by Anne Johnston
October in Georgia is a mosaic of orange, green, yellow, brown, red—of ash, birch, gum, oak, and evergreen trees that look down like elders onto the khaki pants, pastel prints, boat shoes, bourbon, and biscuits on the earth below. The elder trees nod and wave as the people bow their heads respectfully, “Yes, sir. No, ma’am—” for they have chosen to live among the great oaks and evergreens, in a place where manners and pride are celebrated and passed down like Granddaddy’s shotguns.
Today the elder trees sleep. Abandoned leaves collect in the driveway of a medical office building on Ashbury Road. Twenty-six-year-old Jane pulls into the driveway and sits in the driver’s seat with her hands on the wheel, blind to the color all around her. She closes her eyes and counts deep breaths: in-two-three-four-five; out-two-three-four-five.
Outside the car hawkish gray haze cloaks the scattered army of fallen leaves. She finds momentary comfort in the crunch of the stiff stems under her boots, smashing against the asphalt like hard molasses. The office door seal squeegees away the dead foliage, clears a path to the waiting room.
From down the hall a Southern drawl calls, “You must be Jane.” Jane orders herself to breathe as the body and the voice of the psychologist float toward her. She turns herself into a statue as the other woman slows and stops in front of her at a professional distance.
“I’m Doctor Katie Bird.” She has a young face, light-brown hair down to her shoulders, a nude sweater and a nude top with olive, calf-length pants and ballet slippers. Jane imagines Doctor Katie with a children’s book and a circle of toddlers on a colorful rug: “I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham.”
Jane moves into the silent space, speaking in a neutral accent, “Nice to meet you,” shakes her hand, and enters the shaggy-rug’d empathy den a half-step ahead of Dr. Katie.
“Your mother told me a bit about why you wanted to come in to see me today, but why don’t you tell me why you’re here, what you want to get out of our session today with the two of us, and what you’d like to get out of the joint session with your sister afterward.” She fastens the nude buttons on her nude sweater.
Jane props her ankle onto her knee, like her father when he was preparing to deliver a well-crafted argument. She can see the impact of her formal tone on the doctor.
“Well, my mother may have told you that my relationship with my sister has been somewhat ‘challenging’ for the last ten years. I mean, I see her once or twice per year for holidays, but beyond that we rarely speak.” She adjusts her posture, keeping a straight back with her knee-fold power pose. “Now I’ve gotten to a point where I feel that this is ‘limiting’ me in other areas of my life, and so I’m here because I want to ‘reopen’ the relationship.”
The psychologist nods. “Mmm, yes. That’s wonderful, Jane. Now, how can I help you today?” She presses her palm to the nude sweater.
“Great question, thank you. I suppose I could use some help in…‘brainstorming boundaries.’ You see, part of me feels fearful that by opening the lines of communication again, I will be unleashing Pandora’s box. I would like to have a relationship, but setting boundaries feels very important to me. Any suggestions on how I can do that would be most helpful.” She presses her palms together and bows her head slightly in a compact namaste.
“You know, Jane, I just think it’s so great that you’re here at all.” The drawl reminds Jane of her second grade teacher, Mrs. Lambert, who pronounced her name in two syllables, ‘Jay-nnh.’ “One of the things I find is that sibling relationships really go one of two ways: Some siblings bond to their mentally ill loved ones—they have a hard time differentiating between the other person and themselves—and some disconnect completely. I really haven’t seen much of a middle ground.” She cocks her head to one side.
“Well, Doctor Katie—I’m sorry, Dr. Bird, that presents a bit of a problem for me, as such ‘middle-ground’ is precisely what I’m hoping to establish. The ‘bonded’ option you described feels unworkable to me, and the ‘total separation’ option is what I’m trying to improve upon. You see my predicament.”
Outside the elder trees are stirring. An orange leaf swirls in the wind and sticks to the window pane, like a vagrant yearning to come inside. Jane’s eyes linger on the sudden glimmer of color.
“Say more about ‘middle ground.’ What would that look like?” the therapist probes.
“Middle ground means that if I open the door, I am not met with a tornado of chaos. It means that I don’t receive the five to twenty phone calls per day that my mother receives.” Jane feels her body get heavier as she thinks back to the voicemails she’s been receiving since college: “Hello, Jane. This is your sister, Iris. I love you very much. You’re my little sister. You know you can call me anytime. I guess you’re really busy. But you can call me anytime. I love you. I miss you. Bye.”
“You’ve said what you don’t want. But what about what you do want?”
She looks at the ceiling. “What do I want? Regular contact, but not so much that it feels overwhelming. But then again…when I do call her, it seems like a one-way conversation. I’ll ask her how she’s doing, how work is going, how’s her apartment, and I’ll get back a one-word answer.” Her hands move up in a “go figure” gesture.
“Anything else?” The therapist bobs her head as if detecting more.
“And what happens when my parents are gone, you know? We’ve got to establish some kind of relationship before it’s just us.” Jane looks to the window. The orange leaf has disappeared, gone with the wind.
“I can hear how it’s been difficult for you to communicate with your sister, and how you’re worried about what will happen when your parents are no longer able to care for her. You know, sometimes there’s not a lot to say. Even just calling to check in…it’s good enough.”
There is a knock-knock and the door slides open. “Hello? May I come in?” Iris, in a gold sweater and pants, and plastic barrettes in her hair, fills up the doorway. “Hello, Jane.” She walks to her younger sister, squeezes her around the waist, and sits down next to her attentively.
Reflexively Jane brings her eyes to the window to take in a flash of color, then looks back to her sister.
Dr. Katie begins. “How are you today, Iris?”
“Fine.” The older sister looks at her therapist, eyes wide.
“I’ve been having a nice chat with your sister. Is there anything you’d like to talk about while you’re both here?”
“No.” She rocks forward. “Jane—is there anything you want to talk about?” Eyes wide open, she begins to bounce slowly on the edge of the couch.
“Not anything special, Iris. I’m just here to be with you. To let you know that I’m here.”
Iris scoots closer on the couch and puts her arm around Jane, pressing her against the armrest.
“Iris, what do you think about the way you communicate with your sister? About how your relationship has been?”
“It’s been just fine. I mean she doesn’t live here.” She looks her doctor in the eye, as if to defend her little sister. “She’s busy with her job. But it’s been just fine.” With her protecting arm still around her, she pets Jane’s free hand.
Jane looks at Dr. Katie and raises both eyebrows. Squirming, she manages, “Iris, I am someone who values space.” The therapist looks at Iris and motions for her to move away from Jane on the couch. Jane exhales a smile, nods “thank you” to the doctor. “Iris, what if we talked a bit more often than we do now? Say once per month, over the phone?”
“That sounds fine.” Iris looks at Jane, then Dr. Bird.
Dr. Bird encourages, “And how do you think that would work best?”
“Well, Jane is busier so she should call me.”
Jane nods to the doctor, then leans her head in closer to her older sister. “Iris—I think one of the reasons it’s been hard for me to keep in touch is because I have memories. Tough memories of when we were little.” Iris looks at her sister, unflinching. “I guess what I want to know is—what do you think has changed now from before? I mean, what’s to keep some of those things from happening again?”
Iris holds her sister’s gaze until her head snaps at a right angle, straight at Dr. Bird. “Back when I was not doing well, I didn’t like how my medication made me feel, so I was taking drugs, hanging out with bad people. But now I know they are bad people, and so I don’t see them anymore and I stopped doing drugs.”
Dr. Bird hops forward in her seat, supporting. “I think what Jane’s asking is: If you had problems when you didn’t take your medication before, what’s changed now? What keeps you taking your medication now?”
Jane and Dr. Bird both lean in. The wind is up again outside.
Iris cranes her head to both sides. “Oh. Well, I changed medications and the new one helps me go to sleep at night. If I don’t take my medication, I can’t go to sleep.” She looks at Dr. Bird, then at Jane, rocking slowly.
“Hmmm. So if you don’t take the medication, you can’t sleep?” the therapist sustains.
“Yeah.” Iris is rocking harder now.
“Oh-kay then.” Jane watches her sister’s familiar rocking. “What about Mom and Dad? I know you spend a lot of time with them now. What about when they get older?”
“When they get older, I can take care of them. I can help them, feed them, I can care for them.”
Jane starts to speak but stops herself. She shifts in her seat, begins again very slowly. “What I mean is, what about when they are no longer around?” She puts her hands in her lap and breathes out slowly through her nose.
Iris looks into Jane’s face—her eyes clear, solemn—she is steadfast. Each word is its own country. “You don’t have to take care of me. I can take care of myself…I have friends: You-don’t-have-to-take-care-of-me.”
Jane looks at her sister, then at the doctor, then out the window. Outside the leaves are swirling wildly. The red, orange, brown, yellow, greens whirl and dance in the autumn breeze. And all at once she feels that she is soaring with them, high above the elder trees, mixing and mingling with the magnolias and the honeysuckle trees, with the red maple and the black cherries, with the dogwoods and the sourwoods, into the oak-hickory forests, over the Chattahoochee River with the crickets and the white-tailed deer, onto the Appalachian Trail where the bootleggers and the barbeque light up like fireflies into the Blue Ridge sky.
And in that moment Iris becomes the older sister who had never been. Her offer will never be cashed in but is unwavering, full of tenderness and selfless love. Jane raises her head to look up at her big sister, to admire her, and finally, after what seems like a lifetime, to take her hand.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing