THROUGH THE WIN DOW of Dr. Radke's office, eleven-year-old Emily could see a maple tree, its fiery leaves waving at her like hands in the autumn breeze. Come outside, they seemed to beckon, come dance in the wind with us. She squinted just enough to blur the colors, and unexpectedly the earliest of all her memories surfaced. She closed her eyes and held on to that clear picture of her brother's hand holding out the flower for her to take. Yellow and orange, the colors of sun and fire, the colors of an Indian paintbrush, and her own tiny fingers reaching for the green stem.
The image only lasted a moment; that's all she ever saw -- Jon's hand holding out the flower, and hers reaching for it. Even before she opened her eyes and picked up an orange crayon, the warm feeling the memory always brought was fading. Without thinking, she began to draw flowers along the cellar windows in her picture, and once again the fear ofwhat she'd overheard the night before hit her like an icy ocean wave.
"It's not you, Michael," her mother had said. "It's this house. I don't want to come home to it anymore. Everywhere I look, I ..."
"Maybe you're right," her father had replied. "Maybe moving would be the best thing for all of us."
Emily bore down so hard on the paper that the tip of the crayon began to crumble. We can't move, she thought. What would happen to Jon if we did? That scary question had kept her up most of the night and followed her around all day.
She glanced about the empty room, wondering what was taking Dr. Radke so long. She wanted to get this over with so she could go home. She didn't know why she had to come here in the first place. Just because she was a kid, all the grownups thought she "needed someone to talk to," but the truth was, she didn't want to talk about her brother's death at all. Neither did her mother or father, but no one was making them go to a psychologist every Monday afternoon.
Just then Dr. Radke glided into the room, her long slender hands gesturing in the air as she apologized. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Emily. Minor emergency on the home front."
"That's okay," Emily told her, then eagerly added, "I can come back another day if you need to go home."
The doctor smiled at her and slipped into the leather chair behind the desk. "That's very kind of you," she said, "but it won't be necessary. It was just a car-pool problem with my son, who plays soccer. Nothing a few phone calls couldn't fix. You know what it's like having a mother who works."
Emily knew, all right; her mother was a surgeon. Her parents' fight last night had started over her mother working too much, her father shouting, "The only reason you keep covering everyone at the hospital is because it gives you the perfect excuse not to be home."
"Right?" asked the doctor.
"Yeah," Emily answered, "I know what you mean. My mom's always taking someone's appendix out in the middle of the night."
"How is your mother?"
I need to work right now or I'll go crazy, that's what her mom had told her dad last night. "Good," said Emily. "Working a lot."
"And what about you, Emily? How are you doing?"
I'm tired and my leg hurts and I need to go home and tell my brother our parents are going to sell the house we've lived in all of our lives. "Fine, thank you."
"Is there anything you'd like to tell me before we get started?"
Emily looked past the doctor to the window and the fiery-colored leaves. She'd wanted to tell Jon last night, but the only way to reach the cellar was through the kitchen, and her parents would have caught her. Then, this morning, she'd overslept and there wasn't any time. She'd gotten up so late she'd missed the bus, and her father had had to give her a ride to school. Not that she minded. She hated riding the bus -- it scared her.
Although Jon would never sit with her, he'd always been there to protect her. All the kids had liked him, and becausethey knew he'd pound anyone who dared to give her any grief, there was only one time that anyone had. When she was in kindergarten, a fourth-grader named Dan Maxwell had pulled her braid hard enough to make her cry, and Jon, who was only in second but big for his age, went mental. By the time the driver had a chance to stop the bus safely, Dan Maxwell had a torn shirt, a fat lip, and a bloody nose, and her brother had a reputation: Jon Racine will beat the crap out of anyone who messes with his little sister.
She looked back at the doctor, who had a long, pretty neck like a swan. "I'm sorry," she told her. "I forgot the question. I must have been having a 'senior moment,' like my gram likes to say."
Dr. Radke laughed. "Don't worry about it, it wasn't that important. Besides, I know it must be hard for you, being here on such a beautiful afternoon, when you could be outside playing with your friends."
He can't play outside anymore, thought Emily, then glanced down at the picture she'd been drawing. The house and yard were outlined in black, but the flowers along the cellar windows were bright orange with green stems.
"I know it's hard for me," confessed Dr. Radke, turning slightly in her chair. "One of the reasons I moved back to Maine was because it has four seasons -- and fall's always been my favorite. Speaking of which, how's school going?"
Emily put down the crayon and considered the question. The first week of school had been the hardest for her. All those whispers and stares. All those teachers saying, "I'm sorry," or"It's good to have you back," or "How are you and your family doing?" She hated saying thank you when people said they were sorry about her brother's death; it was like taking a present from them that she didn't want. But what else was she supposed to say--don't worry, he's still living in the cellar?
Rolling the crayon with her finger, she told Dr. Radke, "We've hardly had any homework, and my teacher's not very organized, but other than that, things are going well." I haven't had to say thank you for almost three weeks.
"I'm glad to hear that," said the doctor; then she looked at Emily expectantly, as if waiting for more.
Unsure of what to say, Emily glanced around the nicely decorated office to buy herself some time. She was a listener, had never been a talker; her brother had always done that for her. Whenever the ice-cream truck came through their neighborhood, he always ordered for her. He'd talk to anyone, including strangers -- he could even make strict teachers laugh. Her mother liked to tell people, "Jon's my entertainer, and Emily's my shy one," and that was the truth. Emily would rather go without an ice cream than order one herself. She only talked when it was necessary or when she had something important to say. Now, as she searched for something to tell Dr. Radke, a painting on the mauve-colored wall caught her attention. It was a splattering of soft Easter colors against a white canvas, and its thin black frame needed to be straightened. Although Emily didn't like the painting, it bothered her that it was crooked. "Jessie Perkins' mother took her to the Monet exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art," she finally said.
"Do you like Monet?"
Emily nodded. "He's my favorite painter. I like his early work the best."
"You should ask your parents to take you, then," Dr. Radke suggested.
"The show's over," said Emily. "It was here when they were doing all that stuff to my leg, so I couldn't go."
"That's a shame," said the doctor. "You know, art's such a good way for people to express their feelings. I can tell a lot from the pictures you've drawn for me. May I look at the one you did today?"
Emily pushed the drawing across the desk, then shifted in her chair and took a quick peek at her left leg to make sure her wind-pants hadn't ridden up. She didn't want anyone to see those ugly scars. Her mother had called the horrible contraption that had held her bones in place while they'd healed an external fixitor. To Emily it had looked like something out of a scary movie. It reminded her of the bolts in Frankenstein's head. The first time she was awake enough to watch her orthopedic surgeon change the gauzy white dressing that was wrapped around the metal frame, she'd passed right out. One look at all those pins sticking out of her leg and the black rods that connected them with metal clips and nuts was too much for her. She'd never even noticed the open wound that, in another operation, had been covered with a skin graft taken from her bottom. All she'd remembered before fainting was seeing a leg skewered like a piece of barbecued chicken, and then realizing it was hers.
Tilting the picture so Emily could see it, too, Dr. Radke asked in that kind, lullaby voice of hers, "Would you like to share this with me?"
Emily looked down at the drawing. If she'd had a ruler she could have done a better job, could have made the black windows straighter. "It's my house," she said, and then pointed at one of the windows. "This is my room, and that one used to be Jon's." Her finger slid down the paper until it rested on one of the flowers by the cellar window. And this is where he lives now, she thought to herself, but that was something she wasn't about to "share" with Dr. Radke, who seemed to be in love with that word.
The doctor leaned closer, and Emily caught a faint scent of lilies. "All those trees, and a pool," said Dr. Radke. "Looks like a house I'd want to live in."
"It's not for sale," Emily told her emphatically.
"Oh, don't worry, I already own a house," said the doctor, then added with a chuckle, "Or you could say it owns me. It's a beautiful old house, but I'm always having to have something fixed. Last summer, the roof and gutters; this week, the water heater."
Emily figured her house must be pretty old, too, because her father was always trying to fix something, which meant the plumber or the electrician or the pool guy then had to come and fix it right.
"If I had to do it all over again, I'd buy land and build," said Dr. Radke.
"Why?" asked Emily with interest.
"Because an old house will nickel-and-dime you to death. That's sage advice from my father, who now lives in a condominium in Florida. But I think we're getting off track here, Emily; I want to talk about your picture. I really like your orange flowers. You're such a good artist."
Sometimes you have to lie so you don't hurt people's feelings, that's what Jon always said. Old ladies and aunts loved him. Whenever he told them they looked pretty, they'd giggle like little girls and then give him money to buy an ice cream or a candy bar. "You don't have to lie to me," Emily told Dr. Radke. "I know I'm a failure as an artist. I even got a B+ in it once."
One of the doctor's thin eyebrows rose up like a question mark. "Do you think if you don't get an A in something it makes you a failure?"
"No," said Emily. "I'm just saying I know I can't draw. My father says writing's a natural talent, something people are born with. I think art's the same way."
Dr. Radke smiled at her. "You're talking to someone who can't draw a stick person, so I'd have to agree with you." Then, turning her attention back to the drawing, she asked, "What's this 'Enter at Your Own Risk' sign mean?"
Emily looked down at the doctor's red fingernail, which was pointing at the sign above the garage. Those were the first words Jon had ever taught her to read. "That's my father's office. He has different signs to let us know if we can bother him while he's writing. Janey says when he's in the Palace the house could burn down and he'd be the last one to know about it."
Dr. Radke laughed. "Palace? Your maid Janey's quite a character."
"Yeah," Emily agreed. "My father's always saying that not even he could make her up."
"You said your father had other signs, too?" Dr. Radke questioned.
Emily nodded. "If 'In the Zone' is on the door it means he's working on something good, so you'd better plan on making your own supper, or if you need a ride to practice you'd better remind him because he won't remember. 'Welcome' means he's just doing revisions, so he can talk to you or sign papers or take phone calls. But 'Enter at Your Own Risk' means what he's working on isn't coming out right, and you'll probably get your head bitten off if you disturb him."
"How clever," said Dr. Radke. "I'd like to have a sign like that myself."
You wouldn't if you had to live with it, thought Emily. The "Enter at Your Own Risk" sign had been hanging on his office door since she'd gotten home from the hospital the first time, way back in April.
"How is your father?"
The only time you come out of that damned office is to take a piss or restock your refrigerator with Molson, and don't think I haven't noticed that! That was what her mother had yelled back at her father when he'd said that stuff about her working too much. "Good, I guess," said Emily. "He just about lives in his office these days."
"Is he working on a new book? I really enjoyed his last one."
"He's always working on something."
"Does he ever talk to you about what happened?"
The question felt like a sharp fingernail digging into Emily's skin, and she flinched slightly. The accident was something no one in her family talked about; it just lived in the air around them like all the other unspoken reminders: his smiling pictures, his room, having only three plates at the table. Sheglared at the crooked picture, suddenly feeling angry. Dr. Radke was always slipping in questions like that to trick her and make her say things about her family she didn't want to. Although this was only her third appointment, she'd already learned that game and how to dodge those kinds of questions. "I'd rather talk about something else," she said politely. Because that's none of your business.
Dr. Radke studied her for a moment, as though trying to make a decision. "Like what?" she finally asked.
Like why don't you fix that crooked picture, it's driving me crazy! "Like what I want to be for Halloween."
Copyright © 2003 by Sis Deans. All rights reserved.