“Good morning, Mrs., uh, Ms. Falloughs?”
“Please, call me Ellie.” Eleanor Falloughs extended her arm across the desk.
“Thank you; I will.” The man offered his own hand, which was warm and spongy. “John Sorensen, Admissions Counselor. Have a seat.”
His countenance was pleasant, Ellie thought. His fingers rested atop a folder with Ellie’s sister’s name on it; his gaze was clear, imparting comradeship from behind round wire rim eyeglasses. Curls of mocha-colored hair strayed across his high forehead and glistened with a styling gel that failed to slick them into place.
Ellie remained standing and looked at the desk, at memos and envelopes addressed to John Sorensen. She was surprised to meet someone his age named John, and surprised again to realize she’d begun to think of a man in his mid-to-late twenties as “someone his age.” She surveyed his cramped but tidy office. On the wall behind the desk hung a painting of weeping willows. Below the painting was a brass plaque engraved with the institution’s name.
“Cora’s Zone.” Ellie chuckled. “Such a sweet pun.”
“Cora Santiago, our first resident. A young woman with Fragile X Syndrome…”
“Yes, I’ve read your brochures.” Ellie tried not to sound patronizing. “Corazón is Spanish for ‘heart.'”
“Right.” Sorensen’s cheeks flushed. “I took German in college. Not the most useful language in this state.”
“You’re not from California?”
“No, Wisconsin, all the way – go Badgers! Please, make yourself comfortable.” He and gestured at the roller chair in front of his desk.
Eleanor Falloughs stared quizzically at John Sorensen.
“Badgers.” Sorensen grinned. “That’s my university’s mascot.”
“Oh, of course. Not to rush, but I suppose we should get to it. I’m aware of the criteria: private insurance or other arrangements only. No Medicaid, Social Security…”
“We don’t have to get into that now, Ms. – excuse me, Ellie.” Sorensen rolled a pencil between his thumb and forefinger. “That’s one comfy chair, trust me.”
“Thank you. I need to be on my feet.” Ellie paced by the side of the desk, tapping her fingernail on a series of framed certificates on the wall. “The fees are not a problem. It’s important to us, Jilly and I, to insure her placement. Openings are hard to come by; Cora’s Zone has a waiting list. I’ve done my research. This is a good place.”
Ellie stopped in front of a framed Department of Health Services Certification. “When one is off, they all look askew,” she murmured. She straightened the certificate. “My sister….”
She was relieved to hear her own voice: steady, assured, no detectable tremor. “I was going to say how sweet Jilly is. You likely hear similar descriptions all the time; that doesn’t make it less true: Jilly is sweet. And she has no one.”
“She has you.” John Sorensen’s gaze was hopeful and questioning.
“Yes.” Ellie took the seat John had stopped offering to her, and rolled the chair to the side of his desk. “But not for long.”
John Sorensen’s spine arched. He’s trying not to be taken aback by my proximity, Ellie thought. She detected a faint whiff of vanilla.
Deodorant? Cologne? Do men still use aftershave?
Sorensen opened Jillian’s chart. “You are Jillian’s legal guardian. No other siblings, mother deceased, father…missing?” He cleared his throat. “That’s a typo?”
“No.” Smiling came easier than Ellie thought it would. “May I tell you something?” Ellie did not wait for his permission to continue. “Our mother died of pancreatic cancer. She was only forty-five. Jilly was fifteen; Mom had cared for her at home. Jilly’s father, our father, told me he didn’t know, as he put it, ‘what to do with Jillian.’ Two weeks after our mother’s funeral he had all the papers, all the family finances, in order and in my name. Then he was gone. So, ‘missing’ is technically accurate.”
“I’m sorry for your loss – losses. I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise anything.” John Sorensen ran his finger around the edge of his collar. “If we submit a complete packet today, she’ll have a better chance with the admittance board. You’re the only relative listed; we need a backup guardian – no, that’s not it. We need another…I think it’s called, secondary power of attorney? The term escapes me.” He scratched his nose. “It’s obvious I’m no lawyer.”
Ellie smothered her instinct to pat his knee and whisper, There, there; you’re doing fine.
“I’m an only child….” Ellie hoped the color in her increasingly warm cheeks would pass for an inept hand with the powdered blusher. “I’ll try that again. I’m Jilly’s only close relative. The others, well, there’s little incentive to come closer when the ‘reward’ might be caretaking for your mentally challenged, seizure-disordered cousin.
“You’re a kind man.” Ellie stared into John Sorensen’s eyes. “I don’t know you, but you’re here; you must be kind. I had to drop out of grad school to care for my sister. For seventeen years I’ve acted as her mother. I am a childless mother. And now I have the same…”
Ellie patted her own knee, silently counting to fifteen and down to zero. John Sorensen sat motionless, in sympathetic expectation.
“I was just tired, at first. Then it was a persistent backache. Not something you rush to the doctor for, when you have so many other concerns.”
“You’ve been to the doctor?”
Ellie momentarily contemplated the hows and whys of duplicity. Distinctions between lies of commission versus omission no longer seemed razor fine. Her nervous neck twitch could be taken for an affirmative nod.
“I’ve the same symptoms; the disease that took our mother. Jilly needs a placement. The group homes we’ve tried were nothing like Cora’s Zone.” Ellie drummed her fingers atop the desk. “When it didn’t work out, she’d come back to me. We haven’t that option anymore.”
If only he could see what I see. He could stare into a mirror for hours and never recognize what he’ll be, what he’ll do.
“She’s the most sweet-tempered – Jilly is the sibling you’d dream of having. I know that sounds odd, considering her situation. What I mean is, the wanting of someone to adore you, look up to you, if for no other reason than you’re there. Do you know what I’m talking about? Even when you’re reminding her for the nth time to take her medication, she never argues, never snaps. The closest she comes to complaining is when she says something isn’t very interesting.”
“I know what you mean. I’m the youngest of three boys. Like you said, I wanted someone to look up to me.” John Sorensen folded his arms across his chest and chuckled. “Or maybe I wanted someone I could boss around for a change. Anyway, I always wanted a little sister.”
“Me too,” Ellie whispered.
* * *
“Something smells like hungry!” Jilly bounded into Ellie’s bedroom. “What’s it, perfume?”
“No, vanilla extract.” Ellie sat down by the headboard and smoothed the bedspread. “I put some vanilla in a bowl, on my dresser. It makes the room smell cozy, like baking cookies.”
“Whatcha holding?” Jilly flopped down on the bed and tugged at a lock of her thick, curly dark hair. “Cookie cutter?” Jilly snuggled close to Ellie and pointed at the curious round object Ellie held in her palm.
“Definitely not a cookie cutter.” Ellie laughed. “It’s hard to explain. I suppose I used to think of it as a souvenir.”
“Sorry, Charlie.” Jilly yawned. “Don’t know that word.”
“A souvenir is something you get from a place you’ve visited. You keep it to remind you of where you’ve been.”
Ellie held the diaphragm up to the window. It felt more brittle than she remembered. She pressed against its spring edges, compacting and releasing it, and the sunlight poked through the tiny holes in its dome.
Jilly butted her head against Ellie’s shoulder. “Not very interesting,” she giggled.
* * *
Ellie, we can’t do this.
Karl, no one’s asking you to do anything.
Ellie’s reply was unnecessarily defiant. What Karl had meant, of course, was, “If you do this, there will be no ‘we.'”
She’s my sister. There’s no one else. It’ll only be until I can find a place, where she can learn some skills, maybe get a job, but still be monitored. If she misses a dose, the seizures….
Ellie dispassionately observed Karl’s expression, as if she were recording a chemical reaction in the lab log. His pale eyes flickered, then hardened with the steely sorrow. Ellie’s vision blurred. She removed her lab coat, and thought about the teaching assistantship she and Karl shared, the one for which they’d so earnestly lobbied their graduate advisor.
Don’t worry; they’ll probably increase your hours. You can have all of mine.
Those were the last words she spoke to Karl, her lab partner, fellow TA, and fiancé.
* * *
It was a difficult birth.
That was all Ellie’s parents said. Every morning Ellie asked to go to the hospital. Every morning the answer was, Maybe tomorrow.
Jillian is smaller than the other babies. She needs some extra time to grow.
When the days became weeks, Ellie’s parents told her stories about oxygen. They used complicated terms that were supposed to explain how oxygen is something Jillian didn’t get enough of during her birth. Ellie acted as if her parents were speaking Bulgarian.
When is my sister coming home?!
Ellie vowed to look up the big words, and buy a subpoena. Her friend Laurie’s father was an attorney; he used that word when Ellie asked him how you get to see a medical chart.
After three months, Jilly came home.
Ellie would sit by the bassinette, after school until dinnertime, reading from the “Little House” books and singing nursery rhymes to her sister. Her mother wandered in and out of the baby’s room. Sometimes her mother sat in a chair in the corner of the room, staring out the window and dabbing a tissue at the corners of her eyes to soak up the hot, silent tears.
Everything will be okay. You can still go back to school, Mom, to get your degree. I’ll take care of the baby.
* * *
Ellie ran her fingertips over the wallpaper, tracing the stems of red roses and yellow daffodils. She pressed her ear to the wall outside her parent’s bedroom door. She would initiate a Vulcan mind meld, like Mr. Spock.
Your thoughts to mine.
Ellie was one with the wall. She heard a muffled wail of misery blown into a tissue.
-Can we keep it down? She already knows something’s up.
-Something’s up? My blubbering all the way home from the doctor’s office, you think that gave her a hint?
-What did you tell her?
-I told her I had a doctor’s appointment.
-I told her weeks ago that I’d be seeing a doctor to talk about a tubal ligation. I told you that I told her. It was the perfect opportunity, to discuss birth control and all that.
-She’s only nine.
-She’s only nothing. You know how smart she is. She’s been asking more questions.
-We already told her our decision.
-No, not about having a brother or sister. About babies, where babies come from. She thought I was going for the consultation I told her about.
-Why did you take her in the first place?
-In the first place, she’s getting too old for a sitter, not that I can find one during the summer. When’s the last time you had to get a babysitter so you could go to an appointment?
Unintelligible, masculine mumblings seeped through the wall.
-Now I’ll have to cancel, after all I went through to schedule it. Two doctors turned me down, without even seeing me. Do you know how humiliating that is? They said I didn’t meet their criteria: I’ve only had one child and I’m under thirty, even if I do have my husband’s permission. My husband’s permission?!
Ellie heard the sound of dresser drawers, one after another, yanked open and slammed shut.
-Where is it? For all the good it did…I’ll grind the goddamn thing in the garbage disposal.
Another drawer squealed open. Was it the one that smelled of lavender sachet?
-If you had done your share…if it were you, you’d have had the operation, already. You’d just have to ask; you wouldn’t have to grovel before male doctors lecturing you about criteria.
Ellie rightly predicted her father would use his everything will be fine voice.
-It’s natural you’ll be upset, for awhile. How about if I tell her? We could wait a few days.
-She already knows I’m upset.
-Maybe we should wait a few days. You can still keep the appointment, in a way.
-What do you mean?
-Schedule it with your OB’s office. They can do it right after the baby’s born, can’t they?
There was yet another tissue-stifled sob.
-Just hand me the whole damn Kleenex box.
Ellie pushed herself away from the wall and tip-toed down the hall, toward her bedroom.
* * *
Ellie, remember the first time we asked your friend Laurie to dinner? Remember she said how lucky you were, how she wished that she could be an only child?
Well duh, Mo-ther! Her brothers are retards and her sister’s a dork. Besides, it’s not like I’m asking for five brothers or sisters.
It’s natural for you to feel this way, Eleanor. Many children do. But it’s not your decision. This is an adult matter, something Daddy and I decide, about what’s best for our family.
Ellie locked her bedroom door and triumphantly strode across her room. In the way-back of her middle dresser drawer, past socks and underpants, she slid her hand under the lid of a Whitman Chocolates box and fingered the smooth, rubber dome she’d hidden inside. It was the best feeling in the world, even better than petting the rabbit pelt her grandparents bought her at the Davy Crockett souvenir shop.
One day, they would thank her. She would choose the right time, when everyone was grown up. She’d treat her parents and sister or brother to dinner at a fancy restaurant, to celebrate her glamorous career and introduce them to her fiancé. There would be trays of dwarf sandwiches and foods with names like canapés, and beverages with lemon slices dangling from cocktail glasses. She would propose a toast, and reveal her secret. After a second of jaw-dropping surprise they would all embrace, whooping with laughter. The story of Ellie’s determination and ingenuity would become part of the family lore.
Ellie circled her room, commanding acquiescence or at least silence from the teddy bears on her bed, the plastic horses on her desk, the G.I. Joe standing guard on the chair by her closet.
Ellie sat on the edge of her bed and hummed softly. She, Eleanor Lynn Falloughs, who had no say in the decisions adults make for their families – she had outsmarted them all.
Bye, baby bunting,
Daddy’s gone a-hunting,
To get a little rabbit skin
To wrap the baby bunting in.