General Fiction posted February 8, 2019

This work has reached the exceptional level
Even in dysfunction, a sister's bond is strong


by Rachelle Allen

The mechanical octopus attached to my sister fails to hide the gashes across her now-flattened nose. And despite the grotesque swelling around her eyes and the knot webbed with angry blue veins on her forehead, I still recognize her.

It's been twenty-five years since Lindy said she was through with me, but even in this depleted half-self she has unwittingly become, I look and still see my idol, the strongest and bravest soul I've ever known.

Ten years my senior, she was my childhood protector, the one person I most wanted to emulate. And now she is here, still not talking to me, but this time her silence is from a medically induced coma so her doctor can assess the extent of the damages she incurred this morning. I find it almost incomprehensible that, with one missed stair, an ordinary day can become someone's last ordinary day, and the ache in this room is so enormous that I feel crowded out by it and want to retreat. But there is important work to do. It is my turn to protect us now.

I take out my brush and slide it, as gently as I can, through Lindy's tangle of gray and mahogany curls. "Rossiter girls were given beautiful hair," she told me every day as she'd brushed mine, with love and confident flourishes, into enviable fashion statements.

It was an act of heroism that led her to become my hairdresser. I was seven and howling like a coyote in a trap as our mother ripped through my knotted tresses with a metal comb, intent on taming them into a ponytail. Lindy pounded into the room and shouted at her, "What is wrong with you? Can't you see how painful that is for her?"

"Oh, please. She's just being a baby," our mother replied with a sneer. "This isn't your business."

"She's my baby sister, and you're hurting her," Lindy persisted, "so that makes it my business. Why do you have to be so rough? You were the same way with me. I'll do her hair from now on. She'll look better and not have to scream."

Lindy took my hand, and we headed toward her room. "Good. Be my guest," our mother said. We closed the door but still heard her add, "I always hated that chore anyway."

In her room, Lindy took her soft, round brush from the top dresser drawer. Her fingers were deft and gentle as she worked my thick coils into a bun like the one Rapunzel had worn before the prince told her to let her hair down.

I loved that time together every morning before school, not only because of how beautiful she made my hair look, or that she never hurt me in the process, but because I could confess to Lindy things I could never tell our mother--like that I tripped a girl in gym class and had to go to the principal's office and that I gave the naughty boy in our class a kiss on the playground. And Lindy shared stories about her high school friends and boys she liked and what it was like to go on dates. "These are Sister Secrets," she said. "So we'll never tell them to Mom."

"Never," I promised.


The door opened, and a twenty-something version of my sister fastened a gaze on me that rippled from perplexity to disbelief to realization. "Oh!" she cried. "You look exactly like her!" And she ran to hug me.

"So do you," I said, my tears spilling into her hair.

She asked, "How did you know to come?"

"Your dad. He said he'd had enough of The Silence."

"We both wanted it over so long ago," my sister's child admitted. "But she was so stubborn, and she told us if we ever contacted you, she'd cut us out of her life, too."

"I understand," I said softly. "It's all we were ever taught, you know? Our mother cut her off, our grandmother cut off three of her six children. Estrangements are our sick little legacy. My way or the highway. Once I overheard our mother say that all she asked of her children is that they didn't disappoint or embarrass her so she would be able to stay connected to them."

"Wow. No pressure there," said my niece, and when she smiled, my sister's deep dimples creased her cheeks. I covered my eyes and felt tears fill my palms.

The door opened again, and in walked Joe Barone. "Wow, Katie," he said. "Look at you, all grown up."


The last time I'd seen Joe was the day I got Lindy in trouble. My mother had come into my room while I was folding wrapping paper into hats. My ninth birthday party was two days away, and I was preparing the favors and decorations.

"Does Lindy tell you anything about her friends or a boyfriend, Katherine?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said, fixing my eyes on my project. "Not really."

"What do you mean 'not really'?"

"I don't know, really." My fingers picked at the paper.

"You don't know, or you don't want to tell me?" my mother persisted, her voice rising.

"It's not that I don't want to tell you, " I hedged. "I just can't. It's a Sister Secret."

"You aren't allowed to have secrets," my mother said with a snarl. "You either tell me right now, or there will be no birthday party here on Saturday."

She yanked the hat from my hands and ripped it ferociously two times.

"Stop it!" I screamed.

She picked up another. "Tell me, or I'll rip up every damn one of these stupid hats and spank you hard. Then I'll call up all your friends and cancel your party."

"No!" I pleaded. "That's not fair." She ripped another hat, this one six times.

"Last chance," she warned, gathering up the remaining hats. Her eyes felt like knives in my chest.

"Okay," I said quietly, defeat choking off each word. "She has a boyfriend named Joe and he picks her up at Sandy's. Joe takes her to fancy restaurants in other towns."

My mother's eyes grew even angrier, and her mouth curled like an upside-down orange
slice. She started to hit me. "Do you know who Joe is, Katherine?" I sank my chin down close
to my shoulders and shook my head the teeniest amount so I wouldn't make her madder. "Joe is your friend Lisa's father," she explained. "Joe Barone. Your sister is a very, very bad person.
She is garbage."

"No, she ISN'T!" My cheeks felt hot and I pushed away with all my might. "She's nice and she loves me, and I love her."

"Well, too bad for you, then, because starting tonight, she's gone. I won't have a homewrecker in my house."

"It's my house, too," I said quieter but with my jaw set hard. "And if you make her leave, I'll go with her."

My mother laughed. "She'd never take you with her. And why? Because she doesn't love you. She doesn't love any of us. She just loves herself. She's a selfish piece of garbage." And with that, she stormed out of my room.

When my father came home, there was more arguing--him saying you couldn't just throw your children away because they've done something wrong, her saying anyone who forgives a person--even their own child--who's been immoral loses their own morality in the process.

When Lindy arrived, everyone's words bubbled upstairs to my room. When I heard "Your sister tells me--," I cupped my ears and wedged into the back of my closet. I heard Lindy bound up the stairs, fling open my door and shout, "Where are you, you little snitch?" She yanked the closet door open and continued, "How could you tell her? How could you do that?"

"She was going to cancel my birthday party," I sobbed. "She ripped two hats I made."

"You selfish little jerk!" She stomped a foot on the floor. "This is my LIFE, and
you're worried about a stupid birthday party? You've ruined everything, Katherine! I HATE
YOU! I will NEVER talk to you again."

She made a call and then left in the car with Mr. Barone--Joe--and I never saw her or was
allowed to say her name again.


"You look even more like her than Sarah here," Joe marveled. His hair was short now and gray, but the thickness and shine of it remained intact. And although his cheeks were a little fuller, his eyes were still soft and warm, his face still strong and handsome.

Before I could respond, Lindy's doctor arrived, eyes clouded, face drawn. "The EEG indicates no brain activity," he said. "I'm terribly sorry."

For the remainder of the day, we sat by her bedside in silence, taking turns crying and comforting each other, finally agreeing to meet at ten the next morning for the removal of her life supports. But I returned at eight to hold her hand one last time and, like one of Humpty Dumpty's attendants, try to put us back together again.

"I'm so sorry I betrayed you, Lindy," I began. "We were too young when it happened to know how to find our way back. But I never stopped loving you, and I don't believe you stopped loving me. Our mother couldn't help her role in it, either. She was a product of her upbringing, same as us." I squeezed her hand. Our mother had died five years earlier, and I found out from a friend who saw her obituary. I couldn't have cared less.

Now tears were pouring out faster than I could blot them away. "You, I can't stand
having to say goodbye to. And Joe and Sarah are broken-hearted at the thought of you leaving them. I'm so proud of you for that, Lindy. You're the first person in three generations of our family to die with their family intact."

I took our big, soft hairbrush out of my purse and coaxed her spirals into soft waves. "Rossiter girls were given beautiful hair," I reminded her. Then I added, "I'll never let go of Sarah, Lindy. That's a promise to you I'll keep."

At ten o-clock, Joe, Sarah, Father Kavanaugh, and Lindy's doctor arrived. Forming a semi-circle around her bed, everyone touching her, we watched as she left, then hugged in a circle until Joe and Sarah and I were out of tears.

Joe sighed. "We should probably take her clothes with us." But, as he grabbed her jeans from the dresser, a leather pouch spilled from one pocket. He fumbled through it--and stopped. "Twenty-four years I've been married to this woman, and I had no idea about this. Look what's tucked behind her driver's license, Katie."

In his hand lay a small black-and-white snapshot of an infant, and in my sister's beautiful handwriting, at the bottom, were the words "Katherine Therese Rossiter. Five days old."



Never wait to fix a broken relationship.
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© Copyright 2019. Rachelle Allen All rights reserved.
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