hand. "I'm going out for a little while," she said. "I won't be late."
Kirsten, her hands in the water, turned and looked at her. "Where are you going?"
"Just to this coffee shop to meet some people," Whitney told her.
"Oh," Kirsten said, nodding. Then she turned back to the sink.
"Do you…" Whitney paused. "Did you want to come?"
"I don't want to intrude," Kirsten told her. "That's okay."
"It's all right," I heard Whitney say. "I mean, if you don't mind hanging out there for a little while."
Again, I felt it: this tentative, careful peace between my sisters—not exactly flimsy, but not set in stone, either. My parents exchanged a look. "Annabel, you want to come?" Kirsten said. "I'll buy you a mocha."
I could feel Kirsten's eyes on me as she asked this, and I thought of her squeezing my hand earlier, and how she was maybe more nervous than she seemed. "Sure," I said. "Okay."
"Wonderful!" my mother said. "You all go and have fun. Your dad and I can finish cleaning up."
"Are you sure?" I asked. "We're only about halfway through—"
"It's fine." She stood up, then came over, gesturing me and Kirsten out of the way as she rolled up her sleeves. I looked over at Whitney, standing in the archway. How I'd gotten in the middle of this I wasn't sure. But here I was. "Just go."
"Hello, and welcome to open-mike night, here at Jump Java. I'm Esther, and I'll be your emcee tonight. If you've been here before, you know the rules: Sign up at the back, keep it down when someone's reading, and most importantly, tip your barista. Thank you!"
When we arrived, I'd figured this was just something that happened to be going on. But as Whitney's friends from her group waved us over, it was clear it was no coincidence.
"So are you ready?" a girl named Jane, who was tall and very thin, wearing a red sweater with a pack of cigarettes pok-ing out of the front pocket, said to Whitney after we got our coffees and had introductions. "And, more importantly, are you nervous?"